Exhaust billowing from the Axicell plants on Southgate’s north side thickened the August air and lent it the smell of clean laundry. Laud Umar turned off his book and checked the time. He’d been here an hour, and now he wondered whether he should descend the escalator to the street below and walk alone into the city or buy a ticket back to Torarica.
“What?” Laud looked up to see a teenage boy in a vintage black pinstriped suit and wingtips.
“Keele Haxem,” the boy said again, but he offered no hand. “What the fuck.”
His skin was very white, but his pallor seemed natural. His hair was fine, almost platinum blond, parted on the left and plastered against his skull in a style decades out of date. He smelled of dollar bills.
“What the fuck,” Laud said. Then, “You’re late.”
“Yes,” Keele said, smiling hard.
“Did you—? You work for the Call.“
“I’m a reporter,” said the boy. “I’m no good, but I’m tenacious. You wrote a book about Jackson.”
“Right,” Laud said slowly.
“That must be why he asked for you. Me, I have no idea.”
“What now?” Laud said.
“Now to Chabaane’s for dinner: There’s no Theater there.” With that, Keele walked off, leaving Laud to gather his things.
When they reached the corner of Lafayette and Jefferson, a matt drew to a halt and idled at the corner, waiting for them. Laud and Keele stepped on together, and Keele stood inert, like an old-fashioned robot who’d been switched off. Finally, Laud realized that Keele expected him to buy the ride, and paid with a gesture.
As the matt drew away from the curb, Laud’s wire started spitting information at him, mostly about Keele. He’d racked up various literary awards beginning farther back than Laud expected. The boy seemed so young that his first literary prize must have come at the age of eleven or so.
Laud’s attention drifted to the scenery as the city bubbled around their little cylinder of motion, and he found himself ignoring most of the thoughts that were not his own.
A quiet voice caught his attention. It spoke in verse:
Four fathers unknown, ruined upon the rock of time
We founder, and flowering, split. The leaves are gone
But we return, borne backward and backward
A boat beaten by tideless seas, watching hellborn youth
Yet uncooked by the fires of time.
A white city alone in infamy.
Laud interrupted. “Title?”
Four Fathers Mute, by Keele Haxem, winner of the Schlittsberg-Stoller Prize for distinguished letters.
Laud remembered the book. He’d bought it after reading a review in The Atlantic Monthly. He’d read about half of it, before admitting to himself that he found it impenetrable, and had never bothered looking up the author. He glanced sidelong at Keele now. He felt a touch of trepidation, as if Keele’s skull was an egg, and something dire might force itself out of its shell at any time. Great. Arty and crazy. This must be Peg’s new boy.
The dining room smelled of frying rabbit, roast lamb, and coriander. Strings of old-fashioned Christmas lights hung all over, winking in the dim.
“I need a plate of baklava,” Keele told Chabaane as he slid into a corner booth. “A plate of baklava and three espressos.”
Chabaane turned to Laud. “And you, sir?”
“I don’t know. Schweppes bitter lemon and a menu, please.”
“It’s an honor,” Keele said, looking over Laud’s shoulder. Laud had to fight the urge to turn and see who he had spoken to.
“The Spanish Main,”* *Keele said. “It made me want to write. All my early poems were about it.”
“Huh,” Laud grunted. “That’s— Thank you.” The Spanish Main was a lurid period piece about a gang of carjackers in 1980’s Southgate. That novel, its memm adaptation and Theater series had earned Laud a lot of attention over the years, but no one had mentioned it to him in quite a while.
“I’ve read every word you’ve published,” Keele said.
“I haven’t published much.”
“Ha! You—” Keele laughed, then seemed to consider. “Well, sure, but, what there is is …”
“So,” Laud said brightly. “How long have you worked at the Call?“
“This is my first year. Peg Walthers offered me the job.”
“Peg Herself?” Laud said. “You must be quite a reporter.”
“I’m no good, but I’m—”
“Right. You said that.”
“Peg says Jackson asked for me because I look like Macaulay Culkin.”
When Laud ordered, Keele asked for more baklava and two more espressos. Watching the boy pick over his plate with sticky fingers ruined Laud’s appetite. After the meal, he ordered no dessert. Instead, he asked for mint tea and a bowl of pine nuts.
“Background,” Laud said. “What do you know about Michael Jackson?”
