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It was not easy to live, being young, being so completely alone. "Go to the gold, Wan, steal what you want, learn. Don't be afraid," the Dead Men told him. But how could he not be afraid? The silly but worrisome Old Ones used the gold passages. They might be found anywhere in them, most likely at the ends of them, where the gold skeins of symbols ran endlessly into the center of things. That is, exactly here the Dead Men kept coaxing him to go. Perhaps he had to go there, but he could not help being afraid.
Wan did not know what would happen if the Old Ones ever caught him. The Dead Men probably knew, but he could not make any sense out of their ramblings on the subject. Once long ago, when Wan was tiny—when his parents were still alive, it was that long ago—his father had been caught. He had been gone for a long time and then had come back to their green-lit home. He was shaking, and two-year-old Wan had seen that his father was afraid and had screamed and roared because that was so frightening to him.
Nevertheless he had to go to the gold, whether the grave old frog-jawed ones were there or not, because that was where the books were. The Dead Men were well enough. But they were tedious, and touchy, and often obsessed. The best sources of knowledge were books, and to get them Wan had to go where they were.
The books were in the passages that gleamed gold. There were other passages, green and red and blue, but there were no books there. Wan disliked the blue corridors, because they were cold and dead, but that was where the Dead Men were. The green was used up. He spent most of his time where the winking red cobwebs of light were spread against the walls and the hoppers still held food; he was sure to be untroubled there, but he was also alone. The gold was still in use, and therefore rewarding, and therefore also perilous. And now he was there, cursing fretfully to himself—but under his breath—because he was stuck. Bloody damn Dead Men! Why did he listen to their blathering?
He huddled, trembling, in the insufficient shelter of a berry bush, while two of the foolish Old Ones stood thoughtfully plucking berries from its opposite side and placing them precisely into their froggy mouths. It was unusual, really, that they should be so idle. Among the reasons Wan despised the Old Ones was that they were always busy, always fixing and carrying and chattering, as though driven. Yet here these two were, idle as Wan himself.
Both of them had scraggly beards, but one also had breasts. Wan recognized her as a female he had seen a dozen times before; she was the one who was most diligent in pasting colored bits of something—paper? plastic?—onto her sari, or sometimes onto her sallow, mottled skin. He did not think they would see him, but he was greatly relieved when, after a time, they turned together and moved away. They did not speak. Wan had almost never heard any of the grave old frog-jaws speak. He did not understand them when they did. Wan spoke six languages well—his father's Spanish, mother's English, the German, the Russian, the Cantonese and the Finnish of one or another of the Dead Men. But what the frog-jaws spoke he did not comprehend at all.
As soon as they had retreated down the golden corridor—quick, run, grab! Wan had three books and was gone, safely back in a red corridor. It might be that the Old Ones had seen him, or perhaps not. They did not react quickly. That was why he had been able to avoid them so long. A few days in the passages, and then he was gone. By the time they had become aware he was around, he wasn't; he was back in the ship, away.
He carried the books back to the ship on top of a pannier of food packets. The drive accumulators were nearly recharged. He could leave whenever he liked, but it was better to charge them all the way and he did not think there was any need to hurry. He spent most of an hour filling plastic bags with water for the tedious journey. What a pity there were no readers in the ship to make it less tedious! And then, wearying of the labor, he decided to say good-bye to the Dead Men. They might, or might not, respond, or even care. But he had no one else to talk to.
Wan was fifteen years old, tall, stringy, very dark by nature and darker still from the lights in the ship, where he spent so much of his time. He was strong and self-reliant. He had to be. There was always food in the hoppers, and other goods for the taking, when he dared. Once or twice a year, when they remembered, the Dead Men would catch him with their little mobile machine and take him to a cubicle in the blue passages for a boring day during which he was given a rather complete physical examination. Sometimes he had a tooth filled, usually he received some long-acting vitamin and mineral shots, and once they had fitted him with glasses. But he refused to wear them. They also reminded him, when he neglected it too long, to study and learn, both from them and from the store houses of books. He did not need much reminding. He enjoyed learning. Apart from that, he was wholly on his own. If he wanted clothes, he went into the gold and stole them from the Old Ones. If he was bored, he invented something to do. A few days in the passages, a few weeks on the ship, a few more days in the other place, then back to repeat the process. Time passed. He had no one for company, had not had since he was four and his parents disappeared, and had almost forgotten what it was like to have a friend. He did not mind. His life seemed complete enough to him, since he had no other life to compare it with.
