Published in Interzone, July 1991
Prototype for the main subplot of The Holy Machine.
More about this story here.
The Long Journey of Frozen Heart © Chris Beckett, 1991. Not to be reproduced without author’s permission.
The Long Journey of Frozen Heart
Well, I have travelled the seven seas and five continents and the three planets and all the countless worlds of the Otherverse, and many souls have come to me with their sorrows. But I will never forget the sorrow of Frozen Heart.
Poor Frozen Heart. Her name was once Mary Louisa Ann and, like so many, she thought that she would be free if she left her tired sick flesh behind her and came to live inside the Otherverse, where she could ride bareback on unicorns and fly between dragon’s wings, make love with gods and princes, swim with dolphins in crystal waters and never have to come up to breathe. How could she not be happy and free in a place where anything was possible, and everything was allowed?
In World 29876 she danced on the lip of a volcano. In 97089 she played on white beaches beneath the Eternal Mountains. In 64537 she stalked the neon streets of a city so vast that no one has ever found its edge. Everything she saw was brilliant and intricate and beautiful, everyone she knew was sublime, and she herself was loved and admired, accounted a great artist in the medium that is the Otherverse. But the coldness grew inside her. It grew and grew until one day, unable to deny it any more, she found her way to me.
“What are you looking for?” I asked her.
And she answered: “The cure for my frozen heart.”
I said: “What price are you prepared to pay?”
Now, many come to me for advice, but very few listen and even fewer act. But Frozen Heart listened and then she sighed and said: “Well, that is what I must do then.”
We spent some time talking, there in a little orange grove beside a pool of carp, about the trials that lay ahead. And then I embraced her and wished her well, and she set off in the direction of Middleworld.
Usually when she went to Middleworld she flew or jumped through a Gate, but this time she walked. There was a burden on her shoulders now and it felt too heavy for flying or leaping.
After a time she came across some friends of hers who were world-hopping through the many layers of the Otherverse. They were beautiful as peacocks, with brilliant eyes and swirling garments that never came to rest.
“Hey, Frozen Heart!” they called out to her. “We missed you! What have you been doing?”
She told them of her decision and of the bitter journey that lay ahead of her.
“Oh, poor Frozen Heart,” said Lilac Eyes, “that is the bravest and most beautiful thing I ever heard!”
“Lovely Frozen Heart,” said Heaven’s Throat, “you are so deep and dark. If only we could all live as you do and dream dreams like yours.”
And some of them there and then promised to make the same journey, because they were always hungry for new experiences and new emotions, and all of them suffered with coldness of the heart. But even as they promised to copy the steadfastness of Frozen Heart, they grew bored and, without meaning to be rude, they began to flicker restlessly in and out of the world.
“Hey, Frozen Heart, we’re going now. Why don’t you come along too?” they cried, as if the thing she had told them had already been cancelled out, as if an impulse only existed in the moment it was spoken.
But Frozen Heart shook her head and let them vanish into their kaleidoscope of worlds.
She came to a place of ice. Blizzards beat against her. Snowdrifts threatened to engulf her. And suddenly, looming out of the whiteness, came Fear in the form of a living corpse, a skeleton hung with shreds of black frostbitten flesh.
“Turn back!” screamed Fear through the howling wind. “Turn back or become like me!”
Frozen Heart shrank back in horror.
“What shall I do?” she whispered. “What shall I do?”
“You knew the price before you started,” I said (for I was there with her in thought) and she nodded and forced herself to walk on past the hideous rotting thing.
“You will become like me!” it cried. “You will become like me!”
But she kept on going until at last its voice had merged back into the voice of the blizzard itself.
She crossed glaciers and crevasses. She crossed jagged mountains. Once when she was climbing a wall of ice, she saw the face of another woman, twisted and white, gazing out sightlessly from its green depths. Another time she passed a ship that had been trapped in a desolate fjord by the freezing up of the sea. Huge icicles hung from its yard-arms and from the bowsprit and on the deck stood a crew of dead sailors, leaning on the railings and gazing towards her with empty sockets from which the eyeballs had been picked out by birds.
