“Elektra!” the old man snapped.
The little girl nervously whipped her gaze up from the floor. She had been making a cocktail napkin do battle with her Bloodbug monster doll—noisily, she now realized. She was seven years old and already a bit afraid of the sound of her name.
Grandpa Burgundy’s voice was rough with annoyance, but the ghost of a smile at one corner of his mouth encouraged her to turn on her babyish charm. Adults were moody like the weather in the City of Heaven, but this was one of his good evenings. So far.
“Elektra, the play is about to begin,” he growled. “Get up in your chair. Your daddy can see you from the stage, you know, so you had better behave yourself.”
Grandpa Burgundy—known as old Lemon Burgundy to grown-ups—smiled as the child put her thumb in her mouth and widened her eyes in half-mock fear. The girl had not yet been on a stage, had no idea how the bright lights made it almost (blessedly) impossible to see the audience. But he dearly hoped she would come to know it better than he had. He smiled to himself, imagining his granddaughter as a theater star; then his mouth tensed as though something inside him had curdled. His hands clenched on the arm of his wheelchair.
Elektra didn’t notice. She climbed excitedly into her plush theater seat and settled in with her toys, the real and the makeshift, eager to watch her father in what was going to be his greatest-ever theatrical role. He had four lines of dialogue! For most of the production he would sing in the chorus as usual, but he was the first mortal to have more than two spoken lines in a major production in the City of Heaven’s history. And musical theater was the most important art form in the city—she would have thought “in the world,” but “City of Heaven” and “the world” were more or less synonymous to the little girl, unless you counted the slave planet below, or the Syd District. Where it mattered, theater was everything, and her father was about to speak onstage! She had so much to be proud of. Had she been a bit older, she might have noticed the fingernails of beautiful 100-year-old women jabbing in her direction, pointing her out, the daughter of the low-born star. She only sensed the energy. She smiled brightly at her grandfather.
Her smile faded as soon as it bloomed. Surreptitiously, noticed by no one else—or at least they were pretending not to notice—the old man had slipped both his arms under the poncho draped across the arms of his wheelchair, making a tent over his lap. She could see a slight ripple beneath the poncho as one hand approached the elbow of the opposite arm in a practiced manner. She was a happy, good-natured seven-year-old; but she was observant too, and she knew there was a syringe under the blanket. She made a superstitious gesture (middle and forefingers each pressing an eyebrow) and prayed to Malavika Billingsworth—her favorite actress—that it would still be a good night after the play.
It was musical theater, the most prestigious form of art in the City of Heaven; tonight’s piece was perhaps the eight-thousandth rehash of The Taming of the Shrew in human history. Malavika Billingsworth was playing Kate, so Elektra supposed her prayer would be very lucky. The practice of praying to theater stars wasn’t part of an organized religion; it wasn’t even a longstanding tradition, as mortals had only been allowed into Heaven proper for two generations now. But it was a popular practice amongst the mortal caste, and it gave comfort to children in particular. As Elektra finished her prayer, the curtains parted, the whirling lights brushed the audience, and a cunning melody arose from the orchestra pit; the dance was on and she forgot about the grown-ups’ problems.
When Malavika came onstage for her first solo, Elektra felt a delicious sensation, floating between religious ecstasy and displaced filial piety; her real mother had long ago abandoned the family, and it was wonderful to imagine this pretty, full-blooded Immortal holding her in her arms and loving her, though that fantasy was barely half-formed. But there was real family pride to be felt as well: Elektra’s father, Bartleby, was about to sing his first solo line! Her father was even better than Malavika—even if Bartleby spent most of his time in the chorus. Despite his mortal bloodline, he was obviously the brightest presence on the stage, just as her grandfather was said to have been back in his day.
The crowd cheered dutifully when the wooden actor who played the male lead appeared in the foreground—but most eyes were drawn again and again to the background, where Bartleby Burgundy’s lithe antics and powerful tenor made an unavoidable spectacle within the spectacle. Sure, the plot was flimsy, but they all were, nowadays. Although no one would ever dare say so aloud, the system of casting by caste dumbed the art from down, beacuse the background performers were often more talented than the leads, and stole the show—so the playscripts had to keep getting simpler to stop the viewers from losing the plot as they watched the background antics.
