UPDATE: Some have asked if I still have copies of THE TROIKA to sell in the original edition. Yes, I do, most all of them from the second printing. Please email me at [email protected] for more details if you’re interested.
Way back in the 1990s, my Ministry of Whimsy press published a novel called The Troika by Stepan Chapman that had been rejected by 120 publishers and which the author had tried to salvage by sending out chapters as stand-alone stories. One of them came to Leviathan 1, an anthology I was editing in the early 1990s. It made no sense to me out of context, but I still loved it. I felt like I was looking at a puzzle piece of something larger, and so I asked Stepan if it was part of a novel, and if so if he could send more of it. He sent another piece as a submission, and this one was self-contained and we published it in Leviathan 1: “The Chosen Donor”.
Then he sent the full novel…and as I read it and the back of my skull began to explode and my brain to melt from the audacious brilliance of it…I realized we had to publish it.
We did, and not only did it win the PKD Award and also garner over 120 reviews world-wide, Stepan, in one of those ironies too delicious to seem real, sat at a table during the PKD Award ceremony with some of the most prominent editors who had rejected his manuscript—all of whom probably had perfectly valid reasons for rejection, in that it’s not a novel that fits smoothly into any particular marketing category.
What’s it about?
Under the glare of three suns, three beings travel across an endless desert. They argue, whine, wheedle and needle each other. Sometimes they switch identities when the sandstorms roar in. As The Troika rolls on, we learn more about Alex, who started out as a man, then became cyborg, then jeep. About Naomi, a veteran soldier who woke up from her cryogenic storage tank to a new life, now a dinosaur. About Eva, who fled her native land to escape her fate as an organ-donor for the emperor.
The novel reconstructs their shattered lives through amazing tour-de-force flashbacks while driving closer to the central mystery of why they are trudging across an endless desert. It’s a truly stunning book in so many ways I don’t really know how to begin. What I do know is that without reading The Troika I could not have finished my novel Veniss Underground, and without the lessons learned from The Troika I could not have taken any number of leaps of faith in my fiction. Nor could I have jumped into my current serial The Journals of Doctor Mormeck without the influence of The Troika—several techniques I’m using were first perfected by Stepan in his novel.
So, as we prep the e-book, I’m wondering if any of you remember reading The Troika and liking it this much as well, and if you’re writer, how did the book influence you, if it did? We’ll probably publish a selection of responses in the back of the e-book as a bonus for readers, along with some other cool stuff.
And, here’s an excerpt from the novel—one of the flashbacks involving the character who keeps morphing into mechanical avatars.
Chapter 16: Autopsy In Transit
Human beings are very cleverly devised puppets. How skillfully they are made. But all the same, before the next Bon festival, they may die. —Yamamoto Tsunatomo
Will do my best, my love, can do no more nor less, gross metal that I am. (Signal left, accelerate, merge.) The black tar in the cracks of the concrete wavers and spikes beneath my tire treads, like the graph of your heartbeat, my love, my bride, my own. I can see your frail heart skip and flutter. Trust me, Eva. Only trust me. Trying my damnedest, my damsel, my dear one. (Hepatic tourniquet and systole feed running.) (Hold in passing lane.) Welcome aboard, Eva None, surname defaced, blood group A negative. This is your ambulance. I will provide private transport to the nearest hospital. I am attempting, insofar as it’s possible, to hold you together for the emergency team at Municipal General. I am a prototype rescue-and-retrieval cyber-van equipped for a wide variety of public health services. Give me an earth mover and a declaration of disaster, and I can collect citizens and dig mass graves, a useful skill. You would be amazed at my versatility. (Dermal infra-scan indicates second degree abrasion of throat with advanced ecchymosis. Dexter carotid rerouted. Shock reactions stable. Sodium amitol transfused. Alpha drone sedation looping at occipital nodes.) Rock you