Islands


Introduction If you've ever dealt with material scanned into a computer, you know that it can come across with all
sorts of interesting glitches. In preparation for the electronic publication of this, my first novel,
eReads.com sent me the file of the book to proof-read. I had not read Islands since its 1980 reissue.
As I did so this time I felt as though I was holding a dialog with myself across the decades. The book
is full of energy and inventiveness and tackles all sorts of Big Issues; now, though, I see the vigor and
passion with a more experienced eye and can see where the story could be better expressed, tightened,
trimmed to its task. As a writer and, more particularly, as a writing teacher it was impossible to resist
the urge to meddle, and I gave in to the temptation. It felt as though Marta the teacher was reaching
back to Marta the young writer, lending the experience of thirty years to help shape the story the way
that both of us envisioned it, then and now. It has been a peculiar form of time-travel. 

The book is shorter than it was, and simpler, and, I think, one hell of a lot better. But it's still (as an
early reviewer said) all about sex and drugs and death and transcendence -- the natural subject matter
of the young. The changes are not drastic ones: I think the book is well served by this revision and
its readers will, I hope, agree.
 

                                           Petaluma, California
                                                             2001



 
1
Far below me invisible surf smashed against invisible rocks, ebbing with a vast, sucking rush over
the stones. The night wind was cold under frigid stars; the moon, breaking through clouds, cast a
diffused glow across the sea. Deep in the base of my spine, something twinged and nagged and sent
out a familiar, exploratory shaft of pain. I gripped the textured redwood of the rail with both hands
and willed the cold to move in a straight line through me, up to my back and heart and mind, but the
numbness reached only to my knees before it ebbed again. The pain blossomed.

Paul and Jenny, two stories below me, curled around each other in the large transparent bed
and made love quietly so that I, presumably in the room just below them, would not hear. Considerate
of them. I had heard them as I passed their room on my way to the roof balcony, the small gasps of
pleasure, the sound of Paul in orgasm. Still the same, that sound, after all the years. Remembering,
I clung to the rail until the pain lessened and I could breathe again. It was a mistake to invite them
here, I told myself. Stupid to think that it wouldn’t bother me, stupid to think that I was over it, over
wanting at all. Idiocy, and I am well punished for it.

Eventually I stopped shaking and the pain became a small reminder, never gone but not, now,
bigger than the world. I released the railing and slipped down the spiral stairs, past the murky glow
of the sea-facing windows, past the landing by the guest room door. I closed and locked my door
behind me and spoke to the lights. As they came up my reflection leaped at me from the large
window and there I stood, Tia in the flesh, the drug-resisting meat. Tia the anomaly, the freak. Flat
stomach crossed again and again by lines, breasts hanging low but never large enough to make much
difference; ass wrinkled, thighs sinewy and shrunken, calves the same; skinny arms ending in big,
square, capable hands. Face weathered around brown eyes, skin parched and lined as driftwood, hair
streaked with grey and dry from constant exposure to the sun. Dry lady, driftwood hag. I must age
but I would not disguise it, no creams, plastic surgeries, cosmetics. Let them be uncomfortable at the
sight of Tia Hamley, growing ungracefully old in a world of the forever young.

But I would hide this unexpected torture at the memory of Paul’s sounds of pleasure, at the
thought of my former lover and his current lover coupling in my guest room. A secret, yes, held close
between me and my window and the beast at the base of my spine. Hush.
 

2
Fifty years ago he was my lover, when I was seventeen and he twenty-seven. He was easy in his
youth, looking as he does now: grey-green eyes muted to hazel brown in the evenings; long gold and
brown hair swept around a strong-boned face; a slight build, narrow about the shoulders and hips;
quick in his movements, in his words. A good, pleasing body, and he had not opted to have it
changed.

And I? Portrait of the freak as a young girl? Rounded and firm, masses of auburn hair
constantly falling into brown eyes, almost as tall as Paul. I remember her as laughing, sparkling,
singing in her chains like the sea. Poised on the brink of eternity, waiting for my body to stabilize
enough to take the Immortality Treatments.

