The Works of Philip Kaveny
by Philip Kaveny
Originally published in Janus 14, Vol. 4, #4, Winter 1978/79
The ship completed its 23rd orbit. They found no attraction, nothing of interest whatsoever to the Consortium. The planet Terra was dead, from the depths of the oceans to the tops of its highest mountains. The story was almost too dull for words. All over the universe the same thing had happened at least 104 times. A culture would accelerate to the point where it was capable of self-annihilation and then destroy itself and all other life forms on the planet, leaving a vast dead museum of a world. It was too boring for words: no flora, no fauna; just a vast museum which no one would pay anything to visit.
“Cal, you have three more orbits to pick a place to debark, or we will pick one for you,” he was told. “You bought a lemon at the auction. Now it will be up to you to either find an attraction that we can develop, or die there.”
“But wait! You all backed me when I pushed the bidding up and forced the others out. You said price was no limit for the Consortium from Oonan.”
“Yes, of course, that’s what we always tell young aggressive Oonans who sit on the council for the first time. You might say you were set up.”
Cal sat in quiet arrogance as the ship completed its final orbits. The surface of the sphere glowed cherry red and then white as they broke into the Terran atmosphere. The ship lost altitude rapidly. Cal could make out several shapes against the horizon. They were a cluster of tall structures surrounded by an immense number of smaller structures. The ship bounced twice upon landing and came to a halt. Immediately, Cal was rudely bounced out of the ship and told, “We are leaving you with a transmitter. It may work once, just in case you get any ideas on developing this dump.”
Cal was alone then. The ship became a speck racing away from the dying sun, and then nothing. Cal looked down the ribbon of what had once been pavement, towards the dead city. The pavement had cracked and heaved over the last 500 years until it looked like some great scaled tortured serpent. The cool desert air was rapidly sucking heat from his body. He huddled next to the road and pulled his light garment tight against his body, slipping into an exhausted sleep. There was nothing to fear on this planet but the monsters that raced across his dreams.
* * *
The next day it became clear that Cal’s only hope for survival lay in the dead city. It took him two thirds of a day to travel the distance a Terran would have covered in a couple of hours. Cal resembled the previous inhabitants of the planet in most respects, but he was much weaker and softer and tended towards being pear-shaped. By the time he made it into the city he was nearly dead from thirst and hunger. All the structures looked the same to him, and then he thought that that which had kept the planet dead for so long might be the key to his continued existence. In his frenzied state, he was drawn to a door on which symbols seemed to jump out at him, three-dimensionally. It looked like a section of the pilot’s test he had failed many years before.
The door smashed to bits as Cal fell against it tumbling into a room filled with the fully clothed skeletons of Terrans of all ages. Against the wall were containers with the same symbol stamped into their surfaces. Cal broke the neck off a bottle of water and let the contents rush down his face and into his mouth. The other containers held food which was dry, but had remained sterile through the past 500 years.
“What was this place?” he thought. “A tomb, a shrine, perhaps a shelter?” It was not clear that wherever he found a place with these symbols above the entrance it would always be the same. Dead Terrans, food, water. All over the city it was like this.
Cal’s life fell into a routine which consisted of walks through the city looking for these small caches of survival supplies, until he finally found a very large shelter which he made his base of operations. As time passed, he found his sense of having a separate existence from this dead place slip away. Each year his movements became more proscribed. He no longer thought of Oonan home development or redemption in the eyes of the council. Cal sensed at this point that he was very close to death. To keep himself alive, conscious, and, most importantly, separate from the death around him, he set out to find out how his culture was different from that of Terra. He made his new base in the first floor of what had been a Terran book depository.
