Story number #0615 (2011)
Several years ago the genius writer Michael Bishop postmodernly, jestingly and excellently wrote my 612th story for me, to save me the trouble. The result was a piece that formed the introduction to my novella The Crystal Cosmos and was entitled ‘The Orchid Forest: a Metafactual Narrative Introduction to THE CRYSTAL COSMOS by Rhys Hughes, by Miguel Obispo’. The number 612 was plucked at random. Back then it seemed that I would never actually reach that number myself, or anywhere near it…
But in November 2011, I finished writing my 612th story. Not really wanting to skip from 611 to 613, I made sure that the 612th was about Michael Bishop, the same way his story is about me. In his tale explorers set off in search of me; so in my tale explorers set off in search of him. His story is 4467 words long; as a mark of respect I made my story 4466 words long, one less.
The Platinum Ass
“I wish I was a real bishop,” said the chess piece.
“That’s a bit arch,” I replied.
“No, not an archbishop, that’s not what I want to be. Just an ordinary bishop with a delightful diocese.”
“Not so long ago you were only a pawn.”
We went in search of the author Michael Bishop, the award winner, the elusive dreamer, the chronicler of the multiple migraines of Time. First we tramped along the Bible Belt, for that is where we had been informed he lived. We scaled the giant brass buckle with difficulty. The Bible Belt drives the Lathe of Heaven, but today was its day off. By early afternoon we knew our informant was wrong.
“Our journey has been wasted,” I sighed.
“He must live somewhere, even if not here,” opined Watson. But I was mildly dubious about this statement.
We asked various pedestrians we encountered. One stooped old timer who was collecting dew from the insides of the belt loops stood when we approached, listened patiently to our query, frowned deeply, scratched his immense beard, each stiff hair tuned to a different zither note, and told us, above the awful plucked discord, “Doesn’t he reside somewhere in Upper Zelazny? I’m sure that’s the location.”
“Might well be,” I conceded.
“It certainly sounds plausible,” Watson said.
“Indeed so,” added Crowther.
So we set off for that land, which is justly famous for its vast reserves of amber, but it was a long way to go. The sun set as we approached the border, so we stopped at the Sign of the Unicorn and paid for a room. It was an extremely historic inn with a thatched roof, warped beams, a log fire, antique tables and chairs and a landlord named Jack who kept mainly to the shadows. The quaintest place.
We weren’t the only guests. There were a few hooded pilgrims staying the night. They sat in the far corner.
“Are you a soldier?” Jack asked me quietly.
“Lieutenant Hugs of the Speculative Fiction Militia,” I cried, saluting him with the peculiar gesture we favour.
“Used to be in uniform myself. I still have the power to promote other soldiers if I feel like it. So now you’re a Captain. How about that? I enjoy being altruistic every now and then.”
I was delighted. “An ale please, landlord.”
“Light or heavy, sir?”
“A light ale, as it happens,” I said.
“What kind?” he asked. “There are several local breweries who supply my cellars with pale nectar.” He lowered his voice. “I can recommend the Lordof for its crisp taste and purity.”
He seemed genuine enough. So I ordered a Lordof light ale. A tankard of the stuff. I carried it back to my companions, who were still indecisive about their own choice of beverage. Then the pilgrims shouted over some suggestions. They ignored me, of course, which was a relief, for I always have trouble knowing how to treat such people, but Watson and Crowther seemed eager to engage them in debate.
The conversation passed from the merits of beers to the finer points of theology and philosophy. Arguments and refutations were shuttled back and forth between our respective tables, good naturedly enough, but I still felt very uncomfortable. I generally do.
The pilgrims belonged to the Cult of Sapp, the tree-juice deity, and it seemed they were lost, for they were supposed to be attending a festival on Happenstance, which is a planet that collided so gently with the Earth last year that it didn’t smash itself to bits but got stuck to ours, making a double world like two vast toffees in the paper bag of space. The pilgrims were on the wrong side, the wrong sweet.
After quaffing the final mouthfuls of my ale, I felt confident enough to speak up and explain this to the hooded strangers. They pursed their lips, tongues clicking behind like coins, frowned and then sighed. It seemed I had poisoned the atmosphere. Watson and Crowther were also infected with the sour mood and glowered at me. At last I decided to go out for a breath of air and some peace of mind.
I opened the front door and stepped into the night.
And standing right before me was—
A massive sentient pawn.
“Are you quite sure that’s how we first met?”
“Yes indeed.” I nod vigorously. “How could I ever forget something like that? You blocked the entrance.”
