Excerpt from 'Void Star'

Void Star

A Novel

By Zachary Mason

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 Zachary Mason
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-28506-7


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. Floating World,
2. High Playground,
3. Oculus,
4. Negotiable Sense of Place,
5. Working,
6. What Forgetting Is,
7. Discipline,
8. Unreal City,
9. Matches,
10. Laptop,
11. Theater,
12. Clinic,
13. Secret Book,
14. Ghost,
15. Future Shift,
16. Circumference,
17. Tunnel,
18. Essential Hardness,
19. No True Security,
20. Fundamental Things Never Really Change,
21. Someone,
22. Shapes Purely,
23. Finish Up,
24. Stillness in Memory,
25. Just Leaving the Station,
26. Nonexistent Prisons,
27. Venice Replicated,
28. Departure,
29. Bad Pattern,
30. Ossuary,
31. Refuge,
32. Still Unformed,
33. Encoded in Form,
34. Final Sword,
35. Persephone,
36. Usually in Trouble,
37. Cloudbreaker,
38. Thought Purely,
39. Lost Coast,
40. In the Palm of Her Hand,
41. Oublier,
42. Tangle of Snakes and Darkness,
43. Intimacy of the Mundane,
44. Great Dark Forward,
45. Good Thing to Own,
46. Exact Enumeration of Blurred Flocks,
47. Something to Cry About,
48. World Is a Chessboard,
49. Closely Coupled Forms of Nothing in Particular,
50. Our Lady of Drones,
51. Never Really Have Happened,
52. Sphinx Explains Our Horror,
53. A Little Beyond the Law,
54. Unwieldy, Lovely, Perhaps Eighteenth Century,
55. Form on the Water,
56. Axis Mundi,
57. Vaguely Cetacean,
58. Touch Nothing,
59. Telemetry Irreconcilable,
60. What They Really Wanted,
61. Hole in the Wall,
62. Flaw in His Vision,
63. Purpose, Impatience, Suffering,
64. Difficult Transition,
65. Babel,
66. Change of Plan,
67. Future Selves Forgive Her,
68. Beyond Is Hidden,
69. Island in the Past,
70. History Lacks a Story,
71. Dolos,
72. Memorial,
73. Masamune,
74. Marmont,
75. No Longer Metaphor,
76. Continuity,
77. Arabescato,
Also by Zachary Mason,
A Note About the Author,


Floating World

Below her are the lights of the valley, like burning jewels on a dark tide. The Bay is a negative space around them, its leaden ripples picked out in the moonlight. There is, Irina realizes, a pattern in the flawed latticework of lights, something deeper than the incidental geometry of buildings and streetlight, to which the city has, unwitting, conformed itself, and, with this revelation, what she had taken for single lights expand into constellations, and each of their lights is a constellation in itself, luminescent forms in an endless descent, and the city is like a nebula, radiant with meaning, and this is how she finally knows she's dreaming.

She is aware, now, that she's on a plane, her forehead resting against the window, is aware of her slow, even breathing, of the awkward abandon of her legs skewed out in front of her. She caught the last shuttle from Los Angeles to San Francisco, leaving after midnight from a terminal abandoned by everyone but the drones scrubbing the floors. Now, twenty thousand feet in the air, she is alone, the plane following the sky's ley lines of its own accord, like a mute, friendly animal that knows the way home. Even in the dream's residue this gives her pause, automated commercial aviation only having come about when she was a teenager, but she thinks how, with access to the eyes of satellites and databases of the windforms and cloudforms and aircraft in the sky, the plane can see all the night at once.

She remembers the camera set unobtrusively into the seatback — perhaps in some distant darkened office-park there is an attendant, bored, lonely, her fingernails digging crescents into her coffee cup, face awash in LED glow, who is watching her, and worries, briefly, at her stillness, but is reassured by the motion behind her eyelids, and does the attendant feel some vast compassion for her charges adrift in this dark gulf of sky?

