Beast of the Heartland contains seven tales that explore the darkside where science fiction meets horror. Headed by the award-winning "Barnacle Bill the Spacer, " a story of high-space mutiny, the book includes "A Little Night Music, " a gothic tale of insanity; "All the Perfumes of Araby, " where an adventurer in the Middle East links up with an ancient entity; "Human History, " a postapocalyptic chiller; "Sports in America, " a noir tale in the Chandler tradition; "The Sun Spider, " a mini space opera; and the title story -- an ingenious picture of a battered boxer on the decline.
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About the Author
Lucius Shepard twice won the World Fantasy Award. He also won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for science-fiction writing several times in addition to the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
Read an Excerpt
BARNACLE BILL THE SPACER
The way things happen, not the great movements of time but the ordinary things that make us what we are, the savage accidents of our births, the simple lusts that because of whimsy or a challenge to one's pride become transformed into complex tragedies of love, the heartless operations of change, the wild sweetness of other souls that intersect the orbits of our lives, travel along the same course for a while, then angle off into oblivion, leaving no formal shape for us to consider, no easily comprehensible pattern from which we may derive enlightenment ... I often wonder why it is when stories are contrived from such materials as these, the storyteller is generally persuaded to perfume the raw stink of life, to replace bloody loss with talk of noble sacrifice, to reduce the grievous to the wistfully sad. Most people, I suppose, want their truth served with a side of sentiment; the perilous uncertainty of the world dismays them, and they wish to avoid being brought hard against it. Yet by this act of avoidance they neglect the profound sadness that can arise from a contemplation of the human spirit in extremis and blind themselves to beauty. That beauty, I mean, which is the iron of our existence. The beauty that enters through a wound, that whispers a black word in our ears at funerals, a word that causes us to shrug off our griever's weakness and say, No more, never again. The beauty that inspires anger, not regret, and provokes struggle, not the idle aesthetic of a beholder. That, to my mind, lies at the core of the only stories worth telling.And that is the fundamental purpose of the storyteller's art, to illumine such beauty, to declare its central importance and make it shine forth from the inevitable wreckage of our hopes and the sorry matter of our decline.
This, then, is the most beautiful story I know.
It all happened not so along ago on Solitaire Station, out beyond the orbit of Mars, where the lightships are assembled and launched, vanishing in thousand-mile-long shatterings, and it happened to a man by the name of William Stamey, otherwise known as Barnacle Bill.
Wait now, many of you are saying, I've heard that story. It's been told and retold and told again. What use could there be in repeating it?
But what have you heard, really?
That Bill was a sweet, balmy lad, I would imagine. That he was a carefree sort with a special golden spark of the Creator in his breast and the fey look of the hereafter in his eye, a friend to all who knew him. That he was touched not retarded, moonstruck and not sick at heart, ill-fated rather than violated, tormented, sinned against.
If that's the case, then you would do well to give a listen, for there were both man and boy in Bill, neither of them in the least carefree, and the things he did and how he did them are ultimately of less consequence than why he was so moved and how this reflects upon the spiritual paucity and desperation of our age.
Of all that, I would suspect, you have heard next to nothing.
Bill was thirty-two years old at the time of my story, a shambling, sour-smelling unkempt fellow with a receding hairline and a daft, moony face whose features weak-looking blue eyes and Cupid's bow mouth and snub nose were much too small for it, leaving the better part of a vast round area unexploited. His hands were always dirty, his station jumpsuit mapped with stains, and he was rarely without a little cloth bag in which he carried, among other items, a trove of candy and pornographic VR crystals. It was his taste for candy and pornography that frequently brought us together the woman with whom I lived, Arlie Quires, operated the commissary outlet where Bill would go to replenish his supplies, and on occasion, when my duties with Security Section permitted, I would help Arlie out at the counter. Whenever Bill came in he would prefer to have me wait on him; he was, you understand, intimidated by everyone he encountered, but by pretty women most of all. And Arlie, lithe and brown and clever of feature, was not only pretty but had a sharp mouth that put him off even more.