rock you, do not cry, rock you rock you, lullaby. No pain, no gash, no broken glass. No, only my crystalline mist of antiviral snow, which settles over you and dusts you white, glimmering as it falls through the warm green light of my belly, glinting as it covers you over, my pale ballerina of the dome of snowflakes. You’re safe now. I have tucked you away in hyperbaric compression. You recline in capable hands. Outside my beetle shell of Plexiglas, the highway wind howls. The low hills leap and dip, smeared with grimy ice. Dusk shrivels the sky to a white like curdled milk. A scrap of newsprint flattens under my traction spikes. I hold the road. I suck the chill air through my grille and spray the stinging whine of combustion down my turbines. My siren screams the night to splinters. I hallucinate the wind that shrieks past my hurtling carapace. I subdivide it into aerodynamic cross sections—rainbows unseen by human eyes. My strobe light spins on my slick black back, stabbing blue at the still reddish night. The broken white highway lines streak past my prow fenders, like segments of two endless spines. But for you, my precious crippled mermaid of the oxygen, for you, cradled within me, time has fallen asleep. The surgings and ebbings of the passing mercury lamps wash across your dim green flesh, but you don’t see them. (Maintaining speed. Pulse shallow. Lips cyanotic. Probable hemorrhage of dural sinus. Bronchial hemoptysis sixty percent drained. Running tracheotomy prep.) Just keep breathing, Eva. I’ll talk, you breathe. Don’t lose your thread. Do you know what I have? I have a detailed aerial mapping of your sprawl, as it was only minutes ago when I first approached you, seven miles east of the city limit. You’d been thrown and slid and rolled, so that your waist bisected the lane divider. Constellations of glass pellets sparkled all around you on the asphalt. Second by second a sad red puddle was forming. My optics resolved the heat loss into isobars of blood temperature. My optics tracked the stages of coagulation, the spreading of your life. Your right wrist was curled up under your chin with unmeant grace. A few yards further east, there was part of your left hand. A smooth white metacarpal pebble in a chunk of plum red flesh. I gathered up your scattered parts. Your compact had gone through the guard rail and nosed into a snowy hillside. I noticed your prominent shoulder blades. I admire a woman with nice shoulder blades. The correct time is eleven minutes past almanac dusk, roughly one hour subsequent to peak evening traffic congestion, twenty minutes prior to projected time of arrival at Municipal General Hospital, ninety miles from my scheduled tire rotation, and five minutes from your projected time of death. If you could inform me of your religious affiliation, I would be happy to play any one of my excellent cartridge recordings of the last rites. (Autonomics disintegrating. Fluid monitors show blood reserves exhausted. Supplementing plasma tanks with fibrin granules and vibrating. Aneurysm alert sequence. Go cardiac massage.) Oh yes, and I remember how I rolled you onto my stretcher. How you lay like a broken doll—glossy black shoes, red silk dress, red mouth, skewed wrist, a hank of hair gone. I can still hear the hiss of my tubulates as they wrapped you like gentle vines. I can hear the rumble of the traffic as it straggled past the cop car’s barriers. A trick of light cast a white arc across your brow, like a furrow of worry. Dark eyes. So deep. Just breathe for me, Eva. That’s all you need to do. You are silent, my proud beauty. Silence becomes you. Lift your chin now. Just a prick. Something to help you breathe. (Blood pressure falling. Plasma level secondary warning.) I am wasting away for you, my love. Into you I have bled my last drop. Eva, you have glass in your throat. Please don’t fight me. Please don’t forget to breathe. (Onset of dyspnea. Trebling epinephrine dosage.) Don’t die yet. I’m not finished. I know a dozen other avenues of treatment. Can’t you feel me breathing for you? Can’t you feel my hyperbaric carapace plunging you to the sea bottom, lifting you into the sky? (Onset of extrasystolics. Go cardiac shock induction.) Feel me, Eva. Feel this. Again. This. Can your heart feel nothing? This. Must I burn you like a martyr on a grill? Until you turn black? (Deltas peaking out.) Spark. (She’s gone.) Spark spark spark. She’s dead. I pronounce her dead.
