But not ever going to be forgotten around here. Old friend, houseguest, fellow writer: we genuinely will not see his like again. Mike had the unique gift of making the people around him feel (and be) wittier, smarter, more creative than they usually were. So being in Mike’s company left one in an unusual state of creative grace — especially when (as in my case) I was nonetheless acutely aware that I would never, while still breathing anyway, be the effortless and subtle artist that this man was.
Ten years ago now, Mike was Guest of Honor at Boskone. They contacted me and asked, would I write something in his honor for the program book?
The honor was all mine, in being asked. This is what I wrote. Forgive me if I say: today, it resonates a bit…
The Next One
The tall narrow limestone-faced building in Cambridge Gate, off Regent’s Park, is one that relatively few people would give a second glance. This part of London isn’t what it used to be; the nearness of Euston Station has increased the local traffic level well beyond the sedate, well-behaved stream of cabs and cars that would have passed its front doors even ten years ago. Nowadays, all the buildings around it have had double-glazing put in to cope with the noise and the fumes; and their occupants, if they ever look at the tall narrow building across the street, do so only to wish that they’d had their glazing done when its occupants did—when it was a lot cheaper. None of them have the slightest idea what that glazing cost: or that it would deflect bullets as readily as noise.
When I go there, I appear to do so on my own nickel. Reimbursement appears eventually via my London literary agency in Fitzroy Street, disguised as royalty payments for a science series done years ago for the BBC. The call seldom comes at any ungodly hour; Herself is rarely so inconsiderate to her civilian consultants. So the trip means a morning drive to the train station, and the 8:45 train to Dublin, a cab from the station to Dublin Airport, and a cheap RyanAir flight to Stansted; then the shuttle train down to Liverpool Street Station, and the tube to Euston.
As I walked the last few blocks down Euston Road, past Hodder’s shiny new headquarters, last time, I wondered what Herself wanted now. The previous venture had involved, not precisely a wild goose chase, but a long perambulation through the Dolomites which began as an investigation into a near-forgotten branch of petty Tyrolean nobility and ended in a… well, never mind, I signed a confidentiality agreement. It hadn’t precisely been dangerous, but the British Library had pulled my reader’s ticket. Herself had been most apologetic, and had promised that the next job would be more pleasant.
So… Around the corner, past a couple of cheap coach-tour hotels which had eaten the old townhouses at the bottom of the block. Past the entrance to the mews at the back of the building, glancing quickly back to see if any cars I knew were sitting there: but the parking lot was empty. Past the front windows of International Export, curtained in something that doesn’t look like blast curtain, but is—probably an unnecessary precaution. In through the unprepossessing front door: there’s no security there. No visible security. Down the long bare corridor to the elevator, one of the few in town these days with a human operator, a man with one arm a stump. He glanced at me, and I said, “Nine, please.”
Up we went. On Nine, the long hallway is carpeted, and ambient sound is almost completely missing. The 00’s and their secretaries are all down on seven: up here you hear nothing much but the soft hiss of the hard-working air conditioners that cool down the Cray farm in the south-side computer room. The walls have only a few nondescript modern prints hanging here and there: Herself says there’s already so much artwork at Clarence House that she gets tired of looking at it all the time.
Down to the last door on the left, into the office, where her private secretary sat: he nodded me in through the paneled double doors, one of which is always standing open when you arrive. It closed behind me with that closing-safe sound that always makes me wonder how much it weighs.
Behind the big teak desk, in the big leather chair, as usual, sat M. Ian Fleming long suspected the true details about her, but (wisely, for his time and his audience, who would have found them unbelievable) masked them. Only recently have the movies which sprang from his work begun to get closer to the reality…though no closer than gender.
We do not call her M. Or rather, we know what M is short for, and since only the tabloids call Herself that, we avoid it.
“Ma’am,” I said, as the doors closed behind me. I can’t say it the British way: it sticks on my accent.
“Do sit down,” she said.
I did, and she glanced up from the scattered paperwork and said, “The Quiet Man is coming in today.”
I blinked at that, for she didn’t mean John Wayne. It was one of the affectionate in-house tags for one of her most effective operatives. A few other people on this floor referred to him as “the man in black”, even though he wasn’t always. What was interesting was that neither Joel Rosenberg nor any of the rest of the Minneapolis crowd had mentioned the imminent arrival…which suggested that this particular trip had nothing to do with a convention, or with one of Mike’s too-infrequent trips to Welsh Wales.
“R&R,” Herself said.
