Lightspeed Presents: “Death and the Hobbyist” by Sean WilliamsS

io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Lightspeed's current issue. This month's selection is “Death and the Hobbyist” by Sean Williams. You can read the story below, or you can listen to the podcast version. Enjoy!

Image © 2013 Galen Dara.

Death and the Hobbyist
Sean Williams

It wasn’t enough for my mother Juliet to be crazy. Of course not. She was always going to find a uniquely inconvenient way to drive us mad along with her.

That she was a bit odd escaped no one’s notice. After Dad died she steadily worsened. I speak with sincere love, but the list of things my mother wouldn’t tolerate only grew longer the older she got. Lenses, fabbers, the Air—everything newer than her she considered potentially lethal. I suppose we all slipped into the habit of treating her concerns with, not disdain exactly, but with the same patience one tolerates the night-terrors of a child—particularly me, her only daughter. Fabbers won’t give you cancer any more than chocolate gives you diabetes. So here, Mom, have a cake I said I cooked with my own hands but really dialled up the same as everyone else. She never knew the difference, and we in turn never noticed her succumbing to serious degenerative illness.

***

The first time it occurred to me that she had a problem, she was still in the old house in Texas and I was working in Zambia. I visited her on Thursdays for dinner. Sometimes I brought my daughter Clair when she was still a baby, but on this occasion I didn’t. Within moments of walking in the door, it was clear Juliet wasn’t entirely herself.

“I wish you wouldn’t use that thing,” she said.

“What thing?”

“That terrible machine. D-mat.

I remember not being terribly surprised. It seemed like a perfect extension of how she felt about things the rest of us took for granted. Given her dislike of fabbers, it was amazing she had tolerated the idea of matter transmitters this long.

“It’s okay, Mom. They’re everywhere now, and cheap to use.”

“But you look so old,” she told me. “Don’t you see what it’s doing to you?”

No one likes being called old. I didn’t understand what I’d done to earn her disfavour. A little stung, I asked her to apologise. But she persisted. It soon became clear that she honestly and sincerely meant it. I did look old to her, older than I ought to. Time was mixed up in her head. I tried to reassure her that d-mat wasn’t sucking the life out of me, but she wasn’t going to listen. Never has there existed a woman more unwilling to change her mind. She insisted that unless I stopped using d-mat entirely, as she had, I was headed for an early grave.

Now, I’m not going to argue the merits of her case, because its logic . . . well, there was no logic. It was her disease talking, and being someone unwilling to admit to infirmity, d-mat was the only way she could think of to explain what her mind was telling her. Furthermore, anyone who wanted to stay in her good books had better make sure she didn’t catch them disobeying.

Much later, she explained the mechanism to me. To get from A to B, every object in the universe took a certain amount of time. Most things, people included, had a natural velocity that was much slower than the speed of light. D-mat enabled people to travel instantaneously, but that debt of time wasn’t forgotten. Time doesn’t just vanish, she reasoned. It has to go somewhere.

She believed that this lost time was added to us while we were in transit. So on every occasion we went through d-mat, in the instant we were between here and there, we aged the time it should have taken us. The more we travelled, the older we got.

Look at you, she told me once, you should be a young woman of twenty. But you look forty. Why would you do that to yourself?

I looked forty because I was forty. But that made no difference to Juliet. She was stubborn and ill, and people like that have always made for entertaining patients.

***

Juliet’s huge heart was untouched by her illness. She meant well, even when she was wrong, and she was ferociously stubborn. So when she told her family and dearest friends that we weren’t to use d-mat anymore, none of us had the mettle to argue. We lied out of kindness and did as we always did. I continued to visit her on Thursday evenings and often on Tuesday mornings, too, with baby Clair when she wasn’t being too fractious, because I took this as a sign that Juliet was in decline. I wanted grandmother and granddaughter to know each other as best they could in what time remained. Clair shared Juliet’s middle name, and was already showing signs of the same pigheadedness.

Juliet was sick but she wasn’t stupid. Africa to North America was no day trip. And I wasn’t the only one who made such journeys. It angered her when she thought she was being treated like a child, as it would anger anyone. Ultimately, she took the perfectly defensible step—in her eyes—of forbidding anyone from visiting her. From now on, she would visit them, to spare them from harm.