Sometimes he thought it would be nice to settle in one place or another, but this was only dreaming. It never reached the stage of intention. For more than eleven years he had been shuttling back and forth like this. The other place had things that civilization did not. It had the dreaming room, where he could lie .at and close his eyes and seem not to feel alone. But he could not live there, in spite of plenty of food and no dangers, because the single water accumulator produced only a trickle. Civilization had much that the outpost did not have: the Dead Men and the books, scary exploring and daring raids for clothes or trinkets, something happening. But he could not live there either, because the frog-jaws would surely catch him sooner or later. So he commuted.
The main lobby door to the place of the Dead Men did not open when Wan stepped on the treadle. He almost bumped his nose. Surprised, he stopped and then gingerly pushed against the door, then harder. It took all his strength to force it open. Wan had never had to open it by hand before, though now and then it had hesitated and made disturbing noises. That was an annoyance. Wan had experienced machines that broke down before; it was why the green corridors were no longer very useful. But that was only food and warmth, and there was plenty of that in the red, or even the gold. It was worrisome that anything should go wrong around the Dead Men, because if they broke down he had no others.
Still, all looked normal; the room with the consoles was brightly fluoresced, the temperature was comfortable and he could hear the faint drone and rare click of the Dead Men behind their panels as they thought their lonely, demented thoughts and did what ever they did when he was not speaking to them. He sat in his chair, shifting his rump as always to accommodate to the ill-designed seat, and pulled the headset down over his ears.
"I am going to the outpost now," he said.
There was no answer. He repeated it in all of his languages, but no one seemed to want to talk. That was a disappointment. Sometimes two or three of them would be eager for company, maybe even more. Then they could all have a nice, long chat, and it would be as though he were not really alone at all. Almost as though he were part of a "family," a word he knew from the books and from what the Dead Men told him, but hardly remembered as a reality. That was good. Almost as good as when he was in the dreaming place, where for a while he could have the illusion of being part of a hundred families, a million families. Hosts of people! But that was more than he could handle for very long. And so, when he had to leave the outpost to return for water, and for the more tangible company of the Dead Men, he was never sorry. But he always wanted to come back to the cramped couch and the velvety metal blanket that covered him in it, and to the dreams.
It was waiting for him; but he decided to give the Dead Men another chance. Even when they were not eager for talk, sometimes they were interestable if addressed directly. He thought for a moment, and then dialed number fifty-seven.
A sad, distant voice in his ear was mumbling to itself: ". . . tried to tell him about the missing mass. Mass! The only mass on his mind was twenty kilos of boobs and ass! That .oozy, Doris. One look at her and, oh, boy, forget about the mission, forget about me. . . ."
Frowning, Wan poised his finger to cancel. Fifty-seven was such a nuisance! He liked to listen to her when she made sense, because she sounded a little like the way he remembered his mother. But she always seemed to go from astrophysics and space travel and other interesting subjects directly to her own troubles. He spat at the point in the panels behind which he had elected to believe fifty-seven lived—a trick he had learned from the Old Ones—hoping she would say something interesting.
But she didn't seem to intend to. Number fifty-seven—when she was coherent she liked to be called Henrietta—was babbling on about high redshifts and Arnold's infidelities with Doris. Whoever they were. "We could have been heroes," she sobbed, "and a ten-million-dollar grant, maybe more, who knows what they'd pay for the drive? But they kept on sneaking off in the lander, and— Who are you?"
"I'm Wan," the boy said, smiling encouragingly even though he did not think she could see him. She seemed to be coming into one of her lucid times. Usually she didn't know he was speaking to her. "Please keep on talking."
There was a long silence, and then, "NGC 1199," she said. "Sagittarius A West."
