I wanted to promote -- and celebrate -- the publication on June 1 of Is Anybody Out There? (Daw Books), my co-edited anthology with Nick Gevers, and what better way to do this than to share with readers some of the fiction contained therein! (By the way, have you read the first review of IAOT? that I posted on May 15?)
I first met Pat Cadigan at my first ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas, in 1988, and we've remained friends ever since. I recall writing to Pat prior to that convention, informing her that I was specifically reading some of her fiction ahead of time so that we could chat about it during the con. I was then, and always will be, a fan of her work.
And so, in its entirety (well, actually, in three parts, so check back every couple days) -- and with the kind permission of the author -- is the short story "The Taste of Night" by Pat Cadigan.
About this story Pat writes: "When it comes to the question of why we haven't heard from/seen any aliens, I'm partial to the explanation that we are constantly receiving communication from them but it's so alien, we don't recognize it for what it is. Maybe there's a lot of stuff that's been going right over our heads (pardon the expression, once you read the story) and for a very long time. I can't prove this theory but as far as I know, no one has disproved it, either. Makes for a good story, I think..."
by Pat Cadigan
The taste of night rather than the falling temperature woke her. Nell curled up a little more and continued to doze. It would be a while before the damp chill coming up from the ground could get through the layers of heavy cardboard to penetrate the sleeping bag and blanket cocooning her. She was fully dressed and her spare clothes were in the sleeping bag, too -- not much but enough to make good insulation. Sometime in the next twenty-four hours, though, she would have to visit a laundromat because phew.
Phew was one of those things that didn't change; well, not so far, anyway. She hoped it would stay that way. By contrast, the taste of night was one of her secret great pleasures although she still had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Now and then something almost came to her, almost. But when she reached for it either in her mind or by actually touching something, there was nothing at all.
Sight. Hearing. Smell. Taste. Touch. ________.
Memory sprang up in her mind with the feel of pale blue stretched long and tight between her hands.
The blind discover that their other senses, particularly hearing, intensify to compensate for the lack. The deaf can be sharp-eyed but also extra sensitive to vibration, which is what sound is to the rest of us.
However, those who lose their sense of smell find they have lost their sense of taste as well because the two are so close. To lose feeling is usually a symptom of a greater problem. A small number of people feel no pain but this puts them at risk for serious injury and life-threatening illnesses.
That doctor had been such a patient woman. Better yet, she had had no deep well of stored-up suspicion like every other doctor Marcus had taken her to. Nell had been able to examine what the doctor was telling her, touching it all over, feeling the texture. Even with Marcus's impatience splashing her like an incoming tide, she had been able to ask a question.
A sixth sense? Like telepathy or clairvoyance?
The doctor's question had been as honest as her own and Nell did her best to make herself clear.
If there were some kind of extra sense, even a person who had it would have a hard time explaining it. Like you or me trying to explain sight to someone born blind.
Nell had agreed and asked the doctor to consider how the other five senses might try to compensate for the lack.
That was where the memory ended, leaving an aftertaste similar to night, only colder and with a bit of sour.
Nell sighed, feeling comfortable and irrationally safe. Feeling safe was irrational if you slept rough. Go around feeling safe and you wouldn't last too long. It was just that the indented area she had found at the back of this building -- cinema? auditorium? -- turned out to be as cozy as it had looked. It seemed to have no purpose except as a place where someone could sleep unnoticed for a night or two. More than two would have been pushing it, but that meant nothing to some rough sleepers. They'd camp in a place like this till they wore off all the hidden. Then they'd get seen and kicked out. Next thing you knew, the spot would be fenced off or filled in so no one could ever use it again. One less place to go when there was nowhere to stay.
Nell hated loss, hated the taste: dried-out bitter crossed with salty that could hang on for days, weeks, even longer. Worse, it could come back without warning and for no reason except that, perhaps like rough sleepers, it had nowhere else to go. There were other things that tasted just as bad to her but nothing worse, and nothing that lingered for anywhere nearly as long, not even the moldy-metal tang of disappointment.
After a bit, she realized the pools of colour she'd been watching behind her closed eyes weren't the remnants of a slow-to-fade dream but real voices of real humans, not too far away, made out of the same stuff she was; either they hadn't noticed her or they didn't care.
Nell uncurled slowly -- never make any sudden moves was another good rule for rough sleepers -- and opened her eyes. An intense blue-white light blinded her with the sound of a cool voice in her right ear:
Blue-white stars don't last long enough for any planets orbiting them to develop intelligent life. Maybe not any life, even the most rudimentary. Unless there is a civilization advanced enough to seed those worlds with organisms modified to evolve at a faster rate. That might beg the question of why an advanced civilization would do that. But the motives of a civilization that advanced would/could/might seem illogical if not incomprehensible to any not equally developed.
Blue-white memory stretched farther this time: a serious-faced young woman in a coffee shop, watching a film clip on a notebook screen. Nell had sneaked a look at it on her way to wash up in the women's restroom. It took her a little while to realize that she had had a glimpse of something to do with what had been happening to her, or more precisely, why it was happening, what it was supposed to mean. On the heels of that realization had come a new one, probably the most important: they were communicating with her.
Understanding always came to her at oblique angles. The concept of that missing sixth sense, for instance -- when she finally became aware of it, she realized that it had been lurking somewhere in the back of her mind for a very, very long time, years and years, a passing notion or a ragged fragment of a mostly forgotten dream. It had developed so slowly that she might have lived her whole life without noticing it, instead burying it under more mundane concerns and worries and fears.
Somehow it had snagged her attention -- a mental pop-up window. Marcus had said everyone had an occasional stray thought about something odd. Unless she was going to write a weird story or draw a weird picture, there was no point in obsessing about it.
Was it the next doctor who had suggested she do exactly that -- write a weird story or draw a weird picture, or both? Even if she had really wanted to, she couldn't. She knew for certain by then that she was short a sense, just as if she were blind or deaf.
Marcus had said he didn't understand why that meant she had to leave home and sleep on the street. She didn't either, at the time. But even if she had understood enough to tell him that the motives of a civilization that advanced would/could/might seem illogical if not incomprehensible to any not equally developed, all it would have meant to him was that she was, indeed, crazy as a bedbug, unquote.
The social worker he had sent after her hadn't tried to talk her into a hospital or a shelter right away but the intent was deafening. Every time she found Nell it drowned everything else out. Nell finally had to make her say it just to get some peace. For a few days after that, everything was extra scrambled. She was too disoriented to understand anything. All she knew was that they were bombarding her with their communication and her senses were working overtime, trying to make up for her inadequacy.
The blinding blue-white light dissolved and her vision cleared. Twenty feet away was an opening in the back of the building the size of a double-garage door. Seven or eight men were hanging around just outside, some of them sitting on wooden crates, smoking cigarettes, drinking from bottles or large soft-drink cups. The pools of colour from their voices changed to widening circular ripples, like those spreading out from raindrops falling into still water. The colours crossed each other to make new colours, some she had never seen anywhere but in her mind.
The ripples kept expanding until they reached the backs of her eyes and swept through them with a sensation of a wind ruffling feathery flowers. She saw twinkling lights and then a red-hot spike went through her right temple. There was just enough time for her to inhale before an ice-pick went through her eye to cross the spike at right angles.
Something can be a million lightyears away and in your eye at the same time.
Pat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two making-of movie books, four media tie-ins, three short-fiction collections, one young adult book, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novels Synners (1991) and Fools (1994). She tweets as Cadigan, faces Facebook as Pat Cadigan, lives out loud on LiveJournal as fastfwd, and still finds time to roam around London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler.