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Living Next Door to the God of Love

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Living Next Door to the God of Love

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Author: Justina Robson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2006
Macmillan UK, 2005
Series: Natural History: Book 2

1. Natural History
2. Living Next Door to the God of Love

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Virtual Reality
Alternate/Parallel Universe
Weird (SF)
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Synopsis

Where do you run when a world is out to get you?

AIs, Forged beings, superheroes, angels, and worlds that change in the blink of an eye - here is a richly imagined tale of ordinary redemption in an extraordinary world from one of the most provocative writers working today.

Francine is a young runaway looking to find a definition of love she can trust. In Sankhara, she finds a palace where rooms are made of bone, flowers, and the hearts of heroes. She finds a scientist mapping the territory of the human mind. She finds a boyfriend. And she finds Eros itself–incarnated in the androgynously irresistible form of Jalaeka.

But not everyone is in love with the god of love. Unity, for one, wants to assimilate Jalaeka along with every other soul in the universe. And contrary to what everyone always believes, love alone can't save the day. It will take something both more and less powerful than the human heart to save the worlds upon worlds at risk when gods collide.

"For Robson, world-building is a literary device like any other, useful for exposing buried fears and desires to the light of day, no matter how strange the sun." –New York Times Book Review


Excerpt

Jalaeka: Metropolis

Theres a kind of hush all over the world tonight: the sound of lovers in love. The rosy fug of it is so overpowering that I cant hear the special kind of silence Im listening for; the one that will tell me Im about to die.

Its long past midnight. From my premium vantage point on the top of the Syndicated DC Building I can see the whole of Manhattan before me, stretching north towards Central Park. Hobokens bricktown lies over the water to my left, the brownstone weight of Brooklyn to my right, a rain-washed splendour of light and concrete. Its electrified pizzazz fades very suddenly into the murky gaslights and pillared mansions of Gotham. Gotham, seeded by trees in permanent winter coats of ice, shrouded eternally in mist seeping from the ground, ruled by wolves.

Staten Island simply does not exist. The rotting piles of an enormous, abandoned shipyard stand in its place, every stanchion and plank half as big again, in its way, as any human structure. I can smell the pitch on their vast timbers. The copper has long since oxidized to green on the signs that tell of ferry journeys to the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Congo, the Styx. No ship has ever moored there. They say that ghosts come and go over the water from its silent terminals, so in this world at least one charm is missing.

If charms ever had such power Id be chanting charms like a machine gun spits bullets.

Behind me the wind blows fitfully from Gothams worm-riddled Germanic spires. It smells of incense and twisted passions. I like to visit but I couldnt live there, although some of my best friends do. Its popular with everyone young enough to play with death.

Two witches pass high over me on the way to Fifth Avenue. I can hear them chattering excitedly about some new restaurant down there. The wind abates after theyve gone, as if someone flicked the switch on a fan. Im glad its stopped, it was making my flesh crawl.

I cant see anybody Im looking for but I can feel them moving through the hidden walls of this world, searching for me. Theyre very close: one breath out of place and theyll taste my shadow, come swirling around the edge of the hydrogen atoms and sink their neutrino teeth right into me. My flesh is still crawling. So, not the windmaybe theyre actually under my skin.

I wish someone would hurry up and commit some felonies out here. Breaking and entry, robbery with violence, gang fights, pimps beating on their girls or boysIm not fussy, any of the standard moves would do. Anything to create a diversion.

A Batmobile cruises along Avenue of the Kryptonites. Its one of the early models, all white-wall tyres and fins. Theres no rush for him: hes obeying the traffic signals and his jets arent lit. I wonder where hes going to that he couldnt go as a Bruce Wayne. Maybe hes off to that bar the witches wanted to get into, where the good guys and the bad guys drink together, roll their sleeves and complain about the price of Active Spandex.

