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Death was in the nighttime sky. Loren Rullman tilted his head and gazed out from the corners of his eyes. Mura's Star, only a pinprick now, still shone. Loren remembered when it had been the brightest star: a sudden star which had appeared in the sky, pouring out energy in a white glare, bathing the earth in deadly light, changing life in a thousand subtle ways.
He turned away from the star and saw two people standing under the streetlight on the corner. Loren, seated on the curb, squinted at them so he could see them more clearly. The man wore a dark tunic and slacks; both garments fit him perfectly and had no rips or patches. His handsome face, with its straight nose, hollow cheeks, and large dark eyes, was framed by a mass of unruly black hair; his skin was pale gold. The woman was clothed in a long yellow robe. Her short brown hair was a stiff cap; her eyes were restless, roaming over the dancers who swayed and shook in the center of the street.
Loren was sure that they were rooftop people. They did not belong here. Their clothing marked them; it made them a target and yet protected them at the same time. Anyone robbing them might be shot by an unseen guard. Even so, the two were taking a risk. He wondered why they were here.
Losing interest in the pair, Loren began to watch the street dancers. There were seven of them, children fueled by dope and booze, sashaying and swaying to the music of worn drums and empty bottles. The musicians, nine young men in the center of the street, played a monotonous, rapid beat: tum-DUM-tum-dum on the drums, ping-ping-ping on the bottles. Loren's old bones ached as the children danced past him, their feet pounding against the broken pavement. There were plenty of fools like them, he thought, kids who wanted to be screen dancers or holo bodies, hoping for talent buyers to find them.
Suddenly one of the children whirled away from the others and began to dance alone. She spun on one foot as her red hair whipped around her head. She leaped high into the air, flipping backwards, then circled the others, who had now stopped dancing and only swayed, watching her. For a moment, Loren could almost believe that she might one day dance on a screen before the entire city.
He had not expected to live in such a world. He could remember when there had been no Mura's Star. He counted the years in his mind, almost losing the chain of numbers; seventy-five years. It must have been that many, for he had been six years old when Mura's Star first appeared.
Named after the astronomer and astrophysicist Miriamne Mura, the star had at first been an aesthetic delight and the subject of numerous papers. Mura had been the first to spot the new pinprick of light which had blossomed and had come to dominate the heavens, visible even during daytime. She was also the first to declare publicly what the star was: a white hole spewing light toward the earth. Somewhere in the universe, a dying star had collapsed, becoming a black hole, opening a tunnel through space and time, and at the end of the tunnel, light-years from the earth, the white hole had shone brightly. It had been an omen.
Loren had lived to see the quiet world of his childhood disintegrate. He had been a good student then, dreaming of a career in law. His legal training had become obsolete. He had survived because he had a quick mind and good health.
He sighed. He was old and weak now, almost unwilling to struggle any more. It was more difficult to supplement his food ration by foraging and stealing. The doctors at the public hospital had muttered about his cataracts and turned him away, unwilling to spend time on a man who could not live much longer. Loren had lost track of his children long ago.
Loren's stomach rumbled softly. He could not remember when he had last eaten. The day before, he had been unable to stop thinking about food; now he had almost no appetite. The redheaded girl still danced, leaping and spinning around on one foot. Laughing suddenly, she turned and ran down a side street. The other children, as if unwilling to risk comparison with her, did not resume their own dancing. The band, after a few more halfhearted beats, stopped playing.
Someone coughed nearby. Loren turned slightly and saw a skinny figure staggering down the street. Two of the children skipped stones near the figure's feet until it stumbled and fell.
I wish I had never seen this world, Loren thought. He had lost control of his own life as the society around him crumbled. Mura's Star, appearing in the year 2000, had welcomed the new century. Twenty years after its appearance, Loren, just out of law school, had begun work on the staff of an ambitious congressman. Ten years later, he was a go-between for New York's mayor and the heads of various gangs who had parceled out control of the streets among themselves. Loren, able to get along with the gang leaders, many of whom had pretensions to literacy and culture, rationalized his work; his young wife, Alma, was a frail, nervous woman, who needed to be protected from the chaotic world around her. Forty years after the appearance of Mura's Star, Loren, a bystander, had been swept up by police trying to stop a riot. He was in jail for several months before the authorities managed to get him out. A few years later, after Alma's suicide, he had managed to get his two sons papers that would allow them to immigrate to the Midwest before he was arrested and thrown into prison during a political power struggle. He had survived the prison work gangs and, after his release, lived by doing odd jobs for some of the gang leaders he had known.
