Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Quartet and Triptych’
The case was of finely worked leather, dyed a rich vermilion that was now age-faded, and enclosed in a meshwork of verdigrised, hand-spun copper filigree. It was cylindrical, with a fitted top whose central cartouche, embossed in white and gold enamel, enclosed the complexity of symbols and colors that constituted the arms of the House of Voillute. The Voillutes were now ranked only among the second tier of Old Earth’s nobility, but up until only four thousand years ago theirs had been one of the few establishments entitled to make only a half-prostration in the presence of the Archon. A Voillute of the prime strain could trace his ancestry not just through centuries and millennia but through geological periods.
The thief Luff Imbry touched his plump fingertips to the silken fringe that depended from the rim of the case’s lid, causing the fine threads to shimmer from purple to old gold. “You’re certain it will not be missed?” he asked the man who had brought him the container.
“I do not commit to absolutes,” said Holker Ghyll.
Imbry should have known better than to have asked a question that required an answer unshaded by ambiguity. Ghyll was an adherent of a philosophical system known as “the Computance,” which held that the universe was strung together as a webwork of probabilities, in which the concept of “certainty” was a cruel illusion contrived by a mischievous deity who delighted in raising high the pitiful hopes of his creations, only to dash them to flinders of despair. The god’s motives, revealed only to the elect, were a central mystery of the faith.
Ghyll had several times exhorted Imbry to attend one of the “computations,” as conclaves of the Computants were called. “Odds are, by joining us you would acquire a useful philosophy,” he would say.
To which Imbry would reply, “And thereby foreclose on my use of several other philosophies, each of which I find convenient in its place. Mine is a profession that rewards flexibility of outlook and often punishes the overly rigid by an invitation to dine with the Archon.”
Despite Imbry’s demurrals, Ghyll never missed an opportunity to expound on his creed, and was now again launched upon a lecture. “Life, after all,” he said, “is but a succession of greater and lesser probabilities–a melange of maybes, as the Grand Prognosticator so aptly put it. Look at you, here in the supposed security of Bolly’s Snug, supping and swilling with nary a care. Yet can you deny that a fragment of some asteroid, shattered in a collision far out in thither space back when humankind was still adrip with the primordial slime, having spent millions of years looming towards us, might now, its moment come, lance down through the atmosphere at immense speed and obliterate you where you stand?”
“I do not deny the possibility,” said Imbry. “I say that the likelihood is remote.”
“Yet still it exists! And if we couple that existence to a divine appetite for upsetting mortal plans–”
“I can think of other, less far-fetched scenarios that might lead to the obliteration of someone in this room,” said the thief. He accompanied the remark with an unwinking stare that ought to have caused Ghyll stop to consider that though Imbry was so corpulent as to be almost spherical, he was capable of sudden and conclusive acts of violence. And that consideration would have led, in turn, to a change of subject. But the Computant was too deeply set in his philosophy to take note of how others responded to it, and continued to discourse on abstruse concerns.
“Throughout the aeons, sages have observed that, statistically, the simplest solution to a problem is most likely to be the correct one. Yet experience teaches that those same solutions nearly always turn out to be more complicated than they first appear. Variables pile upon variables, until inevitably the shaky edifice of multi-layered ad-hockery threatens to topple. At this point, the well-meaning rush in to apply new props, thus further complicating the structure…”
Imbry sighed and let the fellow ramble. He would tolerate the unwanted discourse because it was Ghyll’s membership in the Computance that had made it possible for him to obtain the object in the case. Finally, the fat man said, “If the Voillutes discover that we have this,”–he gestured to the case on the table–”they would expunge us no less surely than a bolt from the immensity. Though I doubt they would let death arrive so quickly, much as we might come to beg them for it.”
With that sentiment, Ghyll agreed. “It is one of the peculiarities of the upper strata,” he said. “They can be neglectful of their possessions, leaving them scattered about willy and nilly, haphazardly exposed to the elements and natural decay. Yet let an unauthorized finger lift so much as a bent sequint, and here they come, roaring from their dens, all tooth, talon, and terror, not to be satisfied save by blood and breakage.”
“Hence my question,” Imbry said, tapping the cartouche on the case’s top, “will the mask be missed?”
Holker Ghyll said that he had given the matter careful consideration. “The vogue for life masks has passed,” he said. “Lord Bunthro Voillute ordered his entire collection removed from his dressing room. His major domo had them taken to a cellar beneath the Lesser Tower, a room used to store garden furniture that is brought out only once a year, when the upper and middle servants are allowed to celebrate the anniversary of Bunthro’s teething day.”
Ghyll knew all this because numbered among the members of the Computance’s chapter here in the city of Olkney, capital of Old Earth in its dwindled, penultimate age, was one of the lesser subfootmen who had packed the masks and taken them down to storage. The servant apparently had needs that his stipend could not meet. Knowing of Ghyll’s connections to Olkney’s halfworld, he had approached him quietly at one of the chapter’s “reckonings,” as its devotional sessions were known. Ghyll knew that Imbry was always receptive to any opportunity to slip behind the defences of those who owned the treasures in which he liked to deal. An arrangement has thus been made for the servant to abstract one of the life masks and bring it to Ghyll for transmission to Luff Imbry.
“The subfootman calculates that it will be at least a week, and likely two, before anyone enters that room again. We have been over the computations three times together, and we agree, within a minimal margin of error; even if the room is entered, the probability of the case’s absence being noticed is tolerably small, unless the major domo himself visits the place. Regrettably, he has a keen eye for detail.”
