Sugar Rain [Starbridge Chronicles 2]
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by Paul Park
Category: Science Fiction Locus Poll Award Nominee
Description: The second book in the Starbridge Chronicles, Sugar Rain relates the stories of Thanakar and Charity Starbridge during the revolution that ended the first book in the series, Soldiers of Paradise. The generations-long winter has drawn to a close, and with it the power of the tyrannical Starbridge theocracy that maintained order during the years of hunger. But a cruelly pragmatic priest has set the stage for a new faith, and even those who defy him seem fated to play out roles that will inevitably bring it to pass. As Thanakar struggles in exile to find safe harbor for his adopted family, Charity Starbridge undertakes a mythic journey, passing through various underworlds to join him.
eBook Publisher: Electricstory.com, 1989
eBookwise Release Date: October 2001
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [525 KB]
Reading time: 358-502 min.
There is a fresco in the prince's library where it is all set out: the Sun painted on the black background of deep space, while around it spins the wheel of Earth's majestic orbit. And the rim of the wheel is made of numbers, tiny calculations of painted gold, for in those days the length of the year was a matter of dogma. Knowing it to be a lie, the bishop's astronomers had put the figure down as eighty thousand days precisely. They were in love with a vision of celestial harmony: four seasons of twenty thousand days, twenty phases of a thousand days each, ten months of a hundred days, ten weeks of ten, twenty hours of a hundred minutes each. The artist has painted a portrait of the bishop, enthroned within the circle of the Earth. In her hand she holds a silver sword. It is composed of numbers, the magical equation 1 X 10 X 10 X 10 X 20 X 4 = 1. Under her feet writhe demons and heretics, arbitrary and conflicting figures issuing from their mouths.
Closer in around the Sun and farther out in space, the nine planets of hell pursue their separate ways--tight, fiery circles and long, cold ellipses. Each is decorated with scenes of souls in torment. Men freeze in icy prisons or burn like torches; they burst apart or weigh a thousand pounds, depending on the differing effects of temperature and atmosphere. And beneath each planet the artist has depicted the kinds of criminals who inhabit it. Under Baqui Minor, for example, he has painted a seascape, a storm raging on a sea of liquid helium. Almost overwhelmed by the waves, a raft breaks through a cloud of spray. Clutched to the deck, miserable men and women huddle together for warmth, a murderer, a tailor, a paralytic, a smuggler, a homosexual, a man with yellow hair. Each carries, cut into his forehead or the muscle of his upper arm, the symbol of his vice.
In temporary orbit around Mega Prime moves Paradise, the source of life, a captive planet among the terrors of the solar system. Its towers and lakes and shining palaces are painted with a kind of wistful brilliance, and its complicated path among the planets is traced with ribbons of gold. Smallest of all the planets, it is also the greatest, painted as if lit from within, surrounded by halos of luminescence which spread out into darkest space. Angels and demons cavort in its upper atmosphere, and on the topmost tower of the brightest palace sits Angkhdt, dog-headed prophet of God, enthroned on a dais, surrounded by companies of the blessed, his mouth contorted in a dog-like scowl. He has opened his hand and released a bird into the air, a falcon bearing a lantern in its claws, setting its wings over the wide abyss towards Earth.
The falcon flies over a recumbent figure, a sleeping giant painted on an empty section of the wall. The bones of his forehead have been stripped away, and within the caverns of his brain sit convocations of God's priests, holding the synapses of his system in their ancient, spotted hands.
The giant is symbolic of the body of the state. Along his shoulders sit regiments of Starbridges--judges, princes, generals, financiers, all in gorgeous uniforms. Lower down, craftsmen and artisans crouch among the giant's hands, the pennants of their guilds sprouting from his fingers. Along the passages of his entrails slog tradesmen and merchants in shit-colored robes, dragging enormous packages on sledges. Soldiers camp upon his thighs. And on his legs and feet squat crowds of men and women dressed in yellow rags, working people, slaves.
Yet even these are not the lowest. For the giant has relieved himself before going to sleep. A pile of excrement smokes near his feet, and in it squirm heretics and atheists painted in the shape of maggots--antinomials, adventists, cannibals, carnivores, and a dozen others, the marks of their heresies branded on their backs. * * * *
In the days when the fresco was first painted, men believed in miracles. When Paradise was in rotation close to Earth, people could see with the naked eye what looked like sparks and streamers falling out from its bright surface into space. They believed there was a spark of divinity burning in the hearts of men. They believed that from his companies of angels God had exiled some for punishment on Earth. And when a child was born in those days, a priest would come to cast its horoscope and pattern its tattoos. He would listen to its crying. For then, in the language of the newborn, the fallen angel in the heart of every child would describe the sins that had pulled it down, given it flesh and blood, molded its young bones. And some babies were arrested right away and beaten or condemned to prison. Others, less perverse, were permitted to learn trades. But most were condemned in their cradles to lifetimes of labor. For God marked the most sinful with certain signs. They were born into poor families, or their limbs were crooked, or their eyes were green.
