Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

The Finest, Fullest Flowering

A sour note shrieked from the limousine’s speakers, making Milston’s fingers curl in his lap. He took a moment to compose himself before rapping precisely, and with a now steady hand, on the glass separating him from the driver. The tone had droned into a hum that tunelessly dreamt of someday becoming hypnotic. “What is this we are listening to, and is there any way to turn it off?”

“Down, sir, but not off, I’m afraid.” The driver lowered the volume to a level barely audible; this was in some respects even more annoying. “Part of the colony’s ambiance, sir. Part of the design. Won’t be much longer though, sir. We’re almost there.”

“There” turned out to be a pale brown stucco bungalow, unremarkable except for the roof of green ceramic tile. From overhead, you might not see it among the trees. Everything here—from the hidden runway to the matte and muted colors of the limousine—bespoke discretion, if not outright camouflage. As he stepped from the car, and the driver came around to retrieve his single suitcase and worn black valise from the trunk, he heard the volume of the music increase again, and he realized it was everywhere, moaning from speakers in the trees. There was no turning it down. The sour notes, still plentiful, were also now unavoidable.

His luggage was placed on a cart. “Your bags will be waiting for you in your suite. But first, sir, your tour.” The driver bowed, ducked back into the limousine, and executed a turn that took the car back toward the airfield. Milston looked about, waiting for a word or direction from the plump older man who stood watchfully by the cart, presumably a concierge. “Am I to meet my patron here?” he asked finally.

“Mr. Milston, it is my great pleasure. Like you, I delight in anonymity. In fact, it has become essential to my survival. Without it, I could never travel—although at this point I rarely leave the island. All my needs are more than met here . . . as I hope they will be for you. Shall we begin?”

Milston took the proffered hand, found it dry, uncalloused, possessed of a faint tremor. “What am I to call you?” he asked.

“Patron would be perfect. I think you will find me worthy of the title. Nothing would please me more than to support your work. I understand you will need convincing, but surely you have already looked into my ability to fulfill my promises?”

A young woman in a dun uniform emerged from the bungalow to retrieve the cart. The men walked into the trees. They soon came out on a terrace overlooking hectares of manicured parkland. There were more jade roofed bungalows, but no buildings taller than three stories—nothing that stood above the trees. From the plane, as it descended out of blinding tropical clouds, he had seen breakers and beach on the far side of the island. Plenty of room for the Patron’s playground.

“Everywhere you wander—and I assure you there is no place off limits—you will come across beauties and wonders. My aim is to provide them in endless profusion. Of course, we are only a decade into the garden by now—barely out of the planning stages.”

A small silver car awaited them, an electric capsule mounted on a buried track. The Patron urged him in, and once they were seated, the tiny car glided down the sloped terrace. The ubiquitous drone of the music had modulated into something like a faintly complaining whine. The car sped through sculpture gardens and groves where avant-garde topiary trimmers had been at work.

“I will not attempt to impress you with the names of my gardeners. As with many I’ve hired, the best practitioners are known by name only to the connoisseur. I rely on cognoscenti to advise me in all things. Which is of course how you came to my attention. Your work is the finest in the field, and you are approaching the height of your expressive powers. I hope to provide the opportunity to explore avenues you might never have dared believe could open to you.”

The car rolled to a stop at another low, earth-colored villa, this one overlooking a lake. Fans of spray wavered against a backdrop of palms. The air was just warm enough to make the breeze delicious.

Inside the house, the music was muted to whatever managed to filter in from outside. “A home of this sort is what we provide initially,” the Patron explained. “With time, architectural variety is expected to arise, and you would be encouraged to help design your own ideal accommodations. A great deal of what you see is blank slate, unmolded clay . . . whatever medium suits you.”

They had come out into a room of several stories’ depth. The ceiling was all glass, flooded with sunlight, the cavernous space below filled with scaffolding. The center of all activity, suspended in the pit, was an enormous black stone over which dozens of artisans scrambled, busy with torches, chisels, drills. “A single iron meteorite, brought here at my expense, that Samira Potocki might pursue her inspiration. It is the heaviest single object ever lifted by air transport. I first had to commission and build a plane powerful enough to carry it. But expense has never hindered me. I liberate my artists to dream as big as they like . . . or as small. I just completed a STEM lab, for the whim of another resident who works at the level of the electron. Few will ever see the work he creates—but that is no longer the point of art, if it ever was. If the audience is properly appreciative, can it matter to the artist if that audience numbers only one? Ah, Samira! Meet our latest prospective colonist!”

