Peace in amber, p.1
Peace in Amber, page 1
THE WORLD OF KURT VONNEGUT
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PEACE IN AMBER
THE WORLD OF KURT VONNEGUT
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PEACE IN AMBER
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Hugh Howey
All rights reserved.
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Cover design by Jason Gurley
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For the Billy Pilgrims of the world. Those who have seen things that resist our urge to discuss them.
And for the Montana Wildhacks. Those with the wisdom in their breasts to know what they cannot change.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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All this happened, more or less:
One morning I stood beneath a bright blue sky and watched it blossom orange and black as jet fuel went suddenly alight. I saw men and women jump and plummet like flightless birds, the howling wind sucking suit jackets from backs and whipping skirts in a frenzy. I heard the sharp cry of bending steel as it screeched downward, and I smelled that awful char of office furniture and asbestos as it burned and burned for days and days.
The movies get most of it right, I learned. Fireballs look just so. Crowds run just like this, with their eyes wide and with less screaming than you might imagine, just mouths agape as they push each other out of the way. We devolve into animals when we creep near to death. The movies with the big stomping lizards that crush buildings get most of it right. I think the lizards are something we remember, deep in our bones and in our DNA from earlier times. Run, we think, as buildings crumble. Run, as people perish.
I was a yacht captain for a number of years, which is decidedly less glamorous than it sounds to the untrained ear. Yacht and captain are a couple of five-dollar words, but the yachts were not mine and the rank was largely unearned. I was never a private like Billy Pilgrim, never worked my way through any ranks. I lived on a sailboat while I was in college, took a two-week course that required very little study, passed some government tests, and then billionaires let me drive their boats from one harbor to the next. That was my job. A glorified bus driver who also plunged the toilets, scrubbed the decks, and polished the stainless steel.
At the age of twenty-five, I was a certified captain living on a seventy-four-foot yacht in the shadow of two of the tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere. The shadows of those buildings draped across North Cove Marina and cooled me on the hot summer days of the year 2001. Each morning, the sun rose above the Atlantic—far across the other side of Manhattan Island—and peered down at me between colossal towers of metal and glass. It was in those shadows that I scrubbed the decks, getting them clean before the broiling renewed. Here was my brief respite, given to me in those towering dark patches, where now there is only blue sky.
On the planet Tralfamadore, there lies a zoo comprised of scattered geodesic domes. Inside each dome are members of various races, kidnapped from their home planets and housed among the representative clutter of their former abodes. There are sea snakes from Zyx writhing in a flooded dome amid fake and crudely painted spike coral. The Zyx talk to one another by squeaks and blown bubbles, and so old conversations find themselves trapped at the top of the dome in a pocket of noise. The Zyx have lived on Tralfamadore long enough to have relinquished any hope of seeing their home reefs again, any dream of wrapping their tails around loved ones. But not long enough yet for the water to have lost that foul tinge of regret and despair, that smell of paint leaching from plastic coral.
Adjacent to this flooded dome are five balls of fur that roll about and bump into one another. The floor is an uneven series of steps and ramps carved out of dense foam and sprayed to look like the indigenous rock of the dwarf planet Upelote. The five Upes spin senselessly and carom off the large dome’s glass walls. These poor and hapless aliens are still shaken from the long flight aboard the Tralfamadorian zookeeper’s starship. The gravity isn’t right there on Tralfamadore. Neither are the suns and stars.
Across from the Upes, two Earthlings sit on display: Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack. Montana is just waking up from her long slumber aboard a flying saucer. She was picked up two stops before the Upes, kidnapped to give Billy Pilgrim company. Her eyes flutter open, and then her mouth. Montana screams and screams while hundreds of Tralfamadorians gather around the dome to take in this newest exhibit. The heads of these strange aliens resemble oversized hands, a single eye in the palm. The Tralfamadorians clap by making fists, over and over. Montana Wildhack sees them through the glass and thinks that this is the time when people stir from their nightmares. This is the time. She goes on thinking this, screaming and screaming while the Tralfamadorians make their delighted fists.
It is one thing to know that there are more than three dimensions; it is another thing altogether to see them. It isn’t so hard to see up to nine dimensions, but humans rarely attempt the feat. They are happy enough to see in three. Many stick to two. Some are content with one and travel through life the way a subway moves through the earth. They are always on some line. Here is their stop. Work and home. Home and work. Back and forth, with a magazine read, perhaps, between the two. There was one woman who lived her entire life in a single dimension, never moving from where she was born. Seventy-five years later, she was buried on that very spot, and by all appearances seemed happy enough on most days. By the time Montana Wildhack was abducted from her home in Palm Springs, California, more and more people were attempting to live a life in one dimension. Advances in computing technology known as Zynga were making this more and more feasible. It was becoming A Thing.