And then the Otherverse itself appeared to her in the form of a beautiful young man, carrying in a basket the Apples of Eternal Youth.
“Why are you turning your back on me, Frozen Heart, when I give you limitless freedom and willingly grant you your every wish and whim?”
Even amidst the snow and ice the young man stood in summer. His golden-brown torso glowed in warm sunlight and soft green grass grew up between his bare brown toes.
“What shall I do?” Frozen Heart whispered to me again.
“Nothing has changed,” I answered. “He has told you nothing that you didn’t already know. The choice is what it always was.”
“Choice?” cried the young man. (He could hear me perfectly, of course, for he was the Otherverse and the Otherverse was the medium through which I spoke). “You speak of choice? I am choice. Choice is what I give her in limitless abundance!”
Flowers blossomed around his feet, blue and red and gold, as he turned back to Frozen Heart.
“You know quite well, dear one,” he said, “that she can have any world you are capable of imagining. This Arctic waste you are so stubbornly crossing now is born from your own perversity. If you chose to, you could see the gardens of 39876 or the sunny hills of 10983. Look! They are all around you now: the trees, the hummingbirds, the alpine meadows. And you know too that, wherever it is you are going – wherever and whatever kind of place it is – the Otherverse can give you something that’s the same or better. Even sorrow, if that is what you want, even pain or fear or ice or snow! So why leave? Why even think of living? Look at the riches I can offer!”
And the young man banished the waste of ice and snow and made it a sparkling wonderland of precious stones: rivers of diamonds, forests of rubies, fields of emeralds…
But Frozen Heart shook her head and turned away from him. And now her burden seemed so heavy that even walking seemed too hard and soon she was crawling on her hands and knees across a scalding sand of diamond dust while a sapphire sun in a crystal sky burned above her head.
Sometimes, it’s true, in spite of her efforts, the stones blossomed. Sometimes they began to mutate into the sweet, subtle, ever-changing, ever-yielding thing that she knew the Otherverse could be, and she glimpsed cool fountains, green ferns and shady pools, but she shut these glimpses away from herself and made the burning wasteland return. She made that loveless sun beat down on her. She made her lips crack with thirst and her hands and knees bleed from crawling.
And at length she came to Middleworld.
There are no bleak deserts in Middleworld. There are no landcapes of snow. There are only options, long cool lists of possibilities.
“And what can I do for you?” Middleworld said, assuming the likeness of an old-fashioned shopkeeper in a stripy apron, standing behind his counter in front of shelves stacked full from floor to ceiling.
“We’ve had some wonderful new identity packages just come in,” said the shopkeeper, rubbing together his fat friendly hands. “The latest thing is talking animals and mythical beasts. Wonderful scope for self-expression. I’ve been shifting them even faster than hot cakes. How you ever thought about taking a break from being human? I could see you as a lonely albatross, or maybe a little bleeding lamb?”
Frozen Heart didn’t answer straight away so Middleworld continued its pleasant patter.
“Perhaps it’s new destinations you want? One can get stuck in a rut, you know, even in the Otherverse! Have you heard about the new development in 77664? They call it the Great Game. It’s like three-dimensional chess, played out in a gigantic palace with marble floors and frescoed ceilings. Every one who enters must don the mask of a knight, or a queen, or a pawn and do battle with masked enemies, but there is no beginning and no middle and no end. Very intense, very cerebral, and very very dark… Not your kind of thing? Perhaps you fancy a bit of simple naturalism? It can be a welcome break. The latest thing in that line is the new swamp in 86756, absolutely state-of-the-art, with crocodiles that really bite and mosquitoes that really sting.”
Frozen Heart opened her mouth to speak, but her courage failed her. Middleworld gave a broad wink.
“To hell with mangrove swamps, eh? What are you, a frog? Perhaps it’s the old love-life that needs a bit of a boost? There are always lots of wonderful new ideas in that department of course. For instance…”
But Frozen Heart steeled herself and said: “I don’t want any of those things. I want to go back to Reality.”
