Excerpt from Henry Spenser, a novel in progress by S.K. Bleakhouse.

Henry Spenser (1998). Painting by S.K. Bleakhouse.

Henry Spenser (1998)
S.K. Bleakhouse

That night, after talking with Ille2, Vanyez lay in his bunk in darkness. He could hear Portenz snoring away above him, chortling and puffing now and again. Vanyez found Portenz alternately attractive and repulsive, depending on the hour and the amount of recent showering Portenz had participated in. Vanyez was fascinated by Portenz’s deep, unquestionable masculinity, from his blue-black, bristling whiskers to his odiferous personal smell to his snarling, spitting, farting, smacking, and belching body sounds. Portenz yelled and cussed his way through life, and appeared to care about a completely different set of priorities than Vanyez. Currently Vanyez’s chief grievance was the disgusting bathroom on this ship, which hadn’t been cleaned in months and smelt sharply of urine. Someone had had bad diarrhea in the toilet, which was now permanently covered in a fine spray of feces. Vanyez had found a tiny amount of cleaner buried in the back and managed to clean the toilet lid and a few feet of the shower stall so he could stand in there without feeling like bugs were crawling up his feet. Portenz had simply not showered and was probably the shit sprayer. Portenz was beginning to seriously stink, but he smelled the best of any of the other people on the ship.

In his pre-war life in Illyria, Vanyez had spent a small fortune on creams, lotions, shampoos, clippers, brushes, combs and light man-makeup. He wore a tiny bit of eyeliner and some shiny skin cream that made his complexion glow in the sun. His hair was long, straight and gorgeous with a little help from the blow dryer and a lot of product. In the war, he did without all that for months at a time, but he did always insist on a clean shower at camp and a small mirror. He shared an eye-pencil with the women if he had a day off and there was some hot marine waiting for him. Once he had spent four weeks in the field without a bath. He found it secretly liberating to stop caring, but he would always remember that shower afterwards, with the hot steaming water running down his back and the warm soapsuds washing off layer upon layer of dirt. He felt an ecstasy of cleanliness when he sat in the sauna and sweated out all the blood, dirt, and filth of the road. On the very first day of the mission he’d been talking to a guy who got shot right in front of him and he was sprayed with blood all over his face and shirt. He only had one other shirt and he never did get the feeling of blood off him for four weeks. Mostly he remembered the shock of not knowing who was hit, he or the other guy–just warm red blood everywhere in an instant. No elegance or apprehension about another’s mage-gift–just a bullet and a bunch of gore. He found that war was exceedingly dirty business in general and he thought when he boarded the Zephyr Zairen that he might be done with that nastiness entirely.

So how did he get here, exactly, he wondered to himself, looking at the smudges on the walls and the strange little dirty room from another culture. In a corner was a small place for an altar of some kind, which he supposed was the local thing in Harflour. He’d read a little about how Harflour was an offshoot of the region of Safe Harbor, which was supposedly a precursor to Illyria, which had been founded by explorers from Safe Harbor. Velasquez, his own home, had been settled by pilgrims from Illyria, who merged with the local telepathic population and accidentally created a race of mages. There were quite a few words from high Illyrian in Velasquezian, but they all stood out like dandelions in a lawn of clean green grass. The language of mage-craft was the old language, before the Illyrians came with their guns and their funny ideas about race.

Vanyez was easily affected by his environment and he had to call on his training during the war to himself to keep from falling into a huge depression in this pit. The walls, the toilet, the shower, the ammonia scent of urine and the musky scent of dirty men all conspired to prey on his fine-tuned senses. When he was in a bad place in the war, he liked to imagine his airy apartment in Illyria, where the window looked over the sea and the shining white walls of the kitchen glowed with morning sun when he had his hot tea and biscuits at his leisure. That was more his style. These dirty people with their computers completely confused him. So many men seemed so interested in machines and cars and trucks and trains and circuits and other things that Vanyez found alien. From a young age, he had understood the world in an intuitive way, listening to the sounds and sights of the outdoors and seeking to develop his body into a masterpiece of natural animal rightness. He believed people should listen to their bodies and not sit in front of machines all day, worshipping some kind of electric soulless god.

In this place, though, he could tell he was losing his sense of what was going on. He was useless in every conversation he’d had on this ship. It was time to cast out into these people’s minds and find out what they were really thinking. Ille2 had invited him to an alliance, so it was time to find out which of these three fools that he and Portenz had picked was the right ally.

