Some advice I’ve never heeded: whatever you do, whatever you do, avoid your mysterious neighbour and his glamorous parties. Here’s a better suggestion: he’s had all the advantages you didn’t, so go for it. See how the other 0.0000005% of the other half live.
I knew I couldn’t be the only one who hadn’t been invited and my good friend Pearl insisted I join her; she said she knew him personally. She’d popped in for a drink and a snoop, mentioned the bash; I’d mentioned that I knew nothing about it.
‘You must come,’ she said, gesturing wildly about, making the ice clink in the tumbler and drops of blue liquour spill over my table, where it fizzed audibly and burnt through the varnish; ‘you must come and you can join my contingent. You’re living on the same planet now, after all, it’s only right you’re seen at one of his dos. It’s the danse élémentaire—easily the best night of the calendar.’
And so on. She kept up her pretence of jolly peer-pressure but I was already set on attending, so I let her convince me. I hadn’t been long in the area; I wanted to see what was what. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone looks out for illuminous nights.
So we all clambered into Pearl’s open-top motor, which was powder-blue and had great oversized headlamps on the orbiter, the chrome bits polished until they shone. The breeze whipped past us as she rocketed wildly through the night, her hands in gloves of pale leather, erratic on the wheel, turning around to continue the pleasant chatter with those in the back and not looking at all where she was going while the night sky, in all its starstruck majesty, spread out before us above the dash.
She’d sat me next to her and we found time to reminisce about days gone by, when she was no-one and I was even more anonymous, those fustering studying years of molecular-chem post-post-postdocs (she’d sailed; I’d waded) and nights at the Crystalline with its softly-glowing cocktails. Now look at her, and I was still anonymous. Too late I realised my shoes were half a size too tight, but it was good to see her again. We’d always had a bond. We’d had—dare I say it—chemistry.
A wrought-iron gate swung open and we were speeding along a path edged with neatly-clipped box hedges. It was a great sweeping curving path, the sort of path that promises you’re absolutely arriving somewhere. Pebbles of moonstone and jet made popping noises under the tyres and the antigrav flared out steam the colour of quartz.
‘We’re nearly there!’ cried Pearl.
And then: ‘There it is—did you ever see the like!’
We all craned our necks to see it first. Suddenly, it rose as we dipped over a hill.
I was first struck, not by the mansion’s height, although there can be no question that it towered imposingly, but by the sheer number of its windows: so many windows, neatly aligned from wall to wall, bottom to top. Things were already in full swing. I could hear music, distorted but audible and full of brass, and, with the exception of the tower on the right which was in darkness, all those windows were lit with the brightness of a party begun, their shadows dynamic with dancing shapes.
Rising towers on either side, the great blockiness of the architecture …
I heard Pearl laughing as I gasped with recognition. That neat grid of numbers and letters, the Table I’d been familiar with all my life, was suddenly rising up before me, transformed by the alchemy of imagination into the front plan of a building.
‘How often does he host the Elemental Ball?’ I asked, finding my voice again.
She shrugged. ‘Oh, you know. Now and then,’ she said. ‘Periodically.’
I found out later that the mansion had, in fact, one hundred and twenty rooms, for at the back was a small entrance-hall, adjoined to a tiny waiting room for deliveries. But they were sparsely decorated, and scarcely talked about. The real interest and point of the mansion was the other one hundred and eighteen, of course.
An entrance on the ground floor took us into Copernicium (it made sense, Pearl said, to go in via a transition metal), where we found ourselves surrounded by whirling dancers in beaded dresses, and cocktail waitresses in black tailcoats and high heels, shaking silver shakers.
‘Come on, let’s go up,’ she said, raising her voice over the noise. ‘There’s somuch to see between here and the Alkali tower.’
We went straight up, into Mercury, where the lighting was darker and there was headiness to the scent, as if the people were dancing through a haze of perfume.
Don’t mistake me. I’m saying rooms but each was considerable in size, big enough for a whole party in itself—every room was a ballroom, as if the mansion was made up solely of great huge dance halls it took minutes to cross, especially factoring in the need to battle through the crowds; for each elemental chamber was filled with party-goers, beckoning one onto the dancefloor or waving bottles of fizz; everywhere was the sound of raucous shouting, and mirrorballs glinted off jewel-encrusted dresses, beaded headbands, the spangled decorations that hung about.