These days, however, the more popular mortal extras were getting one or two lines per production. Tonight, Bartleby’s four lines would make theater history. His little daughter’s breath caught in her throat as he stepped forward, singing: “Do you want music? Then twenty stormbirds shall be caged, thy guinea horse adorned!”
There was a murmur of appreciation at the sound of his voice—so rich, so clear in contrast to the lead actor’s muddy warbling. This was perfectly acceptable. But when he moved toward the high note (“Thou hast a girlfriend far more beautiful than any other on our waning moon!”), a mortal in the second row, who was clearly drunk, forgot herself, and clapped and cheered.
The performers charged professionally on, but everyone could feel the oxygen being sucked out of the room. One did not do that. There was a slight disturbance as the crowd parted to let the Government Officers who had suddenly materialized from the wings filter in and surround the unfortunate woman.
The GOs, as they were called, looked like insects in their body armor and dark-visored helmets—a jarring contrast to the softly pretty costumes onstage. The designers had done their best to reproduce what they thought Elizabethan clothing looked like back on Ancient Earth. Malavika was especially dreamy in a peach-colored gown of moonsilk, spun from the spittle of a rare water bug that lived only at the bottom of the New Tiber River.
The GOs, on the other hand, wore recycled titanium panels from a long-defunct interstellar ship. While the taller Government Officers looked like insects, the shorter ones looked like garbage cans. But nothing else about them was funny to anyone. Though she was only seven, and the closest she’d come to committing an infraction was playing war on the theater floor, Elektra felt a paralytic wave of guilt and fear wash over her body when one of the blank, black visors turned her way. She couldn’t breathe till the invisible gaze moved on. The Government of the City of Heaven didn’t like to make its presence overt, but when it did, it was implacable.
The woman disappeared, along with the Government—the GOs melting into air, dissolving her like white blood cells—and the play went on. Bartleby’s second line was delivered into a tomblike silence. When intermission came, the pall remained, floating over the crowd like a curse. No one, however, discussed it. When the Government and its Officers appeared from behind the curtain, you didn’t say anything. It was another one of those things that weren’t quite… polite.
Another thing that wasn’t polite to mention was the flurry of illicit drug use that went on during intermission.
There was plenty of legitimate drug use, as well; it was a middlebrow play, with a mixed crowd of mortals and Immortals, and use of the popular euphoric Lyfe was acceptable for Immortals in any social setting—although, at the moment, most of the Gods who were present seemed more interested in buying cocktails at the bar than in shooting up.
Meanwhile, a handful of guilty mortals disappeared into the alleys and toilet stalls with their syringes. They liked Lyfe as much as anyone, but for them it was a legal and social offense.
To an outside observer, this would have appeared, at first, to be a grave injustice. But this double standard was in place for the mortals’ own good. Unlike the Gods, they really would be better off without Lyfe.
This drug Lyfe was a strange substance. So strange that it seemed to double-underline the disturbing oddness of homo sapiens centauri. The Lyfe powder they mixed with fluid and injected into their veins was refined from a silky soft, reddish ore that had been discovered in the otherwise very nasty soil of Earth Two many centuries ago. The City of Heaven was not on a planet, but rather seated on the nice, temperate moon of Earth Two; the planet below was barely inhabitable, with crushing gravity and carcinogenic air. Only mortals lived and mined in its fetid bowels; in fact, till a couple of generations ago, when Elektra’s grandpa changed everything, the mortals had all been miners down on the slave planet, and a hundred generations had lived and died on that wretched globe, knowing nothing more than crawling against the excess gravity through tunnels like rats. Which again must sound like an injustice to the broader minds in the universe—till one is versed in the inexplicable but obvious biological differences between mortals and immortals.
The discovery of Lyfe and the establishment of the castes were lost in the sands of time, though there were legends. But the story of why they were all on a sphere orbiting Alpha Centauri instead of Sol had been well preserved: their forebears had stupidly triggered a nuclear holocaust on Earth One. (Legend held that the chain of events began with an unpaid restaurant bill and a lost earring during a state visit in Belgium.) The four thousand worldwide survivors took a deep breath and launched an untested Chinese prototype of an interstellar cruiser. They barely limped to the nearest star, around which circled Earth Two and its lovely moon. Then the power struggles began, and they ended in a caste system—which was nowadays completely justifiable, if you looked at the two castes’ absurdly different physical reactions to Lyfe.