Again, Imbry agreed. The senior ranks of those who cossetted and catered to the upper levels of Olkney’s aristocracy tended to exhibit unbalanced personalities, one facet of which was an obsessive and compulsive attention to minutiae. A handicap in many areas of life, the disorder was a positive boon to those who closely orbited the social pinnacle, and ten thousand generations had bred the faculty solidly into their genes. An underbutler who expected promotion ought to be able to spot a grain of dust at forty paces, and the sense of outrage the sight would trigger should last him through the day.
“So I have a week, perhaps two,” Imbry said, finally cutting off the torrent of calculation and contingent factors by moving a wad of currency back and forth under Ghyll’s nose.
“Yes.” The money changed hands with speed and dispatch.
“That should be time enough.” Imbry lifted the case’s lid and studied the crystalline dome that was revealed. “Is it fragile?”
“Not very. You’re looking at the outer shell; it is just there to receive the projected image. The workings are woven into the cap.”
Imbry slid his hands into the case and gently drew out its contents, placing the object on the table. He beheld an almost-globe of translucent, though not transparent, material, something like pearl but without a shimmer. The bottom was flat and when he tilted the sphere to examine the underside he saw a wide, circular hole rimmed by filigreed gold, the cavity lined in some soft material.
“How is it operated?”
“I have never tried one myself,” said Holker Ghyll, “but my coreligionist said it is self-actuating. You place it over your head and touch the clasp at the rear of the opening. It snugs itself to the shape of your skull and the process begins. Touch the clasp again and it releases.”
Imbry lifted the thing in both hands and peered into it. “And it assumes no control over the limbs or other parts?”
“Only the sensorium,” said Ghyll, “and even that excludes touch.”
“I will try it now. If I slap my hand on the table, you will deactivate it forthwith.”
“You should consider joining the Computance,” said Ghyll. “You and I approach life with the same sense of caution.”
“For you it is a philosophical stance,” said Imbry. “For me, it is an occupational necessity.” He hoisted the globe aloft then gently lowered it until it encompassed his head. He had expected darkness but found instead that the translucent material allowed a diffuse grey light to penetrate. He felt the cap at the top of the cavity move against his scalp as the mask fitted itself to the size and shape of his cranium. There followed a moment of expectation, then Imbry reached both hands to the back of his neck, found the clasp, and engaged it.
Instantly, he experienced a complex of sensations: a prickling at several points on his skull, a gentle pressure on his brow, a wriggle in his nostrils and a sharp though transitory itch in both ears. Then he felt a featherlight touch at the corners of his eyes and abruptly he could see again.
Interestingly, when he looked at Holker Ghyll, he noticed a difference in the colors of the man’s clothing. The blue thread woven through the fabric of Ghyll’s well tailored daysuit now appeared to be subtly tinged with green and the folded-back cuffs that had been plain grey were now ombred by a delicate pink. He had known that the inbred aristocracy had more subtle perceptions than the commonality, but it was one thing to know the theory, another thing to experience the reality for himself.
“Remarkable!” Imbry had meant to say more, but stopped after the first word. The voice in which he had spoken was not his own, but that of a woman, and moreover, that of a contralto who spoke in the languid drawl that characterized the highest echelons of Olkney society, with vowels flattened and consonants half smothered.
“That will take some getting used to,” he said, the woman’s voice giving his words an ironical overtone that he had not intended. “Indeed,” he added. He reached up and behind again to undo the clasp.
“Wait!” The voice spoke again, but this time he heard it only within the confines of his own mind; his lips, tongue and larynx had had no part in uttering the syllable. Imbry did not wait, but pressed the stud that opened the fastening. He felt the mask disconnect from his sensory apparatus and swiftly lifted it clear of his head. He set it on the table and regarded its pearly opacity.
“Is all well?” asked Holker Ghyll.
Imbry turned him a bland smile. “As I said, it will take some getting used to.”
Long, long ago, near the very beginning of the present Aeon, it was a custom of Old Earth’s elite to preserve the animating essences of its members as they approached the inevitable end of existence. The practice was born of pious reverence for their forebears, a respect for ancestry being a defining quality in any aristocracy. The essences were kept alongside the funerary urns in the capacious necropoli that were a standard feature of aristocratic estates. On those occasion when the ashes of an antecedent were brought out for ritual tending and veneration or when the current holder of the family’s fortunes was moved to reflect on the transience of existence, the essence was placed into a device that projected a simulacrum of the deceased. The descendants could then commune with the simulated persona, evoking a mood of tender melancholy. It was also useful, when wills were disputed, to summon up the facsimile of the document’s drafter to see if it could shed any light on contentious clauses.
The custom eventually declined. The essences remained intact, but were disregarded, left on back shelves in storage rooms. Then, when several centuries had intervened between the last collected essence and the latest generation, someone conceived the notion of incorporating the facsimiles into devices that would allow them to interact with the sensoria of the living. The living could then experience the world through the senses of the long-dead, allowing for the evoking of subtle moods and minor epiphanies.
The masks permitted a facile integration of minds of the living and the dead, putting the perceptions and memories of the latter at the command of the former. While the two were linked, the wearer experienced diversion and the possibility of insight; the worn was brought out of the darkness to enjoy a brief half-life. This was a kindness to the essences, for while they stood upon their storage shelves, they had been aware, at least to some extent, of the long neglect they were suffering at the hands of their descendants. They had become like ghosts from old tales–sad wraiths, pining for a brief return to existence, however thin-blooded that sojourn might be.
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