Bruce Sterling

Holy Fire


Mia Ziemann needed to know what to wear at a deathbed.

The net counseled simplicity and sincerity. Mia was a ninety-four-year-old Californian medical economist, while the prospective deceased, Martin Warshaw, had been her college sweetheart some seventy-four years previously. Mia could expect some prepared statement. There would very likely be a bequest of some sort. Conversation would involve an attempt to put Mr. Warshaw’s life into retrospective order, to supply the sense of grace and closure so desirable during life’s final chapter. She would not be asked to witness the actual moment of death.

A deathbed reunion of long-separated lovers was a challenge to etiquette, but the late twenty-first century shone in social tidiness. Dilemmas of this sort were exhaustively debated in endless rounds of calls for commentary, working papers from boards of experts, anecdotal testimonies, ethics conventions, sworn public hearings, policy manuals. No aspect of human existence escaped smoothing over by thoughtful, seasoned, and mature counsel.

Mia studied as much of this material as she could stomach. She spent the afternoon reacquainting herself with Martin Warshaw’s financial and medical records. She hadn’t seen Martin in fifty years, though she had followed his public career to some extent. Those records of Martin’s were most revealing and informative. They had made his life an open book. This was their purpose.

Mia reached a decision: black flats, support hose, a reactive girdle and cuirass, a knee-length silk dress in maroon and gray, long sleeves, high collar. A hat definitely seemed in order. No gloves. Gloves were recommended, but gloves seemed too clinical.

Mia had a blood filtration, a skin enzymation, a long bone-deep massage, a mineral bath, and a manicure. She had her hair cleaned, laminated, volumized, styled, and lacquered. She increased the saturated fat in her diet. She slept that night under a hyperbaric tent.

Next morning, November 19, Mia went into the city to look for a decent hat, some kind of hat that might truly suit her circumstances. It was a cold autumnal day in San Francisco. Fog crept in off the Bay, oozing through the leafy cliffsides of the office high-rises. She walked and shopped, and shopped and walked, for a long time. She saw nothing that could match her mood.

A dog was following her up Market Street, loping through the crowd. She stopped behind the shadowed column of a portico and stretched out her bare hand, beckoning.

The dog paused timidly, then came up and sniffed at her fingers.

“Are you Mia Ziemann?” the dog said.

“Yes, I am,” Mia said. People walked past her, brisk and purposeful, their solemn faces set, neat shoes scuffing the red brick sidewalks. Under the steady discipline of Mia’s gaze, the dog settled on his haunches, crouching at her feet.

“I tracked you from your home,” bragged the dog, panting rhythmically. “It’s a long way.” The dog wore a checkered knit sweater, tailored canine trousers, and a knitted black skullcap.

The dog’s gloved front paws were vaguely prehensile, like a raccoon’s hands. The dog had short clean fawn- colored fur and large attractive eyes. His voice came from a speaker implanted in his throat.

A car bleeped once at a tardy pedestrian, rudely breaking the subtle urban murmurs of downtown San Francisco. “I’ve walked a long way,” Mia said. “It was clever of you to find me. Good dog.”

The dog brightened at the praise, and wagged his tail. “I think I’m lost and I feel rather hungry.”

“That’s all right, nice dog.” The dog reeked of cologne. “What’s your name?”

“Plato,” the dog said shyly.

“That’s a fine name for a dog. Why are you following me?”

This sophisticated conversational gambit exhausted the dog’s limited verbal repertoire, but with the usual cheerful resilience of his species he simply changed the subject. “I live with Martin Warshaw! He’s very good to me! He feeds me well. Also Martin smells good! Except not … like other days. Not like …” The dog seemed pained. “Not like now.… ”

“Did Martin send you to follow me?”

The dog pondered this. “He talks about you. He wants to see you. You should come talk to him. He can’t be happy.” The dog sniffed at the paving, then looked up expectantly. “May I have a treat?”

“I don’t carry treats with me, Plato.”

“That’s very sad,” Plato observed.

“How is Martin? How does he feel?”

A dim anxiety puckered the hairy canine wrinkles around the dog’s eyes. It was odd how much more expressive a dog’s face became once it learned to talk. “No,” the dog offered haltingly, “Martin smells unhappy. My home feels bad inside. Martin is making me very sad.” He began to howl.

The citizens of San Francisco were a very tolerant lot, civilized and cosmopolitan. Mia could see that the passersby strongly disapproved of anyone who would publicly bully a dog to tears.

“It’s all right,” Mia soothed, “calm down. I’ll go with you. We’ll go to see Martin right away.”

The dog whined, too distraught to manage speech.

“Take me home to Martin Warshaw,” she commanded.

“Oh, all right,” said the dog, brightening. Order had returned to his moral universe. “I can do that. That’s easy.”

He led her, frisking, to a trolley. The dog paid for both of them, and they got off after three stops. Martin Warshaw had chosen to live north of Market in Nob Hill, in one of the quake-proofed high-rises built in the 2060s, a polychrome pile. It had been ambitious, by the garish standards of its period, with vividly patterned exterior tiling and a rippling mess of projecting bay windows and balconies.

Inside the building it was narcotically tranquil. The lobby offered an interior grove of hotly fragrant orange and avocado trees in portable two-ton polychrome pots. The trees were hoppingly alive with small, twittering flocks of finches.

Mia followed her canine escort into a mural-crusted elevator. They emerged on the tenth floor, onto pavement set with stone cobbles. The building’s internal lighting glowed in superrealist mimicry of northern California sunlight. People had hung laundry inside the building’s sweet breeze and light. Mia worked her way through the big potted jacarandas and bought a shrink-wrapped pack of dog treats from an automated street shop. The dog accepted a bone-shaped lozenge with polite enthusiasm.

Fragrant wisteria vines were flowering on the stone veneer of Martin’s apartment. The heavy door shunted open at a single knowing touch of the dog’s paw.

“Mia Ziemann is here!” the dog announced heartily to the empty air. The living room had the sanitary neatness of some strange old-fashioned hotel: potted palms, a mahogany media cabinet, tall brass floor lamps, a glass-topped teak table with spotless untouched glassware and hermetic jars of mixed nuts. A pair of large rats with control collars were eating lab chow from a bowl on the table.

“May I take your coat?” asked the dog.

Mia shrugged out of her tan gabard and handed it over. She was wearing what she usually wore to shop: tailored trousers and a long-sleeved blouse. Informal clothes would have to do. The dog gamely engaged in complex maneuvers with a hatstand.

Mia hung her purse. “Where is Martin?”

The dog led her to the bedroom. A dying man in patterned Japanese pajamas lay propped on pillows in a narrow bed. He was asleep or unconscious, his lined face sagging, his thin, lifeless hair in disarray.

At the sight of him, Mia almost turned and ran at once. The impulse to simply flee the room, flee the building, flee the city, was as strong and raw as any emotional impulse she had felt in years.

Mia stood her ground. Confronted with the stark reality of encroaching death, all her advice and preparation

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