Monday, September 22, 2008

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson

Common Knowledge

In the days that followed the explosion at the Superconducting Supercollider in Texas, at some unknown point in the Lost Year, 2015, scientists discovered a hole in the fabric of spacetime over the blast site. The collider itself—a ring some eighty-five kilometres in circumference built far beneath the Texas soil—had utterly vanished, and only the surface buildings remained.

The explosion had followed an unknown quantum catastrophe inside the machine. However, it was not the kind of explosion that blew matter to smithereens and laid waste to worlds. Its actions took place in the near-infinitely tiny spaces between one raw energy flicker and the next. It transmuted fundamental particles into new states, altering the fabric of the universe as if changing cotton into silk. In less time than it takes to blink an eye everything had undergone subtle alteration, though the how and the what of it was a matter which is still debated to this day—a matter not helped by the fact that nobody could remember exactly or say with certainty how things used to be. In the meantime there were more immediate problems to deal with, namely the stable but infinitely mysterious hole inside the circle of the old collider, and the fact that it led directly into another world.

In the five years since the Quantum Bomb, as it is popularly known in Otopia (which was once called Earth, according to records made prior to 2015), a total of five other realities have been discovered. They lie parallel to, or approximate with (all words, definitions and speculations are being assessed as we write, since nobody has yet come up with a theory that can explain the phenomena completely) the human universe.

The first of these is Zoomenon, the realm of the Elements. Zoomenon is hostile to human life and manifests unpredictably in Otopian space where it interpenetrates with it. Sturdily equipped expeditions replete with hardened adventurers have reported the following: every raw element of the Periodic Table may be found there in abundance, from Hydrogen to Ununbium; the primary colours may be observed there, randomly moving across the raw rocks and sand of what appears to be the basic Zoomenon landscape, a place not unlike Earth in the Hadean age; there are also beings here, of indeterminate energy composition, capable of forming humanlike appearances—these are named Elementals, since they seem to be personifications of the spirits of air, fire, water, earth, wood, metal. There are others, yet to be understood or met with. How many others is unknown.

The second realm is Alfheim. Since early in 2016 a diplomatic relationship has been established with the elves, as the inhabitants call themselves. The elves strongly dispute the QBomb theory. They claim that they have known of Earth and Otopia since times that predate early human civilisations. Few Otopian technologies function in Alfheim, which is the first of the Adept or Aetheric Realms. It is a pristine Eden, untouched by industrialisation despite the complex civilisations that have risen and fallen in its massive history. However, there are tensions within elf society and frosty diplomatic explorations are the only contact that regularly takes place with them. Their borders are closed to immigration of any kind and they allow only a few of their emissaries out in turn. Common people of Otopia know only stories of Alfheim.

The third realm is Demonia. The demons are, like the elves, lifeforms which appear adept in magic. Demon scientists have assisted humans in their discovery of the physically real presence of extradimensional regions (I-space) since 2017, regions of incredible power and vitality which seem akin to spacetime itself, yet co-exist with it. This region is known to demons and elves commonly as Aetherstream, though their scientists and researchers have agreed to adopt the human name of Interstitial, or I-space. Demons do not recognise the QBomb event as historical fact either, and also claim a lengthy knowledge of “the fourth realm”—Otopian Earth.

The fifth region, is Thanatopia. This unlikely place is bound tightly to the I-space continuum. To cross into Thanatopia requires death and return is not possible to those not greatly skilled in necromancy. Only the Aetheric races possess necromancers, and not many of them. It is worth noting that so far no human of Otopian Earth has displayed anything other than the most fleeting ability to detect let alone manipulate, I-space. Certainly no one has ever been to Thanatopia, or, if they have, they have not returned and its true nature is a complete mystery. The only human knowledge of it has been given by demon necromancers whose strength in I-space permits them access. Officially we may state that the Undead shepherd the Dead of all realms, though what this actually means is anyone’s guess. All other knowledge con-cerning Thanatopia is classified, and as such may not be printed here.

The sixth realm, which most quickly adopted protocols with Otopia and has generated the most traffic is Faery. Faery has issued tourist visas since 2018. Faery culture, as with all other realms, is unique and complicated. Faeries assure us they have had a long association with certain regions of the Earth over the more interesting parts of human history and the author is not willing to dispute the point, even—especially—in writing.
For the last two years an increasing familiarity with and acceptance of the six-realm structure has led to a steady popularity of migration and trade across willing borders, but human beings have a lot yet to learn.

One year ago Alfheim closed its borders and cut off trade. It began an exclusionary policy which diplomatic negotiations have so far failed to lift. The reasons for this change of heart are classified information. At the time of writing, in 2021, an uneasy state of affairs exists between Alfheim and the other realms.


The story of how The No Shows got signed was one of those legends that seem completely manufactured by the celebrity press. Rolling Stone ran it as lead story the day their first single was released for download. Lila Black reviewed it as she travelled to a meeting with the owner of Ozo Records, Jelly Sakamoto.

A few months ago Jelly had been the producer of a modestly successful indie music label. He was sitting in his office playing a quick five-minute game of Dune Car Rally on his pod, which had become an hour long frustrating game of Dune Car Rally by the time his A&R girl burst in without warning and said breathlessly,

“You gotta hear this!”

Jelly was used to being told that, but he knew that Lucie was frequently right. Still, no point in breaking old habits. He saved and shrugged without looking up, “What?”

“This great new band. They play their own gear, write their own material, and do this kind of weird heavy rock Mode-X number. The backing vocals are all faeries, the DJ is that chick from Zebra Mondo. And—get this—their lead singer is an elf !”

