Escape Pod 444: Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes

Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes

by Daniel Marcus

The only window in Suki’s bedroom opened onto an airshaft that ran through the center of the building like the path of a bullet.  She would lie in bed in the hot summer nights with the salt smell of the drying seabed coming in through the open window, a sheen of sweat filming her forehead and plastering the sheets to her body like tissue, listening to her downstairs neighbors.  When they made love, their cries echoing up through the airshaft made her loins ache, and she brought release to herself silently, visualizing men with slender, oiled limbs and faces hidden in shadow.

Sometimes the neighbors sang, odd, sinuous music redolent with quarter tones.  The melodies wove counterpoint like a tapestry of smoke and for some reason Suki thought of mountains.  Jagged, fractal peaks thrusting out of an evergreen carpet.  Summits brushed with snow.  Tongues of cloud laying across the low passes.

Sometimes they argued, and the first time she heard the man’s deep voice raised in anger she was sure he was a Beast, possibly an Ursa.

She was less certain of the woman, but there was a sibilant, lilting quality to her voice that suggested something of the feline.  They’d moved in three weeks before but their sleep cycles seemed out of sync with hers and she still hadn’t met them.

Suki tried to imagine herself going downstairs to borrow something — sugar, yarn, a databead.  His broad muzzle would poke out from behind the half-closed door; his liquid brown eyes would be half-closed in  suspicion.  They would chat for a bit, though, and perhaps he would invite her in.  They would teach her their songs and their voices would rise together into the thick, warm air. Some nights there was no singing, no arguing, no love, and Suki listened to the city, a white-noise melange of machinery and people in constant flux, like the sound of the ocean captured in a shell held to the ear.  Beneath that, emanating from the spaceport on the edge of the city, a low, intermittent hum, nearly subsonic, so faint it seemed to come from somewhere inside her own body.

On those nights, she had trouble sleeping, and she would climb the rickety stairs to the roof.  She couldn’t see the Web, of course, but she imagined she could feel it arching overhead, lines of force criss-crossing the sky.  Ships rode the Web up to where they could safely ignite their fusion drives for in-system voyages, or clung to the invisible threads all the way to their convergence at the Wyrm.

Newmoon hung in the sky, its progress just below the threshold of conscious perception, like the minute hands of a clock.  She had visited there as a child, a creche trip, and she remembered the feel of the factories humming under her feet, the metal skin pocked with micrometeorite impacts  stretching to the too-close horizon, the tingling caress of her environment field.

Heat enveloped the city like a glove around a closed fist.  It kept people indoors, and business in her little shop was slow.

Suki fed and watered her animals, trimmed the heartplants, and carefully tended the incubator, where she was nurturing a quintet of silkpups.  Not much more than embryos now, but they would bring a good price when they birthed.  Tuned to imprint themselves upon the bio-field of whoever first touched them, they were quite the rage among the Ken, who viewed their intense loyalty and affection with something like amusement.

Of course, with the Ken, you never knew what that really meant.

When Suki returned home that evening, the message light was blinking over the console in the kitchen alcove.  She brushed her hand across it and the burnished surface faded, replaced by a ghostly rendering of Tam’s head and shoulders. Suki jumped when she saw him.

“– been such a long time, and I just wanted to see how you were doing,” Tam was saying.  “The Hyaloplasm is cold, they never said it would be like this.  And you never call me any more.”  He paused. “Sometimes it feels like no one remembers me.”

His image faded to black.  Suki stared at the screen for a long time afterwards.  They had called each other a lot after the aircar crash, but it made her feel strange.  It wasn’t quite Tam anymore — something of his essence had been lost in the upload — and there was a feeling of unhealthy emmeshment about staying in relationship with a Ghost.  She hadn’t taken a new lover yet, but she was ready.

She didn’t want to call him back and a tendril of guilt nagged at her as she prepared her dinner.  It soon gave way to resentment. Damnit, she thought.  Let the dead stay dead.

He’d turned a corner and she couldn’t follow — wouldn’t even if she could.  Why couldn’t he let her move on?  Why couldn’t he move on?