There was one instance in particular that should both serve to illustrate Bill's basic circumstance and provide a background for all that later transpired. It happened one day about six months before the return of the lightship Perseverance. The shift had just changed over on the assembly platforms, and the commissary bar was filled with workers. Arlie had run off somewhere, leaving me in charge, and from my vantage behind the counter, located in an ante-room whose walls were covered by a holographic photomural of a blue-sky day in the now-defunct Alaskan wilderness, and furnished with metal tables and chairs, all empty at that juncture, I could see coloured lights playing back and forth within the bar, and hear the insistent rhythms of a pulse group. Bill, as was his habit, peeked in from the corridor to make sure none of his enemies were about, then shuffled on in, glancing left and right, ducking his head, hunching his shoulders, the very image of a guilty party. He shoved his moneymaker at me, three green telltales winking on the slim metal cylinder, signifying the amount of credit he was releasing to the commissary, and demanded in that grating, adenoidal voice of his that I give him 'new stuff', meaning by this new VR crystals.
'I've nothing new for you,' I told him.
'A ship came in.' He gave me a look of fierce suspicion. 'I saw it. I was outside, and I saw it!'
Arile and I had been quarrelling that morning, a petty difference concerning whose turn it was to use the priority lines to speak with relatives in London that had subsequently built into a major battle; I was in no mood for this sort of exchange. 'Don't be an ass,' I said. 'You know they won't have unloaded the cargo yet.'
His suspicious look flickered, but did not fade. 'They unloaded already,' he said. 'Sleds were going back and forth.' His eyes went a bit dreamy and his head wobbled, as if he were imagining himself back out on the skin of the station, watching the sleds drifting in and out of the cargo bays; but he was, I realized, fixed upon a section of the holographic mural in which a brown bear had just ambled out of the woods and was sniffing about a pile of branches and sapling trunks at the edge of a stream that might have been a beaver dam. Though he had never seen a real one, the notion of animals fascinated Bill, and when unable to think of anything salient to say, he would recite facts about giraffes and elephants, kangaroos and whales, and beasts even more exotic, all now receded into legend.
'Bloody hell!' I said. 'Even if they've unloaded, with processing and inventory, it'll be a week or more before we see anything from it. If you want something, give me a specific order. Don't just stroll in here and say' I tried to imitate his delivery '"Gimme some new stuff."'
Two men and a woman stepped in from the corridor as I was speaking; they fell into line, keeping a good distance between themselves and Bill, and on hearing me berating him, they established eye contact with me, letting me know by their complicitors' grins that they supported my harsh response. That made me ashamed of having yelled at him.
'Look here,' I said, knowing that he would never be able to manage the specific. 'Shall I pick you out something? I can probably find one or two you haven't done.'
He hung his great head and nodded, bulled into submissiveness. I could tell by his body language that he wanted to turn and see whether the people behind him had witnessed his humiliation, but he could not bring himself to do so. He twitched and quivered as if their stares were pricking him, and his hands gripped the edge of the counter, fingers kneading the slick surface.
By the time I returned from the stockroom several more people had filtered in from the corridor, and half a dozen men and women were lounging about the entrance to the bar, laughing and talking, among them Braulio Menzies, perhaps the most dedicated of Bill's tormentors, a big, balding, sallow man with sleek black hair and thick shoulders and immense forearms and a Mephistophelean salt-and-pepper goatee that lent his generous features a thoroughly menacing aspect. He had left seven children, a wife and a mother behind in São Paolo to take a position as foreman in charge of a metalworkers' unit, and the better part of his wages were sent directly to his family, leaving him little to spend on entertainment; if he was drinking, and it was apparent he had been, I could think of nothing that would have moved him to this end other than news from home. As he did not look to be in a cheerful mood, chances were the news had not been good.