She was a small dark woman in dusty coveralls, with sharp features and bright eyes. “There is nothing so radiant as an artist fulfilled,” the Patron said, and her smile supported his statement.

“Delighted,” she said. “I hope we will soon be neighbors.”

“What are you working on?” he asked to be polite.

“I’m not working on, I’m working toward.”

“I offer all my artists the space and resources they need to explore without worrying about arriving anywhere. For Samira, a meteorite . . . for you, I wonder? I hope to learn what I can offer, beyond the obvious supplies.”

Milston inclined his head, squeezed the sculptor’s hand briefly, and was ushered forward. Beyond the space full of scaffolding, outside again, another car waited to carry them deeper into jungle.

“You can of course walk, drive or be driven, or request any manner of conveyance,” the Patron assured him. “For some, the incubatory process is stimulated by aimless driving, so we have started on construction of a self-contained highway system. There are creative solutions to every need, when you have access to sufficient resources. Also, I detected perhaps a bit of a mutual spark between you and Samira? Let me assure you that privacy will be respected and promoted in a way the outside can never approach. My guests can explore any type of relationships they wish, without censure. Whatever limits you wish to impose on your own tastes, I leave you to set for yourself. I hazard no guess as to your predilections. Now . . . from the visual arts, to the audible.”

The building they next approached was a thin spire among the trees, itself a treehouse sheathed in translucent resin mesh. It was awkwardly placed in a scene of such balanced beauty. “One of our earliest residents,” the Patron said. “As you can see, he had a hand in his home’s design—and while his natural talents are many, in styling himself an architect I fear he might have finally overreached. Still, I do not like to inhibit my artists. This is all part of his growth.”

They rode a small cylindrical lift up the trunk of the tower, stepping out onto a circular loft that gave a view through the trees of distant shore and a misty estuary. Wide white birds glided toward the waves. Seated before the vista, as if controlling it from a vast console of sliders and keys, was a man with long, thinning grey hair.

The squonking of the island’s ongoing soundtrack grew aggrieved. “Our resident composer,” said the Patron.

“Why are you disturbing me? Have I not asked you repeatedly to leave me off your tour?”

The composer would not turn around. He treated them to a view of his bald, spotty pate, and that was all.

“In most cases, I have respected that wish,” said the Patron. “But I felt an exception was necessary.” The Patron turned to Milston with an apologetic expression. “From time to time I may insist on a patron’s privilege. I trust I know better than to abuse it. Consider that we only come to admire the view.”

“Well you’ve seen it. Now be off!”

“I have been enjoying your latest compositions very much, I should mention,” said the Patron with apparent sincerity.

The bony white fingers paused on the keyboard. “I am told that in certain of the residences, speakers have been disabled!” The air trembled with an extended note not quite of melancholy . . . not quite of anything specific enough to characterize. Milston found himself staring at the poorly manicured fingers, the ragged, bitten nails, like visual equivalents of the sounds that had accompanied his tour.

“A pleasure meeting you,” he said, but there was no verbal reply from the composer, just another misplaced warble, a sonic non sequitur that sent the birds from the trees.

From the treehouse they proceeded to a vast kitchen complex, where chefs with names he almost recognized ordered about kitchen staff of only slightly lesser celebrity. Lunch was served above the waves, on an enclosed pier from which he could look back toward the island or out toward the undisturbed horizon. Each dish was a revelation.

“Imagine such miracles at every meal,” the Patron said. “And in every aspect of your life and work. Does it tempt you? There is much more still to see, but I wonder what you think so far?”

“You are persuasive,” Milston allowed himself to say.

“Well, it is not I alone . . . it is the enterprise. What we have here is a place that allows the fullest, finest flowering of human endeavor, in all its variety. The arts are permitted come into their own. What I get out of all this is something I cannot describe. To be patron . . . there is no greater honor or pleasure. Now, shall we go? There are others to meet. A tiny portion of our residents, but it should give you a taste of all you’ll have access to. Ultimately, our greatest resource is the community we’re gathering.”

