Authors: Robert Charles Wilson
by Robert Charles Wilson
from Tom Doherty Associates
A Hidden Place
The Perseids and Other Stories
Robert Charles Wilson
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Charles Wilson
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
Edited by Teresa Nielsen Hayden
An Orb Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wilson, Robert Charles, 1953—
Julian Comstock : a story of 22nd-century America / Robert Charles Wilson.
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
ISBN-13:978-0-7653-1971-5 ISBN-10:0-7653-1971-3 1. United States—Fiction.
2. Political fiction.
First Edition: June 2009
Printed in the United States of America
To Mr. William Taylor Adams of Massachusetts, who might not have approved of it, this book is nevertheless respectfully and gratefully dedicated.
We read the past by the light of the present, and the forms vary as the shadows fall, or as the point of vision alters.
— JAMES ANTHONY FROUDE
Look not for roses in Attalus his garden, or wholesome flowers in a venomous plantation. And since there is scarce any one bad, but some others are the worse for him, tempt not contagion by proximity, and hazard not thyself in the shadow of corruption.
—SIR THOMAS BROWNE
Crowns, generally speaking, have thorns.
—ARTHUR E. HERTZLER
I mean to set down here the story of the life and adventures of Julian Comstock, better known as Julian the Agnostic or (after his uncle) Julian Conqueror.
Readers familiar with the name will naturally expect scenes of blood and betrayal, including the War in Labrador and Julian's run-in with the Church of the Dominion. I witnessed all those events firsthand, and at closer proximity than I might have liked, and they are all described in the five "Acts" (as I call them) that follow. In the company of Julian Comstock I traveled from the pine-bark Eden in which I was born all the way to Mascouche, Lake Melville, Manhattan, and stranger places; I saw men and governments rise and fall; and I woke many a morning with death staring me in the face. Some of the memories I mean to set down aren't pleasant ones, or flattering, and I tremble a little at the prospect of reliving them, but I intend to spare no one—we were what we were, and we became what we became, and the facts will ennoble or demean us, as the reader chooses to see it.
But I begin the story the way it began for me—in a town in the boreal west, when Julian was young, and I was young, and neither of us was famous.
And the same fires, which were kindled for Heretics, will serve for the destruction of philosophers.1
—HUME, a Philosopher
In October of 2172—the year the Election show came to town—Julian Comstock and I, along with his mentor Sam Godwin, rode to the Tip east of Williams Ford, where I came to possess a book, and Julian tutored me in one of his heresies.
There was a certain resolute promptness to the seasons in Athabaska in those days. Summers were long and hot, December brought snow and sudden freezes, and most years the River Pine ran freely by the first of March. Spring and fall were mere custodial functions, by comparison. Today might be the best we would get of autumn—the air brisk but not cold, the long sunlight unhindered by any cloud. It was a day we ought to have spent under Sam Godwin's tutelage, reading chapters from
The Dominion History of the Union
War and How to Conduct It.
But Sam wasn't a heartless overseer, and the gentle weather suggested the possibility of an outing. So we went to the stables where my father worked, and drew horses, and rode out of the Estate with lunches of black bread and salt ham in our back-satchels.
At first we headed south along the Wire Road, away from the hills and the town. Julian and I rode ahead while Sam paced his mount behind us, his Pittsburgh rifle in the saddle holster at his side. There was no perceptible threat or danger, but Sam Godwin believed in preparedness—if he had a gospel, it was BE PREPARED; also, SHOOT FIRST; and probably, DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES. Sam, who was nearly fifty winters old, wore a dense brown beard stippled with white hairs, and was dressed in what remained presentable of his Army of the Californias uniform. Sam was nearly a father to Julian, Julian's own true father having performed a gallows dance some years before, and lately Sam had been more vigilant than ever, for reasons he hadn't discussed, at least with me.
Julian was my age (seventeen), and we were approximately the same height, but there the resemblance ended. Julian had been born an Aristo, or
as they say back east, while my family was of the leasing class.
His face was smooth and pale; mine was dark and lunar, scarred by the same Pox that took my sister Flaxie to her grave in '63. His yellow hair was long and almost femininely clean; mine was black and wiry, cut to stubble by my mother with her sewing scissors, and I washed it once a week—more often in summer, when the creek behind the cottage warmed to a pleasant temperature.
His clothes were linen and silk, brass-buttoned, cut to fit; my shirt and pants were coarse hempen cloth, sewn to a good approximation but clearly not the work of a New York tailor.
And yet we were friends, and had been friends for three years, ever since we met by chance in the hills west of the Duncan and Crowley Estate. We had gone there to hunt, Julian with his rifle and me with a simple muzzle-loader, and we crossed paths in the forest and got to talking.
We both loved books, especially the boys' books written by an author named Charles Curtis Easton.
I had been carrying a copy of Easton's
Against the Brazilians,
illicitly borrowed from the Estate library—Julian recognized the title but vowed not to rat on me for possessing it, since he loved the book as much as I did and longed to discuss it with a fellow enthusiast—in short, he did me an unbegged favor; and we became fast friends despite our differences.
In those early days I hadn't known how fond he was of Philosophy and such petty crimes as that. But I suppose it wouldn't have mattered to me, if I had.