Hostility was thick as cheap perfume in the room. Bill was still standing with his head hung down, hands gripping the counter, but he was no longer passively maintaining that attitude he had gone rigid, his neck was corded, his fingers squeezed the plastic, recognizing himself to be the target of every disparaging whisper and snide laugh. He seemed about to explode, he was so tightly held. Braulio stared at him with undisguised loathing, and as I set Bill's goods down on the counter, the skinny blonde girl who was clinging to Braulio's arm sang, 'He can't get no woman, least not one that's human, he's Barnacle Bill the Spacer.'
There was a general outburst of laughter, and Bill's face grew flushed; an ugly, broken noise issued from his throat. The girl, her smallish breasts half-spilling out from a skimpy dress of bright blue plastic, began to sing more of her cruel song.
'Oh, that's brilliant, that is!' I said. 'The creative mind never ceases to amaze!' But my sarcasm had no effect upon her.
I pushed three VR crystals and a double handful of hard candy, Bill's favourite, across to him. 'There you are,' I said, doing my best to speak in a kindly tone, yet at the same time hoping to convey the urgency of the situation. 'Don't be hanging about, now.'
He gave a start. His eyelids fluttered open, and he lifted his gaze to meet mine. Anger crept into his expression, hardening the simple terrain of his face. He needed anger, I suppose, to maintain some fleeting sense of dignity, to hide from the terror growing inside him, and there was no one else whom he dared confront.
'No!' he said, swatting at the candy, scattering much of it on to the floor. 'You cheated! I want more!'
'Gon' reek you a pathway, boog man!' said a gangly black man, leaning in over Bill's shoulder. 'Den you best travel!' Others echoed him, and one gave Bill a push toward the corridor.
Bill's eyes were locked on mine. 'You cheated me, you give me some more. You owe me more!'
'Right!' I said, my temper fraying. 'I'm a thoroughly dishonest human being. I live to swindle gits like yourself.' I added a few pieces of candy to his pile and made to shoo him away. Braulio came forward, swaying, his eyes none too clear.
'Let the son'beetch stay, man,' he said, his voice burred with rage. 'I wan' talk to heem.'
I came out from behind the counter and took a stand between Braulio and Bill. My actions were not due to any affection for Bill though I did not wish him ill, neither did I wish him well; I suppose, I perceived him as less a person than an unwholesome problem. In part, I was still motivated by the residue of anger from my argument with Arlie, and of course it was my duty as an officer in the Security Section to maintain order. But I think the actual reason I came to his defence was that I was bored. We were all of us bored on Solitaire. Bored and bad-tempered and despairing, afflicted with the sort of feverish malaise that springs from a sense of futility.
'That's it,' I said wearily to Braulio. 'That's enough from all of you. Bugger off.'
'I don't wan' hort you, John,' said Braulio, weaving a bit as he tried to focus on me. 'Joos' you step aside.'
A couple of his co-workers came to stand beside him. Jammers with sliver nubs protruding from their crewcut scalps, the tips of receivers that channelled radio waves, solar energy, any type of signal, into their various brain centres, producing a euphoric kinaesthesia. I had a philosophical bias against jamming, no doubt partially the result of some vestigial Christian reflex. The sight of them refined my annoyance.
'You poor sods are tuned to a dark channel,' I said. 'No saved by the bell. Not today. No happy endings.'
The jammers smiled at one another. God only knows what insane jangle was responsible for their sense of well-being, I smiled, too. Then I kicked the nearer one in the head, aiming at but missing his silver stub; I did for his friend with a smartly delivered backfist. They lay motionless, their smiles still in place. Perhaps, I thought, the jamming had turned the beating into a stroll through the park. Braulio faded a step and adopted a defensive posture. The onlookers edged away. The throb of music from the bar seemed to be giving a readout of the tension in the room.