Wan waited politely. Another long pause, and then she said, "He didn't care about proper motions. He made all his moves with Doris. Half his age! And the brain of a turnip. She should never have been on the mission in the first place—"
Wan wobbled his head like a frog-jawed Old One. "You are very boring," he said severely, and switched her off. He hesitated, then dialed the professor, number fourteen:
". . . although Eliot was still a Harvard undergraduate, his imagery was that of a fully mature man. And a genius at that. 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws.' The self-deprecation of mass man carried to its symbolic limit. How does he see himself? Not merely as a crustacean. Not even as a crustacean, only the very abstraction of a crustacean: claws. And ragged, at that. In the next line we see—"
Wan spat again at the panel as he disconnected; the whole face of the wall was stained with the marks of his displeasure. He liked when Doc recited poetry, not so much when he talked about it. With the craziest of the Dead Men, like fourteen and fifty-seven, you didn't have any choice about what happened. They rarely responded, and almost never in a way that seemed relevant, and you either listened to what they happened to be saying or you turned them off.
It was almost time for him to go, but he tried one more time: the only one with a three-digit number, his special friend, Tiny Jim. "Hello, Wan." The voice was sad and sweet. It tingled in his mind, like the sudden frisson of fear that he felt near the Old Ones. "It is you, Wan, isn't it?"
"That is a foolish question. Who else would it be?"
"One keeps on hoping, Wan." There was a pause, then Tiny Jim suddenly cackled, "Have I told you the one about the priest, the rabbi and the dervish who ran out of food on the planet made of pork?"
"I think you have, Tiny Jim, and anyway I don't want to hear any jokes now."
The invisible loudspeaker clicked and buzzed for a moment, and then the dead man said, "Same old thing, Wan? You want to talk about sex again?"
The boy kept his countenance impassive, but that familiar tingle inside his lower abdomen responded. "We might as well, Tiny Jim."
"You're a raunchy stud for your age, Wan," the Dead Man offered; and then, "Tell you about the time I almost got busted for a sex offense? It was hot as hell. I was going home on the late train to Roselle Park, and this girl came in, sat across the aisle from me, put her feet up, and began to fan herself with her skirt. Well, what would you do? I looked, you know. And she kept on doing it, and I kept looking, and finally around Highlands she complained to the conductor and he threw me off the train. Do you know what the funny thing was?"
Wan was rapt. "No, Tiny Jim," he breathed.
"The funny thing was I'd missed my regular train. I had time to kill in the city, so I went to a porn flick. Two hours of, my God, every combination you could think of. The only way I could've seen more was with a proctoscope, so why was I slouching out over the aisle to peek at her little white pan ties? But you know what was funnier than that?"
"No, Tiny Jim."
"She was right! I was staring, all right. I'd just been watching acres of crotches and boobs, but I couldn't take my eyes off hers! That wasn't the funniest thing, though. Do you want me to tell you the funniest thing of all?"
"Yes, please, Tiny Jim. I do."
"Why, she got off the train with me! And took me to her home, boy, and we just made out over and over, all night long. Never did catch her name. What do you say to that, Wan?"
"I say, is that true, Tiny Jim?"
Pause. "Aw. No. You take all the fun out of things."
Wan said severely, "I don't want a made-up story, Tiny Jim. I want to learn facts." Wan was angry, and thought of turning the Dead Man off to punish him, but was not sure whom he would be punishing. "I wish you would be nice, Tiny Jim," he coaxed.
"Well—" The bodiless mind clicked and whispered to itself for a moment, sorting through its conversational gambits. Then it said, "Do you want to know why mallard drakes rape their mates?"
"I think you really do, though, Wan. It's interesting. You can't understand primate behavior unless you comprehend the whole spectrum of reproductive strategies. Even strange ones. Even the Acanthocephalan worms. They practice rape, too, and do you know what Moniliformis dubius does? They not only rape their females, they even rape competing males. With like plaster of Paris! So the poor Other Worm can't get it up!"
"I don't want to hear all this, Tiny Jim."
"But it's funny, Wan! That must be why they call him 'dubius'!"
The Dead Man was chuckling mechanically, a-heh! A-heh!
"Stop it, Tiny Jim!" But Wan was not just angry any more. He was hooked. It was his favorite subject, as Tiny Jim's willingness to talk about it, at length and in variety, was what made him Wan's favorite among the Dead Men. Wan unwrapped a food packet and, munching, said, "What I really want to hear is how to make out, Tiny Jim, please?"
If the Dead Man had had a face it would have shown the strain to trying to keep from laughing, but he said kindly, " 'Kay, sonny. I know you keep hoping. Let's see, did I tell you to watch their eyes?"
"Yes, Tiny Jim. You said if their pupils dilate it means they are sexually aroused."
"Right. And I mentioned the existence of the sexually dimorphic structures in the brain?"
"I don't think I know what that means, exactly."
"Well, I don't, either, but it's anatomically so. They're different, Wan, inside and out."
"Please, Tiny Jim, keep telling me about the differences!" The Dead Man did, and Wan listened absorbedly. There was always time to go to the ship, and Tiny Jim was unusually coherent. All of the Dead Men had their own special subjects that they zeroed in to talk about, as though each had been frozen with one big thought in his mind. But even on the favored topics you could not always expect them to make sense. Wan pushed the mobile unit that they used to catch him—when it was working—out of the way and sprawled on the floor, chin in hands, while the Dead Man chattered and reminisced and explained courtship, and gifting, and making your move.
It was fascinating, even though he had heard it before. He listened until the Dead Man slowed down, hesitated, and stopped. Then the boy said, to confirm a theory:
"Teach me, Tiny Jim. I read a book in which a male and a female copulated. He hit her on the head and copulated her while she was unconscious. That appears to me an efficient way to 'love,' Tiny Jim, but in other stories it takes much longer. Why is this?"
"That was not love, sonny. That was what I was telling you about. Rape. Rape is a bad idea for people, even if it works for mallard ducks."
Wan nodded and urged him on: "Why, Tiny Jim?"
Pause. "I will demonstrate it for you mathematically, Wan," the Dead Man said at last. "Attractive sex objects may be defined as female, no more than five years younger than you are, no more than fifteen years older. These figures are normalized to your present age, and are also only approximate. Attractive sex objects may further be characterized by visual, olfactory, tactile, and aural qualities stimulating to you, in descending weighted order of significance plotted against probability of access. Do you understand me so far?"
Pause. "Well, that's all right for now. Now pay attention. On the basis of those four preliminary traits, some females will attract you. Up to the point of contact you will not know about other traits which may repel, harm or detumesce you. 5/28 of subjects will be menstruating. 3/87 will have gonorrhea, 2/95 syphilis. 1/17 will have excessive bodily hair, skin blemishes or other physical deformities concealed by clothing. Finally, 2/71 will conduct themselves offensively during intercourse, 1/16 will emit an unpleasant odor, 3/7 will resist rape so extensively as to diminish your enjoyment; these are subjective values quantified to match your known psychological profile. Cumulating these fractions, the odds are better than six to one that you will not receive maximum plea sure from rape."
"Then I must not copulate a woman without wooing?"
"That's right, boy. Not counting it's against the law."
Wan was thoughtfully silent for a moment, then remembered to ask, "Is all this true, Tiny Jim?"
Cackle of glee. "Got you that time, kid! Every word."
Wan pouted like a frog-jaw. "That was not very exciting, Tiny Jim. In fact, you have detumesced me."
"What do you expect, kid?" Tiny Jim said sullenly. "You told me not to make up any stories. Why are you being so unpleasant?"
"I am getting ready to leave. I do not have much time."
"You don't have anything else!" cackled Tiny Jim.
"And you have nothing to say that I want to hear," said Wan cruelly. He disconnected them all, and angrily he went to the ship and squeezed the launch control. It did not occur to him that he was being rude to the only friends he had in the universe. It had never occurred to him that their feelings mattered.
Excerpted from Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl
Copyright © 1980 by Frederik Pohl.
Published in April 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.