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Radio Waves-Michael Swanwick.

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      michael Swanwick

      Radio Waves

      I was walking the telephone wires upside-down, the sky underfoot cold and fiat with a few hard bright stars sparsely scattered about it, when I thought how it would take only an instant's weakness to step off to the side and fall up forever into the night. A kind of wildness entered me then and I began to run.

      Electric Motors-Controls-Parts. Then, where the slope steepened, along the curving snake of rowhouses that went the full quarter mile up to the Ridge. Twice I overtook pedestrians, hunched and bundled, heads doggedly down, out on incomprehensible errands. They didn't notice me, of course. They never do. The antenna farm was visible from here. I could see the Seven Sisters spangled with red lights, dependent on the earth like stalactites. "Where are you running to, little one?" one tower whispered in a crackling, staticky voice. I think it was Hegemone.

      "Fuck off," I said without slackening my pace, and they all chuckled.

      Cars mumbled by. This was ravine country, however built up, and the far side of the road, too steep and rocky for development, was given over to trees and garbage. Ham.burger wrappings and white plastic trash bags rustled in their wake. I was running full-out now.

      About a block or so from the Ridge, I stumbled and almost fell. I slapped an arm across a telephone pole and just managed to catch myself in time. Aghast at my own carelessness, I hung there, dizzy and alarmed. The ground overhead was black as black, an iron roof, yet somehow was as anxious as a hound to leap upon me, crush me flat, smear me to nothingness. I stared up at it, horrified.

      Somebody screamed my name.

      I turned. A faint blue figure clung to a television antenna atop a small, stuccoed brick duplex. Charlie's Widow. She pointed an arm that flickered with silver fire down Ripka Street. I slewed about to see what was coming after me.

      It was the Corpsegrinder.

      When it saw that I'd spotted it, it put out several more legs, extended a quilled head, and raised a howl that bounced off the Heaviside layer. My nonexistent blood chilled.In a panic, I scrambled up and ran toward the Ridge and safety. I had a squat in the old Roxy, and once I was through the wall, the Corpsegrinder would not follow. Why this should be so, I did not know. But you learn the rules if you want to survive.

      I ran. In the back of my head I could hear the Seven Sisters clucking and gossiping to each other, radiating television and radio over a few dozen frequencies. Indifferent to my plight.

      The Corpsegrinder churned up the wires on a hundred needle-sharp legs. I could feel the ion surge it kicked up pushing against me as I reached the intersection of Ridge and Leverington. Cars were pulling up to the pumps at the Atlantic station. Teenagers stood in front of the A-Plus Mini Market, flicking half-smoked cigarettes into the street, stamping their feet like colts, and waiting for something to happen. I couldn't help feeling a great longing disdain for them. Every last one worried about grades and drugs and zits, and all the while snugly barricaded within hulking fortresses of flesh.

      I was scant yards from home. The Roxy was a big old movie palace, fallen into disrepair and semiconverted to a skateboarding rink which had gone out of business almost immediately. But it had been a wonderful place once, and the terra-cotta trim was still there: ribbons and river-gods, great puffing faces with panpipes, guitars, flowers, wyverns. I crossed the Ridge on a dead telephone wire, spider-web delicate but still usable.

      Almost there.

      Then the creature was upon me, with a howl of electromagnetic rage that silenced even the Sisters for an instant. It slammed into my side, a storm of razors and diamond-edged fury, hooks and claws extended.

      I grabbed at a rusty flange on the side of the Roxy.

      Too late! Pain exploded within me, a sheet of white nausea. All in an instant I lost the name of my second daughter, an April morning when the world was new and I was five, a smoky string of all-nighters in Rensselaer Polytech, the jowly grin of Old Whatsisface the German who lived on LaFountain Street, the fresh pain of a sprained ankle out back of a Banana Republic warehouse, fishing off a yellow rubber raft with my old man on Lake Champlain. All gone, these and a thousand things more, sucked away, crushed to nothing, beyond retrieval.

      Furious as any wounded animal, I fought back. Foul bits of substance splattered under my fist. The Corpse-grinder reared up to smash me down, and I scrabbled desperately away. Something tore and gave.

      Then I was through the wall and safe and among the bats and gloom.

      "Cobb!" the Corpsegrinder shouted. It lashed wildly back and forth, scouring the brick walls with limbs and teeth, as restless as a March wind, as unpredictable as ball lightning.

      For the moment I was safe. But it had seized a part of me, tortured it, and made it a part of itself. I could no longer delude myself into thinking it was simply going to go away. "Cahawahawbb!" It broke my name down to a chord of overlapping tones. It had an ugly, muddy voice. I felt dirtied just listening to it. "Caw--" A pause. "--awbb!"

      In a horrified daze I stumbled up the Roxy's curving patterned-tin roof until I found a section free of bats. Exhausted and dispirited, I slumped down.

      "Caw aw aw awb buh buh!"

      How had the thing found me? I'd thought I'd left it behind in Manhattan. Had my flight across the high-tension lines left a trail of some kind? Maybe. Then again, it might have some special connection with me. To follow me here it must have passed by easier prey. Which implied it had a grudge against me. Maybe I'd known the Corpse-grinder back when it was human. We could once have been important to each other. We might have been lovers. It was possible. The world is a stranger place than I used to believe.

      The horror of my existence overtook me then, an acute awareness of the squalor in which I dwelt, the danger which surrounded me, and the dark mystery informing my universe. I wept for all that I had lost.

      Eventually, the sun rose up like God's own Peterbilt and with a triumphant blare of chromed trumpets, gently sent all of us creatures of the night to sleep.

      When you die, the first thing that happens is that the world turns upside-down. You feel an overwhelming disorientation and a strange sensation that's not quite pain as the last strands connecting you to your body part, and then you slip out of physical being and fall from the planet.

      As you fall, you attenuate. Your substance expands and thins, glowing more and more faintly as you pick up speed. So far as can be told, it's a process that doesn't ever stop. Fainter, thinner, colder ... until you've merged into the substance of everyone else who's ever died, spread perfectly uniformly through the universal vacuum forever moving toward but never arriving at absolute zero. Look hard, and the sky is full of the Dead.

      Not everyone falls away. Some few are fast-thinking or lucky enough to maintain a tenuous hold on earthly existence. I was one of the lucky ones. I was working late one night on a proposal when I had my heart attack. The office was empty. The ceiling had a wire mesh within the plaster and that's what saved me.

      The first response to death is denial. This can't be happening, I thought. I gaped up at the floor where my body had fallen and would lie undiscovered until morning. My own corpse, pale and bloodless, wearing a corporate tie and sleeveless gray Angora sweater. Gold Rolex, Sharper Image desk accessories, and of course I also thought: I died for this? By which of course I meant my entire life.

      So it was in a state of personal and ontological crisis that I wandered across the ceiling to the location of an old pneumatic message tube, removed and plastered over some 50 years be-fore. I fell from the seventeenth to the twenty-fifth floor, and I learned a lot in the process. Shaken, startled, and already beginning to assume the wariness that the afterlife requires, I went to a window to get a glimpse of the outer world. When I tried to touch the glass, my hand went right through. I jerked back. Cautiously, I leaned forward so that my head stuck out into the night.

      What a wonderful experience Times Square is when you're dead! There is ten times the light a living being sees. All metal things vibrate with inner life. Electric wires are thin scratches

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