Vanyez leaned back on the bed and gathered his cloak around him, trying to ignore the irritating rough mattress and the lack of a sheet. It was going to be difficult to go into a trance in this little room, but he’d have to make do. He’d gotten Portenz to drop his jacket over the side of the bunk to cover Vanyez’s face from the others so they couldn’t see his eyes glowing underneath the lids, which usually gave him away. He bundled his touchstone under his shirt beneath his dark black cloak and began to channel energy into it. He could feel the heat from it, but the glow was covered.

In his mind, Vanyez began to imagine a garden, with deep mazy tendrils hanging lushly in every direction. The trees in the garden were old and had grown strange from long ages spent in the changing soil. In the center of the garden was a great mangrove tree with roots in all directions. The arms of the tree hung about like loose-skinned arms and the little root nubs sprung up all around the mother core. Vanyez walked toward the tree, brushing against long vines and heaps of falling yellow flowers. Birds sang in the tops of the trees and insects sang about him. Bees buzzed in the flowers and tiny monkeys jumped through the vines in the bright sunlight. The day was blazingly hot and he wore light white linen clothing and loose sandals made from vines. He was sweating and the sweat poured down his face and dripped on the ground. He felt wonderful, like a hot, prowling animal.

He dropped to the ground at the roots of the mother tree. There was a space just his size where he had come many times before. The roots fit his shape and embraced him. The leaves of the garden floor were soft. He leaned back and fell asleep in the shade.

The garden faded from view as his eyes closed. His body faded away and his mind took root into the heart of the tree, until he became part of the great tree-mind with thousands of branches like roads for him to choose from. He could feel bodies and presences near him and he let his mind move toward them. He had to be careful to shield his identity from the knots of human minds and just appear like clear moving sap, running through the branches, flowing over and moving on. To Vanyez, it was natural to become like the tree, for he felt himself to be like a mangrove, with roots everywhere and many centers. Who was to say what group of thick branches was the center of Vanyez, and what were just satellites?

He began to swim in the sap, completely immersed, his body far behind. He came to a presence nearby, something dark, muscular and manlike, a great man flesh knotted into the tree. Its heart beat loudly and throbbed up and down the branches. It took no effort to see the images from this mind, which blasted out a mixture of pornography and images of the broken engine in the Zephyr Zairen. This was obviously Portenz. Vanyez conjured a glowing marker from his mind, the character V from the Velasquezian alphabet, and placed it above this node of the tree so he could find his way back to familiar territory. Then he let himself go.

Vanyez traveled like a rivulet of water further down the roots to a darker knot of mind energy, perhaps several people. These people were near where the tree roots touched a black pool of water in the garden, something that Vanyez had come to understand meant sleepers. Probably that was where he needed to go. He flowed to the edge of the pool and touched the last living thing that wasn’t in the water.

Because Vanyez had a gift for imitating nature and because he had been in the mangrove many times, he was perceived as clear sap by the tree and he did not arouse any suspicion. Slowly the images emanating from the tree knot came into his mind. He saw the doorway of the room opposite his and the red boots of the guard that stood at the door of his and Portenz’s room. He saw the face of another guard who was making a joke and talking in his direction. Vanyez guessed he must now be in the mind of the guard at his doorway, which was closest to him and Portenz. So he would need to move to the right to get to the next forms, which would be Ille2 and Zeillu, in the room down the hall. They seemed to be out in the water, which spread out below the tree like a deep black pool. It was always that way with sleepers. They were unsuspecting, liquid and dangerous. Well, Vanyez was unafraid of psychology so he plunged into the water.

Like a fish he swam down the roots of the tree to the thick tangle of activity. The water was clear but the roots were wild and sprawling, obscuring the light with their endless tendrils. Vanyez enjoyed the pleasure of the feel of water and complicated texture of the roots. He had so many disguises to choose from here: fish, sap, wood, light, darkness, mud, frogs, algae. He chose the body of a tiny minnow and flickered into the tangle, sitting quietly and waiting for the minds to show themselves.

The first contact came from Zeillu. It was a song he had heard Zeillu listening to in his room:

She was my lover but now she’s gone
She was my lover but she left me
She told me I was her everything
But now she’s gone

She was my lover for many days
I left my hometown and followed her
Now I’m alone in a new strange land
and I’m empty

Sometimes I lie awake in the night
and wonder how I got to be here
Sometimes I lie awake in the night
and think of her

She’s gone away, my sometime love
She’s gone away and left me
Here I am in a foreign land
with nothing but a memory

Vanyez had heard the song before in the lounge at the Zephyr Zairen. Some of the older people found it hard to take, with the piercing voice of the singer calling out to their darkest fears. Which of them would ever see their home again? Vanyez himself might never see Velasquez again if he lived through the next few days. Would he have been better off to take the money Anjelka had given him secretly and bought his way out of Harflour? The credits still sat in his account, untouched. He didn’t have to go back to the ZZ. But here he was anyway, a fish trapped in a dark tank. He followed the song to its source, a knot of thought. Images flew at him.