“It was a full moon and the buttery light was spread thickly over your toasted expression as you emerged.”
“Toasted? No, I didn’t clink my tankard with anyone.”
I stopped in my tracks, partly because there really wasn’t anywhere else to stop, and said, “A massive pawn!”
“Sentient too,” came the reply. There was a pause.
“Aren’t you going to move?”
“Can’t you squeeze around me instead?”
“Yes, but with difficulty.”
The pawn didn’t have a face, so I can’t be sure it grimaced as it waited on its invisible square on the improvised chessboard known as Reality. I pushed beyond it, but now I felt silly, with my back to that anomaly, so I turned and remarked as casually as possible, “I’m on my way with some friends to seek out Michael Bishop, the writer. I don’t suppose you might confirm that he’s in Upper Zelazny?”
“I know for sure he’s no longer there. You stand a better chance if you take the road to Middle Delany at the next fork, but don’t get your hopes up too high. He’s elusive, very.”
“And what’s your destination, perchance?”
“I don’t have one. I lost my chessboard last night. I was being used in a game by two absolute beginners. The one whose side I was on moved me to the last rank, to the fabled place of promotion. Beginner’s luck, I guess. But he forgot to turn me into anything. He just kept me going, off the board. He didn’t realise the edge of the board was a boundary and so I ended up here. Then he went away.”
“Can’t you move under your own power?”
“Yes, but I can’t reverse. I’m just a pawn. If I was a queen or a rook I would be utterly free, but unfortunately I’m not. I guess I’ll have to enter this inn and spend the rest of my life getting drunk at a table. Nice talking to you. Have a successful journey.”
“Thanks. My name is Captain Hugs. And yours?”
“Mister Pawn. Call me Pawny.”
“I think there’s a back door too. Maybe you can pass right through the building and emerge the other side?”
“Sure.” He just stood there, blocking the entrance. I moved off into the rustling, cool night, stubbing toes on stones. The stars above were big and bright, boom, boom, boom, deep in the heart of wherever I was, deep not only in the heart but also in the liver and brain, but I don’t know why they emitted that dreadful noise. Stars don’t usually rumble like that, do they? Probably it was a sign, omen or portent.
I wandered into the trees and soon I was lost.
The paths were narrow and complicated and my sense of direction had decided to go off on its own somewhere.
Risking embarrassment, I finally decided to call for help.
“Watson! Crowther! I’m lost!”
There was no answer. They were drunk, too involved with the pilgrims or possibly they just didn’t care. “Help me Jack! Assist me Pawny!” Still no reply. Then I realised I had wandered off the beaten track, further than that in fact, off the unbeaten track, and that was bad news, unless it meant I was back on the beaten track, which it probably didn’t. To safely walk a track it’s essential to have a tracksuit.
And I was dressed in a smock and long pants.
It surely seemed I was done for.
I huddled at the base of a tree. I thought a friendly owl or ghost might alight and give me reliable directions. But they didn’t. So I got up again, kept my legs moving, pushed through bramble and thorn. Exhausted and scared, I kept going. The night passed. The sky grew light. I passed out of the forest and found the highway. Now it was just a case of walking back to the inn and explaining my long absence.
With a weary step but jaunty hips I digested distance.
Then I came to a fork in the road. It was silver with three prongs and lay in the dust between a knife and spoon.
The detour to Middle Delany! There was no longer any point looking for the Sign of the Unicorn and my friends. I might as well continue the quest without them. If I found Michael Bishop, then I could take him to meet them, if he was willing to come. Assuming my friends could really be found. Having said that, they may already have ‘found themselves’ in the company of the pilgrims. Who knew?
“There was a back door to that inn.”
“I told you so. And did you pass through and continue on your way? I somehow suspect you probably didn’t.”
The chess piece chuckled. “I stopped and ordered a drink first, but I didn’t have any money to pay for it. Jack the landlord wasn’t very happy about that, so I had to work off my debt to him. He used me for a pump handle. Pawns look a lot like them.”
Middle Delany was a vibrant and energetic place, bewildering at first and too garish, but rich beyond belief. Some of the tall buildings in the capital city were unstable and I narrowly avoided being crushed by the fall of the towers. I leaped to one side and lost one of my sandals. No matter. Along the broad boulevard I strolled until I came to a booth selling Gold Flower Nectar. A man with a metal eyebrow was sitting on a stool sipping a glass of the stuff. “Excuse me,” I ventured.
He licked his lips. “Yes?”
