What Dreams Are Made On
GOLDEN FLECKS OF SUNLIGHT shimmered off the shaft of piss streaming down from the highest balcony of the Globe Theater. It curved in the breeze toward Sally, speckling the middle balcony rail before her. Mayhap a gust of summer wind would blow it into the face of that perfumed matron, the one who sneered “Whore” when Sally squeezed past her earlier. But no — the stream plummeted past and hit the dirt below in a steady pish, as if shushing the raucous din of the playgoers around her.
And the low murmur of the voices within her.
They were back again, gathering in her head like an audience attending the theatre. They came more oft now. Did spirits work this way — whispering in daylight, then tormenting her dreams by night?
Fah! Spirits? Demons? Foolishness and fairy tales.
Yet they murmured inside her, haunting her more than ever before. Everyone believed in demons. King James even wrote about them, before he wrote the Bible.
Sally scratched between her legs through her coarse skirt, and in her pate airy voices gasped, sounding both shocked and delighted at her touch.
Across the yard, Libby and Mary sold oranges and themselves for a few shillings and a flea-infested bed for the night. Poor Mary’s skin displayed the poxes oft included in the trade. Beneath her eyes, a filthy rag covered the hole where her nose had been. Sally thanked God she never suffered that way. Viruses. Bacteria. The language of the dreams had become her own. Germs. Poor hygiene. What God could spill out such poxes, yet leave her smooth and untouched?
Keening wails of sorrow sounded in her head. Or faint laughter. As usual, they were distant and unclear.
In the yard below, groundlings cracked nutshells and drank bottled beer while enjoying the play they had paid a penny to see, a low comedy about a rich old cuckold whose young wife was enjoyed by the young men of London society. Sally cheered the boy playing the wife, and stood on her toes to see him better. His legs, strong from dance and swordplay, carried him with nimble grace across the broad stage. At thirteen years, he already stood taller than older actors. Jack deserved better parts. The other King’s Men said so. Even William had said so, before he returned to the quiet life of Stratford. This must be how a mother felt. Pride in her child’s success. And in her own. Sally smiled at the boy’s acrobatic antics. Vast arenas smiled inside her. Like a crowd at the Coliseum.
The Roman Coliseum had been airier than these new English theatres. She had seen it in her dreams, along with other places marvelously strange and foreign. Such as the dream of eating raspberry coldness in a glass tower as tall as the clouds. The man with the eyes lived in that one. He held her tenderly, as no other man did, and she laughed with him in the dream places. Dreams only half remembered after waking, fading like ghosts caught in churchyards at dawn.
The voices murmured louder. Or was it playgoers applauding? Sally looked into the crowd. Her eyes were drawn to a seat near the gallery rail.
The man sat there, staring up at her. Cheers and whistles blew between her ears.
Clothed in the finery of an Earl or a Duke, he watched her with eyes dark and bright, not rheumy and weak like other men’s. Eyes she knew. Mayhap just a former customer? Wealthy men favored her. Yet that face was misplaced above the lacy ruff and dark doublet etched with gold. Eyes from a dream. Many dreams.
A thought flickered inside her like a candle flame, bright and hot. The stranger meant something. The end. Of what? Of everything. Sally was to die. The thought pierced her soul and pulled through it like a thread. Fear surged into her blood.
She ran to the stairs that led to the street.
Vast crowds rose to their feet in a thunderstorm of applause. As always, they were nowhere close by.
Damp grass pressed up against the back of Sally’s neck. The stars seemed to cool the night air. Just beyond her bare feet, starlight skipped across the black mirror of the Thames. She gazed into the arch of the Milky Way, which rose from the City shadows and curved behind her into Saint George’s Field.
The voices were gone. For now.
The only sounds came from behind her, from the inn adjoining the Globe. Raucous laughter and men’s tavern tales echoed among nearby homes. Framed in the bright rectangle of the alehouse door, moving shadows strutted and gestured to the rafters. The ritualistic end of another playhouse run.
Footsteps crunched on the path from the inn. Sally turned. A silhouetted figure approached her. Dim light glimmered off fair hair. The figure began running toward her, then leapt high into the air, somersaulted onto the grass nearby, and fell to its back, laughing.
Sally smiled. “You’re going to do yourself an injury one day.”
“Nay.” Jack crawled over and sat beside her. “What doing?”
“Watching stars. Listening to old players. Why aren’t you with them?”
“I’m not an old player.”
His voice had deepened so much. She laid her hand lightly on his back.
He drew nearer, looked down into her face. “What troubles you?”
“Why do you ask?”
He turned to the river, as if the wet starlight would respond for him. “Your sleep is troubled more and more. I hear you through the wall. Your dreams. They vex you.”
“Mayhap I am not alone at such times.”
He looked hurt. “I know the different sounds. You know that.”
“I’m sorry.” Jack was not stupid. She closed her eyes. “I see the dreams more clearly in recent nights. But they are merely dreams.” Could he hear the doubt in her voice?
“Dreams,” he said, “where you live in fantastical lands, or in ages that be only in the histories. If they are mere dreams, why do you awaken many nights speaking aloud, or shouting. Once even crying?”
She stared overhead into the thick spray of stars. Her arm followed the Milky Way. “See that river in the heavens? To the Egyptians, that is Nut, Goddess of Night, whose long body arcs forever over the earth. Folk in other days lived wondrous strange lives.”
“Mistress Coxham said we all lived in the history times, being born other babes ere being now, in England. Said we all live forever. She said.”
“Mistress Coxham was a mad old crone. She said the devil bit her bum and the morning cock told prophecies.”
“They said she was a witch and hanged her.”
“They were mad, also, in their fashion. There are no witches. No demons. No spirits, sprites, or elfin folk.” She tousled his hair. “And no Puck, I’m sorry to say.”
Jack looked at her as though she were denying the existence of the Thames itself. “You were bewitched once, when you first to London came. Possessed by demons who stole your remembrances. So you said.”
“’Twas hard drink eating my wits, so I said. Sack and wine fighting for the pleasure of driving me mad. It passed.” Last night, she had awakened to the fading vapors of fine wine and raspberry.
Her earliest memories began just two summers ago, when she woke alongside a Southwark road with a flaming pain in her skull. She must have been sick and drunk and left for dead. Beaten, too, if the lump on her pate was any witness. She rubbed the back of her skull, where her hair hid a pebble-sized mound of raised flesh.
In London, she found work as a maidservant to a printer named Colesly. Jack had been Colesly’s ‘prentice, making pamphlets and setting books. Jack would read them and recite them for Sally when Colesly was asleep. The boy boasted that he was always excellent with books. He was only ten when Sally found him. And better learned, he proclaimed, than any Oxford dunghead.
She had seen the scars on Jack’s back and the bruises on his face, and had heard him scream with Colesly’s beatings in the work room. Then Colesly came for her. Made her do things. He laughed when he told her what he got from the boy. That’s when she took Jack out into the night and they lived wherever shelter could be found. Sally turned to whoring. Jack took to the playhouse. All the same in most folks’ eyes. They each found success in their craft, and earned enough to rent rooms at the inn next to the Globe, alongside the finest playhouse in London.
A silhouette crossed the open alehouse door. Sonorous, rhythmic words drifted on the air. Prospero, from The Tempest. William’s farewell to his illusions and craft. Jack mouthed the words along with the shadow-actor. The boy stretched out in the grass and wove a long ribbon of Sally’s raven hair between his fingers. “Master Shakespeare himself asked me to be in that play.” Sadness tinted his voice.
He grinned as he thumped his chest. “I was the first and best Miranda The Tempest will e’er see. I’ll be the best player in the King’s Men. And the best poet, too. He said so.”
“Modesty once was a virtue.”
“Only among the virtuous.” He rolled onto his back, put his head against hers and clasped her hand. She held it tight and stillness hung between them. His voice had grown so deep this year. His words shoved away the silence. “You tell me of places strange and fanciful, with flying fire-drakes that bear magical people, of paintings that move and speak, and of lands where colored suns shine and there is no night. I remember them. They become my plays.”
“They are but dreams,” she said.
“Mama told me such stories. Legends and travelers’ tales about lands across the seas. I hear her in you.”
“You speak of your mother rarely, Jack. Why do so now?”
“I never gave her thanks. Now seems a good time.”
Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy, she thought, recalling a line from Twelfth Night. Across the river, tiny fires flickered through London’s far shop windows. A boatman shouted in the distance.
Jack brought her hand to his chest. “You are a faerie queen spirited away and placed sleeping by the road to save a woeful orphan from a villain, so he can become the greatest player-poet in the world.” He brushed his hand along the starry arch overhead. “In all worlds. We shall move hearts in enchanted lands and make elf kings laugh and weep. And no man nor devil will split us one from the other.” Please, God, let him not grow too quickly.