“I’ve read and heard quite a bit, but know very little,” Keele said. Now he seemed much older than before, his tone crisp and businesslike. Listening to him now, Keele could imagine him capable of writing something worthwhile. “Arguments mostly. His wiki still changes every few months. The thing about touching kids—the public doesn’t seem to have come to terms with it, which can only mean we don’t want to. I’ve even read that he died of a propofol overdose.”
“I’ve encountered that little rumor myself.”
“And then, your book. You make a case.”
“A case?” Laud asked, a little stung.
“A case,” Keele repeated. “I’d wager you don’t know any more about him than anyone else. Like all the other fans, you examine his facets until you find yourself reflected and discard the rest of him.”
“I worked for years on that book.”
“Then you believe you got close enough without getting too close?”
Laud barked a laugh. Keele seemed confused.
Laud shook his head. “That’s not important.” He sipped his tea and let his mind wander to the first time he’d heard “Who’s Loving You.”
He had come home from school to find the house smelling of orange oil and artificial pine. His father, a broad-backed blue-black Nigerian, knelt on the kitchen floor, a soapy yellow sponge in his gloved left hand. A strand of song curled past Laud into the foyer from the stereo in the living room.
At first Laud mistook Jackson’s voice for that of a horn, then that of a woman, but when the bass, guitars, and drums came in behind him, Laud recognized the voice of a boy maybe his own age. Laud stood frozen, still red-eyed from the walk home where three boys had taunted him, calling him “Tits,” and “Fat Stuff.”
Heat baked up from Laud’s chest to ripple like a curtain past his face. He stood that way until his father’s voice, louder, rougher, and less assured than Jackson’s, split the air of the apartment, singing along to the second verse.
Peg Walther’s house was all chrome, clean white lines, and austere floral scented chemical frescoes. Laud found Peg lounging on the terrace out back, staring at the river. She looked less like a woman than an extension of the décor. Her steel gray hair was cut short, swept to the side, and her eyes were hard and marble-gray. From her bylines in the Call archives, Laud placed her age at somewhere around a hundred and twenty. She was tall, broad-shouldered. “Square-built,” Laud’s father would have said.
“So you came,” she said.
“How was Surinam?”
“Must have been hard on you,” Peg said.
“I met your new boy.”
“You mean Keele,” Peg said, and Laud could not read her tone.
“He says he’s an awful reporter, but tenacious.”
“He’s not a reporter, he’s a columnist.”
“You told me the same thing.”
“He knows people. He knows how they think and feel about each other and about themselves. He can tell when a person is lying and whether they believe the lie. Why wouldn’t I put talent like that to work? Especially when he asked?” She paused. “I know you blame me for what’s become of you.”
“Ha,” Laud said. “I don’t—”
“Keep at it, if it helps you sleep,” she said.
“I was seventeen.”
“Oh stop it,” Peg said with a genuine smile. “Everyone’s a child to me.” For the first time, she turned to look at him, laughed at him outright.
Peg shook her head. “Glory Meechum wants your book,” she said. “She wants to publish it as soon as possible.”
“I’ll have my agent send the file.”
“The Anarchy of Pop.“
“A hell of a title,” Peg said. “You always did have great instincts.”
Peg smiled again, and Laud felt a tightness in his chest.
“Lighten up, Laud,” Peg said. “I’m not so bad.”
Unable to agree, Laud said nothing at all.
The next morning, Laud awakened late for his meeting with Peg. He dressed hastily and high-tailed it downtown. He dashed into a restroom right off the lobby and checked his complexion. He dialed down the gray and eyed himself critically. His teeth were straight. Too straight? Too white? He yellowed them just a little and added a nearly imperceptible shade of pink to the whites of his eyes before heading on.
The flat no-scent of the elevators gave way to the low-tide smell of chemical computers as Laud strode into the office, looking straight ahead.
“Laud! What the fuck!” Keele said as Laud let himself into Peg’s office. Peg made a sour face and Keele dipped his head in mute apology. Laud was glad to see that the use of slang still rubbed her the wrong way.
The office walls were fashioned from cola-colored glass, and Peg’s desk, made from the same material, was bare save for her transparent computer monitor and copper dragstick.
Keele sat barefoot in one of the egg-shaped visitor’s chairs, digging his slender toes into the brown shag carpet. He wore old-fashioned tails and a pair of sea-green tights.