Leaving her plate of stew half-eaten, she went to the console and activated the recorder.  The steady, yellow light above the blank screen stared at her and she took a deep breath, trying to visualize Tam’s face in place of her own shadowy reflection.

“I don’t want you to call me any more, Tam.  I have to get on with my life.  I’m sorry — ”   Her voice caught and almost broke, but she recovered.  “Goodbye.”

With a few shaky keystrokes she set the console to play back the message in response to Tam’s signet.

She returned to her meal, but she was restless.  After pushing bits of vegetable and tofu from one side of the bowl to the other for the third time, she got up from the table, went to the console, and downloaded “Versala Dreams,” a lavish historical romance she’d been meaning to scan, rich in costumes, intrigue, and sex.  She put the databead in the reader and leaned back on the couch.  The induction field wrapped around her optic nerve like an invisible, coiled worm.

On the eleventh day of the heatwave, she awoke with the feeling that things were about to change.  It was still oppressively hot, but there was a smell of clean moisture in the air, of something besides death and age wafting in from the salt sea.

She ate a spare breakfast of cracked wheat and blood oranges, and left early for work, treading quietly as she passed the Ursa’s apartment on the floor below.  She could picture them in there, all the shutters drawn, he and his cat-woman curled together on a padded mat, deep in the shadow of sleep.

The streets were almost deserted — it was the hush before the morning flurry of activity — and she enjoyed the feeling that the city was hers alone.  She had to walk nearly half a click before she found a bicycle, and the one she found had its front wheel bent slightly out of alignment, so that she wobbled from side to side as she rode down the Avenue of Palms toward what used to be the waterfront.

As she rode, the city seemed to awaken around her.  The tree-lined street filled with men and women on bicycles, with Beasts pulling wheeled carts.  Low residential buildings of pink desert stone gave way to a chaotic clutter of commerce.  Mechs wove through the traffic on silent cushions of air, full of purpose.

When she got to the Boardwalk, she stopped and leaned the bicycle against a lamppost.  Almost immediately, a pleasant-looking young man took it with an apologetic smile. “Careful,” she said.  “The wheel is bent.”  He shrugged, smiled again, and wobbled down the Boardwalk before she could say anything more.

Suki sighed.

In the distance, wavering in heat haze, the sea hugged the flat horizon like a layer of mercury, almost too bright to look at.  Long wharves stretched out into the salt flats.  A strong, coppery smell hung in the air.

There was a faint pop from the direction of the spaceport, like the sound a small boy might make expelling a puff of air through his lips.  The ionization trail from an ascending ship cut the sky in half, faded, and was gone.

The silkpups were almost ready.  Their vitals scrolled past on the incubator display,  slender threads beginning to bear the full weight of life.  The pups themselves still didn’t look like much — hairless rats, primitive and inert.

She heard a noise and looked up.   Standing at the counter was an elderly female Ken and her Speaker.  She hadn’t heard them come in.

“Hello,” she said, a little too abruptly.

The Speaker’s eyes rolled up in his head.  “Good morning,” he said.  “We didn’t mean to startle you.  Please forgive.”  His voice was metallic and brittle.

“It’s all–”

“You have silkpups for sale?”

Conversations with the Ken were always like this –  off-balance and skewed, full of sharp corners.

Suki forced herself to look in the Ken’s bird-like eyes as she replied.  “Yes.  Well, no — not yet.  But this brood will birth tomorrow.”

The Speaker’s eyes returned to focus on Suki.  She turned to him and he nodded brusquely. Together, he and the Ken turned and walked out of the shop.   A musty odor, like old, damp cloth, hung behind them in the still air, noticeable even over the  familiar smells of animals and hydroponics.

Suki didn’t know if she’d offended her or not, but she resolved to put it out of her mind.  She was dealing with Ken, after all.

Business after that was slow, but a wealthy, young couple bought a rare icebird from Nortith, complete with an environment-field generator to maintain its habitat.  The sale more than adequately fleshed out Suki’s profit margin for the day.

