The first substantive anthology of its kind in two decades, The SFWA European Hall of Fame comprises sixteen stories translated from thirteen languages. It features many of the most celebrated living Continental SF writers—nearly half of whom enjoy bestseller status in their own countries—a lineup that includes Jean-Claude Dunyach of France, Andreas Eschbach of Germany, Johanna Sinisalo of Finland, and Valerio Evangelisti of Italy.
During the six years that James and Kathryn Morrow devoted to this project, they strove to find stories that would engage English-speaking readers through familiar motifs—aliens, dystopias, time travel, space exploration, artificial intelligence—while simultaneously showcasing the distinctive and exotic flavors of European SF, from the philosophical to the phantasmagoric.
Just as critically, the Morrows attempted to present each story in the best possible translation, a process that typically involved an elaborate three-way conversation among the original author, a professional translator, and the editors themselves.
* * *
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID
“Wondrous worlds await U.S. SF fans in this sensitively chosen, impeccably translated anthology of Continental European science fiction stories, ranging from 1987 to 2005 … These “disciplined speculations” by European writers and their painstaking translators not only excite the mind, they move the heart.”
“A ground-breaking anthology … The stories in The SFWA European Hall of Fame are not quite like any SF I’ve read before. Like much of the best SF, these stories tend to be allegorical, often absurdist, existential, and just plain weird … You would be hard pressed to find another anthology whose works were more different from one another—and from the stories you’re accustomed to—than this one. It’s a mind-opening journey.”
“James and Kathryn Morrow have presented us with a labor of love in The SFWA European Hall of Fame, and it is a remarkable achievement. It contains sixteen stories from thirteen countries, each a memorable piece, each beautifully translated … By combining efforts and communication between the translators, writers and editors, and making use of the enabling medium of email, this collection provides us with the amazing styles and atmospherics of the story tellers, not just their raw content.”
“The Morrows, James and Kathryn, would like to disabuse us of the notion that we have nothing to learn from our European counterparts; and this well-edited, scrupulously translated volume bids fair to bring home that lesson—if only we’ll let it—in stories both elegant and exhilarating … [T]he volume repays its cover price as well as its readers’ acute attention.”
New York Review of Science Fiction
“Far be it for me to attempt plot summaries or critiques of sixteen stories in this limited space, but the salient point is that The SFWA European Hall of Fame illuminates the often-obscured fact that speculative fiction has long and diverse individual histories in many countries, that a good many of them have little or nothing to do with ‘genre,’ and that taken together they reveal that in the wider world speculative fiction is a much larger literary tent than it is in the English-speaking countries.”
* * *
AN ADDENDUM FROM EDITORS JAMES AND KATHY MORROW:
We lost one contributor to The SFWA European Hall of Fame much too early. The multi-talented Wim Stolk, who wrote science fiction and fantasy under the name W. J. Maryson, passed away unexpectedly on March 9, 2011.
As our European anthology evolved, we came to regard Wim became not only as a brilliant and delightful colleague but also as a good friend. After his appearance at the 2010 World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, he moved into our guest room for a week, and we shall always retain nourishing memories of Wim sitting on our couch and noodling with a fantasy novel that was giving him a lot of trouble. One night over dinner he told us that, at long last, he’d achieved a breakthrough: the new novel would tell the story of a young woman whose life has become—against her will—mythologized into a religion. It would also contain sand-worm wholly unlike the invertebrates that figure so prominently in Frank Herbert’s most famous novel.
Dear Wim, you are sorely missed, and right now the best way we can imagine to honor your memory would be to grace this page with your poetic contribution to The SFWA European Hall of Fame.
“W. J. Maryson” is the nom de plume of Wim Stolk, a former civil servant, statistician, publicist, and ad man who ultimately found his calling in the field of speculative fiction. His Master Magician fantasy cycle and his Unmagician series have both enjoyed strong sales and critical acclaim in the Netherlands and nine other European countries. When not supplying his publisher with the latest Maryson novel, Stolk works as an editor and scout for that venerable Dutch house, Meulenhoff. As you might infer from “Verstummte Musik,” the author is also an accomplished musician, with three CD’s to his credit, all featuring songs inspired by his fiction. At present he lives on a farm with his wife, three daughters, one son, six cats, some thirty hens and roosters, three guinea fowls, and five peacocks.
It was the day of the alpha spider, the month of the moon laurel, the year of the water gryphon. Cencom, the computer that ran Eurwest, had decided that these terms sounded more poetic than 18-05-2443.
Dark clouds hovered over the plaza leading to the Ministry of Quotation. Fat raindrops smashed into gray cobblestones resembling the shiny bodies of dead fish. As Laïra hurried across the ancient square, she remembered that it had once been the Place de la Concorde. The glossy stones beneath her feet and the shimmering bricks of the government buildings nurtured the myth of luminous Paris, the romantic city. The storm had chased most citizens into their homes, and Laïra wished that she could join them. But today that was impossible.
IMPARTIALITY: THE HIGHEST GOOD, declared the huge digitalized sign pulsing on the façade of the Ministry of Quotation. Laïra quickened her pace. Mounting the steps, she glanced again at the throbbing display. The text had changed. EVERYBODY WINS: BLOOD TO THE LIVING, BRICKS TO THE DEAD.