Jack tugged her hand and stood. “Come.”
She sat up. “To?”
“The inn. Richard has a surprise.”
“What manner of surprise?”
“I know not. He wants us all to come.”
“Promise to stay away from sack and beer? And upstairs to bed ere midnight?”
He frowned. “Aye, Sally.”
She rose. Cool sand squeezed between her toes.
“Do I play parts in your dreams?”
She said nothing. From the Thames, the boatman’s bell echoed against dark dwellings.
The voices returned when she approached the alehouse. Louder, closer than before. She fell back against the doorframe and closed her eyes. The inn sounds shrank away, leaving her surrounded by an invisible throng. They entered her from behind her eyes and sounded delighted to return to this place.
Anticipation boiled beneath the buzzing murmurs. Whispers that might carry affection, admiration, or the musky thrill an audience breathes out at public executions.
“Sally.” Someone was shaking her shoulders. “Sally.” She opened her eyes to Jack’s face. She was startled by the fear etched into it. “Sally, are you ailing?”
She stepped into the shadows; the wall was cool against her back. She found a bright star overhead and focused on it. After a moment, she stood straight and met Jack’s worried gaze.
“I’m well. The heat of a long day.”
He studied her with wary scrutiny.
She took his hand. “Come. Does Richard not have a surprise?” He returned her smile, but it wavered as she pulled him into the tavern.
Lanterns tossed dirty light around the room, threw restless shadows on the walls. The air was heavy with the pleasant reek of malmsey and beer. Men sat at tables with bottles and mugs; some played games, others traded bawdy tales. Francis, the innkeeper, wrapped Sally’s hand around a cool mug. He winked at her, then cocked his head toward a growing din at the other end of the room. Burly Richard Burbage stood on a table, extemporizing a devastating parody of a rival company. An audience was building around him, punctuating his performance with laughter and applause. As soon as he saw Sally and Jack, he grinned and clapped for attention.
“Sally-o, our Sally-o!” he sang. “A good woman among such rowdy men.” A ragged cheer rose from the crowd, and Sally somehow found herself in front of the group. Richard pouted like a boy caught pulling the rose petals. “Please forgive our bawdy ways and give us all a kiss to dream on.” He placed a hand to his middle and bent at the waist, as though performing at Court. The other men laughed good-naturedly and greeted her warmly before moving into loose knots of drinking and boasting.
Richard leapt from the table and took Sally by the shoulders. “’Tis good to see thee, Lady. You have not graced our company much of late.”
She kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry, Richard. I haven’t felt much like company lately.”
He recreated Jack’s worried look. “Your speech has been strange, Lady. Methought it must be tainted by the wealthy foreigners you entertain. And you have been troubled. Is there anything you would tell friend Richard?”
“Jack says you have a surprise.” She stepped away and felt Richard’s gaze as she moved to Jack’s side.
Richard climbed back onto the table. He clapped again. The room went silent. Someone handed him a stack of pages.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen. Shut your ale holes. A message —” He held out a page. “— delivered me this day from our most honored poet (and wealthiest stocksharer) now living in familial lethargy in Stratford. He sends greetings —” His eyes brightened during the perfectly-timed dramatic pause. “— which you may receive on the morrow when he arrives here for the first performance of our play.”
Astonishment sang out from the crowd. Since returning to Stratford, Will had made few trips back to London. But he would be here for the Globe's opening of his play registered in the Office of Revels as All is True -- The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth.
Sally rubbed the base of her skull. Something about that play vexed her, but she couldn’t say what. It surely wasn’t one of Will’s finest. A lantern flame snared her attention, and the hubbub of the actors faded. She searched for patterns in the fire, shapes and faces that danced away as quickly as they formed.
Henry the Eighth had been one of the many masques and entertainments commissioned to adorn the nuptials of King James’ daughter to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, that February last. Sally remembered Will, tired and sick, sitting in this room on a raw December night, grumping about his collaborator, John Fletcher. Will called her “Sally-o” as he spoke of Anne and his quiet life near the Avon. He regaled her once again with stories of life in the theatre, of friends he had loved and outlived. He spoke of a dark lady, and brushed a mottled hand through his Sally-o’s night-black hair. Sally kept him from drinking too much, then walked arm in arm with him through the snow to Richard’s house.
The voices had been unusually clamorous that night.
A week before the royal wedding, William canceled the performance. Fletcher had insulted him before the company and refused to rewrite his portions of the script to William’s requirements. Henry the Eighth was removed from the roster and the scripts kept in careful storage.
Two weeks ago, the King’s Men decided to bring to the Globe Will’s unperformed history play. The crowds did so love costumes and heraldry and spectacle.
Richard was holding a page over his head as if it were a victory flag. “Gentlemen. Lady. Dear William arrives on the morn. Yet seeing our play is simple pretense. He is returning to us to take as his sole pupil and protégé one of our illustrious players. Come hither, Jack.”
The boy let out a yelp and pushed through the men. Arms reached out to pat his back while a chorus of congratulations washed over him. Richard handed down the page. Jack grabbed it and read hungrily. Love and pride swelled within Sally. Jack was born to greatness, and would surely make his mark upon this earth under William’s care and guidance. He was destined for nothing less.
Richard sat on the table and put an arm around the boy. “’Tis a grand honor, lad. I have trod the boards for well nigh thirty years, and the likes of you has never blessed us with such skill. You have gold in your veins, boy, and now the most perfect teacher shall help you mine it.”
He handed Jack a thick manuscript. The title Masque of the Planets dominated the front page in Jack’s careful penmanship. “He says this play is but the first jewel in your crown. Best of luck, lad, and a long life in our noble profession.”
Mugs and bottles were raised. Someone began a boisterous song. Others joined in with singing, instruments, or dancing. Jack was on Richard’s shoulders, waving like a king on a balcony.
Someone was watching her. She felt it.
Sally turned and peered through the doorway. The blackness beyond thickened and hardened, then stepped into the lantern light. The man from the dreams stood against the backcloth of night.
Voices behind her eyes gasped. Sally clasped her hands to her mouth, trapping the scream in her throat. Dream images burst through her head. Part of herself felt removed, distant, detached — in the scene, but now also among an unseen audience. Faintly, she heard Jack shouting, “Sally! This be your celebration too!”
The music ceased.
Sally slid doll-like to the floor. She heard her voice saying “No” and “Not again.” She pissed herself and stared at the doorway. He watched her, as he had that afternoon at the Globe. His eyes were exactly the color of twilight. A creature, gray and hairless, squatted on his shoulder, flapping black batlike wings. Its face was twisted and almost human.
In her head, phantoms stood up and cheered.
The stranger moved toward Sally. Jack stepped between them, shaking. “I charge thee,” he said. “Lay not a hand to this good lady. I knew demons plagued her, and I shall fight thee at Hell’s throne.”
The stranger reached out to Jack, in a pleading gesture. “Please. I can help her. It’s not supposed to be like this.” He took a step.
Jack glanced from the stranger to the actors, holding his stance. The winged thing raised its talons and shrieked. Jack ran to the players.
The man knelt beside her. He wrapped her in his cloak and cradled her tenderly. She felt her body go slack as he lifted her and carried her toward the stairs, shouting orders as he moved. His voice was as clear and dark as his eyes. “There’s a trunk in the yard. Leave it outside her room. She’s in good care. Everything will be as it’s always been.” He carried her up the steps. Jack’s sobs cut the air.
Warm water flowed into her brain, which hummed with the incoming tide of a thousand thousand ghosts. It was the last thing Sally heard before she lost consciousness.
She awoke smelling beans and roast chicken. Her first thought was I’m hungry.
The window shutters were open, letting in a moist breeze. The full moon cast the only light into the room. It took her a moment to realize that the bed beneath her was not straw and dirty linen. It was supple and warm and molded itself to her body as she moved. It cushioned her head and bathed her in flowing comfort that searched her body for places to soothe. She pushed herself up onto one elbow and peered over the side of the bed. It was floating above the floor. She thought it odd that she wasn’t surprised by that, and placed her head back on the pillow. Warmth flowed around her and she gave in to sleep. Her first dream was of raspberry ice cream.
When she opened her eyes again, the moon was higher and dulled by clouds. A lantern flickered on the floor, revealing a plateful of chicken, beans, and bread on the bed with her. A pot of water stood beside it. She sat up and devoured the meal.
“Have a napkin.”
