(THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Sherry D. Ramsey’s “The Ambassador’s Staff” appears in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. If you’re worried about spoilers, go read the story and then come back.
Ramsey’s story is a mystery constructed around the death of a Martian ambassador. The key to solving the mystery turns out to be a drug called Level, which, in most cases, makes people feel strong and competent while they actually lie on the floor drooling. While most addicts are made useless by Level, a small subset become highly efficient, though they still become dependent on the drug and suffer withdrawal if they don’t get it. It turns out that the ambassador was in this second class, known as Mind-Levelers, and that he got himself killed trying to get a fix.
The story’s biggest strength, I think, is its atmosphere. The setting is well-realized–Cape City is a town built around a spaceport, seeming to consist of poor people who’ve got nowhere else to go and a few extremely reach. There are nice touches, such as the detail that hotels are constructed to extend deeply underground, with artificial sunrooms made to give the proper aura of luxury. The narrator, who’s a private detective, wishes she’d gone to space when she had the chance. The author never reveals why she couldn’t or why she wanted to, but that regret hangs over the story and was, I thought, the main source of its poignancy.
The mystery itself was pretty well-constructed. There were a lot of stock detective-story characters (the cop friend, the uptight assistant to the murdered man who’s obviously guilty as hell, the well-meaning single mother), but they were well-drawn. In the course of the story, the narrator gets injected with Level and turns out to be a Mind-Leveler herself (MAJOR SPOILERS–I’M GIVING YOU THE MOMENT OF EPIPHANY HERE:
Arturo Singh’s phone call about the body in a dumpster fit into the story perfectly. It was as plain as a tri-V scene in my mind: the dealer—maybe more than one of them—making the wrong move, Olara grabbing the staff and using it as a weapon…just too late, since the Ambassador had been killed. If Olara had killed the dealer, even in self-defense, he’d keep it quiet—he had the Ambassador’s reputation and his own to consider. Olara could have gotten the Ambassador’s body back to the hotel, but the broken staff had been overlooked in the street. It all made sense.
But was that me, or the Level? And why was I breathing so hard? Was I tiring, slipping? Buildings sped past me,the rings blending as I flew through them. Maybe adrenaline would keep the drug at bay long enough.
I wished I knew more about Level. I’d have to ask Sally if this kind of delayed reaction was normal. And ask her more about going off-world. Why had I made such a big deal about that? It would be as simple as stepping on a shuttle.
It was the drug, trying to distract me with another imaginary life. I had to fight it long enough to get to Seeth and his mother. Somehow I found the strength to run even faster. Folks on the street seemed blurry, slowed. I wondered if my perception was deteriorating.
By the time the Warrens’ converted home came into view, my lungs were burning like I’d tried to breathe vacuum. In the back of my mind I knew I should not have been able to run this far, this fast, this steadily, and fear clawed at my mind again—none of this is real. I shoved the thought aside. Either this was reality and I had to keep going, or it wasn’t and I was still in my office imagining it all. The only logical thing to do was play out the scenario as well as I could. At the very least, I’d hallucinate a happy ending.
I liked the writing in this section, and the author ends the story nicely by pointing back to the buried thought about space travel (SPOILERS AGAIN):
So I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m a mind-Leveler. Don’t misunderstand me—I never want to touch the stuff again. But I’m haunted by the memory of what it was like to feel that confident. To have an entire messy, complicated problem laid out and see where every part fit, how it all came together. To act on instinct guided by reason and do everything right.
It’s a tempting prospect for a private detective. I just keep telling myself that if I can do it Leveled, I should be able to do it straight. I figured some things out without the drug, after all. That has to count for something.
Seeth and Sally Warren each got a small reward for their part in the case, and I’ve ditched my avatar and hired Sally to be my secretary. She’s a lot better company and the clients like her more. I know more than one who thinks her raspy voice is sexy. And she knows how to deal with the occasional Level-head who wanders in to the office.
And sometimes at night I stare up at the stars and try to recapture that brief moment when going off-world seemed as simple as stepping onto a shuttle. That one…well, that one is the most elusive.
I thought this was a great note to end on, and it tied the story in well with the hints about who the character is. I heard once that a story should be about the most important moment in a character’s life, and this ending establishes that, out of all the cases the main character has taken, this is the most significant one.
But the neatness of it all also leads into my criticism. I was distracted by how common Mind-Levelers seem to be in the story, though I didn’t think they’re supposed to be in the world. Not only is the narrator a Mind-Leveler, the Ambassador is a Mind-Leveler, and the client turns out to be the son of one. The coincidence seems too big to be plausible to my mind, and I think this weakened the plot considerably (there was too much of a deus ex machina feeling in the climax). While I could have handled the existence of two coincidentally-linked Mind-Levelers, three was too much.
On a related note, it was hard to buy that the main character didn’t know what was going on when she was on Level. On one hand, I can see that, considering that Mind-Levelers are uncommon in the world, she wouldn’t expect to be one herself. From the reader’s perspective, however, when it seems like you trip on Mind-Levelers every time you go to the grocery store, it was hard to see why she was being so slow. I think that cognitive dissonance underscores the point–there should be some explanation for why so many rare people are linked. I also think it might have been possible for the author to cut the third Mind-Leveler (the remaining two being the ambassador and the main character).