“Reality?” Middleworld raised one eyebrow in a semblance of surprise, though of course he was of the Otherverse, and so already knew. “Actual reality? You will need a vehicle for that of course, but is it really where you want to go?”
“Yes,” said Frozen Heart, “I’ve made up my mind.”
The shopkeeper shrugged and promptly dissolved, to be replaced by a visual display.
“Well it’s your choice,” came Middleworld’s disembodied voice. “These are the vehicles we have available. I’m afraid, as you can see, they don’t exactly come cheap.”
She chose one, almost at random, and many thousands of credits were transferred from her account.
The vehicle was in the form of a Caucasian woman of middle years with brown hair and no special distinguishing features. It was a high class machine, beautifully finished with real living human skin and flesh, grown on agar jelly under infra red lamps. The assistants in the hire centre made Frozen Heart walk round the room two or three times in this new body to make sure it was working properly and was properly under her control.
Then she stepped outside into Reality.
It was raining and the sky was grey and she found she had forgotten just how different from the Otherverse it was. Back there, dreams leapt fully clothed out of people’s heads. You could fly, or burrow underground, or be in two places at once. You could build yourself a house as quickly as you could decide what colours you wanted to paint the walls. But here matter was solid and final. Dirty water was falling from a dirty sky into a dirty concrete street. Dreams were faint and far away and quickly forgotten.
“Go back!” screamed Fear. “Or become like me!”
“Come home!” called the warmth and the colour of the far-away Otherverse, and all her peacock-bright friends.
But brave Frozen Heart turned her face and started once again to walk.
She was in a city. It was one of the greatest of all the great sad crumbling cities of Reality. The vehicle hire centre lay on one side of it and her destination lay on the other, so she made her way slowly through the city’s streets, gazing up with a sinking heart at its dirty concrete towers. They were tiny compared with the buildings in 75848 (those slender shards of glass that reach so high above the clouds that lonely moons and planets spin their windows.) But then again, these towers of Reality were not like the instant dream-towers of the Otherverse. They had had to be laboriously assembled girder by heavy girder, each one lifted up against the downward drag of gravity and lowered into position by human beings, who might really fall, and really die, and sometimes really did.
Nowadays the towers were all in decay and the once lively streets were almost empty, sullenly tramped by the elderly and the religious and the poor. For like all the great cities, this place had lost the brightest and wealthiest of its people. They had gone long ago into the Otherverse. Why accept the dreary limitations of a place like this, if you didn’t have to?
A beggar came up to her, a tiny, urine-smelling man with huge red bloodhound eyes. He held out a grimy hand and murmured: “The price of a coffee, ma’am? Could you spare me just that?”
She was about to congratulate his on his performance when she remembered that this was real and that a bit of money was really what he wanted from her.
“I’m sorry, no cash, only credits…”
The tiny man mouthed a tiny obscenity.
Then she saw a woman she once knew coming out of a church, twenty years older and greyer and weighed down with care. She had four children following after her.
“Hello Theresa!” Frozen Heart exclaimed. “You won’t remember me, this is just a vehicle, but I was once your old school friend, Mary Louisa Ann. Do you remember? Once upon a time we were so close…”
The woman glanced at her for a moment, then pushed past, shepherding her children back to her car and getting in herself with a single hostile glance back at the stranger.
Later on, Frozen Heart turned a corner and was confronted by two youths with knives.
“Okay, give us all your money, lady,” said the one with the wall eye.
“Yeah, and move it!” said the albino in mirror glasses.
Frozen Heart said, “I have no cash for you. I’m not even a real person you can kill. This is only a vehicle.”
“Jesus Christ!” said the albino.
“Shi-it!” said the wall-eyed.
They didn’t know much, barely even know how to read or write, but they knew that what a vehicle sees, the Otherverse remembers. They ran off, though as he went past her, the albino swiped at her with his shiny blade.
As Frozen Heart stood there alone in the street with blood staining her blouse, a kind plump woman came by and took pity on her, leading her to a little bar and ordering coffee for them both.