She turned. The man sat on a jeweled trunk against the door. He tossed her a soft towel. His face was warm, friendly, and familiar. Somehow, he looked older than he should.
“Your innkeeper friend keeps a fine larder,” he said. “I left him a tip where he’ll find it tomorrow. Everyone’s finally gone home. They really care about you.”
She realized then that she was naked and had been given a thorough sponge bath. Her dress hung on the lantern hook. She felt hollow inside, carved out. But not empty. Someone else was there, and they blended like merging flames.
“I tried contacting you at the play.” His voice soothed her. “Your conditioning should have dissolved then. I don’t understand why you ran.”
When she did not respond, he looked disappointed. “You heard our audience when we made eye contact. They had no idea when or where I would show up. You should’ve seen the nielsen lines.”
Memories flowed and congealed like cooling wax. Her room looked so dirty now, and the light was too dim. Despite the bath, she could smell her own sour sweat. A thick, hot costume seemed to drop from her shoulders, and she felt the part of her named Sally slide away, submerged and hidden. With the others.
She reached out. “Alexandros.”
She pulled him close and hugged him tight. He returned the embrace, and she realized how sore and tired she was. She looked into his face and gently touched it with her fingertips. She wanted to speak, but words jumbled in her mind. She took his hands into hers.
Relief smoothed away the lines in his face, which set into that famous soft smile. “The leading man always returns in the final act.” His fingers moved through her hair. “I’ve missed you. Two years is a long time in any century.” His hand brushed her cheek, and she leaned into it, an automatic response. “How do you feel?”
As if I were just poured into a used body. “Same as always, only more so. It hasn’t all come back to me yet.” She rubbed the back of her head, where a — what was the thing called? — mnemosyne wove its microthin web into her brain. “My link?”
“Switched off. For now. So’s mine, though I’ll be the Network’s virtual body until you’re rested up. Welcome back, Selene.”
“That’s not my name.”
“You’ll feel that way for a while. This was a long run. Sally was a beautifully fleshed-out character. A lot of you in her.”
“She was me. Is.” Her head itched inside, and her skin was cool and damp, as if from a fever breaking.
He walked to the window and looked out over the river into the dark skyline of King James’ London. “They’re always you.” He leaned through the window for a better view, then sharply pulled his hands away from the grimy ledge. “Full recall should take an hour or so.” He had told her similar things on other occasions. She shivered and pulled a thick blanket around her. It snuggled comfortingly against her skin.
He turned and flashed the smile that thrilled millions of fans who were — how many centuries up the Channel? “You’re now the model for all Total Immersion actors. The Network has a fat paychip waiting for you when we get back. But we’ll have a day together in merry old England first. In the meantime, think about what you’d like your next role to be.”
Something black and ugly moved in her soul —
At the far end of the Network’s Time Channel, skindivers were awaiting their next episode. She was their eyes and ears. Their flesh. Their soul, too, when her thoughts and feelings rode the waves up the Channel. They paid well to join her in her skin.
—Then he was behind her, massaging her shoulders, finding all the right places. His hands moved down her back. She let the blanket fall away.
“Sally was so good,” he said, “we gave you more episodes than the Caesar’s Rome series. You’ve soloed to higher ratings than any of our series together. Marketing the recordings offworld has already put another fortune in our account. Told you I’d make you a star.” She could hear his self-satisfied grin.
He lightly scraped his fingernails across her neck, the way she always liked. “I knew you’d end up at the Globe. You and Burbage kept the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’ fans tuned in. And The Man himself, Willy the Shakes. Who’d have guessed you’d get so cozy with your idol? The kid’s a hit. He’s been compared to the young Mozart.” He eyed her with mock suspicion. “I’m glad he’s not a few years older.”
“Voices,” she said. “I heard voices.”
He twirled an upraised hand with a showman’s flourish. “The smell of the horseshit, the roar of the crowd! You gave them Sally, your audience gave you their feedback. At your request, you’ll remember.”
“It was awful,” she said. The link in her skull was an iron weight. Its tendrils snaked through her brain like rusty wires.
“You never really thought so. Deep down you knew it was normal. You, my dear, thrive on applause.” He moved around to her front, his fingers combing through her hair.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m up for applause too. The Network finally promoted me to Producer. That’s why I didn’t write myself into the series until yesterday.”
No, she thought. That’s not true. Something dark and smoky swirled in her memory. It dissolved when she grasped for it.
He cupped her chin and delicately tilted her head up. “I’ve learned to appreciate the biz side of showbiz,” he said. He kissed her lightly on the lips, then smiled. “Congratulations. We’re a hit.” The face behind the smile stiffened. “Not bad for your first performance without your partner.” His expression was unfamiliar, hard and uncomfortable on what should have been a gentle, sincere face.
The floating bed wriggled as Alexandros sat beside her. “You really scared me this evening,” he said. “Recall should’ve been further along when you saw me. You were supposed to at least greet me as an old friend. Remember?” His voice was low while she watched the lantern’s flame sculpt tiny images. “Remember the last time I helped you drop character? New York City, 1987?”
He stood and moved to the trunk, pulled it to the center of the room. When he touched its padlock, the lid opened, flooding the room with electric blue brilliance. Alexandros pressed a jade bauble on the lid. The blue light changed to green. His shadow was huge on the wall as he reached into the trunk and withdrew an ice cream cone. It was half-eaten and began dripping only after he handed it to Sally.
“Another memento from another end of the world. You always need a souvenir, don’t you? Taste it.”
Raspberry. She held it like it might explode.
He forced a small laugh. “I never knew you liked raspberry until Sarah started craving it.”
Sarah. As usual, she and Alex had been lovers in that series. Audiences loved when art imitated life. Her character had become a successful Broadway actress. He was the shining new executive in a Wall Street firm. Mr. and Mrs. Alex MacMillan, brought to you live from the 20th Century only on Network Time Channel 1! The finest reality a skindiver could buy: authentic historical drama — seeing, feeling, and smelling the bad ol’ days before the world got too good to be interesting. The historians got their bread. The rest got their circuses.
When it came time to cancel that series, Alex dropped character first; the Network had no trouble dissolving his conditioning. But Sarah wouldn’t die so easily. Selene remembered the screaming wail of the evac sirens.
“There we were in Central Park,” he was saying, “With umpty-thousand scared shitless extras running in all directions just before the nukes blew.” The nexus was open near the Alice in Wonderland statues. “You dropped character just in time.” Just in time to step into the nexus and watch Manhattan go up in a rain of warheads that the “extras” believed came from Moscow.
“You never did let go of that ice cream. You almost clung to Sarah too long. The psi-shock of that one would’ve put half the ‘divers into abuse treatment wards.”
That series had played for over a year before the Network wrote in its smashing climax and then pulled the plug, erasing all insertions and alterations made to truetime — the bombs, the deaths, the artificial existence of Sarah and Alex MacMillan. As always, history neatly, tidily, irrevocably set itself right again. But the Network’s temporary rewrites had done their job. When Selene and Alexandros returned up the Channel, they were greeted by adoring fans as well as a grateful — and wealthier — Network.
She had made friends there, in New York, 1987.
She felt the tears slide down her face, and was both angry and relieved by them. Alex held and rocked her, combing her hair with his fingers. “Hey. What’s wrong? We got out. No one got hurt. Not in the end, anyway.”
She broke his grasp and threw the ice cream hard. It struck the wall and spread across the dirt like an opening wound. She balled her fists and pounded him hard, harder, not hard enough. He dropped to the floor.
“They were not extras,” she shouted. “Not just characters. It wasn’t make-believe. They were — they are — real people.” She pointed out the window at London. Or New York, or Rome, Athens, San Francisco, or Pompeii.
He rubbed his ribs. “What the fuck are you talking about? We pulled the plug, didn’t we? History snapped back to truetime. Just like always.”
She remembered. Just like after the ‘gods’ wiped out Athens; after the nanoviruses mutated a Coliseum audience before killing them; after Comet Halley dropped into downtown 1910.
Alexandros stood, inspecting his costume for dust. “You should see what the gang in Creative Control have planned for Tokyo at the height of the monster movie craze.” He picked her blanket from the floor and dusted it carefully before wrapping it around her shoulders. “I’ve never seen this in you before.”
She didn’t look up.
“It’s still just acting, Sel.”
But this time he was the one who had monitored her and made sure the skindivers knew when an episode was beginning. Alexandros had kept them tuned in and living Sally along with her. Had he been linked into her while she was in bed with other men, riding her flesh with the ‘divers? Why not? That’s showbiz!
What about life back home? Had he kept up his brilliant work on stages before vast audiences? He seemed so thrilled about his new life in the Network, and spoke as though trying to convince her of its value. Or, perhaps, convince himself.