On Tralfamadore, there lived a race of beings shaped like plungers with hands for heads. They saw in four dimensions by natural course. They couldn’t see the world in any other way. For them, time didn’t slide by like the shadows of buildings. They saw every state of the world all at once, not in slices like Earthlings do (those who even bother).
Listen: There is Montana Wildhack inside a dome, screaming and terrified. There she is on a couch in a rented office space in Hollywood, California, silent and similarly afraid. A friend has sent her to audition for a movie. She is sixteen, but her driver’s license says she is older. A man who is a director but likes to call himself a producer keeps staring at the locket that hangs between Montana’s breasts. He rubs his mustache over and over and asks what she’s been in before. The room smells of old cigars and sweat. Montana Wildhack will be a famous movie star in a few years, and of course any Tralfamadorian can see that. But all Montana can see is a strange man leaning in too close, a hand on her k
There are books written in the Tralfamadorian way. You can read them in any order, front to back or sideways and inside out. It doesn’t matter, because it all happened. You have to see it all at once to know the book. To tell anyone what you are reading is pointless. You have to wait. You can only comment on your sense of the thing when studied from some distance. I studied a book like this in college, just a few years ago (a Tralfamadorian would say that I am still studying it). I hated the book when I read it the first time. A lot of people died. Truly awful things happened to a man who became an author, but he wrote of these things and utter nonsense in the same breath, and this made me dismiss the book. Until I finished it. You have to see all things at once, as on Tralfamadore. I read it again. I caught a glimpse of some other dimension. I began to back away, and I saw all of it at once, and that’s when I wept and saw that it was good.
The thing I hated while reading this book, it turns out, was me. Bad things happen, and shoulders are shrugged. The most serious of events are blended with the strange. The author pulled me inside his mind, and what I found there was a dead stillness, the somber and poignant wisdom of someone with little hope and scars across his eyes. There was humor there, too. But not the bright kind. The man who wrote that book is dead. So it goes.
Montana Wildhack was abducted while sunning beside her pool. She was twenty years old, which is middle-aged in her profession. In her first two years, she made over seventy films. It didn’t take long to film movies such as these, try as men might to prolong each scene. And Montana was in high demand, for in addition to being lovely, she could act. Had she known this skill had other outlets, she would have skipped her early career altogether and made a different sort of film, the kind with plot and wardrobe. But that would come after, and the least of the little a young person knows is what they’re capable of. It takes a Tralfamadorian to see all of time and know that life won’t always be so dim. Nor so good. Seen all at once, the way a Tralfamadorian sees time, life makes perfect sense. Which would be an odd way to live one.
Waking up naked inside a glass dome does strange things to Montana’s brain. There was a blue California sky and a burning sun overhead one moment, and now the sound of her own screaming voice. She can still smell the baby oil on her skin. A man is there, also naked. Tall and skinny and unattractive, with a leer that makes him look like a Hollywood director. And beyond the glass, hundreds of fleshy beings that look like plungers with hands for heads and eyes where the palms should be clap by making fists. This is how Tralfamadorians show that they are happy. This is how they know the world is right by them. They make fists.
If I try hard enough—which is to say by not trying at all—I can see in the fourth dimension the way a Tralfamadorian does. There I am, sitting in a college classroom. It is the summer of 2011, and I’m studying a book that jumps around and makes me feel angry and hollow inside. It’s also summertime ten years earlier in New York, and I’m working on a windlass in the stern of a fancy yacht. It is the summer of 2013, and I’m lying in a bed in Florida, typing. My dog is having a dream. On Tralfamadore, time is seen all at once, which makes it difficult at times to see how things are tied together. I’m reading a book about bombs being dropped on Dresden. Twenty-five thousand people are dying. There’s a plane banking over Manhattan right now. I can read the jumble of numbers and letters on the tail of that plane. I am screaming in my head for the pilot to pull up. On Tralfamadore, they communicate telepathically. They do not do this on Earth. No one will ever hear me. There is orange and black against a bright blue sky, and I think I can feel the heat of a movie effect against my face, but maybe it’s just fear and my imagination. My friend Kelly yells down at me from the neighboring yacht: “Did you see that?” Kelly’s brain is doing odd things. Montana Wildhack is screaming. All of us are. Twelve years later, I’m lying beside my dog in an otherwise empty house. She dreams and I cry. Thousands are dying all over again. So it goes.
