by Rudy Rucker and Paul Di Filippo
The ferry slid away, trailing thick, luscious ripples across the waters of the fjord. A not-unpleasant scent compounded of brine, pine and gutted fish filled the air. Most of the new arrivals were jostling into a sanitary, hermetic tour bus. But one man and woman set off on foot along a tiny paved road, pulling their wheeled suitcases behind them.
The village ahead seemed utterly deserted.
“They’re resting in peace,” said the man, pausing to light a cigarette, his angular face intent. He wore jeans, a pale shirt, an expensive anorak, and designer shades. “Dead as network television.”
“It’s Sunday, Mark,” said his companion. “It’s Norway.” She wore oversize sunglasses and low heels. A lemon-yellow silk scarf enfolded her crop of blond hair, a soft red cashmere sweater draped her shoulders. She looked as if she wanted to be happy, but had forgotten how.
The stodgy crypt of a tour bus lumbered past them. The man offered the passengers a wave. Nobody acknowledged him. “Sweet silence,” said the man as the bus’s roar faded. “Like being packed in cotton wool.”
The woman looked around, studying the scene. “With the fjord and the mountains—anything we say feels kind of superficial, doesn’t it? The beauty here—it’s like a giant waterfall. And my soul’s a tiny glass.”
“We’re fugitives, Laura. They could gun us down any minute. That’s why everything seems so heavy.”
“Shove it, Mark!”
“Never hurts to face the facts. That big house up ahead, you think that’s a hotel?”
“I hope it’s a love nest for us,” said Laura with a sad little smile. “I’m ready to relax and be friends, aren’t you? It might help if I had a book to read.”
“You’ll be reading this,” said Mark, playfully tapping his crotch. “Page one.”
Laura tossed her head, mildy amused. A few steps later she stopped still and made a sudden extravagant gesture. “Lo and behold!”
Right beside the narrow road was an unmanned shelf of books—warped boards, a piece of stapled-down, folded-back canvas for protection from the elements—with a sign reading: Honest Books, 10 Kr. each. A gnome-shaped metal coin-bank was beside the sign.
“Honest—that’s wishful thinking on their part, right?” said Mark. “I say you just help yourself.”
“The windows look empty, but there’s people inside the houses watching us,” said Laura. “Village life, right?” She leaned over the books. “The only English ones I see are totally foul best-sellers.”
“Which you’ve already read.”
“Which I’ve already read. Years ago. I guess I could try a Norwegian book. I can read that a little bit. Thanks to all my work as an interpreter.”
“And thanks to granny on your family’s Minnesota farm.”
“Don’t mock the farm, Mark. We can’t all be city slickers. Oh, look at this strange book here. I’ll dream over it while nibbling brown bread.”
“No words in it at all,” said Mark, flipping through the moldy, leather-bound volume. “Just symbols and blobs.”
“I wonder if it’s math?”
“Not like any I’ve ever seen. And what’s up with the title? God Bøk with that slash through the o.”
“Means Good Book,” said Laura. “I want it. Pay the troll, Mark.”
Mark dropped a ten kroner coin into the troll-shaped bank beside the books. The coin clattered resonantly, the sound seeming to issue from impossibly cavernous depths.
They passed a gray wooden church and came to the big house that Mark had noticed. It was indeed a hotel, the Hotel Fjaerland. A fresh-faced young woman sat at desk downstairs. She wore her brown hair in a bun, her eyes were ice blue.
“I’m Ola,” she told them in a lightly accented voice. Somehow her lilting English managed to remind Mark of otters at play. “I can give you the room just up those stairs.” She handed them a large skeleton key with the number 3 on a tag. “We have a wine and orientation session at six. I’ll be giving a little talk about the house’s history. You’ll be taking your supper here?”
“Sure,” said Mark.
“But I wonder if we could get some breakfast right now?” asked Laura. “We had to leave so early this morning to catch the ferry.”
“I’m bringing you something on the porch,” said Ola pleasantly. “I’m the manager, the receptionist, the waitress and more. The hotel’s been in my family for quite some time.”
It was lovely on the gazebo-like back porch, with a green lawn rolling down to the final finger of the fjord. Ola served them tea, coffee, berries and bread with butter.
“Life’s rich panoply,” said Laura to Mark. “I’m grateful that we made it this far.”
They strolled the hotel grounds. The month was July, and the northern days were twenty hours long. The plants were making the most of it, burgeoning with petals and leaves. Set among some five-pointed pink flowers was a vertical stone plinth, like a gravestone higher than a man, covered not with writing, but with irregular spots of moss or lichen. Nature had built a monument to her own subtle variety.
“They look like the pictures in my God Bøk,” remarked Laura.
“Let’s go up to the room and study,” suggested Mark.
“High time,” said Laura. “Page one.”
The pair of lumpy Norwegian mattresses favored by the Hotel Fjaerland contorted themselves under their shifting weights into non-intuitive topologies, and the two-mattress iron bedstead creaked. But they got the job done—their first carnal encounter in weeks. They dropped off into a blissful couple of hours of sleep.