Ive drunk with them plenty of times. We all get pleasant jaw ache recounting how many years you can go on getting beat up day after day before you have to retire and go home to Earth to watch your rocket boots gather dust. Of course I was lying to fit in, but thats not the point. Ennui is the fashion for heroes. Every fantasy loses its lustre in the end and nodding sagely about it is the consolation prize. Glory and approval are for neophytes, for whom every bar goes quiet and faces turn away. Old boys and girls are beyond that. They want something bigger, deeper without knowing what it is. They want to taste immortality and feel its cold fingers close around their hearts, but the hearts themselves dont want to know.

I dont drink in those bars anymore. Whiskey isnt my drink and besides, they made me cry all night. Come to think of it, I really have listened to too much country-fusion since Ive been here.

Ten million people live here and over 20 percent are heroes. They have to pay triple whack to get anyone to be a civil servant, and the service industry has created more millionaires than the stock market.

Two blocks over I can hear one of the Daredevils fighting some drugs gang. I tune in. Hes being assisted by a Nomad, who seems more at home here than he ever was in his comic book. Theyre both tough guys. Very noble. I like their ideals, but we havent got much time for each other. Eastside nobility are all trad. They dont trust those of us who were created from mongrel imaginations or primal source mythology. Im supposed to despise them in turn as either old fogies or Johnny-come-latelys, depending on who they are, but Id rather just watch them have their fun. I like to imagine that I belong, that were all on the same side, whatever that is.

The drugs gang theyve come to tackle are a bunch of Stuf- fie patsies moonlighting from their day jobs to provide a large enough criminal element to keep everyone happy. Nobody in Metropolis actually needs drugs for their highs. Theyve got the Engine.

Its almost 1:00 a.m. The traffic lights on Seventh and Kryp- tonites are changing red to green and back again, slashing the wet streets with liquid colour. As a Humvee of Nordic gods crosses the intersection, the signals all light up at once and Odin laughs, drunk as a skunk. He bellows a word and every lightbulb explodes in a great pop of sparks, showering the divine with plastic particles as they hoot and holler. Thor swings his hammer wildly and all the glass flies out of Tiffanys front windows. The gods swerve by, reach in for an armful of diamond trinkets, and then burn rubber all the way to Central Park. I watch them briefly, then follow a Spiderman as he slings his way casually over to the rooftop gardens on the Time building for a meeting with some Maryjane. Shes going to break off with him again because shes being blackmailed by a Joker who doesnt mind a bit of cross-world devilry. I just cant watch that. I cant bear to feel that lurch in his heart. Its so painful it makes me feel sick and the vertigo will pitch me into a fall.

Instead I make a desperate mental lunge and latch on to Vicky Vale #24 as shes building up the nerve to go into Arkham Asylum. She has a nice car, a Buick eight. And shes easy on the eye. She has augmented sensorimotor skills and, to help her nerves, she keeps on mentally building and rebuilding her Bulgari watch, using a bunch of imaginary tools small enough for leprechauns. The MekTek thats made her such a sharp little martial arts model has overwired her cortex, and she can never stay cool. She knows shes going to fumble her lines, and then looking like Veronica Lake isnt going to be enough to stop people from laughing slyly at her. She fears that more than a bullet.

I cut a few of the bad neural connections in her head. She stops what shes doing and looks down, trying to visualize those nonexistent cogs in her hand: the little diamonds she imagines on the watch mechanism are just like the diamonds Odins wearing on his fist. She feels better, doesnt know why, only better. She thinks she might be okay. She says, Is someone there?

I have a little starburst of a heart with an arrow through it that I can use as a kind of calling card on these occasions. It came free with the body and the powers but its so cheap and nasty I wouldnt soil her with it. I let her feel my presence, touch her. Her smile is as beautiful as a new day and more than I deserve.

She casts her eyes to the skies and prays to some god in thanks. I dont mind.

My kindness towards her relied on a lot of seven-dimensional trickery however, and it draws my pursuers directly to me. Helping Vicky was bound to have that effect though, I wasnt just making nice. I wish theyd hurrythe waiting is the worst part, so they say. Anyway, hard to class it as a kindness, more like a selfish interference. Im sparing myself the pain of her suffering.

