After two hundred years colonising earth, the Aleutians prepare to return to space, leaving behind humanity and an earth that have been shaped by their presence, their care, and their cruelty. In the dying days of Aleutian rule, Catherine has altered her body to appear more alien, and soaks herself in the decadence of their culture. Misha idolises the Aleutians, and begins a love affair with Catherine, both desperate to forget their humanity and embrace the alien. What will be left for the humans when the Aleutians leave? What will the Aleutians take with them from their time on earth? Could humanity have changed them as much as they changed it? Dark, violent, political and emotional, PHOENIX CAFÉ is the third book in Gwyneth Jones' critically acclaimed Aleutians Trilogy.
Release date: September 9, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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Far in the blurred distance, a jet of red tumbled from the fountain of life. As she became puzzled that the blood should still be liquid after so long she began to wake. The surface under her, a mixture of tackiness and unpleasant slither, struck cold as she moved. Drops of scarlet were gathering like raindrops on her fingertips now, and running off into the air. She was kneeling, arms outstretched, staring at the blood.
She woke: lying on a bed-with-legs, on a hygienically wrapped mattress, in her police cell. The wrapping, meant to swallow all her body’s minor effluent, had become fully charged several prisoners ago; it ate nothing now. Her blanket was shoved down onto the floor in the narrow space between the end of the bed and the wall. The cell was always chilly, but she’d decided she would rather get used to the cold than endure its slimy touch.
She had been working for the Aleutian Mission when she was arrested, helping converts to die their first death. The missionaries of the Church of Self, converts to the religion of the aliens, taught that human beings were no different flesh. Just like their immortal Aleutian rulers, humans were, each of them, eternal aspects of God, the WorldSelf: reborn time and again through lives without end. If only they would throw off the superstition of permanent death they would realise the glorious truth. In this city of Youro, the most resistant to Aleutian influence, the Mission had a small but enthusiastic following among the poor, and an uneasy tolerance from the rich. A steady stream of proselytes reached the moment when they felt compelled to reject their old ways in an ecstatic act of faith. Catherine had been assisting at a conversion ceremony that had run into trouble with the human authorities.
The arrest was illegal, she’d been committing no crime, but she’d been glad of the confrontation. The Mission needed publicity.
She’d been in the apartment’s dry-shower stall with the rich boy when the orthodoxy raiders arrived. The two of them had written on the wall, in huge dripping letters, in English: DONE BECAUSE WE ARE TOO MANY. He was fluent in several human languages, and a student of English literature. Many young people in the hives were like that: they had nothing to do, and the free grid was full of knowledge. Such a nice boy—rich only by comparison with the rest of the congregation, old-fashioned, gentle and serious. She would have liked to hold him back from salvation a little longer. But he knew what he wanted. He had been very earnest about it, eager and composed while the others were running wild. Then the orthodox humans had arrived. She remembered fire, confusion, a roar of foul energy rushing through the warm smell of blood. Someone, probably the building, must have called the police.
She took stock, once again, of her simple home.
The walls were covered in rows of glossy ceramic squares: light blue and white, alternately. Every third square was decorated with a bunch of dim pink roses tied in a ribbon. Catherine had counted the roses, and their leaves. She knew the gradation of wear and tear whereby the flowers near the ceiling were still clearly coloured, while those at human shoulder and hip height were almost obliterated. The floor was not tiled, but its bare grey concrete was perfectly in period. In one corner stood the covered waste bucket. Beside it, a powdered water washing unit and a smooth niche—a recent intrusion in the ancient wall covering—that held a drinking-water button. No other furniture. In the wall opposite her bed stood her front door: a handsome elderly slab of metal, ornately hinged, riveted and hatched.
Who would have guessed that a bleakly modern poor-ward police station had such hidden depths?
What would she do today? Count the tiles again. Think. Dream. Make up poetry. She might ask for art materials, but she wasn’t sure about that. She mustn’t be too comfortable. She sat up, swung her legs over the edge of the bed (it was made of tubular metal) and went over to breakfast at the water niche. She must drink. She gulped—the supply was generous—until her stomach rebelled. Her hands and arms were still streaked with dried blood, so were her clothes. She was refusing to wash because the blood was evidence. She leaned her forehead against the wall. This was by no means the first time in her lives that Catherine had embarked on a hunger strike in a prison cell, but she didn’t know how much a human body could take. Today, the fifth day, she felt weak. The inert slab of door opened, without warning.