When the time came we walked singing to the clinic and Paul left me for a week while they
bombarded my body and brain with chemicals, rays, and spirits, trying to blast away the mortality in
ways which were then great mysteries and which I have since studied at desperate length, to no avail.
Paul was waiting for me when I left the clinic and we capered about the Himalayas, watched the sun
set over the Rockies and the moon rise from the Pyrenees, spent ecstatic ages in the underwater city
of Venice. A year later I returned to the clinic for the rest of the treatments. They kept me there and
tested, and tested, and finally told me that it hadn’t worked.

At all.

I would live a long time, yes, they would see to it Not forever, no, we’re terribly sorry. You’re
unique, you know. Maybe one hundred, maybe one hundred and fifty years. We’re sorry.
Maybe two hundred. It’s not so bad, to live two hundred years. You’ll live quite well, you
know. We’ll see to it. We’ll pay you for it; we need you. As much as you need us.

You’ll live very well.

But not youthfully.

So sorry.
 

After a while I went away sterile and lived on the moon, spent years alone in the station
orbiting the sun, lived on Mars, and came back middle-aged to a world of the young. I bought my
house on the California Archipelago, found a job, tried to lose myself in the convoluted involvement
of dredging the ocean bottom for the past. Accepted Paul and his lady into my home, recognized the
shock in his eyes as they disembarked from the cruiser and I stepped forward to meet them: “This is
the woman I slept with, so many years ago?”

No, I told him in my mind. No, she’s gone, she of the sleek round body and auburn hair. I’m
just borrowing her name.

3
I go, sometimes, for days without remembering that they will probably never let me die. They need
me, those who specialize in the archaic art of gerontology. They believe there will be no others like
me; they have guaranteed that I can’t reproduce. Of course they won’t let me go. I will grow older
and older, drying with age until I become a grasshopper caged in some kind institution’s basement,
amid the wires and machines; a legend used to threaten our few children into obedience. Nightmare
stuff. I should practice for my part, drool at odd hours of the day, pace around the Ilium’s decks
shouting apocalyptic nonsense. But most of my colleagues are terrified enough of me already, even
those fifty or one hundred and fifty years older than I.

Many years before, moping through the library at Luna, I had entertained a pleasant fantasy.
I would re-enter the Treatment Center in southern Africa, a smiling attendant would touch a hidden
button and an image would form in the middle of the room. An image of a bronzed and laughing
woman, firm and youthful. And, my payment of suffering completed, I would be allowed to become
that woman again. Gazing at my reflection in the darkened window, that first night of Paul’s visit,
I remembered the silly, seductive illusion of my youth, frowned at the actual image, and prepared for
sleep.

4
Paul awakened early and came out to where I puttered around my sand garden, playing at cultivating
the tough beach grasses. He brought me a cup of coffee and I stopped work to talk with him.
No, he hadn’t changed. He sprawled over the stone bench, naked and at ease in the morning
breezes. I, of course, was clothed; it was as much a source of wonderment to my colleagues as my
greying hair and lined face. I lowered my gaze to my archaic stoneware cup and we talked about our
found Atlantis.

“You’ve confused your legends,” I told him. “It’s Hawaii, some parts of the islands that sank
during the Great Shaping. Interesting, yes, but not Atlantis.”

Paul shrugged. What did he know of Atlantis? “And you are looking for . . .”

Youth, I was tempted to tell him. The Fountain of Immortality, the Philosopher’s Stone.

“Anything,” I said. “Houses, artifacts, artwork. Sometimes we find old safes, watertight, full
of papers and other perishables. Machines, materials, jewelry, bits and pieces of other people’s lives.”
He looked appreciative. He had to, of course. He and Jenny were spending quite a bit to work
with us for three months, under the blankets of the sea.

“What have you found?”

“This and that. You’ll see most of it later this morning, when you go down to the ship. There’s
a museum on board. I’m still working to systematize it but it’ll give you an idea of what we look for
when we go under.”

He nodded, still smiling. His gaze disturbed me. I looked over the edge of the cliff toward the
waters. The mainland was a fuzz on the horizon; the clouds of the night before had disappeared with
the dawn, leaving the air infinitely blue and infinitely clean. Far out, seabirds hovered and swept. 

“And you, Tia?”

“Um?”

