This interview follows an earlier one with Liza Groen Trombi and Mark R. Kelly.
There’s nothing more depressing than seeing your universes being expanded, one after the other, and being alternated between them without a chance to rest. The experience with Liza and Mark had been scary enough, and there was nothing I wanted more than a few days off. Falling on a pile of wooden boxes and seeing them break under my weight was unpleasant. Well, at least it was better than a high-altitude free fall with no chance of survival.
When my balance was restored, I paid more attention to the scene around me. I realized in surprise that some men were pointing guns at me. All of them looked shocked, alternating glances between me and the ceiling, wondering where I had come from.
I tried to get up but two of them stepped forward, pushed me with their feet and forced me to lie down, resigned. The last thing I wanted was to get shot. My head was spinning and I didn’t know where I was or with whom I was going to meet.
The quantic watch on my wrist was nothing more than an accessory.
Two individuals with shoulder epaulets arrived, probably officers. They pulled me up and searched me. Apparently satisfied – since I carried no weapons – they released me, allowing me to breathe easier.
“Who are you?” Asked the man whose epaulettes exhibited a fluorescent blue color.
I gulped and took a quick look at the place. It was a gigantic hangar. The arched ceiling climbed at least three hundred feet up and the closest wall wasn’t less than a thousand feet away. The whole place seemed to be taken up by forklifts, metal and wooden boxes of various sizes, and people: a lot of people working.
For a while I lost myself trying to remember who I really was.
“Tibor Moricz,” I said after a moment.
“Where do you come from?” The second question was quick as a shot. They looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and caution.
“From SkyHolm,” I answered without hesitation.
They looked at each other, startled. Two men positioned themselves next to me and, holding my arms, led me through corridors that were sometimes narrow, sometimes wide. I had a good view of the place: the blocks full of boxes, the large objects that didn’t fit in a box and were covered by wide blankets.I also saw sad men, heads down, defeated expressions, working hard.
We went through an automatic door and left the hangar. I was soon left alone in a room with a table and four chairs. I was still picking a chair to sit on when the door opened again and another officer, one with red phosphorescent epaulettes, entered the room.
“SkyHolm, you said …” began the man, as he pulled up a chair and sat down. I did the same.
“Yes,” I answered.
“As far as we know, SkyHolm was destroyed two hundred years ago by a group of saboteurs. There are records of a certain Tibor Moricz, as well as a Roberto de Sousa Causo, a Christopher Kastensmidt and a Luis Filipe Silva among those men. You claim to be Tibor Moricz, right?”
I stared at him in obvious astonishment. Two hundred years, he said? Two hundred years have gone by? I was livid when I realized it had been that long since I last peed.
“Yes, I am Tibor Moricz. But I ain’t no saboteur. I’m just an interviewer.”
“SkyHolm was one of the enemies of the Matsushita conglomerate, which is still the conglomerate that protects us. Power usually moves from hand to hand easily but Matsushita has lingered at the top since then, without bowing to political tensions.”
Those were comforting words. Despite being considered a potential saboteur, I was not an enemy.
“How did you end up here?” The man asked as he thumbed through some seemingly old reports.
I was about to explain everything about the quantic watch, the several parallel realities, the alternate universes, about travelling through all of them searching for the interviewees, and about the From Bar to Bar website, when he interrupted me.
“Oh, yes. Parallel realities, alternate universes, a quantic watch. Curious. A very sui generis way of travelling, isn’t it? It explains why you aren’t old,” he dropped the reports, closed them and looked at me, “or dead. The boss will want to meet you.”
“The boss? Who’s the Boss?” I was worried, since the last boss who wanted to meet me also wanted to kill me.
It was a stupid joke, I know. And completely out of place. The officer looked at me like as if I was an imbecile and shrugged. He got up and motioned me to follow him. I followed him for several corridors, we walked up steep, narrow stairs; we passed through rooms full of people and trash. That place seemed like a huge deposit. After what seemed a long time crossing that maze, we reached a small room, which was dusty and full of papers. Behind a desk as messy as the room around itwas the big boss. Apparently a simple man, hidden behind round glasses, with a tired look on his face. I sat before him while the officer with the red epaulettes left without a word. The man before me removed his glasses.
