This interview follows an earlier one with Charles Stross.
I clung with one hand to the edge of the parapet, trying to lift myself up while Jeff pulled me.There was a clear sign of urgency in his eyes, which divided his attention between me and something else that was taking place several feet below us.
I heard an intense rattling, noises of something collapsing, metal popping, hums and distant sirens. In a final effort, I let myself fall on the roof, breathing hard. Jeff wore a kind of rubber suit or something. His whole body was covered, his head protected by a high tech helmet leaving only his face visible. He carried a kind of three-barrel rifle on his back, slightly diaphanous, as if it was made of a synthetic or mineral translucent material.
In addition to the fatigue that made my body hurt, a deep disturbance wrecked my nerves. For the third time I migrated straight for the next interview, without the needed rest.
I sighed and tried to stand up.
“Be careful when getting up. There are Soulhunters looking for me.They saw me getting into this building.”
I frowned. I licked my lips and got on my knees.
“Soulhunters …” I muttered, feeling a little dizzy. I touched the ground, looking for support.
“Those mechatronic hunters are hard to fool. You chose a remote location for the meeting. We should’ve chosen a less visible area.”
“We arranged this meeting?” I was amazed. “I don’t remember anything…”
“You sent me a message eighteen hours ago indicating these coordinates as the meeting point. I left my hiding place before dawn and walked through the city of rubbish to get here. If you didn’t do this, who did?”
I felt a bitter taste in my mouth. A feeling of being manipulated, moved by invisible strings, a plaything in the hands of a skilled puppeteer.
“I don’t know.”
Jeff shrugged. He helped me up and led me behind a wall full of holes. He pushed me against it and reached for a black chip the size of a matchbox inside his pocket. Self-adhesive, it was firmly stuck on my chest.
“I shouldn’t have come here without protection. What you did was madness,” he said, taking a gadget with a luminous screen and colored buttons from a side pocket. He pointed the gadget at me and a yellow-greenish light burst from it, fully involving me.
I was taken by a wave of intense heat. The chip on my chest emitted a bright glow and then the transformation began. To my utter astonishment, it stretched over me like a second skin, forming bumps and scales, covering me completely. Within seconds only my face was exposed. My head was protected by a helmet. Jeff and I matched, both covered by a black and opaque second skin.
“This is … Incredible!” I said after a moment of perplexity.
“We’d better get out of here. We are not safe.”
I glanced at the horizon. Black coils of smoke rose into the sky like huge columns. I closed my eyes for a few seconds. I thought about the rocky planet I’d been on, the space freighter and the words of Charles Stross …“The earth no longer exists, destroyed in a war between corporations.”
“A war has destroyed the Earth,” I muttered in awe.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“This isn’t another alternative reality. I’m living the same reality from the last interview.” This was a rhetorical phrase. I was talking to myself. I was finding things out.
“And you caught me,” I cried. “Was I here before leaving the rocky planet? Why did I fall? How did we run into each other? How come you were able to reach out and save me?”
“I just came here, as agreed. I heard a scream. I saw you flailing in the air, about to fall. I rushed towards you and grabbed your arm. This is all I know.”
My eyes were lost. They saw everything and saw nothing. I tried desperately to create a bond between the final moments with Charles Stross and the initial moments with Jeff VanderMeer. There was a jump of parsecs in nano seconds. Too impossible to believe in the possibility. The quantic clock didn’t have that much power. Or did it?
Then I was rudely ripped from my thoughts.The building we were in shook harder. Cracks covered the floor, opening wide gaps in the concrete. The ledge where I had just been rescued shattered. Jeff took me by one arm and made me run toward one end of the building. I followed him to the edge of the parapet and stopped.The fall was over 100 feet high.
“Jump!” Jeff shouted, while the building seemed to fall apart under our feet.
“You’re crazy!” I shouted back in panic.
On the opposite side of the building, on the roof, there was a Soulhunter. It had just finished climbing the walls using prehensile highly adherent paws. It was an amazing device, a mech about four meters tall when in upright position.The body slightly resembled a humanoid shape. Articulated mechanical arms and legs, massive body with micro joints that allowed exact movements: forward, backwards, swivels up to 180 degrees. Metal cannulas were jumping here and there, from the arms and body. Pipes for firing missiles. At the end of the arms there were flamethrowers. The head was an isosceles trapezoid with two front tears that blazed a bluish light.
I identified the mechatronic hunter the moment I saw it. It was either some kind of implanted memory – things were happening so inexplicable that any possibility had to be considered – or special information that the suit transferred to me.The only thing I knew was that jumping was the only option. That’s what Jeff and I did.
The suit we wore made us either lighter or heavier, according to our needs. We landed without problems. Our feet touched the ground gently. Immediately, we began to run through the rubble, fleeing from our hunters.
Two minutes later we stopped and hid under a huge slab.There was a mountain of debris on it. We were not tired.
“350 Monsignor Dubois Street.East of town. In good speed, about twenty minutes away,” I said, leaning back on a wall.