“Elves don’t rock,” Jelly said, unknowingly coining one of the greatest quotes in the history of popular music and the phrase that would follow him to his deathbed. He added, rather more forgettably, “They pavane and jig, they play the flute and the triangle, they do orchestra, they do chant, they sell shitloads of that. They sing like cats with firecrackers up their asses. The only time they ever get sampled is when they’ve been pushed through an audio sieve so human listeners don’t shit themselves, or when they’re slowed down ten times to scrape the frequencies for distortion effects to shove behind Crash bands. So, what? Does she mime? Does she look good?”

“Here.” Lucie threw a Berrypic of the band down on the desk. “He sings his own lyrics.”

Jelly ignored her and the invitation of the Berry’s flashing Play command, got up and went out, allegedly to the toilet, although he claims in a later interview that he was going to fit some new EarWax with higher grade buffers, in order to protect his hearing.

Lucie hung out waiting and when she convinced herself he must have gone down the fire escape she stormed out, leaving the Berry face-up on his empty desk. An hour later in came Roxanne, the sales director for Northern Otopia at Ozo Records, the largest music company in the Four Realm Trading Bloc. Fed up of waiting for Jelly, who was notoriously late for everything, she sat herself down in his chair and, glancing down at the Berry, pressed Play.

Twenty minutes later Jelly comes into his own office and she says, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be sending me a million-bytes-a-minute-shifter? I need another month at the least to prep publicity! Honestly, you’d be late for your own funeral.”

Jelly bought Ozo Records on the first week’s sales and Lucie ran it for him in her new post as executive director, whilst he fussed around producing a whole lot of other bands and arguing with The No Shows’ volatile addict of an agent, Buddy Ritz.

The rest, Lila reflected as she re-read the tale, was the talk of the medianets every other day of the week. There was no hotter property than The No Shows at the moment.

Lila Black was undercover. She was pretending to be a bodyguard working for Doublesafe, a company specialising in personal security for celebrities. It was an easy job since she was already kitted out for much more active duties as part of her job in the Otopian National Security Agency’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Division, or Incon. The only difficulty she had was in concealing those parts of her body which were entirely metal prosthetics, but she’d found a silk trouser suit and smart boots to do that for her. The synthetic skin on her hands and arms was thankfully wearing well enough to pass for the real thing. As she took a sidelong glance at herself in the mirror at Ozo Records’ Reception she saw a tall, powerful young woman in elegant black flares. Her silver eyes—the irises and pupils perfect mirrors— could easily be put down to decorative contact lenses beneath the soft swing of her ruby and scarlet hair. There was nothing to show that she was barely half a human being any longer. She enjoyed the feeling, until the receptionist popped her bubblegum and said, “Jelly’ll see you now.”

Lila walked into the office. It hadn’t changed since the Rolling Stone shoot, except that there were two more platinum discs hanging over his desk, both printed with The No Shows logo: a heart inside a red circle with a diagonal slash across it. She stood in front of the desk and looked at Jelly as he looked at her. He was a thin, leathery whipcord of a man, brimming with nervous energy, and could barely sit still a moment.

“Doublesafe said you were the best,” he said and shrugged, not very impressed. “I got to tell you, I don’t know. We’re getting some trouble. Letters. Threats. We have a tour to do. You look like kinda lightweight, like a kid could push you away in a crowd, or maybe even a big wind. What you got to say?” He took off his dark glasses and folded his hands under his chin. He had a gold ring on every finger.

Lila shrugged back, also not impressed. “If we get into a crowd then I didn’t do my job. We won’t be in any crowds.” She was recording the entire conversation, sending it to her Incon boss on a secure, wireless feed the entire time, using the camera system inside her eyes.

“Well, you don’t look too bad,” he said. “And I know shit about it all, only that I need Zal to survive the tour and make some more tracks. You cool with elves?”

“I’m cool,” Lila said. The lie rolled easily off her tongue. She felt her heart rate go up and she would have begun sweating, but her autosystems kicked in and masked all of her nerves with effective machine frost. Drugs and hormones from adapted glands in her neck and brain smoothed her until it was true. She was cool.

“Good. You’re hired. You can start now. Go pick him up and take him down to the studios. He . . .”

“I have all the details,” LiLa said in her most professional tone, tapping the back of her hand where an ordinary person kept their Organiser. “Your office sent me everything already.”

“Oh yeah?” For the first time Jelly seemed fazed. Then he grinned, “I like having the mostest people working for me.” Then, “Why you still here?”

Lila walked out. On her way to the car park she connected briefly with her boss, Cara Delaware, to tell her that the job was successful and to hear Cara say, “Great. You okay? Your reflexes showed some peak stress levels there. We can pull you if it gets too much.”

“No,” Lila said quickly. She’d reached her bike. Its sleek, powerful lines and instant reaction to her touch on the grips had already calmed her more completely than her AI-self’s drug response to her nervousness. The doses themselves had been so low that their effect was already gone and here, where inappropriate reactions didn’t matter, the AI didn’t bother masking her true responses. The engine purred like a giant cat, making the concrete vibrate under her feet. “I’m fine.”

“Then you’re activated,” Cara said. “Partial cover. Your support team are online when you need them. You’re operating out of central offices now. Everything goes through the team. Nobody else. Not even me.”

“Thanks. Take care of everyone for me.” Lila thought of her dog, Okie, whom she’d had to leave at home to be looked after by her colleagues until she returned. She thought of her family, although they’d been left behind years ago when she stopped being plain diplomatic attachŽ Lila Amanda Black and became something quite different. There was no telling when she might be back from this job, but she had agreed to one thing for certain when she agreed to live as a cyborg of the AI division instead of die of her wounds and now, no matter when the cover ended, she was never going home again.