When first injected by any class of person, Lyfe produced an intense euphoria, which dwarfed any other pleasure the species had ever known. It granted both energy and restful sleep, wit and inhibition, sexual desire and potency too, even if you also got drunk; a feeling of being loved and loveable, and a luxuriant degree of self-confidence. The first dose made everybody feel like a child rolling in a pile of candy and toys. Best of all, it made life feel like it meant something, even if you worked ten hours a day in a Lyfe refinery. There was no hangover, and it was difficult to overdose; if you took too much, you nodded off and woke up ready for more. It was so good that psychological addiction was near-inevitable, particularly if your life was terrible; after a few tastes of dear, sweet relief, you didn’t want to go on without it. Long-term use then began. And it was there that the mortals were separated from the Gods.
Lyfe preserved Immortals like flies in amber—if flies in amber could live, breathe, and sing out of tune in high-budget theater productions. The drug brought them eternal youth and health, which afforded lots of time in which to accrue wealth and power. They weren’t, however, immune to violence, and after a few centuries, suicide or murder always drew the curtain down on their personal dramas. Each young God bragged that he would be the one to live in joy forever. But veterans of a couple of centuries of life became—behind the youthful mask of flesh—dark and strange animals.
For mortals, the long-term consequence was the very opposite. No one could tell you why. They got all of the drug’s spectacular euphoria, as well as the psychological addiction—which was followed in mortals by a physical addiction of agonizing intensity. The withdrawals were more painful than heroin and more deadly than alcohol, with terrifying hallucinations; even after the drug cleared their system and the shaking ended the victims were left for months with a six-ton sense of doom that made them wish the process had killed them.
So most of them stayed on Lyfe once hooked. But instead of living forever, addicts of the mortal class were crippled and maimed. They died an early death, usually well before the age of sixty—but not before losing their faculties in a humiliating and painful free-fall.
When the mortals were all miners on Earth Two, this had been a small price to pay for short-lived joy; their deaths were already accelerated. The raw Lyfe ore they handled every day caused cancer, and it was rare for a miner to live past the age of 40 in any case. (It was not nice, but someone had to do it in order for anyone to live forever; since they had so much slave labor—the mortals never got tired of intoxicated sex, no matter their misery—the Gods never bothered to find ways to automate mining.) But as they moved up to the City of Heaven, they had become quite useful as cheap servants and theater extras; the more extras that were available, the more Gods could star in the most glamorous field in Heaven. And seeing junkies die in the streets was a bit of a buzzkill for the Immortals. So the fact that Lyfe addiction tended to whittle them down to useless stumps by their thirties came to be considered a public health crisis.
Little Elektra was still innocent, and would not taste Lyfe till her late adolescence. Nor would she taste any ordinary adolescent pleasures: Bartleby was determined to preserve her childish purity. He would be damned if anyone would call him a bad parent on top of being an addict. So aside from a brief stint when he was unable to enforce his will—the gentle reader will soon find out why—he kept her locked in their tiny apartment, as punishment for some made-up misbehavior or another. Whenever she asked why she was grounded again, he would scream: “You know why!” (She didn’t.)
This meant she had no friendships that extended outside of school; and so, soon, she had none in school either. But at least she was safe. Bartleby usually kept her away from the theater, too, as it was an unwholesome place, full of… well, full of people like himself. But once the little girl had grasped the momentousness of his role in this particular play, she had used all her charm to work her way into a theater seat.
Little did he know, this was her second play in as many weeks.
While Bartleby was away at late rehearsals and sordid parties, Lemon Burgundy treated the child to every kind of theatrical production she liked. She may have been grounded, but no one was going to tell the legendary Lemon Burgundy—the first mortal ever to immigrate to the City of Heaven!—that he couldn’t take his granddaughter out when he liked. (Well, except for his son, who was still able-bodied, but if he was going to use that ability to go carousing, then he could hardly be everywhere at once.) It was their little secret; and if Daddy was going to be gone so long every night drinking—and talking to those strange ladies—then who was he to tell Elektra that she couldn’t indulge in a little magic of her own? He had no idea.