The fresco's border is decorated with scenes from the life of the Beloved Angkhdt, painted in exquisite detail. In those days every citizen of Charn could recite the story of how the prophet left his wife and family to set out on his journey through the stars. He divided his goods among his friends: to Cosro Starbridge, his gun. To Nestrim Starbridge, his money and his books. To Bartek Starbridge, his livestock and his plow. In this way he divided all the earth. And at the time the fresco was first painted, in the early phases of spring, 00016, in the city of Charn, the descendants of these men held sovereign power. They were the priests and the administrators. They owned every bird and every stone, for their power was in trust from God. They were the wardens of the prison world. * * * *
Parts of the fresco are so complicated, they require a magnifying glass to decipher. Standing in her brother's library, the princess peered at it doubtfully. There was a crack in the wall under the image of the Sun, a tiny imperfection in the plaster. She reached out to rub it with her thumb, and then she turned away. * * * *
Outside her tower window the city stretched away into the rain and the dark night. She stood staring towards the east. There, still far away, her brother's fire turned the intervening houses into jagged silhouettes, lit from behind by green and silver flares, and the deep red burning. Closer in, the river had risen through the lowest slums and spread into a lake five miles around, drowning the miserable streets, making islands out of the highest buildings, the prisons and the temples. Neon steeples and gilded domes rose up above the water's inky surface. From time to time, fat boats full of lamplight would glide between them, carrying priests and soldiers on unknown errands.
She stood at the window of her brother's library on the thirty-seventh floor. Beneath her, throngs of people seethed around the first gates of the Mountain of Redemption, the monstrous prison at the city's heart. Horse soldiers with whips had kept the major streets clear, but there weren't enough of them to do more than that. Looking down from her tower window, Charity Starbridge could see where an entire shanty-town had sprung up around the gate, cardboard boxes and plywood shelters, and people sitting around bonfires dressed in urine-colored rags. Displaced by fire and flood, paupers had come from all over the city to gather at the mountain's base, to chant the names of rage, to recite in unison the fourteen reasons for despair. Some squatted in the mud or huddled under umbrellas, cowed to silence by the constant rain, but others swarmed against the barricades, shaking their skinny fists and shouting. Here and there in the crowd, men had erected symbols of revolt: a huge chamber pot made out of papier-mâché, dog-headed effigies of the prince of Caladon, inflated phalluses as tall as men. Someone had made wings and a tail and a huge beak for himself out of red cardboard, and he danced on a box above the crowd, a red bird of adventism. Elsewhere, rebel preachers gesticulated and prayed, surrounded by devotees. Charlatans juggled torches, and mountebanks ate fire. And sometimes a dark soldier of the purge would push his horse past the barricades around the gate, wading his horse contemptuously through the mob, clearing a circle around himself with his pistol and his whip. From her high window, Charity saw one of them raise his hand; she heard the shot and saw the man in the bird suit pitch backwards into the crowd, flapping his red wings.
After a few minutes the soldier retreated back into the shelter of the gate, and the crowd closed up where he had been. Charity stared down at him, admiring his black uniform without understanding what he was. Drugs and innocence and social custom had made a prison out of her mind, and she stared down out of her window as if through the bars. Somewhere among the edgeless days of marriage she had lost the ability to think. Or rather, not completely--a week before, she had stopped taking the personality relaxers prescribed to her on her wedding day, and already it was as if a giant bird which had nested in her skull had spread its wings and flown away. Already the precepts of the Starbridge marriage code seemed less consuming. It had been thousands of days since she had last stood before a window looking out. That kind of activity was frowned on in a married woman. But still, it was hard for her to make sense of what she saw. The scene below her was so various and complex, the significance of it so bewildering, that in a little while she gave up trying and took consolation instead in the patterns of color and the shapes of the buildings. Ten major avenues radiated from the mountain's base straight to the city walls. One, the Street of Seven Sins, emerged from the gate below her, and she took consolation in following the long line of orange streetlights out to the far horizon, where the fire her brother had started filled the sky.
Behind her came a scrabbling and a scratching at the door. She turned and backed away from it, holding her hands behind her as if hiding something. She backed into a dark corner of the room, where the lamps were arranged to make her disappear into a cleft of shadow. Each room in the apartment contained a similar place of refuge, for it was against the law for anyone except her husband or her closest relatives to see her face. But in the course of her marriage she had broken the law many times. And not so long before, she had pulverized it so completely that now she obeyed its strictures not out of modesty but out of fear. She was afraid. In the doorway stood a blind man and his seeing eye.