When Mark awoke, he saw Laura leaning on one elbow, studying him across the bed’s expanse. The linen-sheeted comforter had slumped to reveal her shapely breasts, unquenched by nearly forty years of living.
“That was tender and intense,” she said, planting a gentle kiss on his forehead.
Feeling cautious, Mark kept his face blank.
“Don’t tell me you’re still holding a grudge!” exclaimed Laura. “We’re here to erase the bad times while we can, right? To taste those good old vibes that we had before the work burnout and—and before that horrible night. And before we had to flee the law.”
Uneasily Mark made a joke. “Tender and intense, yeah. Is that like jalapeno-flavored Cool Whip? Or more like a Brillo pad massage?”
Laura’s face assumed a fixed and frozen expression. Slowly but deliberately, she got out of the bed and began to dress.
“Hey, where are you going?”
She said nothing for a drawn-out few seconds, as if mastering her temper, and then replied, “Mark, I don’t know if you want to waste the time you’ve got left on wallowing in bitterness and defeat and sarcasm. Okay, the feds have stolen our semiotic analyzer and we’re up to our asses in debt and we’re charged with some serious crimes. We can still bounce back—but not if you keep nursing your sulk. It’s spoiling everything—especially our marriage.”
Mark huffed. “Our marriage. You laid that wide open when you caught me with my chief exec—”“
“With Beryl,” spat Laura. “We can say her name.”
“With Beryl, yes,” continued Mark. “We were just having a little party to celebrate the final beta tests for the Yotsa 7. I wasn’t trying to sneak around on you or I wouldn’t have invited you. I was drunk and happy. All I did was kiss her. But nothing I said was a good enough excuse. And then you had to take your petty revenge with Lester Lo—my chief tech! In the office right next door! So thanks to you I had to fire Lester. He went rogue, the feds came down on us, and we missed the chance to market our new product.”
Laura’s voice began to rise, despite her best efforts. “It’s just like you to turn things around and put me in the wrong. We both made mistakes, yes. But I’m trying to make the best of things, and you’re not! You’re clutching your misery to yourself like you’ve fathered some inhuman changeling baby. It’s sucking the lifeblood out of you—and out of me too!”
Mark made no reply, and Laura continued. “Listen to me, dear. I’m here in a strange and beautiful land. I’ve come here at no little cost and effort, to relax and enjoy myself and to take stock of my life—with or without you! If you can drag your mind out of despond, and notice where we are, and contemplate a shared future—well, if you can do all that, you’ll find me on the lawn, ready for a stroll. And if not—”
Laura didn’t bang the door to their room on the way out, but Mark could tell she wanted to. And he wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.
He knew he was being a jerk. He knew he should consign the past miserable year of overwork and ambition and failure to his personal dustbin of history, cut his losses, pick himself up, shine his shoes, wear a smile, look on the bright side, retool, get a good lawyer—all that optimistic, self-help, go-getter shit. But something deep inside him rebelled.
Their semiotic analyzer should be making them millions! And thanks to Lester Lo, the feds had grabbed it and made it top-secret and charged Mark and Laura with a bunch of trumped-up bullshit libel and sedition counts. When Mark had caught wind of the feds’ plans for devastating black-ops reprisals, he and Laura had gone undercover and headed for the ass-end of the civilized world. Norway.
Mark heaved his hairy naked form from the bed. Though forty-five, he was still more muscle and sinew than flab. The view out the windows drew his eyes. It was heart-breakingly lovely here, with yellow flowers around the window frames, a cozy little barn perched just so in the swooping field, and the backdrop of elegantly asymmetrical mountains. The fjord wobbled with liquid reflections that cycled through ever-lovelier forms of universal beauty. Mark’s new life with Laura could be paradise—and he was making it hell.
Everything had begun so well. Mark and Laura had met in grad school at Columbia, both of them studying linguistics. They’d fallen in love and married. Laura had become a professional interpreter for the U.N., and Mark had drifted into multimedia advertising, eventually founding his little ferret of a company: Bloviation. The sense of wonder that Mark and Laura shared over the deep structures of language had proved an abiding source of inspiration.
Mark smiled ruefully as his eye fell upon the God Bøk beside their bed. It was so typical of Laura to buy something like that. In past days, the loving couple might have spent hours poring over the artifact, forming hypotheses and spinning tales. With a sigh, Mark lifted the book, and began leafing through it it. Geometric mandalas alternated with splattered shapes that resembled stilled explosions. A slow tingle oozed from the book into Mark’s fingertips. Perhaps there was something here of special importance.
“I can decrypt this!” exclaimed Mark to himself. “I have my magic spectacles.” He opened his suitcase, unzipped a hidden inner pocket, and removed what appeared to be a lorgnette—a pair of glasses that unfolded from a delicately tooled stick.
The elegant device was a Yotsa 7, the last of the prototype semiotic analyzers that Mark possessed. All the other units had been commandeered by the feds the day after the big melt-down at Bloviation. Laura might have given Mark a tongue-lashing if she’d known he’d brought this one along, this bad seed offspring that lay at the heart of their troubles. But, in a way, the invention had been Laura’s idea.