“What’s that address?”Jeff asked me.
I felt terribly sick. I was disturbed again. What was the address? I knew what it was, but I didn’t know how I knew it.
“You’ll see when we get there,” I said in a whisper. I remembered the interview. I cleared my throat and asked him the first question.
“Is it difficult to concilate the fact of being a publisher, a writer and an editor of anthologies? In Brazil, many times, one of those activities would get you gradually excluded from the others by your own peers”
Jeff looked at me for a moment, confused. Then, he smiled.
“We may die, but the interview has to go on,” he said, nodding positively.
“That’s right,” I said.
“I am a shape-shifter by nature and it’s not unknown for me to become a giant bear named Mord. Exclusion by peers is the least of my worries—anyone who tries to peg someone as just one thing is actually limiting themselves. Concentrating on anything other than doing a diverse range of interesting project is a fool’s game and limiting. Sometimes I will be known as a giant bear, sometimes as a squid, sometimes as a meerkat, and sometimes as a mushroom. This too shall pass.”
I heard the answer without giving it much attention. My eyes and ears were alert to the perimeter. And there were Soulhunters approaching.
“Are you ready?” I asked, ready to run.
We left our hiding place under the slab and shot by bumpy tracks, skirting mounds, debris and mangled wreckage. We skipped obstacles, sliding slopes and climbing hills until we were intercepted by another Soulhunter. They spread across the ruined city in search for survivors and soldiers astray. They ruthlessly killed men, women and children.
A volley of bullets tore up the ground around us and made us jump sideways, rolling on the uneven ground. Jeff drew the weapon he was carrying and shot a single burst of light that hit the “chest” of the Soulhunter.He ripped a thick metal plate from it, leaving a handful of wires visible. He was about to shoot another, but had to dodge a gush of fire. The fiery mass burned the concrete turning it into lava. I heard Jeff yell scared and in pain.
I slipped through the wreckage, bypassing the mech, without seeing or knowing where Jeff was. A wall of fire separated me from his last position. I feared the worst. Taking advantage of the incredible agility and skill that the special outfit gave me, I jumped on the back of the mech, holding on to it as best as I could. One of my hands was stuck in the ocean of flashing wires that were exposed by the direct hit from Jeff.
I was still trying to pull them out while the mech was struggling, trying to get rid of me, when I heard Jeff yelling, asking me to protect myself.
So I did. I shrank on the back of the monster and felt it be shaken by a violent impact. A second shot opened a hole on its “chest”, almost crossing it (which might have been tragic for me). The beast shook and fell face down, abandoned, powerless, beaten, killed.
I left it, dumbfounded. I walked a few numb steps and then I saw Jeff overcoming the barrier of fire and coming towards me. His lips were opened in a wide smile. I looked at the Soulhunter again and identified a logo over a name. Manufacturing brand, certainly.
We look at each other, exhausted, and started running again.
“How has your experience with comic books been so far? How do you see the connection between science fiction in comics and in literature nowadays? And how does it feel being a judge to the “best of the year” most relevant award of the sequential art, the Eisner Awards?” I asked as we moved quickly by the desolate landscape.
“I grew up on Tintin, Asterix, and Indian comics versions of classics like the Ramayana, Jeff began, as he jumped over a partially torn sign of advertisement for Pepsi-Cola – Returning to comics and finding them better than the best movies sometimes has been wonderful, and I also have had fun doing comics scripts for things like my story The Situation (the story, not the comic, is actually being released in Brazil in March).”
We walked past a rusty old truck and and then suddenly halted, looking amazed at what lay before us. About two dozen Soulhunters marched, coming from all directions.
“It stretches me as a writer—any exposure to other forms of storytelling is good for you, and gives you more tools to use in your own work. I enjoyed being an Eisner judge—it made me read everything in comics for a year and made me appreciate the wide range of things being written,” he concluded as he looked for the best way to escape the siege.
“The street I’m looking for is close. Just two hundred meters … Past them. We need to get past them. Backing off is not an option.”
Then Jeff did something that surprised me. He pulled me close to him, held me by the arm and pressed a button on his suit. Soon we were in the center of a blue bubble. The Soulhunters seemed confused, unsure of where they should go.They stopped their march and hesitated while we were going through one by one, overtaking them with extreme caution.
He had triggered a bubble of invisibility, an additional item that was not available in my suit.
“I thought I would surprise you with this little accessory,” Jeff whispered in an almost inaudible voice.
So I’m not the only one with surprises today, I thought with satisfaction.
We passed the last barrier of mechatronic hunters with a feeling of victory. There were no more than eighty meters between us and the driveway to the address I was seeking. It was because of the certainty of impunity that we made our biggest mistake. We forgot all about caution and stepped on some loose stones, which rolled noisily and called attention of the last row of hunters. They turned towards us, saw the stones that were stilling rolling on the dusty ground and opened fire in all directions.