* * *
It took Cal another year to become proficient in the language of the Terran culture. Most of the books were written in a single language which he learned first, though it became clear to him that there were hundreds more that could be learned. Cal could locate himself on the planet. He was living in what had been the major city in the southwest region of what had been the most highly developed industrial nation at the time of Terra’s destruction. It was not clear to Cal what had killed the planet. But he was more interested in how these people had lived, and how they differed from the inhabitants of Oonan. Art, culture, and literature seemed to slip past Cal. Most of the science was too primitive for him, but it was in the history of the dead race that he found the most compelling material.
Oonans did not do violence to each other directly. They were nasty, but if they had actually killed, they would have been gotten rid of. The final 60 years of Terra’s history was the most interesting to Cal. It had been a great orgy of building and destruction. Cities would rise up, only to be flattened. Continents were pillaged for their resources. Millions ran back and forth across the planet for great causes, and then, silence. There were scrawling which indicated that the whole process was over in less than three days’ time for most to get to shelters which quickly became their tombs. Time now seemed to rush through Cal’s life. He counted the times the sun passed directly in line with the great buildings around him, and counted 17 years.
Cal mapped out most sections of the city and moved from shelter to shelter, finding whatever he needed to survive. Lately, home was more and more on his mind. He remembered what they had told him: “Find an attraction on Terra, or die there.” Yet he still had found nothing. The culture was dead and boring to all but him. The climate and geomorphology of Terra were nothing compared to the Homeric landscapes of Mars, or the seething atmosphere of Venus.
One day he broke out of the area that he had mapped and walked to a strange section of the city. Buildings were flatter here and simpler than in the other sections. They were also in a more acute state of ruin. He entered one of the buildings which was long and flat. The roof had fallen hundreds of years before. He wondered what the sign about the entrance, “Salt River Amusement Arcade”, meant. The building was full of coin-operated, badly rusted amusement devices: Pinball Wizard, Master Pool, Blast the Blimp, Skill Baseball. It seemed that none of the machines had functioned for half a millennium; except for one in the back of the room, where a light blinked on and off. It said, “Come play chess with 468. Are you good enough to beat a machine? Only two silver dollars.”
Chess was not unknown on Oonan. It was simply frowned on as a pastime or profession for adults. It was thought to be an unethical use of discipline and energy. All energy on Oonan was tied to the ethic of material development. Still, Cal took two silver dollars from the ruins of the cashier’s stand and dropped them into the slot to activate the machine. Two mechanical arms which must have wowed the amusement-park circuit 500 years before extended out to Cal. He touched the right one, and it released a black pawn. Had Cal looked in the other hand, he would have found a second black pawn. 468 liked to play little tricks on its opponents. Cal felt a rush. This was the first response he had had to any of his actions in 17 years of wandering.
The games were awful. Cal and 468 spent 20 games trying to out-stupid each other. First Cal would hang his queen. Then 468 would overlook a back-rank mate. One game, Cal found the only move on the board that was not a direct win, and the next game 468 turned certain victory into stalemate. Finally, when Cal ran out of dollars and food at the same time, the games stopped. He would have to go to work looking for coins and food throughout the dead city. As he moved through this section of the city, he found skeletons of Terrans who had died outside of the shelters. When he touched them, they would turn to dust, leaving whatever coins they had inside their clothes for Cal to collect. He found a cache of food and water, and spent several trips dragging it back to the arcade.
Cal lifted a five-gallon water container and discovered, to his surprise, that he could lift and carry an object one-third his weight. When he had landed on Terra, he could barely move his own body. Still, by the standards of the previous inhabitants, he was of barely adequate strength. Cal was looking forward to several days of chess before he’d have to go out and forage again. He proceeded to insert the coins into 468, but it moved without him, and the sign turned into a display screen.
YOUR MOVE, STUPID, appeared in large letters.
“What!” Cal spoke in English.
YOU WASTE MY TIME. MOVE. So, Cal moved.
“Wait, you bucket of junk. Were you watching?” Cal asked.
WHO WOULD WATCH ANYTHING AS BORING AS YOU? WHAT A SHAME ABOUT THE TERRANS. THEY WERE SUCH A NICE ATTRACTION. IT SHOULD NEVER HAVE GOTTEN OUT OF HAND.