“Come with me Miss,” sighed the policeman.
In the front office there was no one about but the duty sergeant. Obviously the place had been cleared of traffic. Catherine looked up and saw that the regulation camera light was dark.
“What’s going on?” She tugged her arm free from the gendarme’s kindly grip. “If you are at last going to charge me, I insist on it being on the record. I want a camera here.” Her head suddenly began to ache. She leaned on the desk, trying to make it look like an insolent gesture, and noticed the blood under her fingernails, a band of rust across the top of each nailbed. This was a pitiful sort of livespace, yet some obscure news agency might use her, and others might pick up on it. She imagined herself reproduced: a barefoot young woman with her long dark curly hair in a mess—unmistakably a young woman, the stained and dishevelled sexless clothes of the underclass shaped by her breasts, buttocks, waist. Would that be interesting material, in the machines’ reckoning? Interesting enough to be selected? The hallowed female flesh of the rich, exposed in public? She hoped so. The blood might help.
“There’ll be no charges. We’re sending you home.”
“No—? But that’s ridiculous! What about multiple murder?” She bit her lip. Nothing as ridiculous as a dissident begging to be locked up. She attempted sarcasm. “I didn’t know the Church of Self Mission had such powerful immunity. Can we make this official?”
“There’s a cab outside. We’ve called your guardian, so he knows you’re coming.”
Catherine recoiled. “Maitri? You shouldn’t have done that. I’m an adult.”
“Lord Maitri, yes. His lordship’s been very worried.”
The sergeant, who had been pretending to study the flat screen in his desk top, finally consented to meet her eyes. They were old acquaintances. All the police of this ward knew her, the young lady brought up by the aliens, who worked among the poorest of the poor. She heard in her mind the words he refused to speak. Oh Miss Catherine why? How can you help those poor people and get them to trust you, knowing you’re going to set them hacking each other to pieces? Do you know what it’s like for my men, having to clear up after one of your “conversion ceremonies”? It’s filthy work. You’re not one of them Mission people. How can you do it?
“I am ‘one of them’,” she said, as if he had spoken aloud. She summoned her resources. The light was out, but they couldn’t really stop the monitoring inside a police station, could they? Surely that was impossible. She must not miss this opportunity to serve the cause. “The conversion ceremony is neither murder nor suicide. It is a valid act of faith. If you people believe I’m doing wrong, then charge me, so I can make my case in public, as is my legal right.”
He didn’t answer. There was a sour smell, it seemed to be coming from Catherine’s clothes. It had a colour: dinge grey, like the ashes of burnt rubbish. It was the smell of the hives … The sergeant ought to hate her: Catherine’s people had stolen a world. Stolen it, played with it, broken it, thrown it on the dump—the waste heap where this city’s poor endured their hopeless lives. She lurched against the desk, longing for his violence, the consolation so long refused: punish me!
“D’you want breakfast before you go?” he asked. She can’t help it, he was telling himself, silently. Poor kid, it’s true. She’s quite insane.
“No thank you.”
“A cup of coffee?”
“No.” She made a last effort. “What about my rights? If I’m not to be charged, what about the orthodoxers? Get it straight. Either you charge me with murder, or assisting group suicide—which is not much of a felony. Or you admit that my converts and I were attacked in the peaceful expression of our difference. It was unprovoked gender violence. I want to make a complaint.”
“Go home, Miss Catherine,” said the sergeant wearily.
The other officer took her arm. She shook him off and walked away, with what dignity she could muster. Her head was spinning.
Out in the lobby there was still no one about—except for a ragged down-and-out hunched on the floor, who was passively resisting the efforts of a gendarme trying to move him on. The officer who’d brought Catherine up from the cells came out of the doorway after her, and was summoned to help. She heard a scuffle begin, decided it wasn’t her business and then, reluctantly, turned back. They’d given up and were standing irresolute, unwilling to use more force. They were not cruel people.