“Resting glasses. One gets tired easily here. I also have great eye drops to moisten your eyes. Lots of dust, cobwebs and dirt. I’ve thought of ventilating the place, but it would be unrecognizable. When I want luxury, I go to one of the Martian colonies. Women, drinks and fun. It’s everything a wealthy man needs.”
I listened to him in silence. He studied me for a moment, looked at my outfit – a gift from Jeff VanderMeer – and put the glasses back on.
“That outfit is very outdated. You know who I am, don’t you?” He changed the course of the conversation.
“Al,” I answered.
“Al … Who?”
I made a huge effort. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I knew the answer was within me. I was there for an interview … Who was I going to interview? Who?
“Alastair Reynolds,” I said all of a sudden. His name popped into my mind as if someone had just placed it there.
“And now, do you know where you are?”
“In a room,” I swear that was the only thing I was able say. I couldn’t think of any other answer.
Big Al moved away from his desk a little and pressed a button on the wall. It was amazing. What was initially a narrow and dirty room began to widen. Its walls, apparently retractable, began to move away, the roof to expand, and translucent panels were opened, revealing outer space. The desk plunged into the ground, replaced by a command panel. The taciturn man who was talking to me became a sort of space hero in an amazing outfit, weapons hanging from his shoulders and a dangerous look that worried me.
“Hey, isn’t that National Kid’s uniform you are wearing?” I asked perplexed.
“You don’t know what a little power is capable of,” he said. His eyes gleamed with satisfaction. The mask on his face, the cape on his back, a fancy belt, the costume displaying a red giant “N”… An indecently appealing old-fashioned display.
Big Al opened his arms as if he was about to fly across the room and then sat down. He looked like a boy.
I thought I’d better take a look outside. The panel allowed an exuberant view of what looked like a giant canyon surrounding us. There were still launchers, rockets, spaceships of different shapes, oblong, circular, flat … Some of them were so big they rivaled the nearby hills. Some of the distant hills seemed to smoke.
“What is this place?” I asked, appalled.
“Io. We are at the south pole of the Jupiter’s moon, hidden in a mountain range.”
“We’re a huge deposit. There is nothing that has been manufactured on this side of the galaxy that we don’t have at least a few copies. The market is intense and we have customers spread all over the Milky Way. If we are here it’s because our activities are not welcomed by some conglomerates. You know… Some of the artifacts we possess have neither been bought nor found.”
“Are you pirates?”
“’Merchants’ is a better word. But whenever we want something really bad, we get it. No matter how.”
“Smugglers,” I figured.
“Nothing against this activity, right?” Big Al asked me that question while two armed men entered the room and stood beside me, hands on the butts of their guns.
I felt intimidated by their presence.
“We know that everywhere you’ve been, there was trouble. People died, facilities were destroyed … Your presence is not exactly a good omen. Therefore, if any weird things happen during our conversation, these men have orders to shoot.”
“At me?” I asked scared.
“No! At me, you fool!
Just as his name popped into my mind as the one to be interviewed this time, the questions popped up as easily.
“One of the most important characteristics of your work, especially in the Revelation Space universe, is your loyalty to the laws of physics (e.g., keeping interstellar travel within the limit of the speed of light). Your readers usually relate that to your background as a scientist. In your opinion, does the fact that you worked for such a long time as a scientist make you a better SF writer? Why?”
“Not in the slightest, although I do think that it’s made me slightly more marketable, from a promotional standpoint. Obviously I enjoy SF that plays with scientific ideas in an imaginative and original fashion, but you absolutely don’t need a scientific background to be able to do that. You just need to be interested in science, which I think is a completely different thing, and an option for anyone.