As she rushed through the glass doors and entered the foyer, she thought about the flashing mottos. Was impartiality really the highest good? Certainly there was much to be said for fairness. The mathematical dispassion with which the Law of Quotation reached its verdicts was prime among the glories of Eurwest. And what about the second slogan? She did not believe that the dead prospered as much as the living. Yes, the perpetually expanding Palace of Humanity did offer its constituents a kind of victory, but most people would tell you the place was just a legend, and even if it existed, Laïra suspected that being mortared into its ramparts was not so very different from oblivion.
“Everything will turn out all right, I promise you,” her contract-husband had told her earlier that morning, trying to cheer her up. “You’re going to get through it.”
“Yes,” she’d said, but she simply wasn’t convinced. She’d been keeping close track of her quotients, and she feared they fell short of the mark. The previous year, her reckoning day had been an ordeal, and this year’s promised to be even worse.
“Don’t worry, my love,” Hinrik said. “Think about me — think about us — and you’ll be fine.”
He offered her a reassuring smile, but in the depths of his eyes, beyond his benevolent gaze, she saw that he too was worried.
“I’ve seen your seat,” he added abruptly. As a technician for the Ministry of Quotation, Hinrik oversaw the repair and maintenance of the reckoning chairs. He detested his job, which subjected him to constant scrutiny by Cencom, but his performance so far had been impeccable. “Box 24, chair 57. It’s a good one.”
An odd comment, almost as odd as his occasional remarks about the Palace of Humanity, whose existence was in his opinion an incontrovertible fact. In Hinrik’s occupation, a reckoning chair was neither good nor bad but merely functional or nonfunctional.
“A good chair?” she said. “You mean, it looked lucky to you?”
“Very lucky,” he said, then gave her a quick kiss on the lips.
* * *
It was the day of the alpha spider, the month of the moon laurel, the year of the water gryphon — but it was also the year of C-sharp, or so Hinrik had insisted right before they’d parted company that morning. “I hacked the information out of Cencom,” he said. “Not A-sharp. Not B-flat. C-sharp.” Laïra adored her husband, but she wished he wouldn’t say such perplexing things.
She followed the corridor toward the Arena of Being and Nonbeing. Pausing at the portal, she placed her thumb on the I.D.-membrane, so Cencom could confirm her fleshprint and her DNA signature.
“Ana Laïra Jermina Von Fuchs — 9,715 days, three hours, twelve minutes, sixteen seconds,” the terminal announced. “Box twenty-four, chair fifty-seven.”
Laïra removed the pocket chime from her jacket and glanced at the dial. Assuming that precisely seven seconds had elapsed since the terminal had said “sixteen seconds,” then her personal timekeeper and Cencom were in perfect synchronization.
She stepped onto the moving walkway. At the far end of the cavernous arena the Wheel of Quotation spun round and round like an upended carousel. Slowly, inexorably the walkway carried her past one low-walled cubicle after another — box 5 … box 8 … box 11 … box 14 … box 17 — until she reached her assigned compartment. Her future seemed a void. Its blackness spread through her brain like ink.
Everything was numbers, but the greatest of these was surely 900,000,000 — the optimal, the essential, the serendipitous population of Eurwest. Not 900,000,001. Not 899,999,999. No, precisely 900,000,000 human beings enjoyed the virtues of the city-state — 900,000,000 now, 900,000,000 forever. Every citizen had his part to play in maintaining the proper ratio between being and nonbeing. Sometimes your role was to live out your life, and sometimes your role was to meld with the palace.
Box 24 was nearly full already, at least eighty citizens milling around the ten-by-ten grid of consoles. Wiping her damp curls from her brow, Laïra dismounted the walkway, pulled back the swinging gate, and stepped into the compartment. She swept her eyes over her boxmates, each of them likewise a day 18 month 05 — an alpha spider moon laurel. They looked relaxed, exuding the confidence of people with a future. For most of them, evidently, a reckoning day was simply an annoying necessity, like a visit to the dentist.
Laïra’s muscles grew hard and tense, and a fierce headache rumbled through her skull like a steamroller.
“Good morning, neighbor.”
A pale grinning face appeared before her. It was Smeet, who lived across the street, an obese microbiologist, forty years old. By his account he’d published several highly respected articles on the human genome. His smile radiated the annoying smugness of someone who knew his final tally would come out right.
“I’m in seat ten this year,” said Smeet.
“Fifty-seven,” said Laïra.
He extended his arm, which terminated in a remarkably small hand. Reluctantly Laïra let him clasp her slim trembling fingers. He looked at her in surprise.
Laïra wanted to deny it, but she heard herself utter a hoarse “Yes.”
“Oh?” said Smeet. “Why?”
Why indeed? She was after all a talented and promising actress, known not only in Greater Paris but throughout Eurwest — in New Frankfurt, Flanders City, the West Holland Delta, and a dozen other metropolitan areas. In the past year she’d played seven major roles, and thanks to satellite video she even had a following in Greater York across the ocean.