I don’t think it occurred to her to wonder how she would accomplish this feat. In her heart, and now in her mind, too, she still occupied the world before the Water Wars, back when people still drove cars, sailed the oceans in vast liners, and bought tickets in planes that flew above the clouds. D-mat had rendered all that obsolete. Why take time getting somewhere when you could be there in a moment? There were no airlines anymore, no freeways. She was a crazy old woman who wouldn’t look in mirrors and didn’t recognise old friends. Sometimes she forgot who Clair was entirely. How was she going to get from one side of the world to the other to visit her granddaughter?

The first time she went missing, drones picked her up two miles out of town, lugging a suitcase full of old clothes as though she intended carrying them all the way to Zambia.

I started visiting even more frequently, but that only made her upset and angry. She ran away three more times, and on the last time she slipped and hurt herself. I was waiting at the house when the peacekeepers brought her in. She had been crying. I could see the tear tracks on her dusty face. But you wouldn’t have known it from the way she carried on. She had been kidnapped, she said. She didn’t need chaperones, she was perfectly capable of looking after herself, she knew what she was doing.

We were forced to accept that she didn’t, and it nearly broke her.

***

A prison, she called the assisted care community I found for her. It was the best available, but of course she hated it. The confinement, the routine, the constant observation—all of it. One of the terrible things about her illness was how, despite causing her so much calamity, she remained recognisably who she had been. If she had become a different person, it would have been easier to do what we had to do. But we had no choice, for all that she argued and fought with us. It was like smacking a child who honestly thought she was the centre of the universe. My mother had the same sense of drama, if very different strategies, than my daughter, now almost two.

Predictably, she tried to escape and hurt herself again. Her carers started locking her room at night, but she always found a way to slip out. They tried sedating her. They considered tracking devices, physical restraints, drugs. But I didn’t want my mother to be treated like a criminal. All she wanted to do was visit her loved ones. All she wanted to do was keep them safe. She was my mother. Could I punish her for that?

Fearing a breakdown, I started coming every day. There was no point to it—there was nothing I could offer her that the staff didn’t already provide, except my own anxieties. I became obsessed with the possibility that Juliet might attempt self-harm rather than accept that this was how the world worked now. I would sit with her at nights until she fell asleep, cradling Clair in my lap. These two remarkable women, at opposite ends of their lives, totally ruled my own life now. I was exhausted. I didn’t see how I could help both of them much longer.

As I left the hospital one exhausting night, I was hailed by a groundskeeper I had seen a couple of times, tending the roses. A solid man in overalls with white hair poking out from under the hat he wore to keep the moonlight at bay, he was notable because he looked even older than Juliet. I couldn’t tell if he was a volunteer or a patient. Perhaps he was both.

“You’re Juliet’s girl,” he said. “Your mother has itchy feet.”

There was a smile in his voice. I was tired and unwilling to joke about my mother’s predicament.

“No, no,” he said, raising his gloved hands. There were thorns stuck into the thick leather. “I just want to help. You need to call Andre. He’ll know what to do.”

“Who’s Andre?”

“He’s a good man. We fought in the Wars.”

He didn’t say “together.” Nobody from that generation did. There were no sides in the Water Wars, just like there were no victors. There were only those who survived, and those who didn’t.

He gave me an address written on an actual piece of paper by a shaky hand. “Your mother needs him.”

He returned to his gardening and I walked on, convinced now that he was an inmate, one with problems perhaps as profound as my mother’s. I almost threw out the note he had given me, but was stopped by the effort he had gone to. I had no intention of making the call. I remember thinking that I would hand it in to the carers the next day. If he was acting out his illness to strangers in the middle of the night, they needed to be told.

That night Juliet sprained an ankle in the garden, not far from where I had met my would-be benefactor. When I came to settle her down, she wouldn’t look at me. I couldn’t tell what pained her more: the sight of me, or that I could see her in such desperate straits. And they were desperate. She was at a breaking point, and so was I. Both of us knew this couldn’t go on much longer.

I sent Andre a message when I got home. Where carers had failed, locks had failed, daughter and granddaughter had both failed, I would give a complete stranger the chance to work a miracle.

