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02.12.03


  Viper Wire by Richard Kadrey

 

  

Necrophony

  

From the 1920s until his death in 1931, Thomas Edison, genius, workaholic and holder of over 1,000 patents, continued to work on his pet project- a Spirit Phone that would allow him to communicate with the land of the dead. Like Alexander Graham Bell, whose own work on the telephone was prompted largely by his desire to communicate with his dead brother, Edison passed into the land of the dead disappointed.

Around the same time, a daring Scottish inventor named John Logie Baird first demonstrated broadcast television to astonished crowds at Selfridge's department store in London on January 26, 1926. With only thirty lines of resolution in his creaky mechanical imaging system, Baird's Televisor pictures were little more than energetic silhouettes. Mechanical ghosts. Still, no one at Selfridge's had ever seen anything like it, and none ever forgot that first experience of watching what looked like spirits caught in the spinning display disc.

Baird's original home Televisors had been sold as do-it-yourself kits in  the late '20s. Gault found a good reproduction of the original plans in an ancient radio engineering textbook at the nearby university library.

Getting hold of the notes for Edison's Spirit Phone was more difficult. The Edison Museum in Menlo Park was reluctant to let him, a mere civilian with no university affiliation, paw through their archives. After the check cleared on a hefty donation, however (a donation that ate almost all of his life savings), the museum welcomed him with open arms. Gault wasn't allowed to remove or photocopy any of Edison's papers, but he'd anticipated this. He walked into the archives with a Mont Blanc pen in his pocket. The pen was really a rather expensive mini-spy camera he'd bought online from Spies R Us. A few hours later, Gault had recorded  the plans he wanted and was on his way back to his own home workshop.

Back in his lab, Gault discovered that his hunch had been right. The technology that drove Baird's Televisor and Edison's Spirit Phone not only fit together, but each gracefully completed the other. Had Edison, Bell, Tesla and Marconi all been right when they'd quietly speculated to friends and colleagues that electrical communications were the ultimate means to bridge the gap been the lands of the living and the dead? Had spirits been working through Baird and Edison, dolling out clues to the solution? Gault would be the first to find out.

It took two frustrating years of work to meld Baird and Edison's machines together properly. Having been raised in an era of digital technology, the complex steam-era mechanics were extraordinarily difficult for Gault to get right. There were synching problems. Frequency drifts. Power anomalies. Then, one night it all flowed together. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Gault was sitting in his lab one minute, tuning the whirling viewing disc on the Televisor when a man's face sublimed into view. The face was dark and soft, as if made of gray water. Gault saw his father, in glorious ultra-low-resolution.

"Dad?" he said, grabbing the Spirit Phone mouthpiece.

The old man crooked his head and looked around. His image broke up, lost in an etheric dark on the Televisor disc, then reappeared. "Son?" said the old man. "Is that you?"

"Yeah, dad. It's me."

"Where are you, boy? I can't see you."

"I'm still here. On Earth."

The old man smiled a jagged low-res smile. "Oh ho ho. Still playing with your gadgets? You know you've made someone here very happy. All sorts of residents have bets down as to who would finally run a tin can and string from Earth way out here. Nipkow and some other German big brains swore they'd be the first. Edison will be happy to hear that it was an American."

"Is it a good place where you are? Are you happy?"

"Very. So's your mother. She's off pawing through an Egyptian fellow's reconstruction of the library at Alexandria. She's taken up with some childhood sweetheart. Bill or Paul, something like that."

"It doesn't bother you?"

"A lot of the things that used to bother me don't now. They mostly seem silly."

"Dad, can you show me around?"

"Of course, son," said the old man. "I'm not sure how well you're seeing me, so I'll head into the sun. Get you plenty of light for your gizmo to work with."

"Thanks." On the murky viewing disc, Gault's father looked to be walking by a lake in a public park. Gault could see people strolling nearby. Couples holding hands. Happy children chasing dogs, running with kites. He could just make out the shapes of buildings on the far side of the lake. From what he could see, Heaven-or whatever the place was-looked like a set from a 1960s Italian science fiction movie. Barbarella or Danger: Diabolik. Though the images were in black and white, Gault was sure the towering cityscape would be all oranges, pinks and deep blues.

"And what about you, boy? How are you doing?"

"I'm fine. I've been working hard. It's lonely here sometimes."

"What about your girl, Jessica?"

"We broke up a year ago."

Gault's father nodded and pursed his lips. "Sorry. I liked her."

"Me, too."

"You have your eye on anyone new?"

"No. I've been working on the machine so much. What makes you ask?"

"A pet theory of mine. That we men mostly only do anything important to amuse or impress women. Space flight. The Great Wall of China. Learning to foxtrot. They're all the same."

"I never learned to foxtrot."

"Well, you ought to."

"You're probably right."

"Damned right I'm right." The old man stopped. "I thought you'd like to see this. The entrance to our happy hunting ground."

Past his father, Gault could see a long, orderly line of souls. Anubis led small groups to a large apothecary scale. One by one, the souls climbed up and sat in a tray on one side of the scale. A tall woman, Ma'at, dropped a feather onto the opposite tray. If the scale balanced, the soul got up and was led into the bright city. Gault saw that one soul weighed much more than the feather. The ground opened up and a crocodile-like thing stuck its head out, gulping down the soul in one gulp.

"Eaters of the dead," said Gault's father. "They ain't pretty, but they get the job done."

"Wow. I didn't think it would be like that, I thought it would be, I don't know, fluffy clouds and angels with harps. God and the devil."

"Oh, them. They're around. They made up ages ago. Every little thing forgiven. You want to go to the ornithopter races? You'd love 'em, These blimp-size bastards made of crystal and wires. They flap like birds and fly like bats out of hell."

"I'd love to see that."

"You planning on telling a lot of people about all this, son?"

"I'm thinking not."

"Good boy. No one in the scientific world will believe you. That only leaves the lunatics and the charlatans on your side. And seriously, fuck them."

"You always gave good advice, dad."

"You know, I can't talk to you again after this. Not while you're on Earth. It's against the rules and a bad idea. You can't be spending your time chatting up the dead. You have to go out and live your life. You've proved your point. Now, get out of that damned lab."

"I will. I promise."

"But we can still have a good time now," said the old man. He whispered conspiratorially. "Knowing you're not going to go blabbing about the place means I can show you the red light district."

"First round's on me, dad."

 

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Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.

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