After we crossed the Northwest Passages, a vast expanse of gray sea, and were over Baffin Island, the Commodore allowed the barbot to serve me a martini.
“Just one, Rome. Try to keep yourself together. After all, we have Claire to think about.”
The Commodore said this in front of Claire, in fact, in front of everyone. We were on the bridge, admiring the Commodore as he steered AS Vanderbilt, jaunty in a white yacht cap and red blazer with a garish crest on the pocket. I ignored my father and gratefully sipped the ice cold cocktail infused with toad venom. The barbot knew my preferences.
“Peyton, that tickles.”
“That’s why I did it.”
My older brother and his new wife tussled and giggled. Laurel, my mother, watched with an approving smile, faint like everything else about her. The Commodore chuckled, but then returned his attention to the wheel. I continued to drink. The bridge was in the bow. Encased in a transparent glaz canopy, we had a three hundred degree view of bright sky above and surging seascape below, an amazing prospect that once thrilled me as a child. We were over the Davis Strait by that point. Not long now. The Commodore turned the wheel hard to port.
“Turbulence ahead. I don’t want anything upsetting Claire. For all I know, she may already be carrying my grandson.”
“Commodore, how you talk.”
As if Claire would get pregnant on her own, like a savage. I took another sip, tried to make the drink last. Only the first day and my family had already stretched my nerves to the breaking point. We all knew the Commodore was faking, that the giant airship was efficiently, continuously steered by AI with no need for human guidance or help. I’d figured it out at twelve and lost respect for him forever. But still, here I sat with my family, headed once again to our summer resort.
“Wait until you see Uummannaq, Claire. I know Peyton has shown you holograms, but until you see it in person, you can’t appreciate it properly. It’s a very special place, full of happy family memories. And I know you’re going to add to them this summer, my dear.”
Claire giggled. She was blonde, tall, and perfect, no surprise since her characteristics were specifically chosen by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, in close consultation with their personal biogenetic engineers.
The conical, gray airship sailed in solitary grandeur through a blindingly blue sky over a black sea. Powerful electric motors drove long bladed propellers at four hundred kph. Midmorning sunlight poured into the bridge, softened by glaz filters. Laurel had a bowl of strawberries and cream. I finished my drink and blinked at the barbot.
“I said one, Rome.”
Vanderbilt passed Disko Island, a lush, green dot fifteen kilometers below. Almost there. To our right, a vast, endless sward of tropical jungle spread before us, Greenland. The airship descended. The Commodore vigorously spun the wheel.
“Stand beside the canopy, Claire. I want you to be first to see Uummannaq.”
Claire took Peyton’s hand. They went to the bridge’s edge and looked down at the white capped sea below.
“Uummannaq straight ahead,” the Commodore cried. “Clear the decks and batten the hatches for fun and adventure.”
I inwardly groaned and yearned for another drink. Claire wildly squealed in delight.
“Oh, there it is. And it’s wonderful, just like you said, Commodore.”
Laurel went to look as well. Vanderbilt headed toward the broad, electric blue fjord carved from Greenland’s mass. A small island loomed ahead, capped by a towering crag, the most prominent peak in western Greenland, topped in turn by a half kilometer high structure of gleaming glaz and titanium steel, the Vanderbilt summer home, one of a half dozen Greenland private resorts.
“Oh, look,” Laurel said. “It hasn’t changed.”
“Why should it, dear?”
A blazing fireball soared in a tight spiral around the airship, then flashed past in a shower of red and gold sparks. The airship pitched and yawed, a violent oscillation AI guided stabilizers desperately scrambled to overcome. The fireball streaked toward Uummannaq.
“What’s that?” Claire shrieked.
Peyton sighed. “Don’t worry, dear. That’s just Barton.”
Indifferent to the terror my younger brother’s typical stunt inflicted upon Claire, the Commodore chuckled. “They broke the mold when they made Barton.”
“Thank God for that too.”
“Please, Eaton. Can’t you be pleasant?”
“I’ll be pleasant, Laurel, if you don’t call me ‘Eaton.'”
“That’s enough, Rome.”
I fell into sullen silence. The Vanderbilt steered for the mansion’s apex. Propeller blades retracted into their housings that folded in turn into apertures in the airship’s horizontally ribbed hull. VTOL rotors steadily whirred the airship downward. Three massive clamps on an inline axle sprang open on the airship’s keel. Matching catches opened on the landing pod beneath. With a great hiss of helium, Vanderbilt slipped into the berth. The clamps slammed home. The Commodore tethered the wheel with a rope and dusted his hands, plainly pleased by yet another job well done.
“Safe and sound, just as I promised. Now to disembark and begin our vacation.”
The Commodore snapped his fingers. With gentle, hydraulic ease, the canopy split in two. An air saloon ascended from the landing pod. It hovered close, an electric rotor powered open coach with seats for eight upholstered in mammoth hide. A short ramp extended from the saloon and locked into place with the bridge. The Commodore needlessly assisted Laurel up the ramp. Claire and Peyton followed with goosing and giggling and other obligatory, young married nonsense. I went last, sat up front, and brooded.
The ramp unlocked and retracted. The Commodore sat in the stern and put his hand to the tiller. The saloon lifted noiselessly away from the airship. Black maintenance drones swarmed over Vanderbilt like a horde of winged ants. A gap opened in the landing pod. The saloon descended into the mansion. Numerous, gargantuan floors passed by, endless, tastefully furnished spaces brightly lit by transparent glaz walls that opened onto blue panoramas of sea and sky.
The saloon landed in garden niche T-37, a recessed, hundred hectare inset with an AI controlled microclimate. The Commodore intended to show off his collection. Hopefully, I could drink when lunch was served. Amid the broad green sward where lesser Cretaceous reptilians gamboled, bots laid out a feast fit for the gods upon a damask clad table. The centerpiece was an auroch’s gleaming, roasted haunch, clad in aspic, surrounded by broiled chickens, ducks, and pheasants.
“Everyone must be famished after that long trip. Sit down and eat.”
We took our places. The Commodore nodded. Wheeled, bow-tied waitbots trundled forward and served choice viands whether we wanted them or not, grilled filet of coelecanth, thick, juicy indricotherium chops, three kilo bats stripped of their wings and fricasseed in their skins.
“Oh, what a nice meal. Don’t you think so, Claire?” Laurel said.
A few meters away, a velociraptor tore out a duck billed hadrosaur’s throat with his sharp claws. Claire gasped. Peyton smiled.
“Don’t worry, Claire. We’re all right behind the tension barrier.”
“Don’t let a raptor eating lunch bother you. After all, you’re doing the same thing, just with less effort.”
Barton strolled up. Another of his sneaky entrances. He must have used a tether.
“This is Claire, right? Say, Peyton got lucky. I got to congratulate you.”
Barton slipped an arm around Claire’s shoulders and planted a kiss on her mouth more appropriate for a late night date than a new sister-in-law. Peyton just took it. But then again we all did, even the Commodore, but he thought Barton was cute.
“Barton, enough horsing around. Sit next to your mother.”
He sat down, pecked Laurel on the cheek, and ate with his huge appetite. I had a chicken wing and a large glass of white wine I frequently refilled.
“So how is Galt’s Gulch, Barton?” the Commodore asked.
“Dull. That’s why I came early. AI flashed the airship was only five K’s away. I decided to give you a real Uummannaq welcome, Claire.”
She smiled. “I admit I was scared, but Peyton explained it to me. You certainly make an impression, Barton.”
“You could get us killed with your stunts, Barton. Maybe someday we’ll get lucky and you’ll succeed.”
Laurel’s mouth formed a small “o” of dismay. The Commodore gave his patented cold stare, but I was long immune. Peyton scowled. Barton just laughed. Used to rigidly maintained gentility, Claire’s eyes went wide in blank incomprehension. Two triceratops mated in the distance, reptile jaws gaped wide in carnal ecstasy. I continued to drink. It was just as good a time as any other for Claire to learn what the family was really like.
“You’re overreacting and being gratuitously cruel, Eaton. You promised if I showed you the respect you claim I’ve denied you, you’d curb your sharp tongue and drinking in return. I see you’ve no intention of fulfilling your bargain. Try to be civil for a change.”
I got up and walked away.
“Eaton, you have not been dismissed from the table.”
“The name is Rome,” I said over my shoulder.
“You can always take a rocket pod home, Rome,” Barton said.
I ignored him and continued to the terrace’s edge. As I surmised, a tether hung there. I winked. The tether recognized my retinal signature and came alive, crackling with energy. I slipped on a silicon glove, broke the invisible tension barrier, and grasped the tether.
Bonded tight by the glove, I plummeted downward, twenty stories to my quarters at the mansion’s base, as far from my family as I could get. Once inside, I downed a stiff, straight shot of skullbustium and laid down on my bed, anxious for oblivion.
I slipped into a deep, black sleep, devoid of dreams.
It was almost 1800 when I came to, slightly groggy. I shook off the drug’s aftereffects, cursed my indestructible constitution, and got up. A wink turned a glaz wall transparent. The summer sun was pitched high in the northern latitudes. Hours of daylight remained. I decided to walk outside and filled my flask with brandy.
I slipped through a side entrance to the two story high master portal. It was a balmy thirty degrees C. Uummannaq’s craggy flanks were fringed with tropical foliage, wine palms, teak, ebony, mahogany. Green lichen ate into the mountain, ever so slowly sapped the stones of nutrients.
I put on a glove, and snapped my fingers with my other hand. A tether snaked from a wall to form a gentle arc downward to the plain. I grasped the tether and flew toward the ground, careful to look away (heading rapidly, inexorably toward an unyielding landscape makes me nauseous). At the last moment, the tether slowed my fall and I landed with a fair grace. The plain was thickly forested with wine palms and other fruit bearing trees.
I took a path to the sea. A faint breeze tried to ruffle my hair, but it insistently stayed in place. Thick undergrowth restricted my vision. Waves crashed in the distance.
A large, male dodo jumped onto the path before me, gray feathers ruffled and short wings spread wide in a full threat display. He snapped his powerful beak at me. His mate must be nursing an egg somewhere nearby. The dodo was ready to fight.
“Here, pretty birdy.”
The silicon googleplexchip ring on my right hand discharged low voltage into the bird. The dodo shrieked and ran into the brush. I resumed my walk. Two kilometers later, I reached the beach, a broad, flat stretch of sand that extended into the hazy distance. Dodoes hustled among nearby trees in search of fallen ripe fruit. This was where we swam, when Peyton and I were small, before Barton came along.
I arranged palm leaves into an improvised pallet in the shade, stretched out, and drank from my flask. Birds circled over the beach in uncountable numbers, common gulls and the great, white winged pelagornis, while black and white great auks clustered on worn rocks that jutted from the sea. In the distance, a plesiosaur’s long, sinuous neck and head reared forth from the sea only to submerge again. The vast, light blue sky was cloudless. There was nothing human around me. The waves’ susurrus and the steady heat combined with alcohol to lull me to sleep.
“This is a pretty spot. Didn’t you try to drown me here when I was two?”
Barton sat on the pallet’s edge, arms wrapped around his legs. I sighed, sat up, and took another drink.
“You know, it’s none of my business, but even a biologically engineered liver can only take so much punishment.”
“What do you want, Barton? You never see me unless you want something.”
“Rome, that’s not true. You’re the only one besides me who can face facts. Laurel, Peyton, definitely Edgar, they’re not much different from bots.”
“Then why do you kiss Edgar’s ass? It’s what I hate most about you.”
Barton lightly slapped me on the knee. “You know I only do that so I get my fair share of the estate when Edgar hits one hundred twenty. That’s only seventeen years away.”
“You’re counting every second aren’t you?”
“No. I’m only forty-three.”
“I hope Edgar leaves it to Peyton. That would serve you right.”
Barton snorted. “Edgar favors me, not that slavebot Peyton. Take Claire. An excellent example of his inadequacy for any real, important task. She’s more woman than he can handle. Why should she be with him?”
I looked Barton dead in the eye. “That’s why you’re bothering me. You’ve got some crazy idea about using Claire to hurt Peyton. Because it’s the worst, most completely inappropriate thing you can possibly do.”
“You give me too much credit, Rome. Still, nice chatting with you. We should do it again.”
He stood up to leave, but turned to look at me.
“One thing puzzles me. Call yourself whatever you want, but why ‘Rome?’ Why not ‘Paris’ or London?'”
“I like the place.”
“It doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Neither do the other cities you mentioned. That doesn’t mean I can’t miss them.”
Barton shrugged. “I never will understand you, Eaton.”
He strapped on his jet pack. Barton took off with a blast of flame as he soared toward the mansion’s peak. I lay back on my pallet and tried to forget the whole unpleasant interlude, but failed. Summers at Uummannaq had always been emotionally fraught affairs, but Claire represented a new source of tension and strain. Barton was plainly hell bent on mischief. And Barton always had his way, no matter what.
Things seemed to calm down after that, at least on a superficial level, as the family settled into the holiday routine. We took the airship low over Greenland to view natives in their primitive huts. The Commodore promised to hold a party, to invite guests from other grand homes like the Rockefellers, Putins, and Dimons so Claire could meet everyone as Mrs. Peyton Vanderbilt. The Corsair was run out from dry dock, black, sleek, with a sharply raked hull and four 6000 hp electric motors.
We took a cruise. Barton harpooned a megalodon outside the fjord. We watched him die from the bridge. The giant shark thrashed about and leaped from the sea, biting at the harpoon that pierced his side, but finally rolled over and lay still upon the surface.
“Shark steaks tonight,” Barton crowed as powerful winches reeled the thirty-five ton monster toward the Corsair.
I saw the admiring look in Claire’s eyes. She had to notice how active Barton was compared to Peyton. He shared my indolent, passive nature, although not my vices. Claire had a lively disposition herself. She liked to organize parlor games after dinner with everyone’s enthusiastic participation, myself excepted. I watched them laugh as the Commodore tried to act out a word. Barton roared along with the rest of them, but his eyes never left Claire.
His attentions toward her steadily increased with invitations to play jet pack handball over the landing pad, to race one horned elasmotheriums across the island plain, goaded by laser prods, or just to hang motionless for hours in the bodywarp web, mutually lost in mindless limbic ecstasy.
It was more than obvious what he wanted. Of course, the Commodore thought Barton was just being attentive, making Claire feel at home. If Laurel had any concerns, she kept them to herself. She stuck to her laser knitting, cutting and stitching various bits of DNA to make tiny, fanciful creatures she kept in plaz terrariums. Peyton just laughed it off. After all, Claire still slept with him every night. He’d don a holomask and return to supervising sandhogbots as they dug for rare earths and alien metals on our lunar mine, another task like steering the airship AI could handle perfectly well.
I confronted Claire when she was alone and told her the truth. “You should know Barton never does anything nice on purpose. He only wants to play a mean trick on you and Peyton. Stay away from him.”
Claire gave me a sad, pitying look. “What the Commodore says about you is true, Rome. You drink too much and look at things all wrong because you’re drunk. From now on, Rome, until your attitude improves, I’d prefer that you left me alone, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Just as you say.”
The party was held soon after that. Airships hovered over the landing pad. Elegant saloons descended down to the Grand Ballroom, a square kilometer in size and three stories high. Music bots hummed a gentle, quiet welcoming drone. Men wore opaque suits that made them walking cubist blocks while women were attired in flaming sundresses that hurt the naked eye so everyone had tinted masks. The Commodore was in his traditional sporran and kilt in the family tartan while Laurel wore a simple white gown adorned with living, writhing homunculi. He held his arms high in greeting.
“My dear friends, let’s get another summer off to a good start with music, food, drink, and dancing.”
Given their cue, the bots pumped out tek with a thumping beat. Guests danced, lively or sedate depending upon age and disposition. Barton took Claire’s hand, held her tight, and put her through the sinuous motions of the shameless, sordid Galt’s Gulch Grind. They couldn’t have been any closer if they were sutured together. Younger guests laughed and cheered them on. And Peyton took it with a dumb look on his face.
The party went on by the sun’s light, a pale disc hovering just above the sea’s edge. Food and drink were consumed, megalodon steaks cooked in lemon juice and garnished with thyme, plesiosaur roe with sour cream on a fifty kilo baked potato, tender percopteris leaves with Roquefort dressing, washed down with champagne, beer, toad venom shots, and pineal gland bitters. Everyone ate and drank so heartily they were close to stupefaction. Peyton was particularly hangdog, slumped in his chair, eyes half closed, drumstick in one hand, empty glass in the other. He sat up, shook himself aware, and looked around him.
I scanned the vast hall, but didn’t see Claire or Barton. Had they slipped out unnoticed in the party’s hubbub?
Shortly afterward, Barton showed up. He sauntered slow and cool across the ballroom. No one seemed to notice, probably due to being stuffed and inebriated. I’d had as much alcohol as anyone else, but barely ate and was in my usual state of lucid drunkenness. I watched him approach Peyton. I knew we stood on the edge of an awful, unforgivable event, a ratcheting up of family ugliness to an unbearable level.
Barton snapped his fingers and overrode the AI. The musicbots ceased. A woman’s sobs filled the air, soft, miserable, inconsolable. Claire’s.
“Barton, how could you? I loved you and trusted you-“
Barton laughed. “Peyton, I usually like to keep these as souvenirs, but it’s really your property for now, so here.”
He threw a pair of mauve shamseen panties onto Peyton’s lap. He looked down and the flimsy undergarment’s meaning sank into his sozzled brain. Peyton threw his wine glass at Barton. He neatly sidestepped it.
My brother’s unexpected show of anger surprised and pleased me. I hoped for more, but Peyton instead reverted to type and ran weeping from the room. Kilt a-flap, the Commodore went to the table.
“What in the name of sweet plutocracy have you done, Barton? You seem to have upset Peyton terribly.”
“He’s just angry, Commodore, because he knows Claire’s mine now.”
“Come, come, Barton. You like to joke, but I went to a great deal of trouble to arrange Peyton’s marriage to Claire. You can’t upset that on a whim. We’ll find you an appropriate mate in due time.”
“No, I want Claire. She needs a real man. Just tell the Gates you switched brothers.”
I had to get away, from the guests, the mansion, and most of all, my family. I grabbed a bottle of champagne and ran to the ballroom’s rim where I broke the tension barrier and grabbed the nearest tether. Outside, I hustled quickly down the path, glad for once to be born athletic. The sun had slipped away and the weak gray night begun. Dodoes huddled in their nests, grateful for the brief rest.
The long, curved beach was fringed by a delicate scroll of shifting, small, silver waves. I unsealed a hermetic pod with my ring and dragged out a long unused rowboat. I pulled the boat into the water, got in, and put the oars in their tholes. Out in the fjord, Barton couldn’t sneak up on me and I could drink in peace.
Biologically engineered muscles easily adjusted to the unwonted exercise. I rowed until I was in the middle of the fjord with a clear view of Uummannaq, then shipped oars. The boat bobbed gently in the water. I uncorked the champagne. Foam arced into my lap. I drank deeply.
At the mansion, the tek had resumed, loud enough to be heard in the fjord, along with occasional snatches of high pitched, feminine laughter. Order or what passed for it in our family had apparently been restored and the party had resumed. The Commodore liked to keep up appearances. I took another stiff pull from the bottle and wondered. How would things finally play out? Would the vicious fighting ever end or simply drag on for the rest of our lives?
A giant fireball erupted from the mansion, a huge explosion that shattered glaz and steel and cast fragments in all directions. I held my arms before my face to shield myself from white hot steel scraps and razor sharp glaz fragments. Another explosion, even more massive and destructive than the first, snapped the mansion in two. The sundered top fell into the fjord, taking my family and most of Terra’s plutocrats with it. A huge wave swept toward me, but the cork like boat easily crested it. Wreckage was strewn all around me.
My question was answered. Peyton had taken a coward’s revenge and blown up Barton, himself, Claire, our parents, and everyone else who had witnessed his cuckold’s shame. I’d only escaped by sheer accident. Always under strain, dysfunction had reached the point where the family cracked like a badly cast vase, the fault built in from the start.
I laughed for a while and cried for a time. When I finished the bottle, I threw it into the water, and put the oars back in their tholes.
I rowed westward, where the sea could swallow me and Terra would finally be done with Vanderbilts.
“By way of background, I’m a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. I have four novels and over seventy short stories (many as reprints) published in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Denmark. Short fiction by me has recently appeared in Thriller Magazine, Tigershark, Tall Tale TV, and Into The Ruins. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Prize for SF/Fantasy. More information about my writing is available at: www.mellonwritesagain.com.“
Mark says about this story: “You may be interested to know I wrote this yarn as an SF version of a John Cheever New Yorker piece, something I felt compelled to do after reading his collected short stories.”