Plus, as long as I look at Vicky I dont have to see the fifty thousand human beings in my immediate area, their electromagnetic aural patterns, the shifting flows of their blood and hormones, the nonstop growth and change and juicy, potent bubbling foam of lifes primordial forces pulsing through every last one of their cells in all its multi-molecular, transconscious glory. All that irrelevant shite is tasering my acuity.

The people, the Unity agents Im interested in, dont have biocellular energy matrices. Within the 7-D theyre less than shadowempty vessels, owl silent and venom quick. Theyll only assume shape and mass when they have to. But Im forced to listen to romance and all that kiss-me-deadly drama, because it goes with the job and the material universe and the 4-D Im hiding out in. Im locked into it, just like Vicky here is locked into her chosen role as a plucky journalist with a weakness for men in armoured rubber. Unlike Vicky, I never wanted to surrender to the inner conflicts of my personality in full Techni- color, but in the 4-D of Metropolis theres no choice: you don the cape or youre out.

Im trying to listen to the rain that washes the darkness where the Tiffany windows used to be. I can hear it trickling over the black casing on the broken traffic lights, two hundred metres down. I can hear it running off my night-black, frictionless and shiny polymer skin. Freak Heroes, as were charmingly known, dont do costumesphysiology is enough.

Hero may be the wrong term.

My hunters are so close in the 7-D that I know for sure Im sharing space with one of them, that theyre moving through me in that tricky way they have of sneaking through matter. If I try to find out for sure, thats the end, because Ill have to look into the 7 and that would give it all away. Pretend I dont have any Seven-senses for this moment, and they might miss me. Its hard though, when theyre inside. The itch is driving me crazy.

I stare around, desperate for distraction. To my left the slightly taller tower of Marvels Inc. shelters me from the prevailing wind. Multiple bomb holes have laced it uninhabitable from the twentieth floor upwards. It only stays up out of bloody-mindedness. Some of the holes go through into other universes, and Im watching those carefully. Unity controls them all.

From the busy skies over Central Park a figure detaches and arrows in on me directly. Shes got feathered wings and they work without mechanical support, so it takes her a while as she carefully dodges the big gusts coming in off the sea. She goes higher to get some vantage point on the way, and I can feel her gaze on my back like sunshine. Ardent glances are always hot. Hateful ones too. Temperature is a measure of how much energy a thing holds. She holds one hell of a lot.

She comes in to land beside me on my chilly ledge. The warmth, the smell and the white feathers are a dead giveaway, even though I recognized her immediately, and cant help the rush of gratitude and pleasure at seeing her. She comes to the edge and squats beside me, her wing-tips tickling me intentionally.

Im immediately swept away into the heavenly blue of her gaze. She possesses an actively radiant goodness Ive only ever come across in a very few heroes, and only once in a regular human being. You cant get away with all that grungy Han Solo shit in Tribeca, where shes from. Its an aspirational neighbourhood. Right now her considerable glamour is all directed at me, and I can tell shes here hoping for more than a friendly hello.

Angel #5 only measures six-foot-seven including the halo. Next to her I feel colossal and automatically protective. I can hear the divine vibrations of her chakra system whirling, fuelling that halo with the power to bring out the best in anybody she wants to charm. Shes the only one of the Angels who isnt a moronically righteous son of a bitch, and if I werent on watch for my life Id sweep her off the building and take her out of this miserable spot and somewhere beautiful with no questions asked. I should tell her theyre gunning for me and that therefore shes in mortal danger, but her halo power is too strong for my conscience. It lets me believe I am good, and then my sudden overconfidence makes me believe I can save her.

I curl my tail around her waist and tickle her in a private place with the tip. She licks the rain off my triceps. Because Im frictionless, she can only feel me via pressure, and so she applies quite a lot of it. I can feel every taste-bud on her virtuous tongue, and so for her I make myself taste of honey, sweeter than wine.