“Sorry I’m late,” Laud said.
“Sit,” Peg said.
Hating her calm, Laud sat beside Keele, and the chair wheezed, taking in his shape.
Peg tapped an invisible button on her monitor.
“Hold please,” said a woman’s voice, then, “This is Michael Jackson.” It sounded nothing like him, but gooseflesh thrilled along Laud’s arms.
“Good morning, Mr. Jackson,” Peg said, smiling. “This is Peg Walthers from the Southgate Call.“
During his research for the biography, Laud had come across an interview with Liza Minelli where she claimed that the breathy near-whisper Jackson had used for his roles and public appearances was anything but authentic. Laud had found that hard to believe, but he knew it was true when he found interview footage of Diana Ross. Hers was the voice Jackson imitated in public. “Are the others there?” Jackson said.
“We’re here. I’m Laud Umar.”
“Keele Haxem,” Keele said, “What—?”
Peg’s forbidding look cut him off.
“I asked Ms. Walthers if I could speak to you both before tomorrow’s conference,” Jackson said.
“Why?” Laud said.
“I’ve read your book. I invited Mr. Haxem because I need a poet, and he is the best alive.”
Keele’s grin looked almost angry. “Thank you so much, Mr. Jackson,” he said. “I’m honored!”
“I always hoped you’d read Anarchy,” Laud said. “It meant a great deal to me.” He felt like a fraud. He hadn’t written a word in over a year.
“I wish you’d published it,” Jackson said.
“The publishers didn’t think anyone would read it, and I guess after a while I came to agree.”
“I think you’ll find they’ve changed their minds,” Jackson said. “But that’s not why I called. I’d like you both to attend the press conference in person and talk with me afterwards.”
Laud opened his mouth and closed it again.
“We’ll walk the Hanging Gardens and get to know each other.”
“I’ll have them in Detroit tonight,” Peg said.
“Thank you, Ms. Walthers. Thank you, Mr. Umar, Mr. Haxem. I’d better go. Big day tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Laud said. “Big day.”
With a muted tone, Michael Jackson rang off.
“Kid, kid,” Laud said aloud and shook his head. It was after ten and Keele was not at the Hop. How old was he, anyway? Eighteen? Nineteen? Laud turned, scanning the circular platform. Businessmen rushing to other cities, other countries, flowed around the room, bumping each other like spawning salmon.
Laud looked to his right as he heard the fizz of Axicells warming up on the other side of the station. With a blast of cool air, Laud and Keele’s hop shot into the sky. There wouldn’t be another for half an hour.
Laud descended the stairs to the street below. He caught a rickshaw to the Tulip District and walked the streets there, ducking into coffee shops and night clubs. The kids were out in force tonight, but Keele was not among them.
After an hour or so, Laud gave up looking and headed to the Northside for a drink. It was not until he stepped inside Mynah Bird’s that he realized Keele was here.
The Tulip District had been the fashionable part of town since long before Laud’s time. All the cool kids—the kids in bands, the scaled, feathered university students with long, thin limbs and too much money—hung out there. Laud had never fit in with them. Any night he wasn’t with Peg he spent sitting in a corner at Mynah’s listening to vintage soul and writing on the same scratched plastic tablet he’d used to compose The Spanish Main.
Hardly anyone was under thirty. Big men who looked like factory workers sat at the bar or drank at the tables, laughing. Most of them were unmodded, but one or two wore animated tattoos or shaped ears.
Keele sat at Laud’s old table, staring into a glass of red wine. When Laud touched Keele’s shoulder, Keele sagged, defeated. “I’ll fuck it up,” he said without looking round.
“I won’t let you,” Laud said. He wavered for a moment, then slid into the booth across from Keele. “We should go.”
“Did you hear what he said? Did you hear what he said about me?”
“It’s awful. How can people think—? Peg thinks I understand. I don’t understand you.”
Keele looked up. His face worked. “Anyone. You. Peg Herself. Jackson. I fake it. That’s why I’m such a bad reporter. If I go with you, I’ll be found out.”
“You’re not a reporter,” Laud said. “Besides: everyone fakes it.”
Keele shot him a wary look, then turned back to his wine.