And during intermission, he also failed to see her as she crept toward the wing where he was hiding. He had his secret too: she didn’t know that he was addicted to something worse than moon rum.
Elektra had gone into the ladies’ room with pure intentions. However, the long line of twitchy mortals waiting to sneak into the stalls for a fix scared her, so she went for her usual solution: she would slip out down a quiet back hall and make water outside in the alley. The child knew it wasn’t considered quite clean to do that, but she wasn’t sure why. In fact, it seemed nicer to do her business out where all those grown-up ladies with their strange smells hadn’t been sitting there doing whatever their business was.
On the way down the hall, she discovered the open backstage door.
It was a low door. The building was ancient, built back when people were short, because they hadn’t figured out how to extract the non-poisonous kind of protein from dead Anihils. A different world opened up beyond its threshold: the lights were soft and multicolored, and scrims hung from the rigging, red and shimmering, ready to transform the stage for a new scene. It was a pathway into something. Something you couldn’t know till you burrowed in, and then it would still glow with a teasing mystery. Costumes were draped on soft chairs, still warm from the Goddesses’ hips and shoulders. Someone had dropped a pot of greasepaint, still rolling back and forth on the rainbow-smeared floor. It was too inviting.
Elektra gave in and entered a room whose walls were scrims and curtains, cut off from the rest of the backstage only by cloth. She imagined the back of the building as an infinite space, a maze, a fantastical labyrinth full of Gods and taffeta and dance shoes and wine. She could hear the director giving the cast a pep talk somewhere, several halls of cloth away, in another world. It was very warm and smelled of perfume. She found the place where one curtain met another, where she could break into the rest of the maze; she peered through cautiously.
It was a short rosy corridor that turned right and out of her vision. At the end of it, her father was crouching with a syringe. She pulled her head back through the curtain and sucked in her breath sharply. Dad wasn’t just drinking when he went out with those ladies! She froze.
He didn’t notice her; the needle was full. He stared at it intently, trying not to think too many steps ahead. He just had to finish up without dropping it on the ground (don’t think about that!, he thought frantically) and then catch the end of the pep talk before the second act. It’ll be good to be high before that bullshit, he thought. He had put a little more Lyfe into the mixture than was probably smart, but he needed it. That incident with the GOs had shook him up. Yeah, and he was nervous to begin with; this show was such a big deal, and what was wrong with a little extra boost before the finale? Yeah, tomorrow would be difficult, right? And his tolerance was getting expensively high. But he promised himself he would go easy on the Lyfe when he got to the cast party. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too bad.
Who was going to take Elektra home, though? Could the old man bundle her onto a guinea carriage himself? Well, they should probably go cheap and take the hippobus… They would probably have to ask for a stranger’s help in hefting the wheelchair aboard the vehicle… ahhh well. What a man doesn’t do for his art… hehe, this is good shit…
He didn’t yet suspect that the dose was thrice what he was used to. His dealer usually stretched the expensive powder out with guinea-horse tranquilizer, but today the guy had a hangover of his own, and had felt too sick to go out and buy the filler.
Elektra, transfixed, watched the needle slide into her father’s abscessed arm, into a thick welter of scabs and sores and ruined veins.
His mind was pulsating with beautiful lights. And the awful suspicion that he was way, way too high to be a star.
Something else was happening as well, deep in his blood. Something was fusing, something was changing. He could feel something dark and final rumbling in his heart.
But to the little girl, his face was ecstasy. He looked like he was biting into a sugar cookie. His arm looked like a medical display of rotting flesh. He’s dying. She stifled a sob and fled the labyrinth.
Her grandfather patted her seat. “Are you OK, Elektra? Sit down.” She stared angrily at him, at his guilty arm, there under the blanket, thin and probably covered in bloody horrors. She realized she had never, in fact, seen his arms; they were always covered in fancy but worn velvet pajama sleeves. “Hello? Young lady?”