“Good luck, Lila.” The line cut dead. It was the first time since she had been Mended that she was really and truly on her own. Where Cara and the NSA office had been a constant, monitoring presence fresh zones of silence opened in Lila’s head. She smiled and the bike traced an arc of beautiful speed into the traffic heading downtown.


The bike didn’t talk. There were versions that did but Lila didn’t want more machines in her head than were already there. Besides, she had every A-Z of Otopia available to her from the memory chips in her skull. The address that the studio gave her for Zal’s rental home was high in the Lightwater Hills in the most exclusive area of Bay City. She rode without a helmet, her red curls rippling in the wind as she lay low across the gas tank and sped through the streets.

Her route took her around the Bay itself, where whitecap waves were dashing in ones and twos across the water, over the vast towerless span of the elf-built bridge—the Andalune—and through the dense woodlands which crept from the water’s edge to the Heights of Solomon. Zal’s house lay over the ridge, the only clue to its presence a heavily barred iron gate set in stone posts that were almost hidden by trees. There was no postbox and no speakerphone. Lila pulled up in front and glanced up at the spikes. Behind the gates the forest thickened and the boughs of the trees leant over the road and shrouded it in darkness. Within twenty metres the drive curved away from her and was lost to sight. In the quiet she heard her engine and the sough of wind in the leaves. She was surrounded by trees.

Using the private contact numbers and her AI-self’s communication suite—nested inside her head where everyone else had to use a Pod or a Berry or a Seed to interface—she called to the security people from Doublesafe who were already inside. The gates swung inward silently and Lila moved forward in a steady glide.

The road snaked its way steadily uphill and then into a hollow which lay at the summit of the hill. Solomon’s Folly stood there—a giant white stone house facing south. It looked through a cut swathe in the forest like a firebreak which ran over simple grassland down and down and down to a crescent of white beach and the sea. It was three storeys high for the most part, and roughly covered an area the size of two football pitches. Pieces of it had towers and other pieces had glass roofs. It had many sides and angles. Some of them were lost among trees, others seemed to teeter on or be built inside large boulders which piled along the north face of the house. It looked like it had been built one room at a time, almost randomly, without thought for anything except a sea view and an obsessive need for privacy, and so it had been. Lila felt almost ill looking at it. It was hideous. It looked as though the hollow had been created by the house’s incomprehensible weight, and that everything was sinking into the earth.

She paused before the last descent to gawp and catch her breath. Pine needles and heavy loam and other green and rotting smells were thick in the air because the day was hot and making them rise. To her left and right she looked into the woods on maximum zoom and saw signs of a great number of wood elementals but nothing of the elusive beings themselves. You would expect elementals around elves, and in forests of any size, but you would never expect an elf to live in a house like this. It was a rental property. There could be no other explanation. Lila recorded what she saw and went on down to the main door. It stood open and as she dismounted a man in a Doublesafe uniform came to escort her inside.

A woman wearing a gloriously expensive dress, very understated, and antique Jimmy Choo shoes came to greet her. “I’m Jolene, Zal’s PA” she said and Lila shook hands with her. Jolene was the kind of human Lila associated with elf groupiedom; smart, in control, stylish. It was difficult not to feel inferior, especially without a slick manicure. Lila put her hands behind her back and reminded herself she wasn’t here to look great, only to carry out her job. Jolene seemed content with her authentication documents and barely raised an eyebrow at either Lila’s gender or her size, so perhaps she wasn’t all bad.

“Would you like to see the house first?” Jolene offered, glancing at her watch.

“No thanks,” Lila said. “I know the layout.”

“And the staff and the grounds and what they eat for breakfast, I suppose,” Jolene said, smiling. “In that case I understand it’s time you were at work. Is that bike the only vehicle you brought?” She peered anxiously across the vast hallway and through the door at Lila’s Kawasaki.

“Elves won’t travel in Faraday cages,” Lila said, “so that rules out cars, trains and planes. I don’t travel on horseback, and it beats walking.”

“So, you have done some homework,” Jolene nodded, satisfied. “I’ll go and get him.”

“It’s okay, I’ll go,” Lila said, stepping around her. As Jolene looked puzzled she added, “Our offices sent you a ring, which you gave him to wear. It’s connected to our private network through secure branches not connected to the Otopia Tree. I could find him in the middle of a Bears game at Alton Park. Not that he’d be caught dead there.” She hesitated but Jolene didn’t smile at this efficient sidestepping of Otopia’s global internet. Instead the woman’s nervousness returned.

“I really wish this wasn’t necessary Ms Black,” she said, “I hope you don’t take these threats as lightly as you speak of them.”

“I don’t,” Lila said. She regretted her tone as she walked away. Showing some small weakness in front of Jolene would have gained her more sympathy. Now the woman was faintly antagonised by her.

The hall gave way to several corridors and stairways. Lila went up to the second floor and through a maze of meandering ways to where a room the size of her entire apartment looked out through a glass wall to the ocean, giving a superb view. She couldn’t see anybody in it, only a set of pale sofas, a seemingly random assortment of plants in pots, and a coat laid over a straight-backed chair. Very faintly from somewhere she could hear Stevie Wonder singing “Blame It On The Sun.” Otherwise the house was silent.

She walked to where her augmented and automated senses told her Zal was. The Doublesafe ring was on the chair, beside the coat. Lila glanced at it with annoyance, verging on anger, but curbed the feeling quickly and concentrated instead on the beauty of the coat. It was elvish-made, of tightly woven raw silk, sparely decorated with magical sigils that were so old they no longer bore any scent or colour of their own. The coat had been bleached by the sun. Only the inside showed its once true shade of crimson. The outside was a dull reddish clay, worn to white in places.

