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Sounds like something the grubbers might serve up for Saturday dinner, doesn't it?
Ha — maybe they did. Maybe Albert had feigned the disgust that twisted his face as he held the crispy critter up by its singed tail. Maybe, the moment I turned my back, the old gardener's gave way to a flood of pent-up salivation as he packed the little rodent off to his shanty at the edge of the grounds. There, I imagined, with a flurry of his ragged smock, he would present his Ma with the furry morsel. Her eyes would bulge with delight, and ...
If I go on with that kind of reverie you might think me a Separatist of the worst kind. Perhaps I was, later on, but I like to think a like better of my past self, before ... well, before that fried squirrel did a Cuisinart job on my life.
All of this began the morning Elvis, my Cyber wife, downloaded the twice-weekly medical diagnostics. It was just before breakfast up in the study dome. I was pressing one of those round BandAids over the punctured vein in the crook of my arm and staring through the rounded glass. Thirty stories below, the willows were barely visible through the rain clouds moving in. I remember the lingering thought exactly: I can build an amusement park on the Moon, but still there's no better way to sample blood than to gouge a hole in my skin with a needle.
There were many indignities that, at the time, I thought I should be exempt from.
So Elvis was sucking in the diagnostics with her usual frown of consternation. She tapped her finger in perfect seconds on the rim of the computer key pad—one of the earliest of the human mannerisms I had taught her. As the download progressed, the terminal screen flashed white and then black again in the same one-second intervals. I decided then to factor in syncopation the next time I popped the lid on her CyberGo.
To save a few minutes' reading time on the terminal, Elvis had hooked the computer's feed cable into the 103-prong port just above her left temple. When the download was done, she jerked the cable free and patted her short black locks into place again.
"The cancer's spreading pretty fast," she said to my back. "You gotta go to the Moon."
I turned away from the window. "Maybe I can fit it in late next week—after I finish up with the .union geeks from Disney Division."
Then she gave me the pouty-lips expression, the heart-melting gesture I purloined from the genetics of a twentieth century entertainer.
"Bay-buh," she murmured, "Your blood readouts say you takin' 3.86 times the recommended dosage of Libricotum and 2.4 times the legal level of Zenithialate B. Honey chile, you die this time, what makes you think I'll pour you into the TeleComp again? Maybe I'll juss dump you into the composter with the potato peelin's."
She had a point. For the last few weeks I had been sloshing through a wash of sedation. I felt no pain. The puncture in my arm for the blood test had brought no discomfort—it was just that the sight of the stuff soured my belly.
I paused, with a touch of drama—just the way I would have it done in one of my company's holovids. Hmm. How is it that I, the owner of the largest entertainment conglomerate under the sun, could keep the same Cyber wife for forty-three years, save for a few component updates? I asked her, "Elvis? You love me?"
She pretended to think it over, swinging her head so that her silky hair flew back. "Yeah," she said, "guess I love ya."
The next day I called the home office in Philadelphia to leave word for one of the VP's, Del Wortham, to handle the union matters. I had out-of-town business, I explained. I didn't mention how out of town the business was. Habitually, I avoided mention of the Langelaan Tele-Compositors—a point of jealousy. I'm the only one in the company approved by the Interplanetary Commerce Commission for TeleComp travel. One of only a few dozen people on the planet with regular access to one. All others in the company—VP's on down—have to cool their heels on the shuttle when they have business on the Moon.
The chief secretary in the Philadelphia offices hesitated on the line. "Mr. Funcitti, Del Wortham is fishing in Maine. You want to have Brian Dietz handle the union meeting?"
"Wortham took his satphone along on the trip?"
"I assume so," she replied.
"Then get him in. If he's not on the case by tomorrow afternoon, have building services clean his office out. Move Brian Dietz into it. Then have Dietz handle the union meeting."
There were a few seconds of silence on the phone as the secretary stared stonily out of the holo screen. Then came a curt, "Yes sir."
I flicked the phone off and walked to the TeleComp at the back of the study. I punched the Start-Up button. The booth door popped open, the interior light blinked on and the lighted console buttons inside flashed to life.
"Elvis!" Where was she? I glanced at my watch and saw that I was two minutes early. Elvis was not human enough that she would arrive early, or late for that matter, for an assigned duty.
But the preliminaries were easy enough that I could handle them myself. I sat back in the padded booth and strapped my legs and left arm in. The armrest whirred, and a moist brush whisked across my palm, scouring away just enough skin to get a genetic reading. (Now, why can't we make a blood test that painless?)
A familiar message appeared on the interior terminal:
Identification: Benito O. Puncitti ...
ICC clearance ...