There remained a need in me for violent release, but I was not eager to mix it with Braulio; even drunk, he would be formidable, and in any case, no matter how compelling my urge to do injury, I was required by duty to make a show of restraint.
'Violence,' I said, affecting a comical lower-class accent, hoping to defuse the situation. 'The wine of the fucking underclass. It's like me father used to say, son, 'e'd say, when you're bereft of reason and the wife's sucked up all the cooking sherry, just amble on down to the pub and have a piss in somebody's face. There's nothing so sweetly logical as an elbow to the throat, no argument so poignant as that made by grinding somebody's teeth beneath your heel. The very cracking of bones is in itself a philosophical language. And when you've captioned someone's beezer with a nice scar, it provides them a pleasant 'omily to read each time they look in the mirror. Aristotle, Plato, Einstein. All the great minds got their start brawling in the pubs. Groin punches. Elbows to the throat. These are often a first step toward the expression of the most subtle mathematical concepts. It's a fantastic intellectual experience we're embarking upon 'ere, and I for one, ladies and gents, am exhilarated by the challenge.'
Among the onlookers there was a general slackening of expression and a few titters. Braulio, however, remained focused, his eyes pinned on Bill.
'This is ridiculous,' I said to him. 'Come on, friend. Do me the favour and shut it down.'
He shook his head, slowly, awkwardly, like a bear bothered by a bee.
'What's the point of it all, man?' I nodded at Bill. 'He only wants to vanish. Why don't you let him?'
The blonde girl shrilled, 'Way you huffin' this bombo's shit, you two gotta be flatbackin', man!'
'I didn't catch your name, darling,' I said. 'Tarantula, was it? You'd do well to feed her more often, Braulio. Couple of extra flies a day ought to make her more docile.'
I ignored her curses, watching Braulio's shoulders; when the right one dropped a fraction, I tried a round kick; but he ducked under it and rolled away, coming up into the fluid, swaying stance of a capoeirista. We circled one another, looking for an opening. The crowd cleared a space around us. Then someone Bill, I think brushed against me. Braulio started what appeared to be a cartwheel, but as he braced on one hand at the midpoint of the move, his long left leg whipped out and caught me a glancing blow on the temple. Dazed, I reeled backward, took a harder blow on the side of my neck and slammed into the counter. If he had been sober, that would have done for me; but he was slow to follow, and as he moved in, I kicked him in the liver. He doubled over, and I drove a knee into his face, then swept his legs from under him. He fell heavily, and I was on him, no longer using my techniques, but punching in a frenzy like a streetfighter, venting all my ulcerated emotions. Somebody was clawing at my neck, my face. The blonde girl. She was screaming, sobbing, saying, 'No, no, stop it, you're killin' him.' Then somebody else grabbed me from behind, pinned my arms, and I saw what I had wrought. Braulio's cheekbone was crushed, one eye was swollen shut, his upper lip had been smashed into a pulp.
'He's grievin', man!' The blonde girl dropped to her knees beside him. 'That's all he be doin'! Grievin' his little ones!' Her hands fluttered about his face. Most of the others stood expressionless, mute, as if the sight of violence had mollified their resentments.
I wrenched free of the man holding me.
'Fuckin' Security bitch!' said the blonde. 'All he's doin's grievin'.'
'I don't give a fat damn what he was doing. There's no law says' I laboured for breath 'says he can exorcise it this way. Is there now?'
This last I addressed to those who had been watching, and though some refused to meet my eyes, from many I received nods and a grumbling assent. They cared nothing about my fate or Braulio's; they had been willing to witness whatever end we might have reached. But now I understood that something had happened to Braulio's children, and I understood too why he had chosen Bill to stand in for those who were truly culpable, and I felt sore in my heart for what I had done.
'Take him to the infirmary,' I said, and then gestured at the jammers, who were still down, eyes closed, their smiles in place. 'Them, too.' I put a hand to my neck; a lump had materialized underneath my right ear and was throbbing away nicely.