She suddenly knew why Alex had inserted himself into this series at this time. She hugged the blanket tight. “It’s time to end,” she said flatly. “What happens now?”
The lantern’s flame jiggled in a breeze, and his shadow stretched and twitched on the wall. “Ah. That is the question. The Channel’s been open for two years. It’s at full stretch and threatening to snap. We have just enough time for the double finale tomorrow.”
“And what’s that?”
He was like a child sharing a dirty secret. “Oh, you know. June 29, 1613. The Globe Theater goes up in flames during the first performance of Henry the Eighth.”
“This inn, too. Foosh! It’s in truetime. The cannons caught the roof on fire. Ha! Two centuries before the 1812 Overture. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.”
Her brow tightened. “Then what’s the other finale?”
“Guess. What’s this culture’s big bogeyman? Plague? Been done. Famine? Boring. God’s wrathful vengeance? The Greeks did it better. Space aliens? Already played at Tharsis Mars Base.”
“Alex. Stop it.”
He sucked a breath, seeing that he had gone too far. He did something to the side of the trunk. The luminescence burned a harsh red. The gray-skinned creature with bat wings climbed out onto the brim. A twisted goblin joined it, baring yellow fangs in a hideous face. Then a bloated froglike creature with wasp wings flew out and lit on the upturned lid. It clapped four webbed hands and unrolled its tongue to its knees. A tongue of fire shot from the gaping mouth, churning the air like a blowtorch. Other things with wings and horns and twisted human features clambered out and stood around the trunk. Many were clad in moss and leaves. The tallest stood as high as Selene’s shoulders.
Alex bounced on his toes. “Isn’t the props department wonderful?”
Monstrosities gibbered around her. Demons from a Boschian vision. Goblins and bogles used to frighten children at bedtime. Creatures from rural myths and ghost stories. The dark side of religion and faerie lore she had lived among for two long years. Fires glowed within their glassy eyes.
“They’re state of the art. And these are just the small ones. They can be directed through our links.” He extended an arm toward a drooling thing that unfolded its wings and flew to his sleeve. It coughed a bright orange flame.
“Or voice commands provide that certain Satanic flavor that so impresses the natives.” He pressed a red gem on the trunk’s lock. “Specter of Death!” He smirked at his over-dramatic voice. “Arise and obey my commands!”
A shroud-draped skeleton gripping a bloody scythe drifted up and filled the space from trunk to ceiling. The air smelled of earthworms and spoiled meat. Flames glowed behind the bone-gray eye sockets. Fingerbones clacked like bamboo, then raised the dripping, crescent blade over Selene’s head. The skull turned toward her, unhinging its jaw in an impossible grin.
“Hold,” Alex said. The apparition froze. “Press the ruby and they’re fully voice-controlled. They’ll obey direct commands. Try it, but be careful. Their programming tends toward the literal.”
“No.” She turned away from him and grabbed her dress. It smelled rank. Her words came hard and fast as she put it on. “You can’t just rewrite peoples’ lives for cheap thrills or to sell more commercial time. They exist — flesh and blood real live human beings like you and me.” She thought of Jack. He was here, at the Globe, because of Sally. Sally had saved him. “No. That’s wrong,” she said. “We stopped being real a long time ago.”
“You always did get too wrapped up in your characters.”
“I like who I am here.”
“You’re a whore.”
“Wasn’t I always? Aren’t you?”
For a beat, his face was hard and still. Then he continued: “People love you at our end. Millions of them on a hundred worlds!”
“You mean they love how well I fuck people they consider unreal, fictional.” In each of their series together, their characters found reasons to break up their relationship with painful, stabbing words. It was a point the “true” Alex and Selene managed to ignore when out of character. She knew what hurt him. “That includes you, too.”
A glacial chill came from his eyes. The caring, sensitive Alex she had known — that Sarah and Sharri and Simone and the others within her had known — was absent. The Producer, cool and reserved and superior.
“You always claimed,” he said, “that you became an actor to change people. Ever since our first stage together.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream within the Great Orion Nebula. Titania with newborn stars at her feet. Alex’s magnificent Oberon. “Now you’re a solo Network success, and the standard for future Total Immersion projects. Now you can play on any stage you want. We have offers coming in from the finest performing companies in human space. That’s all waiting for you back home.”
A breeze brought in the smell of the shit pit outside her window. She had never noticed it before.
“Don’t throw it away,” he said. “After we raise some Shakespearean hell, we’ll pull the plug and go home. Then the past two years will have never happened here.”
She stepped toward the door. “They happened to me. I’ll remember.”
“Sally’s a character! Just like Sarah and the others. What makes this series so goddamned special?” He was shouting when she slammed the door behind her.
She leaned against the hallway wall. Jack’s room. Sally should go to him, be with him.
Too bad she wasn’t here.
Selene ran down the stairs and into the newly arrived rain.
She walked until well past dawn, through filthy streets that were at once warmly familiar and strangely new. The town bustled with wagon wheels and shouting vendors. Farmers were already in the fields as sunlight turned the eastern clouds the color of dirty water. Her fingers brushed buildings as she passed them, memorizing the textures of wood and brick and loam. She sat on a low garden wall and listened for patterns in the rain as it struck the flowers. She focused her concentration, and a small glowing circle appeared in her field of vision. She ran her eyes across the garden. The icon remained in her view, always in the upper right corner. An empty circle. Good. The Network wasn’t broadcasting her senses yet. Watching roses wasn’t thrilling enough. She relaxed her concentration and the image vanished. Raindrops tapped her head and trickled down her back.
She wondered where the Channel nexus was focused, and was answered by another glowing glyph. The trunk. Of course. Alex had a colorful sense of theatrics. It was their pathway to home. Before he arrived, her link could have shown her the nexus as a glowing oval hole hovering above the inn, invisible to anyone not equipped with a bump in the skull and wires in the brain. But Sally had known nothing of Time Channels or neuralinks or skindivers.
Sally. A new persona could never be fully predicted. Which was part of the drama of Total Immersion. Language, social customs, morés. Synthesized memories of a life you never lived. All dumped into the brain before the Network dropped you unconscious in a new world and time. The rest came from within.
Selene had become a popular prostitute in the Sophocles’ Greece series. And in Victoria’s England. Her Caesar’s Rome character nauseated her when she remembered it. Each of those women had been herself.
Alexandros had shared those other lives with her. In truetime, each was the other’s partner, lover, friend, and teacher. He had nurtured her talent, helped it grow. Without him, she would not now be sitting on a garden wall down the road from Shakespeare’s Globe.
What if the Channel collapsed before she returned through it? What if Alexandros returned alone, pulling the plug behind him? The universe strictly forbade return trips. Would she continue to live here in the history she helped shape, with truetime permanently and irrevocably altered? Or would she exist in a new truetime split off from the one she knew? Or else be edited out of existence entirely, along with Sally and her entire life here? The Network never told. The Network kept its secrets.
After those early series, certain critics accused them of slumming, of selling themselves for the latest trend. They were right. Each series had been tailored to the tastes of subscribers who paid to have life lived for them.
This time, though, the Network added a new plot twist. Sally began life with no predetermined memories, no history, alone on a dirt road with an entire identity to create. She had seen to that. Alex had stayed behind. She had a part in that, too.
Playing solo for the first time, she discovered a strong, content, fully-rounded character. Or had it been the other way around? The heart of acting beat with self-discovery. Exploration of the soul. Total Immersion had offered that, and her real stage work would now be even stronger than before.
Any stage she wanted. She could travel the stars again and hear applause on a hundred worlds. She had earned it. How could she toss that away? And for what? Watching others chewed away by disease. Shitting and pissing in pots or ditches. Stepping over the dead and dying in the streets.
Blossoms nodded and raindrops made muddy craters in the earth. The sound of water against dirt conjured a memory. Jack clutching her hand while they lay in the sandy grass by the river. The things he said. His boyish laughter. That so-adult confidence in his own immense talent. That was so long ago. A lifetime.
After a few hours, the drizzle stopped. She returned to Bankside, where clouds hung over the Globe like a low shroud. She looked up at the theatre’s thatched roof and wooden walls, wondering how much rain was needed to prevent a fire. Useless thoughts. The blaze had happened. Would happen.
Selene climbed onto the stage, enjoying the odor of fresh paint. She admired the underside of the effects hut jutting out high above the stage and supported by two tall columns. Its gilded underside provided a ceiling painted to portray the heavens. To Sally, the hut had looked like a cottage held aloft above the players. To Selene, here was Hamlet’s brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire.
