Dense, really dense. The Forest was closed as if it was a net of endless branches. And it was so stuffy that my thick linen shirt was soaked in sweat in a few minutes. I looked at the quantic watch, trying to make out what a pre-programming that specified a pub for officials in Oceania had to do with a jungle, insects and extreme humidity.
I took a better look at my clothes and saw myself exactly as a lettuce, but camouflaged. Milica uniform and boots. The buckle on my belt was dirty, scratched and creased. My trousers were a little wrinkled. I was lying down with my back leaning on a fallen trunk, which was half putrid. A leaf rug covered the ground, amidst the depressions, bushes, vines, mosquitos and ants. My butt was leaning on a rock. I moved my hips cautiously, looking for a more comfortable position.
I was alone.
I looked at the watch one more time. The interviewee was supposed to be by my side, and I guessed he was really far, in the planned barrack, when I heard muttering not far away.
I analysed my situation and the history of previous interviews. Never had things ran normally. This one had already started wrong and I really wished the mistakes stopped there. I moved my body slowly trying to make as little noise as possible, and looked over the trunk that was hiding me. I didn’t notice anything important. But the muttering started again. I tried to see further, attempting to overcome the barrier imposed by the jungle, when I was surprised. From the other side of the trunk, which was reasonably thick, a head rose. A pair of eyes with a worried look met mine.
Recovered from the fright, I calmed down. It was Causo.
It wasn’t really difficult to go around the trunk. I don’t even know why I did it crawling since I could stand, but there was a regnant sensation of danger. When I got to him, I saw a face full of scratches, a muddy ragged uniform.
“You know how much I had to crawl till I got to this trunk?” He asked me, with a genuine irritation in his voice.
“But we have just arrived.”
“Maybe you, I have been here for over an hour!”
“I hope everything was all right meanwhile,” I answered, embarrassed.
That was when I analyzed him more thoroughly. Besides the worn out uniform, he had a fusil. The most disturbing thing was to see him bare footed. His feet were dirty and scratched, his nails mucky. I thought about asking why, but I feared the answer.
“Flip-flops!” He said in an angry whisper.
“Flip-flops! You brought me here wearing sandals! SAN-DALS!”
Something became clearer in my mind.
“You told me a couple of months ago that buskins caused you chilblains…”
He didn’t answer. He limited himself to give me a killer look. His feet, besides scratched had red sore eruptions. Insect bites for sure.
“…The sandals are…”
He raised one of them, one of the strips was lose and torn. I guessed the other was lost in the jungle.
“And why did you crawl here? Why not wait where you were?”
“Because I only have five cartridges. It could be an AK105, or a FN Scar-L, or a FN 2000, modern weapons! But you brought me here with an old fashioned mosquefal! And a God-damned sling!”
He took the sling from his back pocket and threw it on me.
“I can’t face a contingent of smugglers, mercenaries, guerrillas… – who knows who the men following me through the woods were – with only five cartridges!’
I was mute, looking at him. What could I say? That after a long period when the fuckin’ quantic watch should have been repaired, nothing effective had been done? That the dangers faced in the previous interviews were still there as intense as before? I thought of guerrillas armed to the teeth, walking through the woods, maybe far from us, maybe near. I shivered.
“Where’s the bar?” Causo asked, full of reason.
“Dunno,” I moaned, bothered.
“Isn’t it From Bar to Bar? Where is the God-damned bar?” He asked again evidently unconsoled.
I pushed the buttons on my watch trying to abort the interview, but, obviously, they didn’t work. Why would they?
“You told me you don’t drink…”
“Not even orange juice? Nor lemonade? Sparkling water? Nothing?”
He shook his feet, trying to push away a cloud of gnats flying around them. I sat by his side, shoulder on shoulder. Complaining would do no good. It was better to get down to business. I cleared my throat, found a better position for my back against the trunk, deflected my legs and, taking a better look at the sling, I asked:
“Do you think the Brazilian genre literature market is mature enough to hold literary prizes?”
Causo scratched his nose, brought the mosquefal nearer, lightly caressing the hasp and closed his eyes for a moment.