I put my eyebrows up. “Moscow? Rome? Bala Cynwyd?” I said, thinking out loud about several ongoing crises which had recently come abruptly to an end. And then, with that weird sense of certainty you get sometimes, I said, “Belgrade?” I had been wondering for days how anyone got hundreds of thousands of people to stand out in the cold in the streets of Belgrade night after night, in mid-winter. But if anyone could, it was John M. Ford doing “Ask Doctor Mike”, explaining (among other things) how you got the nonstick coating to stick to the frying pan…
Herself didn’t dignify the guess with an answer. She just glanced over at the file sitting off to one side of her desk. I had seen it once or twice before. It just kept getting thicker.
“I think he could use a little time off,” she said.
The thought had occurred to me. Ghu only knew how much short fiction he’d done in the last few years, not to mention the games work, and the novels. A schedule like that would ruin most mortals, and made me unwilling even to ask Mike, when we ran into each other, how Aspects: A Novel with Sorcery was doing. But then I’d become, in recent years, much more sensitive to questions which begin, “Where’s the nth book in your series—”, when you know that the item so eagerly asked-after is taking its own sweet time arriving and you can’t explain why…(or you can, but not in language likely to make sense to the listener).
I knew how it was, too, to be kept away from work like that by circumstance, or other work less congenial. “I don’t know if he’d agree,” I said. But that file was so thick…and it wasn’t galleys, either. “Still….how does he manage to get all this writing done and still accumulate all these frequent-flyer miles? And then use them.”
She smiled slightly. We knew, the whole building knew, what he used them on...really. Writing can make a wonderful cover. You can go anywhere, put your nose into all kinds of things, while claiming to be doing research. Even if you are.
“Ma’am, where were you planning to send him? After all…consider where he goes in what the Service would consider his spare time.”
“I have been,” she said, putting the leg with the recently-replaced knee up on a needleworked ottoman. “I was thinking...there.”
“Ma’am? I mean, ‘Excuse me?’”
“Where he goes in his spare time,” she said, looking at me levelly over her G&T.
I blinked. It seemed the proper moment to go obtuse.
Herself sighed. “There are a lot of things going on in this government,” she said, “that don’t bear looking at closely. By anyone.”
I agreed with that wholeheartedly enough. Some of the more recent releases of information under the thirty-year law had reinforced my feeling that politicians and research-and-development budgets should be kept far apart from one another.
“The basic technology is really rather retro,” she said: “dates back to the sixties, in fact. A spin-off from one of our other operatives who operated a similar cover to the Quiet Man’s: he wrote a book called The Chilian Club. You’ve read it?”
“The one where Stonehenge is destroyed at the end by the testing of an antigravity device? Yes.” After a few seconds, I thought about some of the more outré reports coming out of “Area 51” of late, and wondered whether some intelligence-sharing had been going on.
She got an amused look in her eye. “Yes,” she said, doing the mind-reading trick, “why not let Uncle Sam have the ‘monkey model’? It keeps both the high-level types at Defense and their R&D boys off our case while we attend to other business. You see, the basic device has…other applications.”
She went over to the other door, the one which I expected let into the room with the Cray farm. She opened it. Not the computer room: apparently a closet. It seemed dark in there.
She beckoned me over. I went to her…looked into the darkness.
And looked. Breath went out, and didn’t come back for a long time.
“Oh, jeez,” I said, at long last, very softly. “It’s full of stars…”
Herself was watching me very closely. I barely noticed at first. Whatever medium was inside that doorway conducted thought, and emotion, the way air and water conduct sound. What I “heard”… Never you mind. After a few breaths I managed to pull back, turn away.
“Another writer describes the technology well enough,” she said. “We’re ‘exploiting a previously unexplored property of gravity.’ Or so Sir Isaac told me, once we sat him down with Hawking and got him sorted out on the maths.”
My mouth was just too dry to swallow. “Time travel—”
“Much more than that.”
“Where else does it go?”
“Anywhere imaginable…literally. ‘Alternity’ is a good enough word for it.”
“His word,” I said.
“And appropriate. I won’t bore you with the technical details. Decades it’s taken us, but now that the processing power is affordable enough to hide in the Household’s budget, we can control this technology.” The ‘we’ did not sound like it meant the usual intelligence hierarchy. Maybe Herself caught my glance toward the south windows, but she let out one of those little treacly chuckles of hers, and said, “Certainly not those jokers in the new offices down by the river. ‘Military.’ ‘Intelligence.’ Imagine what the oxymorons would make of it.”