Lila touched the hem of one sleeve as she looked around more carefully. The fabric softened between her fingers and she let it go quickly, only then realising the fact that the feeling that was nibbling away at her insides was fear. She hadn’t seen anything elvish since the day she was last completely human. She had gone to some lengths to avoid hearing Zal and his band, or any other elvish sound. She would have been content never to know anything of them ever again. She was glad of the processor that filtered her dreams. She did not want to meet the near-immortal she was charged to preserve with her brief life. She didn’t want to touch his coat.

It was at this moment that the fineness of her hearing became more highly attuned. It was not Stevie singing his old song. It was somebody preternaturally quiet who was standing in the shadows, not more than a body’s length from her. It was Zal.

Lila made herself turn very slowly, lest she look surprised. Her heart almost burst beneath the control of her AI-self’s attempt to regulate it. “There you are,” she said lightly. “I’m Lila Black, your bodyguard.” And she realised as soon as she spoke that she had foolishly given her real name, not the pretend name of the identity she had been meant to assume.

The flare of her anger fizzed with a curious tang like the citrus twist in a sparkling drink as she acknowledged her mistake. Oh wait, that couldn’t have been the zing of wild magic, could it? Couldn’t have been the onset of a Game? Elves, humans and Games were notorious . . . the idea chilled her, but it was too late now. No, it was too faint. It couldn’t be anything more than her imagination.

Zal had stopped singing as she noticed him standing there in plain view. He was exactly her height so they stood eye to eye as her anger stung her. She thought he looked slightly surprised but Lila couldn’t think straight. She was dismayed at how unprepared she was. It wasn’t his looks or his rock star status that made her feel sick with nervous tension. It was the sense of his otherness, the combination of how nearly human he appeared and how inhuman he really was.

He’d made no effort to hide, but she hadn’t seen him. His natural magical aura had concealed him from her attention and now her technologically-assisted senses could feel the slight charge of it as he stepped closer. This elvish aetherial body, larger than his physical body and moving independently of it, reached out ahead of him and touched her with slippery, invisible coils. His andalune, after which the great bridge of Bay City was named, was as natural to him as her own skin was to her. Its curious touch was another kind of glance, nothing more, but the unwanted investigation made her back away one step even under her tightest control and she had to look away. Lila remembered other andalune touches like this one that were neither kind nor merely indifferent. And then, almost before it was there, it had gone away, satisfied that it knew everything it wanted to know about her. She could still taste a snap of lime in the air and some half-remembered warning tried to rise in her mind, though she was so slugged on adrenal suppressants it had nowhere to go. Her body wanted to run. Her mind was frozen. She gave him a casual nod of recognition with a dip of her chin, as though she couldn’t be more comfortable.

For a second she thought he looked surprised. She saw a moment of curiosity burning in the slight widening of his large, slanted eyes.

“Hello, Lila,” Zal said. He didn’t have an ordinary elf voice. Their normal speaking tones were very like human voices with subtle harmonies buried inside but this one was smoky rather than bell-like. He didn’t exactly fit the mould of serene snottiness she had been braced for either, although his long ash-blond hair and attenuated, pointy ears were exactly on theme. Lila had never seen an elf with dark eyes before. Zal’s were chestnut brown with darker rings around the iris. She was staring into them like any fool for a good half a second before she composed herself. She turned aside and felt her face heat. The feeling she was experiencing was startling, and nothing like loathing.

Zal arched one dark eyebrow at her in a laconic expression of amusement at her clear efforts to repel all his natural glamour and Lila seethed with annoyance.

“I don’t require your services,” he informed her. He took his coat up and put it on with insouciant ease, then tilted his head, waiting for her to do something.

They always wait, Lila recalled, all trace of blush gone. They have the time. They like to watch and see what silly things humans will do, given the opportunity. He could stand there till Christmas with that false pretend-polite expression on his face.

Lila picked up the ring. It was a stupid thing to have given him in the first place, but Doublesafe hadn’t thought past their human security procedures with any imagination. There was no way he would wear it. “Yeah well, you’re not paying the bill,” she said calmly. She wished she could take the ring and stuff it down his throat, but that would be only a short-term solution. Instead she put it in her jacket pocket and hoped she’d think of something. “It won’t make any difference. Until Jelly is happy that all threats on your life are gone, then where you go, I go.”

“Until you die?” he asked, both brows up for a second, taunting.

“Or until you do.”

Lila saw the ghost of a smile cross his face as he walked past her. His gait was deceptively slow to look at, but he was fast. It was all she could do not to trot in order to keep up.

At the bike he didn’t pause, put his hands on the beautiful sunrise paintwork of the gas tank and swung his leg over into the riding position. So much for the legendary elf aversion to machinery.

Lila knew that this was the moment when she had to take some control if she were ever going to stand a chance. She didn’t hesitate: walked up, put her hands on his waist and lifted him off her place and onto the pillion seat. Then she kicked her leg high over the handlebars without waiting to see if her strength had caused any surprises and sat down very hard and towards the back of her seat, rather hoping to do him some minor damage.

The bike reacted immediately to her touch, reading her intent from the tension in her body, the speed of her movements and its trace readings from her AI-self. As she took hold of the grips it was already moving forward, and as soon as her feet were off the ground it accelerated rapidly, bending them low as it curved around the tight turns into the woodland.