“Do you know if Michael Bishop lives here?”
“Are you referring to the author of And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees? That’s a novel I adore. It’s about genetic engineering and the morality of control and species management.”
I clutched his arm. “I am!”
He shook his head. “He left a few days ago. He was going to Tiptree, he told me. If you want to follow, perambulate to the end of this highway and turn right at the Einstein Intersection. You’ll know you’re in Tiptree when you finally reach the Cold Hill.”
I was frustrated but grateful. “Thanks, mister.”
“Call me Bron. I’m from Mars originally. Spent a lot of time on Triton and then wandered about for a few years. I feel like visiting the Valley of the Nest of Spiders next. It always seems to me it’s time to move on.” He paid for his drink with silver stars instead of coins. His pocket was full of stars, like grains of sand, not beach sand but some more lyrical kind. “Are you a soldier? Your haircut is severe.”
“Captain Hugs at your service. And I belong to the Speculative Fiction Militia. I’m on an important mission.”
“Well,” he said, as he hooked a thumb into a shirt buttonhole, “I have the power to promote you to Major. What do you think of that? I’m in the government now and my position means I’m able to make such decisions without consultation. Don’t refuse.”
I walked away with a stiff stride, pride locking both knee joints rigid. My elevation in rank was extremely pleasing to me. Quite soon I reached the junction he had mentioned, but the journey to Tiptree was exhausting, emotionally and thematically. I felt sure that Michael Bishop wouldn’t be there when I arrived anyway. I needed to dine and sleep but there were no inns in sight. I lay down on heather.
That angered her a lot. “How dare you!”
“Sorry. I didn’t realise you were a proper noun. Honest! Please take a look at the paragraph preceding your protest and you will see your name spelled with a lowercase first letter. I assumed you were vegetation. All I want to do is sleep with an easy conscience, so permit me to apologise yet again and I’ll find another bivouac.”
Heather was appeased a little. “Where are you going?”
“Tiptree. In search of a writer.”
“But you’re already at your destination! Sleep next to me and I swear you’ll be satisfied in the morning.”
I did as she suggested. When I awoke I was surprised to find me here, on the Cold Hill’s side. I must have accidentally climbed halfway up it in the dark without realising there was an incline. Heather yawned, rubbed her eyes and brewed a cup of coffee for me on a portable stove. I gulped it down and stared at the landscape below. It was full of strange and very seductive figures that weren’t human.
“Which writer are you looking for?” she asked.
“Michael Bishop,” I answered.
“He wrote No Enemy but Time, didn’t he? About a man who uses his powers of dreaming to return to the Pleistocene Era and falls in love with a female he meets there. It’s a thoroughly engaging, clever, original and intricate novel and the author’s speculations on anthropology are among the most interesting and comprehensive in the entire field of imaginative literature. Is that who you mean?”
I was pleased by her casual erudition. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry to inform you,” she said, “that he doesn’t reside in Tiptree anymore. He left very early yesterday morning. I can’t be sure where he was headed for, but if I were you I would make my way to Filkdik, which is a land where electric sheep dream.”
I finished my coffee. “What do they dream of?”
She shrugged. “Maybe you.”
The chess piece said anxiously, “You don’t intend to describe every place you visited during your quest, do you?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” I responded rather defensively.
“Because it will take weeks!”
“How do you think I should proceed, then?
“Skim over the details. The same way I skim over squares I don’t want to land on. Just give the big picture.”
I travelled through many lands on my search. I spoke to many entities and listened to their advice. I had an interview with the fabled sturgeon called Theodore who lives in the deeps of Loneliness Saucer. I shared a pipe of dreams with Lucius the Shepherd, who looks after flocks of electric sheep that have wandered off from Filkdik, but that is only how he lives life in wartime; during peacetime he’s a jaguar hunter and a hunter of other cars, using the bonnets to repair his cottage.
I met individuals of great charisma and wisdom and power. They tried to help me, most of them. Many were fans of Michael Bishop and wanted to talk about his books. “My favourite is probably Unicorn Mountain, the story of a dying man who finds a new life in a backwater; the depth of the characterization is extraordinary and the intensity of feeling generated by the merging of mythic and realistic literary devices is profound, bold and authentic.” That was a typical reaction…
This was another: “Ancient of Days is the one that really sends shivers of awe and fear along my spine. The theme of inherent evil depresses me and yet the quality of the prose and sheer power of the empathy invoked in the reader also fills me with hope.”