A square hole slid open in the ceiling. A round face poked down. The stagehand cupped his hands around his mouth and called down, asking if she had seen his assistant. When she said no, he cursed skillfully and thanked Sally, then vanished behind the panel sliding back into its piece of the sky.
In the tiring room, Richard and the others were exercising their bodies and throats, changing into costumes, and rehearsing bits of scenes. Robert, Augustine, Nick, and young Nathan. Old Sly. Heminges, of course, and Condell. Friends she had known, it seemed, all her life. She saw them through Sally’s eyes and heart. She was warm and at home here.
I will remember you.
They approached her. Through a false beard, Richard’s face mirrored their distress.
“Lady. How fares you? That stranger, with that beast —”
She shushed him with a finger to his lips. She took his hands, looked around at all the others.
“I am well. Just stricken with an ague that has passed. That gentleman is an old friend, a traveler newly returned from the Indies. He studies the strange beasts of the isles. His pet was but a harmless Indian ape.” Everyone knew the accounts of bizarre creatures in exotic new lands on the other side of the world. She looked into the thickly lined face of her friend. For the last time? She stroked his big arms. “I am well. Truly.” Richard looked doubtful. Time to change the subject. “Where’s Jack?” she said.
“The lad was late to this morn’s practice. Said he dreamt about his performance, that this day would see his finest ever, though I know he wishes not to play women after today.” Richard laughed and wrapped a big arm around Sally’s shoulders. “Jack’s a strong lad of stout mettle. Do not concern yourself.”
He pulled her away from the others, then lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. “The boy is troubled. He spoke of that…gentleman. A devil from your dreams, he said, come to take you to —” He sighed. “I understand not all he spoke. He left the playhouse soon after.”
She squeezed his hands. “I shall speak with him.” How would Sally say goodbye to Jack?
“William is at my home,” Richard said. “He asks for you. He wishes to see his Sally-o, said he would search for you at the inn.”
William Shakespeare is asking for me. Selene searched within herself for the simple calm pleasure Sally would have found in the news. “Thank you, Richard. I miss him.”
He kissed her forehead. “Now, get thee gone, woman.” He let go a kingly bellow. “Before King Henry relieves you of your pretty head!” The players laughed, and she gave each a hug or a kiss, saving the longest for Richard.
The inn’s front room was empty save for mugs and bottles from the night before. She found a sack of coins tied to the innkeeper’s apron. Alex had been generous.
Upstairs, she knocked on Jack’s door, then called his name. No answer. She pushed the door open.
On the wall over his bed, a crude painting hung by a string from a nail in the wood. It was a brightly colored depiction of Sally and Jack. He had painted it shortly after they moved to these rooms. They were holding hands and smiling child-drawing smiles. She tapped the frame and watched their painting-selves sway back and forth on the string.
She heard a creak through the wall. That floorboard near her bed. Alex must be just waking. She was on her way to the door when she saw thick bundles of parchment stacked beside Jack’s bed. Jack’s plays. Masque of the Planets already had revisions inked into the margins. She gently turned the pages. Not strictly a comedy, romance, or tragedy, but a weaving of all three, Masque was based on stories she had told him, imaginative fables conjured from her dreams. Memories of a life hidden within Sally for two long years. She recognized the grace and style of words nurtured by long study of Will’s work. Jack displayed insights and wit that belied his youth, and his imagination laced the tightly woven fabric of his characters and story-lines. There were passages here that could make other playwrights reach for a quill, such as those lesser talents who loitered at the Globe ready to borrow a catchy phrase or two. Masque’s main character was a stern but loving queen of a wondrous kingdom — a beautiful, wise woman named Serena, stolen away from her world by a handsome sorcerer with dark eyes.
She thought of the printshop and Colesly, of what Sally had done for Jack.
She placed the manuscript back where she found it and left the room.
In her chamber, the trunk was still there, but Alex was gone. A new dress hung on the lantern hook. It was richly detailed and bright with color. A lady’s dress, the type worn by the wife of a powerful man.
On her bed lay a parchment scrolled in a red ribbon. When she touched it, the ribbon unfurled, the paper unrolled, and Alex’s voice read his handwriting for her.
“Sel. Out seeing the sights. I hear there’s bearbaiting down the street and cockfights at noon. Then to hit the City for a public execution. Hangings and pressings today. Now that’s entertainment.” The parchment laughed Alex’s laugh.
“The final episode will begin before the play does, today at two o’clock. We’ll remote the props to the playhouse just after the cannons fire. Then we’ll be back here and down the rabbit hole before the inn goes up. This’ll be our biggest audience yet, and we’ll both be broadcasting for dual-P.O.V. I’m glad we’re a team again. Sorry about last night. Hope you like the dress. It’s more you, don’t you think? Put it on and join me. Contact me when you’re ready. Switch the trunk from voice- to link-control so we won’t have to come back here until we pull the plug. Loving you. As always. Alex.”
The recording rolled itself up and the ribbon wriggled back into a tidy bow.
She turned to the trunk. “Open.”
The lid raised with the simulated creak of rusty hinges and red light spilled into the room. Within the trunk, a uniform bloody glow hid any sense of depth or perspective, like a bottomless well from a Puritan’s hellfire fantasies. A data screen blinked on within the upturned lid.
The voice programming was simple and flexible. “My personal storage,” Selene said. The red glow turned to jade green. She reached in and lifted out a rough parchment adorned with flowing Greek text. It announced a new drama, Oedipus Tyrannos, to be performed at the amphitheatre that afternoon. Alex had given it to her at a fountain near the theater, where they had made love before their character conditioning faded. The huge holographic Zeus had been impressive, hurling lightning wrath from the hovering Channel nexus. She had teledirected the Hera image herself.
A jeweled lace garter from Victoria’s London, given to her by a dashing West End actor named Alex. They dined with Shaw and Oscar Wilde and Ellen Terry, then dropped character in time to watch Wells’ three-legged Martian war machines spewing smoky black poison and streaming infernos into the streets. The Network spared no expense before it cancelled that series.
A holobubble bearing the Tharsis Base insignia threw out colored light that coalesced into Alex and Sharri, a honeymoon couple newly arrived from Earth. They laughed and hugged and told each other sweet things. It was recorded the night of the group festivities that had left them both tired and sore and blissfully content. And had provided the second highest ratings in Network history. The highest came the following night, when “alien berserkers” slit open the pressure domes and liquefied the survivors in their lifesuits.
Souvenirs from alternative histories the Network had created and the universe had erased. She placed them back into the trunk. A few words returned its glow to red.
Obedient obscenities climbed, flew, floated, and slithered out of the trunk. They stood, perched, or hovered around her like hideous dolls waiting to be wound up. The first wave.
“Hold,” she said. The pandoran menagerie halted. She looked at the gray winged thing that had been perched on Alex’s shoulder.
It launched itself and flapped around the room in complex patterns. It screeched and reached out long arms tipped with scalpel-like talons.
It fluttered to the floor.
This first wave of props was to be controlled by her and Alex’s neuralink commands. But the vocal-command mode was equally well programmed.
Perhaps a hesitation crossed its rubbery face. Then its eyes glowed fiercely red. It turned its face downward and belched a blowtorch into its chest. The device was soon a stinking puddle smoking on the floor.
She felt a cool satisfaction.
The data screen indicated a second wave waiting deeper within the trunk’s stygian light. Pre-programmed and self-controlled, they would stream from the trunk like an army from Hell, with no guidance from her or Alex. But the second wave would come alive only after the first wave was released.
She ordered them back into the trunk, and soon they were swallowed by the red glare.
The trunk sealed in the light.
She heard noises beyond the wall. Jack’s room. She closed the door silently behind her.
This time, Jack answered her knock.
“Sally!” He pulled her into the room. “The demon took you away. You —”
“Shhh.” She hugged him, stroked his hair. “It’s all right. I’m here.” He clutched her elbows as if to assure himself she was indeed still flesh and blood.
She found the firmly maternal voice she used whenever Jack needed one. “What did I tell you about demons?”
He turned his eyes downward. “You said there be no demons or faerie folk. You said.”
“’Tis truth. Now, let’s hear no more about it.”
He sat on the bed. She told him the same lies about Alex and the creature she had told the others. Jack nodded, his face set in a mask of concentrated scrutiny. “Aye, Sally,” he said, but his eyes did not blink while he looked at her.
“Is something wrong, Jack?”
Jack seemed to wake from a spell. He turned away from her and fumbled with his pages. “Lord Shake — William wishes to live in London again, and you and I with him. His true family is here, he says. He will teach me verse and drama, and you can nurse his sickness and give him good company, he says.”