That said, I suppose that I’ve seen the scientific process at work from the inside, so to speak, and I know the way scientists think and interact. But that kind of thing has only ever formed a small strand to my fiction, I think.”
I listened to his answer, watching him move his head as he spoke, the extension on the helmet swinging.
“The Revelation Space books mention the Dawn War, an important event that took place early in the history of the Galaxy. Do you have any plans for a novel or trilogy specifically about the Dawn War? Such a trilogy would make the “galactic history” complete, wouldn’t it?”
Big Al frowned and rubbed his eyes under the mask before answering.
“I wouldn’t be interested in writing it, since there wouldn’t be humans involved. The point, in a sense, is that it’s something I can be purposefully vague and mysterious about, because it happened millions and billions of years ago. Having to nail down the facts about it would be totally against the spirit of inventing it in the first place. Anyway, I’m not really interested in completeness,on any level. I’m definitely not the go-to guy for that!”
I was getting ready for the third question when a quake shook the base. Some rocks rolled down the mountain slopes. Big Al and his men were alarmed. One of them drew his pistol and pointed it at my head. I held my breath. Once the quake stopped, they calmed down.
“Did you use to get any kind of feedback from your fellow scientists? Do scientists who work in important institutions like CERN respect SF as literature? Are they interested in SF at all?”
“Does this tremor have anything to do with you? Does it?” Big Al asked.
“I know nothing about earthquakes. I know nothing about any kind of quakes.”
“You’d better be telling the truth. I’d hate to be forced to take drastic measures.”
Big Al frowned again and cleared his throat.
“Don’t know about CERN as I’ve never been there. It’s one of those odd factoids that seems to have taken on a life of its own, even though I never worked for or at CERN! I’ve also read that I used to work in Norway, which was news to me. My experience with scientists and SF has been pretty positive, though. Most of my colleagues were supportive of my writing, even to the point of structuring my workload so that I didn’t have to do a lot of midweek business trips. I’ve encountered the occasional negative reaction to SF, but not to me or my work specifically. On the plus side, being an SF writer has opened some amazing doors, getting me a chance to meet space shuttle crews and so on. That’s been amazingly rewarding, especially when career astronauts tell me they read my stuff. But it’s also getting opportunities to hang out at bioscience conferences, stuff I’d never get to do as a working astronomer.”
I looked at my quantic watch and its immobility exasperated me. The hands were stopped, the quantum revolutions which indicated present time, estimated time and no-time were inoperative since the interview with Ekaterina Sedia. Being at the will of luck and some unknown mechanism that threw me from one place to another was terrifying.
The ground shook again. This time with more intensity, followed by a thunder. I heard the walls crack. The guns were drawn and pointed at me. Big Al rose from his chair and looked outside just in time to see a huge shadow starting to cover the hemisphere.
“What is it?” What is it?” He shouted.
Fearing for the worst, I shrunk down in my chair. In a clumsy attempt to save my life, I risked an argument.
“The interview doesn’t end until I ask you all the questions. There are forces far greater than the ones we know that will prevent interviewee and interviewer to either split or harm each other!”
Big Al looked at me angrily. Then he looked outside again. An internal communication system cracked with a hoarse voice: someone who seemed to have just woken up.
“A combat cruiser from the Mittal-Arcelor conglomerate hangs over our heads. Eight-hundred and forty-five cannons pointed in our direction.”
I couldn’t help thinking that the Venusian Incas were attacking us.
“How many left?” He asked me.
“Ask the next one.”
“Let me ask you a hard and imaginative question. It is quite possible that you think some of the most famous universes in SF are poorly built. If you could change one of them, at your choice, which one would it be and what would you change in it?”