I wore out my remaining sandal climbing ragged high mountains and my smock grew holes until it became nothing more than a net draped on my shoulders; but I caught only a cold with it. Yet there was peace in my heart, a curious peace true enough, whenever I met some traveller, a new individual full of warmth and appreciation of the writer I now suspected I would never find during my lifespan. “My favourite is Catacomb Years, a mosaic of subplots that fit neatly together.”
And I was promoted many times. From Major to Colonel. And shortly after that, from Colonel to Brigadier. And then, while busy exploring the numerous Di Filippo Islands, to General. I’m tempted to say that my rise was meteoric, but meteors don’t fly upwards, not in my experience. But I began to feel like a fraud, for although I was now a personage of note in the Speculative Fiction Militia, I was no closer to finding Michael Bishop than when I had tramped the Bible Belt.
At no point did I meet Watson and Crowther again. I occasionally did stumble upon their footprints. Clearly they were looking for me. I left as many coherent messages for them as I could manage, pinning notes to old trees, leaving them under rocks. I urged them not to worry on my behalf, but I added the comment that if they resisted my urging in this matter, I would be forced to issue an order to that effect, for now I was a General, and so they had to obey without question.
I have always wondered what would happen if a General ordered one of his subordinates to ask a question; how could the poor fellow obey that order without question? He would explode.
Surely he would. Even if it’s biologically impossible.
General Hugs has specific concerns.
But that’s not a bad thing. I take my responsibilities seriously. Just like a professional clown. Excuse my mutterings. I am weary and need to rest for a short time. Here is a hammock suspended from a tree. Someone has left a book swinging inside it. A Michael Bishop novel, Stolen Faces. An impressive coincidence or something more sinister? Or less sinister, for I see no reason why things that aren’t coincidences should be distrusted. A finely crafted work, as they all are, examining deceit and the psychology of manipulation in an unbearable setting.
I pick up the book, stretch myself on the hammock and start to read as I relax. A scented breeze turns the pages on my behalf. I am so engrossed in the wonderful story that I notice nothing when hooded figures sneak up and saw with wavy blades the ropes that secure the hammock to the trees. The rascals carry me away just like that, as if they are servants and I’m in a floppy palanquin, and I still don’t realise what’s happening. Only later I learn the details of my stealthy abduction.
The hammock is a trap; the book is bait for the unwary.
“You had no fear in your expression at all.”
“That’s true,” I agreed, “but not because of bravery. I simply had no knowledge of my kidnapping until the bandits reached their lair. Then I looked up and I realised I was in a familiar place; but I had seen so many places in my travels that my memory—”
“We called to you at the same time, Jack and I.”
Back in the Sign of the Unicorn I found myself. I had wandered in a huge circle, perhaps all the way around the world, around Happenstance too. A long way for a solitary man on his bare soles. The bandits turned out to be the lost pilgrims. Instead of trying to find the festival on Happenstance, it was easier for them to change profession. Now they waylaid wayfarers, a profitable but excessively unholy business.
I recognised the landlord at once, even though he remained ensconced in his shadows, an inhabitant of his own penumbra; but the other one who knew me was a mystery. A very large chess piece, a bishop, he was. Then I struggled to my blistered feet, the traitorous hammock entangled around my legs, and croaked, “Not Mister Pawn?”
“What do you think?” came the retort to that.
“I don’t rightly know. You have his voice but not his shape.” And that was truly the case. He laughed happily.
The front door creaked open.
“Customers!” cried Jack. “The first for ages!”
I rubbed my contrived eyes.
“Watson!” I babbled. “And Crowther!”
And yes, it was they, no less, who had also wandered in a circle. It was too much for them to speak right now, before having a refreshing drink, a meal and a nice sit down on cushions; Jack was an attentive host and soon they were looking more robust, healthy enough to speak and recount their adventures, which were quite alarming.
“We went back to Headquarters, for we had given you up for lost, but they sent us back out. So impressed were they by your dedication that you have been promoted to Field Marshal.”
I clapped my hands. I had reached the last rank!
“Here’s the documentation confirming the promotion,” said Watson as he dipped in the pocket of his greatcoat. But he pulled out a book instead, a Michael Bishop novel, Count Geiger’s Blues, a modern satire, blistering and funny and strangely poignant too.
“I don’t think that’s my promotion,” I remarked.
Crowther dipped into his own pocket. He too pulled out a work by the great Michael Bishop, Transfigurations, a quest story that explores depths of feeling the subgenre has rarely reached before. “That’s strange! Where can it be? We rolled it up in a scroll…”
I waved a dismissive hand. “No need to show me. Your word is proof enough. Yes, I am Field Marshal Hugs!”