“Nobody understands Peg. As for me, I don’t understand myself, so you’re fine there, too. And Jackson? Who is he? No one ever knew. That’s why we’re on our way down there—to document his latest madness.”
From Laud’s first word, Keele had begun shaking his head, and he looked up now that Laud was finished. “No.”
“I don’t like you, Keele,” Laud said gently. “You must know that. I want you with me now because I’d rather not waste time explaining your absence.”
“You don’t like me?”
“Of course not.”
Keele sighed explosively. “I want you to like me,” he said. “Will you like me if I go?”
Laud answered as honestly as he could. “Maybe.”
Jackson’s later photographs made Laud expect to meet a blue, tattooed, rail-thin shade of a man wearing aviator sunglasses and a vaguely militaristic sequined suit. His black black hair, his liquid eyes, his mere suggestion of a nose, and painfully cloven chin had made him a caricature of himself, but at the press conference he wore no gloves, no sequins, no sunglasses, just a simple gray suede tunic with black slacks and leather footmods.
His skin was a rich coppery brown. His nose was broad, pulpy, and his wavy hair lay cropped close to his head in a cut that recalled several styles of years past without committing to any of them. He looked no older than forty.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Jackson began in that deep, serious voice. “It is with great pleasure that I announce the next Age of Man. I call it The Age of Friendship….” He paused as a flurry of activity rustled through the crowd.
“Since our first hesitant steps into space, mankind has ventured farther and farther into our solar system, establishing colonies on the moon, on Mars, and several of Jupiter’s satellites.” He paused again. “I have always been interested in space travel, and my own team of scientists and engineers has worked with the Bjelland Foundation to construct a new star drive that will end our confinement to this solar system.”
Jackson sipped from a glass of water. Laud, Keele, and all the holos waited.
“I have privately funded my own version of SETI since 2013, beaming my music to star clusters and listening for answering transmissions. On March 15, 2069, I received an answer.
“According to my linguists and cryptographers, the transmission, which originated from an Earth-like planet orbiting Epsilon Eridani, describes a civilization descended from servile robots left behind as their masters made their way to other regions of the galaxy. These ‘synthetic intelligences’ consider themselves sentient beings, and so do I.
“Their lives are difficult, thankless. Imagine their elation when an alien race was able to decode and respond to their spacefold messages. I intend to use the star drive they have given us to visit their planet along with seven other representatives of the human race.”
Jackson looked up and smiled to the room. “Thank you.”
A white-noise roar pushed toward the podium and broke against it. After a second or two, Jackson glanced at a fat, happy-looking man who replaced him at the podium.
“I’m Kris Lubin,” he said. “Mr. Jackson will not be answering any questions at this time, but later this week we will announce the date of our next conference. All background information will be included with our press packet. Felicitations.”
The shouting holos vanished as Lubin cut the projector. Jackson stood beside him and the two shared a silent look.
It was some time before Laud realized that Peg was yelling into his ear. He tapped the privacy button on his neck. Now he and Keele were alone with Michael Jackson.
“So,” Jackson said. “The Hanging Gardens?”
The Hanging Gardens stretched above streaked marble floors, every color everywhere. Transparent flowers writhed together, their stems intertwining as they offered the scent of wood smoke, old stone, the sea.
Jackson walked slowly, flanked by Keele and Laud, the heels of his shoes striking soft notes against the floor. His movements seemed a little strange—as if his joints were oiled.
“You must be shocked,” he said quietly as Laud stopped to stare at a trellis wound with thick crimson flowers kissing softly.
“I suppose I’d better ask some questions.” Laud laughed a little. “What about China? Have you cleared it with them?”
Jackson nodded. “It wasn’t difficult. I offered them the patent to the Leland Drive in exchange for their support.”
Laud glanced at Keele. His expression was at once wild-eyed and deadly calm. Laud wondered whether he should worry.
“Why would you want to be famous again?” Keele said. “Didn’t fame ruin your life?”
Jackson shrugged as they passed a plant that was nothing more than an exquisite violet web spun between two Corinthian columns.
“I don’t know what it is to be famous any more than fish are aware of wet. By the time I was old enough to know what was going on, I existed in what you call a state of fame. I’m told that the world I live in is like an alien planet. I know I’ve never thought of things in the way that you or Laud do, but that is all I know.”
“Where did you come by the money?” Laud said.