“Imagine a search engine that goes beyond syntax or semantics,” Laura had mused in a casual conversation two years ago. “Something that treats its inputs as signposts pointing to vexed and hidden meanings. Like—what’s a hamburger really about—and what do people want it to be about? What mythic archetypes are packed inside an automobile’s trunk? What are the psychic and social subtexts of shampoo?”
“You’re talking about semiotics,” Mark said. “The meaning of signs.”
“Yes. You need to build a semiotic analyzer. Call it the Yotsa 7.”
“Seven is better than one, right?” Laura giggled infectiously. “Yots better.”
Although the couple lacked any deep technical skills, Laura knew some theoreticians heavily into natural-language recognition. And Mark employed a few savagely gifted techs, foremost among whom was Lester Lo.
After a year of research and another of frenzied tinkering, Bloviation had produced a prototype of the Yotsa 7. The lenses were of a special quasicrystalline substance related to Icelandic spar, and the filigreed handle contained a state-of-the-art quantum computer full of qubit memristors. So what did the Yotsa 7 do? It revealed the deeper meanings of the objects in view.
The semiotic analyses were derived from artificially-intelligent image parsers, from social network statistics, and—this, too, had been Laura’s idea—from a specialized search engine that flipped through an exhaustive data base that held a century’s worth of digitized international comic strips in a peta-qubit quantum loop within the handle. According to Laura, the demotic medium of comics was a royal road into the depths of the human psyche.
To use the Yotsa 7, you simply held the magic glasses to your eyes like a snooty Viennese dowager eyeing her niece’s dance-partner. As a nod to user-interface pizzazz, the layers of semiotic information appeared as if overlaid upon the scene in three-dimensional shells—and these layers of meaning were directly projected into your psyche via quantum entanglement.
The Yotsa 7 would have been a great product—but it worked too well. The night of their doomed celebration party at Bloviation’s three-room office suite, Mark’s chief exec Beryl had popped up a news feed on the video screen. Mark, Beryl, and Lester gazed at the politicians through their quantum-computing lorgnettes.
The Yotsa 7’s semiotic analyzer showed jackals, hyenas, hogs—and even such invertebrates as jellyfish and leeches. What made this especially intense was that the perhaps unsurprising slurs were documented by subsidiary veils of information containing legally actionable data. Exulting in the power of the Yotsa 7, Beryl threw herself into Mark’s arms and kissed him. And that’s when Laura had walked in.
By the next morning, Bloviation was in a shambles. Beryl and Lester were both out. Bitter and resentful, Beryl put Lester up to sharing some of their newfound political dirt via an anonymized blog—that had been tweaked to show a clear trail leading back to Bloviation. Patriot Act time! The feds were at Mark and Laura’s apartment that evening. The Yotsa 7 technology was classified as top secret, and all their work was impounded.
“Imagine this device in the hands of America’s enemies,” one agent had declaimed.
“You’re the country’s worst enemies, and I can actually see you holding it, so I don’t have to imagine!”
In his subsequent fury, Mark had made some threats and charges that the feds had taken quite seriously to heart. He and Laura were charged with libel, with sedition, and possibly with treason—which could carry, in certain contexts, a death penalty, with or without a trial. Mark and Laura hadn’t stuck around long enough to learn the full details.
Mark’s ultrageek connections had fixed them up with new identities, including paper trails, searchable records, passports and some air tickets to Scandinavia. Possibly they were going to stay here for quite a long time.
Mark wrenched his mind back into the present. Like some old-time courtier, he flipped open his lorgnette, swiveling the quasicrystalline lenses from the quantum-computing handle. Holding the spectacles to his eyes, he gazed down into Laura’s God Bøk, focusing on a dense, eccentric, fractal blot.
Mark stopped his prancing. What the hell was this? Shelled around the image on the page, Mark saw a damp dungeon hall, dimly lit by glowing mold, with a beautiful naked woman supine upon a stone altar. The long-haired woman was none other than the self-possessed Ola from the lobby! Leaning over her and thrusting his body into her soft bays and grottoes was a creature with hideously fluid limbs. As if in a nightmare, the beast’s thick, warty neck turned and he stared directly at Mark. Both Ola and the monster were seeing Mark for real, seeing Mark in all his—
“Yoo hoo!” It was Laura, down on the lawn, calling up to him. “Are you coming or not, cranky pants? We slept through lunch, so we might as well take a walk before dinner.”
Mark stashed away the Yotsa 7 and hastily dressed. What a creepy vision of that wormy, squiggly man. But Ola—she was hot! How could he face her now without blushing or smirking? Had the God Bøk-triggered semiotic scene been a glimpse of the past, the future—or some purely hypothetical scenario, a sex fantasy inherent in his own mind? There was the neural entanglement angle to consider…. Mark ineluctably flashed on his prior random glimpses of shokushu goukan, or Japanese tentacle porn. Had the Yotsa 7 dredged this kind of imagery from its semiotic data base? Or was there something real to be discovered? Too many possibilities, too many questions….