“That’s an excellent question. Most TV and film universes contain so many contradictions and daft premises that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin fixing them. I’d probably get rid of all humanoid aliens, for a start – I just don’t believe in them. That takes care of the Star Trek universe, and while we’re at it I don’t believe in the transporters either – at least not as they’re portrayed. Maybe as a means of ship to ship transportation, or for beaming down to a receiving station, but not for just beaming down anywhere, even to a previously unexplored planet. In terms of fictional SF, I’d take all the psi-power stuff out of Larry Niven’s Known Space, as it’s clearly bollocks. But, to be fair, it was very much in vogue at the time the books and stories were written. And, doubtless, I’ve written my share of stuff that will seem similarly bollocks in forty years. If I’m lucky… Ask the next one!”
I felt that my time was up, but I needed to ask the last question. The men next to me were still pointing the guns at me, sharing their attention between me and the warship that hung over our heads.
“Is it necessary that SF take itself so seriously? Or are approaches like Douglas Adams’s welcome?”
At that time, Mel Brooks’ image came to my mind. Big Al, dressed in that bizarre National Kid’s costume reminded me of him and his hilarious movies. I feared he would understand the question as a joke about him.
I wasn’t wrong.
“Kill him,” he told the soldiers.
I didn’t even have time to breathe. I shoved back the chair, taking advantage of its wheels. The shots were simultaneous and missed me. Leaning on the arms of the chair, I threw both my feet up, precisely hitting each of the men’s chins. They groaned, buckled and fell onto Big Al’s desk, who by this time was heading to the exit door, looking for shelter.
I could not let him escape, after all he still owed me one answer.
I chased the silver caped man through the halls. The tremors occurred again and this time, were followed by explosions. It didn’t seem that the Venusian Incas intended to leave survivors. I even reached him twice, but the cape slipped through my fingers. I asked him to answer me the last question, but, to my amazement, he laughed and shouted “Awika” while running ahead of me.
“He’s gone mad”, I thought, worried.
I believed to have lost him when suddenly, at the end of a corridor, he stopped and, as I approached him, grabbed me and pulled us both into on a pneumatic tube. With the flip of a trigger he launched us into a vertiginous tunnel that snaked through unknown places. At the end, we were dumped in a small and somewhat uncomfortable control room. Before I could recover, I saw Big Al already standing and pointing a scary gun at me: four barrels of at least three inches each. A laser sight scratched the tip of my chin.
“I’ll tear your head off,” he said while triggering commands on an electronic board.
“Where are we?” I asked, trying to buy time.
“Escape ship. It’ ll go about three hundred kilometers below the surface and then be launched by catapult out of the moon. Six seconds later the ship will reach hyperspace. A safe and unexpected escape.”
By the chatter of the ship, I suspected that we were already on our way.
“These three hundred kilometers… how long will it take?”
“Twenty-four seconds. Stand up!
He seemed to have changed his mind about killing me. I thought that the gun would rip my head off, but it would also open a huge hole in the hull. I got up slowly, analyzing all of my possibilities. They were very few, I must admit.
“Up against the wall!”
When I touched the wall, I was surprised. A pod much like those deployed in the huge cargo ship that was commanded by Charles Stross clasped me. Hermetically sealed, I barely had space for small movements.
“Killing you would be silly, I prefer to give you a lesson. You’ll have a long time before dying of suffocation, thinking about how dangerous and irresponsible you are.”
The ship jolted harder. Big Al caught himself as he could, leaving the weapon aside. He didn’t need it any longer. The next few seconds were tense. He was watching the clock, I was warning him that he hadn’t answered the last question.
“Hyperspace!” He said with a huge smile. “I’ll throw you off the ship. You will be lost in such a way that no quantic toy will be able to locate you. Hopefully you will reenter in a sun. Quick and painless death.”
“The final answer!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“I’m a massive Hitch Hiker’s fan, but that’s probably all the funny SF I need in my life. Actually I don’t read a lot of comedic fiction in any genre. I’d rather watch some funny television, then curl up with a really miserable, depressing novel.”
Then he pressed a button and, before I fainted, I heard “Awika” once again.
The sequence to this exciting adventure is coming soon.
Daniel Borba, Delfin and Christopher Kastensmidh collaborated with this interview.