Will needs me. Sally.
Jack hugged Will’s letter against his chest. “He wishes me to help revise his new play. Called Celestine, from a tale I devised from your dreams. He will bring it here to me. Is that not grand news?”
A mixture of emotions swirled within her. The part of her that was Sally was delighted and honored. Will’s guidance was exactly what Jack needed. It would be good for both, giving the elder poet the purpose and affection that Stratford and Anne could not, and providing the younger with a nurturer of his talent.
Today, June 29, 1613.
April 26, 1616. Less than three years left for Will, in the history that did not contain his Sally-o. She could change that.
“So you must stay, and none must take you away,” Jack was saying.
He avoided her quizzical look by glancing down at his manuscript.
He was leafing through pages when he spoke again. “Mortals that speak to faeries must die.” The non sequitur shook her. Jack shrugged and a flipped a page. “William remembers that from country tales when he was young. Only faerie folk speak to faerie folk. I have gotten this wrong in my play, where magic folk and men travel to the planets together to save the magical queen.” He looked at her with inquisitive interest, quill in hand. “Do spirits obey those not of magical birth?”
“If you like. ‘Tis your play.” She wanted desperately to change the subject.
Jack scribbled in a margin, then awkwardly put his papers together, moving his gangly arms and hands with nervous display. The back of one hand brushed against her breast, slowing just enough to follow its curve and find the nipple. It was no accident.
She stood. “I must meet someone, Jack. I’ll see you at the play, mm?”
“Is’t that man?”
He shifted his position, placing his hands in his lap.
“Sally —” His erection pushed beneath his clothing, and he squirmed, looking ashamed.
She was embarrassed for him, and cast her eyes around the room. Just leave and talk about this later. It was, after all, perfectly normal, right?
The nail above his bed held no painting. It protruded over a gap between two wallboards. Scratches in the surrounding wood showed where the hole had been enlarged. Jack made a soft, pained sound when Selene stepped to the wall and peered through the hole.
The view revealed most of her room, including the trunk. Most prominent, though, was her bed, well lit by sunlight from the window. At night, moonlight shone there.
She spun around. “How long has this been here?”
He looked at his hands folded in his lap.
An angry flame flared within her, licking her insides.
“How dare you! How long have you been watching —”
Something black and cancerous in her soul burst open like a pustule. She felt sticky inside, ugly, used… .
Jack was crying, saying he was sorry and he loved her and never again —
She slapped him, hard, fast, without thought. His head snapped to the side, an angry red print across his cheek. His sobs sliced into her, cutting her like knives. Selene saw what was laid open within.
Jack had simply watched her with the eyes of a boy trapped in the churning onslaught of adolescence. Millions of others had done far more. The largest audiences of her career. They needed her, she had told herself. It was good to be needed.
But beneath the well-played roles, winding like a stream through the subconscious caverns where Sally and the others lived, was disgust for everyone who rode her flesh and soul. She had dammed that stream from the beginning, patching the cracks with every new character.
Sally was different. Sally was stronger than Selene had ever been, freer than Sarah, Sharri, Simone and the others. Sally struck out with Selene’s hand, driven by rage that had grown malignant. Jack was not the intended target; still, the blow shattered the ugliness, struck it away like shards from a sculptor’s blade.
She felt dizzy, released from a locked box she never knew existed.
What had Jack become in the truetime where Sally did not exist? Had he even survived this far, to explore and discover who he could become? The future had never known of him. But Sally had changed everything.
Jack’s face was red and wet. He sucked air with sharp breaths, staring at her with confusion and pain. She held and rocked him, wiped his tears. Before long, he was asleep. She kissed him, then closed the door quietly behind her as she left.
From now on, she was writing her own script. And rewriting one other. William said the purpose of acting was to hold a mirror up to nature. For the first time since her Network contract began, Selene liked what stared back at her through the looking-glass.
The trunk’s interior was a smooth red glow, flat as a mirror. She looked into it. “Do not obey Alex. Ignore his commands unless I command otherwise.”
The streets clattered with coaches and townsfolk, and watermen taxied more people across the Thames from London. Vendors cried “Fresh peas!” and “Brooms! Green brooms, new brooms!” The warm air stirred the smells of farms, tanning skins, and the salty tang of human sweat. She inhaled deeply and drank in the redolent earthiness as if she were its latest and best ingredient.
She stopped at a fruit wagon and pretended to examine the goods. She concentrated on a gentle mental push, and Alex’s ident icon floated between her and a basket of strawberries.
Selene, where are you? His voice whispered ghostlike between her ears.
Her own symbol appeared next to his. She spoke softly, breathlessly, behind barely moving lips, focusing her thoughts. In the market west of the Globe. I hate talking like this.
I’m at the arena near the Swan. Hurry. This is terrific.
Her vision blurred. The fruit cart faded and was replaced by a wide street near a polygonal building. The Swan Theater. New street sounds reached her ears, louder, more raucous than the market where she stood. A crowd cheered behind her. A loud sermon came from her right. The view panned to the left, and she recognized a street corner. A comely blonde in a summer dress caught Selene’s eye and winked at her, and the view bobbed as Alex scanned the shapely body in return. The girl waited a beat, dimpled invitingly, then disappeared into a huddle of men trading wagers and shouting in response to some unseen spectacle. Applause erupted after a burst of savage animal snarling. The smell of blood was so heavy Selene tasted it.
She canceled her glyph, and his vanished a second later. She was staring at a basket of strawberries. Someone shoved her arm, stumbling her painfully into the cart. Turning, she saw a squat man with a blistered face and stained apron glaring at her, asking if she wanted to gape all day or buy. She moved on up the road.
Alex waved from the corner he had shown her. He was dressed in the French style fashionable among the privileged. He looked at her disapprovingly.
“Why didn’t you change that dress?” he said. “You don’t have to wear that anymore.”
His frown became a broad grin. “In a minute. Look at this.”
He put an arm around her waist and led her into the cheering, hissing mob. A bear was leashed to a stake in a filthy pit. It thrashed out at four dogs that lunged and snapped and tore its flesh. It could not attack or retreat far before the metal collar bit into its raw and bleeding neck. The stake threatened to snap with the bear’s tosses and tugs of rage. A breeze carried fur and blood into the audience, and Selene had to wipe her face. The crowd applauded wildly and money changed hands. Alex clapped and whistled.
“This is sick,” she said.
“It’s the favorite pastime of Shakespeare’s London. How’s that for proper English reserve?”
She pivoted and pushed through the crowd.
She was across the street when Alex grabbed her shoulder and turned her around. “What’s wrong with you?” He gripped her hard. “We’re on in a few hours and you’ve suddenly become the classic temperamental actor.”
“What’s wrong with me? I don’t know you anymore. You used to be so —” She stopped. That Alex was from another life, one that belonged to somebody else. She led him to a side of the Swan far from passersby. She took a deep breath, then released it slowly.
“Ever since I was a girl, I’ve played characters, been what someone else thought I should be. I was addicted to the applause. But eventually I grew up and wanted to know who I really was. The theatre let me explore. When I was onstage and in the dark, I had a strange, powerful permission to be. I was good at it. And so were you. Those hours onstage with you were some of the best in my life. The trap was this: I was still saying other people’s words. I wanted more.”
She took Alex’s hand and made him feel the rough fabric of her dress. “I am someone here. Sally’s always been inside me, and I like her. I made a difference, a real difference, in someone’s life here. It changed me. Jack changed me. You stayed behind and I did it without you.”
“That wasn’t my idea. The Network —”
“Goddamn the Network! It was my idea. After the 1987 series, I told them the next one would be done my way or I quit. London in the time of Shakespeare. I made them send me here. With a conditioning that had no biography imprint.” She saw herself reflected in his eyes like tiny Escher prints. “And I told them I’d do it alone.”
His eyes widened. “What?”
“Why do you think they offered you the Producer’s chair you always wanted? I studied our characters after each series. I didn’t like what I saw. Mine were dependent on the attention of others. Your last three found prestige and status more satisfying than anything else. You needed me less each time. That was a side of you I never knew before. I told the Network this series was going to be solo. I had to know if I could get by without anybody. Especially you.”
He looked away. The crowd was thinning around the pit. Pieces of dog and bear were scattered around the uprooted stake. He turned back to her, and the hurt in his face twisted in her gut. “When we get back —”
“No. I’m not leaving. If I do, Sally will have never been here. So pull the plug and tell the Network to find a new whore.” She felt the ache of earlier selves, but she refused to let him see the hurt. “You’re playing solo now.”