“Money,” Keele said. He snorted. “Once you have enough of it, it ceases to exist.” Was he talking to himself?
Jackson smiled. “Axicell.”
“Axicell is yours?” Laud asked. “You hold the patent?”
Still smiling, Jackson nodded. “My assets are similar in value and behavior to those of a large developed nation.”
“Then, economically speaking, you’re a world power,” Laud said.
They paused before a marble fountain carved into the floor. Rising from it was the Great God Zeus, his right arm extended, lightning bolt at the ready.
A hurt expression passed across Jackson’s face as he gazed up at the statue. “Much has been written about my father,” he said. “His pride in me was difficult to bear.”
“I’m sorry,” Laud said.
Jackson laughed and shook his head. “You’re forgiven.” He turned to watch Laud and spoke again. “I’m going to meet the Epsilonians and I want the two of you to join me.”
“Walthers,” Peg snapped.
Laud lay in bed, one sock hanging from his right foot. Now he flipped it onto the carpet. “How are things at the office?”
“It’s pandemonium,” she said. “Give me the interview.”
“I barely remember it. I’ve got it all, of course. Should I—? I didn’t ask him about Jordie or Gavin.”
“Considering your use of their first names, I’d say you made the right decision.”
“They were little boys.”
“Laud,” Peg said. “He was acquitted. Decades ago.”
“You want me to avoid questions about the accusations that ruined his reputation?”
“I want you to avoid questions that will lose this newspaper its coverage of a landmark fucking historical fucking event. I want your interview file right away—the conference, too. I’ll edit them for release in a special edition.”
“Where did you find Keele?”
“Lem found him. He wrote an epic poem and tried to submit it to Ploughshares. The editor didn’t know what to make of it, and she mentioned it to Lem. Lem asked for the file and published it with Simon. Don’t you know all this?”
Laud knew it, but he wanted her version. “I was in Surinam,” he said with a shrug. “Why did he go to work for you?”
“His explanation didn’t make any sense. All I know is that he wanted a job, so I gave him one. He connects events and personalities in a way I haven’t really seen before—not in a newspaper, and I think his presence sets us apart from the competition.”
“Is he stable?”
“Is he acting funny?”
“No,” Laud said hastily. “Sometimes he gets this look, and it worries me.”
“Well, he’s completely bonkers,” Peg said. “I thought you could tell just to look at him.”
Peg and Laud had met after Laud’s first SoMA gala. His father had been on his back for months, demanding that Laud choose a university to attend either in the States or overseas. The two of them seemed to lock horns daily, and the day of the gala, they’d had their worst argument yet.
“At least when you were fat, you cared about others even if you didn’t care for yourself,” his father had said. “Now that you look good, your penis is your only concern.”
“You mean you understood me better because I looked as bad as you feel!” Laud had shouted back. Hours later, he could still feel the words on the tip of his tongue, connected to it by an invisible filament that he wished he could use to reel them back. The way his father had… withered at his words…
None of that mattered. Laud stood in the bathroom on the first floor of the museum, examining himself, wondering whether he was looking at a monster.
A toilet flushed inside a stall, and Peg stepped out, carefully arranging her clothes. “You look like you could use a drink or six,” she said.
“How’s my chin?” he asked without turning around. “Cleft or no cleft?”
“I’d fuck you either way,” she said.
Laud’s shoulders tightened. He met her gaze in the mirror.
“You’ll go blind staring at yourself like that,” she said. Then she felt silent, watching him for a while. She opened the stall door again and kept watching. Still watching, she stepped back into the stall.
After a beat, Laud turned and joined her.
Laud awakened from a dream of eating oysters with Peg to a persistent buzzing behind his ear. He sat up, slapping at his phone disk. “Laud Umar,” he said.
A man’s voice, slow with authority: “Mr. Umar? We’ve got a problem,”
“The problem is it’s four in the goddamn morning is the problem,” Laud snapped.
“There’s trouble with your son.”
“What?” Another dream?
“He became violent when we ejected him from the bar. He’s vandalizing his room and if you can’t calm him down, we’ll have to contact the authorities.”
“No police!” Laud said. “I’ll handle it.”
“Well, I fucking should be!” came a shout, and then the thump and crash of something heavy falling. “I should be and I will, and that is what I’ll do!”