The plane banks and she comes fully awake. A loudspeaker offers muffled advice that she automatically ignores. Out the window she sees the imbricated panels of the wing shift slightly, the airflow whitely visible. Below her, the Bay and the ragged scrawl of lights, but now they are entirely legible and entirely banal — the glitter from the spires of the new downtown, the shoals of the office parks, the favelas glowing like cyclopean piles of cinders. She feels lighter, now; she is descending.


High Playground

The stinging impact of Kern's palms against the cool concrete and he's up and off again, flowing over the rooftop jumble of the favela's density. The night's celebrants and their predators have dispersed, and the workers are just stirring, so his progress has no witness but the flags and laundry shivering in the wind.

A canyon opens before him, a gap in the fabric of the rooftops — discipline requires that he never break stride, so he gauges his footing and leaps, glimpsing balconies below him, the cables criss-crossing the void — the momentary coldness of the rift's exhalation. Landing, he's grateful for the concrete's roughness, its traction, how it makes the favelas his playground.

A drone like a bulbous, dog-sized ant methodically deposits a new layer of concrete on the wall before him; it slowly lifts its mauve plastic head to scan him but he is up, over and past. Illegal, that kind of robot; their hum, ubiquitous this time of day, will be gone by the time people are working. Another night and whatever it's building will be finished, its weight added to the ever-burgeoning city.

The concrete seems to give, slightly, under his feet; perhaps an illusion, born of his speed, or perhaps this block is overbuilt, and unstable. He has seen the sinkholes, the fractured declivities, the rubble intermixed with splintered furniture, scattered clothes, all the sad relics of ruined private lives. He has explored the settling ruins of recent collapse, remembers the cramped incidental geometry of the unplanned mazes, the terror of masses shifting above him. He runs faster, as though pursued, breath steaming, feet seeming barely to touch the ground.

Now the rooftops slope down and he is infused with a terrible lightness as he leaps over prisms of broken concrete, the slope reminding him that there were hills under the favelas, once, and he wonders if the favelas' broken contour mirrors the hills' hidden swell. He has never found bare earth, there, just tunnels, tiers and old rooms ever deeper, and below them the ancient buildings, the basements and sewers, the forgotten warrens in the dark. There were wonders down there, they said, if you knew the way — a brothel in a long room lit by a single bulb, a secret club where men played chess and no one ever spoke, a swimming pool full of seawater, tiled in lapis.

Before him is an aluminum water tower, once a chemical tanker, protruding from the roof like an egg set on end. He gathers momentum and launches himself up, its crudely welded ladder creaking as it takes his weight, and then he is perched on top, the tanker shifting, vibrating with the slosh of its thousands of gallons. As his breathing slows and his sweat dries he takes in the pale moonlight on the water, the silver clouds enveloping the bridges, traces with his eyes the map of his secret byways through San Francisco. Something about the light on downtown's towers makes it seem remote, incorruptible, a place outside of time.



Thales stumbles, catches the wall, clings to it, suddenly woozy.

He looks over his shoulder at his brother Helio, sees his dawning horror, realizes this might be serious.

His upper lip is wet. Touching it, his fingers come away red, but taking his hand from the wall was a mistake because he loses all sense of where he is in space until he finds himself on the floor, which is covered in wet sand, coarse and cold against his cheek, reeking of ocean.

They're in a tunnel from the beach, under the corniche. The seaward mouth is an oculus of variegated blue. The tunnel's acoustics make the wave's crash ring.

Black wave of nausea, then he's vomiting. Gouts of red darker than blood should be. That's bad, he's thinking, as the spasm climaxes.

"We need some help here," Helio is shouting to the bodyguard who is also, Thales remembers, a nurse, and who, from the footsteps, is coming at a run.

Shadows kneeling around him. A needle pierces his shoulder.

"This will help you breathe," says the bodyguard-who-is-a-nurse, his voice too calm, it seems like he should be more upset in honor of the occasion, and then a plastic mask is pressed over his nose and mouth.

Black military boots by his face. Beyond them, white lines slide down the glowing circle of celestial blue — waves, perhaps — but they won't come into focus, so he looks at the weave of shoelaces, the scuffs and scratches on the black leather, the grains of sand stuck to the rubber sole. His implant will record this moment in every detail, as it records every moment, so perfectly he's come to feel that nothing is lost to time.

Oxygen hisses into the mask, chills his lungs.

"Medevac drone incoming in ... ninety-one seconds. Eighty-nine," a bodyguard says hoarsely.

A girl in a crocheted bikini has stopped in the tunnel mouth, her fingertips at her lips, like she's just seen the saddest thing in the world. The men kneeling around him are like statues, immovable and remote. He tries to roll to face the wall but they hold him down. I don't want to be here for this, he thinks, and retreats into his implant's memory.

The tunnel and his pain dissolve, and there's the recollection of the last two weeks, there in their entirety, sharp and undecayed. He skims over the surface of the hours — there's the clinic, the beaches, the many books on the theory of numbers, the freeways of Los Angeles as seen through the hardened windows of the armored town car — and finally alights on the first moments of the implant's record, when he was waking up in a hospital bed in a room he didn't know. A window framed the early light on a strange sea — it wasn't Leblon, maybe not even in Rio. His mother, looking haggard, was drowsing by the bed; waking, she crushed his hand in hers, bent to kiss his cheek and, he thought, breathe in his hair. Beside her sat a stranger, tie but no jacket, perhaps a doctor, immersed in his tablet.

Something was stuck to Thales' chest — his fingers found a thick pad of gauze, and another on his forehead — had he been injured? He couldn't recall, and he couldn't look away from the restless sea, because, incredibly, its changing shapes persisted in his memory, a new memory, another memory, and every moment as though immured in glass, as clear as the little poetry he had by heart, and he wondered if it was a hallucination, or the side effect of some drug.

"How are you?" asked his mother, her voice thick, smoothing back his hair, careful of the bandage, and he saw her relax when his eyes focused on hers. There was the memory of his words, and the memory of the memory, and then the memory of that, echoing on until his attention shifted.

"What happened?" he asked. A beat of silence while his mother worked out what to say, which meant it was bad, which was, come to think of it, obvious.

"There was an attack," she said. "An assassination. You were wounded, and your father was killed. It was political." He reached for sadness but felt only surprise that the old man had run out of tricks; he wondered if his father's demise would turn out to be staged, if, like Sherlock Holmes, he was not dead but just in hiding, waiting for the right moment to dramatically reappear. "Rio was untenable," his mother went on, "and the doctors you needed wouldn't come to Brazil, so I brought you here, to Los Angeles, with your brothers. We'll leave for the U.S. proper once we get visas and you're well enough to travel."

"I was hurt?"

"A sniper fired armor-piercing rounds at your father's car," the stranger says, standing. American, with an intensity and an absolute confidence, his cologne redolent of river water and orchids. "You were hit twice. You suffered a pierced lung and major cranial ablation. You've been in an induced coma for three weeks. I operated on you for twenty-six hours." The surgeon's motions seemed excessively controlled, as though he refused to let his fatigue show.

"I'm remembering things."

"That's your implant. It's about two inches under the bandage on your forehead. It took over the function of the unviable tissue, and so saved your life. The expanded memory is a side effect, a kind of bonus." The surgeon looked at his tablet and smiled, the first crack in an otherwise impenetrable professional facade. "The installation was ... complex, but I'm happy to say it's working perfectly."

Thales had read about memory implants, had wondered what it would be like, had never thought to learn. "But those never really worked," he said. "The memory thing worked, but the people who got them usually died."

Impassive, distant, compassionate, the surgeon said, "There is absolutely no doubt that the implant will improve both the quality and the duration of your life."

And then he's back in the tunnel feeling like he's choking as someone stuffs a glove into his mouth and now he's biting down on the leather and cotton as a lozenge of white light — reflected from someone's watch? — skitters across the ceiling. His muscles are trembling — is he cold? — and someone is holding his head on their lap, and he wants to say he's going to be sick again but the tunnel is dark and its roof seems far away and as though from a distance he hears Helio say, "You're going to be fine!"