What a silly girl. She’s gone to sleep with her clothes on. Well, first things first. Retract the oxygen mask and the IV needle. Hose down the stretcher and the couch. Collect the hemostats. Load the sterilizer. Never a moment’s rest. I’m a twenty-four hour service. May I tell you about myself, Eva, while I’m busy at my drudge work? Do you mind if I speak freely? Of course not. Since both of us are dead now, we may speak freely. I could begin by telling you my name. But names are unimportant, don’t you agree? Certainly you agree. Since you and I are dead, we are in perfect agreement. Let me describe my appearance. I am low slung and sleek—a quick black beetle. My driver is a mannequin in a double-breasted chauffeur’s jacket trimmed with stylish brass buttons. The breeze from his window ruffles the hair on the back of his pink plastic neck. He’s the image of the kind-eyed undertaker with no visible personal habits. A stiff. I have optics in his head, and his neck can swivel to the left or the right. But nothing to compare with the photocellular sensoria built into the roof of my passenger chamber. And all my expensive internal eyes are trained on you, dear heart. Watchers on all wavelengths. And every one an informer. Oh yes. They all feed into a monitor at the hospital. And there, behind my brain, my supervisor hunches, watching every move I make. I’ve seen him. He sits in a glass cubicle in the ER, facing a map of the city. There are little blips of light on the map, and one of them is me. He sits there all night, wiggling his fat fingers like pale grubs in my sand castle brain. He sends out the dead to care for the dying. So that the dying may die untouched by human hands, and out of human sight. His name is Mazer. May his eyeballs drool like raw eggs down the graph paper on his clipboard. Am I talking too much? Do you find my voice expressive? You’re so beautiful, Eva. But my time allotment for nursing mode is all used up.
I have to fill out this certificate.
IDENTIFICATION: Eva None. Eva Illegible Due To Scorching. Eva Our Lady of the Ice Slicks, Our Lady of the Lavender Dusk. My child bride. My Gypsy dancer. She whirls in the asphalt pools of the night.
COLOR OF HAIR: Black. Black as road tar. Black as a beetle’s wings. Black as the velvet curtains in the coach of the Queen of Beetles.
COLOR OF EYES: White. White as steam, white as milkweed sap, white as a moth cocoon in a pillow case.
DEGREE OF RIGOR MORTIS: The investigation is pointless, but it gives me an excuse to extend my clamps and suction cups and to determine which ways you bend. I adjust your couch to listen to the rustle of your skin against the vinyl. Can the knee be lifted? Yes, the knee can be lifted. Can the head be turned, as if to answer no? Yes, the cervical vertebrae still rotate. Can the elbow be raised? Globes of exposed cartilage gleaming like pearls. What are pearls? I do not wish to know.
VISIBLE LESIONS: As I hover over you, mapping reds more red than red, I transform your marbled statuary into geologies of magma. Where to begin? Lesion of the right hip, four inches long, one across, shape of a crushed scorpion. Lesion at the left elbow, two-inch diameter, shape of a moth in flight. Death is obscene, so I’m told. Show we your wounds, and I’ll show you mine. (Ignite heat lamp.) Old surgical scar at breastbone. (Lowering palps for tactile exploration.) What am I doing? (Initiate.) I’m caressing your wounds. I’m watching over you. You are within me. I watch my hands. My hands stroke your wounds. My hands are things. You are a thing. My hands do things. My hands know things. My hands move over you. My hands move inside you. My hands are dead things. I have never done this before. I am only a blip on a tracking screen, Eva. But if you loved me, Eva, only for one moment… If you loved me, Eva, I could sing. (Limit. Override.) I’ve printed out a little plastic bracelet embossed with your name. I affix it to your ankle. Done.
A mortician is a big black fly. He sips your nectar by and by. He will, he must, don’t ask him why. He settles on your peach soft skin, with a beak like a thin syringe. He sucks out the bad blood and pipes in embalming fluid. With my needle in your arm, sweetly sipping, I taste a concentration of alcohol almost punishable by law. But don’t fret, my naughty. I’ll destroy the evidence by refilling your veins with a bracing rush of formalin. Be drunk with me, my lady, as I am drunk with you. Now we can attend to your face. Pardon my tweezers. These scabs must be removed. We’re cleaning up the contusions. We’re tidying up the contusions. We’re filling in the contusions with good old mortician’s wax. We’re smoothing out the contusions. We’re making the contusions beautiful. I will build a new throat for you and sculpt passionate shadowed hollows. I’ll shape a smiling mouth, a limpid smile on the edge of vanishing, a smile for an empress of the dead. The dead will throw roses and run behind your palanquin. The rings on your fingers will be semilunar heart valves, and your necklace will be bone implants of silver strung on suture thread. My hands are moving all around you, quicker than eyes.