They looked at Catherine hopefully, a different relation restored. She’d often helped them with their difficult customers. She’d been brought up by the aliens, who were supposed to be telepathic. The police knew, because Catherine had told them, that she read subvocals and body language: she did not read minds. Yet she could often understand and make herself understood when all other approaches failed.
“It’s your uniforms,” she said. “I’d guess he’s just been discharged from a hospital or a work camp. Your uniforms mean security, they are comforting, that’s why he’s here.”
“Can you get her to tell you her name, Miss?”
That was strange. The poor were neuter to any casual appraisal. And why did they need a name? But she had learned to be patient with the bureaucracy of human kindness.
“I doubt it. But I’ll try.” She crouched on her heels. she offered, in the silent, universal, physical language Aleutians called “the Common Tongue”.
A pallid face stared upwards, completely without expression.
“Watch out, Miss. She’s got something alive. It might be dangerous.”
Catherine saw a second pair of eyes, round and bright. They belonged to something clutched tightly against the lost soul’s ragged breast. She saw a bright, scaled, snake-like head, a horny, hooked mouth that gaped, emitting a faint hiss. A red-gold ribbon of a tongue flickered. But the illusion of life was actually perfunctory.
“It’s only a toy.”
The hand and wrist that held the toy snake were wrapped in a strip of cloth. “She seems to be hurt,” said a concerned police voice, over Catherine’s shoulder. “We could at least change that nasty old dressing—”
But the girl suddenly came to life, flailing, and fell against Catherine. For a moment she felt, as the police must have felt, soft full breasts under the rags. Startled, she looked again at the lost soul’s curious pallor, the slender hands; the artfully delicate contours of the empty face—
Now Catherine was as uneasy as the police. The genuine young ladies of this city, “daughters” of the rich and powerful, were very well protected. One did not see them on the streets, not even with an armed escort. There must be a strange and maybe scandalous story behind this girl’s plight, if she was really what she seemed to be: Catherine shouldn’t get involved. She was on safe ground with the poor. She knew she mustn’t meddle with the rich.
She was ashamed of this worldly-wise reaction.
“How did you get into this state?” she demanded, aloud. “What happened to you?”
No response, not a trace.
She took hold of the injured arm. “They say I’m crazy,” she murmured. “I know I’m not, but I think you are. What does it take to drive a person truly mad, ma semblable, ma soeur? And have you escaped from it all? Or are you still suffering, wherever you are?”
The dressing was genuine native textile, material rarely seen among the poor. Cotton? Linen? Nylon? Maitri would know. It had been torn from a larger cloth, something elaborate and embroidered … Catherine glimpsed tragedy. A love-story (did young ladies fall in love? She didn’t know). A botched escape from the gilded prison, clumsily tended injury. And then what? Abandoned by her lover, driven insane by grief … She thought of the tiles in the police cell; Maitri would love to hear about them. He adored hunting down overlooked survivals of Old Earth, bygones that nobody valued, forgotten treasure.
The dressing came away. She saw what was underneath.
“Miss Catherine? I’ve some multitype skin here. Can you hold her still?”
“No,” said Catherine, quickly binding up the girl’s wrist again. “It’s a scratch. Better leave it alone. Better leave her alone. Nothing can be done.”
She stood. The walls and floor swayed. The police station entrance had a hyper-real, visionary clarity. She saw that she had replaced the dirty dressing, but didn’t remember doing it. She was in no state to play nurse: she was hallucinating. Maybe the lost girl didn’t even exist.
She was afraid she’d been crawling around on the floor talking to herself, the police must think she was mad. Nothing can be done, nothing can be done. She saw the desperate faces of the hives, the packed tenements where the doomed waited to die—so many, so many.
“I want to go home. I’m not well.”
A single-seater cab was waiting for her, outside on the ramp. As she stumbled into its protection, she knew she should turn back. A moment of fugue had passed, now she felt she’d betrayed the girl with the bandaged arm. But there were so many, so much grief and pain. Don’t meddle with the rich, she whispered to herself. Huddled into an animal crouch inside the little vehicle’s fat belly, she let it carry her away.