“How have you been? It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, it has,” I said. “I’ve been well, thank you. Is Jenny up? It’s time for breakfast and I
should get you to the dock early. Tobias will be waiting.”

“I’ll see,” he replied, stood, stretched, and loped toward the house.

I resisted watching him and bent instead to my plants. How had I been, indeed. How had he
expected me to have been? Was this young Immortal mocking me? Playing games with my
emotions?

Or only being polite?

Or all of the above, or none of the above, or Tia you are becoming paranoid. I left my garden
and went into the house to prepare breakfast.

5
I do not like my kitchen. I tried to hide the equipment when I reconstructed the room, but it still
intrudes, the storage units and recall units and heaters standing out in alien bleakness against the
solemnity of my home. The house speaks to me; it too grows old beyond its time, it too contains
modern intrusions, just as I contain bits of pipe and plastic, replacements and repairs.

I discovered the house when I first joined the project and began looking for somewhere other
than aboard the Ilium to live. The house is ancient, pre-Shaping, made from the wood of the now
extinct redwood. Constructed in a series of cubes and rectangles, it perches on the edge of a cliff and
spills over to hang above the surf. That it had not disappeared ages ago was the work of some
Immortal who had shored the building haphazardly with a collection of forcefields and ugly plasteel
stilts, then abandoned it when it no longer served his purpose. Its ability to withstand the depredations
of both time and incompetent repairs, more than anything else, endeared it to me. I traced the owner
to a brothel in Gagarin, and after some trouble reminding him that he owned the house, succeeded
in buying it.

I also bought the land for two square kilometers around the house, and spent the majority of
my time between voyages rebuilding. I had the foundations rebuilt, removed the hideous struts.
Contracted with a firm in Africa specializing in rare and extinct woods who developed something
close to the original redwood. That part wasn’t hard: reshaping the past in plastics is a favored
Immortal pasttime. I jigsawed, tucked, gathered and nipped until the house was in as near its original
shape as possible. I bought old pots and filled them with plants, I re-glazed the windows with antique
polarized glass; had weavers make me rugs from ancient patterns, bought solid sculpture and old
paintings. The real stuff, where I could find it. Cracked and stained and solid and good.

No one likes it but me, naturally. The walls are fixed in place, won’t flow and move at one’s
least command. The furniture is furniture, not invisible forcefields that mold themselves to your every
contour. You have to make some concessions to my furniture, you have to compromise, reach an
agreement with it. My bed will not turn into a table for you, nor will my fireplace (yes, a real
fireplace, and I burn real wood in it with real fire) become a chair. Solid, as I am. Firmly rooted in
the reality of its own existence.

It’s all a front, of course. Turn my house into a version of my own monstrosity and convince
myself that freakery is a great and good thing. Still, it helps, and who am I to refuse the comforts of
self-deception?

6
They had wanted me to stay at the clinic after the second useless try at the Immortality Treatments,
wanted me to be where they could poke and pry and test, but I wouldn’t stay and they couldn’t make
me. They threatened to call me before the claims and adjudication council in Berne, but the Law
says:“No person shall damage or defraud, or cause to be damaged or defrauded, any other person,”
and that’s it. They could not force me to be the sole occupant of their new zoo. I left quickly, before
Paul could be notified, and wandered about the face of the earth. Four days in Istanbul, eight weeks
in Australia, two days in Beijing, one week in the quiet seashore city of Diablo, gazing east from the
island across the California Sea to the Sierras, gazing west beyond Tam Island at the Pacific Ocean.
Paul found me there and I fled so far north that north ran out and I sat at the top of the globe,
shivering in the heat of the large hotel. I wandered the fringes of the arctic, watched the aurora streak
and curtain across the darkening sky. Spent time below the surface of the snows, down in the echoing
Caverns of Ice.

“See this,” said the guide. We stood within the invisible walls of a floating platform, gaping
at the curving walls around us. “The Ancients laid their cables in a great grid under the arctic ice,
using submarines to guide the initial operations and primitive remotes to do the actual placement.
You can see traces of them here, and here, and here. They believed that in order to keep the melt
equal at all levels, they needed more heat here, below, than on the surface. Does anyone know why
they wanted to melt the ice at all?”