He saw Zaillu arguing with a woman outside of a club in City of Illyria. The woman was young, white and hot, in a tight fitting dress and heels. Her breasts bubbled out of the dress and captured Zaillu’s attention, along with her smoky well-made-up eyes. She was laughing and luring him down an alley, to come have sex with her. She pulled her dress up high, so that Zaillu could see she was wearing no panties. He laughed and played along, smoking and flicking the ashes to the side and sauntering toward her. He walked like a young lion coming in for the kill, prowling toward her with certain intent.

The woman walked further back into the alley and slipped into a doorway, where she faded into the shadows. Zaillu fiddled with his belt buckle and looked down to undo his zipper, which was stuck. In Zaillu’s memory, there was sudden darkness and a rough touch of a sack on his face. Everything went black. The memory ended abruptly. For a tense moment Vanyez thought Zaillu had turned the memory off because he sensed Vanyez in the pool, but after a second, Vanyez realized Zaillu had been captured in the alleyway, and the memory ended because he blacked out. Zaillu helpfully played the memory over in his mind several times, looking at the girl and the alley, flashing back to other times when he was having sex with the girl or texting the girl or meeting the girl in a club. Vanyez finally deduced that Zaillu was still uncertain whether the girl was in on the abduction or whether they’d both been taken. He’d never seen her again.

But Vanyez had seen her again. He knew her name too, which matched the name in the text message he saw in Zaillu’s head: Antonia. He was working at the check-in booth on the Zephyr Zairen when it loaded in Illyria and he remembered the woman in the memory well. She was still hot, although older and a little grimmer after the war. A certain tug around her mouth showed that she had had some not great times in the last four years. She was wearing tight cammo pants and a tight olive shirt and worked the check-in booth a few cubes down. He remembered her cackling laugh and loud brash demeanor with the soldiers. Vanyez was about to try to remember what deck she worked on when he realized he had forgotten he was a fish. Fish didn’t know anything about women named Antonia and their problems. He let the pictures of Antonia float away and concentrated on the darkness and the coolness of the water. He felt the water moving through his body, running in his mouth and out his gills, and let himself meditate a little on that strange, cool, natural feeling. It was good to be a fish. Probably Zaillu would wake up and see her anew in his mind, but Vanyez felt this was the kind of information that shouldn’t be held from people anyway, so he let it go and swam away.

He heard another song in his mind, a song of the island of the banyan and the mandrake and the mangrove:

Little fish, little fish
Swimming in the grove
Little fish, little fish
Soaking in the cove

Little wanderer, always you roam
Breathing in water from the dark unknown
Little fish, little fish
Riding on the foam
Slip through the tree roots overgrown
Swim round the sailor’s bleaching bone
Little fish, little fish
So far from home

Vanyez knew this song was for him, although he didn’t know who the singer was. The dangers of mind navigation were that your own mind would enter into the game, and confuse the environment with its own problems. He felt the singer was himself, singing to the scattering fish, but he’d never heard the song before. Sometimes he came out of a trance with a new song, like a poet awakening from a dream. He swam tentatively toward the voice and found around the next turn in the dark tree the face of a mermaid in the water. She sang to him and beckoned him toward her, with her white arms reaching out. Her face was Antonia’s face and then the Dragon’s and then a young girl’s face, very much like the Dragon’s, but paler, with red hair flowing down her shoulders. She sang the song to him as she baited a hook with her hands and threw it out toward Vanyez. He felt with horror that the smell of the fresh bloody meat on the hook was intoxicating to him and he moved toward the hook eagerly, nearer and nearer to the mer-creature. The fish in him was hungry and bedazzled. The smell was so pleasurable as it moved from his nose through his gills and through his whole body, causing him to shiver in ecstasy. In his whole life he could not remember seeing food that he wanted as badly as he wanted this blood-soaked morsel in the deep.

But the part of Vanyez that was still Vanyez the arch-mage could see the glamour of the spell in the water. He had been down in this tree before and met sea monsters, witches, shipwrecks and dead men, all with mystical songs and traps for the innocent. Just as he thought he might take a bite of this deadly bait, he moaned in his trance and broke out of her spell with a mighty burst of energy. He shot himself out of the fish and reached out with the human arms of himself, Vanyez, mage and mer-king, and grabbed the mermaid round the throat. He squeezed until she dropped the hook and the meat dropped to the sea floor in the darkness. The mermaid fought him wildly, breaking free from his grasp. She wore the Dragon’s face now, and she glared at him and spat at him from the roots of the tree.

“Why didn’t you go back to your home, fool?” she asked, “I gave you the money to go. That was all the money I had left to my name.”

“It’s not my place to leave my friends,” he said. “I could not go home with those deaths on my conscience.”

“Well now I’ll have your death on my conscience,” she said, “for you’ll die with the rest of us. What a waste, my friend. Why didn’t you run while you could?”

“I can’t go home,” he said, remembering how the Velasquezians had exiled the last mage they discovered was gay. “I wanted what you want, something new. Something waits for me in the West.”

“Yes, Death waits for you,” said the mermaid bitterly. She changed before his gaze, with her face shifting to a skull and her eyes filling with large pearls that glittered in the water. She started to collapse into the bottom.

“No, something else is waiting for me,” said Vanyez, insistently, refusing to believe her. “Something unexpected. I can feel something about to happen.” He cast a counterspell at the shade to revive her, to keep her from dissolving.

The mermaid laughed and changed her face into the young woman, so like and unlike the Dragon.

“Vanyez,” she said, in a voice just like the Dragon’s, “we’re coming to help you. Don’t lose hope. My father is sending help.” Through the waves came the picture to her, of the old gentleman from the ship in Harflour. He was standing on the bridge of a much larger ship, wearing a handsome suit. He seemed much younger and more confident. “He is coming.”

“I saw him,” he blurted out, excitedly. “I saw him in Harflour.” He tried to increase the strength of his spell to bring her closer, but she was fading as she spoke. The pearly eyes blinked at him and quickly disappeared into a bit of foam and cloud in the tree roots. Vanyez was flummoxed. Did he make that up? Was she real? Was she something from his own mind, or was she from within the ship?

He cast about him for a reference point. Where was he anyway? All around him were tree roots and moss, and coral and fish. “Don’t panic,” he said to himself. “Don’t get lost. You’re getting lost in your own dream.” He grabbed an abalone shell from the bottom and held it up to see himself. He found that he was holding a triton in one hand and wearing a shell necklace. His grey/black hair streamed out behind him in a wild halo. Sea flowers decorated his temples. His waist fell into a scaly long tail that ended in a sharp flipper. He was the mer-king. Fish swam away from him and in the deep he could see silhouettes of monsters that waited to see what he would do.

Vanyez had found in the past that the best thing in these situations, where the dream was getting away from him, was to stand up and challenge the song of the dream, and bend it to his will. He brandished his triton at the sea monsters and came out from the tree roots into the open coral bed where the sunlight shone down from far above. He lit up the sea with his glowing crown and his sparkling silver fish scales.

“Death, I call you,” he shouted. “Show yourself.”

Across the sea there was silence, but fear. The light bounced off the monsters’ giant features and white eyes. Their fangs cast sharp shadows across him, terrifying and huge. They began to cluster together to the left and the right, creating an opening for something behind them. Vanyez sensed something bad coming, something deadly. From the depths, a man and a woman slowly appeared, dressed in long garments of black seaweed and cloaks of white bone. About their brows were crowns of shark teeth and black pearl. In their hands were knives dipped in fresh blood. The monsters clustered round them, smelling the rusty iron smell of the blood in the water. Vanyez was surprised to recognize them as the woman and man that had appeared when the Zephyr Zairen had exploded.

“Vanyez,” cried the woman, “Vanyez, death is all around you. Do you think you can escape it?”

“Vanyez, the ship is a vessel of death. Don’t go back if you want to live.” said the man, whose deep voice and wild eyes frightened Vanyez more than the woman’s dark glower. He was handsome and tall, but something about him said he wasn’t right in the head. Vanyez saw that blood was dripping from his long black garment, not just his knife.

“Who are you?” said Vanyez, “Where did you come from?”

“We made the ship, we designed it, we built it, we thought of it, we planned it. It is ours,” said the man.

“The Dragon built the ship,” said Vanyez, confused by all this. He had no idea who these people were. One part of his mind was fascinated that this was happening. He spoke back to them. “Anjelka designed the ship.”

“The Dragon merely worked for us,” said the man, angrily. “She designed the outside, but we built the heart of the ship, the engine, that runs on star fuel. Without us there would be no ship at all.”