“Fame and job satisfaction are worth quite a few points,” said Laïra. Oddly, her anxiety seemed to be fading. “But I haven’t progressed in other areas.” She’d experienced problems that year with self-control and product-consumption, and her emotion-gyro had spiraled steadily downward.
Smeet frowned in concern. “I honestly thought you were prospering. Do you have a good contract?”
In fact Laïra had splendid contract, or so she believed, but marital stability rarely earned you more than a few thousand points.
Before she could answer, Smeet shrugged and said, “I’m sure your quotients could be worse.”
“No doubt,” she replied, more sardonically than she’d intended. “But I’ve gotten—” She cut herself off. Disclosing the details of your personal relationship with the Law of Quotation could cost you five hundred units. Yes, she’d received two warnings in as many years, but that was her business, not his.
“Know what I love about the arena?” Smeet said. “It’s a refuge — like a monastery or a quiet woods. For one whole hour, your worth remains fixed, and you don’t have to worry about increasing your quotients.”
A subtle but robust observation, Laïra decided. She envied people who could think like that.
Cencom’s voice boomed across the arena. “Box twenty-three! Thirty seconds!”
Laïra and her boxmates peered over the wall into the adjacent compartment. With shuffling gaits and vacant expressions a hundred 18-05’s moved toward the console grid. After assuming his seat, each 18-05 took up a pair of spidery nanotrodes and set them against his temples, then faced his monitor screen, pressed his spine against the back of the reckoning chair, and curled his fingers around the arm supports. In perfect synchronization one hundred pairs of steel manacles closed around one hundred pairs of wrists with sharp clicks. Here and there Laïra saw blinking eyes, bobbing hands, twitching lips: at least she wasn’t the only one who felt tense.
A bronze gong reverberated through the arena, and Cencom began the intricate process of retrieving and evaluating the brain data.
“Seat one,” the computer declared with a harsh metallic grunt.
The occupant of the first chair, a spindly young man with a fuzzy blonde beard, stiffened as his performance figures materialized on his monitor: ambition quotient, empathy quotient, efficiency, generosity, reliability, industriousness, emotion-gyro — and then the final tally. Now the Wheel of Quotation jerked to a halt, and the cutoff score flashed across its luminous surface, a string of portentous digits. The man in chair 1 exhaled in relief. He’d cleared the hurtle by 160 points.
“Seat two,” Cencom announced, and the Wheel spun again.
The woman in the second chair came out 103 points to the good. A few minutes later her neighbor in chair 3 beat the new cutoff score by 207 points. Chair 4, chair 5, chair 6, chair 7 — happy citizens all. And so it went, from chair 8 through chair 40, each final tally running ahead of the Wheel’s decrees. All of these 18-05’s would be back next year.
Now Cencom crunched the quotients for number 41, a frail man in his sixties. His worth was frighteningly low. The man’s knuckles turned white. The nanotrodes pressing his brow vibrated as he trembled from head to toe.
The Wheel spun … and stopped. The fateful number was only four points below the man’s final tally. Cencom beamed him a warning, the harshly worded reprimand filling the monitor screen with large red letters.
Laïra’s body unleashed a massive flow of adrenaline.
“Whoa, that was close!” exclaimed Smeet. His face was flushed: obviously he’d been hoping for a different verdict.
The Quotation continued. The Wheel stopped and started, stopped and started. The skinny young man in chair 53 received a warning — his second in five years. He appeared unflustered, as if this dire circumstance had nothing to do with him. Laïra shifted her gaze. The woman in chair 54 sat frozen, staring at her monitor in fear and perplexity. A warning filled the screen, her third in four years. She seemed about to swoon.
Smeet stepped in front of Laïra, blocking her view. “Have you ever wondered,” he asked, “why the Quotation doesn’t begin on the day you’re born?”
Laïra leaned sideways, hoping to learn whether number 54 had fainted yet, but Smeet moved with her. He repeated his question. Two weeks earlier, Laïra and Hinrik had discussed that very mystery. She’d offered him no strong views on the matter then, and she had none to give Smeet now.
“It’s universally acknowledged that youth is a desirable condition,” she answered flatly. “So Von Schöppen decided to provide maximum blessings at the beginning of life, saving the challenges and hazards for the end.”
The lucidity of her response pleased her, but then she realized that she was simply drawing on her conversation with Hinrik, repeating his conclusions.
“A reasonable opinion,” said Smeet. “I have a different one. Cencom could never acquire any psychic nourishment by submitting children to the Quotation. Preadolescents lack the sophistication, the mathematical intellect, to understand the system.” He emphasized his words with succinct, decisive motions of his small hands. “But with an adult in the chair, and the quotients going against him, Cencom gets to absorb that interval of sheer terror before execution — a brief moment, but so pure.”
She looked at Smeet with admiration. Her neighbor had obviously thought deeply about this matter, subsequently devising a bold and defensible theory. Somehow Laïra never managed to do that; she always saw too many facets to any puzzle.
“The moment of being-nonbeing isn’t so very brief.” She hated the pedantic tone in her voice.
“My unorthodox ideas have cost me many points,” continued Smeet, as if he hadn’t heard her. “I must work very hard to compensate.”