The cab took her to Maitri’s house at the Giratoire. She roused in time to stop it from trundling in at the front gates, and got out in a dusty alley where naked children played in the black and orange tiger weed outside the aliens’ back door. A tinker shook powder onto a broken griddle and rubbed two rims of metal together, releasing the acrid stink of lattice-fusion. The children pulled sprigs of alien weed and let them feed on warm skin, giving themselves tiger weed bracelets, earrings, tattoos. Faces peered from troglodyte windows in stained cliffs of artificial stone. The Giratoire had been one of the vast road junctions that ringed this quartier, when it was a conurbation in its own right. Most of its structures had vanished in later development but this one, in ruins, had miraculously survived. Maitri had settled here, long ago, for the romance of the location. He refused to move, though the neighbourhood had gone downhill and the monument now teemed with squatters.
There was a brief stir as Catherine got down, but the street-livers knew her. They returned to their own concerns, and she passed through Maitri’s gate. A barrier impermeable to anything it did not recognise, living or dead, sucked her in and closed behind: she left the human city and entered a different air.
It was always green in here: the green of true native plant life, rarely seen now anywhere in this city, outside of a sentimental alien’s garden. Maitri had a burst main spring, which helped; fed by the lost workings of an ancient pumping system. The human servants said it had been running for more than three hundred years. The tank was in Maitri’s vegetable beds. Catherine went to it, drawn by the grieving sound of the water, and stood watching the silver daemon that thrust its blunt head, endlessly, through viridian mosses, to fall into a pool of transparent darkness. When she was a child she used to think the water-daemon was trapped, begging to be let out. She would try to catch it and help it over the side. But the water flowed through her fingers and just went on crying.
The air had a slight haze in it, enough to blur the vista of Maitri’s lawns and flowers. At First Contact, native observers had noticed straight away that the aliens communicated “like animals”, and it was true that a chatty gathering of Aleutians could look like a troupe of baboons in clothes, embracing, grooming, nuzzling; conversing by gaze and gesture—with the occasional startling outburst of articulate speech. It had taken longer for the humans realised that the Aleutians were in constant, biochemical communication, via tiny particles exchanged in the air they breathed, absorbed through their pores; transferred by the wriggling scraps of skin fauna that they picked from each other and ate. Like almost every animal on earth—except for humans—they lived in a broth of tastes and smells that kept them always in contact with each other, and with their environment. In the aliens’ case, however, the traffic was conscious.
It was this living, intelligent flux, thick and complex as the commerce on lifeless human information networks; the basis of the aliens’ effortless biotechnology, that had destroyed human supremacy.
The Aleutians didn’t just seem animal, they were like earth’s dumb animals: beasts who had attained spacefaring civilisation, while retaining and developing their most ancient animal traits. Controlled biochemical processing—a technology the humans had just begun to develop when the aliens arrived—was their element. They had conquered, like the tiger weed, not because they were alien, but because they were like enough to compete. Meanwhile the most extraordinary human technologies, their weird dead machines, their occult control over the forces of the void—electrons, photons—had fallen into neglect, reserved for games and toys. Artworks.
Such irony! It was as if the people of Earth had taken a convoluted wrong turning, and arrived back on the right track: just a little too late. Aleutians and humans had met as equals. Who would believe that today?
The green of Maitri’s garden seemed to be in mourning. White, everted stars looked up at her, each pushing out a furred yellow tongue. Thick, water-hungry leaves brushed her thighs. They were all crying: help us, save us! We can’t survive without you now …
She was suddenly aware that her bladder was bursting, and had to drop to her haunches among the vegetables; barely managed to get her underwear out of the way in time. She stayed down, in the rising fumes of warm urine, laughing weakly. She should have used the waste bucket in the cell, but under stress she just could not remember these things. The body was human, the spirit knew a different set of rules. Her head between her hands, she stared at the hairy base of her belly, where hid the secret human female parts … Will the flowerbud open when I grow up? Will it be beautiful…? Maitri had told her: darling, I don’t know. That’s partly what you wanted to find out.
Real ‘young ladies’ did not wear trousers. They wore long, layered flimsy skirts and tight little bodices, veils and scarves, jackets glittering with gold and silver and gemstones, but no underwear, as Catherine had been fascinated to discover, where it mattered. She wanted to be authentic, but she had baulked at that: Aleutians are a prudish people. She thought of the girl at the police station, and was again ashamed of her panic. But now she must go into the house. She must face Maitri and the others. They didn’t like the Mission: it was going to be hard and galling to admit her defeat. Her head pounded. Always defeated, always. It was too much to bear.
In the kitchen, in the part of the house that belonged to the human servants, she found her mother. Leonie was cooking something on her open-flame hob, the perilous-looking device by means of which she produced her miracles of Old Earth cuisine. Peter, her human son, was sharpening knives.
But her foster mother (breast as flat and hard as if she was an Aleutian now: it was a long time since she’d suckled a child) had refused for years to acknowledge that Catherine had ever been her baby.
Catherine could taste the stinging tinker-reek of Peter’s work box. The smell of cooking made her dizzy, Leonie’s rebuff brought her to the verge of tears. But Leonie herself was visibly shaking. Peter kept his eyes on his work in an unnatural pantomime of unconcern. She stood between them, human blood dry-smeared on her clothes and in her hair. She’d forgotten that they hated her missionary work worse than Maitri did. She lifted her shoulders in the gesture that meant a smile in Aleutian, an apology in human body-language; spoke earnestly and kindly.
“I know, I know: I look terrible. The blood, I know the blood looks bad.” She tried to laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to convert you!” She gestured, with the flowers that she’d brought in. “I picked these for Maitri. Could I have a vase?”
Peter kept on madly sharpening. Leonie stared in wondering pity.
“We don’t have those indoors,” she said. “They’re poisonous.” But she brought a vase, and filled it with water from the hydrobiont pump on her kitchen counter. “Lord Maitri’s waiting for you in the atrium.” She swallowed. “Maybe you should get washed first.”
“No, it’ll wait. Maitri won’t mind.”
The atrium was a large and splendid square hall, colonnaded around the sides. A dome of the marvellously transparent local glass, stained in sweeps of green and gold and ruby, rose above the central space. Pieces of ancient machinery, beautifully restored, stood among troughs and tubs of native plants. The centrepiece was an examination pit from a motor garage, which Maitri had had transported here, and let into the floor. It held a small fountain (fed from the “burst main”) with cushioned seats beside the pool; and gave off from its blackened walls a faint romantic whiff of engine oil.
Lord Maitri was alone, resplendent in one of his antique morning robes. “My dear.” He put the potato flowers aside and gripped her hands. “I hope the police have been nice to you. They’ve been being very polite to us. Now tell me all about it.”
Maitri spoke “formally”; in English. When he and his ward were alone they always conversed this way. Catherine could manage very well in the Common Tongue, but she was still at a loss sometimes, deprived of the living traffic of the air. He shrugged ruefully, waving a hand to indicate the rest of the Aleutian household. “I thought I wouldn’t subject you to ‘the zoo’, so early in the morning. But everybody wants you to know that we’re glad you’re safe.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” Catherine said.
She recovered her hands, folded her arms under her breasts, and delivered her report in a firm, level tone. “I was attending a conversion ceremony. It was in an apartment belonging to one of our proselytes—belonging to his family that is, but the rest of the household were away for the evening. I was alone with the candidates. I tried to keep them indoors but they kept rushing out again. I warned them that we could be in trouble if we invaded a public space, but they wanted to bear witness to the good news. It was chaos, I admit. But no one was getting hurt … that didn’t want to be, I mean. It was almost over when the orthodoxers arrived. They had heat guns, I don’t know where from: totally illegal. They fried everything in sight, the building turned on the powder-sprinklers for the whole landing, and then the police turned up. They arrested me … Me, not the orthodoxers, of course. They put me in solitary, in an unmonitored cell, and refused to charge me. So I refused to eat, and that was embarrassing I suppose. So this morning they decided to throw me out and here I am.”
She rubbed at her sleeves. “I’m not hurt. It’s not my blood.”
“I almost wish it was.” Maitri burst out. “Hurt? I don’t care if you’re sliced to bits. I don’t know why I said I hoped the police had been nice. I wish they would beat you.”