A group of Immortals giggled together; somebody raised a hand and recited the facts
everybody knew, about global warming, the changed climate, the heavy rains that dropped their
burdens on the oceans instead of on the lands, about the droughts and famines, about thirst.

“Exactly,” the guide said. “The need for fresh water was desperate. Of course we know that
they should have laid their grid at the edges of the ice shelf and melted off those sections first, and
floated them down to cities and croplands. Who knows why they didn’t?”

The Immortals giggled. The Good Student raised his hand again. 

“Politics?”

“Politics,” the guide agreed. “No country wanted to be last, no country wanted any other
country to be first. That’s one of the reasons we don’t have countries any more.”

Even then I knew that this was fatuous, but I didn’t care. I stared at the ice walls and imagined
the story happening now, the miscalculations, how the ice melted, heated, boiled, melted more ice,
until the core of the ice mass liquified. Ocean levels rose as the melt escaped; eventually only a skin
of ice covered a sea of water and when it broke, tremendous walls of water moved south, pulsing
down the curve of the globe. The guide, saying this, shrugged as though one could hardly have
expected better of parties who were not, after all, immortal.

The floating platform stopped before a wall of layered ice, clean and fresh toward the bottom,
increasingly dirty as we rose, and broken by bands almost black with pollution near the top. The
Immortals  jostled close to the edge, peering at the grime. I moved away from them and stared down
at the bottom of the cavern, imagined it bursting with boiling water, shivered, and turned to the guide
again.

“The lack of pressure at the pole caused the earth’s tectonic plates to shift, leading to
earthquakes and volcanic upheavals. Because of the decline of fossil fuels, the Ancients built nuclear
plants in haste and without necessary precautions. Some of these were located along fault lines or
near oceans, in the path of the walls of Arctic waters. Here, on our left, is a hologrammatic
representation of the line of volcanic and radioactive activity during the decades following . . .”

My attention wandered again. I had come to the Caverns hoping to solace the small tragedy
of my own life with the greater tragedy of the past, but found no comfort. The Ancients had
engineered the destruction of their world. I had not engineered the destruction of mine. I spent the
remainder of the tour staring down at the frigid wonders below.

We emerged into the lobby of the hotel where I saw the familiar and unwelcome figure of
Paul. We argued violently and at length, sotto voce in the crowded restaurant, in hisses and whispers
in the bars, in screams and shouts at the door to my room where I would not let him in. When worried
guards appeared to calm the uproar, I fled again, out of the hotel, into a hastily rented hopper and far
from him and his pleas that I spend the remainder of my brief time growing ugly in the shelter of his
arms. I knew even as I fled that I did not evade Paul so much as the knowing that he knew, as though
if I hid myself, my mortality, somehow it would not happen to me at all.

I look back at myself before the Treatments as though at a stranger. I look back at myself after
the Treatments as though at a different stranger. I see, in fact, a line of strangers, like the receding
images from two tilted mirrors. Some of them I do not understand at all.

7
I liked the Jenny-creature. An unforeseen development, which I pondered over breakfast. She moved
with grace, unselfconsciously, slipping an occasional comment into the conversation that was sharp,
to the point, and often quite funny. But for the most part she kept her peace, watching Paul and me
with her quiet green eyes. She wasn’t pretty, hadn’t opted for cosmetic surgery, so that her nose was
a bit too big, a bit too sharp; her high, fine and out-of-fashion cheekbones rode above unfashionably
concave cheeks. A mass of black hair fell over her shoulders.

She was bothered by me, though, by my obvious age, my abruptness, my murmured sarcasms
as I drove them in my ancient electric hover-car down the steep dirt roads to the dock. Did she know
of my history with Paul? For that matter, did Paul really know anymore, did he remember Venice,
or was it a vague piece of knowledge tucked into the back of his mind and forgotten? After all, it
couldn’t have been too pleasant, looking at my aging self and recollecting our brief passion, eons
back. Did it even matter?

Yes. To me.

