An EXCERPT from “HIGH” – a new novel by John Shirley

Well I think of it as new anyway. (This excerpt from HIGH is Copyright 2013, by John Shirley.) This is the opening of a forthcoming novel by me, called HIGH–which is based on an old novel of mine called THREE RING PSYCHUS. It’s the most extensively rewritten of my re-released novels. The first half is revised paragraph by paragraph and the second half is quite different from the old version, which was a paperback original published many years ago…And it’s now available on etc as an ebook. Later it’ll be a paperback. …John Shirley
At first Dreyer supposed it was simply a lift in his spirits. The sidewalk was giving no resistance under his feet. He felt light and giddy.

He assumed it was a good mood settling in to accompany the warm July morning. So he struck off at a brisker pace. His smile faded. His legs seemed to melt beneath him. He was face down. He hadn’t struck the green fiberplas sidewalk but he was face down over it, his nose six inches from the vitreous surface.

His weight was canceled equally, throughout his body.

He looked down…

…Down past the stretch of his torso and legs…
And saw the ground was receding.
He wasn’t touching the ground anywhere. He was hovering parallel to the street. Dreyer yelped, felt his glasses threatening to waft free of his ears, and flailed at his wallet as it slid from his back pocket and flapped away like a bat.

His panicky attempts to right himself only bounced him away from the ground and he tumbled in a slow-motion somersault ten feet up. A faint breeze nudged Dreyer over a splintered wooden fence back of a tenement; he got tangled in a clothesline, wet laundry redolent of detergent and sweat slapped him soundly across his cheek. “What the fuck!” he muttered.

He looked desperately about, one hand belaying him to the clothesline. His legs were skewing up into the air and his glasses were now drifting away. He snagged them, forcing them onto his nose and ears.

He looked around and saw the weightlessness was everywhere, happening to everyone. They were all floating, slowly but inexorably, upward into the air.

Most of them were already higher up and Dreyer could see them slowly elevating like balloons with the strings cut, ambling almost nonchalantly into the sky… the azure sky, open and ready.

A weeping heavy-set woman modestly tucking her skirt between her legs was just ascending to join the rest. A young man with dreadlocks was desperately trying to swim through the air, clutching at his smartphone, which slipped perversely away from him; the dreadlocks waved about his head like seaweed.

A strangled whimper escaped Dreyer’s throat.

And then he was overflowing with nausea and his lunch found its way to daylight. It gyrated upward, an macro-sized orange-mottled amoeba.

Distant cries from above were growing to an uproar he could no longer ignore. He looked up. Jigsaw silhouettes writhed against the sky, a dark wreath about Portland’s most prominent skyscraper.

Astonishment made him clap his anchoring hand to his mouth.

Those were people, like a flock of smog-maddened birds, up there, flapping confusedly. Too late, he realized he was about to join them, having lost his hold. He rose, he turned end over end and picked up speed; one hand again pressed his glasses back into place.

An air-car had spun out of control, its unseated driver, a middle aged woman with long, swirling hair, clung desperately to the tailgate. The vehicle nosed drunkenly toward Dreyer. “Help me!” she sobbed. The hydrogen engine’s diffuse vapor trail streaming past her face.

He realized its induction tube was pointed his way and he felt the current drawing him in. He kicked till his legs were pointing at the onrushing car. He bounced the soles of his feet off its snout; it hadn’t been moving quickly and, though the impact clacked his teeth painfully, he was sent flying off at right angles to the car’s trajectory.

Spinning slowly now, lost in a kaleidoscopic whirlpool, all his energies focused on retaining his glasses—damn it, they were expensive—until at last his flight path stabilized. Stomach churning, he looked around. He was four stories up, still rising, angling upwards at forty-five-degrees and rotating sideways. A piece of twine snaked past his nose and he grabbed it, hastily lashing his glasses to his ears.

A rumpled newspaper rustled upward, its headline twisted to read ALL THINGS MUST, though Dreyer remembered that the headline should read, TALLS’ THREE-RING MUSTARD CIRCUS. He had written the article himself, the day before, July 6, 2023. He had a hunch it would be the last he would ever write.

Below him, cars that had been left parked–gas cars, electric, hydrogen air cars–were floating, apparently stable, a dozen yards above the curb. Children and old people clung to them, feet upward; but as he watched they let go, one by one, and drifted heavenward like wraiths, shouting, “Grab my arm—” “Security Patrol will—” “Fire alarm, or—”

Three driverless air-cars played random tag in the canyons between buildings, caroming, pinwheeling, shattering windows, gouging walls. Dreyer noted with relief they were headed away to the left, orbiting each other.

Severed power cords stretched entreatingly from broken windows. Flailing people were bumping against the ceilings of apartments he passed. A teenaged boy, apparently thinking he was underwater, shouted, “Drowning! I’m drowning! I’m…”

You couldn’t shout if you were drowning, kid, Dreyer thought dazedly. He laughed softly to himself, then cursed again.

The light filtering through the ascending debris made a harlequin patchwork on the scores of people floating upward around him.