Hello Eros, she says, bathing me in her dizzying perfume of pure grace. Theres nothing about her that isnt sinless, even her lust.

Angel, you have to go. I grip her more tightly. I can feel Angel #5s love all over me, all inside me. Even if it werent a casting rule of the Metropolis Universe Engine that I personally cannot act against any loving intent, it would be impossible to throw that adoration off, and nothing in me wants to do it. I want to stay here, inside her, forever.

The gnatlike itching at the edge of my awareness goes quiet.

Fuck, why now?

Out of pure fear I tear my face away from her regard and look around. Disoriented, my mind fishes the undertow of the world. In that instant Im aware of all the billions of people who ever had the misfortune to come into contact with Unity. It and I are related, and I can hear their lost voices in its swirling depths. They rise and crash to nothing like waves on an endless shore.

If I want to have them, all their memories are mine, all their knowledge, all their hopes and dreams. Two-billion-plus spe- cies. Eighty-plus-thousand star systems. Eighty-plus teratonnes of knowledge and experience, tears, passions, joys and deaths. I can have it free, gratis and for nadaif I only let go and drop into Unity, if I let it eat me up. I will become one of those waves then. There may be moments when I return to myself. But if you do the maths, you can see how unlikely that is, and for how long it will last. Unity has no linear time, no awareness like a human one. It is the soft welcoming embrace of everness.

Just feeling the possibility is so hypnotically, mindfuckingly enticing I feel myself beginning to topple in. Im tired of running and tired of the whole damn thing where I fight to stay free and it keeps on coming. It would be so easy...

Angel #5 collects a tear from my eye on the tip of her finger, and the spell breaks with her touch. Im so grateful I kiss her, because its the next thing I want to do, and if there has to be a last thing I do then I cant think of anything better than that.

She tugs my long hair playfully. She isnt dumb enough to let me look through her eyes in a direct stare, like I let her do to me for the first time just now, although I can see all her intentions even without doing that. I see whats in peoples hearts clearer than I see my own night-black hand in front of my face.

You dont want me to go, she says in her educated South- ern accent, staring right into my soul. Uh-oh. My need to be close to her has let her get too close for her own good. She starts to realize that I havent always been entirely straight with her. She sees, without understanding what it is that shes seeing, that I am not human but that I am not a Unity creation either. She starts to form a question and her delicate eyebrows begin to frown.

I wish she could be seeing something better. Looking at the inside of my soul must be akin to watching slasher horrorso it feels to me, anyway.

You have to go! I finally find my guts as her halo becomes diffuse with confusion, and I try to wrestle her bodily off the parapet. Its a no-contest and she goes easily, absorbing my energy. She falls a few metres and rises again with her arms folded definitively beneath her breasts, gold strands of ambrosial fragrance twisting off her like smoke. She hovers in front of me and fans me with a breeze that smells of Este;e Lauders Beau- tiful Springtime and a hint of the burned flesh of sinners in hell. Angel #5 fights Wing Tsun style and she accessorizes with a razor-sharp sense of irony.

I am utterly frozen with adoration. And...

Whats the matter? she demands. When I dont answer she tries to compel me to reply by directing the interrogative beam of her halo at me, but Im out beyond its reach.

The Unity agent within my space just noticed Angel #5 talking to nobody, making love to nobody, on this slaughterhouse roof. As have several other heroes currently out hoping for trouble.

Something strong, slender, like a thorn, tries to hook onto the inside of me. It searches for an opening through which it can transform me and remake my substance into ordinary Stuff.

The human heroes become wary, disgusted, intrigued and afraid, as they see my form flicker like a candleflame. They have no trouble identifying me once they know where to look. Even through all the Forging and the MekTek, humans are a bipolar gender species, and twelve-foot-tall naked hermaphrodites with demon tails mostly give them the heebie-jeebies. Some of them try and claim their whole costume and identity good/bad thing isnt linked to their sex lives but theyre lying out their ass.

