When BZ Gundhalinu’s irresponsible older brothers go missing in World’s End, a badlands rumored to drive people mad, he begrudgingly goes after them. The further in he travels, the stranger things get. World’s End, book two of Joan Vinge’s beloved Snow Queen cycle of classic science fiction is back in print, available December 26th!
Today I arrived at World’s End. It’s still difficult for me even to believe I’m thinking those words.
But I’ve decided to record everything I experience here, as completely as possible. The notes of a reasonably objective observer can only be an improvement over the mass of lurid misinformation about this place. And if anything should happen—never mind.…
The shuttle trip from Foursgate was uneventful to the point of tedium. I could almost have believed that I was simply another tourist sightseeing on a strange world … except that there were only two other people on the flight, and neither one of them looked pleased about their destination. I didn’t speak to them, and they returned the favor. The sky was overcast for almost the entire trip; I saw nothing of the world so far below. For all I knew we could have been circling Foursgate for two hours instead of covering half a planet.
When we landed the terminal was exactly like half a dozen others I’ve seen here on Number Four—a masterpiece of the banality that passes for modern on this world. The planetwide Port Authority runs its franchises with the same mindless efficiency wherever they are—even at the end of the world.
As I crossed the invisible climate-control barrier that separated the terminal from the real world outside, I finally began to realize that I had come to World’s End … I had really made the Big Mistake.
The heat was suffocating. The air was so thick with moisture and strange odors that breathing itself was difficult. I dropped the bags that held the few belongings I’d brought with me, and looked for some sort of transportation. If there was anything, even a ground vehicle, it wasn’t running. The two locals who had been on my flight passed me wordlessly and began walking away down a cinder track. I thought I could see some sort of buildings in the distance, which I assumed were the town. A jungle of unwholesome-looking plant life pressed in on the road and the terminal. There were black scorch marks where the flora had been burned back recently along the roadsides. I took off my heavy jacket, picked up my belongings, and began to walk.
I stopped again as I reached a gateway at the edge of town.
WELCOME TO WORLD’S END
Someone had scrawled on the blistered wall, complete with the official seals:
THE ASSHOLE OF THE HEGEMONY.
It struck me like a slap in the face, a grotesque insult. I stared at it until the tension of my clenched jaw made my face hurt—made me remember who I’m not, here. I said to myself, “It’s not your problem.”
I looked through the gateway, feeling as if someone were watching me. But the shuttered whiteness of the street was empty; the buildings lay dazed in the insufferable humidity of the early afternoon. I stood there awhile longer, feeling the sweat crawl down my chest beneath the coarse cloth of my loose blue tunic; suddenly I longed for the security of a uniform. My head began to throb with the silent rhythm of the heat … and all at once the whiteness of the street seemed to shimmer and re-form as endless fields of snow. A mirage, a hallucination—I’ve seen it a hundred times. You’d think a sane man would be able to put it out of his mind, after so long.… I hunched my shoulders, feeling a chill as I went on through the gate.
The first thing I did in the town was buy a sun helmet and a drink of cold water—they don’t give away anything here, not even water. This is the Company’s town, as the shopkeeper informed me, not a resort. The conglomerate that controls World’s End is known as Universal Processing Consolidated, back in Foursgate. But out here they are simply the Company, the only, and they’ve grown bloated and corrupt on their monopolistic exploitation. Their presence is everywhere as you walk the streets—on signs, on people’s lips, on their dreary uniform coveralls. No one looks at anyone else for longer than they have to here; but I still felt as though hidden eyes followed me constantly.
This town seems to have no name. It certainly has no individual identity. It exists to serve the Company, as a supply center and as a bottleneck for the countless fortune hunters drawn to World’s End year after year—all of them certain they’ll be the ones to strike it rich. The Company tolerates a limited number of independent prospectors who want to explore the wilderness, who are willing to run risks that even the Company won’t in searching out resources. It takes no responsibility for their fates, but it takes half of their profits, if any. They get their permits here; I suppose I’ll have to enquire about that.