Now he was too old even for that. He lived in a hallway and got handouts from those who needed someone who could read and write. If the light was strong and he looked out of the sides of his eyes, he could manage. He had never heard anything from his sons.
Loren sat on the curb, trying to summon enough strength to get up and go back to his hallway. In a few hours, it would be morning, and impossible for him to sleep through the noise of the hallway traffic. For a moment, he had a vivid picture of a careless passerby striking him on the head and bringing about Loren's painless death. That would be best, he thought.
Suddenly one of the children was in front of him, weaving uncertainly. Someone grabbed him around the neck and he heard a childish giggle. The boy in front of Loren said, "Stick your fingers around him, like this." He made a wringing motion with his hands. A little girl was rummaging through Loren's pockets.
The old man was afraid. This was not what he wanted—dying in the streets at the hands of these children while others looked on. Loren would have to live through this, too, the way he had forced himself in the end to live through everything else. He pushed the girl away, then grabbed the hands around his neck, freeing himself from their grip. Two more children ran up and poked him painfully with sticks. He heard a rip; one stick had torn his shirt. "Blow away, blow away," the boy in front of him yelled. Loren heard a sharp slap.
The boy reeled away from him. Loren struggled to stand and felt a blow on the side of his head. He was suddenly dizzy. He fell again to the curb, unable for a moment to move.
The children ran into the street. Loren looked up and saw his deliverer, the well-dressed, dark-haired man from the rooftops. The children had not risked attacking the man. He watched Loren, averted his eyes, then began to turn away. His yellow-robed female companion grabbed his arm.
"Cet _ome ira," she said in a low voice. The dark-haired man pushed her away. She moved closer to Loren, motioning to him with her hand.
"Come with us," she said in rapid, accented tones. "Simon is a doctor, he will help you." Her eyes gazed past him as her hands clutched nervously at his sleeve.
"No," the man said.
"Yes." She helped Loren up. He swayed a bit, still dizzy. His left arm was numb. He tried to flex his fingers and failed. "He's half-dead already," the woman went on. Loren felt fearful of the pair. He tried to pull away and fell against the woman. Her strong hands held his right arm. "Come with us," she insisted.
Her companion shrugged. They began to walk down the street, Loren shuffling, unable to move his feet more than a few inches at a time. "We will give you some food, eh?" the woman continued. "You are hungry, are you not?" She laughed.
Loren looked at her. Her frantic, wide-open eyes seemed familiar. He tried to remember and finally called up the image; she had Alma's eyes.
"I love you," Alma had said once before trying to plunge a knife into his chest. "I love you," she had said again after her release from the hospital. He had found her dead body two hours later on the bathroom floor.
For a second, Loren thought that this woman had said the same words.
He shook his head. She gestured with her free arm, waving it toward a nearby building. "It is not far," she murmured.
Exhausted now, Loren thought only of food and rest. He wanted to sleep in a bed, in a room where he would not hear shouting, footsteps, arguments, and the rumbling of tanks in the streets, where he would not smell piss, sweat, and the grease which cooked bad food. He looked up at the building toward which the woman had gestured. Above it, he saw the light of Mura's Star.CHAPTER 2
Simon Negron got out of bed and looked back at the sleeping woman. The blood on her stomach and breasts was drying. The dead man's corpse was curled in a fetal position at her feet. Simon walked around his side of the bed, gave the man's body a nudge, and it rolled to the floor, flopping over onto its back. The corpse's eyes still stared, and its mouth hung open, its tongue lolling out the side. It was a scrawny old body, now covered with knife wounds.
For a moment, Simon was vaguely uneasy. He was half-dead when he got here, Simon told himself, so it doesn't matter. He walked over to the window and looked down at the streets fifty stories below. In the darkness of night, he could not see the millions roaming the streets, nor the thousands of troops guarding the high buildings. But their faint sounds reached his ears. Above him, he could hear the hum of a helicopter landing on the roof of his building.
He turned from the window and gazed again at the sleeping woman. He flattened his back against the wall as if he could flee from her that way. His right hand shook for a few seconds; he clenched it and pressed it against his thigh. He looked at the fat, bloodied stomach of Jeanne Deauville Steinman and recalled its firm flatness of three years ago, when she had been a dancer, newly married to his colleague Marvin Steinman.
Simon had been attracted by her slim body, her vivacity, and had been excited at the prospect of luring her away from the fat arms of that buffoon Steinman. After their affair had been only a few months old, Simon learned that there were other lovers besides himself, and that the phlegmatic Steinman prided himself on his open-mindedness in allowing his wife to act as she did. Simon had been angry, fighting with a friend when the man had spoken too freely, in Simon's presence, of Jeanne's ministrations to himself.