“It’s not a matter of maturity,” he started. “It’s a matter of looking around, seeing what there is to be seen, recognizing the value of what there is to be recognized. A prize of the “Best of the year” type is like a big recognition patrol… It generates essential information so it’s possible to operate in the field of a theater of operations. It reveals who is acting, which individuals, which groups, in this field.”
He stopped, looked up streaky by the high foliage. He frowned.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“No, nothing I reckon…”
He stretched a little and looked towards the other side of the trunk. He scanned the surroundings, testing the backside.
“Prizes like that allow us to organize and make acting plans. They generate information. It might be some that doesn’t match the expectations, but information is information; and information is essential. It is high time a prize like this is created.”
He lowered the gun and crouched, hiding behind the trunk once more; he put his feet together and scratched them strongly. One of his toenails seemed to be lose.
“Are my feet going to stay like this once I’m back home?”
“Crap. They look like two chacres. My wife, Finisia, will make me sleep on the couch for three days or more.”
“The rhythm of releases shows an ebullient market. More quantity than quality? Or is there any balance?
“You’re in a hurry to finish, aren’t ye?”
“Of course I am. I can’t see balance yet. But probably there never was or never will be. The Sturgeon law rules in the jungle: “90% of all SF is crap; but on a second thought, 90% of everything is crap”. What matters now is that never had so many small editors accepted works and looked for authors as now. From this side of the market, I would say that…
Causo stopped once again. More alert this time. He seemed to smell the air. I tried to pay attention, capture something that he had, evidently, already noticed. I felt a vibration, light, mellifluous, almost unperceivable. Life in the forest shut up. Not a peep, nor buzz, no croaking or cicadas singing. Absolute silence. The intensity of the vibration didn’t change. We were still looking up. My eyes followed his even not knowing what was there to be seen, I was waiting for something. Soon the high trees of the jungle seemed to bend, as if something, really big, huge, was around and which strange emanation had a mysterious power over them. Causo sat. He was about to stand when a small explosion made fragments of wood fly all around. A second and a third one came next. A fourth went by buzzing and exploded in a fig trunk a dozen of meters ahead. He threw himself on the ground, frightened. I stayed there, holding tightly to the sling. Pushing the buttons on the watch with no result.
“The bastards!” He blustered, annoyed.
“I’d say,” he continued, to my most complete surprise, while holding the fusil, “that the market is really heated. On the tip of the side of the reader, maybe not that much. But each opportunity counts. Each author must make a stand in this battle, with quality work, more representative and less participative. The combatant must stay in action… Luckily, some will survive to see the final victory, in a near future.”
“Near future? Battle? Winner? Combatent? Dear God, you really embodied the exalted warrior spirit! Help!”
“We are at war. Hold your weapon soldier!”
I raised the sling, looking at it in perplexity. The bullets were still exploding against the trunk and fizzing over our heads. We heard command words being screamed somewhere far. They spoke in Spanish.
“It’s the FARC!” thundered Causo, while waiting for an opportunity to stand and give his first shot. “Come on, ask the other questions. Or is it over?”
Who has the spirits to ask questions under a shower of bullets? I took a deep breath trying to control the trembling and the gagging.
“The mainstream X genre discussion has still got wind. Do you think there is a possibility of both genres developing together?”
“This is the big literary question for SF and fantasy in the 21st century. It is incredible that Generals Luiz Bras and Nelson de Oliveira have had so much strategical bravery in this conflict, but they dared to say that the mainstream should approach the SF to renew itself and avoid stagnation in its ranks. Before that all that was said was that SF needed to approach the mainstream to leave the barricades of the gueto, to mature as literature. What is funny is that I, who was called the Guardian of the Gates of the Gueto by many people, was already foraying out of its bounds for some time. I won mainstream competitions such as the Festival Universitário de Literatura and the Projeto Nascente, and appeared in the mainstream Cult and Rascunho publications. I never needed to change the characteristics of my fiction for that. So this battle is complex, challenging, but the discussion put forward by Bras and Oliveira is more than welcome… it was also high time it was brought up, even considering the fact that it was launched by mainstream people like them is absolutely extraordinary. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, from the alliance between mainstream and SF, something little recognizable for those who know science fiction and have worked with it for some time emerged. In this alliance, the mainstream will always have more power.”