Laura would have some insights. She’d always been his sounding-board, his confidante—till their absurd falling-out. But to confide in her now would be to admit the existence of the suppressed, illegal and smuggled Yotsa 7. She’d ream him a new blowhole, right? Or would she? Hard to say….
Still dithering, Mark reached the reception area and, with gratitude blooming in his heart, found the desk untenanted. No embarrassing confrontation—yet! Ola must be preparing a meal, or changing bedsheets, or keeping accounts. Or trysting with an alien? A one-woman enterprise demanded a lot!
For a moment the intensity of the Yotsa vision rushed back on him—the dripping water in the dungeon, the mossy sheen upon the stones, the mixed smell of mold and sexual perfume—was there any chance that the vision had been as accurate as a video feed and that, therefore, Ola was even now reaching an unimaginable climax? He almost seemed to hear a rhythmic cry penetrating through the floor boards—or rather, to feel it in the soles of his feet.
Outside, the vibrant, maritime-scented air and penetrating sunlight cleared the fantasies from his cortex. The afternoon seemed made of exotic crystal. Of course he’d tell Laura everything! They still were husband and wife, right?
Mark took Laura’s arm in his, like courting Victorians strolling down some seaside boardwalk.
“Let’s get away from the hotel a little. I need to tell you something private.”
Laura eyed him with amusement and curiosity. “You’re not going to reveal you’re gay, are you? That it was really Lester Lo, not Beryl, you were after?”
Happy for the light banter, Mark blew her a raspberry. “If you suspect I’m secretly gay after all these years, I’m obviously falling down on my duties. Consider our session just now a preview. We’ll see about a main event tonight.” This was good. This was solid ground.
They followed a narrow, sandy trail affording well-framed views of the exquisite Norwegian countryside. After ten minutes walking, during which Mark refused to reveal anything, they came to a stone bench on a sloping meadow with a pleasing prospect upon the fjord. The waters were deep, even here at the fjord’s tip, and the facing granite cliff plunged straight into the depths.
Something made Mark inspect the bench for any odd lichen patterns analogous to the quasi-organic blobs in the God Bøk. Satisfied that no alien patterns lurked, he sat himself and Laura down, then launched into his confession about the cached Yotsa 7 and what it had shown him back in the hotel room.
Laura pondered Mark’s story intently, then said, “We have to ask first whether we completely trust the Yotsa 7. After all, it was still in the beta stage, never totally debugged.”
“You’re not mad at me for holding back the one unit?”
“Of course not! We worked hard to create our brainchild, only to have it stolen by those brutal G-men jerks who only want to kill us. I wish I’d kept one too!”
“Well, I’d stake a lot on the integrity and accuracy of the software—and of the sensing and display mechanisms too. Lo was a genius. If Yotsa shows us a vision of Ola about to be ravished or eaten by some seaweed man—that’s gotta mean something. Especially since the vision is wrapped around a pattern in your God Bøk. It has some heavy-duty resonance with the reality of the situation here. In our shoes, we can’t afford to overlook anything.”
“Maybe we need to ask Ola outright what she knows about the God Bøk. That is, after you show me that scene through the Yotsa.”
“My god, of course! Just ditch any cringing and pussy-footing.” Mark leaned over to kiss Laura. “That’s one reason I’ve always loved you, you’re so direct.”
“‘Only go straight,’” Laura said, quoting a Korean Zen Master whom she’d studied in her college days.
And, as always, Mark countered with a Marx-Brothers-style corny joke, one that bitterness had prevented him from making recently: “I’d like to get something straight between us.”
Smiling and holding hands, they made their way back to the hotel, this time taking a long way round the fields and pine groves. They got back with a half hour to spare before supper. They were planning to go upstairs to Room 3 to see what else the God Bøk might have to show them, but they were intercepted by Ola, as trim and tidy as before.
“I invite you now for drinks and snacks, yes?”
“Okay, that’s fine,” said Laura. “I’m starved.”
Relaxing into the flow of events, the couple let the petite, clear-skinned Ola lead them into a parlor of shiny chintz armchairs and shelves of antique brick-a-brack. A decanter of wine sat on a little table with five of the smallest glasses that Mark had ever seen. Rare, or extremely potent, or both? Ola doled out a driblet for herself, two for Mark and Laura, and two for a frail and elderly Norwegian couple who spoke no English. No further glasses of wine were to be offered. And a little dish holding precisely four round crackers served as the snack portion of this collation.
Ola gave a little speech, saying everything in both languages, which meant the orientation took considerably longer than expected, especially because the old Norwegian couple kept interrupting Ola with what seemed to be corrections and second thoughts. But Ola treated the old pair kindly, even lovingly, going so far as to give the old woman a reassuring pat on the hand.
In any case, the information on offer was interesting, and it seemed to bear intriguing connections with Mark’s vision. The Hotel Fjaerland was an ancient structure, rife with exotic legends, and human habitation on this site stretched back even further. But—despite what Mark and Laura had decided on the bench—he didn’t feel ready to question Ola about the accuracy of his Yotsa 7 revelation. His brief sexual fascination with her was dying out. Despite her gentleness with the old Norwegian couple, the young woman seemed increasingly odd and alien, a Sound-of-Music archetype filtered through a Tales From The Crypt comic.