Please enter Langelaan TeleComposltor receiver coordinates.
With my free hand I pecked in the twelve-digit number on the key pad. The screen responded:
Destination 3451-7721-1032 is ...
the private TeleComp receiver registered to Fun City Corp.
Lunar station, Sector 32.
Does this destination coincide with your travel plans?
I entered, "Yes." Elvis leaned her head into the booth and glanced at the progress on the terminal. The next question appeared on the screen:
Do you wish to employ medical or genetic code restructuring features? If so, please establish MediComp link.
I reached for the key pad, but Elvis clicked her tongue reprovingly. She pushed my wrist against the armrest and flipped the restraining strap over it so that my hand was immobilized.
"I'd better do this," she said, "or you'll turn yourself into a smoked ham or something." Then her fingers flew over the key pad, ordering up the restructuring that would strip away my cancer while I, or a digital version of me anyway, was being beamed through space.
This was the part that took several minutes—and numerous feeds from our mainframe. Once, Elvis rapped my knuckles, saying, "Quit squirming, chile. You'll blow the whole entry, and we'll have to start from scratch. Ya might even lose your travel window."
Finally, though, the photonic surgery was arranged. Elvis pecked me on the nose and whumped the door shut. In the darkness, the dull green of the terminal was flashing:
"T minus 198 seconds, T minus 197 seconds ..."
Nitrous oxide was hissing into the booth, and I breathed deeply, counting along with the computer as my mind numbed. How nice it will be, I thought, to be done with the cancer—for a couple of years, anyway. How nice it will be to have enough lung capacity to smoke again. How nice it will be to not need the painkillers. How nice it will be: A short working vacation on the Moon.
"Elvis," I murmured with rubbery lips. I couldn't remember whether the intercom was on, but it was worth a try. "Call ahead for me, okay Hon? Tell 'em to have a martini ready. And a pack of Winstons."
I awoke in the dark, which was not right. There were no welcoming terminal messages. There was no martini. The air in the Lunar station receiver was warm and stale. That's what happens, I told myself, when you stay away for four months—the operation can get pretty ragged.
Movement was impossible — my limbs were leaden. I calculated the dose of nitrous oxide I must have been given, then crosschecked that, as best I could recall, with my current levels of Libricotum and Zenithialate B. No. Nothing that would cause paralysis, as far as I could remember.
And then the problem became clear. I could not move my limbs because they were still strapped down, which meant that I was still in the transmitter booth in my study in Longwood Gardens, not on the Moon. Restraining straps were not necessary on the receiving end of a TeleComp—recomposing an inert life form posed no problem for the biolaser compositors. It was in the transmitter booth that movement caused complications.
"Elvis!" I shouted, and the name fell dead against the padded walls of the booth. Instinctively I knew—from the soundless apparatus, from the putrefying air—that the transmitter was dead.
"Elvis!" I called up in my mind a blueprint of the house power systems. In a locker on the ground floor of the building was a bank of six massive transformers—a veritable substation that converted raw power from the electric company. They provided enough juice to light a small city of grubbers. Five of the transformers were just enough to meet the demand of the TeleComp.
If the transformers had blown, and apparently they had, perhaps the sixth was buggered as well. That would mean that the house was electronically dead too, or nearly so. Along with Elvis.
A droplet of sweat rolled down my nose.
I pushed wildly against the restraining straps, trying to use my forearms as levers to force them open. When I felt the crunch of cartilage, I stopped. I would break before the straps did, and the painkillers would let me.
I was smothering now. Breathing this air was like sucking in frothy cotton. Where once my vision was black, now there glimmered a hundred whirling stars. They would grow, I knew, and fill my head until I passed out.
A high-pitched whine needled at my ears—the final hallucination of a dying man, I supposed. Then a weak shaft of light slashed across the darkness. It grew bolder and brighter as the excruciating sound scraped my eardrums. I was dead now, being tortured in a surreal Hell. I was dead now, and sweating rivers into a sopping shirt. I was dead now, and screaming.
The light was pouring from a hole in the wall of the TeleComp housing. In that jagged hole I recognized a set of fingers and then understood the noise—the shriek of titanium being slowly ripped aside. By Elvis, somehow. Goddamn,
I was blubbering. "Elvis, the straps. Just get one strap, one hand loose...."
When the hole was large enough, the metallic ripping stopped and Elvis' hand came through slowly, centimeters at a time. Her power reserves were almost nil now, squandered on ripping the TeleComp open. She would be bleeding every trace of residual energy out of the entire dead building now, sucking every VDT, every transistor for the merest spark just to keep moving.
It took three minutes, but finally her thumb and forefinger closed on the tab of the restraint. She pulled back, and the moist chemibond gave way.