I did, and shuddered. “No,” she said, “We manage it within the family…which leaves us free to use it responsibly. Which means not very often…but when we do, we use it for a good reason. So,” Herself said, and sat down again in the chair, swiveling to watch me, and the open door. “This is what I sent for you to ask. Where do we best send him for a holiday that will show him how much we appreciate him?”
“Oh, God.” I sat down again, without being given permission.
A writer with more universes in his head than, well, than some minor gods. A poet, and a playwright, of great delicacy and skill: endlessly erudite, and easygoing about it: warmly appreciative of others’ work, gifted in his own. Where do you send him by way of thanks? Where is heart’s desire?
“I see your problem,” I said.
I knew as well as anyone else in our trade—well, one of our trades —that the atopias writers create are not necessarily utopias just because we’ve created them. I could think quickly of several places I’d written, with some relish, where I would never want to go. Yet there were also places I’d written and liked that would be quite pleasant…but would they qualify, in the long run, as the Door into Summer? And what about his worlds? How does anyone not a mindreader make such an intimate judgment?…
But Herself was sitting there looking expectant, so I would have to at least try. “Can I have a look at some samples?”
“Surely. It’s not difficult: the interface is very intuitive.”
I held up one book. She gestured with her eyebrows at the doorway. I went up and looked through the door.
—a flash of light, a CRASH!, then the sound of someone saying “Ow, ow, OW, ow…”. Followed by another very assured voice saying, “That man will recover because he got prompt medical attention. However—”
I burst out laughing as the holo-taping of Doctor Wally’s Kitchen of Wonders continued with its demonstration of the properties of dilithium. I was tempted to watch a while longer and see how many takes the taping required… “It did have the funniest title of any Star Trek novel ever written,” I said. “And it was the funniest inside, too. But I really don’t think he’s going to want to crawl back in there. There were complications…” I turned away.
There must have been some slippage in the control interface, for a second later, a burly, dark-complected gentleman with profoundly ridged brows, wearing a maroon-and-black uniform with some kind of metallic sash over it, looked out through the doorway. He said most emphatically, “Before you go…one thing. If you would kindly thank him for the fruit juice. It has made life here…much more tolerable.”
“Uh, sure, I’ll do that.”
He ducked out of sight, leaving us looking at darkness again.
We kept exploring. There were places of Mike’s to be found on the other side of that door which weren’t in conventional print. Glimpses through the darkness of realizations of all Mike’s “holiday publications”—the exquisite pamphlets which show up from “Speculative Engineering”, Mike’s corporate identity, shortly after the New Year, every year: “A Short History of Motion Pictures to 1600”, “Cosmology: A User’s Manual”, “Troy: The Movie”. Shadows—no, not merely shadows—strutted and fretted hilariously through some lesser-known material. Elerium, the X-Com In-House Newsletter: the background “footage” to a Starfleet memorandum regarding the translation of alien entertainment programs for the Terran market—
MY LITTLE SEHLAT. Because of the pacific nature and academic values of Vulcan cuture, this popular children’s program seemed like a worthy possibility. However, extensive redubbing would be necessary. For example, in episode #24, “Numbers Can Be Fun”, problems in single-digit multiplication and division might replace Fermat’s Last Theorem and the general solution to the n-body problem. Also, we recommend entirely new film to replace the household-safety sequences that conclude each show, as the Federation Child Safety Council has no standard views on the dangers of playing with sequential time and unsupervised cloning.
MY MOTHER THE SHUTTLECRAFT. It was while viewing these recordings that Ensign Straczynski first began to show signs of career-related stress—
I laughed again until the tears came as that particular listing finished, but finally I had to say to Herself, “I don’t know…they’re not what I’d call restful, not in the long term—”
“This?” she said, holding up another book.
I glanced through the doorway. Snow blew by almost horizontally in a howling wind; snow was drifted deep everywhere in sight. I knew those mountains, and the pass beneath them, south of Andermatt in Switzerland. Down in the inn, which was now half-buried in the snow, a doctor, a mage, a vampire and an Imperial heir were sitting down to dinner, and there was about to be a murder. It was the late 1470’s…sort of. “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s cold. He’s not that wild about the cold. And think of the sanitation problems…”
Herself raised her eyebrows. “Oh, come now. He’s stayed in Great Tew…and he wasn’t the one who got the food poisoning.” But she put that book down, picked up another.
—the surface of the Moon, blinding white, razory black in the shadows—
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s still kind of recent. Maybe too recent: sometimes you want a vacation from somewhere you’ve spent a lot of work time lately, rather than going straight back there again—”
We went through everything on her desk, even Mike’s “Paranoia” module, which always gives me the willies: all the novels, all the shorts. I could not make up my mind, and finally it started to seem like folly to even try to second-guess Mike this way, no matter how good our intentions were. Finally I moved away again, all too conscious of Herself’s eyes on me, and just stood in front of that starry darkness again for a while, wondering what clue I might have missed. The starlight went dim within the restless stirring of dark matter, the unborn idea moving on the face of the deep. Waiting for something….
I stood there and shook my head, for there was an unsettling familiarity to it. Sometimes, in the middle of what might seem long and fruitless work on a project, you suddenly find there’s much more to work with than just fragmented images, lines of dialogue, chunks of an outline. In the dark of the back of your mind, you can suddenly feel the weight of the real, whole thing—the book, the screenplay. It lies there, waiting, indistinct but also somehow intimating that it’s already complete and perfect, though still immaterial: all you have to do is bring it through, into being… Then physicality sets in: the typewriter or the computer or the writing pad, contracts and deadlines, the first draft and the last. And too often, later, you feel—holding the physical screenplay, the printed book—that something went wrong in the execution, something got missed, and still lingers back there in the dark. You long—I do, anyway—for the place where the circle closes, for some kind of writer’s afterlife where you get to meet and celebrate your work as it should have been: as it seemed once in the darkness, perfect and whole, the special effects of the mind and the heart all in place and in splendor—never filtered through flawed physicality, unstrained through a brain made of meat.
Is this the place where the circle closes? Or where it can be made to do so…if you bring the right raw materials with you?
Down in the street, audible over other street noise through the double glazing, a cab door shut. We both went to the window, peered out. The tall figure in the battered trenchcoat was leaning through the black cab’s front window to pay off the driver. Not for Mike the Bentleys and the Vipers and Goddess only knows what-all finicky machinery of the flashy dressers down on Seven: Mike has more important things to do with his time than indulge in automachismo and the endless struggle with London traffic, one which not even 00’s win these days. Herself looked down through the slightly green-tinged window, and then over at me, and said, “Well. Last chance. When you want to say ‘thanks’, where do you send the man who can create his own worlds?…”
I shook my head. “I wish I could be more help to you, ma’am,” I said. “But this is Mike we’re talking about. Something will present itself…”
Shortly he did. In the bustle of his arrival, we both put the minor frustration aside—it’s always good to see Mike. He never changes much: tall and slim, the shoulders a little stooped, the sandy-fair hair thinning and a little askew, the gaze sometimes a little vague: or seeming vague, until you realize where its real focus lies—at a point of convergence you can’t even see, and later feel fortunate to have been shown. Nothing vague about that glance at the moment, though: he was wondering what I was doing in her office. He greeted Herself, courtly, and accepted her dry congratulations on “a job well done”: then turned to me, and we exchanged a good hug and a few words about the doings of significant others, and the next scheduled assault on a major used-book center on the borders of Wales.
The distraction had been creeping up on him: only now did he indulge it. The room throbbed with that waiting silence….not so much the horns of Elfland wildly blowing, as the stillness in which they would sound.
“What the heck is that?” he said, and wandered over to the doorway.
And stopped. And gazed through.
We watched, at a little distance.
“It’s not that he doesn’t know the way,” Herself said, close to my ear, after a moment. “He would go eventually anyhow.”
I nodded. “But anything to speed the process up…”
He stood a long time before the door, gazing into the fecund dark. It stirred…but not by itself, for fecundity is not enough. Mere creativity is not enough, either. The great creators—secondary, as Primary—must bring one other vital ingredient into the darkness, for the spark to kindle, and the light to last: compassion for what they create. It was here, now. The air sang with it. And what is life, sang one of Mike’s voices in response, but an improvisation to the music?…
We watched him stand there, hands in the trenchcoat’s pockets: watched the rapt look. I began to understand why Herself had been watching me so closely, earlier: I was not adviser, but guinea pig…and didn’t mind. After a moment, “I never used to know what to say,” I said very quietly to Herself, “when someone would ask me ‘Which one is your favorite book, your favorite universe?’ You stammer, you make something up. Some friends who’re writers would say, ‘It’s the last one I was working in.’ That seemed like a good answer. Then another friend, another writer, said, ‘It’s the world you’re working on now. That’s the favorite.’ And that seemed even better…”
The Quiet Man stepped into the darkness, into the starlight. Silence: from what seemed far away, the sense of breath caught in wonder, the circle closed: and slowly, in the darkness, a smile.
Then, pouring through the doorway and washing out all color in the room, came the light, blinding—though not to him, and not for long.
Herself shook her head. “Not the last universe,” she said, blinking. “Not this one, either.
“The next one….”