Laïra was surprised to learn that Smeet’s worth was evidently closer to the typical cutoff score than she’d assumed. Had he already received a warning or two? In previous years she’d been too preoccupied to worry about her boxmates’ fortunes. She wished that she could watch Smeet’s face as Cencom assessed him, sharing his satisfaction if the numbers broke the right away, but the distance between chair 10 and chair 57 was too great.
“And the fact that I don’t believe in the palace,” Smeet said in a faraway voice, “has cost me quite a bit.”
He stepped aside, allowing Laïra to again observe the events in the adjoining compartment. Number 54 had not fainted.
“Eighty-four,” announced Cencom.
The young woman in the specified chair wore a defiant expression. Soon the quotients came in, corroborating her self-confidence.
The elderly man’s initial quotients — ambition, empathy, self-control — were among the lowest Laïra had ever seen.
“Pay attention,” said Smeet, panting slightly.
The quotients kept arriving. “Emotion-gyro: 38,435 … industriousness: 59,161 … generosity: 67,320…”
The citizen sat balanced on the edge of nonbeing.
“He needs at least 80,000 for efficiency,” whispered Smeet. Number 85 knew it too. He stiffened, moaned, and began to hyperventilate.
Barely a second elapsed before the quotient was read, but to Laïra it seemed like ten.
A faint moan of pleasure escaped Smeet’s throat.
The old man’s eyes nearly popped from their sockets. His console emitted a shrill sound, a continuous tone, a musical note.
It was the year of C-sharp, Hinrik had told her that morning. Was that a C-sharp she’d just heard?
Number 85 strained against his manacles — desperately, fruitlessly — as the nanotrodes heated up and pressed ever more firmly against his temples. He tried to speak, but no words broke from his lips. Now the drilling started, the auger bits boring into his skull, and his throat emitted a sustained unearthly scream.
The nanotrodes hissed and glowed as they sucked the juices from number 85’s body. His skin turned chalky white, his skull collapsed, his body spasmed like a speared fish. The hatch at his feet irised open, a screeching metallic yawn, and then the reckoning chair shot free of its moorings and hurtled into the abyss, taking the manacled man with it.
“Wow!” gasped Smeet, eyes sparkling. “It gets me every time.”
Nauseated, horrified, Laïra stared at her feet. Excited whispers and murmurs of delight surged through the arena. She whimpered in fear.
A female voice whispered in her ear. “Remember what the poet said. ‘Cowards die a thousand times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.’ ”
Laïra looked up. The woman who admired poetry, seventy years if not older, had a weathered but kindly face.
“Shakespeare wrote that,” said the elderly 9-05. “Do you know Shakespeare?”
“What about our city poet?”
“I only have time to read scripts.”
“Oh, you simply must experience Birlem. Start with the eulogies.”
Laïra’s heartbeat returned to normal. She thanked her boxmate with a curt nod.
“Box twenty-four! Thirty seconds!”
Cencom’s command cut into Laïra’s mind like a knife. She took out her pocket chime. Year 2443, month 5, day 18, hour 11, minute 09, second 11 … 12 … 13 … 14. Plenty of time to get into position. In nearly perfect synchronization Laïra and the other ninety-nine abandoned the wall and entered the grid, finding their assigned consoles. She slid into chair 57, returned the chime to her jacket, and attached the nanotrodes to her temples. She leaned back. The manacles closed around her wrists with an irrevocable click.
In an effort to distract herself, she glanced around the compartment. Her gaze moved from Smeet — chair 10, far right-hand corner — to the poetry woman, chair 31 on the left, and finally her eyes alighted on the console three spaces away, chair 60. It was empty. Strange. Even if you were deathly ill you never missed your reckoning day.
No sooner had Laïra taken note of her missing boxmate than a second mystery presented itself. From a tiny hole in the floor a transparent fiber emerged, seemingly under its own volition. Sinuating like a snake, the fiber slid along the monitor and then coiled around the node that anchored the nanotrodes to the console.
The gong sounded. Cencom obtained the quotients for the woman in chair 1. She was an overachiever, each number higher than the last.
The Quotation continued. It was a good day for the inhabitants of box 24. Smeet got a warning, but evidently he was prepared for it: his body trembled only slightly. More assessments rolled in. Citizen after citizen went free.
Laïra’s muscles felt like ropes. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to hear her numbers. Initially, she succeeded, but then the quotients entered her mind like audible viruses.
A lot less than last year.
This wasn’t going well. Beads of perspiration crawled down her face in search of her eyes.
Two hundred points down!
A bit higher than last year.
Practically the same. She tried to remember how much she needed for efficiency. At least 73,000 she thought.
Was time slowing down? It seemed as if Cencom’s voice tarried.
The nanotrodes heated up, the crimson odor burning her nostrils. She waited for auger bits to enter her skull, the blood to leave her body.
The fiber glowed blue.
What was happening? Why didn’t the nanotrodes strike?
The hatch at her feet irised open. Her chair vibrated madly. She closed her eyes, and the chair catapulted free of the console. As she dropped below the arena, she heard a voice — Smeet? — cry out in surprise.