Bill moved up beside me, clutching his little cloth sack. His smell and his softness and his witling ways, every facet of his being annoyed me. I think he was about to say something, but I had no wish to hear it; I saw in him then what Braulio must have seen: a pudgy monstrosity, a uselessness with two legs.
'Get out of here!' I said, disgusted with myself for having interceded on his behalf. 'Go back to your goddamn crawl and stay there.'
His shoulders hitched as if he were expecting a blow, and he started pushing his way through the press at the door. Just before he went off along the corridor, he turned back. I believe he may have still wanted to say something, perhaps to offer thanks or just as likely to drive home the point that he was dissatisfied with the quantity of his goods. In his face was a mixture of petulant defiance and fear, but that gave me no clue to his intent. It was his usual expression, one that had been thirty-two years in the making, for due to his peculiar history, he had every cause to be defiant and afraid.
Bill's mother had been a medical technician assigned to the station by the Seguin Corporation, which owned the development contract for the lightship programme, and so, when his pre-natal scan displayed evidence of severe retardation, she was able to use her position to alter computer records in order to disguise his condition; otherwise, by station law in effect, the law of the corporation the foetus would have been aborted. Why she did this, and why she then committed suicide seventeen months after Bill's birth, remains a mystery, though it is assumed that her irrational actions revolved around the probability that Bill's father, a colonist aboard the lightship Perseverance, would never more be returning.
The discovery that Bill was retarded incited a fierce controversy. A considerable plurality of the station's workforce insisted that the infant be executed, claiming that since living space was at a premium, to allow this worthless creature to survive would be an affront to all those who had made great personal sacrifices in order to come to Solitaire. This group consisted in the main of those whose lives had been shaped by or whose duty it was to uphold the quota system: childless women and administrators and the largest element of the plurality and of the population in general people who, like Braulio, had won a job aboard the station and thus succeeded in escaping the crushing poverty and pollution of Earth, but who had not been sufficiently important to have their families sent along, and so had been forced to abandon them. In opposition stood a vocal minority comprised of those whose religious or philosophical bias would not permit such a callous act of violence; but this was, I believe, a stance founded almost entirely on principle, and I doubt that many of those involved were enthusiastic about Bill in the specific. Standing apart from the fray was a sizeable group who, for various social and political reasons, maintained neutrality; yet I imagine that at least half of them would, if asked, have expressed their distaste for the prospect of Bill's continued existence. Fistfights and shouting matches soon became the order of the day. Meetings were held; demands made; ultimatums presented. Finally, though, it was not politics or threats of force or calls to reason that settled the issue, but rather a corporate decision.
Among Seguin's enormous holdings was a company that supplied evolved animals to various industries and government agencies, where they were utilized in environments that had been deemed too stressful or physically challenging for human workers. The difficulty with such animals lay in maintaining control over them the new nanotechnologies were considered untrustworthy and too expensive, and computer implants, though serviceable, inevitably failed. There were a number of ongoing research programmes whose aim it was to perfect the implants, and thus Seguin, seeing an opportunity for a rigorous test, not to mention a minor public-relations coup that would speak to the deeply humane concerns of the corporation, decided in a reversal of traditional scientific methodology to test on Bill a new implant that would eventually be used to govern the behaviour of chimpanzees and dogs and the like.