Another crash. Laud broke into a run. Several people stood outside Keele’s room: two men and three women. One of the women seemed to be trying to reason with Keele.
“You are all servile fucking robots! I’ve got to— It costs me, you know! It costs!”
Laud stopped short as Keele stepped into the hall. He was naked save for a pair of briefs, and as Laud watched, blood began to soak through the fabric at his hip.
“Keele?” Laud said.
A good-weather smile spread across Keele’s face. It was the most genuine expression Laud had ever seen. “Laud!” Keele said, and waved. “Tell them. Tell them about the record companies and dollar bill smell.”
“The—the—the record companies and how they sold all those thought robots on disk, yeah? What the fuck!”
Laud smiled tightly. “What the fuck, Keele.”
Keele approached and gripped Laud’s shoulder hard enough to hurt. He leaned in close to whisper, “I told them I’m your son. Isn’t that a gas?”
“It is,” Laud said.
Keele nodded seriously and stepped back. “Wow,” he said. “What she must have done to you. She’s eating me alive, you know.”
“Who is?” Laud asked, but Keele turned and struck the woman nearest him.
The woman stumbled backwards, blood flowing from her mouth. Shouts filled the corridor. Keele turned on Laud, and Laud didn’t even see the blow. His own mouth filled with blood. Mad with the fight, he rushed. Keele leapt at him, took him square in the chest. They fell together, entwined.
Keele hit Laud between the eyes with the heel of his hand, and fireworks bloomed across Laud’s vision.
“I like you, you know,” Keele screamed. “I like you so much!” To punctuate his sentence, Keele dealt Laud two more blows. Laud felt things splitting inside his mouth. What would he look like when this was over?
Suddenly Keele’s weight left Laud’s chest. He could breathe again. “I swallowed your teeth!” Keele bellowed. “We’re the same! We are descended from things outside!“
It was sweltering out, and the air conditioning in Laud’s cloak was acting up again. His nose was crooked, but no more so than it had been. The fixative had left a sour taste in his mouth and a tightness in his features that made him feel afflicted by some invisible deformity.
As Laud stepped onto the street outside the clinic, he thought to check his voicemail, but decided against it. Instead, he walked.
He stopped at the corner to stare at the passing matts and rickshaws, but when the light changed, he crossed without hailing.
If anyone had stopped him and asked, Laud could not have answered what part of Detroit this was. He considered his life. He had grown up in Southgate, a Nigerian Puerto Rican half-breed surrounded by an army of preppy whites. His extra weight had made him painfully shy. During high school he’d tried too hard, acting boisterous and friendly, hoping to ingratiate himself.
Laud used the money from The Spanish Main to improve his body. He had the obesity gene removed from his DNA. He bought new features, worked out constantly. He understood the will toward improvement, and he understood the weakness that allowed that will to shade into madness.
When Laud sold The Spanish Main, everyone told him he was a genius. He knew different, though, and the people in his life mistook that knowledge for modesty.
Laud walked all day and into the night, but the sky did not change at all. Every few minutes, a great holobanner appeared over the city, trying to sell some product that nobody needed. a hop, skip, and a jump to elara! read the latest. Laud had moved to Torarica in part because he’d heard nights were still dark there.
Around midnight, Laud found himself standing in the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain, on the riverfront. It looked like any number of historic restorations, the world over. Laud took a breath and crossed to the elevators.
Upstairs, Jackson answered the door himself. Without saying anything, he stepped aside to admit Laud.
While it was beautifully appointed, the suite’s décor was not extravagant. The minimalist furniture boasted rich autumnal colors, and all the paneling was fashioned from dark clonewood. The citrus scent of genemod flowers hung in the air, and an antique ceiling fan spun slowly in the sitting room.
Laud went to a vast window and looked out over the Detroit. After a moment, he turned to Jackson, who stood just watching him, his hands clasped behind his back.
“Did you do it?” Laud said.
“Would you like something to drink?” Jackson said. “I have iced tea.”
“It’s— Yes. I’d like some.”
Jackson fetched two tumblers from a cabinet by the sofa, then pulled a pitcher of iced tea from the refrigerator in the next room. He poured two glasses and offered one to Laud.
Laud downed his tea almost immediately, and Jackson gently took the glass.
“Did you do it?” Laud said again.
Michael Jackson took a seat on the sofa and stared at Laud. “You haven’t asked about my voice,” he said finally.