Pearl and I stood there in Mercury. Our other companions melted away, towards a door that had Au printed upon it in peeling gilt. Bright light showed them in dramatic silhouette for a moment as they opened the door, and I was tempted to follow—but Pearl beckoned me to her instead, and we kept going up.
‘You’re lucky; I’m taking you straight to the top,’ she said as we went, the light catching the threads of silver in her silk scarf. ‘We’re going through the transition metals—we can stop at Iron briefly if you wish, take in the view, it’s got a lovely balcony—but my goal for us is the highest of Alkali.’
‘What an extraordinary place,’ I said, watching a contortionist hang from the chandelier by one foot.
‘What you can’t see from the outside,’ said Pearl, with all the happy arrogance of one who knows such things, ‘are the two more floors dug down into the cellars. That’s where the more experimental and, shall we say, unstable partying occurs.’
I took a drink from a fellow passing by with a tray. The liquid was full of bubble and spark, and made me feel immediately more equipped to look upon the tumultuous richness of my surroundings.
Pearl laughed at the sight of me. ‘You seem so well-behaved and bashful now,’ she said. ‘Before too long you’ll think nothing of getting tied up and blindfolded down in Plutonium. But we’re going up, first-off, because I want to introduce you to our host. I wish to show off my social cachet, quite frankly, and as an added bonus it’ll prove you’re not simply showing up uninvited.’
‘Rot that,’ I said, the bubbles in my drink lifting my confidence. ‘I’m an honest person. I’ll tell him I wasn’t invited!’
The revelry around us grew quieter, and I could tell drinks were being gripped a little tighter; there was a strange sudden sense of everyone waiting for something.
Pearl leaned into me and spoke in an urgent whisper.
‘I shall not be doing that because our host does not tolerate gate–crashing,’ she said. ‘On pain of … well, I don’t know what on pain of, but he doesn’t want it, that’s for sure. Stick an olive in me and down me like a dry martini if I’m mistaken.’
I smiled briefly at the mental image of that, but I was intrigued more by the inference. It didn’t seem quite real. ‘Does he really hate unexpected guests as much as that?’
I looked around the party; it seemed as if everyone in the star system had made their way here tonight, and more were pulling up in their motorcars and long-haul rockets all the time for dazzle’s sake. They were zooming in over the interplanetary expressway. Some of that had to be down to word of mouth, no? He couldn’t possibly have invited them all individually.
Pearl sensed my confusion, and her face softened. ‘It’s one gate-crasher in particular he’s worried about. Only did it once, as far as I know, but it mightily spooked him. Claimed to be dressed as the God Particle and got him into a fine old flap. He’s been looking out for ’em with half an eye ever since. Nobody really knows why but when he throws such a bash as this, who’s to argue the toss? Anyone who has shown up on the jolly must absolutely not mention it.’ We had made some headway by now, going along the rooftop path across the middle of the mansion. Pearl pointed up to the tower that rose up before us. Fireworks were sparkling all around it.
‘Hydrogen penthouse,’ she said. ‘Nothing makes him happier than looking down over the rest of us from the tallest spot in the place. He’ll be in his element up there.’
An undoubtable high point of my evening. Hydrogen offered a view of the house and grounds stretching out all the way to the horizon, where the next mansion along glinted like a faint star—the vista before us, all of it, belonged to our host, and the endless parade of his guests’ glittering motors streamed down the curving roads towards us. It was as if Pearl and I had stepped into a great inverted glass bowl.
Before us a lone figure stood facing the window. Even with his back to me I felt underdressed; his was a suit you could cut yourself on.
He turned around on hearing our footsteps and greeted us both like old friends, while the night sky exploded with shiny fireworks all around him. He shook my hand warmly enough as Pearl introduced us (‘This is my newest plus-one, which I suppose makes him a plus-four? Anyway, he’s with me and fully vetted,’) and then, quite quickly, my sense of his conviviality somehow faded. I detected a slight heaviness in his voice, and there was a frown somewhere about his eyes, that gave his countenance a certain sense of being pinched from the inside.
‘It’s a pleasure to see you,’ he said, and I suppose he was officially addressing me, but even as he spoke he was once more looking out at the view.
