Novel Cities

Each morning, a guide led Antonia by a different route. Or perhaps what they said was true, and the path was always the same, but the city transmuted itself nightly as she slept.
The blood-red cities of the jirt were advanced artifacts. Antonia had been told that if she walked determinedly in any direction, the city must hurry to shift substance into her path, to solidify details left vague and create the vista around corners.
She imagined rooms in these buildings, with their uncertain bookshelves, private libraries of nothing yet, with coins still to be lost down the backs of chairs, a framed photograph, blurred with inattention becoming history as she watched: Love, Frank. SS Bombay, 1943.
The city played an unending game with its inhabitants, constantly maneuvering perspectives and realities around them, a sophisticated technology devoted to imitating the real. 
This time her guide was a young girl, dressed in a mud-hemmed pelisse, who led her out into soiled streets filled with smoke from countless chimneys. Crossing the bridge, she peered over the parapet. There was fog down the river, drowning the masts of ships; fog up the river, blanketing the rooftops of Parliament; fog on the brown waters below, like a mirror that needed to be wiped.
The girl wordlessly took her hand as they shrank past wavering drunkards, past homeless families still asleep in doorways. More than once, some voice from a knot of brawling figures called, “Let the woman and the child pass.” And so, by and by, they arrived at the Marshalsea.
She was to give two lectures, the first on the staging of Macbeth. Her own students favored the play because of its violence and brevity. Even the best of them believed Macbeth deserved to win his gamble for power, and that it was a tragedy because of his failure. 
Here in this cavernous room with its dark, looming furniture and flaring gas jets, her hosts listened attentively. Even with the doors and windows open, the city’s incessant confusion of shouts and iron-rimmed wheels was silenced and the air unsullied by smoke. A small magic. Was this the sort of technology her government wished her to spy out? 
The jirt had never invited human leaders or their scientists; they had nothing to learn from them and no wish to teach. Her listeners appeared in a range of human and near-human guises. Impressively, there was a grey-haired and dignified Casaubon, whose hollow-eyed gaze reminded her of a portrait of Locke. Others, such as an anonymous dog-like youth, seemed more careless creations. 
Casaubon rose to his feet. They all wore white linen suits, like underconsuls in some Graham Greene story. In convoluted sentences, he explained they have already heard much of the novel. That it was a concept difficult for them to comprehend, a narrative that must be internalized by the user. Curious. But they understood a play was different, that the text was enacted. They wished to know more. He glanced round, full of self-importance.
Antonia had thought long about the delicate relationship between speaker and listener. It depended on shared assumptions, and she knew almost nothing of these creatures. In the magnolia blandness of her hotel room was an official file summarizing what was known about the jirt. A slim volume. 
The jirt had requested examples of humankind’s literature and experts to explain it, and by and large, governments had fallen over themselves to comply. In conversation, the jirt displayed an encyclopedic knowledge that had been daunting. Now she was more dismissive. Deep versed in books, shallow in themselves. A feat they achieved by some unseen intimacy with computers perhaps. 
Afterwards there were few questions, and she was left with an impression of communal disappointment.
There was food and drink in a high dim room. She wandered through the conversations with a glass of yellow champagne. Here, a scrawny youth with lank hair claimed to be Steerpike. What were the jirt really like, someone asked. He shrugged lugubriously, a doleful caricature of a face. Like this now. Like something else tomorrow. A race so ancient they had forgotten.
Casaubon was loudly discussing Dickens’ London. Antonia found herself next to dogface, whose protruding snout so mangled his speech, she failed to catch his name, not once, but twice. She could not bring herself to ask again.

