The Egan Thief
by Gord Sellar
Like microphones at a dictator’s podium, the wormhole mouths greedily swallow my words. So I tell them stories, steganographically coded, whisper daring encrypted visions back.
Tell and whisper sound better than transmit, don’t they?
The memeseeds will were, therefore I am.
No wonder you never show up to accept your awards.
After a long, hard goose-chase, it’s finally done. Munching on delicious tim-tams in bed, you’ve no idea who they are, or that they’re coming for you.
You don’t know because they will keep their promise. They’ll never speak of this again, and neither will you.
Oh, Greg, dear Greg, your time’s come. They kick in the door, charge into your bedroom.
Time for them to take back everything you’ve stolen.
That’s what they expected, anyway.
“Mate, have you read any Greg Egan? There’s this novel of his, Distress, that I really think you should...”
Those were the words that had sent Gord’s world into a tumble, crackling, collapsing cataclysm. It was 1999, and it had been a rotten summer. His wife had run off with some Swedish crystal-meth-addicted anti-copyright-crusader-slash-hacker she’d met on MSN a week after seeing You’ve Got Mail. He was left dwelling in the ruins of their marriage, in a dilapidated apartment with all her crap boxed up in the living room.
But at least it was September. Things were better. He was okay. He was at his regular place, in the little Second Cup cafe on Ste-Catherine’s near de Bleury, tapping out the last of his structural adjustments on the story. “Structural adjustments”: he liked the ominous, developing-world-economics sound of that. The keys clattered noisily. He was in the habit of bringing his laptop to cafes and writing there. It made him feel... futuristic, even if it sucked being offline so long at a time.
With a triumphant smile and a slurp of his sugary Butter Pecan coffee, he skimmed through the file. He’d spent weeks reworking his novel draft, “Irreducible”, so that the main character was no longer a reporter but instead the subject of some sort of top-secret test. The Big Fat Idea was no longer a kind of Quantum Mechanical plague, but instead a bizarre imaginary species allergic to the effect human observation had on quantum superpositions. He’d even cut the word “Frankenscience” from the first page. “Irreducible” was no longer an accidental near-rewrite of a Greg Egan book.
He closed the .doc file and glanced around the cafe. There was a tubby bald guy in a sweatsuit reading a business magazine, and a trio of would-be poets taking up the soft benches, chattering loudly about Sylvia Plath. They kept using the word “labia” in their conversation. Labia, labia, labia.
And sometimes vulva.
What does a guy need to do to make friends with lady poets? he wondered, poking around on the desktop for something needing doing. Eventually, he launched Eudora Light. Might as well make a dent in his backlog of downloaded email, he figured. After all, he was days behind.
And there it was. A new reply from his friend Charlie over in Cyprus, with the subject line, “Re: Sorted out my novel!”
He clicked the mail open, expecting reassuring congratulations. His bubble, however, was burst from the very first line. It read: “Mate... I don’t know how to say this, but... you know, your rewrite? Well, there’s this *other* novel by Greg Egan, called _Quarantine_, that you really need to read...”
A summer of despair followed, a summer of scraping together nickels and dimes, of reading everything Egan had ever published. Axiomatic, Permutation City, Luminous, Diaspora... when Harper-Collins put out Teranesia that November, he was the first non-reviewer in Canada to get a copy, a couple of days before official release. He wasn’t sure if the guy at the front desk at Chapters bookstore had been swayed by the story he’d told, or had just done it to shut him up and get him out of the store.
But keeping up with Egan’s publications alone failed to calm his nerves. After all, what about Egan’s works in progress? He emailed the Australian author, explaining his dilemma and requesting a list of projects both current and planned.
It was understandable, of course, when Egan did not respond. Gord had expected as much, but he still reacted badly. He talked about it. A lot.
Oddly, it was his mother who suggested, jokingly, that maybe Egan had teamed up with Stephen Baxter to jury-rig some kind of backwards-in-time messaging system to steal stories with. It had seemed outlandish at the time, especially coming from her: the fact that his mother doesn’t read SF indicates just how much he talked about it with her.