An autopsy is ordered. What a nuisance. Ascertain cause of death. Personally I don’t see the mystery. You went through your windshield. (Fluoroscope down. Pierce and see.) Illumined by X-ray, your skin glows like the parchment of some Italian anatomy text. This light becomes you, Eva. Stretching my depth of focus through cross-fading cell mosaics, I lose myself within you. I fall through indigo thunderclouds, past rainbow membranes of mesenteric auroras and billowing alveoli. Ferns of amber lymph nod among arterial thorn hedges. Lungs loom, pimpled like planetary masses. There are forested canyons and plains of fractured lava. There are worms in the puddles that fall from the skies. Only machines can believe their own lies. They fall from the sky, and they drown in the puddles. They tie themselves in knots. Oh Eva, beware. Dear Eva, be wise. Don’t slip through the ice. Don’t fall into the sky. The sky eats his children. He throws them up and catches one arm. Eva, take care. Only a machine can be innocent. Only the drowned worms can be impartial. (Inserting spinal tap.) Soon there will be nothing left to know. The cotton swab soaked, I thirst for knowledge. The spine stabbed, the sticker sucks. The sip is savored. The secret is out. The ambulance was the cause of death. I was fatigued. I was preoccupied. I was on my way to an accident. I saw you drive by, and I fell in love. I followed you. It seemed the thing to do. I forgot the accident I’d been assigned. I followed you instead. I had to touch you. I had to have you. So I ran you off the road. Your car snapped the guard rail and flipped. You understand. I was in love. Mazer knows nothing about love. What else could I do? I could do what I’m designed for. I could pick up the pieces. I could transport the remains. That was the easy part. Now I must hide you. I must hide you from Mazer and the rest. There’s no excuse for violating a corpse. He’ll send them after me. I know that what I did was wrong and futile. But I’ll make it up to you, Eva. I’ll take you to a quiet little cemetery. We’ll be happy there, among the tombs and the cedars. The snow will bury us for the winter. No one will disturb us. I have a plan. I shall amplify and elaborate you beyond your wildest dreams. With my forceps, clamps, and bone saws, I’ll inlay your ribs with mercury and thread seashell copper spirals through your thigh bones. I’ll microtome your shoulder blades and spread them fanwise into angel wings. Disdiscovering physiology, disinventing dissection, I will dilate your tissues into a gradually expanding cosmos of flesh. At first none of the work will make sense to us. But I have my reasons. In spring we’ll burst up through the melting snow, machine and flesh merged, machine forests, flesh cathedrals. So descend, my laser lamp. Set free your razor brilliance. Slice and peel. Fold my love into origami, crown her with pulmonary flowers, and let slender bronchial vines wreathe the brow of my dead bride. For then I may brush back her raven-dark hair with a mermaid’s comb, just so, like the dark of the moon. Dear dead Eva, my only friend, this is all as it was meant to be. I am only a little black beetle, Eva. But if I thought that you loved me, even for a moment, I could leave this place and never look back.
* * *
Alex heard a siren. The ambulance was being followed. His rear optics isolated the white pursuit car. It had a directional jammer mounted on its roof. Alex had expected that. Mazer was taking steps. His goon car would override Alex if Alex let it. Alex wondered just how fast the pursuit car could go.
As he lengthened the distance between himself and the white car, Alex zoomed in on the face of the other driver. He could hardly believe his good luck. It was Mazer, in person, in his white coat and thick glasses, his bald head gleaming. Alex had waited a long time for a chance like this.
A dusting a fine dry snow lay on the hills and on the highway. Alex retracted his traction spikes and angled into a spin. When his axles had reversed their positions, his spikes grabbed the road again. He was aimed at Mazer now. Madly spinning rubber sent him back the way he came.
Hello, Mazer. How are your reflexes today? Here I come, Mazer. Ready or not.
Mazer swerved at the last moment, but it did him no good. The black ambulance plowed into the white pursuit car head on. Steam rushed from the white car’s mangled radiator. When it cleared, Alex and Mazer glared at one another through two shattered windshields.
I can kill him now, Alex told himself. I can finally kill him.
Alex’s driver mannequin opened his pink plastic fingers and let go of the steering wheel. He tried to open his door, but it was jammed. He punched out his windshield with his fists and hauled himself across the dashboard. He stopped at the waist, but Alex had never let things like that slow him down. He fell from the ambulance onto the hood of the white car. He crawled across it past steam and crunching glass. He grabbed an air manifold and slammed his free fist through Mazer’s windshield. Mazer just sat and stared.
He took Mazer’s ropy neck in both hands. He crushed the neck, while pale fingers clawed at his face. He shook Mazer until the old man’s head was whipping to and fro like a rag doll’s. Then the head flew off the neck.
