My novella, The Queen of Eyes, was just published by the magazine, Fantasy and Science Fiction, one of America’s longest-running magazine. Tomorrow–Labor Day, Sept 2, 2013 as I write this–the brilliant Paul Nagy will be interviewing me for his radio show. In honor of that, I thought I would put an excerpt here. In the story, the mysterious figure known as the Queen of Eyes, a woman who holds all the world’s oracular power, has gone missing, and her daughter has turned to Jack Shade, shaman/magician for hire, to find her. This is the second in what I hope will be an ongoing series of stories about Jack. The first, “Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls” was published last year, also in F & SF, and was included in the anthology, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, edited by Jonathan Strahan.
And now the excerpt–
Jack had met the Queen once, on a California beach just before dawn.
After all his years as a Traveler, after the poltergeist killed his wife and got his daughter banished to the Forest of Souls, after he came close to losing himself in the Ibis Casino, Jack had thought he’d seen everything. Implacable Jack, some called him. But it wasn’t until he met the Queen that Jack understood what it meant to see at all.
It was right after the Sibyl War, the battle between oracular email services that Jack got stuck adjudicating. Jack hadn’t wanted to be involved. These things always ended badly, he told himself. Hermaphrodite Teiresias having to tell Zeus and Hera whether men or women enjoyed sex more—Paris of Troy having to judge a goddess beauty pageant—disasters no matter which side you picked. So he’d really wanted to say no, and in fact, no one had come with his card that time, so theoretically he could have, but the case had come from COLE, the Committee Of Linear Explanation, and they didn’t need his card. Jack owed them.
After Layla’s death, and Eugenia’s disappearance into the Forest, Jack had had no choice but to contact COLE to cover it all up so he wouldn’t have to tell any Normal Police what had happened to Mr. Shade’s family, and where did he get that very nasty cut down the right side of his jaw? So when the Shadow Man stood in Jack’s bedroom and told him the Committee would very much appreciate it if Mr. Shade would act as judge in the conflict between Ghostmail and Jinn-net, what could Jack do? Luckily he’d managed to survive the experience, suggesting that the two systems each launch an IPO and let the market decide. Grateful to not have his insides boiling, or his eyes turned to cockroaches, Jack had left the Night Castle, the Travelers’ hostel on the coast just south of San Jose, and decided to take a walk along the Secret Beach.
He’d been up all night, and the sky was just growing light enough to streak purple and orange and reveal the odd little figurines hidden among the pine trees, when Jack heard a wail, a short, high-pitched blast of sorrow that knocked him backwards. He’d looked all around until he saw a young woman in a tattered black dress kneeling before an older woman whose long hands rested on the young one’s shoulders.
Jack stared and stared at the older figure. She kept changing. One moment she seemed a 50s suburban housewife with brassy hair, the next a businesswoman in a light blue pantsuit, and then something else entirely, dull and wood and covered in leaves, or else with water constantly running down her body, like one of those urban fountains where water streams down a marble wall only to be pumped back to the top to do it all over again.
Jack couldn’t look away. His teacher, Anatolie, had always told him that the main attribute of a Traveler was True Sight, the ability to see things as they really are, and after her training, Jack had considered himself pretty good at it. During his apprenticeship she would send him places—Macy’s ground-floor escalator on Christmas Eve, Herman Melville’s house on Long Island across from the Walt Whitman shopping center, a biker bar on N. Moore Street—and tell him to say what he saw. If he’d reported frantic shoppers checking their lists, Anatolie would bark into his bluetoothed ear “Look again!” and, “Again,” and, “See what there is to see,” the first line of the ancient Traveler’s Directive: See what there is to see/Hear what there is to hear/Touch whatever you touch/Speak the thing you must speak. Only when he could tell her that for some riders the escalator did not end at the 2nd floor, but rose and rose until they were swallowed in a green cloud would Anatolie grunt and say, “Good enough, Jack. Come home now.”
So Jack had stared at the woman, trying to figure just what the hell she was, until the younger one, the one on her knees, the one who didn’t change shape but only bent forward and wept, suddenly cried out, as if something had burned her. “Hey!” Jack called, “what are you doing to her?”
The young woman didn’t move but the older one lifted her head, and without looking at him, she’d said, “John Shade, you have no stake here. Leave now, without blame.”
Confused, Jack had wondered if he’d met her. It was never good when someone knew your name and you had no idea of theirs. Was she some kind of Power? But it didn’t matter, he’d decided, he couldn’t just walk away. He’d done that too much in his life.
“No,” he’d said, and hoped he sounded confident. “Not until you tell me what is going on.”
For a moment, the woman had stayed still, but then she nodded, as if to herself, and turned to face him. She looked now like some ancient forest creature standing on its hind legs, for leaves swirled all around her body. Then she raised her hands to frame her face, palms facing Jack, with her fingers together pointing at the sky. “John Shade!” she called, and her voice had cut him like the wind on the stretch of Avenue D that Travelers called The Empty Window. “See what there is to see!”
Jack stared at the hands. The skin appeared to move and shift, to reveal something hidden. Eyes. A large, unblinking eye watched him from each palm, and he wanted to turn away but he couldn’t, he could only look, until eyes appeared within the eyes, and more eyes on the fingertips, and Jack discovered he could see out of every one of them, see everywhere, everything, all at once.
Around the world, so-called psychics were looking, searching—cards laid on silk cloths, hungry faces staring into crystal balls, nervous hands casting cowrie shells or bamboo sticks, fingertips on photos or trinkets of the dead—they were all trying to see. And most had no idea that it all passed through her. The open channel, the transformer. Mariq Nliana. The Queen of Eyes.
When Jack tried to look away, he’d discovered the eyes were all over his body, like a swarm of spiders. He wanted to swat them but didn’t dare, for fear of what they might show him if he got them angry. And then it was over. He was himself again, standing on a rocky beach with pine trees behind him, and hidden in the high grass the small grimacing figurines that may or may not have been carved, but were certainly far older than the trees.
The Queen had settled on her corporate woman-of-the-world-look. Pant suit, smart, expensive shoes, shoulder-length blonde hair. She looked, oddly, like a former Secretary of State. The young woman was still on her knees but now rested her head against the Queen’s belly while the Queen stroked her hair. Looking past the girl, the Queen said gently, “You did well, Jack. Go home now and rest.”