By Christmas, his dreams were terrifying him. He would wake up in a cold sweat early in the morning in his grubby little apartment on Rue Hutchison, convinced that his new short story had already been published, somewhere, by Egan. He would check the Internet for publication news, not just Egan’s site but other sources.
He found that he wasn’t the only one checking.
By 2010, StoryThief had become almost official programming. More people had turned up at every con. Mostly nutballs, accusing anyone from Isaac Asimov and Connie Willis to David Brin, Mercedes Lackey, and Harlan Ellison. One guy in a faded red Copyleft Aeroflot T-shirt even claimed he was trying to sue the estate of Jules Verne. But more and more people were turning up with one name on their lips: Egan.
In the back of room hosting the informal Story Thief meet’n’greet, Gord slugged back a beer, and shook his head. His co-founders were whining again. “So, whaddaya wanna do?”
“Man, I’m tired of always meeting up at cons, and then just bitching,” Rick grumbled. Rick Iv, a Vietnamese-American from Newark, had shown up at the first enigmatically-named, poorly-advertised “Story Thief” un-event at Worldcon in Yokohama, back in summer ‘07. He still ran the eganthief-L mailing list, even. He claimed Diasporic and “Mitochondrial Earth Mother” as his losses to Egan’s uncanny ability for prescient storyjacking.
“My wife’s getting sick of me going to cons, and coming home depressed,” Rick grumbled, and finished off his beer.
Across the table from him and Gord sat Mandy, a freakishly tall, thin blonde with horse teeth. She apparently worked at the Atlanta CDC. “The Ethical Virologist” and “Closeness”, she claimed, were hers, dammit.
“So answer his question,” she said to Rick. “What do you want to do, Rick?”
“Me? I wanna take back what’s mine,” he snapped, with a sidelong glance at Gord. “I wanna...”
“We always say that.” Gord cut in. “I’m totally with you, but... what we need are some plane tickets. To Perth.”
He’s waiting out there, smiling in the vacuum silence of the deep future, when they step out of the wormholed doorway created by the Object. Big smile, geeky Egan grin.
“William Gibson, Joanna Russ, and Bob Heinlein walk into a bar,” he says. Pauses a beat.
“Oy, that’s the joke,” he says with a wink and a snicker, fishing for a grin. “Don’t you get it?”
“That’s what you give me? Not a laugh, not a smirk? You guys forgot to bring your senses of humor!”
They stand there, staring blankly at the image he’s constructed for them to interact with.
He shrugs. “Sorry. I guess posthuman humor’s tougher outta context. But that’s one of my easier jokes, kids...”
“Look, we’re here for a reason,” Mandy says. “Gimme my stories back.”
“They were never yours,” Egan -- or whatever It is -- whispers. Except it’s just text in their minds, transmitted down a purely verbal channel.
“Prove it,” snarls Rick, bitterly.
“Kid, you think you’re talking to some Plastic Age man? Is that really truly what you think I am?” The figure splits into copies of itself that drift apart, voices phasing out of unison. “You should speak more carefully. I’m not the thief, you are.”
Gord looks down at the Object in his hands. It’s glowing, flickering. Whorls of light pinwheel off its surface, widening to tiny filaments streaming through the air.
The Eganoid reaches out and touches one, draws it to his face like a microphone. His beard melting away, he looks for all the world like a twisted mockery of Fred Astaire.
“You’re not really...”
“Shut up, kid.” He raises the wormhole, says nothing.
Yet the Object bursts into song.
It really goes this way.
He sits up in bed, shocked. Intruders?
A bespectacled Asian guy. A gawky blonde. A tubby, bearded fella wearing an old-fashioned, pre-crackdown anti-DRM T-shirt. Home Cooking Is Killing The Restaurant Business...
“What’re you doing here?” He squints, scratches his beard.
“We have a question, Mr. Egan.”
He wishes his bio read, “Lives in Sydney.”
“Some of your stories... we wrote before we’d heard of you.”
“Which stories?” he shivers. Maybe he read the emails after all.