Montana Wildhack learned at a young age that she would only be loved for her flesh. Her uncle taught her this, and no one ever thought to teach her any differently. The Serenity Prayer is engraved on the locket around her neck. Listen:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
She has read it enough to be able to read it upside down, just as it lies. The trickiest part is the last line. This is where mortals who live in three dimensions have too much expected of them. All of human misery lies here. Hubris and cowardice, too. If only it were as simple as a prayer that can fit on a locket. If only wisdom were so cheap. But men wrestle with the things they cannot change, and they ignore those that might bend to some economy of effort. Winning at wrestling is about picking your partner. Most people prefer the unconquerable brute they already know. Or maybe, if you look around, we’re addicted to a challenge. And so things go unchanged and unaccepted, and our arms and hearts grow weary.
On Tralfamadore, the applause of fists dies down, and Montana is alone and terrified in a room with a naked man. She has been here before. She knows what to do, and it is a sad thing that she does not know any better. Billy Pilgrim thinks he is a lucky man, that he is saving her. Montana feels dead inside, but this is the only feeling she has ever known. She is on the planet Tralfamadore, billions of light years from Earth, but she feels right at home in this stranger’s arms. The way a mosquito feels at peace in amber.
* * *
September 10, 2001. A storm is brewing in New York City. A clash is about to begin. Tempers will soon rise as historical conquests and slights are remembered and renewed on the eve of this fight between ancient and embittered foes.
Yes, the Boston Red Sox are playing the New York Yankees.
Roger Clemens is slated to pitch, looking for his twentieth win. It’s the last meeting of the year between the two teams. I’m there to watch. My best friend, Scott, is there, visiting from South Carolina. Kevin—my boss and the captain of a neighboring yacht—is there as well. He is also joined by his best friend. It is a coincidence, our best friends from out of town staying with us that week. It’s a Monday, and the weather is dismal. A storm comes, and then the rain, and we stand in it, naively hopeful, as fifty thousand fans slowly leak from Yankee Stadium. We splash in the rivers at the bottoms of the bleachers, while candy wrappers and empty cups drift toward distant drains. Men down on the field cover the diamond of dirt so that it won’t turn to mud, and it’s dark when they announce there won’t be any baseball. It feels less like America after that. We head home sad and soaked, but it is only rain.
Our friends had come a long way to see something distinctly New York and vastly American, and so as we pass through those glass towers toward the marina we call home, Kevin and I take our best friends up to Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center’s north tower. After a long elevator ride, we wet our insides to go with our outsides. The city sparkles from those heights. There isn’t a soiled patch of street to be seen, just wet newness, black asphalt shiny like rivers of oil. I stand with my forehead pressed to the glass, shoulder to shoulder with Andrew, a mechanic from another boat, as we both peer into that unblemished, that happy and serene America, far, far below.
“Imagine this coming down,” I say out loud. I believe it’s the mammal in me that has this thought, the mammal that can remember living in trees. It’s the same part of me that is terrified of giant lizards. It’s the part of me that makes me contemplate a fall when confronted with an abyss or some great height.
Far below Andrew and me, taillights wink on and off. A light turns green, and everyone races off all at once, in a hurry to get somewhere. After a pause, Andrew says that these buildings will always be here, that they will outlive us all. And I believe him.
“But just imagine,” my mammal brain says, “if you took this one we’re st
Andrew tells me the building would go straight down, however you tried to topple it. He says something about mass being pulled toward the center of the earth, something about structural loads. He tells me you’d have to make this building much stronger to sit at a lean, and so any lean at all would send everything plummeting as neat as a demolition.
My mammal brain rejects this thought. Andrew is an engineer, but I still don’t believe him. Behind us, one of the bartenders complains about the late hour and says he has to be back early in the morning to work a double. I glance at my wristwatch. It has gotten so late that it is now September 11, and there I am standing in a patch of blue and empty sky.
* * *
I’m in the lazarette of the motor yacht Prelude on the morning of September 11. The compartment is tight. There’s raw fiberglass against my shoulder, the site of a future itch. A Tralfamadorian would know to go ahead and scratch it. I’m sweaty and hot in that cramped space, and it’s difficult to breathe or even move. I’m loosening the last bolt on the underside of a motorized winch when I hear the boom. I hear it and I feel it. The boat shudders, the fiberglass resonating, a hollow in my chest like standing too close to a tower of speakers at a noisy concert.
by Hugh Howey / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Short Stories / Literature & Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes