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Burning Paradise

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Burning Paradise

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Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Publisher: Tor, 2013

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alien Invasion
Alternate History (SF)
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(18 reads / 12 ratings)


Cassie Klyne, nineteen years old, lives in the United States in the year 2015-but it's not our United States, and it's not our 2015.

Cassie's world has been at peace since the Great Armistice of 1918. There was no World War II, no Great Depression. Poverty is declining, prosperity is increasing everywhere; social instability is rare. But Cassie knows the world isn't what it seems. Her parents were part of a group who gradually discovered the awful truth: that for decades-back to the dawn of radio communications-human progress has been interfered with, made more peaceful and benign, by an extraterrestrial entity. That by interfering with our communications, this entity has tweaked history in massive and subtle ways. That humanity is, for purposes unknown, being farmed.

Cassie's parents were killed for this knowledge, along with most of the other members of their group. Since then, the survivors have scattered and gone into hiding. Cassie and her younger brother Thomas now live with her aunt Nerissa, who shares these dangerous secrets. Others live nearby. For eight years they have attempted to lead unexceptional lives in order to escape detection. The tactic has worked.

Until now. Because the killers are back. And they're not human.



Everything that followed might have happened differently--or might not have happened at all--had Cassie been able to sleep that night.

She had tried to sleep, had wanted to sleep, had dutifully gone to bed at 11:30, but now it was three hours and some minutes past midnight and her thoughts were running like hamsters in an exercise wheel. She stood up, switched on the light, dressed herself in gray sweat pants and a yellow flannel shirt, and padded barefoot down the chilly parquet floor of the hallway to the kitchen.

Unusually, she was alone in the apartment. Except for Thomas, of course. Thomas was her little brother, twelve years old and soundly asleep in the second bedroom, a negligible presence. Cassie and Thomas lived with their aunt Nerissa, and Cassie still thought of this as Aunt Ris's apartment although it had been her home for almost seven years now. Usually her aunt would have been asleep on the fold-out sofa in the living room, but tonight Aunt Ris was on a date, which meant she might not be back until Saturday afternoon.

Cassie had welcomed the chance to spend some time alone. She was eighteen years old, had graduated from high school last spring, worked days at Lassiter's Department Store three blocks away, and was legally and functionally an adult, but her aunt's protectiveness remained a force to be reckoned with. Aunt Ris had made a completely unnecessary fuss about going out: You'll be all right? Yes. Are you sure? Of course. You'll keep a close eye on Thomas? Yes! Go! Have a good time! Don't worry about us!

The evening had passed quickly and pleasantly. There was no television in the apartment, but she had played records after dinner. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier had the useful effect of making Thomas drowsy even as it rang in Cassie's head like the tolling of a divine bell, echoing even after Thomas was in bed and the house was eerily quiet. Then she had turned off most of the lights except for the lamp on the living-room end table and had huddled on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn and a book until she was tired enough to turn in.

So why was she prowling around now like a nervous cat? Cassie opened the refrigerator door. Nothing inside seemed appetizing. The linoleum floor was cold under her feet. She should have put on slippers.

She scooted a kitchen chair next to the window and sat down, resting her elbows on the dusty sill. The corpses of six summer flies lay interred behind the sash-tied cotton blind. "Disgusting," Cassie said quietly. November had been windy and cold, and wisps of lateautumn air slipped through the single-pane window like probing fingers.

The window overlooked Liberty Street. Aunt Ris's apartment occupied the floor above a store that sold and repaired secondhand furniture, in a two-story brick building like every other building on the block. The next-door neighbors were a Chinese restaurant on the north side and a grubby antique shop on the south. From where she sat Cassie could see the wide glass display windows of the Groceteria and a half dozen other businesses on the north side of Liberty, all the way to Pippin Street and Antioch Avenue. Not much traffic this time of night, but the after-hours clubs in the entertainment district were just closing. On other sleepless Fridays--Cassie was a restless sleeper at the best of times--she had watched cars rolling through red lights in drunken oblivion, had heard drivers gunning their engines in mad displays of masculine enthusiasm. But just now the street was silent and empty. Of pedestrians there were none.

Or, she corrected herself, no. There was one pedestrian: a man standing alone in the mouth of the narrow alley that separated the Groceteria from Tuck's Used Books.

Cassie hadn't seen him at first because of the Armistice Day banners strapped to the high standards of the streetlights. The city had put up the banners a couple of days ago. There was a parade every year to mark the 1914 Armistice, but this year the city (the state, the nation, the world in general) was making a big deal out of the centenary: one hundred years of peace. Relative peace. Approximate peace.

Cassie had always loved Armistice Day. Next to Christmas, it was her favorite holiday. She still remembered her parents taking her to watch the parade back in Boston--remembered the sidewalk vendors who sold roasted chestnuts in twists of paper, the Floats of the Nations populated by schoolchildren in implausibly colorful ethnic dress, the battling cacophonies of high-school marching bands. The violent death of her mother and father had taught Cassie things about the world that would never be acknowledged in any Armistice Day parade, but she still felt the bittersweet tug of those times.

The Centennial banner flapped in a brisk wind, alternately revealing and concealing the man in the shadows. Now that Cassie had seen him she couldn't look away. He was a drab man, an ordinary man, probably a businessman, dressed for the season in a gray coat down to his knees and with a fedora on his head, but what unsettled Cassie was the impression that he had been looking up at her--that he had turned his head away the moment she had seen him.

Well, but why not? At this hour, hers might be the only lighted window on the block. Why shouldn't it catch his eye? It was only deeply ingrained habit that made her suspicious. Aunt Ris and the other local survivors of the Correspondence Society had trained Cassie in their secret protocols, of which the first rule was the simplest: Beware the attention of strangers.

The solitary stranger was no longer looking at her window, but his attention still seemed fixed on the building where she lived. His gaze was flat and unwavering and on closer inspection subtly lunatic. Cassie felt a knot tighten in her stomach. This would happen on a night when Aunt Ris was out. Not that anything had really happened, but it would have been nice to have a second opinion to call on. Should she really be worried about a lone man standing in the windy street after midnight? It was a calculation difficult to make when she was too conscious of the empty rooms around her and the shadows they contained.

These thoughts were so absorbing that she was startled when the wind lifted the Armistice Day banner once more and she saw that the man had moved. He had taken a few steps out of the alley and across the sidewalk; he was standing at the edge of Liberty Street now, the toes of his brown shoes poised where the curb met the gutter. His face was upturned once again, and although Cassie couldn't see his eyes she imagined she felt the pressure of their attention as he scanned the building. She ducked away from the window, crossed the kitchen floor and switched off the overhead light. Now she could watch him from the shadows.

During the time it took her to return to her chair by the window he had moved only slightly, one foot on the sidewalk, one foot in the street. What next? Was he armed? Would he cross the street, come inside the building, knock on the door of the apartment, try to break it down if she refused to let him in? If so, Cassie knew what to do: grab Thomas and leave by the fire escape. Once she was sure she wasn't being followed she would hurry to the home of the nearest Society member... even though the nearest Society member was the disagreeable Leo Beck, who lived in a cheap apartment five blocks closer to the lake.

But the man seemed to hesitate again. Would a killer hesitate? Of course, she had no real reason to believe he was a murderer or a simulacrum. There had been no violence since the flurry of killings seven years ago. Probably the man was just a drunk disappointed by a luckless night at the bars, or maybe an insomniac with a mind as restless as her own. His interest in the building where she lived might be only an optical illusion; he could have been staring at his own sad reflection in the window of Pike Brothers Furniture Restoration and Sales.

He took another step into the street just as a car turned the corner from Pippin onto Liberty. The car was a dark-colored sedan, blue or black, she couldn't tell which under the uncertain light of the streetlamps. The driver gunned the engine crazily and the car fishtailed as it took the corner. Cassie supposed the driver must be drunk.

But the solitary stranger didn't seem to notice. He began to stride across the street as if he had suddenly made up his mind, while the car sped on heedlessly. Cassie looked from the vehicle to the pedestrian, calculating the obvious trajectory but not quite believing it. Surely the car would swerve at the last minute? Or the stranger would turn and leap out of the way?

But neither of these things happened.

The Armistice Day banner flapped twice in the November wind. Cassie pressed her forehead against the chill glass of the window. Her hands gripped the fly-littered sill, and she watched with sick anticipation as the collision evolved from possibility to inevitability to sickening fact.

The car's fender took the pedestrian at knee level. He dropped and rolled under the grille as if he had been inhaled by it. For one awful moment he simply vanished. All Cassie could see--resisting an almost overpowering urge to close her eyes--was the double bounce of the car's suspension as its wheels passed over him. She heard the shrilling of the brakes. The car swerved sidelong before it came to a stop. White smoke billowed from the exhaust pipe and swirled away in the wind. The driver turned off the engine, and silence was briefly restored to Liberty Street.

The pedestrian wasn't just hurt--he was dying, was probably already dead. Cassie forced herself to look. His neck was broken, his head skewed so that he seemed to be staring at his own left shoulder. His chest had been crushed and split. Only his legs seemed completely intact--a perfectly good pair of legs, Cassie thought madly.

The car door swung open and the driver lurched out. The driver was a young man in a disheveled suit. His collar was open and he wore no tie. He leaned on the hood of the car to steady himself. He shook his head twice. He looked at the remains of the pedestrian, then looked away as if from a blinding light. The Armistice banner (CELEBRATING A CENTURY OF PEACE) flapped above him with a popping sound that made Cassie think of gunfire. The driver opened his mouth as if to speak. Then he doubled over and delivered the contents of his stomach onto the asphalt of Liberty Street.

The dead man had made a far bigger mess. There was a lot of blood. Blood everywhere. But not just blood. Something else had come out of him--a syrupy green fluid that steamed in the night air.

Cassie stood silent and rigid, the events she had witnessed doubling in her mind with a memory of other deaths, far away, years ago.

Because she had to be sure--because there must be no mistake this time--she threw a jacket over her flannel shirt and hurried down the stairs that led from Aunt Ris's apartment to the small tiled lobby and the street door.

She opened the door just a crack. She dared not leave the building while Thomas was asleep. She just needed to be sure she had seen what she thought she had seen.

Cold air rushed past her. The popping of the Armistice banner was angry and random. The driver sat on the hood of his car, sobbing. Lights had begun to wink on in upper-story apartments all along the street. Faces like pale or occulted moons appeared at windows. The police would be here before long, Cassie supposed.

She put her head out far enough to get a good look at the corpse of the pedestrian.

One of the last monographs circulated by the Correspondence Society--it had been written after the killings--had been Notes on the Physical Anatomy of a Simulacrum. The author was Werner Beck, the wealthy father of Leo Beck. Of course Cassie hadn't read it at the time, but last winter she had found a copy among Aunt Ris's keepsakes and had studied it carefully. She could recite parts of it from memory. The lungs, heart, and digestive system, along with the skeleton and musculature, comprise the simulacrum's only identifiable internal organs. Those organs are contained in an amorphous green matrix, covered in turn by layers of adipose tissue and human skin. The rudimentary circulatory system produces less bleeding with traumatic injury, and it is not obvious that even massive blood loss would be immediately fatal to a simulacrum. The undifferentiated green matter suffuses much of the chest and abdominal cavity as well as most of the interior of the skull. It evaporates on exposure to air, leaving a pliant green film of desiccated cells.

Werner Beck had written that, and he would know: he had wounded one of the things in his home with a shotgun, then had retained the presence of mind to attempt a dissection.

The mess in the street was consistent with his description, and Cassie tried to look at it with the same soldierly dispassion. Blood, but not as much as you might expect. Yellowish fatty tissue. And the green "matrix," which was everywhere. Cassie could smell it. She had a fleeting memory of her mother, who had cultivated roses every summer and occasionally recruited Cassie in her garden work. At the age of eight Cassie had spent one endless afternoon pinching aphids and thrips from the leaves and stems of Alba roses, until her hands were coated with an aromatic grime of chlorophyll, garden loam, leafy matter and insect parts. The smell had lingered on her hands for hours even after she washed them with soap and water.

That was what the dead pedestrian smelled like.

Mrs. Theodorus, who lived over a shoe store on the opposite side of the street, emerged onto the sidewalk wearing a pink nighty and fuzzy white slippers. She seemed about to scold the weeping driver for disturbing her sleep, but stopped when she came within sight of the corpse. She stared at it for a long moment. Then she put her hand to her mouth, stifling a scream.

Above all these sounds--Mrs. Theodorus's scream, the driver's sobs, the popping banner--Cassie heard the distant howl of a police siren, louder by the second.

Time to leave, she thought. She was surprisingly calm. It was a mechanical calm, as exact as algebra, beneath which Cassie felt panic gliding like a shark in a sunny estuary. But she couldn't afford the luxury of panic. Her life was at stake. Hers, and Thomas's.

In a crisis always assume the worst, Aunt Ris had taught her, and Cassie tried to do that, which meant she had to believe that another general attack was underway. And this time no one associated with the Society would be spared. If not for a fortunate accident, the simulacrum who was currently spread across Liberty Street like a sloppy greenand-red compote would have come to the apartment and killed Cassie and Thomas. Aunt Ris might already be dead, a possibility Cassie refused to dwell on for more than a moment. At best, Aunt Ris would come home to an empty apartment and the discovery that her life had changed yet again, irrevocably and for the worse.

I could wait for her, Cassie reasoned. A Friday night date meant her aunt probably wouldn't be back before Saturday noon, but she might show up sooner than that. And it might be safe to wait, given that the sim who had come for her was dead. A few hours wouldn't make much difference, would it?

Maybe not... but Cassie had been trained for this moment since the death of her parents, not least by Aunt Ris herself, and she couldn't bring herself to break protocol. Pack, warn and run, that was the rule. Packing was simple. Like her aunt, like her little brother, Cassie kept a fully-loaded suitcase in her bedroom at all times. She hurried there now and yanked the suitcase from under the bed. It had been inspected and repacked just last month, to make sure she hadn't outgrown any of the clothes in it. Cassie put the case on the bed and quickly dressed herself, keeping in mind that it was cold outside and winter was coming. She double-layered two shirts and covered them with an old woolen sweater. She caught a glimpse of herself in the vanity mirror--pale, lumpy and terrified, but who cared how she looked?

Aunt Ris had left a number where she could be reached in an emergency--and this was surely an emergency--but Cassie didn't even consider calling it. That was another rule: no telephone calls. Under the circumstances, anything important had to be said faceto-face or not at all. Even an innocuous call from this number would be a red flag to the entity they called the hypercolony. Out there in the darkness, mindless but meticulously attentive, it would hear. And it would act.

She could leave a note, of course, but even then she would have to be careful what she said.

She took her knapsack from the closet in the hallway and filled it with simple food from the kitchen cupboard: a half-dozen trail-mix bars, apple juice in single-serving boxes, a foil bag of mixed nuts and raisins. On impulse she grabbed a book from the shelf in the hallway and tucked it into a side pocket. It was a book her uncle had written: The Fisherman and the Spider, a tattered paperback edition Cassie had read twice before.

Time was passing. She strapped her watch to her wrist and saw that almost twenty minutes had slipped by since the death of the sim. The police were in the street now. Whirling red lights blinked through the window blinds. She guessed the police officers would be bewildered by the corpse of the victim--as much of it as hadn't already evaporated into the night air. And the city coroner, tasked with analyzing the remains, might end up questioning his own sanity. But no report would be published in the morning papers. The sobbing, drunken driver would never come to trial. That was a foregone conclusion.

Cassie took a pen and a sheet of paper into the kitchen and controlled the trembling of her hand long enough to write,

Aunt Ris,
Gotta run--you know why.
Just wanted to say thanks (for everything). I will take good care of Thomas.
Love to you always,

It would have been dangerous to say more, and her aunt would understand the shorthand--"gotta run" was their personal Code Red. But it wasn't enough, it wasn't nearly enough. How could it be? For seven years Aunt Ris had looked after Cassie and Thomas with kindness, patience and--well, if not love, at least something like love. It was Aunt Ris who had calmed Cassie's night terrors after the death of her parents, Aunt Ris who had gently introduced her to the truth about the Correspondence Society. And if she had been a little more protective than Cassie would have liked, Aunt Ris had also helped her strike a balance between the world as it appeared and the world as it really was--between the world as Cassie had loved it and the world she had come to dread.