‘Marvellous place you have here,’ I said, falling back on niceties.
‘I built it up myself,’ he said. ‘A lot of experimentation and a great deal of patience. Don’t think it’s always been like this. My several-dozen-greats grandfather lived in a two-up-two-down; earth, air, fire, etc. But one has to begin somewhere, and look at where we find ourselves today …’ He spoke the words as if he were following a script while late for a train; a more preoccupied man I had rarely seen.
He wandered back to stand before the glass. I followed and stood beside him, while Pearl kept the tone light; spinning tales about the friends they both knew, opining on what the people we’d passed in Alkaline Earth were calling high fashion at the moment, weighing up just what the rising price of steam was doing to costs in the rocket fuel industry these days. He seemed a little calmer when he was able to stare out of the window. Although we could see so much from up here, the movement and gaiety of the party felt more distant, somehow dampened down.
There was a blot in the star-sparkling sky.
‘What is that?’ I said.
For a moment he looked surprised at my interruption, then his face softened into something more amenable.
‘You, my friend, are the first to notice it! That is the show-stopping climax of tonight’s soiree.’
Pearl twisted her fingers through her necklace. ‘That’s the size of a small planet, my love. What sort of climax are you planning?’
‘A planet-sized one, naturally.’
Pearl had made her trillions in the terraforming business; I wasn’t surprised to see a flash of interest blaze over her features. ‘How did you get a sign-off for a modification to that level? You’ll have to give me the name of your supplier.’
Our host grabbed me by the shoulders. ‘What exactly do you see, out there?’
I’m an honest person; I tried to answer honestly. ‘I see a sort of big, heavy nothing,’ I said.
‘Exactly. That moon wasn’t going anywhere of note, was it? Certainly wasn’t doing anything interesting. I found it on an idle orbit out in the sticks and had it towed over. What is a moon, anyway? Naught but a huge lump of rock. We can improve on such things as those.’
‘I can’t make out a moon at all. That looks like a moonless sky, to my eyes.’
‘You don’t see it now because it is clamped all about with interstellar equipment, hyper-industrial grade. Imagine a nutcracker machine, hefty as a planet.’
‘Oh my,’ I said, and Pearl’s smile showed teeth.
Our host grew more animated as he spoke. ‘There’s a moon out there, all right. At least for the moment. That device out there mimics the effect of many millions of years of heat and pressure in only a few short fractions of the time. My guests have no idea they’re about to witness the ultimate finale to a fireworks display: when I shall unveil, right before them, the greatest diamond in the galaxy! Perhaps of all time. Tonight—all that remains is to remove the scaff-frame and do you know, I’m fired up, let’s do it right now.
‘And then we’ll see who’s a spectacle of themselves,’ he said, not really very much under his breath at all.
He recovered himself and smiled. ‘I’m not only thinking short term, of course. Just imagine how desirable property is about to become on the planet with a huge great diamond for a moon.’
He went out onto the balcony. The grounds shimmered as the crowd of party guests looked up at him from the lawns, raising their cocktail glasses. He raised his back in a sort of salute, and then turned his attention to a panel beside him I hadn’t noticed before; all sleek chrome and glowing buttons. He pressed one.
A trio of huge great lamps came on in the grounds, sending beams of white across the dark sky until they hit the metallic shape that hovered above us. Illuminated, it really did look like he’d trapped something the size of a moon right above our heads. The sky was filled with it.
He pressed a few buttons more, and there was an almighty crumbling crash, like a thunderstorm taking over the whole weather-system with envelop the world at the top of its agenda. The crusher opened a crack and a gleam became visible, and then with a series of pneumatic hisses and metal-clanking judders, the machinery lowered itself down and opened itself out, parting like a clamshell until what hung in the sky was neither moon nor machine but clearly and unambiguously diamond, a great gleaming smooth rainbow-white diamond of impossible proportions, glowing softly over us, hovering like a geometric bright miracle, the whole mansion lit up with the gleam of it. Our host covered his eyes to take in the sound of growing, building, and then quite soon absolutely roaring, applause.
‘It’s a wonder,’ said Pearl. Quietly to me, she added: ‘Do you know what my first thought was? Add a gold band to that.’