He drew a breath. “It’s not that I don’t agree, in principle, with what the Mission teaches. Of course permanent death is pure superstition. Their physiology has not been much researched, but they must be born again, the same as we are: the same chemical identities, the same set of individuals that goes to make up a society. They only have to learn to remember their past lives, and to know themselves as eternal aspects of the Cosmic Self. I agree with you completely on all that! And the conversion ceremonies, I can understand. It’s something we’ve done ourselves in the past, and no doubt we’ll do it again: licensed group suicide in times of hardship, for the good of others. The humans themselves don’t consider suicide a crime! It’s all very, very, er, spiritual and uplifting, I’m sure … But darling, it has to come from them. From the humans. One can’t impose belief. It won’t stick … My dear, I know you want to help. But a missionary! So banal! Is it really you?”
He broke off to make a tart little bow to the populated air, which was carrying away the chemical trace of his opinions—to be picked up, maybe, in the wide web of the Commonalty, by a sensitive clergyperson. “No offence meant, none taken I hope. I’ve always made my views on the Mission plain.”
“You think the whole idea is stupid and nasty,” she whimpered.
Maitri stood in a pool of lucid gold, the dark nasal space in the centre of his face contracted in helpless anxiety. He lifted his clawed hands and let them fall. “I respect your feelings and your motives. But we’re so worried. You don’t seem happy, or well.”
“You should have told me you hated the Mission when I moved out.”
“I was afraid,” explained her guardian simply. “Afraid of losing you.”
She turned away, head bowed: wrapping her arms more tightly around her body. “My cell was lovely. You’d never guess. The walls are covered in real ceramic tile; must be over three hundred years old. And roses. You’d love the roses. You should get yourself arrested, then you could see for yourself. He was so nice, the boy whose apartment we used. I wish I could remember his name. I can never remember their names.”
Maitri watched her with undisguised concern.
“How long since you ate?”
“Am I babbling? Fifth day. Don’t worry, I’m not going on with it. There’s no point. I’m beaten.”
“I’m glad of that, at least. There are so many interesting drugs on this wonderful planet, if you must ruin your health. Starvation is just silly. Have you begun to hallucinate?”
Catherine frowned sharply. “No! Not at all.”
She began to weep, the human tears spilling from her eyes. “Maitri, I’m so sorry. I know I’ve let you down, I know you expected more from me. I know the Mission is stupid. But the humans are dying. We’re leaving them, their world is trashed and they have nowhere to go. They can’t survive and you others somehow don’t, but I … I know it’s my fault. Can you understand how that feels?”
“Go and lie down,” Maitri advised gently. “Have something to eat; sleep. Let us look after you. You don’t mean these wild things, you’ll feel better soon … But I should warn you, I’m having a little reception this afternoon. One of my usual parties for the locals, it won’t disturb you.”
She smiled feebly at his use of the dissidents’ term: the locals, meaning our neighbours, people like us. Not the humans, meaning the alien species for whom we can’t be held responsible. By such signs a world of difference is made known.
“Do you want me on show?” The humans were very curious about Catherine. She was quite “a draw”, as Maitri vulgarly put it.
“Not unless you’re feeling much better.” He handed her the vase, with a puzzled glance at the contents: touched her cheek with one clawed finger. “Now go and rest!”
Her room was exactly as she had left it when she moved to her little rented trou in the hives. She put the vegetable bouquet on her desk, under a twentieth-century ikon of the Sacred Bleeding Heart Of Jesus, and a very lovely moving image, in a silver frame, of blue Krisna dancing and playing the flute. “If you were Aleutian flowers,” she said to them, “hearing you talk would almost make sense. So you see, I am not crazy.” She lay on her bed, which here was a soft Aleutian pallet spread on the floor, and found the same cracks in the plaster ceiling that she had named, to console herself, when she came to live in the aliens’ part of the house. The seagull. The happy face—which had been human when she was very young, but became Aleutian after a patch of plaster fell, leaving a gap instead of a nose. The friendly spaceplane with a crooked wing. In Aleutia, buildings did not fall into decay. Everything the aliens used, built, touched, was alive, and part of life’s constant change and reparation. On Earth, fascinated by dead objects that stayed the same as they slowly crumbled, Aleutians let splendid mansions tumble around them, dressed themselves in old curtains, and collected scraps of litter, to the disgusted astonishment of their human acquaintances.
She closed her eyes.
. . .
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