“Why don’t you just give up on this old place, my dear?” said the kindly woman, offering a handkerchief to wipe away the real tears that flowed from the vehicle’s eyes. “You had to come here to see for yourself, I know. Of course you did. But now you’ve seen it, you want to go back to where everything is safe and its fun, don’t you? That’s quite understandable, love. There’s no disgrace in it!”
Frozen Heart studied her companion carefully.
“You’re not from here are you?” she said. “You’re not a real person at all. You come from the Otherverse like me.”
The other woman smiled. “My dear, I am the Otherverse, and I’ve been watching you to make sure you were alright. But I think now it’s time to bring you home now, don’t you agree?”
“You’re the Otherverse? You took a vehicle yourself, specially to find me?” Frozen Heart was touched. “Why did you do that?”
“For two reasons, love,” said the Otherverse through the pleasant voice of the plump and motherly woman. “For one thing, let’s be honest, I do not want to lose your valuable custom and the valuable services you provide to my other customers. But I like to think too that I care about my people. After all we have a very close relationship. You create me and I recreate you.”
An elderly waitress brought coffee came in a pot, and the kind woman poured it.
“You particularly I care about, dear Frozen Heart, as do your many friends. You are a great artist. You enrich life for us all. Come back to us, dearest, come back. We know you see things more clearly than the rest of us, but don’t abandon us! Come back and teach us what you know!”
Frozen Heart started to tremble violently as her vehicle struggled to obey the contradictory signals she was sending it. Part of her so much wanted to return.
But she took control of herself and reached out for her cup of coffee. With great difficulty she steadied it, lifted it to her lips and sipped. And then suddenly the effort was too much and the cup was flying from her grasp, bouncing on the corner of the table and smashing to pieces on the tiled floor.
Somehow this made up her mind.
“Goodbye,” she said abruptly, leaping up, rushing out into the street and hailing a yellow cab before the nice motherly woman had time to come out after her.
“Well done, Frozen Heart,” I whispered as she climbed into the back seat of the cab and dissolved into tears.
“Hey lady,” said the white-haired driver, glancing in his mirror, “be my guest if you want to cry, but tell me first where you want me to go!”
“To the Storehouse,” she managed to say between sobs, “to the Otherverse Storehouse…”
No more time-wasting, she told herself. And the cab-driver took her to a grey monolithic building on the outskirts of the city. It was ten storeys tall and almost entirely without windows, like some kind of fort.
At the reception desk she identified herself with her personal code and said she had come to view her property.
“Sorry,” said the woman behind the desk, “viewings are on Tuesdays only and you need an appointment. It’s for security reasons. For your own protection really…”
“I have travelled a long, long way,” said Frozen Heart. “Could you not make an exception just this once? If I were to make an additional payment, including something for yourself, just for your trouble…”
And she started pouring credits out from her account.
“Well it is most irregular,” said the receptionist, but she picked up a phone and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
A storeman came down. He had a twisted spine and an embittered face. But when a substantial tip had been paid to him also, he led her down a long corridor, unlocked a door, hobbling ahead of her with an odd lop-sided limping gait, and ushered her into an enormous hall, whose sides were lined with tiers of galleries, each gallery itself lined with three tiers of numbered drawers. Clicking his tongue and consulting the slip which the receptionist had given him, the storeman led Frozen Heart up to the fourth gallery and unlocked the twenty-third drawer in the middle row.
There was a clear plastic bag inside it. And inside that was Frozen Heart’s property: a brain, a liver, a slowly beating heart…
There were tubes of fluid going in and out of the bag and wires poking into the brain to link it up with the small transmitter that fed its nervous impulses into the Otherverse.
Frozen Heart stared down at the reddish mass pulsing in the plastic bag.
“Is that really me?” she asked.
The storeman nodded grimly and showed her the label that was stapled onto the top of the bag. Underneath a bar code, the name was printed in tiny letters:
Mary Louisa Ann Kennedy
0808 9764 4386 7790
Frozen Heart reached out to touch the brain.
“Is it really in there that these thoughts of mine are going on? Is it really that thing that chooses these words I speak?”
“It is. Through this transmitter and through the Otherverse, it tells your vehicle what to do.”