As Unity attempts to drag me into 7-space unsuccessfully and I try to think of any way to save Angel #5, one of the Silver Surfers floats past, idly leaning around the buildings. Hes a MegaCity man but hes very keen on Angel #5you rarely see him far from her. He whistles at her and she blesses him. He does a backflip with ecstasy and I look away.

Unity cannot eat me. I knew this before. Thats how I knew there had to be another game on tonighta poker hand of persuasion that will almost certainly suck Angel into its trouble. I still cant see the strategy though: what the hell is it going to do? Something very bad.

I try to disconnect its hold on me where it surrounds me in complete 11-dimensional stickiness, but the fucker is really tricky. Every transform in 7-space that I use to repel it takes too much time. Its faster on the draw than I am. It fights Wing Tsun style too, and when I break its grip it just gets a new one.

I suspected that this time it might try to finish me off. Weve done the dance of all seven veils and there was no nice bedroom routine at the end of any of those, so now all that remains, if its serious, is to go for the knockout in some way that doesnt involve eating me.

And then, at last, it shows me the gun.

Theres a new wall around Metropolis through which I cant see, hear, feel, taste or touch anything on any level. The pinnacles of the Bates Motel range are winking out of my sight in the far distance and I can tell that the darkness falling over them isnt light being taken awayits everything being taken away. Laughing and crying and joyful and hurting people are falling off my barometer by the hundred thousand and its like Im going emotionally blind. The Metropolis Engine is undoing the world.

I didnt think Unity would go this far, but obviously Im wrong. This universe and everything in it will soon be over. In the time it takes my slow brain to figure this out the giant harbour is consumed by nothingness. A final shadow drapes Gotham. A curtain drifts gently across the top of the park, silent and blank.

I wrap the end of my tail around Angel #5s ankle, preparing to fling her, but I dont know where I can send her to. There really is nowhere, because their plan is simply to close Metropolis altogether, to end this 4-D, and me with it. If I stay fully 4-D I am dead; and if I try to go through the 7-D I can easily be smashed in the colossal gravitational tides that this destruction is creating. Desperation makes me hesitate. I think I can save myself through a complete 11-D shift, but she cant come with me. Well she can, but only through the same mechanism that Ive fought against all my life, through the same mechanism by which Unity has become what its become.

I can save her, if I eat her.

People who are eaten do not come back the same, if they come back at all, and Im not sure that ever happens. Theres no time to think it through. I wish I could explain it to her, but all I can do is love her with all my heart.

Eros? Angels cross with my stupid behaviour now, but ready to be friendly. She zaps my tail with a Purity charge, but, thanks to the literal rules of combat here, I dont have to let her go because I dont mean to hurt her.

That doesnt make it painless however. Her energy bolt seeks out the deaths on my conscience and burns me for all of them. I hiss at the horrible sensation but tighten my hold on her and snatch her back to me for one last instant.

Her face darkens with suspicion and she cries out angrily. Her blue eyes try to read my intentions, but Im watching that wall of silence whip around both of us, watching the stupid glory of this place vanishing as time catches up with it and knots itself to an end. To her credit I can feel the shift in her emotion fix itself on steely determination as Angel #5 gets a bearing on whats going down.

My Vicky Vale is already the history of a world that will have no histories.

All of my friends, except Angel here, are dead. There are no more Angels.

I fling her through one of the holes in the Marvel building, one that leads to another world, maybe. I have no idea. It could simply be a hole with nothing behind it except a singularity and nothing in front of it but my bad decision, but theres not enough time to find out.

As she flies away from me at close to the speed of sound Angel opens her arms and her heart towards me. A sphere of white light emerges from the centre of her chest, so bright I have to close my eyes. The light hits me in the solar plexus. All Angels power and dreams, the love and the anger she feels for me for not explaining why this is happening to her, bury themselves in my heart.

I spread my wings and fold myself inside them, into a new universe.

Copyright © 2005 by Justina Robson


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