Falling, falling, falling through the horror.
She was alive!
Falling, and then — nothingness.
* * *
Her return to consciousness was slow and painful. Cautiously she opened her eyes.
Alive. How could that be?
The manacles still restrained her, the nanotrodes still probed her temples. Her chair had come to rest on a wheeled platform that straddled two steel rails. Now the platform began to move, rattling and squeaking as it penetrated the thick moist blackness. The instant the flatcar rounded a corner, a greenish glow filled the space, and she saw a dozen other reckoning chairs gliding along the rails, each holding a lifeless, bloodless body.
Panic crashed through her mind like a tidal wave. She was headed for the brickworks! She was about to be crushed alive!
Despite her terror she managed to identify the corpse in the flatcar directly ahead of her: the unfortunate old man from box 23, chair 85. Inexorably Laïra and number 85 and the other unworthies were transported into an immense hall girded with steel, toward a loading dock bisected by a conveyor belt and filled with droning machines and milling robos in green jumpsuits. The procession stopped. Two robos strode to the first flatcar and tore the nanotrodes from the corpse’s skull. The robos unlocked the manacles, wrenched the loser free of his chair, carried the corpse across the loading dock, and dropped it on the conveyor belt. They returned to the flatcars and went to work on the next Quotation loser.
Laïra fought against her manacles, but they would not budge.
A third green-suited robo approached the flatcars. He inspected number 85 and, determining that the man was dead, moved on to Laïra. Their gazes connected. The robo smiled.
He was not a robo at all.
“Hinrik?” gasped Laïra in disbelief.
He exhaled sharply and yanked the nanotrodes away from her temples. He reached into his coat pocket and retrieved a small silver cylinder, inserting it in her left manacle. The band popped open with a sharp click. He unlocked the right manacle. Laïra rubbed her wrists.
“Come quickly,” he whispered.
In her mind’s eye Laïra saw the transparent fiber. Hinrik’s doing, a device for neutralizing the nanoprobes. She’d married a saboteur — a brave and creative saboteur.
She rose from her reckoning chair like an aging robo, slowly, awkwardly. Her skin was bruised, her muscles sore, but none of that mattered.
Hinrik disappeared into a gloomy niche and seconds later returned bearing a lifeless body, its skull crushed, blood drained. She shuddered. This was surely the wayward citizen of box 24, the missing occupant of chair 60.
Her husband was a saboteur — and also a murderer?
“I have only one defense,” he said. “She would have died anyway. I’ve never seen a worse set of quotients.”
Hinrik placed the corpse in chair 57. The manacles clicked back into place.
Taking Laïra by the arm, Hinrik guided her into the niche — just in time, because now one of his fellow technicians, a bearded man in a white lab coat, appeared on the other side of the loading dock. Laïra froze. Behind the mirrors of Hinrik’s eyes she saw a mingling of emotions: fear, hope, confusion, anger.
An anguished minute elapsed, another minute, a third. Hinrik stepped cautiously from the niche and glanced toward the dock.
“He’s gone,” he whispered. “Come.”
“Where? A free state? Ostreich-Schweiz?”
Hinrik placed an index finger to his lips. “Be quiet until I tell you it’s okay to talk.”
For the next two hours they moved through a long winding corridor, eventually reaching the immense underground factory where the brickmakers plied their trade. The kiln fires roared, filling the space with stifling heat, stinging smoke, and sulphurous fragrances. A squad of security robos in orange jumpsuits guarded the operation, but Laïra and Hinrik managed to keep out of sight.
On the far side of the factory, an immense gantry crane stood beside a mountain of bricks, each tinted scarlet, as if in homage to the blood that had once filled the donor’s veins. The machine was a wonder. With great technological competence the metal claw plucked a dozen bricks from the pile, deposited them in a gondola — a dozen such cars, coupled together, stood on the siding — then returned for another load. The gantry would have scored high in both efficiency and industriousness: most of the twelve cars were already full.
“Our only chance,” muttered Hinrik hoarsely, pointing toward the gondolas.
Together they slipped beneath the gantry, approached the first gondola, and began to remove its load, brick by brick. In a matter of minutes they’d created a cavity large enough for a human body.
“I’ll need to cover you up,” Hinrik explained. “Twenty bricks, maybe thirty. I’ll try not to hurt you. Breathe deeply. Stay calm. I’ll be in the next car.”
Laïra climbed into the gondola, and Hinrik proceeded to bury her. The bricks were heavy but not intolerable. A few minutes later, the train began to move, shifting the payload. The weight of the bricks seemed to increase. They chafed her skin, battered her flesh, squeezed against her bones. Terror rose within her, but she beat it back through an effort of will. This ordeal, she mused, would have earned her many points for self-control. She wanted to smile, but the bricks hurt too much.
The train rolled on, faster and faster. The corpses pressed downward. Time lost all meaning. She tried to empty her mind and concentrate on her breathing, but she realized the bricks were winning, and she sank into unconsciousness.
* * *
Hinrik’s voice hissed sharply in her ear. He seized both her arms and pulled her free of the gondola.
“We’ve been found out,” he moaned.