“Is it really this beating heart that keeps it all alive?”
The twisted storeman was moved, in spite of himself, by her emotion
“Yes, my dear, it surely is,” he said in a kinder voice. “But if anything were to go wrong with it, we’d have it replaced by an electric pump in no time. On that you can rest assured.”
She looked round at all the galleries and all the hundreds of thousands of drawers that held the brains and hearts of the countless citizens of the Otherverse.
“I want to have my self back,” said Frozen Heart. “I want to take it away with me.”
The storeman stared at her, horrified. “I can’t let you do that! It’s strictly against the rules! And anyway, it would be allowing you to die. I know there’s a life-support pack in the bag, but it’s only for emergencies. It won’t last longer than a day.”
“Pay him,” I whispered to her. “If you want to go through with this, pay him all you can!”
Like many of the people who still have to live in Reality, the storeman had behind his ear a little transmitter that fed scraps of information and tunes and whatnot into his inner ear and eye, and linked him up to a sort of impoverished and limited version of the Otherverse. Now he stared in amazement as he saw credits pouring like a Niagara out of Frozen Heart’s account and into his own, so fast that the tens and units were nothing but a blur. It was more money than had passed through his hands in his whole life. She was giving him all she had.
“Alright, alright,” the storeman muttered and, with trembling hands, he pulled the bag of organs out of the drawer and helped her to conceal it under her coat.
“Now go quickly,” he whispered anxiously, “hurry up and go.”
And looking nervously around, he led her quickly back out of the hall.
She had nothing left to pay for a taxi so she walked out of the city, on and on until the shoes were worn from her feet. She walked until the blisters came and after the blisters burst, always holding tight to the precious pulsing bundle underneath her coat.
Poor Frozen Heart, she was so weary and so cold, but she just kept walking, regardless of her bleeding feet and the sad scenes of Reality passing her by, along with its sad and weary denizens. And at last, as night was falling and stars came glimmering out between dirty orange clouds, she came to a small stony hill that had been forgotten both by the city and by the giant farms that covered the flat lands for miles and miles around. Nobody lived there, nobody came there. It was just stones and thorns and tussocky grass and everything was quiet. And on the bare hillside she at last stopped and gently laid down the bundle that she’d carried so far.
Then she began to dig. She had no spade of any kind so she had to work with her bare hands, the hands of the vehicle, tearing and clawing at the hard stony ground until her nails were torn and her fingers bloody.
Now a vehicle may be simply a remote-controlled machine but it is clothed in real skin and human flesh and its nerves transmit real pain. But steadfast Frozen Heart worked on anyway until the human flesh came away in tatters and the skeletal fingers of metal and plastic appeared beneath with their bolted joints and wires…
When she had finally dug a deep enough hole, she took her precious plastic bag in her metal hands and slowly tore it open. Salty nutrient fluid spilled out. Then, as gently as she could, so as not to damage them, or disrupt the delicate nets of vessels and nerves that allowed them to work together still as a single living thing, Frozen Heart took out the organs one by one and laid then down gently in the hole. First the brain, then the liver, then the spongy little kidneys… until at last she took out the warm and pulsing heart. Briefly she caressed it (as best she could with her poor metal hands) and then she laid it down in the cold soil and began to cover it up…
But she had hardly thrown down a dozen handfuls of earth before she felt herself begin to fade. The robot body of the vehicle ceased to be under her control. It crumpled up far away from her like a discarded doll and had nothing to do with her any more.
But just before she lost control of it altogether, she took the label from the torn plastic bag and dropped it into the barely covered grave:
Mary Louisa Ann Kennedy
0808 9764 4386 7790
“Was that what you wanted, dear Frozen Heart?” I whispered from far away.
“Yes,” murmured sleepy Frozen Heart under the earth, “I am back where I belong.”
She saw a tree soaring up somewhere dimly in the darkness, its great cool branches drinking the stars and rain.
“Sleep deeply then, Mary Louisa Ann. You are Frozen Heart no more.”
The Long Journey of Frozen Heart © Chris Beckett, 1991. Not to be reproduced without author’s permission.