“Before we continue, I just want to clarify the one stipulation that I’m sure has been a sticking point for many before me. The fact that . . .”

“You can never leave?”

“That one, yes.”

“Our residents find security in certainty. I can bring anything I like here, to the island, but nothing gets out. Nothing, and no one. A prison, some have called it, but one that allows for utter freedom of expression. I should think you especially would find this liberating, given that your own work has been so restricted, curtailed, and banned outright.”

“What about the rest of the world? Don’t you wonder if you’re robbing them of something essential? Something they might miss?”

“Does the world deserve them, Mr. Milston? Would that world miss you?”

Milston, sitting very still, said nothing more.

“Shall we?”

They rose and walked along the pier, once more back to a silent silver capsule.

The rest of the day was spent in the company of an extraordinary variety of extraordinary people—poets, painters, planners, programmers. At sunset they joined a party being held in a plaza by the sea. Milston mingled and the Patron disappeared, but Samira soon found him and introduced him to still more of the colony’s residents. The composer did not attend the fete, but he was there in spirit with a brooding score that made them all laugh, eliciting frequent snide remarks.

“Please tell me you are a new composer,” said an elderly woman with reflective pupils, but then she stopped his mouth with a finger. “No, don’t! For now, let us leave some mystery. There is little enough of that here, though each new arrival brings the hope of it.” And she gave him a wine-soaked kiss, with an expertly placed but feeble grasp at his crotch, which cost him nothing to endure.

It was full tropic dark but still early when the Patron found him in the crowd, and pulled him aside once more. “Mr. Milston, I have given you a full day of my time. This is all I can offer a prospective resident, I’m afraid. In the morning, we either put you on a plane and you never hear from me again, or you wake to begin your new life here. If the former, I very much enjoyed meeting you, and I regret but respect your decision. If the latter, then you may sleep in as late as you wish. There will be plenty of time for further orientation, and I promise you, I will enjoy following your work, and look forward to learning from the master. Now, your suite is ready if you are.”

They rode a silver car in silence through a landscape of artfully illuminated fountains and pools. Guests walked among the trees, watching the car pass, as if wondering what choice he had reached. But there had never really been any choice to make. When the car stopped before the bungalow where the day’s tour had begun, he shook the Patron’s hand and said, “I appear to be jet-lagged, apologies if I have not quite been myself. I’m sure I’ll feel better after a night’s rest. Can we meet again sometime tomorrow afternoon?”

“Perfect,” said the Patron. “I’ll leave instructions that you are not to be disturbed. Good night. And welcome. You’ve made a splendid choice.”

The silver car whispered away.

The house was small, but it had all the comforts and conveniences. He unpacked his suitcases and put his clothes away; found a bottle of very old whisky and a box of very young cigars, but these were not what tempted him. He went out onto the terrace and gazed over the gardens. He was braced and waiting for the aimless soundtrack to make one more offensive squawk when, suddenly, it stopped. The sounds of island night crept in. It was bliss. The landscape was sparingly painted with light, evocative as a dream. He saw hints of buildings through the trees, the glow of ornamental ponds, white coral pillars, miles and miles of gardens. A distant spire that must have belonged to the composer, now retired for the night. In the absence of music he felt he could finally think, could finally imagine what might take its place, what this garden truly needed.

“The finest, fullest flowering,” the Patron had stated, and indeed it was true. The place was in full bloom. But every garden needed pruning, and a blossom deserved to be lopped before its prime had passed, before its petals fell.

He set his black bag on the table, thinking of tools he had always wanted but never bothered to acquire, never daring to think he might get to use them. But that could come later. For now, he had all he needed to get started.

He took out his prize set of shears, edges gleaming, of pristine surgical steel.

I’ll begin with that composer’s horrible, hideous, ragged-nailed fingers, he thought, looking off toward the dark house of sound, imagining notes that were very sweet indeed.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw is the author of six novels, including the International Horror Guild Award winner, The 37th Mandala. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies since the 1970s. In 1997, he joined Valve Software, and over the next nearly two decades, worked as lead writer on the popular Half-Life and Dota 2 franchises. In 2016, he retired to resume writing his own stories. Recent publications include a novella, White Spawn, available as a chapbook and ebook from PS Publishing. Updates and other things may be found at his website, www.marclaidlaw.com.