“You have to come back.” He was desperate. “I need you. We have to control the props.” The Producer. The Network exec. “Remember the Greek gods bit? We were a great team there. And the highest peaks of your career are waiting for you back home. Any stage you want, on any world you like.”
She pounded a fist against the Swan Theater. “Goddamn it!” She pointed into the street, sweeping dozens of people in a single gesture, and saw Alex crinkle his nose at a breeze stinking of manure and fruit. “I’m not acting anymore. Jack needs me. I see in him what I used to see in you — the talent, the joy in creating something good that could never exist without him; the ambition, the drive to be what he can be.”
“That Jack doesn’t belong to real history. He never did become the world’s greatest playwright, or actor, or whatever the hell he is. Maybe he was a printer. Or a farmer. Maybe he never got out of that printshop where you found him.”
She grabbed his shoulders hard and pressed him against the wall, putting herself between him and her world. “He got out because I was here. He was never allowed to grow up before I got here. Think about the greatness he can achieve now. We should be performing his work in a thousand years. Jack needs Sally. So do I.”
“Let’s do our job and get out. No one will be hurt after that.”
She pulled away and went into the street without looking back. He wouldn’t follow. The taste of blood sat on her tongue, and she enjoyed it.
A red silken flag flapped from a cupola on the hut over the stage, showing London where good times could be had that afternoon. Soon, the trumpeter would appear in the cupola like a clockwork figure and blast the call announcing the play’s beginning.
She pushed through the crowds inside the playhouse, bathing in the odors of sweat, tobacco, urine, hazelnuts, and beer.
Where was Will? Backstage with the actors, perhaps.
Above the stage, a cannon barrel poked through a door in the hut’s facade. She tensed. Here was the stage effect that would toss flames onto the roof and burn the playhouse to the ground soon after the play began. No one had gotten hurt, though.
So that would not satisfy the Network.
Musicians and jesters blended into a collage of colors, sounds, and juggling clubs. Three boys tossed burning torches in looping patterns. Cries of “Ho!” and “Ha!” erupted around her. Playgoers were applauding or chattering or laughing or —
Voices. Switched on like a light and much nearer than in previous series. Everyone must be tuned in. She did her best to ignore them.
On the stage, a player delivered the Prologue to the quieting crowd. When was Jack’s entrance as Anne Bullen? She was anxious to see his performance, and then tell him everything was all right. That Sally had forgiven him. That she would stay with him.
She searched for Will among the crowd, then found a seat next to a young woman who nodded hello. It was the blonde she had seen through Alex’s eyes. Act One began. Richard’s Henry VIII looked so grand in his robes. All the stage was his, and his voice rolled like thunder over the audience. He was magnificent.
Someone tapped her shoulder. She turned to find John, the ‘prentice who tended the wardrobe. He was wringing a costume beard in his hands.
“Sally. Where be Jack?”
“Is he not in the tiring room?”
“Nay. He has not arrived and his scene approaches. Mister Burbage said I should find you. Said you may know.”
“I last saw him at the inn.” She winced at the memory. Was Jack too ashamed to leave his room? Did he believe the others knew of his indiscretion? Or that Sally no longer loved him?
No, not Jack. He was smarter and stronger than that.
John sifted the beard through his fingers. “He has come to harm. Injured. Or ill.”
She squeezed John’s arm and tried to smile assurance.
She spotted Alex across the yard in the middle gallery. He was watching her.
I heard that, he said in her head. I can look for him at the inn. I’m not getting a response signal, so I have to check the props. You didn’t switch them to link-control.
No. And they won’t obey you, anyway.
What do you mean? He looked tiny from here, but she still saw the expression on his face.
I mean the series is over. The props won’t do your bidding anymore. Neither will I. Pull the plug and go home while you can. A small red symbol floated in her eyes. It pulsed and vanished. The Channel will collapse soon, so get out now. Goodbye, Alex.
His hurt was a cold breath in her mind.
“Sally?” John looked at her as if she had been mumbling to herself.
Shouts from across the yard cut through the audience. People were pointing to a spot far above her, above the highest gallery. Had the fire already started?
Shadows slid over the yard. The air pulsed like a heartbeat. A pair of black wings descended into the Globe, attached to a naked woman. Her skin was pale, like a corpse three days drowned, and the eyes glowed red. Other things flew and shrieked behind it. The air drummed with the beating of many wings, some leathern or scaled, some as slender and veined as waving leaves.
Playgoers shoving into an egress backed up as one. A floating specter guarded the exit. Blood dripped from its smoky hands. Goblins and wraiths stood in the doorways, like sentries at prison gates. Rodent-faced pixies scattered and chittered through the theatre.
The froglike thing dived overhead, its wasp-wings buzzing. It joined a swarm spiraling into the yard. They lit on railings and squatted on the ground. Misshapen human forms skulked in the stage balcony. Gargoyles perched on the Globe’s thatched roof and peered into the crowd below. They seemed to be searching.
Her head filled with thrilled applause.
She tuned in Alex’s link. You bastard! You’re doing it, anyway!
It’s not me.
The playgoers surrounding Selene were shouting, praying, running through the narrow aisles. They buffeted her, trapping and carrying her with their flow.
Central Park, 1987. This was worse.
Throughout the theatre, their eyes red and wicked, a hundred nightmares were staring at Alex. Fear colored the words he sent into her link. Did you program this?
Of course not. I —
"I AM OBERON, KING OF SHADOWS.” The powerful voice from the stage cut them off. “ROOM, FAERIES, FOR OBERON IS PASSING FELL AND WRATH!”
Jack was standing there, arms outstretched. He stood tall and straight, and the look on his face made Selene cold. Playgoers stopped at the voice and turned to the stage, compelled to listen. The sight of a calm young boy made the whole scene seem absurdly normal.
The creatures’ heads turned to follow Alex as he pushed his way down the stairs into the yard. Claws and teeth glistened like unsheathed blades.
Jack arced his arms dramatically. He gestured to the figures around him. “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves.” Wings fluttered. Some reared their heads back and screeched in acknowledgment. “You demi-puppets that by moonshine do sour ringlets make —”
She knew those words. Prospero from The Tempest.
Ice flowed into her spine, carried on Alex’s voice. What’s he doing? Did you teach him that?
She shook her head. No. He — She stopped. It was too crazy. Voice control. They’re on voice control. He heard you, us, through the wall last night. And watched me today. God knows what he understood, but he’s smart. He could have gone into my room anytime and opened the trunk.
Beasts lined up beside their new master. Jack looked into the audience, then up at Selene. He stepped forward and reached out to her from the stage.
“Sally. You spoke truth. These be no demons. They obey me, not the wizard who seeks to take you from me.” He ran to the rear of the stage, clasped a railing, and pulled himself up to the second balcony, then the third. He climbed the roof over the stage, planted his feet at its pinnacle, and stood beneath the shroud-gray sky. He looked down on his audience below.
“Obey me, spirits! We shall save our mistress from he who has harmed her.”
Hundreds of fiery, icy eyes stared at Alex. Flames burned behind gaping mouths and needle teeth. Selene ran to the stairs and entered the yard yelling. “Jack! You don’t understand!” For God’s sake, Alex, don’t move.
The voices in her head told her how exciting and delightful all this was. Colored symbols appeared in her view. The Network was simulcasting through both her and Alex for dual-P.O.V. While the largest audience of her career lived this with her, Selene felt helpless and alone. They were lapping it up and hungry for more. She broadcast hatred to all who rode her flesh. A blinking icon indicated ‘divers switching over to Alex’s link.
An adolescent boy stood over a Globe Theater filled with monsters. He seemed to suddenly realize where he was, and he giggled and swayed as if intoxicated.
“Sally, look!” He waved. “I bid the faerie folk obey me, just as you did.” He capered a giddy jig. “They hear the Faerie King and dance to his sweet words.” The flag above him popped the air in lone applause.
“Sally,” he said. She could barely hear him across the distance. “Mayhap you cannot love mortal men,” he glared at Alex, “But I love you more than he. He means to take you and hurt good people with his familiars. I cannot live without you, and shall earn your love once more.”
Jack pointed at Alex. Throughout the playhouse, wings spread in readiness.
“OBEY ME, FAERIE FOLK!” He gestured broadly, recalling Richard’s grandiloquent Oberon.
Jack was washed in shadow as huge wings rose behind him. He looked up, and his mouth became a wide O. A demon, wings wide enough to wrap a horse in, flew overhead, almost knocking Jack from the roof with its long black legs. It bellowed deeply and spat fire between long fangs. It banked into the theatre, pulled a woman from her husband and tore her apart with taloned hands. Blood sprayed into the crowd. The creature laughed and flung the remains in two directions.