Today Julian turned east from the Wire Road and took us down a lane bordered by split-rail fences on which dense blackberry gnarls had grown up, between fields of wheat and gourds just lately harvested. Before long we passed the rude shacks of the Estate's indentured laborers, whose near-naked children gawked at us from the dusty lane-side, and I deduced that we were headed for the Tip, because where else on this road was there to go?—unless we continued on for many hours more, all the way to the ruins of the old oil towns, left over from the days of the False Tribulation.
The Tip was located a distance from Williams Ford in order to prevent poaching and disorder. There was a strict pecking order to the Tip. It worked this way: professional scavengers hired by the Estate brought their pickings from ruined places to the Tip, which was a pine-fenced enclosure (a sort of stockade) in an open patch of grassland. There the newly-arrived goods were roughly sorted, and riders were dispatched to the Estate to make the high-born aware of the latest discoveries. Then various Aristos (or their trusted servants) rode out to claim the prime gleanings. The next day the leasing class would be allowed to sort through what was left; and after that, if anything remained, indentured laborers could rummage through it, if they calculated it was worthwhile to make the journey.
Every prosperous town had a Tip, though in the East it was sometimes called a Till, a Dump, or an Eebay.
Today we were lucky. A dozen wagonloads of scrounge had just arrived, and riders hadn't yet been sent to notify the Estate. The gate of the enclosure was manned by an armed Reservist, who looked at us suspiciously until Sam announced the name of Julian Comstock. Then the guard briskly stepped aside, and we went inside the fence.
A chubby Tipman, eager to show off his bounty, hurried toward us as we dismounted and moored our horses. "Happy coincidence!" he cried.
"Gentlemen!" Addressing mostly Sam by this remark, with a cautious smile for Julian and a disdainful sidelong glance at me. "Anything in particular you're looking for?"
"Books," said Julian, before Sam or I could answer.
"Books! Well—ordinarily, I set aside books for the Dominion Conservator ..."
"This boy is a Comstock," Sam said. "I don't suppose you mean to balk him."
The Tipman promptly reddened. "No, not at all—in fact we came across something in our digging—a sort of
library in miniature
—I'll show you, if you like."
That was intriguing, especially to Julian, who beamed as if he had been invited to a Christmas party; and we followed the stout Tipman to a freshly-arrived canvasback wagon, from which a shirtless laborer was tossing bundles into a stack beside a tent.
The twine-wrapped bales contained books—ancient books, wholly free of the Dominion Stamp of Approval. They must have been more than a century old, for although they were faded it was obvious that they had once been colorful and expensively printed, not made of stiff brown paper like the Charles Curtis Easton books of modern times. They had not even rotted much. Their smell, under the cleansing Athabaska sunlight, was inoffensive.
"Sam!" Julian whispered ecstatically. He had already drawn his knife, and he began slicing through the twine.
"Calm down," said Sam, who wasn't an enthusiast like Julian.
We should have brought a cart!"
"We can't carry away armloads, Julian, nor would we ever be allowed to.
The Dominion scholars will have all this, and most of it will be locked up in their Archive in New York City, if it isn't burned. Though I expect you can get away with a volume or two if you're discreet about it."
The Tipman said, "These are from Lundsford." Lundsford was the name of a ruined town twenty miles or so to the southeast. The Tipman leaned toward Sam Godwin and said: "We thought Lundsford had been mined out a de cade ago. But even a dry well may freshen. One of my workers spotted a low place off the main excavation—a sort of
: the recent rain had cut it through. Once a basement or ware house of some kind. Oh, sir, we found good china there, and glasswork, and many more books than this ... most hopelessly mildewed, but some had been wrapped in a kind of oilcoth, and were lodged under a fallen ceiling ... there had been a fire, but they survived it ..."
"Good work, Tipman," Sam Godwin said with palpable disinterest.
"Thank you, sir! Perhaps you could remember me to the men of the Estate?" And he gave his name (which I have forgotten).
Julian knelt amidst the compacted clay and rubble of the Tip, lifting up each book in turn and examining it with wide eyes. I joined him in his exploration, though I had never much liked the Tip. It had always seemed to me a haunted place. And of course it
haunted—it existed in order to be haunted—that is, to house the revenants of the past, ghosts of the False Tribulation startled out of their century-long slumber. Here was evidence of the best and worst of the people who had inhabited the Years of Vice and Profligacy. Their fine things were very fine, their glassware especially, and it was a straitened Aristo indeed who did not sit down to an antique table-setting rescued from some ruin or other. Sometimes you might find useful knives or other tools at the Tip. Coins were common. The coins were never gold or silver, and were too plentiful to be worth much, individually, but they could be worked into buttons and such adornments. One of the high-born back at the Estate owned a saddle studded with copper pennies all from the year 2032—I had often been enlisted to polish it, and disliked it for that reason.
Here too was the trash and inexplicable detritus of the old times: "plastic," gone brittle with sunlight or soft with the juices of the earth; bits of metal blooming with rust; electronic devices blackened by time and imbued with the sad inutility of a tensionless spring; engine parts, corroded; copper wire rotten with verdigris; aluminum cans and steel barrels eaten through by the poisonous fluids they had once contained—and so on, almost