Feeling pleased with herself, she closed up shop early and walked down to the waterfront.  The Boardwalk was crowded — Beasts, Ken and their Speakers, human tourists from all over.

An old jetty stretched out into the salt toward the distant, retreating sea like an accusing finger.  It was much less crowded than the Boardwalk, and Suki found herself drawn to it.  As she walked down its length, hearing the wood — wood! — creak beneath her feet, she wondered what it had been like when the sea was right here.  She tried to imagine it, soft blue-green, gentle on the eyes, sails and hovercraft drifting lazily to and fro.

She sat down on a low bench at the end of the jetty and closed her eyes.  Images of Tam’s face kept intruding into her consciousness, and she pushed them away.  She tried to empty her mind, to reduce herself to a simple, animal presence basking in sunlight.  After a short while, though, she heard footsteps tapping hollowly along the jetty, coming closer.  She opened her eyes.

A tall, young man was approaching.  There was something strange about the way he carried herself, and it wasn’t until he came closer that she could see the crystals embedded in his temples.  He was blind.  When he came closer still, she saw the fine, radial scars around his eyes.   A Void Dancer.

A shudder passed through her.  A Void Dancer.  She’d never met one, but everyone knew what they did.  Take a one-person jumpship and dive into the Wyrm at a velocity and angle of incidence nobody had ever tried before.  Mapping the Universe by throwing darts, blindfolded, in an empty room.

“May I join you?” he asked.

“Of course,” she stammered.

He sat down next to her and sighed.  She looked over at him. Handsome, except for the scars, and not as young as she had first thought.

“Sometimes,” he said,  “the crowds …”  He faced the salt flats. “The empty space is soothing.”

She tried to imagine the crystals in his temples sending out a silent screech of ultrasound, receiving echoes, constructing a pattern to send to his brain, bypassing his withered optic nerve.

“What do you see?” she asked, surprised at her boldness.

He smiled.  His eyes were mottled pools of grey jelly, but Suki still had the sense of being held in that lifeless gaze.  “It’s like an old photographic negative.  Do you know what that is?”

She nodded.

“But that’s just the interpretation my brain makes of the data from the tweeters.”  He tapped his temple.  “What it actually looks like …”  He shrugged.  “What does that really mean?”

They were silent for awhile.

“What do you see when you’re out there?” Suki asked.

He smiled again.  “It’s … different.  I don’t know if I can explain it.  The ship is my whole body; my awareness of things around me comes through as a kind of kinesthesia.  Or that’s what the medicals say, anyway.”  The curdled jelly in his eye-sockets seemed to quiver gently.  “I sense a nearby mass as a sort of plucking at my skin.   The electromagnetic spectrum gets filtered through to me as olfactory sensation — a deep, hot smell  for the infrared, a sharp whiff of ozone up in the u.v. –” He paused.  “But I’m prattling on.  Tell me about yourself.  You have a name?”


“Roan,” he said, and held out his hand.  It was dry as paper and completely smooth. “Do you work here in the city?”

“Yes, I have a little shop on Front Street, not far from the spaceport, actually.  Organic complements.  Mostly grown in-house, but I get a few naturals from time to time.”

He nodded.  “I know Front Street.  Do you know that I grew up not far from there?  That was a long time ago, of course.”  Had he eyes, they would have rolled heavenwards as he calculated the dilation.  “Eleven hundred and seven years, to be exact.  The sea was still lapping at this pier!”

“A long time ago,” she agreed.

Again, they were silent.  Strangely, the silence did not feel awkward to Suki, but rather like they were occupying the same space together.

“Perhaps you’d like to come by the shop sometime,” Suki said, again a little surprised at her boldness.  “Something for your ship — a bonsai tree, a heartplant …”

His smile was a bit forced this time and she winced at her stupidity.

“I would hardly be able to enjoy it,” he said.

“Of course –”

“But I would come to see you.”

Suki felt her face flush and she wondered if his tweeters could detect the warm blood rushing to her cheeks.