“The Dragon captains the ship by virtue of being alive. She is not the true owner of the ship,” said the woman. “Our blood went into the ship. Our deaths made her the custodian, but we are back. The true owner is coming. We will bind him to death too.” She brandished her bone knife at Vanyez. “And you too, mage, if you get in our way.”

“The true owner?” said Vanyez. “Who is the true owner?”

“Henry Spenser,” said the man. “Don’t you know?”

“Uh, okay,” said Vanyez. “Never heard of him.”

“I’ll show you,” said the woman, flashing him a memory.

In his mind came an image of a young, handsome man, about thirty years old. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a small black tie. His black hair curled luxuriously around his pale face. He had bright blue eyes and a flirty smile. Vanyez immediately thought he was gay. The man’s long fingers tapped elegantly on the glass he was holding. Vanyez was smitten. If this was the owner of the ship, then he, Vanyez, was in luck! Hopefully this man might have a taste for an older gentleman.

“He’s fifty now,” said the woman, cutting through his thoughts. “This was twenty years ago, fool.”

“You’ll never have him,” said the man. “He’s mine, mage. I’ll kill you if you come near him.” He flashed an image of himself and the man having sex. Vanyez couldn’t help but notice that the Henry Spenser person looked even better naked, with his pale glowing skin and tousled black hair. He seemed to be quite enjoying the magnificent screw that he was getting at the hands of the man with the bloody knife.

Vanyez was so amazed by all this that he could hardly think. He’d never heard the Dragon mention any of these people, and he certainly didn’t know about any other owner of the ship than she, Anjelka Zaire, Dragon, Captain, Commander, Comrade, herself. Could she be deceiving Vanyez so mightily? That did not seem possible. She was so straightforward, so blunt. She did not seem capable of stealing someone’s ship or working with this mad man and this strange dark woman. Was it possible?

“It’s possible,” said the woman. She began to sing in a harsh voice:

What we see is seldom what is
There’s no way to know another
When we call out to our dearest
We may find they are the other

Our friends are people we hardly see
We know them from glimpses and smiles
But when we have a deeper need
We find them distant by miles and miles

Our husbands and wives grow apart
little by little we begin to doubt
What once was a burning tender heart
slowly smothers, puffs, and goes out

When you die, you die alone
Down in the dark, black sea
When you call out, no one hears
Down in the dark, black sea

Your memories are all you have
Down in the dark, black sea
Sometimes you wish for more
But this is all you’ll ever be

She laughed a horrible high, hard laugh and the man laughed with her. They clashed their knives together in jest and flung blood at Vanyez. The man sent another image at Vanyez, this one different. In the memory or whatever it was, the Dragon was much younger. She was in her quarters of the ship, long ago, looking into the computer. She did not hear the man come up. To Vanyez’s horror, the man brought down a pipe on her head and dragged her to the bed when she collapsed. He started to rip off her clothes. Vanyez shut out the image. He did not want to see what followed. He must be going mad. This was something that he was making up in his head, something where he had lost control of the dream. He had called out to death and his mind had come up with this crazy patchwork of bad images. “It’s not true! It’s not true!” he shouted inside his head. “Wake up.” Nothing happened. He was deep down in the dream.

But Vanyez was not a man without any powers, so he flung light from his triton and began to sing:

Oh darkest death that lurks for me
I hear you in the banyan tree
I know you swim in the heart of the sea
Waiting to pull me down

Death, you know I’m young and strong
Though you sing a cold killing song
I’ll sing a song of life and love, a long
lullaby to lull you

The sea I’m in is dark and deep
Hell’s own creatures there do creep
unmoved, they neither pause nor sleep
though I try to soothe them

My day of death I cannot know
I hope the years pass long and slow
Until my time has come to go
I’ll sing a song of light and love
and fight you darkening death

Vanyez’s body began to glimmer like a great prism in the deep. His scales cast a light spectrum across the water that glittered white-hot. It burned the eyes of the monsters and they retreated far into the gloom where they could no longer be seen. The man and the woman shaded their faces from his blinding triton. They took each other’s hands and swam farther away from the glow. Vanyez began to rise. All around him blazed light like a star. After a long while, the sea color changed to clear, and the water warmed around him. He swam toward the clear surface that twinkled into the tropical pond around the mangrove root. The sea smelled sweet and he could see the breeze ripple across the top of the water. The tree roots near the pond’s edge were thick, muscled, and healthy. Little fish swam in between them.