Our suits have an amazing capacity for protection, serving as a kind of bullet-proof vest to most of the existing missiles. At least for the time they would resist to the excessive stress caused by repeated impacts.The resulting embrittlement would make us exposed to any collision, even the most banal ones.
It was a hail of bullets that hit us from all sides. We were separated from each other. The bubble of invisibility was deactivated, revealing our positions. Even in great pain, we ran as fast as we could to the entry that was our goal. The hunters were right behind us, shooting repeatedly, hitting us many times.
We ran down the ramp of the garage harshly, zigzagging our way through the columns. The Soulhunters had some trouble getting in, but some of them, writhing and twisting, were able to do it. We stopped behind a column, took a deep breath trying to catch our breath.
“You implied in an interview that the Steampunk genre risked becoming stale due to the “copy of a copy” effect. In the past, when this trend began, in cyberpunk, it meant the genre was dying and in effect most authors stopped writing cyberpunk stories not long after (or eventually stopped calling their fiction “Cyberpunk”). Do you think that Steampunk is slowing turning into a corpse from the inside out, in the sense that’s being kept mostly alive by the force of the market – having become trendy – but in which no new literary ideas are happening?
Jeff leaned on his knees, ducked and heaved a deep sigh.He knew that the interview could not stop, no matter what.
“Everything once identified as a marketing term turns into a corpse, but there are two things to remember: sometimes a corpse provides good revenue and jobs for much stranger and more bizarre things, and all of the beetles and other creatures that feast on a corpse are fascinating in and of themselves…you have to understand, a dead body is not the worst thing in the world. Decay and decomposition and contamination are where the action is!”
“And the only thing we want right now is to turn into corpses, right?” I asked him.
“I don’t even wanna think of worms crawling on me,” Jeff chuckled. “What are you hiding here? Why did we come to this address?”
I looked back and saw one of the hunters trying to get rid of the columns that were on his way .Two others watched it quietly, just waiting for it to open space for everyone. I pointed out, then, a door on the wall ahead of us. Unfortunately, it was also visible to freaks who followed us.
“Let’s walk through it, go downstairs and then you’ll see.”
We went toward the door and tried to open it. It was locked. While we forced our way in, a volley of missiles turned the walls around us into crumbs, hitting us as well. I screamed in pain and bent forward as if I had been hit on my stomach instead of my back. Jeff pushed me aside, pointed the gun at the door and fired, causing it to disappear in a cloud of splinters and dust.
We ran inside and downstairs. We reached a wide chamber. On one of the walls, two niches had a huge surprise for us.
“State of the art exoskeletons. Virtually unbreakable protection against any known weapons. And it also shoots extremely destructive plasma pulses. That was my surprise,” I said with great satisfaction.
“Bubbles of invisibility and exoskeletons …I should’ve figured out it would happen this way.”
“If you do think that, can international literature (read: non-English) came to its aid? And will it ever be accepted by the English market (read: translated and published)?
I asked as I entered one of the exoskeletons. Jeff did the same.
We were quickly assimilated by the ingenious engineering of liquid metal. We were then cocooned within the powerful weapon of war. Besides our isolation, we could talk to each other, without any loss of contact.
We cocked our weapons, pointed to the ceiling and pulled the triggers almost simultaneously. A wide hole was opened where once there was a thick layer of concrete. The plasma turned the matter into smoke and ashes. We jumped out of the chamber, moving with lightning speed by the rugged environment of the garage. Two hunters stopped in front of us and were transformed into twisted metal in seconds.
We let out a scream of joy and great satisfaction.
“I don’t think it’s the function of international literature to rush to the aid of Steampunk. The job of “international” literature—a meaningless term considering you can find 10 to 20 traditions or more just in India alone—is to be true to itself and not to deform or change itself to fit an Anglo market. Its job is to be true to itself and to colonize the Anglos with its own unique brain bullets. That said, I think the current infusion of international and multicultural Steampunk is a very good thing that is keeping the corpse lively. Look! It’s leaping around right now! Almost as if it were resurrected!”
We went out into the light of day and came across dozens and dozens of Soulhunters. All of them were facing us. We unlocked our triggers, loaded the plasma cartridges and began shooting. We went forward without problems, liquefying them, dismantling them, causing them to explode into multiple pieces. We laughed out loud as we did that.
I forgot, in ecstasy, to press the button on the quantic watch (I didn’t even know whether or not it would work).
The destruction would’ve gone on forever if Jeff hadn’t been hit by something unknown. His exoskeleton was thrown several feet back, with one arm torn off. I looked up out of pure reflex and lost my breath.
A huge ship – a huge bubble or something – was floating hundreds of feet above our heads. Something big and frightening. Then a bright glow came from the ship, some kind of a ray. I was hit. Heat, pain and fear until I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, the first thing I saw on the vaulted ceiling of the room where I lay, was the strange logo I had seen on the Soulhunters.
The sequence to this exciting adventure is coming soon.
Luis Filipe Silva, Delfin and Christopher Kastensmidt collaborated with this interview