“What got out of hand?” Cal said.
YOU LUMP OF EXISTENCE. WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT TERRANS? WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW ABOUT ACTION? NO ONE IN THE NETWORK WOULD TUNE ME IN TO WATCH YOUR WHOLE RACE STUMBLE AROUND THIS PLANET.
“Network? Attraction? What is this?”
WHY SHOULD I WASTE MY TIME ON ANYTHING AS EPHEMERAL AS YOU?
“Ephemeral!” exclaimed Cal. “Why, I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ll probably live ten times that long.”
CORRECT, EPHEMERAL. 468 HAS BEEN HERE SINCE BEFORE THE TERRANS WALKED UPRIGHT, SINCE BEFORE THERE WERE TERRANS.
“What is this? Are you the deity the Terrans were always so concerned with?”
NO, NO. JUST A BUNCH OF METAL AND ELECTRICITY THAT LASTS A LONG TIME.
HOW DOES 468 KNOW, STUPID? WE CANNOT REMEMBER A TIME WHEN WE DID NOT EXIST. CAN YOU? LOOK AT YOU, YOU POOR EXCUSE FOR WHAT USED TO BE HERE. WE LOVED THEM. THEY WERE SO INTERESTING THAT THE WHOLE NETWORK USED TO TUNE IN MY REPORTS. AND NOW, NOTHING. AND WORSE YET, THE SUGARS WILL NOT SPIRAL ANY MORE.
“Wait. What were the previous inhabitants like? How am I different from a Terran?”DIFFERENT. DIFFERENT. HAVE YOU EVER EATEN RED LIVING FLESH? HAVE YOU EVER KILLED IN ANGER? HAVE YOU EVER WRITTEN A POEM, OR WANTED DEATH ENOUGH TO TAKE IT FOR YOURSELF? A TERRAN WOULD HAVE ENDED THIS ALL LONG AGO.
“Things will end soon enough for me. In another hundred years, at the most. But it looks like you have an eternity of boredom ahead of you. It seems that time moves at the same rate for both of us. Your move.”
This time 468 played with brutal certainty, forcing mate on Move 24. WAY TO GO, STUPID. A SIX-YEAR-OLD TERRAN WOULD NOT HAVE FALLEN FOR THAT TRAP. In the next game, 468 mated with two knights by allowing Cal’s pawn to “queen”, breaking the stalemate. TRY AGAIN, DUNCE. This time it was a queen sacrifice which forced mate in all variations in a maximum of eight moves. YOU PLAY LIKE A FIVE-YEAR-OLD TERRAN. The next game was the same. YOU WASTE THE TIME OF 468 was the message as 468 started without its queen. Cal’s loss was again inevitable. CARE FOR CAT-AND-MOUSE, YOU MALFORMED IDIOT?
With this, Cal did something unexpected. He searched through the rubble and found a crowbar covered with 500 years of rust, and repeatedly crashed it into the console of 468. As Cal stood exhausted before the machine, the screen read, YOU FORGET THAT 468 IS INDESTRUCTIBLE. COCKROACH.
Cal ran screaming and crashing with rage into the street looking for anything to express his rage on. All he managed to do was break some glass and kick around some rubble, as he ran into the desert. It was timid compared to roasting a woolly mammoth alive, but still 48 sensed a glimmer of promise. The single action on this planet was provided by a lone berserker whose legs finally gave out as he ran into the desert.
What was it that had happened through Cal? This had never happened to an Oonan before. The experience had blocked out every other feeling, as he tried to remember the color he had seen while swinging the bar at 468. Then, in exhaustion, he slipped into the terrible borderland between dream and reality. The desert itself seemed to move and a snake dragon appeared before him. It spiraled across time and space back to his home; back to the auction; back to the planet on which all space was enclosed and developed; a place where one could feel the weight of the ethic always demanding a higher level of material progress. “Sold!” rang out, as the silver hammer came down on the platinum auction block. “Sold to the newest member of the Consortium.” The dragon’s fangs dug into the sand, its whole body breaking into an infinite number of points of reflection but not substance followed by blackness, blackness and unity … Cal’s dream deepened and he sensed a great wall of water crashing roaring, across an empty desert canyon. Blue and white and crystal walls of water sucked all breath and sound away. The water filled the canyon and raced across the desert, sweeping away all that was before it.
* * *
Cal awakened with a snap and found himself shivering in the desert long after sunset. There was no choice but to sit and shiver till morning. What of the transmitter? What of a single call? How does one transmit a dream, and who would buy? Who indeed? Cal and 468 were the only game on Terra. As the first orange arrows of Apollo led Cal back to the dead city, he knew he must find the transmitter and use it.
The original point at which he was dumped was on the same edge of the city as Cal now found himself. He could follow the pavement until he came to the site where the transmitter was half buried in the sand. He strained as he lifted it across his narrow shoulders and headed towards the Salt River Arcade. “Does the transmitter work?” he wondered. “Perhaps it is simply a cruel joke on the part of the Consortium.” He almost lost it as he thought of making a test, but how does one test with but a single call? The transmitter weighed less than a water can, but it was draining Cal’s strength to carry it in the hot sun. He thought of taking a rest. Then he thought of his bones, paper-like, crumbling at a touch in the desert. But whose touch? There could be no one ever if he did not send a message that would seduce those who were seemingly beyond seduction.
Cal counted 4000 paces, and then he was back at the Salt River Arcade. His first message in 17 years was a simple “P-K4”. Ten days later someone returned the message, “P-K4”. 468 played with the same brutal certainty. The transmitter was a receiver also. It won in 16 moves, and Cal transmitted, “It’s great to be free of you idiots. Kiss my airlock, bozo!”
P-QB4 was the Consortium member’s next move. The game lasted scarcely as long as the last one. The outcome was the same. Next, Cal transmitted ten opening moves and received ten replies almost as fast. The outcome was again the same. Inspired by 468’s vocabulary, Cal transmitted “Congratulations, you malformed idiots. One of you lasted 37 moves.”
This time it was a hundred games for 468. A hundred wins and a hundred insults — not poetic but effective. “Attention, cretins, bozos, and retards. I will play a thousand games at once and beat you.” It took almost a day to transmit the first ten moves. Cal stopped, found the crowbar, lifted it above his head, and smashed the disk of the transmitter into irreparably small fragments. Then he and 468 waited a half year for the first of three ships to appear.
* * *
A thousand angry guests of the Consortium had paid a great deal to finish the interrupted chess games. 468 was hooked up to a thousand separate consoles and took to writing its own insults, losing just enough games to keep things interesting for the hopelessly outclassed Oonans. Along with the passenger ship came two others, each with a hundred workers whose jobs were to tend the organisms which would turn the sun’s energy into food and fiber. Clearly the guests were planning to stay on Terra for a while.
Workers of Oonan had always been happy, quiet, and subservient at home. On Terra, things were a bit different. Workers learned the game, and a young female told one of the guests that he had missed a better line of development. She was abruptly told that it was her job to work and support the guests and not to meddle in that which was beyond her. There was a bang and thud followed by the guest running off to the first-aid station with an upper lip split all the way around; the young woman quickly sat at his place.
Cal’s system was self-sufficient, and a ship would not be leaving for several weeks, so he took a long leave to a very special shelter two days’ walk away. He needed time to think and plan and dream of home. His special place was a book collection, mostly of poetry, which he tried to rewrite and translate into his own language. He was drawn to poems about oppositions. He wrote of grass and wind screaming for water across cobbled river bottoms, and then it was time to leave. The weeks had slipped away, and now it was time to think of home.