World’s End is an obsession for too many of them, the fools. I suppose it’s worthy, even fitting, that it should be. World’s End is a canker at the heart of Number Four’s largest continent, millions of kilometers of terrain that are still virtually unknown after centuries of Hegemonic control. There’s been good reason to explore it, and to believe in the tales of fortunes for the taking; the Company is proof enough of that. The profits they’ve taken out of the wastes have made Universal Processing more powerful on Number Four than anything but the Planetary Council. Rich ores lie hidden out there, veins of precious minerals, fist-sized gemstones—unimaginable wealth.
But while the wasteland flaunts its treasures, it defies human efforts to fully exploit them. Even the Company is powerless in the end, in World’s End. At the center of the wasteland is Fire Lake, a vast sea of molten rock seeping up out of the planet’s core like blood from a wound. Official reports would have one believe that it’s no more than a weak spot in the planetary crust. But they don’t—can’t—explain the bizarre electromagnetic phenomena that spread out from Fire Lake: distortions that corrupt instrumental readings and turn their carefully collected data into gibberish. There are half a hundred unofficial explanations as well, which claim that Fire Lake hides everything from a black hole the size of an atom to the gateway to hell.
None of the explanations satisfies me any better than having no explanation at all does. Ever since I’ve been on Number Four I’ve thought that if they’d bring in the best equipment—and Kharemoughi Technicians to operate it decently—they’d get the truth. The Company has poured fortunes into a solution and come away with nothing. Even the sibyls couldn’t give them an answer—and sibyls are supposed to be able to answer any question. Probably they just haven’t asked the right ones.
If a decent answer existed, there wouldn’t be any mystery to confound the Company or lure an endless stream of self-deluded wretches into itself and swallow them whole. Hundreds of people disappear out here every year, and are never heard from again.…
If a decent answer existed, I wouldn’t be here, waiting to follow them. I don’t belong in this sweltering hole, with a lot of bloody fools and fanatics, all searching for an escape from responsibility or from the past; for a handout from fate, for answers without questions. I’m not like them. I have no choice about being there, duty and family honor demand it.
My brothers are the self-deluded fools. They’ve been missing out there for the better part of a year now. Difficult to believe, when it seems like only yesterday that I looked up and saw them standing before me, as unexpected as ghosts. I can still hear their voices, every word of the incredulity that passed between them as they saw the scars on my wrists. “Gedda. Gedda…” they whispered, repeating the hateful name that I so justly deserved.
I turned my back on them, staring out at the city through the windows of my office, waiting until their voices died of shame.
They wouldn’t ask me the reason for the scars, why I still bore them, why I still lived. Nothing in the code of our class tells them how to ask. So I faced them again, finally, and asked them what they were doing here on Number Four, years away from the family estates and holdings back on Kharemough. “And what do you want from me?”
“Do we have to want something besides to see you, after so long?” HK asked inanely.
“Yes,” I said.
And so SB said, “We’ve come to make our fortune. We were only passing through here, anyway. We’re on our way to World’s End.” Anticipating my disapproval, he tried to stare me down, still the impulsive bully.
I’ve faced down a lot of stares like that in the years since I left home. “Don’t try to feed me sand, SB,” I told him. “Some of us do grow up.”
His pale freckles reddened. “I’d forgotten what a self-righteous little bore you always were.”
I hadn’t forgotten anything. I kept the desk terminal like a barrier between us. “You know, they have a name for what you plan to do, around here. They call it the Big Mistake.” I turned to HK, still surprised to see graying hair above that familiar, self-indulgent face. The florid, shining-surfaced robe he wore hardly flattered his obvious bulk. I wondered why he didn’t wear the traditional uniform that was his proper dress as head of family. “I’d expect him to make a mistake that big. But I never thought I’d meet you halfway across the galaxy from our ancestors, or the … your estates.” I cleared my throat. “Things must be better than I remember, if you can leave your business holdings headless for so long. Or do you have a spouse by now, and an heir?” The sublight trips to and from the Black Gates added up to several years passed at home before they could return. I try not to keep track of the relativistic time lags that separate me from my past—it becomes an exercise in masochism too easily—but I knew that nearly two decades had passed on Kharemough since I’d last prayed at our family shrine. Since the last time I saw my father alive.… Memory stabbed me with sudden treachery, showing me a face—a woman’s face, her skin and hair as pale as moonlight, the trefoil tattoo of a sibyl on her throat. The face I always saw when I tried to see my father’s face, ever since Tiamat. I looked up at my brothers, my own face hot.