“I’m here,” she said flatly, and flumped into her seat with her arms crossed. She was shaking, but she certainly didn’t want to talk to him about it. Her father blamed his father for all of his own misdeeds, and she was still young enough to believe him. If Dad was on drugs, then it was Grandpa’s fault.
The second half of the play began as stiffly as any play the little girl had ever seen; she was old enough to wonder if everyone in the room was still thinking about the Government. As far as she knew, you were supposed to think about them as seldom as possible. She tried to apply that principle to the images of veins and abscesses that were now flooding her mind, but she couldn’t stop them; whenever she managed not to think about the Government she thought about infected veins, and whenever she managed not to think about veins, she saw the garbage-can GOs storming the stage. She blinked and tried to concentrate on enjoying Malavika’s lovely voice. She tried to guess how long it would be until her father appeared. He would do OK, wouldn’t he? From his arm, it looked like he did drugs all the time.
She had heard her father practicing the lines together with her grandfather, and she knew what was coming: Malavika would sing:
“Is this moon a sun? Or is that sun our moon?”
And then Bartleby would spin onstage and reply:
“My name is call’d Vincentio; my dwelling Heaven;
And bound I am to Earth; there to visit
A daughter fair, which long I have not seen.”
But at the end of his cue line, no Bartleby appeared onstage. The orchestra then stumbled into the next measure; Malavika grinned foolishly and marked time with her feet, pawing the ground, having forgotten her next line in the unaccustomed confusion. A few beats later, a foot finally appeared from the wings.
Most of the leg appeared next, but then the foot-leg unit froze midair, sticking out horizontally at waist height. The crowd could hear a sort of maniacal giggling in the wing, where the foot-owner’s head would presumably be, but Bartleby let things get very awkward indeed, particularly for the musicians and Malavika, before the rest of him lurched onto the stage.
His pants were, for some reason, absent. His underwear was worn thin and grey.
“Dirty!” he croaked. “Rotten!” he elaborated, and then fell into a pile. He lay still for a moment, then poked his head up, looked around him suspiciously, and ran offstage. The crowd tittered with appreciative laughter; they had heard Bartleby Burgundy was going to have a spectacular showing tonight, but they didn’t realize it would be such an important role as Falstaff.
In the wings, he collapsed into a fetal position. The stage manager kicked him in annoyance. The director rolled his eyes. “Well, he’s done, then. Fucking mortals. This is why they’re always playing potted plants.”
In the crowd, Lemon Burgundy closed his eyes. “Oh, no,” he whispered. His querulous voice sounded sicker than ever; under the best of circumstances, his quaking rasp annoyed Elektra slightly, as though his weakness were exposing the young child to the thin wedge of mortality, nagging at her to begin a lifetime of staring at its awful face. But now, his tone positively scared her. “He’s done it. It’s coming.”
“What is, Grandpa?” said Elektra, her breath stopping in her chest. His vagueness was more frightening than anything real he could have said.
He pointed at his wheelchair. “Lyfe.” He leaned toward her. “Don’t you ever touch that shit, young lady,” he hissed. “If I ever catch you high on that garbage I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life.”
Elektra shrugged, sticking her bottom jaw out. She tended to get beaten about that badly on a weekly basis anyway.
“I mean it!”
“OK, Grandpa,” she said insincerely. She might nod now, but threatening to beat a beaten child is more likely to earn sullen irony than obedience. Anyway, the gods looked happy when they did Lyfe. The mortals, too—till they got sick. Was being sick some of the time as bad as always being unhappy? It was too bad that you had to answer that question before you found out how bad the sickness was, what the values were in the pain equation you were looking at. Her family’s life wasn’t as terrible as some, but even at her tender age, she could imagine wanting an escape. The same way she wanted to watch Malavika. Mixing her imagination into the train of her fluffy pink dress, peering into somewhere you couldn’t quite enter, but you could feel it…
Lemon was thinking out loud: “He’ll be in jail for a while. At least overnight getting booked . . . then probably an year or two down in the Syd District, once they give him his kangaroo trial.” He looked over at his granddaughter, who appeared at once absent and sullen. “Looks like we’re going to have to learn to take care of each other for a little while, kid.”
Elektra looked up at him, trying not to grunt out loud. She had a pretty good idea of who would be taking care of whom.