“Your— No. Listen. I need— I need you to—”
Jackson’s expression remained placid, but now he took a sharp breath. He was angry. “Please sit.”
Laud sat in a brown suede wingback chair.
“I will come to your question,” Jackson said, “but it will take a while.”
“Is this on the record?”
“Isn’t everything?” Jackson said. “First I want you to know that I was very sad when I heard what happened to your friend.”
“We— Yes. Thank you.”
“My mother once told me that we will have what God means for us to have. God has great things in store for Keele, and even if he stays behind when we travel to the stars, something beautiful will happen for him.”
“I’d like to believe that.”
“Do you know why I chose you?”
“Because we understand you?”
Jackson raised his eyebrows. “Do you think so?” he said. “I don’t. I chose you because your work made me feel… human. I hadn’t felt that way for a long time.”
Jackson fell silent for a while and stared at his hands, folded in his lap.
“I’m not—” Laud began, but stopped short. “Mr. Jackson, I’m not sure I’m up to all this. I haven’t written anything since Anarchy.”
“Nothing at all?”
“I haven’t danced in twenty years,” Jackson said. “Not a step.” Jackson sat forward, pressed his right palm against his forehead. He let go, propped his elbow on his knee and looked up at Laud. “I went to see my father before he died,” he said. “You don’t know how hard that was for me.
“His room smelled awful—like doodoo and sadness and old-fashioned hospital cleaner. I stood there beside his bed and he was so weak that I was hardly afraid of him anymore. I didn’t realize he was awake until he grabbed my hand and held it. He said, ‘Boy, what are you going to do? What you the king of now?'”
Jackson fell silent again.
“And what did you say?”
“I said, ‘Daddy—’ I never called him that. I said, ‘Daddy, I’m not the king of anything.’ The next day, I met with doctors and found out what I had to do to reverse my surgeries. I knew he would die while I was under the anesthetic, and I was afraid I’d dream when he went.”
“I don’t think so,” Jackson said. “But then, I never remember my dreams. Laud.”
“How did you know about this room?”
“When I was researching Anarchy, I found out that you come here sometimes. I thought about coming here to see you. To… I don’t know.”
“But you didn’t put it in your book.”
“Will you do something for me?”
“Go back to your hotel. Eat. Rest. I haven’t forgotten your question, but it’s hard to answer, and I need to think for a while. Can you do that …? I really am sorry about Keele.”
“Yes,” Laud said. “So am I.”
“You could have called sooner.”
Laud sat on the floor beside his bed. The air of the room lay heavy on his skin. A copy of Keele’s book, Four Fathers, lay on the carpet between his feet. He had not turned it on. Instead, he had fished a tablet from his suitcase and sat staring at it for a long time. He felt watched.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I know what you think of me, but I worry.”
“I do,” she said.
“Well, are you still on assignment?”
“Thank God,” Peg said. Laud wondered idly where she was.
“Where is Keele?”
“He’s being treated,” she said. “I shouldn’t have sent him down there.”
“Jackson asked for him by name.”
“Keele begged me to stay here,” Peg said, and Laud realized with a jolt that she was near tears.
“Peg. Peg— You can’t keep doing this. You can’t—I don’t know what went on between you and Keele, but he felt— He said that— I think it was hurting him.”
“I can’t have this conversation with you.”
“Let me ask you one thing,” Peg said sharply. “Had anyone—had one fucking person—ever made you feel beautiful before me?”
“You’re a vampire and a cannibal, and before you die, everyone will know the truth about you.”
“You’re welcome, Laud,” she said. “You’re welcome.”
Jackson hardly spoke at the next press conference. He made a brief statement, then stepped aside and let the scientists handle things. They explained Epsilon Eridani. They explained the Leland Drive, and they played the first spacefold message from the Epsilonians. It was a song.
Afterwards, Jackson and Laud returned to the Hanging Gardens where they walked in silence for more than an hour. Finally they came to a sunken room where marble benches sat in a circle around a tree that stood several meters high. The tree had been designed to depict a female figure emerging from its trunk. The Dryad, read the card.
Michael Jackson sat and stared at the sculpture, his chin resting on his fist. Laud stood, just watching.
“There’s something else we need to talk about,” Jackson said.
“Yes?” Laud asked. “What is it?”