Playgoers screamed, and their terror struck Selene in a hot wave. Jack’s face mirrored their fear. Shouts and cries — and laughter — splashed inside Selene’s skull. Struggling against their mental assault, Selene shoved the feedback to a far corner of her mind. She closed her eyes and concentrated on a single thought-command, the override code to shut down the creatures. But a red icon appeared against her eyelids: the Network’s own override signal. The Network had disconnected her mental link to the props. She was merely a camera now, a body shared by the voices in her head. Helpless. The voices swelled in her mind again, and her ability to concentrate vanished beneath them. What was the Network doing? The world went soft at the edges. She fell to her knees and tried to keep from fainting.
The thunder of a thousand leather wings thrummed the air. A dark river fountained upward over the Globe, eclipsing the sun. The second wave. They streamed toward London, as unstoppable as nightfall. Some detoured into the theatre, their programming guiding them to where the first wave waited.
A man made a dash across the yard. A shrouded skeleton descended before him and swept its blade through his neck, sawing bone. It cackled and drifted into a gallery, spilling a red trail.
A goat-faced phooka from Irish lore gutted a child on its jet black horns. Basilisks slithered into a gallery, their regal coronets shining with polished gold. They breathed black fog into the crowd, whose flesh fell from their bones like over-cooked meat.
Something green climbed a column to the stage ceiling, then pushed through a panel into the hut. Orange fire brightened the hole. A blackened body dropped through the heavens and shattered on the stage.
Bodies were trampled in their rush to escape. Horror pumped through Selene. Instead of quenching the fear, she fed it, relished it, and sent it out in waves. She made herself feel the terror around her in every strand of her flesh and soul. Gasps and whimpers came back to her, pelting her mind like rain.
Jack was hunched small on the roof. He peered down, a boy general losing control of his toy soldiers. The first wave waited for their orders. The second wave was in London now, beyond all control, but the first was still on voice control. Her throat stung with vomit and smoke, but Selene struggled to make the words leave her mouth —
Alex ran. Jack pointed at him and shouted words. Alex fell when long-armed things crashed into him, tearing into his skin with tiny teeth and razor claws. Red stains grew on his clothing as he tried to beat the things off him.
She inhaled deeply and at last the words tore past her throat. “Command overri —”
Unseen teeth drove into her arms and chest. Sharp, dark pain struck her from inside. Stop make it stop get them off me it hurts! Alex’s link carried the full power of his pain and spewed it up the Channel into his audience, snaring Selene in its force. It knifed into her, and she slid helplessly into Alex’s skin.
He screamed inside her, merging his terror with her own and driving it like a spike into her brain. Hot pincers tore flesh from her legs and face, and blood poured hot and sticky over her hands. Ratlike mouths moved toward her eyes. Then in her mind she felt her name. Alex called out through a blaze of pain and fear, not knowing that she listened. When consciousness mercifully left him, his last thoughts were of her.
She sprawled on the dirt where she had fallen, gasping for air. She wanted to cry, scream, anything to release Alex’s agony from her mind. It grew inside her skull, increased by the feedback from ‘divers who were suffering it with her. Their pain and fear squeezed her brain like a sponge.
Alex lay in the dirt nearby, gray things moving on his body and puddles of red-brown mud growing in the dirt. Selene shouted, the exertion exhausting her. “Stop! Command override Selene now!”
The creatures froze. She had told them to ignore only Alex’s commands.
Scattered moans and wails drifted throughout the playhouse, within her head. She smelled blood everywhere. She was stupid to have let it come this far.
A glowing disk burned in her field of view. Why hadn’t the Network cut the broadcast? She ran to Alex and gently pulled the rigid creatures from his body, stopping the blood as best she could.
“Sall-y-y.” Jack’s voice yanked her around. He was crying. Even from this distance, she saw the horrible pale fear on his face. He stepped forward and reached out to her. The roof collapsed beneath him, billowing trapped smoke and flames. He flailed his arms. He took so long to reach the stage. She could not hear the sound when he did.
Her scream echoed within her as she ran and leapt onto the stage.
Richard and the others were gathering around Jack. The boy moaned. Still alive, thank God. Jack’s hair was sticky red, and his legs were splayed in unnatural angles. One arm was twisted underneath him. It bent in too many places.
Richard took her arm and gripped it hard. His face was terrible to see.
“Whoever he be, Lady,” he said, tilting his head toward Alex, “Send him on his way if he be not dead. This is his handiwork, and we shall never see the likes of this lad again.” Other actors pulled him away while he gave in to sobs.
She looked at her friends. Some stared at her, confused, grief-stricken. The boy shouted something unintelligible, and his eyes were wide and searching. His screams gurgled wetly. They were weaker now. His body convulsed, and blood spilled over the brim of his mouth. His eyes became still, like marble, no longer searching. While Selene watched, the life left Jack’s body. He had not even known she was near.
She had chosen to stay so she could save him, to save the life that her presence had given him. Where would Jack be now if she had never arrived? She had changed everything.
Actors lifted Jack’s body and carried it toward the exit. One of them cried, “Sally, come!” Flames had sprouted all over this side of the theatre. Wind fanned the fires in all directions. A patch of burning thatch fell to the stage.
She could still undo this, the only way she was allowed.
She ran to Alex. He was heavy and his wounds opened like mouths when she tried to lift him.
“Someone please help me!” she cried. Tears blurred her vision. She tasted the fear and ugliness, savored it, made it grow, and thrust it up the Channel. In her eyes, nielsen lines dropped as ‘divers pulled themselves out of the broadcast. The red outline of the trunk floated above Alex’s body. It pulsed quickly and did not disappear.
Richard was beside her. He lifted Alex at the shoulders and indicated that she take Alex’s feet. They staggered to the nearest exit.
In the alehouse, smoke mixed with the smell of stale beer. Everyone was gathering belongings, salvaging furniture, rescuing what they could. The innkeeper gave a joyful shout when he found a bag of gold coins tied to his apron. No one stopped them as they ascended the steps.
Smoke was thickening the air in her room. Where her window had been, a black-edged hole, as if carved by a blowtorch, took out most of the wall. It was big enough to show all of London burning beyond the Thames. Winged black specks swooped among the city towers.
Richard was placing his burden on the floor when she told him no. She felt Alex’s pulse slow in his neck.
The electric blue blaze washed the room. She placed Alex’s feet into the light and made Richard lift him to a standing position. Richard’s eyes went wide as something took Alex and lowered him gently into the radiance.
Smoke burned in her nostrils and the trunk was blaring its alarm.
She hugged Richard hard and told him to leave now. He took her hands and looked into her face.
“Lady,” he said. Then he left.
She pushed through the smoke in the adjoining room, coughing, her throat raw. The hole over Jack’s bed was a smoldering mouth, burned wide open, and pieces of the surrounding wall had been ripped away by something that left deep claw marks. Blood painted the wall down to the floor. Whose —?
Scattered on the floor like dead leaves were the pages of Jack’s play. On the bed lay a string-wrapped bundle: Celestine, just as Will had promised. Blood like spilled ink spattered the pages. Will must have been here when —
She gathered her tears within, fused them with rage and pushed with her mind. In her eyes, the glowing disk blinked, vanished. The Network had cut the broadcast. The trunk’s alarm was screaming now.
Jack was out there, a body among many others. She fought the desire to run to him, hold him, and weep over him. I cannot live without you, he had said. She remembered the hell of the printshop. Black bile anger grew at the arbitrary injustice from — who or what? The Network? The random chaos of history, fate? God? Not knowing made her angrier. Whatever the source, she defied it. She dropped to her knees and gathered up the paper leaves. Masque of the Planets. They smelled of parchment and smoke. They always would. For the ages.
The blue brightness took her, and the jeweled lid closed behind her.
Her greatest performances were yet to come, before real audiences, on the stages of a hundred worlds. She would play for them a faerie queen, and give them words conjured by a heart rendered nonexistent, from a life no more yielding than a dream. She would make them taste a bite of what could have been. Within Orion, with newborn stars for her backdrop. Perhaps with Alexandros. Or without. She could play solo now, and her name — her final name — would be Sally-o.
The cannon tossed flaming wads onto the roof toward the end of Act One. Within two hours the Globe and the adjoining alehouse were burned to the ground. No one was hurt except, according to one of the few surviving documents of the event, for a man who put out his breeches with a providential bottle of ale.
The floor in the inn’s upper rooms crumbled and fell with the rest of the building. Fortunately, the elderly Italian cloth merchant who had lived there the past two years was not home when fire raged through it.
Back to the Fiction page
Back to Mark's front door