She looked around groggily. The brick train had stopped inside a space only slightly smaller than the brickworks.
“Stand still!” cried a harsh voice. “You’re in violation!”
Three men in blue jumpsuits ran stiffly toward them: security robos. Hinrik dragged her away from the brick train and guided her across the concrete floor. A tunnel portal appeared. They rushed inside and entered the labyrinth beyond, an intricate network of passageways, pipes, and cul-de-sacs. The robos’ echoing footsteps faded, then dropped away completely.
A double door loomed up, two massive panels of riveted steel. Shafts of yellow light spilled through the crack. As if sensing Laïra and Hinrik’s presence, the panels slid back, revealing a marble staircase that spiraled ever upward through the bore of a granite well.
* * *
Fifty marble steps separated each landing from the next. Exhausted, exhilarated, they finally reached the topmost platform, then stumbled past an ornate pagoda of sandalwood and cedar and entered the grassy plain beyond. The radiant sun, brighter than any light Laïra had ever known, made her blink.
A mammoth configuration of immense walls reared up, their scarlet bricks aglow in the noonday sun, each soaring rampart linked to the next by a glorious white tower. A coppice of pear trees, a stand of willows, and a luxurious garden blooming with red roses huddled in the shadow of the great structure. Within its walls lay an astonishing array of minarets, turrets, and spires. In the distance the snowy peaks of the Alps lay mantled in puffy clouds.
So it was not a legend.
“The Palace of Humanity,” gasped Laïra.
“Brick upon brick,” said Hinrik in a respectful whisper. “The walls never stop growing.”
Overwhelmed by an emotion that had no name, Laïra surveyed the nearest cluster of ramparts and towers. The arched windows, decorative statues, shining parapets, flying buttresses, and lofty belfries could not be encompassed by a single mind. She remembered a picture of an ancient cathedral in a book from her childhood. Her memory supplied the name. La Sagrada Familia, somewhere in the south of ancient Europe. Bathed in the noonday sun, the palace sprawled across the plain like a hundred reproductions of La Sagrada Familia, infinitely more complex than any structure that had ever arisen before on the continent.
“Thousands of lives,” stammered Hinrik, his voice full of awe. “Millions of souls. One day the toll will reach a billion. Cencom is insatiable.”
Laïra studied his face. Tears welled up in the eyes of her husband and savior, and soon her own tears were flowing too.
As Hinrik set a comforting hand on her shoulder, Laïra thought she heard music — no, not music, not something experienced, merely the idea of music. But then a sudden fear came, driving all such notions from her mind. She pivoted on her heel and ran across the plain, her gaze fixed on the sandalwood pagoda. In a matter of seconds she reached the marble staircase, then stared into the depths of the helix.
“The security robos,” she muttered as Hinrik drew abreast of her.
“They’ll never come here,” Hinrik said. “This is a forbidden place.”
“Forbidden by the Law of Quotation,” said a soft voice. “Forbidden to security robos and Eurwest citizens alike.”
They turned and beheld an old woman dressed in a long robe of yellow silk.
“So ran Von Schöppen’s final decree,” the woman continued. She had dark green eyes in a soft welcoming face hatched by wrinkles. Her skin looked transparent; she must have been beautiful once. “But no one will know you’ve trespassed. I’m the only living soul between here and the border.” She beckoned to Laïra and Hinrik with brittle fingers. “Call me Eleonyra. Come, I’ll show you my château.”
Without waiting for a response she spun around and marched across the plain. Her stride was long, her gait buoyant. It took Laïra and Hinrik several minutes to catch up with her.
“Your château?” said Laïra, surprised.
Eleonyra shrugged. “When you spend several decades confined in a monstrosity like this,” she said without breaking stride, “you start to feel as if you own it — and my official title in fact implies proprietorship. I’m the Keeper of the Palace of Humanity.”
Again, the notion of music emerged in Laïra’s thoughts. Or was she actually hearing something? A flock of larks singing sotto voce in the willows? The quietest of cicadas buzzing in the grass?
The keeper stepped onto a flagstone path that wound up a knoll toward a pylon positioned between two ramparts. A narrow door broke the curving brick surface, a black barrier of oak and iron. Reaching the tower, Eleonyra lifted the latch, pushed the black door open, and gestured her guests inside.
“The days are lonely here,” she said. “And the nights … unbearable.”
Laïra and Hinrik found themselves standing in a dining hall as vast as the Quotation arena. Eleonyra directed them to a table sixty feet long and six feet wide, appointed with gold plates and silver utensils.
“With each passing year, my task grows more difficult,” the keeper said. “The portraits of my loved ones fade from my mind, and I’m left with only my sagging features in the mirror. Every day I see old age advancing across the battlefield of my skin.”
Eleonyra opened a mahogany cabinet and removed a slim green bottle and three fluted glasses. The fluid, decanted, proved bright red, its fragrance as agreeable as the scent of lavender.