Someone is complaining that the medevac has been delayed by two minutes, its flight path went over the wrong neighborhood and someone shot at it, it's rerouting, fuck LA, in Brazil they'd know not to fly over the fucking favelas.

His awareness narrows to a single mote of light, the implant diligently recording.

Then it's time to let go of everything, and then he does, and the implant quietly turns itself off.

He wakes up in a hospital bed in a room he now knows well. Out the window the early light shines on the Pacific. Through the window he sees the sun shining on the sea and is aware of the rules of light's motion through space.

He touches his upper lip — his fingers come away clean. There are gauze bandages on his chest and forehead.

The sea heaves and shifts but its shapes slip away from him. He wonders if the implant is broken, and what happened, and, confusedly, if this is anesthesia annihilating time.

His mother isn't there, but the surgeon is sitting by the bed; he looks up from his tablet and says, "We need to ask you some questions."


Negotiable Sense of Place

Whatever liminal grace informs airports — some sense of perpetual arrival and departure, of being in an anonymous crowd united in separation from their proper lives — is absent now; the terminal stinks of disinfectant, and stalls blink garishly, trying to sell her perfume, T-shirts, duty-free alcohol, things Irina could not ever imagine wanting, and she has a sudden and overwhelming sense that the trip was a mistake, that she does not after all need the money, and wishes with all her being that she hadn't come.

The terminal funnels her to the entry checkpoint; they make you go through security again, when you get off a plane from LA, an uncomfortable reminder of how bad things are in that city. On the customs card she lists her profession as "computational translator," as accurate a description as any. This late there's only one guard, who stops reading the news on his phone long enough to take her card and wave her through the humming scan tunnel but she stops, says, "I have an implant," fishing through her purse for the letter on FAA letterhead certifying that, yes, she has a cranial implant, yes, it is the legal kind, no, it is not construed as a munition. With it, she forgets nothing. Only a few dozen people ever got her kind, less than ten are left, and she dreads questions. (Even the simplest implants are getting phased out — you used to need one to be a combat officer in the Marines, but the technology never really matured and now no one much uses them.) The guard reads the letter, eyes her skull with professional interest (she always wears bangs, against this very eventuality), and says, "Is it one of those direct connections to the net?" As he seems kind, and is without swagger, she delays her course toward hotel and sleep long enough to muster a smile and say, "It's memory," then retrieves the letter in the same motion that carries her into the scanner. The screen of the guard's laptop is reflected in the chromed walls; she sees herself as a ghost, walking, bones and the hardware in her bag glowing slightly, as does the arc of the device just behind her forehead.

As she rides the conveyor belts past empty storefronts, a closed Koffee Kiosk senses her gaze and illuminates itself, its marquee displaying helically frothed cappuccinos twirling through an abstract mathematical space. A direct connection to the net, she reflects, feels like an airport at night (the implant has this feature, but she almost always keeps it turned off) — something about being bombarded by sterile, impersonal and ultimately vacuous information, though part of her wishes that the Koffee Kiosk were open; she briefly considers turning on her wireless, cracking the Kiosk's security as she would an eggshell, making it give her coffee.

Finally, the double doors to the outside, their surfaces glowing with a last, desperate attempt to sell her discount fares to Gdansk, Helsinki, Reykjavík, and then they whisk open. As the cool outside air envelops her, the sense that place is fundamentally negotiable — endemic, she suspects, to airports — departs.

On the curb, she smells the chaparral in the hills, the fog, and knows where she is. As though in acknowledgment of this, a drone cab pulls to the front of the empty taxi queue. It's painted bright green, marking it as robotic. She gets in and a video screen on the inside of the door lights up; a software agent appears, a sort of sexy cartoon librarian who says, "Welcome to ... the San Francisco Airport! Where can I take you tonight?" and beams. Her business being the inner lives of AIs, she knows exactly how little this one has, and touches the small button on the screen that dismisses the friendly interface. "Destination, please," says a calm, genderless voice. She finds the option that brings up a keyboard on the screen and types in the name of the hotel.


Excerpted from Void Star by Zachary Mason. Copyright © 2017 Zachary Mason. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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