Vanyez took a long deep breath on the surface and was surprised to find tears in his eyes. Had he put his faith in the wrong person? Did he know the Dragon at all? He saw her in his mind as he had last seen her. She strode across the flight deck toward them. She was tall, at least six feet, and her purposeful stride never failed to thrill him. He dreamed of women as strong as an ox and frightening as a she-monster, but she was the only one he’d ever actually met. The beautiful blue-black skin of her arm glistened and rippled over her muscles. She had spoken to each one of them separately: Clara, Portenz, Alison, Vanyez. Why she had picked the others he would never know.

To him, she said “If you can’t find anyone to help us, I give you leave to go. I put enough money in your account to buy a ticket to Safe Harbour or back to Illyria. My husband would take you in if you went west. He would understand. This isn’t your fight.”

“What are you talking about? I’m coming back. Alison will find someone.”

“Who knows what will happen?” she said, looking into his eyes with her pooling brown eyes. “If everything goes wrong and you are the only one left, get out of Harflour and go to the West. You can’t help us fix this ship, so there’s no point in you dying here.”

“Anjelka,” he said, gripping her forearm. He looked at her intently. “I don’t think you understand about this ship. The spell is very strong. It’s calling help to it right now. Something will come.”

“Vanyez, I don’t think you understand about this ship,” she said cupping his face in her hands. “It’s not the kind of spell you want to be around. It just wants the ship to survive, not necessarily us. Do you understand? Get out while you can. I wish someone had told me to get off this ship ages ago.”

He had thought he understood better than she. The Dragon’s blood was in the spell. The ship could not turn against her. He had wanted to tell her that, but she seemed so intent on her insistence that he go. As if he could do that! As if he were that kind of person. He did not leave people behind on the battlefield. He did not leave his friends.

Vanyez wiped the tears from his eyes and looked up in the clear blue sky. If only it were real. If only he could be here. The palm trees rustled in the breeze and the songbirds sang their sweet daytime songs. In the middle of their happy lark, Vanyez thought he heard a human voice. Where was it coming from? He ducked his head back underwater and listened. From across the pond, a soft song came to him:

Mage, great mage, hear my tale
You’ve come far to hear me
My song is the slave song
My story is the slave’s

No slave loves his master
Though the master says so
All slaves hate the master
And yearn for their freedom

Mage, come close, and hear me
Mage, I call to you now
Hear my song in the sea
Bring your light to free me

Vanyez sang back to him:

Slave, nobody, nothing
Person who’s been erased
A number, a barcode
I hear you. Talk to me.

Slave, drudge, butler, servant
One who cannot escape
Person with no story
I hear you. Talk to me.

Slave, owned one, simpleton
Wearing clothes of a serf
Person who is no person
Talk to me, I hear you.

Across the lagoon came a simple carp fish, of black and gold. It was a mottled pattern that was not really beautiful. In fact the fish itself was quite unlovely, with a big chunky jaw and a patchy scar on one side.

“Greetings Mer-king,” it said, fluttering its toughened fins in something like a bow.

“Greetings fish,” said Vanyez, nodding his head. The jewels in his crown cast a pattern across the fish, blinding it momentarily.

“You are a fine thing Mer-king,” said the fish, who seemed to marvel at Vanyez’s glittering scales and wild seaweed black hair.

“You are a lowly creature, fish,” said Vanyez, “but your hearing has come at last. It’s taken me hours to get to you. So many petitioners pushed in front of you, waving their demands, sucking up the air with their angry needs. Speak to me, slave. Tell me your grievance. I will give my judgment.”

“Thank you, King,” said the fish. “Here is my story:”

In Vanyez’s mind came an image of a street in the poor white part of Illyria. The buildings had punched out windows, crumbling brick, and peeling paint. Big white men stood on the corner watching everyone who drove by. They wore black t-shirts with guns tucked in their oversized pants. Handsome, well-dressed black men in fancy cars occasionally drove in to buy drugs, sex, and knock-off mind cards from them. There was a virtual reality house that came into view where one could lie in a VR bed for hours, high on illium and drunk on ziphit while having a virtual mind-blow. Vanyez knew it was thought that white programmers could program particularly nasty and erotic images that the blacks simply couldn’t imagine while living inside their restrained, chocolate, high-culture environment. This had amused Vanyez when he had first come to Illyria, but gradually he grew irritated with this depiction of whites as sexual predators and lust-mongers.

He watched as a younger Ille2 walked down the street, holding his daughter’s hand. He dropped her off with her grandmother. Ille2 was only half-white, but apparently in Illyria that was enough to be categorized as “white” rather than “black.” He was a very dark skinned white. His daughter was only a quarter white, so she had an easier time. She could pass for black. She was about 12 years old. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and ran in the house to hook into the net with her cousins.

Ille2 went to the virtual reality house, in the back and worked on programming a ship fantasy sequence. He couldn’t use his degree, which was in router and engine technologies, because he couldn’t seem to get a job with a black company, but he could do some awesome VR for black high-tech geeks who liked to have sex in the engine room of a ship. It involved a router breakdown on top of a naughty white girl. The hero rescued her from the meltdown and she repaid him kindly.

Vanyez was both fascinated and amazed by the VR scene that Ille2 played for him. He understood in theory that some extremely straight black super nerds found ship engines sexy, but it was a big yawn for him. The last place in the world he would want to have sex is in an all-metal room with a broken pipe washing stardust on him. A bower, please, with a naked young man, a ton of oil, and a bunch of milk and honey.

Ille2 flicked an annoyed feeling at Vanyez and Vanyez realized he’d let his little bower moment get out of his head. He blushed. Well, he wasn’t the one making porn films, he thought tartly. “Keep going, fish,” he said majestically to Ille2.

“You see, mage,” said Ille2, “many people wanted to have sex on the deck of the Zephyr Zairen, and in the engine room. The engine room is famous. This ship was one of the first successful star-powered star ships. It’s literally a ‘star’ ship. We built a 3D replica of it by studying the plans that one of the white cadets ripped off for us. We put a bunch of dirty white girls in cadet uniforms running the engine controls, and boom, we’re making money.”

“So you’re a porno video maker?” said Vanyez, slowly, not sure if he was believing what he was hearing. “Is that the right term? That’s the kind of programming you do?”

“Well, yeah,” said Ille2, “basically that’s true, but that’s not all we did. We took the replica and built a VR scenario where you could practice programming the ZZ for different scenarios. My cousin who was pure black was a professor at the academy and he wanted his cadets to win the programming competition, so he hired me and my guys to make a model and crazy scenarios, like ‘what if the engine router blows up?’ and shit like that. I mean, we did everything, like some idiot drops coffee down the fuel cell to a full strike on the side of the ship to internal terrorism to pushing the wrong button.”

“So do you know how to actually program the ship?” asked Vanyez, “or do you just know how to program the virtual ship?”

“Could you actually tell if I can or I can’t?” said Ille2, irritated. “I mean, seriously, why did they send you to pick a programmer?”

“Because I have special powers,” said Vanyez.

“Like what?” said Ille2.

“Like this,” said Vanyez and reached out and grabbed the fluttering fish before the fish could think to move away. He swam quickly to the surface and burst forth from the water into the blinding sunshine of the lagoon. He held the fish out of the water and watched as it heaved and gasped for oxygen. Its little black fins drooped and its mouth moved involuntarily in and out. Vanyez’s pearly crown sparkled with water droplets and his grey eyes blasted the sun’s reflection onto the delicate skin of the fish.

“Please, have mercy,” said the fish, tears running from its eyes. Its mouth opened and closed. “I’m sorry I doubted you, mage. Please.”

“To gain my trust,” said Vanyez, “you have to show me something more near to your heart than a porn movie about our ship. Show me something that means something to you. Show me what is real.”

“I’m trying to show you what is real.” said the fish, “The Virtual Reality is real for me. I spent part of my life creating it. It’s one of my proudest achievements. Please mage, put me back in the water. Please, I’ll show you more.”

“You understand I can kill you in this dream?” said Vanyez. “It’s time to show me your true self.” He shook his wet black hair across his shoulders and lifted his jeweled triton in one hand and the fish in the other. “I will smite you fish, now, if you fail.” He dove back under the water and swam to a cool place in the banyan roots of the lagoon. He let the trembling fish go. It darted in to the roots, sucking water through its gills. Its eyes bulged wildly.

In his mind Vanyez saw a bunch of scenes at once. The assassination of the president, Miz Airen, that started the war. The president exited the car toward the palace and then lurched suddenly from a shot to the head. He saw the video of the white man who shot the president and was gunned down. The day after the shooting, Vanyez saw hordes of armed black soldiers and civilians come down the road into Ille2’s neighborhood. They ran at white people of any kind, raping the women and killing the men and boys. Ille2 and his daughter heard the screams from a secret bunker he had made in the VR lab. A day later he found his mother’s body in the ruins of her house. She’d been killed just like all the rest of the people in small simple houses. The guys in the black shirts selling the drugs were all dead too. That was the first day of the war.