Our host removed his hands from his eyes to stretch his arms out and bask in the adoration, and at the very moment his hands were fully stretched his face became a rictus of fear, and he raced to the balcony and leaned over it at such a sharp angle I felt he might topple over. I followed his gaze. A long white starcruiser limousine was zooming steadily towards the mansion.
‘It’s her!’ he said, his voice a ghastly whisper. ‘Stop—must stop her coming in.’ He took several woozy steps backwards until he leaned against the thick glass wall of the penthouse. He sank to the floor, muttering. ‘She mustn’t come in.’
Pearl knelt beside him and began loosening his tie. She looked up at me. ‘Go and stop her, will you? Nobody knows who you are, and nobody else has the faintest what’s going on yet. You’ll slip through the crowds easily.’
I remembered again that my shoes were too tight, but I followed her words immediately. I raced down the steps, to the top of the Alkaline Earth tower, ignoring the pinch in my toes all the way down the steep stairs that took me back to the transition metals. I went through the rooms, which were still full of party and revelry, looking out of every window I passed, the view newly brightened with the glow of the great diamond, watching the crowds swirl around the approaching limousine. Through the window in Cobalt I saw a door opening near the back of the long white motor. A woman in a shining evening dress got out and walked smoothly towards the mansion, the crowds parting to let her through—or perhaps recoiling backwards; it was tricky to tell.
I raced down and down again, almost tripping several times in my haste, trying to ignore the ache of my shoes pressing into my heels. Before I reached the ground floor I started turning corners, going up and down and tracing out a path—it was the thought of a moment to know exactly where I needed to go. I could detect the sound of gleeful uproar curdling, joyful music turning into discord, glasses being smashed for the wrong reasons.
I entered a room where a group of partygoers stood facing a woman in a shining dress. She had her back to me. I planned to creep up and surprise her, but somehow I lost my footing in those damn shoes and bumped into a pyramid of champagne glasses; it made an audible chorus of chimes. She turned her head slightly to follow the noise, and must have seen enough to realise my presence and know my purpose. Off she ran, straight through the line of revellers and further into the party.
I was right behind her. Her dress was low in the back and made of silk that could have been built entirely of crystals, such was the way it caught the light. She wore her platinum hair loose and long, and it trailed out behind her as she ran.
She tore through the party, and I followed.
Twice, three times I reached out to grasp her shoulder, but always she slipped from me. Once, in Zirconium, beside the martini-fountain, she stopped, turned and looked directly behind her. It brought me up short: I stopped too. For a few seconds we stared at each other. It seemed she was smiling at me, mockingly so, but in truth I couldn’t make anything out through her intricate silver mask. And all the rooms had their great windows, of course, through which the impossible diamond waited like the brightest moon, adding drama to our shadows.
I followed her up to Titanium, then through Scandium and Calcium, and then up through the rooms of the Alkali Tower—and only then did I realise she wouldn’t let me reach her before she got to our host.
By the time she disappeared up into the Hydrogen penthouse my breath was coming heavy, and my feet were screaming a protest of their own. I ascended once more into the great skydome but found myself too late.
Our host was at the furthest end, practically pressing himself into the wall to get away, and Pearl stood beside him. Between us all was the gate-crasher. Pearl glared across at me with the disappointment we reserve only for our closest friends.
‘And what of it?’ our host was shouting, as the new arrival took another step towards him. (I still hadn’t seen her face; I felt very familiar with the back of that dress, by now.)
He had the frightened energy of a fellow cornered. ‘How could you try to take this moment from me? You can’t, you know—you can’t!’
The gate-crasher reached up and removed her mask.
I have thought about this moment since and have come to believe it was something to do with angles. Either from the diamond itself came a sudden, new surge of light, or some scattered beams reflected from a multitude of other light sources all around us I had not noticed, focussed as I was upon the cumulative effect. In any case, what seemed to happen was that our host in that moment was suddenly blasted with a new and terrible brightness, a much more intense dazzle than when he had unveiled the diamond. He reached up to cover his eyes.
For a moment the two of them stayed like that. Then our host staggered backwards.
‘Damn you!’ He squinted into the brightness. ‘You did warn me—didn’t you?—that you’d show up and ruin it all!’ He began to laugh. ‘I knew you would—I practically summoned you, doing this. Or perhaps that’s exactly what I did!’