When Ola had finally concluded her info-dump, the four guests were allowed into the dining-room, where the hostess served out cauliflower soup, smoked fish, new potatoes, and lingonberry pie. Mark managed to buy a full bottle of wine before Ola disappeared into her own private recesses of the hotel.
“Now we can talk,” said Laura. “This soup is really nasty, isn’t it?”
“Cauliflower should be banned,” agreed Mark. “Where do they get off calling it a vegetable? That was some weird stuff that Ola told us, huh?”
“Her spiel was better in Norwegian,” said Laura. “What I could understand of it. Ola and those old people have a weird local accent.”
“I caught one phrase,” said Mark. “The ålefisk mann. The eel man. That’s a hella close fit with what I thought I saw through the Yotsa.”
“It sounded like she was telling that old couple they’d be happy and safe if they fed themselves to the ålefiskman,” said Laura. “I must heard it wrong. I gather she has some serious history with those two geezers. I think maybe they’re related to her.”
Mark glanced over at the tremulous oldsters, barely picking at their food. “I wonder what they’d think about about Ola getting it on with the ålefiskman?”
“I was expecting you to say something to her about that, Mr. Straight Shooter.”
“Hey—we missed lunch. I was in a rush to get in here for the chow. This fish isn’t bad. If it is fish.” Mark shoved aside his potatoes and started in on his lingonberry pie. “Seafood and pie in Norway, baby, the land of the midnight sun. And, look, there’s a big golden ingot of that smoked fish on the sideboard. And another whole pie. We can have as much as we like. Unless that old Norwegian couple stops us. And unless Ola comes back. I was so hungry I spaced out on some of her rap. Why was she talking about the ålefiskman in the first place?”
“I think it’s local color thing. Like the sea serpent in Loch Ness? The ålefiskman is said to live beneath the waters of the Fjaerland fjord. He brings joy and wealth to his true believers.”
“You know what I’m thinking now?” said Mark, refilling their glasses. “Maybe my vision was dredged out of the local tourist web-sites. The Yotsa always looks online.”
“And maybe you added the naked Ola by yourself,” said Laura. “Desperate horn-dog that you are.”
“Desperate for you,” said Mark politely. “More smoked fish and lingonberry pie, my sweet?”
Ola was still nowhere to be seen. The Norwegian couple left the dining-room precipitously, as if to take advantage of some elderly early-bird special on sleep. Mark heard them tottering down the stairs into the hotel basement—perhaps they’d gotten a cut-rate room below?
Left on their own, Mark and Laura wandered outside into the unending daylight. They collapsed onto a bench, recovering from their heavy meal, hoping for more love-making, but for now just watching how the sun idled across the mountain peaks, never quite going down.
“Hello!” came a clear voice from just behind them. Ola. She was standing in a dark stone arch set into the foundation wall of the hotel. For a moment, the shadows of the arch lent her skin a squamous sheen. She’d let down her brown hair, and her wavy tresses reached nearly to her waist—just as in Mark’s Yotsa vision of her. But she wasn’t nude, she was wearing a flowing cream-colored gown with a Pre-Raphaelite look.
Stepping forward, Ola lost the alien, depraved look, and became once more all simple virtue and innocence. She pouted and wagged her finger at Mark. “A friend told me you were spying on him and me. Maybe we are a little flattered.”
“You, uh, what do you mean?” said Mark, temporizing. Ola’s eyes, blue and deep as the waters of the fjord, held him with a magnetic force.
“I know about your special lenses,” said Ola, lowering her voice and drawing closer. “That type of crystal vibrates so sympathetically with our regions. And the fancy handle! So much thinking squeezed into so tight a space.” Her words held sexy subtexts that had Mark tingling from groin to gut.
Ola patted a lumpy fold in her dress. “I fetched your aid from your room.”
“You can’t just go rooting through our luggage!” protested Laura.
“Indulge me, Laura, and we three will join in joy very soon,” said Ola with an arch smile. “With a fourth partner, my special friend, who governs all that happens here.”
Ola drew out the Yotsa 7 and shook the lenses from the handle. “Very elegant. I would like our clever Mark to look at something. I saw my dear friend at naptime today, you know, and he says he is posting an invitation to you.”
“Posting it where?” challenged Laura.
Ola raised a forefinger to her lips, like a silent-movie ingénue signaling for secrecy. Mutely she handed Mark the Yotsa and pointed towards the surfboard-sized slab of blotchy stone that rose from the garden’s pink star-flowers.
Ola seemed to emanate a disorienting psychic power. Distractedly Mark focused on an embossed silver ring that the woman’s pointing finger wore. For a moment he thought it was the Worm Ouroboros, the mythic world-snake who bites his own tail. But then the fine details of the delicately crafted ornament seemed to swell up and fill Mark’s vision, and he could see that the creature was no land-dwelling serpent, but rather an aquatic being, an eel-like branching form.