She felt Zal adjust to the movements easily. He did not grab her, as she’d hoped he might have to because he was off balance. He waited until they were stopped at the gates and then slid up against her and put his hands on her hips.

“Don’t be mad, honey,” he said, so close to her ear that she could feel his breath warm the long curls of her hair. “I thought you wanted me where you could see me.”

“I can see you all I want from here,” she said and took them down the last slope at speed, necessitating a heavy sideslide into the road which almost took both their knees out on the hardtop. She was almost certain that he would be able to feel where her real body and the intelligent metal prosthetics grew into one another and that was horrible, more than she expected, but, much more than that, what most concerned her was that despite all her training it had taken barely seconds before she was playing a Game with him when the first rule of engagement with elves, like dragons, is that you never play Games with them. The smart one-liners were a dead giveaway. That lime and lemon zap—had he started it deliberately? No doubt . . . but her brooding was cut short.

As she straightened them into line she saw shadows shifting on her right, where the trees clung to a steep bank. She glanced there and saw the uncertain, stag-like form of a large wood elemental looking at them from the shade, branches its bones and leaves its flesh. Such creatures were incredibly rare in Otopia.

The bike was too fast. She caught no more than that glimpse.

Zal didn’t say or do any more but he didn’t move away either. All the way into town she could feel his body and the almost-skin contact of his andalune, warm against her back. She found herself mentally reviewing a still shot of the first moment she’d walked into the room with the ocean view. He’d been watching her, the whole time she’d been in the room, long before she saw him. Looking at what her AI-self could analyse from the images now she thought his look at her was disturbingly acute.

I will not be attracted to him, it’s only a ridiculous magical trick, this Game, she told herself sternly. The entire thing is just one big easy weapon they use to get whatever they want out of humans. Most can’t do anything about it, can’t even feel it when it takes hold, but I can, and I’m not falling for that old trick. Magical bonds do not count as reality and they don’t stand up in court. Anyway, all elves stare acutely. It’s a species-trait, like the ears and the supercharged nervous system. My job is to find out all about him, to guard him and to find out who’s after him, and that’s all.

Which was all true. But it felt truer when they arrived in the studio parking lot and he got off and ignored her completely. This time she had to stride at her fastest to catch up as he vanished into the dim, air-conditioned interior.


Lila ignored the ride and her various disquiets by forcing them into temporary storage in her AI-memory system. She concentrated as she met the rest of the band, the support crew, the studio execs, the sound engineers and the various hangers-on who had accumulated to listen to the recording. As she shook their hands she took readings and compared them with the files she had on them already. Data ran like water in her mind, showing her their names and every other known statistic under the sun.

The three backing singers were faery; two of Emerald Nation with beautiful green skins, and one Chalcedonite who was striped like a tiger in tones of dusk and gold.

“He’s a Mojave Blue,” one of the Emerald girls, the ultra-dark Viridia, told Lila proudly, because he was her boyfriend. He introduced himself as Sand, Sandy for long.

The other faery woman was even more lovely than Viridia, with spiky natural lime hair in a punk style and a slender, willowy shape. Her face was all delicate features, boosted with extraordinary silver and turquoise makeup in the faery equivalent of Goth. “I’m Poppy,” she said, with a dazzling smile. “Hey, how are ya? Nice to see more girls around. This place is strictly over-testosteroned, if ya know what I mean. Did you see Zal’s letters? They’re utterly hideoso. Hey Zal,” and she took his arm as he passed her and air-kissed him in the direction of his lips—a gesture he matched with an elegant mwa, millimetres from contact. “Catch ya later.”

Lila watched Poppy glide just above the floor in that floaty faery way, as though she was as light as thistledown. Viridia and Sand made slightly more effort to stay floorbound, but not much. Their wings were not visible in Otopia, but Lila found that they created a slight buzz of interference with her internal comms, as certain kinds of faery often did. She’d have to be careful around them because they’d made her slow to react.

Zal did some complicated gang-like Hi-Five greeting with the others in the band. From letting Lila make her own way with the guileless bonhomie of the faeries he actually reached back and drew her forward into the studio proper to meet the humans.

“Guys, this is my new shadow, Lila. Lila doesn’t like rock, and she doesn’t like elves.”

“Hey,” said the bass player, dark and fresh-faced Luke who was, Lila judged, twenty-five going on fifteen. His rap sheet included two counts of Class B alchemical possession. He gave her a grin and a heavy squeeze on her hand. “Is she like, going everywhere with us?”

“What does she like?” asked the girl DJ, giving Lila a competitive and warning-off stare from under the brim of her battered top hat.

“Violence,” Lila said sweetly in her best Swiss-finishing-school voice. She withdrew her hand from Luke’s hold. He winked at her.

Zal laughed.

The DJ relaxed and nodded, her stiff-faced initial reaction soft

ening into a smile. “Whatever.”

Luke said, “Don’t like elves? Are you what, some kind of racist?”

“I love elves,” Lila said in exactly the same tone as before, her smile fixed. “And I love rock.”

Jelly’s voice broke in over the intercom. “Can we get on with business before the rental of these fine additional musicians destroys all potential of my third house purchase in New Malibu? Stations people. Instruments. Connections.”

Lila retreated to Jelly’s side of the glass wall and sat down beside him at the mixing desk. She detected no hidden enmities in the band. Far from it, they were all perfectly easy with one another. A quick surveillance of the rest of the people here gave her no more evidence of any internal rivalries at work. She settled down to watch them do their stuff. They were going to record a Mode-X cover of “The Ace of Spades”.