“Anyone who intends to come with me to meet the Epsilonians must have all modifications removed.”
“We must—What?” Laud said. “What are you talking about?”
Jackson turned to look at him, his brow furrowed. “We’ll be representing mankind. As far as the Epsilonians are concerned, we’ll be the human race. Wouldn’t it be visciously stupid and dishonest to show them altered versions of ourselves?”
“That’s—You’re not making any sense.”
“I know it’s difficult to understand.”
“No,” Laud said. “Not difficult. You’re not making any sense. You’re the most modded out of all of us. You think you reversed everything you did to yourself, but what you really did was mod yourself back to normal. You have footmods, for God’s sake. Does the fact that you can touch your heel and make your foot grow treads mean that you’re more human or less human?”
Jackson frowned at him.
“If—if—if—if you’re going to live in a house, whyinhell wouldn’t you decorate it to reflect your tastes, your personality? I’m sure at least one of the people going with us was born the wrong gender. You want them to go back to their birth condition just because you had too many—you had too many nose jobs when you were young?”
“How dare you.”
“No,” Laud said fiercely. “How dare you? How dare you? Everyone loved you. Worshipped you. With all the gifts you had, how dare you hate yourself as much as you did? I didn’t publish Anarchy because I was ashamed. But I wasn’t ashamed of it, I was ashamed of you and the fact that no matter what I did, no matter what I read or uncovered, I couldn’t help but love you.”
“You don’t know me. You don’t know my life. What I went through ….” For a moment, they glowered at each other.
“Fuck you,” Laud said. “I paid good money for these mods. More than money. If I can’t keep them and go, then to hell with the whole thing.”
“You look like you want to hit someone,” Jackson said, his voice marbled with disgust. “Is that what you do? Are you going to hit me?”
“I’m not your fucking father,” Laud said. “He’s dead.”
They watched each other for a beat. Then Jackson shook his head, turned away. “Nobody speaks to me like that. Nobody has spoken to me that way in… Nobody.” He breathed hard. “…I used to do a lot of drugs,” Jackson said after a long time. “Heroin.”
“Heroin. Propofol. It’s not an excuse,” Jackson said. An edge had crept into his voice. “A lot of people have done a lot of things and blamed it on smack. What I’m saying is there are long periods in my life that I do not remember clearly.”
“No. This is what I mean: the accusations hurt me deeply. Jordan. Gavin. The— The— The— Those boys were good boys. They— they treated me like a human being. Like I was— Not like royalty.”
“I remember us in my room together. I read them stories, and they read to me, and we played video games, and… and all of that. All the things kids like. I showed them songs on my guitar.”
“But did you—?”
“I don’t remember touching them. I don’t remember. Have I forgotten because I wanted to forget? Was I capable of something like that? Am I still?”
“I— but I must have done it, Laud. I must have. One thing I have learned over the years is that when a man looks as guilty as I did, it’s because he is. He did it. That’s the way the world works.”
“Not— Not always.”
Michael Jackson shook his head. “I look at those old interviews, and the first thing I feel is I can’t believe I lived through that time. If you knew what—! I can’t believe I survived. And the other thing I feel is, Yes. Of course. He did it. That man was capable of anything. I think I believe it, in part, because wondering is worse than guilt.”
Laud made no answer.
“Not one of my seventy children will speak to me, do you know that? They won’t even speak my name.”
“I remember watching the Challenger explode. I watched the shuttle become a ball of flame, I felt a web of grief settle over the nation. I knew that what was in my heart was in everyone’s heart. I knew when I bought SETI that I could do or build something to bring us together again.”
“Is it working?”
Jackson laughed sharply. “Smoky Robinson once called me ‘the forty-five-year-old midget.’ He said I walked around troubled all the time. Isn’t that funny?”
Laud laughed a little, politely.
“That’s what my father never understood.”
Laud and Jackson watched each other for a long time, and then Laud sat down beside him.
Suddenly, Jackson spun from his seat and twirled across the marble floor. He slapped his right heel against the stone and cocked his hips as he spread his fingers before his face. He stood that way just long enough for Laud to become powerfully aware of his own heart’s beating, then slid sideways on the balls of his feet.
“I’ve got to rehearse,” Jackson said without a trace of strain. “Once they see me dance, those androids will be people just like us.”
by Alex Jennings