They hesitated there, a young priest in purple robes with the tattoos of an advocate at law. In his right hand he grasped the silken collar of his servant, a professional moron, scarcely human anymore, the marks of surgical incisions standing out all over his pale forehead.
"Are you there?" called out the advocate in his supple, castrate voice. "Woman, are you there?" His servant was an older man. He crouched down on his haunches, sniffing and peering like a dog, his master's hand still tight around his collar.
"Are you there?" called out the advocate. He was recently blinded, his sockets still raw where his eyes had been torn away. From time to time, reddish tears ran down his face. "Are you there?" he called out.
The servant sniffed and peered, his head oscillating back and forth on the end of a long neck. For a while his mouth had hung open; now it closed as he settled his attention on the dark corner where the princess stood. His whole body stiffened, and his face took on an eager, sad expression. "Woman," he said softly.
Charity Starbridge stepped backwards, and the floorboards squeaked under her feet. The advocate turned his ruined face towards the sound. "There you are," he said. "Don't hide from me. You have no reason to hide." He smiled, displaying perfect teeth.
"Please don't hurt me," whispered Charity.
There was a pause. The seeing eye moved his head. "Window," he said. "Books."
The advocate frowned. "Where are we?" he asked. "What room is this?"
"This is my brother's library," answered Charity.
"It is not suitable for you to be here. Where are your servants? There was nobody to let us in."
"I am alone here," said the princess. "My brother's been arrested, and my husband is dead. The servants have all run away."
"It is not suitable," repeated the advocate. "But I am not here to scold you. Not yet. I am here to console you. I bring a message from the bishop's council."
The seeing eye was holding a plastic attaché case in the crook of his forearm. The advocate bent down to take it, and then he straightened up and took a few unsteady steps into the room. "I've brought the clothes your husband was wearing when he died. Together with a selection of the personal belongings from his tent. There is also a letter of commendation and a promotion. He will enter Paradise with the rank of brigadier."
Charity made no movement, and the advocate stood holding some papers out and frowning. Reddish tears ran down his face. "There is also a letter," he continued, "describing the way in which your husband met his death. I was not there. But I am told that he died bravely on the battlefield and that he successfully fulfilled the obligations of his name and his tattoos."
Still in the doorway, the seeing eye peered this way and that. Freed of his master's hand, he had sunk down into a strange, dog-like crouch. With his forearms stretched out flat along the floor, he drummed his fingers on the polished wood.
"I don't understand," said Princess Charity. "That's not what my cousin says. My cousin Thanakar. He said my husband died miles from the fighting. He said my husband was murdered by one of our own priests. I don't understand. My cousin says he was stabbed to death before the battle even started. By a priest of God, one of the order of St. Lucan the Unmarred. Is that your order? My cousin says you carry knives hidden in your socks."
Her voice, puzzled, anxious, hesitant, trailed away. The advocate waited for a moment before answering, and he turned his head to listen to his servant's fingers drumming on the floor. "You have seen Thanakar Starbridge?" he asked.
"No. He wrote to me. Please, I don't mean to contradict you. It's just that I'd like to know the truth. My husband was always kind to me. I'd like to know."
"Miserable female!" interrupted the advocate, his voice rising high and shrill. "How can you use his name? How can you even say it? Thanakar Starbridge! We will hang him when we catch him. We will hang him." He made an angry, dismissive gesture with his arms, and it was enough to throw him off balance, so that he staggered and might have fallen. But his servant was watching and rose to help him. The advocate's flailing fingers caught the old man by the hair; he yanked back on the old man's hair and kept himself upright that way. "Let me tell you," he continued softly, after a pause. "Thanakar Starbridge is under indictment for murder and for treason. Adultery is the least of the crimes he is charged with."
"I don't understand. He's done nothing wrong."
"Hasn't he? Then be prepared." The advocate smiled and raised his hand to wipe the red tear from his eye. "Your cousin is a sick young man. He has picked up some moral virus somewhere, perhaps some physical corruption. Be prepared. He might claim he contracted it from you. We'll see. The purge went out tonight to bring him in."
Charity leaned back against the bookcase. She remembered a story her brother had told her when she was just a girl, about a magician escaping from the purge, who turned himself into a sentence and escaped between the pages of a book, safe in some bookish landscape where the soldiers never found him. She leaned back and closed her eyes. She felt like crying, but the lawyer's bloody parody of tears had robbed her of the impulse, and left her with a knot in her throat and no way of getting rid of it. Inside her, feelings fought and struggled without the armament of words. Thoughts struggled to be born.
"Say something," demanded the advocate. "Let me tell you, the judge is disposed to be lenient. Moral contamination is hard to prove, and frankly, we believe that Thanakar Starbridge was a criminal long before he met you. The judge is disposed to think that if there was contamination, more likely it went the other way. He is willing to be lenient. But you must cooperate."