8
They hated my car, the road, my driving. I knew they would. Paul clutched the arm-rest on the
passenger side and Jenny, sandwiched between us, clutched Paul, as I swung the little car around the
steep curves of the road. Perfectly safe, that road and my driving of it; I knew every small bend and
switchback, every place where water accumulated during rainfalls and where dried leaves fell in
autumn. The road and the land through which it passes are beautiful but my passengers hid in their
fear and did not see the beauty, and I was again exasperated by the typical, infuriating terror of the
Immortals. I speeded up. The little car squealed and skidded. I forgot my sarcasms and concentrated
on control, feeling the flight between my hands, the sharp rocking as the aircushions below
encountered unevenness, the wind through my hair. I must have looked the maniac, grinning into the
wind, for Paul and Jenny were pale and stiff as we rounded the last swing but one in the road, and
I reversed thrust and pulled over.

“There she is,” I said, gesturing out toward the sea. They came out of their terror, followed
the line of my arm, saw the Ilium, and gasped.

Imagine an iceberg, pointed at bow and stern, rising straight and clean from waterline to
decks. Below the waterline the hull flares to cover the antigrav housing, the generators, beamers, all
the apparatus of movement and of flight. Above the waterline, form and function reach a new
agreement. The Ilium is a broad-beamed cathedral of a ship, spired and buttressed, castellated,
crystalline; a floating opera, a palace, a folly. Three hundred years of Immortal tinkering have turned
her from a plain, white grav-schooner to an illustration from an ancient, fantastical story book; only
the boundaries of her hull limit the fantasy of her decks. The morning sunlight shattered against
windows and metal arches, poured down smooth sides and bounced from intricate ones, picked out
an arched and colored window here, a minaret there, a series of wrought-iron balconies. Staircases
spiraled endlessly; colonnades appeared unexpectedly and just as unexpectedly disappeared; flags of
many hues rippled from the top of each tower, turret, minaret, and spire. The Ilium flew her gaudy
colors proudly as she sat scrubbed and gleaming a kilometer from the shore. My passengers stared,
open-mouthed, and in thanks for their awe I drove sedately the remaining kilometer to the dock.

I stopped the rotor. They clambered from the car and stood holding each other and gazing at
the ship while Tobias, slouched against the metal arch of the dock’s entrance, pulled himself upright
and came toward us. He stopped a yard away and, leaving Paul and Jenny to their awe, he scowled
at me. I returned the courtesy.

Beautiful Tobias. Mass of curly, golden hair, Grecian-perfect face, eyes an intense blue.
Tanned, graceful, sensuous. When clothed, and he was clothed surprisingly often for an Immortal,
he wore ragged pants or grease-stained suits, knowing that the contrast heightened his own beauty.
Tobias hated me. Perhaps I was too great a contrast, perhaps he thought my ugliness threatened his
fairness. For whatever reason, Tobias hated me and I found the hate refreshingly unlike the polite,
uneasy masks of the other Immortals. We silently reaffirmed our mutual aversion, standing there in
the hot July sunlight beside the wonder-struck novices. He dropped his glance first.

“Are you coming out to the ship,” he demanded, staring over my left shoulder.

“No, I’m busy today. I’ll be down on time tomorrow morning. Am I needed?”

“Not at all,” he replied, and smiled like a sullen child in on some secret. He knew damned
well that today was my regular reaming-out day. I turned from him in disgust and called to Paul and
Jenny.

“This is Tobias Gamin, he’ll take you out to the Ilium and show you around, introduce you
to people. Tobias, can you see that they get back to my place this evening?”

“Sure,” he replied. The three gave each other a casual, sexual once-over, evaluating, picking,
choosing. Such an easy, unconfined sexuality these people have: if it moves, fuck it. If that wasn’t
entirely fair, I didn’t care. Still, I moved, and nobody fucked me.

“Paul Ambuhl, Jenny Crane,” I said, completing the introductions, and turned toward my car.
Paul followed and laid a hand on my arm. I stared at it, shocked at the contact.

“Tia, thanks for putting us up.”

“No problem.” I tried to move my arm but he kept his light grip and, wetting his lips,
continued.

“Look, have we done something wrong?”

“Wrong?”

“It’s just that you’re so, well, abrupt. I was wondering if maybe we’d, well, you know . . .”