She took the long way home, through the administrative district on the other side of the Lhoss Gardens.  A new building was going up — a crew of Oxen on the ground pushed wheeled pallets piled high with building materials, while Cats climbed the scaffolding that surrounded the blocky, unfinished pyramid.

Suki stopped her bicycle and balanced on one foot, watching, listening.  The Oxen called to each other in low, bleating tones that mingled with the sibilant cries from above.  It was recognizable as her own tongue, but there were words she couldn’t understand.  Always a few more, it seemed, each time she heard them speak.  Each time she stopped to listen.  The Beasts were changing, drifting off onto their own trajectory.  She envied them their transit of undiscovered territory.

The neighbors sang again that night.  Lying in bed, her gaze angling up through the window, she imagined the close, hollow harmonies lifting her like a cushion of air toward the box of starry sky at the mouth of the airshaft. She thought of Roan.  He’d said he would come by the shop tomorrow.  She wondered if he would.

She thought of Tam.  Her system had logged two calls from him, so she knew her message had been received.

She pushed aside the feelings of guilt that began to take shape and tried to construct a picture of Roan’s face in her mind, but it was elusive.  All she could evoke clearly were the eyes — moist flecks of cloudy jelly set in hollows of leathery, scarred skin.

If the eyes are truly windows to the soul, she thought, what do they reveal of his?

Her hand stole between her legs and she imagined his hands moving across her body, his sweet breath warm on her neck.  The peak of her pleasure braided with the music echoing up through the airshaft and segued seamlessly into a dream.  They were sitting on the bench at the end of the pier.  The water, blue as his eyes, made gentle sounds lapping up against the pilings.  A dense, organic smell hung in the air like a fog hugging the surface of the sea.

Birds wheeled across the sky.  The sun was a shrunken, glaring wound.

The silkpups birthed overnight, and when Suki came into the shop, they were squirming in their padded nest, crawling across one another, taking shaky, hesitant steps and collapsing in a tangle of limbs.

Their psychic energy, too, was almost palpable.  The air around the incubator seemed charged.  Each of them was a tabula rasa, engineered to bond with the first person that touched them.

There were no customers all morning and Suki busied herself with small jobs — cleaning cages, maintaining nutrient baths.  The heartplants hung heavy with fruit, the tiny, fist-like buds pulsing faintly.  She snapped one off, leaving a moist scar on the smooth branch.  Red sap dribbled down her hand.  She popped the fruit in her mouth and bit down, wincing at the explosion of salty sweetness.

Just before she was about to close up shop for lunch, Roan walked through the door.  Suki was surprised and a little frightened at the surge of joy she felt.

“Hello,” she stammered.

He took her hands.  “Hello, yourself.”  The gray jelly in the hollows of his eyes seemed expressive, but of what she wasn’t sure.

“I don’t have much time.  I’m leaving tomorrow and I have a great deal to prepare.”

He paused.  Suki felt something inside her wither and begin to fold in upon itself.

“Could you meet me tonight?” he asked.  “Midnight, the pier where we met yesterday?”

She nodded.  “Midnight.”

“Good.”  He smiled, squeezed her hand, and was gone.  A bubble of silence filled the shop; gradually, the familiar rustle-whirr-whisper of animals and machinery reasserted itself.

She took her lunch down to Lhoss Gardens and sat in the shadow of the Sundial, dangling her feet in one of the fountains that marked the hours. Roan.  She realized that her excitement was made keener by anticipation of loss, but she didn’t care.

Maybe he would take her with him.

Even as the thought formed in her mind, though, she rejected it.  Ridiculous.  She was no Void Dancer.

A creche-group passed on the far side of the Dial, moving almost as a single organism.  Whispers and giggles floated across the plaza.

Suki tried to study their faces, but from this distance they shared a bland sameness.

The group passed behind the black, glassy wedge at the Dial’s center.  They must have stopped there to rest, because they didn’t emerge.  It seemed to Suki that they had just walked off the face of the world.

She was bent over the silkpups’ nest, lost in their restless, wriggling motion, when her nostrils filled again with that damp musk.