He seemed to finish. He was there holding to his fusil, looking at me. His look was of great determination. Genuine hatred was in his eyes – but not against me – that gave me the creeps.
“They stopped shooting. It’s our chance to show we’re not helpless. If we fire together one after the other, they’ll think we are many,” he explained. “They’ll be more careful.”
I tried to warn him he only had five cartridges and that I had a sling, but nothing seemed to divert him. He put himself on his knees, on a shooting position. He searched for any motion that could give our enemies’ position away. He urged me once more to get ready. I did what he said. What use was it to complain? He wanted to get us both killed. I searched the ground for a stone. I took a heavy round one. I placed it and pushed the surgery rubber to its maximum elasticity.
“Ready,” I said in panic.
“Shoot first. This might give their position away. Then I’ll shoot next as soon as one of them moves.”
I shot, seeing the stone fly in a perfect arch. Soon later, it opened up, stopped in the middle of its trajectory and went up, flipping its wings in a frenzied rythim. We stayed there in astonishment, while the beetle flew up.
A new volley of shots was made against us. Causo pulled the trigger on the mosquefal. Pure reflex. He shot without aiming or a target. One lost cartridge. We threw ourselves behind the trunk. I was hopeless, he was furious.
“Fuck!” He said through gritted teeth, while he was driving the hast, pulling the case away and arming the fusil once more.
“If I get shot, maybe I’ll stay six or seven days sleeping on the couch.”
“They’ll catch us,” I said. We could clearly hear the hurried steps coming towards us.
“They will. But I’m taking some with me. Oh yeah, I am.”
Then the vibration increased. It was sudden and surprised us. A dark oblong mass as a long cigar went above the trees, making them shake frantically. I was astonished. Causo, exultant. The ground was shaking. The men running towards us stopped and yelled at each other in alarm.
“Utopia, dystopia…” I murmured. “Who are you? A preacher of utopias or dystopias?”
“The cavalry has arrived, Tibor. We’re safe!”
“Nor dystopias or utopias,” said he, “I don’t have a literary program I wish to impose. I’m not a preacher. I’m an infantry soldier trying to survive in this jungle. There are leaderships I oppose to in this fight. But I don’t question their right to be leaders. I don’t mean to depose or replace them. It is a jungle of literary politics of the most basic and violent ones, and most of the coreligionists and soldiers in action do not even admit they’re participating on a political dispute. They are just friends chatting in a pub… But actually, the dispute for a place in the publishers’ programming, for the right to nominate, include and exclude, dictate what has or has no literary value is at stake. And they frequently use a very circumstantial ruler. What matters the most for them is the power to aggregate or ostracize. That’s why they come to you and say you have transgressed the disciplinary regulations, when mentioning he-who-must-not-be-named. People who have said fandom is bullshit for ten years and now fight to create their own domain inside of it. I content in opposing alone, hoping that one or another realize how things are and take a position with any conscience of what is doing. In this war, I am no more than a sniper.’
The yelling afar were of horror. “Madre de Dios”, someone screamed, before letting a guttural roar. I took the fusil from Causo’s hands, ready, for the first time, for fight. Something really bad was coming.
“No!” He told me. “In this specific case, utopia, Tibor.”
“No way,” I interposed. “Dystopia.”
“First contact. Alien race. Utopia!”
“First contact. Alien race! Dystopia!”
We were digladiating, the fusil going from one hand to the other, when a bunch of smelly goo fell on us. We looked up and saw something big and strange, full of tentacles, laboring protuberances and concavities from where some pestilent goo oozed. Causo left the fusil on my hands, stood up on a leap, threw his sandal aside and started running yelling “dystopia” from the top of his lungs.
The buttons of the watch only unlocked when we were both evolved by tentacles, about to turn into flesh and bones spread.
Causo hasn’t told me until now whether his feet are ok or not, nor if he had to sleep at least one night on the couch. He won’t answer my e-mails and common friends say that he is not willing to see me, not even painted in gold. This quantic watch of mine will still put me into heap big trouble.