Jeanne had laughed at Simon's anger, as she had laughed at his urging her to divorce Steinman, and then they had gone downstairs, into the streets. They had found a middle-aged vagrant that first time. Jeanne had taunted the man until he came at Simon with a knife. Simon had managed to kill him, while Jeanne laughed her high-pitched, hysterical chuckle. That became her pattern. Sometimes one of the men, like the old one tonight, did not fight back. Those Jeanne killed herself. Had one of them killed Simon, he doubted it would have made much difference to her.
He watched Jeanne as she slept, and then heard a soft buzzing sound coming from the other side of the bed. He walked over to his videophone, pressed the button for visual black-out, and lifted his receiver. "Hello," he whispered.
"Julio 204," a female voice said. Inwardly Simon groaned.
Simon sighed. Sam, he was sure, was already suspected by the police. "Has there been a diagnosis?" he asked.
"It's an inherited form of epilepsy. My little boy has seizures, and the doctor we went to could have stopped them with Dilantin. He even knew the proper dosage. But of course he can't give us any."
"Can you afford a thousand every three months?"
"Oh, no, doctor, five hundred maybe, but not—"
"Then there's no point in discussing it."
"Wait! I can manage six hundred, but a thousand is impossible, please."
"Eight hundred's the limit. And you'll have to accept the fact that I may stop supplying you, if it's too much trouble. Where did you meet with Karenga before?"
"My husband has an office in the World Trade Center. He met him there." Simon winced. Sam was getting careless.
"Fine. Tell him to be there with the money in small bills and coins at ten o'clock tomorrow. Half of it must be coins and the other half gold certificates, not city issue. Remember that, or no medicine."
The woman began to cry. "Oh, thank you, Doctor, you don't know how much—"
He hung up and dialed a number. A deep voice answered. "Karenga."
"Julio 204," Simon said. "Meet that guy with the epileptic kid at ten tomorrow morning at his office. Take some Dilantin. Did he tell you how much he needs?"
"He told me the dosage."
"Take him enough for three months. He'll give you eight hundred. Keep half."
"I assume you checked this guy out."
"Sure." Karenga hung up.
Jeanne was awake. She sat up quickly. "You are being very foolish, Simon. The police will find out soon and arrest you. Marvin would never risk it." She spoke rapidly, with traces of a French accent.
"Marvin wouldn't risk a goddamn thing."
"I am serious, Simon. You must have enough money by now." She was calm, her voice gentle, almost soothing. She might be calm for hours or days before her illness manifested itself once more. She was mad, and there was nothing he or any other doctor could do about it.
"I need more if I'm going to get to Florida," he muttered. "I have to buy papers to immigrate. I have to make sure I'm not extradited."
She got up and walked across the room to the sink. Her protruding belly and waffled buttocks repelled him. She picked up a washcloth and began to sponge the blood off her body.
"Try not to use up my water ration."
"Shut up." Jeanne continued to wash. "I am the one who must use up fuel, dumping that body into the river."
"I'll help you get him up the stairs."
She leaned against the sink. "You act as if you are doing me a favor by seeing me. Johnny and Charlie liked me in the past, it would be no trouble—"
"That's it, Jeanne, liked you. In the past. Do you ever look in the mirror? You look like one of those fat starch-fed sluts in the streets who go for half a credit."
She hurled the washcloth at him. "See if you can do better, Simon. You will soon be calling me again. And we are bound together now, whether you like it or not." She walked to where her clothes lay on the floor and began to dress.
Simon realized he was sweating. He wiped his forehead with his arm. He stood up and looked at the murdered man. The crime was punishable by fifty years at hard labor, if the police ever found out, which they never would. Jeanne could mention it. She could also mention the conversations with Karenga. She would never let him leave the city.
She fastened her robe and smiled at him. His shoulder muscles tightened; a claw seemed to grip his head. She said, "Marvin has to go out Tuesday. I shall see you then."
"I'm looking forward to it."
In the morning, Simon got up early to wash the blood off his floor before going to the office. He dressed quickly and climbed the few flights of stairs to his roof to wait for the medical center's helicopter.
Dimly, he heard the sounds of the tanks on morning patrols in the streets fifty-five stories below. The city was awake. Those who had no work were on their way to ration centers. The city government believed that the unemployed should be kept occupied by reporting daily to the centers, where the recipients would stand on line for four to six hours waiting for food. Occasionally they rioted. One of the more serious riots had occurred two days before, and extra militia had been called in. Two hundred people had died. The riot had occurred five blocks away from the medical center where Simon worked.
Excerpted from The Sudden Star by Pamela Sargent. Copyright © 1979 Pamela Sargent. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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