Charity said nothing. Thoughts of Thanakar had brought him back so vividly, it was as if he were standing near her, somewhere in the library, out of sight behind her shoulder or behind a turning of the wall. A pale, dark man with such beautiful hands, the hands of a healer. How could she have resisted, when he touched her with those hands?
"So," continued the advocate. "You have nothing to say." He wiped his cheek. "You think it will be his word against yours. Not quite." He smiled. "We have other evidence. Learn from this. A criminal pollutes everything he touches. He left a mark, a stain on your bedsheets. The woman who does your laundry alerted the police."
"She had no right."
"True. She had no right. And she has already been condemned for her impertinence, if it is any consolation to you. For slandering her superiors. Injected with the fever, if it is any consolation. The sentence is already carried out. But the evidence remains."
Charity stepped out from her dark corner. She turned to the window, her mind empty. She stared out to the horizon, where the fire burned bright. She watched a sugarstorm gathering above the river, the raindrops burning as they fell. Outside, far below, the crowd struggled and shouted. Wisps of chanting, fragments of revolutionary songs rose up to the tower window. "Where is my brother?" she asked suddenly.
"Prince Abu Starbridge is being held at Wanhope Prison. In the psychiatric ward. He too is in deep trouble, deeper than yours. For him there is no way out. But you--let me finish. I told you, the judge is inclined to be lenient. Thanakar Starbridge is a known criminal, and there are extenuating circumstances. You are a widow, after all. But we need your cooperation. We need your testimony to condemn him." He fumbled with the papers in his case. "I've prepared a statement for you to sign. It is a confession of adultery. Sign it and we will let you live. The bishop's council has found a refuge for you in the home of Barton Starbridge, your mother's second cousin. Seven hundred miles south of here. You would be free to collect your husband's pension."
From the window Charity could see down into the courtyard of a small shrine, where an execution was in progress. A thicket of gallows rose from the center of an open space, protected from the crowd by a circle of the spiritual police, the black-coated soldiers of the purge. As the princess watched, a priest performed the last rites for a condemned prisoner, cutting the mark of absolution into his face, checking his passports.
"Woman, say something!" cried the advocate behind her. He held out the unsigned confession, not realizing that she had turned away from him. Squatting nearby, the seeing eye drew back his lips to reveal long teeth filed into points. "Window," he said softly.
"God damn it, woman, pay attention," shouted the advocate. "Don't waste my time. You have no choice. If you refuse to sign, the council will vote to terminate your duties here. They'll send you home, and I tell you, the journey will be hard and long. Paradise is in orbit near the seventh planet. More than seven hundred million miles from here."
"I'd like to see my brother," said Charity after a pause.
Down below, the priest had strung up several prisoners. They hung suspended from the highest gibbets, their bodies revolving slowly in the rain. On the scaffold below, the priest danced a quiet version of the dance of death, lit by a spotlight from the temple tower. He was a good dancer, graceful and sure, but even so, the crowd was angry. They shouted and threw bottles. A bottle hit the priest on the shoulder as he danced; he stopped and stood upright, but Charity was too far away to see the expression on his face. He was in no danger. The purge stood around the scaffold in a circle, with automatic rifles and bright bayonets. In a little while he started to dance again.
"I'd like to see my brother," repeated the princess.
"That's not possible. God damn you, why do you even ask? Here. Here he is, if you really want to see." The advocate stretched out his hand, palm up, and Charity turned back to watch him. In a little while the air above his palm started to glow, and then a tiny figure materialized out of the air, a man sitting on a bed, reading, too small even to recognize. The advocate closed his hand, and the image disappeared as if crushed between his fingers.
"Now," he said. "Would you like to see him die?" He opened his hand again, and Charity could see a tiny pyre of logs. Here the scale was even smaller; Charity could see a throng of tiny figures, red-robed priests and black soldiers. Through the middle of the crowd, a pickup truck moved slowly forward towards the pyre, a single figure standing upright in the back.
The seeing eye sat up on his haunches and stared at the bright image, licking his lips with his long tongue. Charity, too, stood mesmerized until the advocate closed his hands again. "There," he said. "Are you satisfied?"
She was not satisfied. She began to cry. At the sound, the advocate tilted his head, listening intently with a puzzled expression on his face, though he must have been used to hearing people cry. He listened, and then he reached his hand up to touch his cheek, where his own red tears had left a scum.
He held out the paper for her to sign, but she had turned away again. In a little while he opened his fingers and let the paper settle to the floor. "I'll leave it," he said quietly. "Don't be a fool. I'll send my clerk tomorrow morning, and if you still refuse, at ten o'clock I will come back to send you home. I will pump the blood from your body, and I won't be gentle, either. That I promise. Women like you are a disgrace to us. You don't deserve your own tattoos. If I could send you to hell, I would."