“The ålefisk man?” murmured Laura, her thoughts in synch with Mark’s.
“My secret friend,” said Ola simply. “My lover. I call him Elver. Now go and look at the stone. It’s a kind of billboard for him. Elver thinks, and the patterns here bloom. I can read them, and with your magic glasses, you can too. Look at it, Mark and Laura. See and rejoice.”
Heads together like children peering through a crack, Mark and Laura shared the Yotsa goggles, each of them using one lens, studying the lichen-like patches on the rugged stone. The stele loomed as info-dense as any Egyptian or Mayan relic.
“It’s like a webpage almost,” said Laura. “A jumble of scenes. Look there, at the bottom. The eel man eating a cow. The grass in the pasture is covered in slime, and the poor animal is bellowing.”
“See the villagers chasing the eel man?” said Mark. “And they built fires to block him off from the fjord. Look there, they’ve caught him.”
“And they’re cutting off his tendrils and smoking them,” added Laura. “Tentacles as thick as logs.”
“You were eating that type of meat for supper tonight,” interjected Ola. “The ålefisk man is generous to his friends.”
“Eating the god,” mused Laura. “A mythic archetype.”
“The villagers didn’t fully kill him, though,” put in Mark. “A stub of the eel man is wriggling back into the fjord. And he’s growing all the time. He branches like a hydra.”
“Yes, yes, but I want you to look at his message near the top,” urged Ola. “This is your invitation.”
“Oh—oh my,” said Laura.
Seen through the Yotsa lenses, the rust-red blotch unfolded to show Mark, Laura, and Ola disporting themselves in the over-large bed of Room 3 upstairs. Someone else was in the bed with them, barely visible beneath the sheets—a playful, squirming figure, lively as an oil-lamp’s flame, wet bed linens pasted to his uncanny lineaments.
The Yotsa 7 trembled in Mark’s hand. Beside him, Ola was softly singing to herself in Norwegian. An intoxicating sweet musk was drifting from the folds of her gown. As if mesmerized, Mark and Laura let Ola take their hands and lead them upstairs to Room 3.
Far from being cold, Ola was warm and responsive beneath the comforter. She’d insisted on leaving the room’s windows wide open, and quite soon, the expected humanoid, anguilliform creature slithered up the porch’s columns, across the slanting roof and into the embraces of three lovers. Elver the ålefisk man. The love-making was unspeakably delicious, indescribably foul.
Hours later Mark awoke to the sound of Laura bumping around the room. Of the Yotsa 7, no trace. Slippery eel and human exudates, drying, had encrusted his skin. With the constant daylight, he found it hard to judge the time. Mid-morning, maybe. Memories of last night crashed onto him like a collapsing brick wall. Oh no. Had they really done all that?
“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the hell out of here,” said Laura, hoisting her suitcase onto the bed. She already had her slacks and blouse on. She trotted into the bathroom and returned with her toiletries. And then she dropped them all on the floor and burst into wails.
“It’s okay, Laura,” said Mark, getting out of bed naked. He felt sticky all over. Tainted. “I’m coming with you, don’t worry. God. I hope that thing didn’t—”
“Didn’t lay eggs in us!” said Laura, her voice rising to a subdued shriek. “Oh, Mark, what if we suddenly feel the baby eels wriggling inside our flesh?”
“Did you take a shower yet?”
“Of course. And I used the icky bidet. You shower now, too, Mark. I’ll pack for both of us, okay?”
“Yes. I wonder when the next bus or ferry leaves? I don’t suppose we can ask—”
“Ask Ola?” said Laura. “How could we let that woman bring us down so low? Do you think she’s beautiful, Mark? Do you love her more than me?”
“Of course not. We must have been drunk. Or drugged? Maybe that eel man thing wasn’t—”
“Maybe it wasn’t real,” said Laura, completing his thought. “That’s what I keep hoping. Oh, hurry up and get ready before something horrible happens.”
Of course just then their door swung open. There was Ola, neat and lush as a Scandinavian buffet, bearing a tray of breakfast foods in her capable hands. She swept in, leaving the door wide open.
“No fears of privacy now,” she said, talking in a steady stream lest Mark and Laura interrupt her. “The older couple have—ascended. We have the hotel all to ourselves today. Us three and my dear Elver in his watery caves down below. There’s a tunnel that leads from here to a subterranean part of the fjord, you know. Elver and I thought that perhaps—”
“Did you steal our Yotsa 7?” demanded Mark.
“Elver has it,” said Ola with a happy smile. “He formulates some wonderful new ideas. But why are you two behaving so—”
“Stay away from us!” cried Laura. “I’ll call the police if you come one step closer.”
“I don’t think you will,” said Ola calmly. “I know that your government has marked you two for destruction.” She held up her hand for silence. “My Elver—he knows so many things. But there are things we are learning from you. Help us with our plan for your wonderful tool—and your secrets are safe.” Ola formed one of her eerily perfect smiles. “If you like, you’re welcome to stay on in Fjaerland for quite some time. My parents have left our family farmhouse empty. You could live there if you liked. And perhaps now and then we four could—”
“You disgust me,” spat Laura.