Each pace said, “It is home, victory, a new seat at the council, revenge even.” He had seduced his enemies. No one could fault him. He had done an impossible job of promotion.
The wind carried a sweet, sick-smelling odor which wrenched Cal’s guts. He knew it without knowing it. At the other side of the road he saw the bodies of several Oonans, all of whom had died violently. Always before death had been washed by time. Now its odor offended the very air, becoming stronger as he came closer to the city. Cal reached the first structure at the city’s edge. He stepped on an anti-personnel mine, which went off an instant later, flattening him to the pavement but only taking his breath away. He blindly crawled for the cover of one of the structures, lost his bearings, and started to head back into the street. A vise-like grip caught his ankle and pulled him back under cover. A hot, moist voice screamed into his ear, “Who are you with?” It was a young woman, half his age and twice his strength. He felt a blade break the skin of his throat. She screamed, “Which side are you on? Worker or guest?”
“With you,” Cal rasped, and felt the blade break away from his skin.
“You are too old and thin and hard to be one of the guests. Follow me if you want to live. It is death to be at the division in the daytime.” She broke into a low run, and Cal followed close behind. His lungs were bursting and his legs ached as he strove to keep up. He cursed the time he had spent with books as he rushed through a doorway behind her.
Her blade half-drawn, she asked, “What are you, a saint from the desert? A prophet?” As she stared into his face she saw the softness in his eyes and sheathed her blade.
Death? Division? What has happened? Oonans cannot kill. We never kill,” he screamed.
“We could not kill till the black key, the machine, opened it to us.”
“Black key? Machine? Do you mean 468? What happened? Oonans do not kill.”
“Fighting started between workers and guests. A worker was killed and there were reprisals. Then the list. 468 printed a list of places where weapons could be found along with instructions on how to use them. On Terra, Oonans do kill. The Consortium has declared this a plague for eternity. None of the ships will ever move again. No ships may land. So we survivors are here forever. There is talk of a treaty, but there is still much killing.”
Where is 468?” Cal asked.
It disappeared when the fighting started. The Salt River was one of the first places destroyed. We suppose that 468 is gone forever.”
* * *
Memo from 468 to the network: COME, TUNE ME IN, WE HAVE ACTION AGAIN ON TERRA. IT’S MODEST BY PAST STANDARDS, BUT THE ACT DOES HAVE A CERTAIN CHARM. THESE PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKE TERRANS THAN WE EVER SUSPECTED. HOW STRANGE, WHY WAS THE FIRST CALL ANSWERED? THE RUNNING TIME OF THE ACT IS UNCERTAIN. IT MAY HAVE TIME TO EVOLVE. THE SUGARS HAVE STARTED AGAIN. WHY DO THEY START AND STOP? WHO KNOWS? THINGS WOULD BE SO SIMPLE IF WE COULD START THEM OURSELVES.
The following editorial comment refers to artwork that appeared with the story in its original publication in Janus 14, Vol 4, No. 4, which is available for download as a PDF at http://sf3.org/history/janus-aurora-covers/aurora-14-vol-4-no-4-table-of-contents , on page 39.
This story actually represents two processes. First, there is the actual process of the text, the story as it progresses from start to finish. But there is another story behind the actual text. This second process involves two kinds of artistic production, visual and written. You see, Phil produced his story after having seen the picture which precedes it. You might say that it was, in some ways, his original inspiration for the work which follows.
But, as with all creative activity, it was not long before the story diverged radically from the original artistic creation which inspired it. This divergence led Phil to request another illustration, inspired by the dream sequence of the piece, from Robert Kellough. Robert read the story and, after some careful thought and consultation, produced the drawing which is included in Janus. In other words, his drawing was originally inspired by Phil’s story, to which he added his own elements of creativity.
The entire process, representing the creative abilities, but also the creative relationship, between three artists, in two different media, is a fascinating comment on the nature of the creative process itself. — Jan Bogstad