***

He called two hours later and explained who he was. I didn’t need to tell him my situation; the groundskeeper had warned him that I would call. The embarrassment of being talked about behind my back was assuaged by his calm, open manner. He was frank, too, in a way I found refreshing.

“There’s crazy and there’s crazy,” he said, when I explained my mother’s predicament. “I’ve been called it often enough. But until I hurt someone, I figure I’m allowed to do anything I want. And if there’s some way I can help another in need . . . .”

Can you help?”

He didn’t answer the question directly.

Andre was a hobbyist, he explained. He loved boats. Where some people dabbled in tiny sloops or yachts, taking gentle joyrides in secluded bays, his interest lay in the big ships that had plied the oceans. The outriggers, the tankers, the icebreakers. The whaling vessels that had driven entire species to the brink of extinction. The destroyers that the navy of one nation might have sent to do war with another. Humanity had once ruled the oceans by means of such things. That there was no need for them anymore didn’t stop Andre from obsessing about the way things had been.

What did that have to do with me, I wanted to know. I already had one crazy person to look after.

He laughed and explained that hobbyists came in all shapes and sizes. Some shared his aquatic passion. Others dreamed of airships, freight trains, racing cars, drilling rigs. Their passions consumed their lives. They became obsessed. Every waking thought was spent searching out old plans, old routes, old ways that were at risk of disappearing forever.

“My mother’s never going to take up a hobby like this, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

He laughed again. I heard a great joy in it. He might have been crazy, but he found a way to be happy despite it.

“She doesn’t need a hobby,” he said. “She needs a hobbyist. We don’t just dream and obsess. We build. And we like to play.

***

I glimpsed it then, the solution to our problem. Juliet might not be able to get on a plane and fly to Zambia, but if she could take a train to the coast, then sail across the ocean, and catch a humvee across the plains . . .

It seemed ridiculous at first, I’ll admit. I wasn’t going to entrust a sick old woman to a pack of strangers and their handmade contraptions.

But the more Andre talked—the more of this strange vision came into view—I began to see how, even if nothing concrete eventuated, even if his wild plans came to nothing, it would give Juliet something to focus on that wasn’t her prison or her ageing daughter. There was value in this as a distraction, if nothing else.

So I asked him if he would like to meet her. He agreed and we made a time, a week from then. I didn’t ask how he was going to get there. It would be too easy to talk myself out of it if he said something too weird.

That day, I told Juliet to expect a visitor. I hoped Andre knew a good impression was required of him, for both our sakes. I shouldn’t have doubted him. When he strode into the room, a man Juliet’s age wearing white pants, blue jacket, cravat, and a sea captain’s cap tucked firmly on his head, skin burned brown by the sun and hair bleached salt-white, I saw my mother’s eyes light up with delight, and I smiled so hard I almost cried right then.

I introduced them and, after a few moments, slipped out to leave them to it. I don’t think they noticed. He was telling her tall tales and she was laughing as I hadn’t heard her laugh for a year. I went back home to Clair, and cried. I felt a great weight shifting on my shoulders. I wasn’t released yet, but hope had returned. It didn’t matter if Andre’s wild schemes ever came to fruition. Juliet had exchanged one brand of crazy for another.

A change is as good as a holiday, she used to say.

***

The details of their first adventure don’t matter now. It was clear from the outset that they weren’t going to give up until Juliet visited me in Mfuwe, were I was stationed, and who was I to disavow them of their dreams? It wasn’t just a case of Andre giving Juliet something to look forward to. I think they fuelled each other’s dreams. No, I’m certain of it. I’ve met quite a few hobbyists now, and there’s no one as desperate and guileless as an obsessive who’s finally found an audience.

Juliet and Andre’s relationship was platonic. What swept her off her feet wasn’t his rugged good looks or his salty tales. What drew him to her wasn’t her queen-in-captivity circumstances. They spoke every day to hone the details of their plan until, three months later, they were ready to put it into effect. I discharged her from the centre and, with Clair and the carers, waved her off from the steps as she drove away—drove!—in a cloud of dust.

It wasn’t as though she was vanishing from the face of the Earth. We were in constant communication as she jaunted from car to boat, from boat to jeep, from jeep to blimp. She sent me pictures of all the hobbyists she met, of dolphins she saw dancing in the waves, of cliffs rising up as land approached, of the road vanishing under as the miles swept by.

Andre was with her the entire time. I had entrusted him with her, threatened to enact a terrible vengeance if so much as a single grey hair was harmed on her head, and he didn’t let me down. He loved her for giving his passion an outlet, just as she loved him for saving her life. And when they touched down in the Mfuwe reserve and she stepped from the balloon, as tanned and joyous as he was, I loved them both, and took them in my arms and cried once more.

***

So that was how Juliet spent her final years, flitting from place to place in the care of her hobbyist friends. She didn’t share their interest in the antique crafts they maintained, but they treated her like royalty all the same. She meant as much to them as they meant to her—more, I think, then I’ll ever truly understand. The bond they shared went beyond friendship or admiration. They lived in a fairy tale of patronage and chivalry. They moved through the world, unseen, unnoticed, outside of time.

When Juliet died in her sleep high above the Andes, they carried her home to me on a bier of flowers and sang her to her rest with all the others who had loved her. These strange, lonely men and women and their families. My heart swells now to think of them.

My mother’s final words, Andre said, were, “Take me home.” And he did.

***

That wasn’t the end of it. Some of the hobbyists had never been to Zambia before. They took the chance to look around while they were here. I fabbed mattresses and put out beds on every flat surface. People slept inside, on the veranda, in their vehicles, on top of their vehicles . . . There were people everywhere. I never once felt lonely and Clair had so many new friends to play with she didn’t know what to do with herself.

It couldn’t last. As the hobbyists left in dribs and drabs, I reread the many messages Juliet had sent from far-flung places of the world, putting names to faces and saying heartfelt thanks and goodbyes. I didn’t expect to see any of them again. They were Juliet’s friends, not mine. Knowing that my crazy mother had done so much both amazed me and left me feeling slightly alienated from her. Where was the difficult woman I had known? Had I lost her without realizing it, long before her death?

Andre was the last to leave. He had a present for me, something Juliet had asked him to convey in safety. It was her diary, which she had kept assiduously through all her journeys. We hugged, and he said we were always welcome to sail with him, if ever the inclination took us. One day, I said, knowing it was unlikely. Clair, at three, is too young for adventures, although I’m sure she would disagree. By the time she grows up, the hobbyists might be gone. Unless a new generation takes up the challenge of keeping these old machines running, they will rust and sink to the ocean floor.

“Juliet was a child at heart,” Andre said. “We will always miss her.”

When he was gone, I settled Clair on my lap and read the words my mother had written.

The diary was not a profound read. In it she grizzled about the food on the tankers, which was invariably awful. She took Andre to task for constantly taking detours, or for using modern navigational technology, which she said was bound to lead them to becoming breached on an uncharted reef somewhere. She wondered why there had to be so many long delays without even trying to grasp the enormous logistical challenges of ferrying one woman across the globe using technologies superseded fifty years ago. She ranted about how d-mat was the source of all her inconveniences. D-mat, and the Air, and fabbers, and lenses . . . .

I smiled to read it. She hadn’t changed a bit. And it made me think that her journey had been as much about the spaces between her destinations as the destinations themselves. There was and is something reassuring in that. Her adventure is over, but mine continues, and Clair’s has barely begun. Wherever we go, we will have gone somewhere. The road doesn’t vanish just because we have arrived at the end.

[end]

Please visit Lightspeed Magazine (www.lightspeedmagazine.com) to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the November 2013 issue, which also features original science fiction by Beth Revis (“The Turing Test”), along with SF reprints by James Tiptree, Jr. (“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”) and James Stoddard (“The Battle of York”). Plus, we have original fantasy by Kelly Barnhill (“The Insect and the Astronomer”) and Matthew Hughes (“Sleeper”—a Kaslo Chronicles tale), and fantasy reprints by Ian McDonald (“Tonight We Fly”) and Maria Dahvana Headley (“Bit-U-Men”). All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, along with feature interviews with NFL punter/über-geek Chris Kluwe and Dinosaur Comics-creator Ryan North. For our ebook readers, we also have the novella “Holy Places” by Martha Wells and a novel excerpt of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Seal Team 13 by Evan Curie, and Starhawk by Jack McDevitt. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99. It's another great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Lightspeed!