Read Terrarium Online

Authors: Scott Russell Sanders

Terrarium

TERRARIUM

It is, after all, not man but
the universe that is subtle.

       —
B
ARRY
H
OLSTUN
L
OPEZ

This book is for
Murray Sperber
and for
Fred Pfeil—

camerados

TERRARIUM

Scott Russell Sanders

Indiana University Press

BLOOMINGTON AND INDIANAPOLIS

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

© 1985 by Scott Russell Sanders

Afterword © 1995 by Scott Russell Sanders

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses' Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sanders, Scott R. (Scott Russell), date
Terrarium / Scott Russell Sanders.
p.   cm.

ISBN 0-253-32956-6 (cloth). — ISBN 0-253-21021-6 (pbk.) 1.
Twenty-first century—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3569.A5137T47  1995

813'.54—dc20                                                                        95-4805

1  2  3  4  5  00  99  98  97  96  95

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Afterword

ONE

Phoenix
thought of her as the barefooted walker. From the morning when she first loomed into view like an unpredicted planet, she set up fierce tides of desire in him.

On that morning the pressure inside Oregon City and inside his head seemed no greater than usual, no more conducive to visions. A blue wig dangled stylishly about his ears, facepaint disguised his features, and a portfolio of satellite film beneath one arm identified him as a man bound for the office. Chemmies regulated every bodily process that needed regulating. All his life was in order. But when Phoenix emerged from his apartment, ticking off the day's plans in his mind (work, then breeze-tripping for lunch, electro-ball in the afternoon, and eros parlors in the evening), suddenly there she was, a barefooted woman pacing in the wrong direction on the pedbelt. Slap of naked flesh on the conveyor. By matching her stride to the speed of the belt she managed to stay at the same point in the corridor, just opposite his doorway. Bustling along, yet
never stirring from her chosen spot, she reminded Phoenix of the conjoined whirl and stillness of a gyroscope.

Surely a madwoman. Escaped from the health patrollers. Phoenix backed rump against his apartment door just as it clicked shut. Embarrassed, he glanced down, but not before catching a glimpse of red hair escaping from the woman's hood, her cheeks showing feverishly through a skimpy glaze of cosmetics, her green gown actually darkened with perspiration below the arms and around the neck. The corridor trapped her scent, forced him to breathe it. Smell of hot animal. Her knees, thrusting against the gown at each step, nudged a raw spot in his brain. Just a beast, a throwback, he thought—and he felt aroused and ashamed.

By lowering his gaze he hoped to give the woman a chance to recover her senses, to withdraw from his life. But down below were those naked feet, slapping the pedbelt, and they sent his gaze skidding back up along her flanks and spine to the hooded face. So he had the misfortune to be staring at her luminous green eyes when she turned on him and said, “It's called walking, you idiot.”

Abruptly she stopped her pacing and tugged the hood closer about her face; the conveyor hustled her out of sight.

Phoenix blinked. Gone back to her cave, he thought. Crawled under her rock. Good riddance. He filled his lungs slowly, emptied them. The ventilator banished her smell within seconds. Well, that's over, he decided.

But the image of her face—flushed, practically naked beneath the film of cosmetics—stuck fast in his memory. He went on to work, transferring from pedbelt to escalator to elevator, and eventually to the roller-chair that deposited him at his desk, where he bent as usual over the satellite monitors. But rather than hunt for signs of hurricanes, thermal inversions, radiation storms, for the thousand signs of Terra's assault on the human system, his eyes kept tracing the shape of the woman's face in the cloud patterns, the bulge of hip and breast in the contours of continents.

After work he yearned for something stronger than
breeze-tripping or electro-ball, so he proceeded directly to the gamepark for a day-ending orgy in the eros parlors, where he hoped to wipe the woman's image from his brain. At the door of the eros parlor he drew back, however. The rosy electronic din inside the lovebooths seemed distasteful. So he joined his cronies at the pharmacy, thinking he would take a chemmie. That would surely obliterate all memory of the barefooted walker. But as he tilted the drink toward his lips, something caught in his throat, and he set the chemmie back on the counter. As the shutters came down over the eyes of his companions, he slipped away from the pharmacy and rode straight home.

There was no barefooted woman pacing on the conveyor outside his apartment, of course, since both pedbelts were jammed with riders. Of course, Phoenix reassured himself. What do you expect? Patrollers would have caught her by now. Already be coaxing the beast out of her. Make her a good citizen of the Enclosure, no threat to anyone.

He spread his palm against the lockplate on his door, then stood there for a minute in the opening, glancing sidelong at the double stream of riders. All their feet were covered, their legs motionless, their heads properly hooded and wigged, their bodies hidden beneath gowns, their faces expertly masked. All as it should be. No one returned his wary glance.