“Wine,” Eleonyra explained. “The lower slopes of the Alps are quite suitable for growing grapes, and the cultivator robos tend the vines with great skill.” She took a substantial swallow. “I’m older than this vintage. I fled from the arena in 2393 — that would be … fifty years ago? For many months afterward I lived in fear, but then I realized the Ministry had actually sponsored my escape.” With a protracted sip, she drained the last of her wine. “They wouldn’t have let you reach the palace unless the Quotation allowed it. If any other citizen breaks free in the next forty years, fifty years, sixty years — however long you’re expected to remain here — that person won’t get far.”
The keeper rose and spread her arms in a gesture that seemed to encompass not only the dining hall but the entire palace.
“Tomorrow one of you will inherit all this.”
Laïra and Hinrik stared at her in shock.
“Only one of us?” asked Hinrik.
Eleonyra nodded. “That’s how Von Schöppen arranged matters. Before this week has ended I shall bid my robos farewell and strike out for Ostreich-Schweiz, and at that instant one of you will become the new keeper.”
“What will happen to the other person?” Hinrik asked.
For a long while Eleonyra remained silent. At last she pointed to a white door at the far end of the room. “The other person will pass through that door. The corridor ends at the quarters of the caretaker robos. They’re good at what they do. They know how to end a life painlessly.”
It astonished Laïra that she did not start screaming. She wondered if the cataclysmic events of the past eight hours had drained her of all normal human feeling the way a Quotation loser was drained of blood.
* * *
Later that evening the three of them sat down to an extravagant meal served by the steward robos. Neither Hinrik nor Laïra consumed more than a few bites. Once again she thought of music — or was she actually hearing a melody, impossibly faint, infinitely elusive?
“Von Schöppen was not a perfect prophet,” said Eleonyra, “but he foresaw the day when a husband and wife might show up here, and he devised a rational method by which they might arrive at their decision. I shall share his system with you at breakfast tomorrow.”
Eleonyra approached the mahogany cabinet, drawing out a squat blue bottle and two glasses. “A special vintage,” she said, pressing the wine into Hinrik’s hands. “It will help you endure this most difficult of nights.”
A steward robo appeared and offered to escort them to their rooms.
“Until tomorrow,” Eleonyra said.
“Are you certain there’s no pain?” asked Laïra.
“Only for the one left behind,” said Eleonyra.
* * *
The bedchamber was spacious and luxurious, a marvel of velvet curtains and satin sheets. Laïra and Hinrik undressed and made desperate love on the four-poster bed. Barely a dozen words passed between them. Their thoughts mingled, their skin fused, their separate longings flowed into a single sea of remorse.
Without drawing apart, they opened the wine and drank two glasses each.
Again they made love.
When Hinrik offered Laïra the final measure of wine, she declined. She had no intention of falling asleep. The white door beckoned.
“After marrying you I became the happiest of men,” Hinrik said.
To guarantee that her plan would work, she took her pocket chime from her discarded jacket and furtively set the alarm for 0300.
She kissed Hinrik one last time, then carefully inserted the chime into the space between her pillow and its silk case. “I love you,” she said, resting her head. The chime’s hard brass felt reassuring against her ear.
“My dearest Laïra,” Hinrik said, curling his arm around her.
She closed her eyes and waited for the music of nonbeing.
* * *
A shaft of sunlight danced across Laïra’s face, luring her into wakefulness. She reached out and patted the space beside her. Empty. She slipped her hand under her pillowcase, feeling for the pocket chime. Gone.
Throbbing with fear, she dressed hurriedly and made her way to the dining hall. Eleonyra stood beside the white door.
“Have you seen Hinrik?” Laïra asked breathlessly.
Eleonyra extended her arm, opened her clenched fist. The pocket chime rested on her palm.
“He said to give you this.”
* * *
For five days and five nights she lay in the bedchamber, mourning her husband, awash in despair and self-reproach. On the sixth day Eleonyra came to her. She wore a saffron robe and smelled like fresh spring flowers.
“Come with me, Ana Laïra Jermina Von Fuchs, Keeper of the Palace of Humanity,” said Eleonyra. “We shall lay your Hinrik in the earth beside the pagoda. Take comfort that his body remains intact, never to be compressed. He will not join the ramparts.”
By the time the funeral began, Laïra had no more tears. The ceremony was spare and dignified. Like the woman who’d calmed her in the arena, Eleonyra admired Birlem’s poetry, and she read Eulogy 23 as the caretaker robos lowered the casket into the grave, shoveled back the dirt, and set a golden vase atop the mound.
As the two women left the pagoda and headed toward the palace, Laïra believed she heard music, a faint but intricate melody, adrift on a slight breeze from the gardens.
“The music,” said Laïra. “Where does it come from?”
Eleonyra looked perplexed. “The music?”
“I hear music. Are there nightingales in the trees? Cicadas in the garden?”
“There’s no music here,” Eleonyra said.
They approached the pylon, passed through the black door, and entered the dining hall.
After lunch, Eleonyra spoke in an urgent voice. “And now I shall take my leave of you.”
“Why must I do this task alone?” Laïra asked in a failing voice. “Why did Von Schöppen require the keeper to become a castaway and an exile?”
“I don’t know,” said Eleonyra with a shrug. “I sometimes wonder whether he had any reason at all.”