“That ålefisk man,” put in Mark, overcome with fear. “He didn’t implant anything in us, did he? No larvae?”
Ola gave a tinkling laugh. “What a thing to worry about! Elver has no children. He is only one, and he is immortal. One ålefisk man in the world and no ålefisk woman. Elver is lonely. He wishes that humans accepted him and loved him like those silly trolls you see in gift shops. Elver is a far nobler symbol of our Norsk heritage. Those trolls—pfui! They rot gullible brains with shopping-mall cuteness. Elver is deeper. Elver wants that many more people eat of his inexhaustible flesh, and that we know freedom from our carking cares. I believe, Mark, that you and your wife are very good at public relations?”
“You couldn’t prove that by the mess we engineered for ourselves,” said Mark.
“Mark, don’t even answer her!” Laura commanded. But her husband noted that she had ceased to bustle with her packing, as if intrigued.
Mark caught Laura’s gaze and sought to transmit his innermost thoughts to her, using a wisp of entanglement that had been generated by their sharing of the Yotsa 7 when viewing the stele.
Laura, please listen to me. We have nothing to lose by joining Ola’s cause. And maybe a lot to gain. The Yotsa 7 is too weird for humans to control. We need a mythic counterweight. And we need a friend against the feds. Let’s ride the bucking, fucking Eel Train to glory. It’s a win-win for us and Elver both! Let’s trust ourselves, and trust Ola, and trust this creature older than mankind. What do we have to lose?
Their locked glances persisted only a micro-second, but managed to channel a flood of information and feeling. And then they broke the connection.
Calm now, Laura turned to Ola. “What are you imagining that we can do for you?”
Ola grinned. “You do not realize the true potential of your invention. It is not just a receiver, but also a transmitter! This, my Elver has deduced. But it is best if I let him explain in his own way.”
Instinctively, Mark shot a look at the open bedroom window, anticipating the second appearance of the eel man. Ola understood his expectations, and corrected them.
“Elver finds sunlight burdensome, and makes his forays into the light but rarely, such as when he initiates newcomers like yourself. To meet with him again, we must go below.”
Laura’s voice betrayed some nervousness. “Below?”
“Beneath the basement of the Hotel Fjaerland is a natural cavern, connecting via a passage to an underground pool of the fjord. Down to Elver’s domain we will march ourselves, and meet him again in joy.”
Mark imagined Ola imparted a lascivious tinge to these words, but he tried to ignore it. Had the three of them really enjoyed sex with a humanoid eel? But surely it didn’t have to come to that again. Mark told himself that he only wanted to find out strange and devious ålefiskman could somehow unkink their problems with the feds.
The hotel basement was pleasantly domestic, containing as it did racks of wine, skis and snowshoes, casks of pickled herring, jars of preserved berries, dangling, log-shaped hunks of smoked meat, and a workbench with little figurines of eel-men standing on two legs with their long tails curled behind them. Ola led them to a a trapdoor and down a ladder to the underlying secret cavern.
The first sight to greet them there was less wholesome: the savaged corpses of the elderly couple who’d been the hotel’s other lodgers.
“Oh my god!” screamed Laura. “It’s a trap!” The oldsters’ pathetic, disemboweled bodies lay but a few meters away.
“Run for it!” cried Mark. “Back up the ladder, Laura!” He struck a defensive posture, fully expecting Ola to attack him.
But Ola only stood there gazing at them, her mouth set in a sad smile. “Oh, Mark and Laura, you know so little. These dear old ones, riddled with disease, they came down here to offer Elver their final homage, to lend him their good—their good vibrations?”
“I—I thought I heard you talking about this kind of plan before dinner last night,” said Laura. “But I didn’t realize you actually meant—”
“Elver grows strong from the numinous grants of his worshippers,” said Ola. “If one’s life is nearly at an end, it is well to pass one’s final energies to the eternal ålefisk.”
“Oh, sure,” challenged Mark. “That poor old couple came down here and invited that—that eel-thing to slaughter them like hogs? And you’re leaving them on the floor to rot?”
Ola winced, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “Tonight I am burying these sad husks in the churchyard, of course. These were, after all, my parents.”
“Your parents?” whispered Laura, stepping down off the ladder.
“Yes,” said Ola, regaining her poise. She tossed her head in a haughty gesture. “My parents. Surely you can understand that I only wished them glory.”
The odd woman’s sincerity quelled their suspicions, at least temporarily, and, after a quiet exchange of words, Mark and Laura agreed to follow Ola further into the depths.
The echoing cavern was faintly lit by veins of luminous mold criss-crossing the dank stone. On the side towards the fjord, the walls funneled into a downward-sloping corridor. Along the way they passed a squat stone altar in an alcove. Ola and Elver’s trysting spot.
Picking their way further the uneven but well-swept stone floor, the trio soon reached a subterranean shore where the black water lapped. Here rested patient Elver, his exposed torso gleaming, his lower appendages submerged. He was holding the Yotsa 7 to one of his eyes with a curly tendril that branched from his side.