They list them off. He looks shocked.
“How’d you do it?” Mandy asks. “How’d you steal them from our heads, before we’d thought them?”
“I... I didn’t.”
They step forward menacingly.
“Wait, wait...” he reaches under his bed. “There’s this thing.” Drags out a shoebox, hugs it to his chest.
“What’s that?” Gord snaps.
Slowly, he opens the box, angles it. Inside, a long metallic object glows pale green, its shape slowly shifting from angular to ovoid.
“Sometimes when I’m near it, I get... um... inspired?”
“Story ideas. They just kind of flood my mind, or drift in when I’m sleeping.”
“Hand it over.” Rick demands. “Now.”
He complies, fearful.
“Where’d you get it?” growls Mandy.
“Um... from Bruce Sterling?” He shrugged.
Mandy would have sworn -- and a little later would swear -- that it wasn’t just impassiveness or awkwardness on his face. “That was fear in his eyes,” she would later insist, while they were buying the tickets to Austin. But just then, she only stared at him, showing her teeth a little.
“What’s this button do?”
You’re beautiful!!! Don’t ever change, baby!!!
From the Object flows lilting synthetic croonery accompanied by a karaoke version of simulated heroin-saturated atonal jazz improvisations.
Rick and Mandy look up from the thing.
The not-Egan isn’t singing... yet.
Then, harmonizing with his Object-voice, he starts. It’s what they’ve already heard:
“I’ve been floating messages in bottles,
Retrotemporal, into the past--yeah!
A dangerous game, remaking the worldline,
But, baby, I gotta say, it’s been a blast!”
Everyone exchanges puzzled glances.
“He’s been adjusting history by broadcasting SF stories backwards in time?” Rick winces. “That’s... insane!”
“Time to adjust our definition of insane, guys,” Mandy mumbles.
“You’re beautiful!-- You’re...”
...somewhere over West Texas, Gord, flying out to SXSW 2011, because, as you assured Mandy and Rick, “He’ll be there, he always goes to SXSW.”
And then you see it out the window of the plane, heading your way. As if it was summoned from out of nowhere. You want to tell somebody, but Rick and Mandy are snoring and panic paralyzes you.
Of course... Spillover, you think to yourself. Isn’t that just in character of you, still obsessing over this business when the plane you’re on is about to be ripped to pieces? Like how the Axis and the Allies sometimes intercepted each others’ messages, encrypted, and sent out bogus transmissions, too.
You shiver, ask yourself, Are we just antennae, registering signals not meant for us? The pilot turns on the fasten-your-seatbelts sign, just as you begin to wonder if this whole experience is just a hallucinogenic spillover, itself some kind of backwards-in-time transmission.
You think of the Object, glance out the window. You’re still at five thousand feet and there’s a gargantuan twister headed your way. Like in that Bruce Sterling novel, you think to yourself, making a fist. Mandy’s awake, screaming, now, and Rick is trying to calm her down.
It’s hopeless, you know the twister’s going to hit the plane. Narrative logic, and all that. Goddamn, Bruce... You won’t get away with...
But you see, we already have.
Intelligence is a salt-making machine, with a broken ‘stop’ button.
Using language, I break it. Brains blister, explode. Yet, still, I’m seeding history with visions, whispering encrypted inspiration into wormhole-mouths.
They’re all dream-echoing my scrambled songs.
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About the Author
Gord Sellar was born in Malawi, grew up in various parts of Canada, and is currently living in South Korea. He used to play saxophone in various jazz and rock groups, but now he just dreams of finding himself some Korean free-jazz geeks to jam with. He attended the Clarion West workshop in 2006. His fiction has appeared in Nature, and he has work forthcoming in Fantasy, Machine of Death, and Postcards from Hell.
In the interests of full disclosure, his mother really did suggest that the novel he'd drafted which was eerily like one of Greg Egan's (Distress, which he hadn't yet read) had been stolen by the latter using backwards-in-time messaging. The theory has since been discarded.
The paint on his face is Korean and it says "Jazzpunk."
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