And, while the gate-crasher waited, unmoving, the whole place swimming with light, he went out to the balcony.
With a shaking hand he pulled a lever across the chrome control panel and the pneumatic machinery whipped into action, coming back up to cover the diamond. It gripped it on either side, and the sudden darkening made new shapes swim across my vision.
Our host kept his hand on the handle until the machinery started to shake, and a few sparks zipped from the control panel. Eventually it became possible to hear a colossal groaning sound coming from the sky, even through the thick glass walls.
‘What’s he doing?’ I said, not quite knowing who I was talking to. I had to say something, I suppose, to prove to myself I was still there; the place was becoming a trifle uncanny. ‘It’s not as if he can reverse the procedure.’
Shadows moved as Pearl shook her head. ‘He knows he can’t. That’s not it.’
The diamond exploded. It filled the sky, and suddenly we were all of us plunged into a world of dappled, shimmering crystals of light. I found myself tempted to wave my hand, as if the room had filled with tangible sharp splinters of the stuff that I could usher away. Then I noticed the gate-crasher had vanished.
Our host ran out of the room.
For a moment it was only Pearl and I, looking at each other across the illusion of infinite pieces of shattered diamond.
She came to me, through the light, and put her hand on my shoulder. ‘Thank you for your efforts,’ she said. ‘Frankly I doubt she could have been stopped by anyone. Besides, what kind of party would this be without a few surprises?’
‘But he destroyed it.’
‘Of course he did! Didn’t you see how she looked at him?’
I looked outside, lost for speech, at the fragments that filled the sky, jostling for attention with the stars. It was like looking at a scattered, shattered galaxy.
I consider myself a rational person. ‘I want answers,’ I said. ‘This is all too much for me. I’m going to reach her this time. I think I can do it.’
‘My dear, everyone thinks so. And answers to what?’
But I was already running. Pearl shouted something at me as I left the glassy penthouse, but I didn’t hear what it was.
Once again it seemed as if I were intuiting exactly where to go; but when I think of it now, she must have been waiting for me at the foot of the stairs. I saw her leg and a flash of her luminous gown and we were off again, chasing through the metals across the mansion and into the metalloids, and when we reached Arsenic I knew I wasn’t alone in the chase, that this time the word had gotten out about who had spoiled the party and I was heading a crowd and everyone reached out to her as she ran, but their hands just missed her, or she bolted clean through their attempted blockades, the force of her momentum pushing through their linked arms, upending the tables, spilling the fizz; nobody could catch her.
She tore through Phosphorus with dancers falling to the floor to get out of her way, then Sulphur, scattering the coals that thickened the smoke, and then Chlorine (upending the tables and spilling salt everywhere), until she came to the door that led through into Argon and I thought: aha, you’re trapped now, for the door into Argon was locked. Pearl had explained it to me: all the rooms in this wing were kept in stillness and darkness, with sheets over the furniture, for this part of the mansion stood for the noble gases; and so it remained fastened, and it was forbidden to enter the Helium penthouse at the top. My feet panged again in my shoes but I laughed because I knew I could catch her now.
Then, instead of trying to enter the locked room, she went down.
I’d got her, surely. She was still running, ultimately, towards locked doors, she couldn’t smoothly go through into Oganesson on the ground floor, so we’d got her, and naturally as she and I had descended through the metals everyone had gotten more reactive, so a group burst out in an ambush, throwing paper streamers up into the air, and she was caught in the middle—
She turned and ran towards the door to the outside and I followed, gaining on her all the time—
The fresh air hit me, and it was brighter here, the light moving I chased her across the gravel—
Her dress was mere inches in front of me—
A mob of revellers burst upon her, and she was surrounded—
My fingers just touched the glittering fabric at the back of her dress—
And the silk was fluttering down in front of me, empty.
I blinked in the light of all the twirling sky diamonds. It was as if I hovered above myself, looking down at myself, watching the partygoers and me as we stood around, looking at the empty dress that lay there on the grass, the silver shoes laying sideways and no sign of their owner, only a dozen empty champagne bottles and glittery confetti stars scattered over the place.
Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist based in London. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and made the recommended reading list for Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). Her novels are Wild Time (Surface Press) and The Belladonna Invitation (forthcoming from Ghost Orchid Press). Twitter: @rosebiggin