“No, you haven’t done anything wrong. Why don’t you get back to Tobias now, okay? I’ve
got an appointment in an hour.”

I slipped away from him and into the driver’s seat, started the car before he had a chance to
reply, and left him on the dock behind me in the dust kicked up by the aircushions. I drove to the far
end of the village, parked, and picked up a hopper for the short flight to the mainland. I wasted a few
moments fuming over Paul’s presumptive worries, then shrugged my anger away. One more evening
and I would be free of them both. The Ilium sailed in the morning and I could easily avoid them once
aboard. Flight, I thought, heals all. I banished the bother from my mind.

9
By the time my arctic miseries cleared and I knew that Paul had not followed me from the hotel, I had
evolved a plan which seemed, to my aching and melodramatic mind, in all ways perfect. I had
traveled only on Terra, following the tradition that children not yet old enough for the Immortality
Treatments stayed on the home planet. So the moon was a place Paul and I had not visited together,
would hold no associations for me; he would not think of following me there. With all the drama of
the young, pursued by my private furies, I determined to turn my back on the earth. Two months after
I left the clinic I boarded the shuttle to the city of Luna.

After the cushioned push of acceleration, the semi-gravity of the shuttle delighted me. I
bounded through the cabin, clumsy and soaring. The other passengers kept to their seats or moved
cautiously, clutching hand-holds. I scorned their crablike uncertainties and bounced around them.

In the viewing cabin I pressed against the port. The universe revolved, stars floating by in a
stately dance. I tried to see the yellow glow of the space station but it lay directly in front of us and
couldn’t be seen from the viewing port. Hand-holds framed the port. I clung to them, captured by the
beauty of the stars seen through the clarity of vacuum until, part of the cosmic dance, the moon crept
upward, astoundingly clear, pockmarked, beloved, beautiful.

“Impressive, eh?”

I turned my face from the splendor of the moon and looked at the other occupant of the
viewing cabin. He was a tall, broad man, with epicanthic eyes set above sculpted cheekbones, a large,
hooked nose, and a thick beard covering his cheeks, chin, and upper lip. His hair, fairly closely cut,
was still long enough to float in the light pseudo-gravity as he nodded toward the rising moon. Blunt
fingers gripped a hand-hold and one leg rested, bent, against the ribbed wall. The dim lights of the
room washed all color from him, so that he seemed a mountain of blacks and greys and whites. I
returned my attention to the port and nodded. 

“This is your first time to Luna and you’re very young, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, interested despite myself. “How did you know?”

“It’s not hard to tell. Older folk are less likely to go flying around the cabin, and since you’re
young enough to do that, and a little clumsy, this is probably your first trip. About, what, twenty,
twenty-one?”

“Does it matter how old I am?”

“No, not really. Just guessing. Nosy, eh? Are you going all the way to Luna?”

“Um.”

“You might like it. Few people do, you know. They go up for the mining or the Library, the
observatories, just to stare, but people don’t usually like the place. You might, though. If you do, get
out of Luna itself, get to some of the observatories, get up to the surface. It’s not that dangerous.”

“Have you gone out on the surface yourself?”

“Sure, it’s part of my job. I work maintenance on the transport tubes. Our crews walk the
surface, check things over, fix the places where small particles have broken through the tubes and
been temporarily patched.”

“I thought machines did that, robots and waldoes, not people.”

“Machines make mistakes sometimes. And you can’t trust a machine to make fast decisions
the way a human can — they have no judgment, so they make mistakes. Can’t have that up here, the
smallest mistake could cause a disaster.” He gave me a monochromatic grin across the plate of the
port. “Tell you what, if you spend some time on Luna, give me a call. Name’s Greg Hartfeld. The
comsystem’ll connect you with me. You want to get out on the surface, I’ll take you along some
time.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m Tia Hamley. Maybe I’ll call.”

“Good!” He smiled, kicked himself away from the wall with practiced grace, and soared out
the door. I remained in the dimness, debating whether or not I wished to interrupt my self-imposed
dramatic exile with the pleasantries of walks on the surface of the moon, or with the company of Greg
Hartfeld. The moon, spectral and beautiful against the backdrop of the stars, moved out of sight
beyond the lip of the port.

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