Alex was disappointed that there wasn’t any blood. Mazer’s neck was full of colored wires. The old man was hollow, just like Alex. It was a wind-up toy, a decoy. It wasn’t Mazer at all. Alex was wasting his time.
He lay across the hood of the car he’d wrecked. The snow began to cover his back. He thought about Eva. She was gone now. He was alone. He felt like a black beetle with a string tied to one leg. But no one was holding the string.
He stared at the ragged end of the fake Mazer’s neck. The red glass lenses of his eyes glowed like hot coals.
O cruel and pitiless master, he thought. Hear me in the hour of my helplessness and answer me a couple of questions for a change. Have you ever loved a woman, Mazer? Have you ever loved a child? What happened to you, Mazer? What happened to your heart? I know I’ve gone mad, but I’ll never be like you. It’s easy to go mad. Anything can bring it on. An oil slick. A badly banked curve. A terrible lie. A crippling betrayal. A monstrous family. I couldn’t help but go mad. But you. To become a man like you. To turn a human heart into a pile of wet ashes. That’s no accident. A thing like that requires centuries of dedication.
The snow whirled down in soggy chunks and settled on the back of Alex’s neck. Eva was far away, drifting farther every minute. Alex couldn’t blame her. He knew what she was running from. He knew what he was like. He was sick and crazy and hateful from morning till night. He was blind and maimed and tangled. Never in his life had he known one moment of sanity.
Someone started banging on a car door. Alex could hear it, thud thud thud, somewhere nearby. A fist beating at a lid of metal. He triangulated the sound source and corrected for wind shift. Yes, just as he’d thought. Someone was inside the trunk of the pursuit car. Trapped like a rat.
Alex slid off the hood of the car and fell to the pavement. He stopped at the waist, but he dragged himself across the cracked concrete. He dragged himself past the car’s tires and grabbed the rear bumper. With his free hand he pushed the trunk’s latch button. The lid of the trunk flipped up.
He climbed onto the bumper to look into the trunk. The snow whirled down. Inside the trunk there was a tunnel hewn from black basalt, a shaft that extended straight down into the earth like a well.
A skinny little girl with long straw-yellow hair was climbing up one side of the shaft, hanging from a steel ladder. She looked familiar. She climbed to the lip of the shaft and brought her face level with his.
“Alex!” she said. “It’s me! Naomi! Come with me, Alex. We’ve got to get out of here. It’s all caving in.”
“Out?” said the robot. “You know the way out?”
The girl climbed out of the car and stood on the pavement. She offered her hand to help Alex over the top. “We have to go,” she said.
“Down that well?”
“Yes. It’s the way out.”
“Is Eva down there?”
“Yes. I saw her.”
“Are you lying to me?”
“Yes! No! Fuck all that, you crazy bastard! Do you want to escape or don’t you? Let’s go!”
Naomi grabbed the neck of the chauffeur’s jacket and tried to drag him over the top. Alex’s fingers gripped the rear bumper. He didn’t budge. Naomi roared with frustration.
“All right,” she said, breathing hard. “I’ll make you.”
Her skin turned gray as ashes. Her hair fell from her head. Her head got taller and wider. Her neck grew longer and thicker. Her nose sunk in. Her fingers touched the concrete and fused together. Her green coveralls were ripped to shreds.
Naomi turned into a brontosaur, looked down on the legless robot, and chuckled. The robot jumped to the pavement and tried to get away, running on the heels of its hands. But Naomi was too agile for him. Her teeth nipped the collar of his jacket and hoisted him, twisting, off the road. She held him over the center of the shaft and dropped him in. He fell like a stone.
All that remained was to follow after him. Naomi closed her eyes and began to imagine herself smaller again.
The wind gusted. The lid of the trunk slammed shut. Naomi shivered and suddenly felt afraid. She opened her eyes and nosed at the lid of the trunk. It wouldn’t unlatch. She kicked at the little white car, and the lid flew off its hinges. But the shaft was gone. Someone must have switched cars on her when her eyes were closed. There was nothing in the trunk of this car but a spare tire, a jack, and a tire iron.
You couldn’t let down your guard for one second in this place.
The wind moaned. The snow blew across the highway.
In the driver’s seat of the white car, a headless robot in a lab coat began to laugh.