"Thanks" was hardly adequate. She hesitated, wanting to say more. But if she tried to do so she would have to fight back tears, and that wasn't helpful right now. So she taped the note, unaltered and inelegant as it was, to the refrigerator door, and forced her attention to the necessities of the moment.

Finally, she tiptoed into Thomas's room and woke him with a hand on his shoulder.

She envied her younger brother's aptitude for sleep. Thomas slept deeply, silently and reliably. His small bedroom was tidy at the moment. Thomas's toys sat neatly on a wooden shelf, his clothes hung freshly-laundered in the closet. Thomas himself lay on his back with the comforter up to his chin, as if he hadn't moved since Cassie tucked him in a few hours ago. Maybe he hadn't. Twelve years old, but his face had kept its childhood roundness; his blond hair, even in disarray, made him look like a fat angel in yellow jammies. He woke as if he were returning to his body after a long absence. "Cassie," he croaked, blinking at her. "What's wrong?"

She told him to get dressed and get his suitcase from under the bed. They had to leave, she said. Now.

Dazed as he was, the implication wasn't lost on him. "Aunt Ris--" he began.

"She's not home. We have to leave without her."

She hated the anxiety that surged from his eyes and felt reproached by it. She wanted to say, It's not my fault! Don't blame me--I don't have a choice!

Worse, perhaps, was the look of frightened resignation that followed. Thomas was too young to remember much about the murder of their parents. But what he did remember, he remembered with his body as much as his mind. He sat up and steadied himself with a hand on the edge of the mattress. "Where are we going?"

"To see Leo Beck. After that--we'll figure it out. Now get dressed. Hurry! You know the drill. And dress warm, okay?"

He nodded and stood up straight, like a soldier at reveille. The sight of him made her want to cry.

The high window at the end of the hallway opened onto a wooden fire escape bolted to the building's sooty brickwork. The stairs descended into the alley behind the building, which meant that Cassie and Thomas, climbing down, would be invisible to the police, who in any case were probably too busy sorting out the events on Liberty Street to worry about what was happening in a vacant back lane.

As she raised the window Cassie caught a reflection of herself in the dusty glass. A young woman, dowdy in an oversized sweater, wary eyes peering out from under a black woolen watch cap--mouth too big, eyebrows too darkly generous, unattractive in what Cassie considered the best sense: she would never be stared at for her looks, which suited her fine.

In high school she had been considered not just odd-looking but personally odd. She had heard boys calling her "dead fish" behind her back. And it was true that she had become expert at concealing her feelings. That was part of what it meant to be a Society kid. There were truths you could never acknowledge, feelings that had to stay hidden. So it was okay to be a dead fish, to stand outside the hallway alliances and weekend social circles, to be looked at sidelong as you walked from class to class. Even to be sneered at, if you couldn't avoid it. Her slightly geeky looks were helpful in that respect, a useful barrier between herself and others. She knew how to fly under the radar: never volunteer an answer, never expect or demand real friendship, do your work well but not conspicuously well.

In the presence of other Society offspring she could let her hair down a little. But she had never really enjoyed the company of that crowd, either. Society brats tended to be gnarly, cliquish, complexly screwed-up. Herself most certainly included.

She bit her lip and took a deep breath. Then she clambered over the low sill onto the wooden stairs, lifted out her suitcase and Thomas's, and helped Thomas climb out behind her. The weatherworn wooden platform lurched under their combined weight. The alley below was a brick-lined asphalt corridor, empty of everything but a solitary Dumpster and the fitful November wind. That suited her, too.

She tried not to think about what she was leaving behind. When they reached ground level she gripped Thomas's hand in hers ("Ow," he said) and led him through the alley to the corner where it opened onto Pippin Street. Then she turned left, heading for the home of the disagreeable Leo Beck and a future she was afraid even to imagine.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert Charles Wilson


Burning Paradise

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