"So, this is Dorrit?" She gestured towards the mud and fog, the implacable November weather.
He nodded and lolled his tongue in response to her own encouraging smile.
"Nov’l cities, yesss."
She declared she did not like Dickens and his silly names. She caught his expression and faltered. Her views were unfashionable, she confessed, and the Victorians not her specialty. 
It seemed there was a misunderstanding. Dogface only wanted to know how well their city matched the London described by Dickens.
“Surely,” she said, “you don’t make these efforts for our amusement?” 
Close up, he even had eyes like a dog, the yellowish sclerotia, a narrow circle of brown iris, huge pupils. She didn't ask this for the benefit of the thin file, to be reported back to those who ruled, but because such things mattered to her. 
He showed his teeth. More than words and stories, better to make something real than to pretend like humans do.
"Yet you study what we write."
"Al’ays looking, yesss."
Her other lecture was on Faustus. Not the ponderous German, but Marlowe’s flawed gem. Her audience seemed to have grown since the morning, joined by other fictional characters.
A stir of interest as a portly Oscar Wilde rose to question her at the end. He ticked off the points on his fingers, essay notes by a mediocre student. She assumed a polite defensive smile, already penning in a C grade.
She had few dealings with children, except for a precocious niece. She recalled being questioned on the merits of truth and falsehood by this small grave child, and it all being spoiled afterwards by the child asking her Aunt Antonia how high the sky was.
She had expected the jirt to be brighter than this, so she replied carefully, reluctant to expose the ignorance of her questioner, finding herself suppressing an irrational dislike of this pedant. Later she heard a rumor that tomorrow’s lectures were cancelled, that all lectures were cancelled. Possibly there was only one night left to her, then. 
The moment she dreaded had come. Triggering the secret compartment in her suitcase, she already felt foolish, playing a spinsterish academic in a bad thriller; more concerned with what her peers might say about this grubby deception than being caught. 
The device was quarto sized, flat, and cased in smooth grey plastic. What it did was a mystery, though she imagined she could hear it hum. A patient scientist from the government team had explained. The jirt cities appeared blood-red because light leaving them was shifted into the red. Related to a spatial anomaly: the cities were larger inside than out. The man had patted her hand reassuringly; she need only carry the instrument to the city's edge and back again.
The jirt cautioned them about walking at night without a guide. She waited until midnight before slipping out onto wide deserted streets. And it was not just the muffling dark which made the city indistinct; around her, the buildings loomed vague and lifeless, as stylized as stage flats.
The device quickly grew cumbersome, and her heart knocked at her rib cage. Perhaps she had been climbing a gradient unnoticed in the dark. She stumbled, and at that moment glimpsed something onrushing, a juggernaut bearing down on her, too fast even to cry out. It flapped through her like a great dark wing; the city, transforming and transmuting itself for the next day, had touched her also.
"What am I doing here?" she asked herself dizzily. Except this self stood at her elbow. It also held a grey case awkwardly under one arm.
"Didn’t Faustus sell his soul for nothing? For just a peek at Helen?" The voice was hers, the same patient, lecturing rhetoric, but she hardly knew whose mouth it was that spoke. 
"He asks Mephistopheles who made the world and receives no satisfaction. We should have turned our backs on them."
The grey case fell from their mutual grasp, too enormous to hold.
"What could that toy have learned? Nothing that is not a bad bargain."
It was the sort of conversation experienced in vivid dreams, filled with chaotic events accepted with fatalism because our sense of self is diminished.
"These jirt cities are the page they write upon. And old, so old," she sang. 
"No man knows through what wild centuries the blood-red cities rose." 
Her doppelganger looked suddenly mad, suddenly afraid. "And always looking for something new."
It was her own witches’ scene, and now she no longer believed in it, melted like a breath in the wind.
When a guide came to collect her next morning, she waited for something to be said, for some punitive action to be taken. There was the heavy growl of traffic on the boulevards, the air already dull and tired. Perhaps there would be rain later as she was driven in the black Plymouth. Traffic cops in shining slickers would watch as they passed with a tearing hiss and a wave of dirty spray, up towards the mansions in Beverly Hills, where she would nurse her guilt and nothing would be said.
Los Angeles before Pearl Harbor. Not Scott Fitzgerald, but she could not place it.
"The 'ig Sleep," growled Dogface. 
Had a computer search simply found Phillip Marlow next to the author of Faustus? Dogface asked if she recognized Chandler's descriptions in their realization of the city.
It was all too much for her. Instead, she inquired lightly who Dogface was supposed to be. It didn’t matter much, but it was loose end, a quotation still to be tracked down.
"I mean, what character do you play?" she prompted, though they have never failed to comprehend English, idiomatic or otherwise.
"No part."
"But the others, they play these silly games," she persisted.
What was obvious to her in the fictions of the dead was obscure in real life. What hubris on her part to cast Dogface as a servant to be patronized for gossip. Never a dog. His eyes smoldered like a wolf. An ancient proud race, artists.
Later, they were led through drab, grimy streets to a building that smelled of boiled cabbage, where the clocks were striking thirteen. The giant telescreens repeated the same speech like the blink of a cursor. The assembled scholars were being laid off, like laborers replaced by shining machines. They had seen the future and it did not include them. 
Their literature was primitive, a face with big black mustaches insisted on telling them. Monkey assumptions, monkey mores. Parochial and incestuous. Some doubted it was art at all. It remained to be seen how useful it might be.
On the flight home, chasing the dawn, she brooded on the way Marlowe and Shakespeare needed their sources, base metal to transmute into gold. And if there seemed no new ideas after a lifetime, after a thousand lifetimes, why then, artists traveled abroad. The primitive had been in fashion before. Perhaps she was the first to understand the disjointed and contradictory news trickling in from a dazed world.
Martian cylinders were reported falling in flames across Hampshire and Surrey; through the smoke of battle, Count Nikoly Rostov searched for his Tsar with a message he could not deliver; the swift son of Pelias whipped his triumphant chariot across the plain of Ilium. 
And as the distant jet trailed way into the morning light, a great white whale surfaced unseen in the empty ocean. A polar wind blew and birds of prey hovered over it.


Novel Cities, fiction, Issue 28, December 1, 2014

Morte d'Arthur, poem, Issue 30, June 1, 2015

David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. He used to be a scientist, though he is retired now and writing. His poems have appeared in Strange HorizonsStar LineAbyss & ApexOutposts of BeyondKaleidotrope and Bête Noire. He is a puzzle to his friends. 

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