Lila, like Jelly, had no faith that Zal could ever convincingly sing tracks like that. She’d never heard an elf sing anything other than chant or a peculiarly prissy version of “Silent Night”. She didn’t want to wait around either. Now that she was satisfied that the studio was secure, and with two other guards on duty at the doors, she made an excuse of visiting the Ladies Room and took her chance to slip out in order to investigate the rest of the building.

Poppy had been quite right when she said that the letters sent to Zal care of Ozo Records had been hideoso. They were also, as far as Incon were concerned, of possible relevance to national security. Although some of them were crackpot in nature, hating Zal for his race, for his taste in music or for his betrayal of all matters precious to Alfheim, those were easy to deal with: from elves or from humans they went straight in the bin. But the dangerous ones that had sparked Lila’s operation weren’t like that.

These few were letters that had been delivered on magical vellum, and what they said changed according to who read them. When the manager of the fan club had opened them they read like regular fan mail. The senders had even included cheques to join through special promotional rates promised through an ad in Vanity Fair which had accompanied a big article on Zal. But in Zal’s hands the words and letters spun themselves around. It wasn’t possible for Lila to read what he saw, but she’d been provided with Zal’s brief report on it. The letter read:

Return by the lost way or not at all,
Return by the longest day or not at all:
Else be lost and ever wander,
Life and limb and spirit squander.

It was a general kind of magical threat that any of the non-Otopian realms might have employed, but unlike most spellcast items it bore no telltales of its origin that Incon’s aetherial forensics had been able to decipher. Since magic was created through the spirit of the creator, it was technically not possible to have traceless magic. Magic bore the signatures of the maker all through it, like a hallmark. But the letter had proven completely flavourless.

The lost way part referred to the elf-only gateway out of Otopia to Alfheim. The longest day was easy: that was Midsummer Solstice, two days away. The rest of it seemed to indicate less favourable conditions. Other Incon agents had been dispatched into Alfheim to see if they could find out whether it had come from someone there. Lila, glad to be in Otopia, didn’t know what she was looking for now, so she looked for anything.

The studio was set up in an underground room, insulated for sound. Above that, on the ground level, the administrative offices filled the space. Most of the areas were populated, so Lila used her day clearance pass on the Fire Escape door and went up another flight. Through the concrete and steel of the walls it was hard to obtain any accurate scans but she did her best, searching another empty office, a storage cupboard, a room full of old equipment. It was here that she detected a trace of illegitimate radio transmission.

Inside, junk was stacked to the roof. Lila lifted boxes and crates and old packaging. It was covered in dust and soon she was quite filthy but she persisted. The transmitter was behind a filing cabinet which was full to the top with broken mikes, old amplifier stacks and lumps of electronics that must have been made before Lila was born. She couldn’t be bothered to unpack it for its trip to the corridor so, after checking that nobody was near, she engaged her internal hydraulics and lifted the entire thing, sliding it along the carpet on one edge until it snagged on the lintel. Breathing out, sucking her stomach in, Lila sneaked past it into the corner of the room, felt a tug against her leg and heard a ripping sound.

“Ah, crap,” she said and looked down at the burst stitches on her new pants. It was just a whole day of too-late, she thought.

With more force than necessary she bent down and yanked up the carpet. In a billow of dust and dead flies she sneezed and reached down, carefully letting the little finger of her right hand rest against the tiny object which looked like a pebble. Intricate receptors housed where a knucklebone would have been identified it as a Faery device, part silicon and part metal. It was using bounce-retort techniques to get a reasonably clear sound pickup from the studio, and was broadcasting on a coded frequency to somewhere quite local. It must have been here a long time for its battery power was almost exhausted. Lila listened through the bug for a moment or two.

She could hear Zal and the band. The raw energy of the music reached up and caught her. Zal’s voice was a shamanic, self-destructive growl—the pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say . . .It made a strange, dark exultation rise in her chest, the sensation so clear and quick that she jerked in surprise. Her AI-self picked up frequencies that her human ears couldn’t hear. She wondered for a split second if there were lots of dogs and cats in the intended audience, but her AI corrected her. Zal’s anomalous sounds were in the sub-audible band, not the high pitches of specialized whistles.

Lila stored the information to send back to the lab later, in case it was an important slice of data, and took her finger away from the bug, deciding to let it lie there for the time being. It took a few minutes to replace all the crap where it had been. When she’d done she dusted herself down and tried washing in the Ladies. The soap and water did a reasonably good job but there was nothing to be done about the tiny tear she’d made in the outside seam of her trousers where it had caught against the corner of the filing cabinet. She patched the inside with a piece of sample tape which she carried along with the rest of her field forensics kit in a capsule container that fitted inside her jacket pocket like a wallet, and went back to the studio.

What she really wanted to do was get outside and trace the broadcast to its reception unit, but that would mean getting too far out of range of His Highness. Lila had to settle for a seat next to Jelly in the recording booth where she watched everyone except Zal do ten repeats of the same song whilst Jelly fiddled levels and mix and his assistants dashed around making much of nothing to do.

During the repeats she watched everyone closely. The musicians were so used to the regime that they patiently repeated everything. Poppy smiled once to Lila and they had to stop that take.

Jelly screamed at her, “Stop grinning! We’re self-destructing here, not selling hamburgers!”

Zal looked briefly at Lila through the glass, when he turned around from talking to the DJ between takes of Luke’s bass track. He mouthed something at her which she wasn’t meant to hear, but Lila could read his lips even if she hadn’t been able to instantly recalibrate her hearing filters to pick up the actual sound. It was elvish words saying a thing she was reasonably certain no elf had ever said before.

Zo na kinkirien. I love your pants.