“Shame he should go to jail. Your dad is such a holy innocent.” He shook his head. “Can’t believe he ever thought for a minute that your mother would stay with the two of you! You know, your dad wasn’t such a mess before you came along. Well, to be fair, before your mother came along. But taking care of a handful like you sure hasn’t been easy on him, you little shit.”
Elektra blinked numbly, smiling as though he had told a good joke. She had taught herself to disappear a little inside of herself, to contain the liquid in her eyes; when the adults were like this, tears were only blood in the water.
“Ahhh, I’m only joking. You could stand to be less of a burden, though.”
“Ha ha! Oh, Grandpa.”
“So we had better get out of here before the rest of the theaters let out. And no, I’m not paying for a damn carriage! I don’t know how we’re going to pay for anything from here on out. So you might as well learn to push my chair right now. Get around behind me—can you reach the handles? Well, I told your father you should have the high-heeled shoes so you can learn to be a little more useful…”
Elektra sighed and made her body do the things he wanted. He was really a nice old man sometimes, and he did take her to the theater when her father said no. Suddenly her eyes lit up: Her father wasn’t going to be around to say no for a whole year! She steered the old man’s chair toward the exit with a vigor that was nearly enough to frighten him.
After nearly mowing down a crowd of deathless juveniles shooting up in the theater foyer, Elektra pushed the wheelchair down the cobblestone street, panting with effort and fear. As the theater emptied out, the street filled up with the Gods’ carriages, drawn by teams of native, rodentlike creatures, the size of ponies. Guinea horses, as these animals were called, were normally a delight to the child. They had sweet, appealing faces and a gentle, patient nature. But they weren’t terrific at quick maneuvers, and nor was she. The curb was too high for the girl to push the heavy chair up onto the sidewalk, so she clung to the side of the street, wading in guinea droppings and smashed bits of beer bottle. A shard of glass poked up into her shoe and grazed the arch of her foot; she could feel her sock go damp with blood. But she kept quiet, grimly rolling toward home. She wanted to ask her grandfather for at least hippobus fare, but decided it wasn’t worth it.
At least the carriages were slow. Motorized vehicles were owned only by the Government. The denizens of Heaven hadn’t gotten quite so lazy as to forget how to put together a steam engine—yet—but fuel extraction technologies had slid back to about where they’d been in 1850, so most fuel went to shuttling Lyfe up from the mining planet. Maintaining youth and health was more important than speeding across a small moon; the inhabitable half of the globe could be crossed in a few hours by carriage anyway. Animal power also made it far safer for small and ill-nourished girls to push their sick and raving relations down a main thoroughfare.
“I tell, you, girl, if you touch that stuff, you’ll be beaten! Beaten!” the old man kept saying. You could tell how badly he needed a dose of Lyfe by how bitterly he ranted about Lyfe.
“You’re welcome, Grandpa,” Elektra said. “We’ll be home soon. Faster if you stop shouting.”
“Why, you little…”
A Goddess, in a carriage whose driver was attempting to swerve around them, heard this and covered her giggling mouth with a white glove. The glove looked eerie in the evening light, almost disembodied, floating on the darkness inside the carriage. To Elektra the woman’s face looked evil and strange. But it was a pleasurable, dramatic evil and strangeness, a lingering effect of being immersed in the play; the drug of art could crystalize misery into something exalted, she realized. She glanced up at the theater marquees lining the thoroughfare and smiled. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad night, all things considered.
“It’s sick and dirty,” Lemon Burgundy continued. “Dirty and sick and bad. I can tell you’re thinking about it! DIRTY!”
“So what does that make you?” was what Elektra wanted to ask, carting the crippled addict along as he yelled. But she was becoming numb to the hypocrisy of grown-ups, or at least cagey enough to not mention it.
“And your father is right!” he was ranting. “Stay out of the theater! Make something of yourself! Work in a laundry!”
“Yes, grandfather,” she said, adding under her breath: Me and the theater will get along just fine. Not my fault you couldn’t handle it. Weak old no-talent. Mortal trash.
She was going to do better. No matter what. She limped angrily toward home.
Lemon Burgundy looked at the set of her jaw and smiled.