She looked up.  The Ken and her Speaker were standing in front of her.  Once again, she hadn’t heard them come in. “Hello,” she said.

The Ken’s bead-like eyes stared impassively back at her.  She had to look away.  The Speaker smiled kindly at her, and for the first time, she noticed laugh lines around his eyes.  She wondered what he had to laugh about, a Speaker for the Ken.  Then his smile vanished and his eyes rolled back in their sockets.

“You have silkpups today?”

Suki nodded, stepping back from the nest.

Before she could say anything, the Ken reached into the enclosure and picked up a tiny, squirming pup.

She held it up to her shriveled face and stared at it.

Gradually, the pup stopped squirming and began to emit a low, contented hum.

The Ken looked at Suki.  “Fascinating,” said the Speaker.  She replaced the pup in its nest, turned on her heel, and walked out the door.

Suki couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  Dimly, she was aware of the Speaker entering something on her credit pad.

He touched her arm. “I’m sorry,” he said.  It was the first time she had heard him speak with his own voice. It was low and musical.  He hurried out the door after the Ken. The silkpup lay in a corner of the nest, shivering.  Suki leaned close and she could hear a high, keening whimper.  Already, its littermates were shunning it — they clustered in a writhing mass of tiny arms and legs on the other side of the nest, as far away as they could get.

The imprint disrupted, the connection broken, the silkpup would soon die.  There was nothing she could do.

Almost nothing.

She picked up the animal and held it, trembling, in her hand. With her other hand, she took it by the neck, closed her eyes, and gave it a quick twist.

She put the body in the disposal and for the rest of the afternoon, the shop smelled of burnt hair and ozone.

Suki parked her bike in the alley next to her building, hoping nobody would ride off with it.  She felt a small stab of guilt at her selfishness, but she didn’t want to wander half across the city looking for a bike and be late for Roan.

Two more attempts from Tam on her console log.

When would he give up?  She thought of him, bereft of flesh, suspended in purgatory, reaching back to life and light.  She could no longer make the connection between that Ghost and the ghost of her own memories.  He was finally gone to her.

To her relief, the bike was still waiting where she had left it.  The night air was cool, the Avenue of Palms empty at this late hour.  She arrived at the old waterfront fifteen minutes early and walked her bike out to the end of the pier.  She sat down on a wooden bench to wait. Midnight came and went.  By twelve-fifteen, Suki was beginning to think that Roan would not come.  The salt flats spread out before her, luminous in the blue Newmoon light.  Behind her, the city asleep and not asleep, hollow as an open mouth.

By twelve-thirty, she was sure.  As she mounted her bike, the ionization trail from an ascending ship lanced across the sky, followed by a faint popping sound.  She blinked back the afterimage, a straight, bright scar across her vision, and wondered if it was Roan.

She rode home slowly, through quiet side streets.  She felt nothing.

As she passed by the Ursa’a apartment on her way up to her own, she paused to listen.  They were singing — his low voice a modal drone, hers above sinuous and agile, weaving in and out of the tonal center.

She walked up to the door, pressed her cheek against the cold, smooth surface.  The music seemed to enter her body through that contact, sending delicate tendrils down her neck, spreading through her chest and out her arms and legs, filling her with warmth.

About the Author

Daniel Marcus

Daniel Marcus has published stories in many literary and genre venues, including Witness,Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, ZYZZYVA, and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Some of these have been collected in Binding Energy. He is the author of the novels: Burn Rate and A Crack In Everything. Daniel was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He has taught in the creative writing program at U.C. Berkeley Extension and is currently a member of the online faculty at Gotham Writers’ Workshop. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. After a spectacularly unsuccessful career attempt as a saxophonist, Daniel earned a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from U.C. Berkeley, has worked as an applied mathematician at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and has authored numerous articles in the applied mathematics and computational physics literature. Daniel then turned his attention to the private sector, where for the last 15 years, he has built and managed systems and software in a variety of problem domains and organizational settings.

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About the Narrator

Christiana Ellis

Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About SurvivorHey, Want to Watch a Movie? and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts.

Find more by Christiana Ellis