Eleonyra started out of the dining hall, then turned and said over her shoulder, “Fifty years in seclusion, surrounded by the dead — it’s a wonder I didn’t go insane. Maybe the music saved me.”
She made no further remarks, but simply disappeared through the black door and out of Laïra’s life.
* * *
In the days that followed — the days and weeks and months and years — Laïra endured the eternal solitude of the palace, her loneliness relieved only by the whispered melodies floating through the air. She tended the gardens. She wrote poetry. She grieved for Hinrik, visiting his grave every day, often slipping freshly cut flowers into the golden vase.
When the weather was warm, she took extensive walks, seeking the way to Ostreich-Schweiz, but every path led back to the place where she’d started. During these treks she always scanned the trees and studied the fields, hoping to glimpse whatever birds or insects performed the music, but she never saw a single living creature. It occurred to her that the musicians might not inhabit the grounds but instead lived inside the palace — a population of sawing crickets, a colony of sonorous dust-mites — and so she took to roaming the passageways and halls in search of the melodious organisms. Even after it became obvious she would never find any such creatures, she continued to seek them out, a meaningless ritual, a theology without a faith.
Each winter she spent her waking hours in the palace’s vast but jumbled library, reading Shakespeare and Birlem and cultivating a taste for a dozen other poets. One evening after dinner, while scouring the stacks in search of Birlem’s sonnets — her favorite book these days, but to her great distress she’d misshelved it — she happened upon a moldering antique volume, The Journal of Joachim Von Schöppen.
She blew off the dust and started on page 1. That night she read Von Schöppen’s diary cover to cover, straight through first light and well past breakfast. When she was finished, she turned back a dozen pages, found the entry that had transfixed her, and marked it in red ink.
“Today I laid the cornerstone,” Von Schöppen had written. “Over the centuries, the souls will accumulate, course upon course of bricks, playing the music of nonbeing. The first year, a silent E-flat. The next year, a mute E-sharp. Then G-flat, G-sharp, B-flat, B-sharp, D-flat, D-sharp, all without voice or breath. As the walls grow, the palace will realize itself as Verstummte Musik, each unheard note a life, each unstruck chord a family, each unsung chant a nation.”
She closed the volume, but not before setting a silk bookmark beside the cornerstone passage. She remembered the line from the poet Goethe. “Architecture is frozen music.”
The morning sun streamed through the library windows. Laïra pulled on a saffron robe, walked through the black door, and headed down the flagstone path. Turning, she scanned the ramparts, brick upon brick, and for an indeterminate interval she listened to the myriad unheard notes and unstruck chords and unsung chants.
A wind arose, overpowering the performance, drowning out the beautiful themes. Laïra closed her eyes. “Verstummte Musik.”
* * *
For an indeterminate interval the ghostly notes lingered on the edge of her hearing, and then they vanished all together. Had the walls fallen silent, or had the music never really existed?
And so it was that Ana Laïra Jermina Von Fuchs, Keeper of the Palace of Humanity, found herself lamenting the loss of two great loves: her dear husband, and the tacit symphony of the bricks. Loneliness embraced her with its frigid arms. She stopped preparing meals, cultivating the gardens, washing the curtains, or sweeping the floors, instead requiring the robos to do these jobs. The wrinkles came, though she did not really feel herself growing older. The trips to Hinrik’s grave became less frequent — once a week, once a month.
Forgetfulness was her only friend. She could not stop grieving for Hinrik, but in time she ceased to mourn the music, for she could no longer recall that delicate and melancholy themes had once played about her ears.
The ethereal music had never existed. It was nonbeing. The palace walls fell silent — not conspicuously silent but simply and unremarkably silent, in the manner of all walls, like fallen snow, or stone gods, or the vase on Hinrik’s grave.
* * *
One day during the forty-seventh year of her exile, as Laïra was reading Von Schöppen’s diary, wondering why the founder of the Quotation had imagined that the palace would ultimately realize itself as music, a bewildered young man entered the library. He was no more than twenty. He looked a little like Smeet. The old microbiologist’s grandson, perhaps? A nephew? It didn’t matter.
For a full minute no words passed between Laïra and the boy. She knew why he’d come. With an overwhelming sense of relief, she appointed him the new keeper and apprised him of his duties. His name was Joachim, “after the great Joachim Von Schöppen,” as he proudly put it. He was sad, and intelligent, and Laïra liked him.
The boy asked, suddenly, “Where does the music come from? Insects? Birds?”
“The music?” said Laïra.
“I hear music.”
“There’s no music here.”
“But I hear it.”
“There’s no music here,” Laïra said again, but she showed him Von Schöppen’s diary anyway, drawing his attention to the passage she’d marked with red ink.
“Verstummte Musik,” Joachim whispered.
“Verstummte Musik,” she echoed, and for an instant a tiny crystal of memory grew in her mind. “Did you come here alone, young Joachim?”
The crystal disintegrated, and Laïra smiled softly at Joachim. She asked him to keep putting fresh flowers on Hinrik’s grave. The boy agreed. She brushed his cheek, then left the library and started down the corridor. She paused, listening, listening. Nothing reached her ears, and so she turned and entered the dining hall and walked for the last time through the black door.