We rise, we rise, like bubbles in beer, he thought.

A yowling cat, flailing in the near-weightlessness, hurled itself hysterically at his face; he had to whack it across the ribs to fling it clear. Poor thing. A little boy, arms and knees balled tight against his chest, tumbled past him like the human cannonball at Talls’ Mustard Circus the day before. The boy’s eyes were wide but unafraid and he smiled vacantly…We’re all in the circus now. These airborne people were tumblers, clowns pratfalling topsy-turvy. Dreamlike–but this wasn’t a dream. A dream didn’t feel this physical; a dream didn’t have this kind of smooth continuity. Was it some other sort of hallucination? Had some prankster dosed him with a hallucinogen?
Whatever it was, there was no use fighting it. He’d taken drugs as a young man, a few times. Hallucinations had a will of their own…

Slowly, his muscles unbunched and his breathing returned to normal.

He continued to ascend. With each passing yard of ascension he became increasingly convinced, a little more, that this was no hallucination, this was certainly no dream…

And yet, up above, clusters of people held hands, afloat here and there, like blossoms on a pool. Those drifting solo pedaled madly to stay upright.

The air was sweeter up here. He was perhaps forty stories below the roof of the highest skyscraper. He shaded his eyes against the sun’s glare and found the fuzzy green ribbon of the Willamette River to his left. He was listing toward the river.

A monorail shot along a gradually curving track fifty yards beneath. Dreyer spotted a small girl, feet scissoring wildly over her head, gripping the monorail track with one hand.

“Let go, kid!” But the impact came before he had finished the exclamation and the child’s broken body sped obliquely into the sky and kept going, straight out of sight, trailing confetti blood droplets.
And suddenly Dreyer realized that, if this was real, it was lethally dangerous.

Desperate, Dreyer glared about.

Still rising, he was now ten stories beneath the top of the skyscraper, thirty yards horizontally distant. Maybe he could get to it, snag a hold. He experimented and found he could propel himself gradually and with middling accuracy by kicking and paddling. It wasn’t quite like swimming; he kicked and made frog-jumping motions, feeling ludicrous.

Someone’s glasses whirled by him; two more smartphones; an ebook reader and a set of earphones spun past.
Soon, his sweat was streaming to join the accumulating artifacts and unidentified fluids that streaked the sky like swirl patterns in a marble.

He blinked away a veil of sweat and saw a hand reaching for him. There was a chain of people insecurely linked to the air-conditioning pipes on the rooftop. He whipped his arms, feeling tears trickle through his hair. He stabbed out an arm, strained for a girl’s proffered fingers, brushed them, raked, caught them. He dug in his fingernails and she shouted, “Hey, ouch!”

Dreyer attempted to drag himself hand over hand down her arm. It didn’t work: he became aware for the first time of the insistence in the faint tug sluicing him upward. He yanked, trying to force himself down using her arm, and the girl shrieked–he was ascending again, in a tangle of arms and legs; the teen-aged girl was beating his chest and crying. He had wrenched her loose and they were on their way to the upper atmosphere together.

“I’m—really sorry,” he managed. “At least we’re sort of stabilizing each other.”

She glared at him, pouting, then looked down. She moaned.

They were well above the highest structure and still rising.

It was cool up here, and the faint breeze was damp. Dreyer thought he glimpsed a silver line of ocean on the rutted horizon. Nearer, the brilliant sunlight ignited one curve of the river into the fierce white of a welding torch.
Dreyer became aware of a pull, not explicit, along his spine, where tenuous fingers were towing him toward the chaotic thronging overhead, a gray-black cloud. The cloud’s rough facets resolved into furniture and dogs and people and odds and ends. All whirling and convulsing above and to starboard. Dreyer thought of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz but it was no comfort.

At last, a dappling of shadows cooled his cheeks as he rose into the heart of the distended morass of flotsam.
The heavier things were, generally, at the bottom: a wheelbarrow; a baby elephant trumpeting and tragi-comically striding nowhere, striving to return to Talls’ Circus; a circus chariot with two gaudy silk-caped charioteers clinging in terror; the pony which had drawn the chariot had died, probably of fright, and was floating stiff like an overturned equestrian statue. A riding lawn mower, with its blades still whipping, chattered hungrily to itself. Periodically, people swam from the mower’s path and a few of the dead fell in its way, losing limbs and seeding the atmosphere with red splinters of flesh. A bag of feed, a bale of hay, an air-cycle, a bag of fertilizer, a clump of combustologs, all united in a cumbersome ballet.

Humanity occupied the upper quarter of the cloud.

Dreyer peered through the melee. It was bright where fragments of metal highlighted the course. People were gradually rotating round an invisible axis, like the eye of a cyclone.

He kept trying to find a familiar pattern in the coursing of the debris: he hoped to see a telephone drift onto a desk top, both upright, with a secretary sitting in a levitated swivel chair behind the desk; and her boss would be settled nearby in his plush chair, dictating a letter. But none of it conglomerated in any respective order, except by weight and orbit.

…end of excerpt


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