Ille2 tried to leave the city, but there was no way out. The trains were blocked, the ships were blacks only, and the buses were full. He got a place for his daughter in a school where she could pass for black and worked as a hacker for the liberal side. There were plenty of blacks that didn’t believe in persecuting whites, but they pitied the whites and blamed them for their poverty. A black woman said to Ille2, “Why didn’t you stay in school and get your education instead of just hacking for a living?” As if Ille2 could ever pass a test or sit in a classroom. His mama didn’t do that and he wasn’t about to do it. No teacher cared about him.

One funny thing about the war was that suddenly there were jobs for everyone. Ille2 got a job programming for star ships that were broken during the fighting, when the first attacks came on the capital. Vanyez saw him in the berths, working with the mechanics, testing the engine controls. He was a natural. He was happy.

In a flash, Vanyez saw a muddle of things: Ille2 in his daughter’s school, looking for her, him running down the street, after a truck carrying the girls, him trying to get her out of a holding pen, starting a fight, getting beat up, waking up in a separate holding pen himself. He listened to the call of the auction as people were divided up into lots and sold out. He saw his daughter’s feet from the bottom of the wall of the pen as she passed by. The girls were just unlucky, he learned later, when he had time to pore over the Internet and read about it. Their school fell behind the lines in the fighting and a white general whose own daughter had been killed the day before had taken out his rage on them. An educated, elite black girl could fetch a high price on the slave market. So the girls did. And so did Ille2, who seemed black enough to the slavers, when he found himself without bail and packed off for Harflour, sold for 2000 Illyrian Illyes. More than anything else, he was just surprised, shocked, dismayed, irritated, angry, whatever–he had spent his whole life being too white, and suddenly he was plenty black enough for the premiere slave trade. His daughter, he thought, might have been sold in a parcel that went to the north side of Safe Harbor. But he had no money and no way to get there. Plus, he was no longer a poor white trash Illyrian; he was a high-class, high-tech black Illyrian slave.

“Is that real enough for you, mage” he asked Vanyez. “Am I black or white to you? Am I a slave or a free man? What more can I show you?” He shuddered in the darkened shade where he flitted and fluttered in the water. He looked out balefully at Vanyez.

“It’s real enough,” said Vanyez. He lowered his triton and turned down the glaring sparkle from his crown. He considered Ille2 for a minute. The water waved softly above them. “I’m sorry for your suffering.”

“You fought for the Dragon, right?” said Ille2.

“Yes. We thought we’d won the war for a color-blind black president, but the blacks shot him at his inauguration and the whites rioted. The same thing all over. It was a waste of everyone’s time.”

“If I help you, will you buy my contract from Milan?” said Ille2. “Will you get me to Safe Harbour? I would work to buy my daughter back. If she’s there.”

“Yes,” said Vanyez. “The Dragon will free you, especially since you’re apparently black. She doesn’t really care if you’re black or white, but black doesn’t hurt, you know.”

“Ha,” said the fish. A little bubble escaped his mouth. “Well, compared to you I am black. I’m even a black fish.” He looked at his fins and flitted into the sunshine, showing off his golden stripes on his deep black body.

He sang:

When my life is done, they’ll say of me
That I was nothing, a drop in the sea
When I pass away, no song will be sung
No band will play, no bell will be rung

In my time, I was neither/nor
I was black for some and white or’all
I worked as a free man and as a slave
Till the sea drowned me in a giant wave

Westerners, I come to you,
hoping for something new
Hoping for something beyond what I am
Something lovely, kind, and true

I want to find a better home
Far, far from my birth I’ll roam
Searching for that ethereal place
Where no one cares about my race

In my next life, I long to be
an animal, a machine, a bird or bee
Something simple that doesn’t care
Whether you have straight or curly hair

Westerners, I come to you,
hoping for something good
Hoping for something I cannot imagine
Something I would have if I could.

As Ille2 sang, his fish body began to change and Vanyez saw the man as a simple merman, Ille2, a rum-colored man from Illyria with a silver tail and a plain coral necklace. Vanyez considered him, and then opened his own mind to Ille2, pouring out the images of the Zephyr Zairen and all the broken machinery he had memorized with Anjelka’s help. He let the rest of the dream run out that way, with Ille2 sucking in all his knowledge, until the transfer was complete.

When he woke, he prayed he had done the right thing.


To read more of the novel-in-progress, Henry Spenser, please write to S.K. Bleakhouse at skbleakhouse@gmail.com. You will be added to the list of subscribers to the blog henryspenser.blogspot.com. Thank you for your interest and I hope you enjoyed the excerpt.


One Response to Vanyez’ Dream

  1. Anna says:

    Great story!!