She was puzzled for a moment but pleased she didn’t actually look down as she realised the tear on her seam must be visible and that he was taunting her for going off instead of sticking like glue to his side. He’d turned away before she could give him her frosty look.

Jelly listened through his private headphones, jouncing on his seat. “One more time. Everyone except the lord of darkness himself—Zal, you’re done,” he said through the connecting mike and added. “Ear bleeding effort ladies and gennlemen.” He cued the intricate, slamming drum line with a fingertip and glanced at Lila. “Hey, don’t go getting ideas about Zal. You know I have to say it. Every girl comes in here and the boys . . . okay they’re like mostly engineers or admin and shit . . . they always end up getting . . . you know what I mean?”

Lila had no idea but she could guess. She nodded, rather interested that this was still standard practice after so many years—warn the new girl off, insult the bodyguard’s intelligence, make sure she knows she doesn’t count. She smiled vacantly at him with agreement whilst inwardly seething.

“Good. Cos you have to like be around him all the time and that’s not gonna be a picnic. Don’t tell him what to do. And don’t tell him what to take. In fact, don’t speak, because that all pisses him off and we have to start touring on Monday and I can’t hand him over to Jolene all pissed because good tour managers are like rocking horse shit and if she quits we’re all screwed. Don’t let him go on another goddamned bender. He missed two dates last month, off his head out in the woods somewhere, and it took four days to find him even and we never found whatever it was he took, maybe it was mushrooms or some elfy thing he dug up, you know? And he’ll resent you. Oh man, he already resents you. He’d resent you more if you was a guy, though, if that makes it any better. That’s all I can say.” Jelly paused as the music started and then turned back. “Do you have to shower with him?”

“No,” Lila said.

Jelly made a face that said it was a sport he was sorry he was going to miss, and then he slapped his headphones back on.

Lila tested her patience to the limit by sitting quietly for the next hour simply watching, learning that when Jelly said it was the last take, it wasn’t. She used the time to sharpen up her intelligence on Alfheim and tried to use the extensive database of genealogical data given her by Incon to try and place Zal.

The only thing he’d ever said about where he came from was in the Vanity Fair piece and it read: “There’s no reason for me to be here other than the music. I like to sing.”

He’d lived in Queenstown, in the north of the Bay City area, for six months before The No Shows got their act together. Before that there was no record of anything unusual. He’d entered Otopia from the Alfheim gateway under the usual restrictions and all his paperwork was in order. Lila thought Zal must be a shortened version of his real name, but the database contained no elvish names beginning with a Z. He was good at talking in Otopian, but so were many elves, who picked up languages and accents like good carpet picks up dog hair. Lila couldn’t genome test him without his permission according to international law, so that was out of the question for the time being, unless he were involved in a provable criminal action. It really looked like he was just an elf who wanted to be a rock star. If only that weren’t against every chosen or given trait of Elfdom she’d ever known. But then nobody here seemed to have a problem with it, probably because they were all getting rich off it.

Lila was grimly aware that stereotyping had provided the majority of her own attitudes towards his species, and what had happened to her in Lilirien, the Second Realm of Alfheim, two years ago hadn’t done anything to broaden her mind. The problem with Alfheim had always been that the elves had very little contact with humans in or out of Otopia. They didn’t mix with faery much either, and they had active rules of avoidance regarding demons—it was something to do with the magic systems each used. Ancients and elementals moved freely among elves and were even welcome, but this was because all of them had derived from similar magical roots. To Otopia they were neighbours; cordial and distant, as out of Lila’s league as though they belonged to a country club that she could never afford to go to.

To the rest of the elves Zal must look like he was slumming it. She wouldn’t be surprised to find all the threats of any substance coming from resentful authorities and individuals there. “Ace of Spades”, in its Mode-X format, was comprehensively about as opposed to the serenity and rarefied values of elven society as you could get. Which is why she took the letters seriously. She knew that the elves’ protectiveness over their precious culture extended well beyond simply keeping secrets and writing letters.

At last everything had been done according to Jelly’s incomprehensible standards. The engineers began to pack their equipment, and the band decided they all wanted to go out and eat, with a view to staying out all night. It was the last thing Lila felt like doing but it wasn’t her place to argue. Only as they settled down in their private dining room at the Lizard Lounge did she realise how hungry she was. She found herself placed next to Jolene and Luke, across from Zal.

“Cool ’tacts,” Luke said, grinning at her. “Good hair too.”

“Thanks.” His flirting with her made her sorry her suit was so ordinary.

“No problem. I was a bit offish before. Sorry. We get a lot of shit about that, y’know?” He passed her a menu as the waitress handed them out.

“I know.”

“Yeah, you read those letters?”


“Think they’re real?”

“Luke,” Jolene broke in rather sharply. “Can we not talk about it now?”

“I was only asking,” Luke said and gave a glance at his menu before tossing it down.

“No, I want to know too,” said Poppy from the end of the long table.

“And me,” Viridia chimed in. “After all, we’re the ones who are in the firing line. Well, maybe from some angles.”

Lila glanced at Zal, braced for some sarcastic or otherwise difficult response but he picked that second to take his coat off and didn’t meet her eye. She looked back at Luke and then at Poppy. “They’re real. Doublesafe has put on extra security at all hotels and venues. I’ll be with you all the time.”

Jolene rolled her eyes and gave Lila a thanks-for-nothing stare.

Lila tried to reassure her, “You shouldn’t worry about it. That’s my business.”

“Easier said, man,” Luke said. “D’you have a gun?”

“Several,” Lila assured him.

“Where?” he leant back and stared at her chest. Viridia kicked his ankle. “Ow.” He laughed and kicked her back.