It pained him to enter the apartment. The room's orderliness, which had comforted him that morning, oppressed him now. The dials glinted on his console, row after row, perfect circle after perfect circle. The glittering angles of his metal furniture seemed too harsh. Nothing invited his touch. The photo-murals on the wall were just then shifting their kaleidoscopic designs to mark the beginning of a new hour, but they could not be touched, they were only patterns of light. Feeling like an idiot—she had called him that, an idiot—Phoenix stood in the middle of the room, tongue hanging out, sniffing and tasting. Dead air, without taste or smell. Beastly smell she had. Sweat? Green eyes like flares.
He tossed a few pillows on the floor, left a cabinet standing open, and dragged half a dozen costumes from their hangers, but without any real hope of disturbing the order of the place. He oozed a dollop of veg from the food dispenser, sniffed it without appetite, then flung the green stuff down the recycle. Slumped in the softest chair, burning his lips on a cup of hot narco, Phoenix scrutinized the geography of his life, seeking some wild place that might accommodate the longing aroused in him by this barefooted woman.

Days ticked by. Each morning before work he peered out through the spyhole in his door, but with less and less fear—or was it hope?—of seeing her. Just when his life was composing itself again, when the clouds on the satellite monitors were beginning to resemble clouds again instead of lips and ankles, one day he looked out and there she was, pacing along in her sweat-darkened green. The lens of the spyhole made her appear swollen. Her naked feet seemed to dangle from a bulbous torso. Her head, with its fringe of red hair, bobbed ridiculously. Horrible, really, now that he had a good look at her. Wondering how such an unappetizing creature could have enthralled him, Phoenix boldly opened the door. It was a mistake. Her full stare caught him. Moist cheeks behind the glaze of makeup, long-boned feet, swim of legs beneath the gown.

This time she pronounced the words icily: “It's called walking. You should try it. Melt away some of that flab.”

By reflex, Phoenix smoothed the gown over his cushiony stomach. Flab? How dare she refer to his body! The chill in her voice told him she had no memory of their earlier meeting. All these days while he had been suffering around Oregon City with her image spiked into his brain, she had salted him away in the vaults of forgetfulness together with a million other once-glimpsed faces.

“Do you mind?” she said, never breaking stride. “There's less traffic here. Fewer pedbelt zombies to compete with.”

Looking away down the corridor he shook his head no, then in confusion nodded yes, unsure just what he was answering. The woman kept at her walking, matching the conveyor's pace. Phoenix shilly-shallied in his doorway, immobilized by a sudden vision of himself as he must appear to her: bouffant wig of iridescent blue, face painted to resemble the star of
Video Dancers,
every inch of flesh cloaked in a moodgown. And, yes, to tell the truth, a wee bit heavy in the paunch. He could not bear to look down at the fireworks of color he knew his gown would be making in its vain attempt to express his inner pandemonium.

“I don't mind.” He felt his nostrils flare with the scent of her. “Why should I mind?”

“Good question. But there's a lot of drecks who do.”

She smiled, and he winced. The smile, the private sharing of words, the eye contact, the exposed face—it was all coming in such a rush, shattering the rules of sexual approach.

Unable to bring himself to name a body part, he stammered, “Your walking things …”

“My feet?”

“Yes. Do they hurt?”

“Never. That's why I go barefoot, to keep them tough.”

“And why have them tough?”

“So I can walk barefoot.”

“But why walk at all?” Phoenix demanded in vexation. Before he could slice into her circular reasoning, passengers trundled around the curve, and the woman, with no attempt at disguising her smile, crossed to the other pedbelt and rode away out of sight.

For a long time he stood in his doorway, hoping. But traffic thickened in the corridor and the woman never reappeared. Or perhaps she did pass again, duly costumed and painted, camouflaged in the crowd. Passing, she might even have seen him, and still not been able to distinguish him from the hundred others who were decked out this morning in iridescent blue wigs, and whose faces were
patterned after that video actor. Phoenix felt paltry, lurking there on his threshold, at once conspicuous and invisible.

Finally he surrendered to the day, to work, to an afternoon of lightshows, to an evening of brain-puzzles at the gamepark; and then he surrendered to the return home, to the waterbed, to sleep. Dreams of the barefooted woman stalked through his skull. An extra dose of narco did no good. A bout on the eros couch, with the gauge spun all the way over to visionary delight, offered only mechanical relief. Electronics could not reach the territory in his mind where the woman's image kept burning and burning.

Desire melted away what little order remained in his life. The apartment grew shabby. Friends stopped scheduling daykillers with him when he failed to show up a second time or a third. His costume suffered, at first from neglect and then from his deliberate search for idiosyncracy. He wanted to be visible to the woman when he met her again. So he hauled out unstylish clothes, ones that paid no attention to his body chemistry but just hung upon him in outrageous combinations. His wigs grew increasingly bizarre. His facepaint appeared slapdash, as if applied in the dark by a vindictive cosmetician. Wherever he went in Oregon City the glances of passersby slithered along at his heels.

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