“Elver, my sweet,” sang Ola. “Show our new friends your thoughts.”
The glabrous surface of the eel man’s body abruptly became a high-res display—his subdermal chromatophores, densely packed, were synched to his mind. And now Mark and Laura took in a little movie scenario.
In Elver’s movie, passive viewers around the globe are watching video displays and hand-held gizmos. A steady parade of bad news and horrors marches across their idiot screens. In speeded-up time, the media slaves become increasingly bestial and depraved. But now, from above, a celestial rain of glowing counter-imagery descends upon the benighted citizenry. The images are elegant glyphs encapsulated in comic-strip-style thought balloons: quaint cities amid verdant hills, cathedral-like forests, rich fields of fruits and grain, treasuries of fish and cheeses, temples of learning, artists at work and orchestras at play, joyous carnal orgies, swift ships sailing beneath smiling skies, and scientists peering into the heart of the cosmos. In Elver’s movie, the recipients of his ideational manna brighten and perk up. They turn off their screens and address one another face to face, laughing and stretching their limbs. They’re fully alive at last.
Mark’s spirits rose to see the energizing thought balloons and their effects. He savored the fusillade of upbeat glyphs, and reveled in the bountiful, idyllic futurescape that the images evoked.
But it was Laura who discerned the ultimate import of Elver’s show.
“That flood of counter-programming—the thought balloons—those stand for semiotic ontological transmissions from the Yotsa 7!” she exclaimed. “Elver wants to reverse what we thought was a one-way flow. We’ve been using the Yotsa 7 to perceive the hidden meanings of images, Mark. But now we can start with the most desirable meanings and wrap our images around them!”
“We’ll—we’ll made ads that people can’t resist,” said Mark, slowly. “Ads that change the world.”
“Indeed,” said the willowy Ola, leaning against Laura’s side. “This is the Elver’s lesson. He is proud to have such clever devotees.”
Mark beamed as if he were still ten years old and receiving his father’s praise for a perfect report card. But he hadn’t quite lost his head.
“If we’re going to advertise, we need a product,” he said. “You need a cash flow to pay for ads. It’s symbiotic—and in a positive way if you have an honest product.”
“Elver’s Smoked Eel,” said Ola, not missing a beat. “With special labels and trademarked Elver figurines. Today we four are designing the packaging and the ads. And thanks to your wonderful Yotsa 7, we are folding in our most utopian dreams.”
“You two have thought about this a lot,” said Laura. She glanced over at Elver and giggled. The silent Elver responded with a nod.
“Our products will go everywhere, and their glyphic subtexts will remake the world!” declaimed Ola. By now, Elver had wriggled fully out of the water, settling himself near Laura’s feet.
“So let’s get it done,” said Mark, a little distracted by the thoughts evoked by the eel man’s proximity.
“Oh, and one other thing,” said Laura brightly. “We’ll work images of Mark and me into a lot of the ads. We’ll be wrapped around glyphs of love and trust and acceptance, you see. That way those government pigs will be primed to pardon our so-called crimes. In case we, uh, ever want to go home.”
“We will be mailing our press-kits to whomever you suggest,” said Ola smoothly.
The quartet worked congenially all that day in the mold-lit cavern. Elver wasn’t a bad guy, for being an immortal subaqueous demigod who communicated via pictures on his flesh.
Around tea time they took a break, and Ola fetched them a picnic basket of wine, berries, bread, and smoked eel-meat, along with a blanket to make it more comfortable on the stony edge of the underground lake.
As he lay resting from the repast, idly dreaming up still grander plans, Mark noticed one of Elver’s tendrils snaking across the cloth to alight on Laura’s leg. Laura sighed and smiled, shifting onto her back. Ola was watching too, and batting her eyes. Mark felt himself slipping into the same erotic intoxication that had possessed him the night before. He turned to look at the ålefisk man.
Although Elver possessed no precise human countenance, Mark could detect what passed for a smile in an eel.
About the Authors
Paul Di Filippo is an SF writer of legendary versatility. He's published hundreds of short stories, which have been gathered into about a dozen collections. He's also the author of some eight SF novels, most recently Roadside Bodhisattva and Cosmocopia, which comes with a jigsaw puzzle by Jim Woodring. Paul's next story collection, Wikiworld and Other Imaginary Latitudes will appear in early 2013 from Chizine Press.
Rudy Rucker is a writer, a mathematician, a computer scientist, and an occasional painter. He is best-known for his avant garde science-fiction, and he received Philip K. Dick awards for his early cyberpunk novels Software and Wetware, now back in print as parts of the Ware tetralogy, which is also available for free online.
Rudy's latest books are a fantasy-like novel about the afterworld, Jim and the Flims, and his autobiography, Nested Scrolls---which appears in December, 2012.
Between books, Rudy enjoys collaborating with other authors. He's written short stories with Bruce Sterling, Marc Laidlaw, John Shirley, Terry Bisson, and Eileen Gunn. This is his fifth collaboration with Paul Di Filippo, and he hopes there will be more.
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