“I also was promoted recently,” said the chess piece.
“So you are Pawny?” I cried.
“Now I’m Bishy and I can do diagonals!”
“But how were you promoted?” I persisted. “There is no chess board near here and your original players went away. Did they come back and do the right thing? Why weren’t you promoted to a queen? It’s rare for a pawn to turn into a bishop, isn’t it?”
“Very, in chess,” agreed the bishop, “but my promotion had nothing to do with that game or my original players.”
“I’m eager to hear your tale…”
And he told me. A year or two after I had wandered off into the woods and got lost, two authors entered the inn and ordered cider at the bar. But cider didn’t like taking orders and went sour in a sulk. So they requested ale as an alternative. As Jack operated the pump handle, they admired its unusual girth and sheen in the firelight.
“It’s actually a giant sentient pawn,” Jack said.
“Is that so?” the authors chorused.
“He is working off his debt,” explained Jack.
Now they became interested and when the landlord served the ale and went away to attend to some other business, one of the authors, who was named Christopher Priest, leaned on the bar and whispered in the ear that didn’t exist of the pawn in question, “Psst!”
“What’s the matter?” the pump handle hissed back.
“Why don’t you let us convert you?”
“What into, I wonder?”
“Can’t you guess! I’m a Priest.”
“How does that help?”
“If you adopt the faith, you can become a bishop and you’ll be able to move to any diagonal you please.”
“That sounds grand, but an ordinary priest doesn’t have the power to elect a new bishop. I must decline.”
“I am not the one who will make you into a bishop. It’s my colleague here who’ll do that. Say hello to—”
His companion tipped his staff to me in greeting.
For it was Alexander Pope.
“The most unorthodox way a pawn has ever become a bishop,” I laughed gently. The chess piece shrugged.
“I suppose it is. But maybe the word ‘unorthodox’ is inappropriate in context of that particular situation. There was nothing remotely heretical about Priest or Pope. A fine pair.”
“And now we are best friends. Isn’t that odd?”
Time passed slowly and pleasantly. Jack the landlord retired and left the running of the inn to me. Watson and Crowther drifted away; the pilgrims grew too feeble to molest travellers on the road. Only Bishy remained as steadfast as a stalwart. One morning something occurred to me and I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of it before.
I ran to the chess piece and said, “I can promote you!”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You’re a chess piece and I am the final rank, for it’s impossible to go higher than Field Marshal. If you come closer and touch me, it will mean you have reached the final rank; and when a chess piece reaches the final rank it gets promoted, doesn’t it?”
“Generally that only happens to pawns.”
“Yes, but you’re not a real chess bishop, are you? You’re a pawn that has been ordained a bishop, so really you’re still a pawn. It’s worth a try, don’t you think? Go on: touch me!”
And he did think it was. And yes, he did touch me.
All at once he split down the middle.
I was horrified for a second, a split second, the same kind of split that now sundered him, wide and growing wider. But my apprehension was a misplaced thing, for there was something inside the rent, a solid object, a human being, a man who fell forward.
I was flabbergasted. “Michael Bishop in person!”
He was dazed but soon recovered.
“What I was looking for was under my nose all the time!” I said with a tinge of embarrassment, for the moral seemed a trifle cheesy, and I prefer my trifles made from fresh, not curdled milk; but Michael Bishop put me at my ease by smiling and remarking:
“Nice tavern you have here, Field Marshal…”
“Hugs. May I get you anything?”
“Certainly. Whatever you care to recommend.”
“I recommend Brittle Innings, which may well be the finest variant of the Frankenstein theme since the original appeared. On the other hand, a reader new to your work might prefer—”
“Drinks, not books,” he replied. And I blushed.
I brought him a big refreshing beer.
He drank it with those special authorial gulps invented decades ago by Dylan Thomas. Then it was finished.
After a long pause, I ventured the burning question, “Now you are no longer a chess piece, are you still a master of diagonals?” And I indicated the flagstones on the floor, alternating squares of red and white, adequate for a game of chess with vast pieces.
He studied them briefly, put down his glass.
And slid along the squares with ease, a man with frictionless heels and a superb sense of fun. “I can also do orthogonal rook moves and jump an obstructing piece just like a knight.”
“All pieces rolled into one? That’s what I call versatile.” And I was absolutely right. He is.
The Platinum Ass (17.12.2011)