I was free. Elvis was dead.
The trouble with space needle architecture is that during total power failure, of course, the lift does not work. Thirty stories of spiral staircase weigh heavily on a heart accustomed to leisure and lungs at one-quarter capacity.
As I said, the gardener Albert found the fried squirrel amid the tangle of damaged transformer wires. He tossed the offending animal into his pickup truck and found a flashlight for me. My trackers (and their emergency equipment) were entombed behind dead hangar doors.
Against his protests, I sent Albert home to telephone Philadelphia Electric and have a repair crew sent out. I rooted around the first-floor storerooms until I found one of the power packs that Elvis uses when she leaves the house. Then it was back up the thirty floors of spiral staircase. After forty-three years of marriage, a man's gotta have his wife.
By the time Elvis and I were back to ground floor, Albert had returned. He looked grim.
"Power company says it could be several hours," the gardener said. "Maybe midnight."
Albert now wore a hooded slicker against the drizzle. He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "You'd best come out to tha house an' wait."
For a couple of decades I had not seen the inside of the little house that I rent to Albert, and a vague feeling of dread washed over me.
"Why thank you, Albert," Elvis replied sweetly. "We'll ride down with you." Already I was regretting that Elvis did not have the benefit of access to the now-defunct mainframe computer. Usually she had much better sense than this.
Among grubbers, it was a common enough shanty, I suppose. All of the living spaces were contained within two stories of structure—stone outside, wood and plaster within. It was an early twentieth century relic that had been a caretaker's home even back then, when Longwood Gardens had been owned by a family of industrialists—du Bois, du Peau, du Pont, something like that.
Rugs lay all about the ramshack, woven out of sheep's wool or some such fiber. The furniture had been fashioned from dark, polished lumber. Light was supplied by free-standing lamps—an eerie, uneven illumination. The heating was equally spotty, emanating as it did from low wall vents.
Albert introduced his Ma, Mrs. Grace-Lee—a chunky gray-head, maybe ninety years old, a no-nonsense woman. We passed an hour in polite conversation in the living room. Before I could fashion a suitable protest, we were at the dinner table having salad and stew and warm bread.
"Your time being so precious," Albert said over his wine glass, "I hope the outage did not interrupt business much."
I coughed politely and glanced at Grace-Lee, knowing her to be a devout Catholic and probably not approving of TeleComp travel. "Well, I was about to beam to the Moon, actually," I said, "that being the most expedient thing—yeah, busy as I am."
Down at her end of the table Grace-Lee snorted. Elvis nibbled quietly at a spoonful of stew, her eyes rolling left and right. Her chemical innards could actually make some use of the nutrients. The rest she would expel in private, as we all do.
"Butcher machine," Grace-Lee said. "'Scuse me, Mr. Funcitti, but you know I have to say it—butcher machine."
The TeleComp had gained almost worldwide acceptance, except among Catholics and some fundamentalist sects. The problem lay in the method of transport: In a transmitter booth, biolaser scanners create a replica of the traveler in digital code, molecule for molecule, which is beamed across space. In the receiver booth, the compositors rebuild that traveler using the molecular reserves held in stock—like a cosmic fax machine. When the transport is complete, the confirmation signal is flashed back to the transport booth, where the original is destroyed. The traveler remains intact in every way at his new destination—every memory, every worry, every wart, every scar. Unless these characteristics are altered in the photonic surgery options.
I did not mention to Grace-Lee the obvious irony: that my own TeleComp had nearly smothered me. Butcher machine, indeed. "A harmless, painless process, I assure you," I said, although there would be no convincing her. "We'd not be much among the planets today without it."
"An' that would be fine with me," she huffed. "To kill a living being for the convenience of commerce is not my idea of progress. There's too much against nature that people such as you are taking in stride." Her jaw nudged almost imperceptibly in the direction of my robotic companion. Being married to my gardener, Grace-Lee would know that Elvis was not human.
Several moments of embarrassed silence followed—three of us were embarrassed anyway. Elvis toyed with the stew and had no sense of such discomfort. It was not part of her makeup.
"Well," I managed finally. "It's a fine stew, ma'am.... What sort of meat did you say this was?"
When Albert dropped us off at the darkened house, there were three white vans parked in front and a dozen men milling about with flashlights and yellow raincoats.
"They should have ya powered up again in no time," the gardener said. "But if not, come down again and we'll put ya up in the spare room." He drove off into the rain, toward his shanty and his disapproving Ma.
Excerpted from The Man In The Moon Must Die by Jeff Bredenberg. Copyright © 1993 Jeff Bredenberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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