At that moment the waitress returned. Everyone except Zal and Lila ordered beer. Lila skipped on drinks, not wanting any distraction. Zal drank water. She guessed it wasn’t because he was trying to stay sober because he smoked some funny cigarette of Sand’s and she could measure the dilation of the pupils in his eyes enlarging by the second. Jolene made a few comments, but he paid no attention to her.

They talked amongst themselves as though Lila wasn’t there for the most part. She preferred it that way. It let her watch them closely because she didn’t have to concentrate on finding things to say. Poppy excused herself just as the food came and Lila tracked her idly as the humans all tucked into pizza or burgers. The fey ate strange set jellies, and honey from the comb and big lumps of sweet milky pudding. Zal did something Lila couldn’t believe she was watching at all.

She hadn’t thought he could sing but she’d been dead wrong about that.

She’d expected him to treat her with contempt but, whatever he was treating her with, it wasn’t that.

Now she was sitting opposite an elf with unmistakably high-caste features, who could have easily passed for High Snot of the Brotherhood of Ultimate Superiority, a member of an entirely vegetarian species, watching him eat raw steak.

Beside her Luke snorted and said through a mouthful of fries, “Like watching Bambi eat Thumper, innit?”

Zal looked at him and he went quiet. Zal looked at Lila, a glance not unlike the way she’d once been looked at by a lion in the zoo at feeding time, the sort of glance you didn’t want to linger in. She shrugged and went on with her sandwich. Until that moment she’d really begun to imagine that Zal had stepped out of Alfheim one day and decided to act on a temporary whim for a taste of the lowlife. Surely there must be traumas that elves could suffer that could allow them to be as messed up as any human rock singer or songwriter? And they must have rebellious sons and daughters with a yen for travel? Or maybe he was born with an unusual talent that had never had any outlet in Lyrien and the wider elf nations? But now she had to put all those theories on hold. Even in situations of starvation she had never come across any evidence of elves eating flesh. They would rather die.

After a few more minutes Lila excused herself, checked that the room was secure, scanned outside the building, and went to the Ladies. She found Poppy already in there waiting for her.

Poppy chattered excitedly about the coming tour, her hopes of finding handsome groupies, how fun it was going to be having Lila come along, as she fixed her makeup. It was the kind of gush that didn’t need a response; fey friendly goodwill, like their badwill, came in seemingly random scattergun blasts that claimed anyone in range.

Lila looked at her own face—she looked clean and her metal didn’t show. She looked away again. She didn’t like the sight of her new face. In recreating it the surgeons had made her well, even reasonable to look at, but the face wasn’t hers. It felt like it from the inside, until she saw the outside.

Lila had once had soft features, round cheeks, a pretty face. Now she was not pretty and she didn’t know the word for her look these days. Her hair had grown back auburn on half her head and scarlet elsewhere, because of the magic that had stained her to the bone. They washed it out eventually, but bits of her were gone for ever and in their place was this machine, strong and restless and ill at ease with the flesh that was left. They were growing into each other, her AI-self and her real body. It would take years, they said, but one day the joins would become invisible.

“Gods, I know I shouldn’t say this,” Poppy said, beginning to floss her pale-green teeth, “but Zal really really likes you.”

“How d’you figure that out?” Lila said.

“He watches you like all the time. Hadn’t you noticed?”

“No,” Lila said honestly. Had he been?

“No you wouldn’t,” Poppy said, ripping a new length of floss. “Not to worry. It’s a magic thing. But I can tell.”

“Hey,” Lila said, feigning interest, though she didn’t know what to think. She had the sense that Poppy was one of those girls who very quickly become girlfriends who like to fix up their other girlfriends with their friends and have coffee shop fantasies about the whole thing.

“And Zal doesn’t like anybody like that really,” Poppy added. “Not like that, you know. Especially not . . .” She paused. “Well, not.”

“No, go on,” Lila said, lounging against the sink as if she had all day, as if they really were friends already.

“People of non-magical extraction,” Poppy said as fast as she could. “Sorry, I know that’s really not the right thing to say.” She covered her mouth with her hand.

“No, no,” Lila assured her. “It’s fine. Who likes everyone? Anyway, I’m an employee.” So, like all the others of his kind she’d ever met, he was racist. Figured.

“Yeah, but if you’re like with us all the time you’re one of us, right?”

Female faeries couldn’t stand non-inclusivity.

“Right,” Lila said, smiling. “Absolutely right.”

“Well, good, I’m glad we’ve sorted that out.” Poppy smiled. She really was gorgeous, Lila thought, feeling a stab of envy that was as unwelcome as it was unusual. She reminded herself strictly that she was lucky to be alive.

“Does Jolene have a thing for Zal?” she asked as she held the door for Poppy.

“Oh big style,” Poppy said. “Who doesn’t?”

Lila followed her back to the table. More beer had arrived, more fancy cigarettes. They were in it for the long haul.

Keeping It Real © Justina Robson


Anonymous said...

I know that I am behind the times a little, but I am just finishing "Keeping It Real." Any chance the No Shows web site is coming back?


Lou Anders said...

Justina herself has taken charge of it. It *may* be coming back on her site, but I don't believe it's scheduled.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer. Just started "Selling Out" this morning. Haven't read many Pyr books, but Mappa Mundi was great, so I'll keep my eyes open.


Lou Anders said...

You might like Joel Shepherd's Cassandra Kresnov series, as there is "crossover" between his readers and Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity books. All three are out in trade paperback, but are all coming out in mmpb in May-June-July of this year. The books are Crossover, Breakaway, and Killswitch.

Here is the link to Crossover's page at Pyr.

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