But HK was staring at the backs of his hands as though they belonged to a stranger. “No heir … and no estates.”
“What?” I whispered. But one look at their faces and I knew. I leaned on the desk, straining forward. “No.”
“… lost them … bad investments … didn’t foresee … SB’s associates…”
I could barely focus on HK’s words. The diarrhea of his excuses told me nothing, and everything. Images of Kharemough filled my mind: my world, the only world, the only life worth living. The life I’ve given up forever, because of my scars. I’d been able to live with its loss only because I could believe that whatever shame I’d brought on myself, my family’s reputation remained untouched, the memory of my ancestors immaculate, as long as I stayed away. Their continuity and their ashes lay securely in the land that had been my family’s since Empire times—proof of our intellect and our honor. But now, after so many centuries, our estates belonged to someone else … and so did our heritage. Some social-climbing lowborns with money for honor burned incense to my ancestors; claimed my family, with all its accomplishments, for their own. A thousand years of tradition destroyed in a moment. And all because of me.
“… barely had the funds to finance this trip … World’s End … only hope of ever recovering the family holdings … help us regain the estate, and the honor…”
A silvery chiming broke across HK’s words, silencing him. He reached into the pocket on his sleeve distractedly and pulled out the watch. The heirloom watch, the Old Empire relic that my mother had restored and given to my father for a wedding gift. It must have been an anachronistic curiosity even when it was new—a handheld timepiece, that did nothing but tell time. Even my mother hadn’t been certain how old it really was. As a child I had played with it endlessly, obsessed by all that it stood for. I could still see every alien creature engraved on its golden surface, feel the subtle forms of limb and jeweled eye under the loving touch of my fingers. The watch was the one remembrance that my father had left specifically to me in his will. But HK had kept it for himself.
“Get out.” I held my voice together somehow as I touched my terminal, opening the door behind them. “Get out of here, before I…” Words failed me. “Go to hell in your own way! I don’t want to know about it.”
HK drew himself up like a beached clabbah, straining for dignity. “I should have known better than to appeal to your honor.” Failing at dignity, and at irony.
SB caught HK’s arm and pulled him toward the open door, glancing back once, to spit at me, “Gedda.” And after that I didn’t hear from them again. I told myself good riddance.
But instead of forgetting about them, I’ve followed them into World’s End. I can’t believe I’ve done this … the thought of just spending a night in this squalid town is enough to make any reasonable person take the next shuttle back to civilization. And it’s not as if they went off for a holiday week and forgot the time. They disappeared, into an uncharted wilderness! They were totally unprepared for what they did—neither one of them ever attempted anything more dangerous before this than spending all day in the baths. If the wasteland didn’t kill them, the human animals who inhabit it probably did, and picked their bones for good measure. Am I really going out there to let the same thing happen to me—?
When I was a boy, my nurse told me stories of the Child Stealer, who stole highborn babies and replaced them with cretinous Unclassifieds. For years I was sure that it must have happened to HK and SB.… They chose their fate, and if World’s End swallowed them without a trace, they got what they deserved. They left no one and nothing behind, except me … left me with nothing but memories.
But since they’re gone I’m head of family now … a title as hollow as it is unexpected. And they are still my brothers. That makes it my duty to search for them; my responsibility to all our ancestors—who will be my ancestors forever, whatever strangers violate my family’s honor and claim my blood as their own. But still, if it weren’t for Father, for what I owe to him …
If it weren’t for me, none of this would have happened.
But even if I’m a failure, I’m not a fool. I have training that HK and SB never had, I have the experience to help me search for them. This isn’t impossible.…
Besides, if I left here now, what would I go back to? My job? I can’t even do that competently anymore. They don’t want to see my face back in Foursgate until I can perform my duties again. Ever since my brothers came to this world, I’ve felt as if I’ve lost all control of my life.
I’ve got to give myself enough time for this search—time to find out what it is I’ve lost, and how to get it back … to find out whether it even matters.
Copyright © 1984 by Joan D. Vinge
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