The implant, a disc of black alloy about the size of a soy wafer, contained a personality designed to entertain and jolly and converse with its host; it was embedded just beneath the skin behind the ear, and it monitored emotional levels, stimulating appropriate activity by means of electrical charges capable of bestowing both pleasure and pain. According to Bill, his implant was named Mister C, and it was also according to Bill -- his best friend, this despite the fact that it would hurt him whenever he was slow to obey its commands. I could always tell when Mister C was talking to him. His face would empty, and his eyes dart about as if trying to see the person who was speaking, and his hands would clench and unclench. Not a pleasant thing to watch. Still I suppose that Mister C was, indeed, the closest thing Bill had to a friend. Certainly it was attentive to him and was never too busy to hold a conversation; more importantly, it enabled him to perform the menial chores that had been set him: janitorial duties, fetch and carry, and, once he had reached the age of fifteen, the job that eventually earned him the name Barnacle Bill. But none of this assuaged the ill feeling toward him that prevailed throughout the station, a sentiment that grew more pronounced following the incident with Braulio. Two of Braulio's sons had been killed by a death squad who had mistaken them for members of a gang, and this tragedy caused people to begin talking about what an injustice it was that Bill should have so privileged an existence while others more worthy should be condemned to hell on Earth. Before long, the question of Bill's status was raised once again, and the issue was seized upon by Menckyn Samuelson, one of Solitaire's leading lights and to my shame, because he was such a germ a fellow Londoner. Samuelson had emigrated to the station as a low-temperature physicist and since had insinuated himself into a position of importance in the administration. I did not understand what he stood to gain from hounding Bill he had, I assumed, some hidden political agenda but he flogged the matter at every opportunity to whomever would listen and succeeded in stirring up a fiercely negative reaction toward Bill. Opinion came to be almost equally divided between the options of executing him, officially or otherwise, and shipping him back to an asylum on Earth, which as everyone knew was only a slower and more expensive form of the first option.
There was a second development resulting from my fight with Braulio, one that had a poignant effect on my personal life, this being that Bill and I began spending a good deal of time together.
It seemed the old Chinese proverb had come into play, the one that states if you save somebody's life you become responsible for them. I had not saved his life, perhaps, but I had certainly spared him grievous injury; thus he came to view me as his protector, and I ... well, initially I had no desire to be either his protector or his apologist, but I was forced to adopt both these roles. Bill was terrified. Everywhere he went he was cursed or cuffed or ill-treated in some fashion, a drastic escalation of the abuse he had always suffered. And then there was the blonde girl's song: 'Barnacle Bill the Spacer'. Scarcely a day passed when I did not hear a new verse or two. Everyone was writing them. Whenever Bill passed in a corridor or entered a room people would start to sing. It harrowed him from place to place, that song. He woke to it and fell asleep to it, and whatever self-esteem he had possessed was soon reduced to ashes.
When he first began hanging about me, dogging me on my rounds, I tried to put him off, but I could not manage it. I held myself partly to blame for the escalation of feeling against him; if I had not been so vicious in my handling of Braulio, I thought, Bill might not have come to this pass. But there was another, more significant reason behind my tolerance. I had, it appeared, developed a conscience. Or at least so I chose to interpret my growing concern for him. I have had cause to wonder if those protective feelings that emerged from some corner of my spirit were not merely a form of perversity, if I were using my relationship with Bill to demonstrate to the rest of the station that I had more power than most, that I could walk a contrary path without fear of retribution; but I remain convinced that the compassion I came to feel toward him was the product of a renewal of the ideals I had learned in the safe harbour of my family's home back in Chelsea, conceptions of personal honour and trust and responsibility that I had long believed to be as extinct as the tiger and the dove. It may be there was a premonitory force at work in me, for it occurs to me now that the rebirth of my personal hopes was the harbinger of a more general rebirth; and yet because of all that has happened, because of how my hopes were served, I have also had reason to doubt the validity of every hope, every renewal, and to consider whether the rebirth of hope is truly possible for such diffuse, heartless, and unruly creatures as ourselves.
One day, returning from my rounds with Bill shuffling along at my shoulder, I found a black crescent moon with a red star tipping its lower horn painted on the door of Bill's quarters: the symbol used by the Strange Magnificence, the most prominent of the gang religions flourishing back on Earth, to mark their intended victims. I doubt that Bill was aware of its significance. Yet he seemed to know instinctively the symbol was a threat, and no ordinary one at that. He clung to my arm, begging me to stay with him, and when I told him I had to leave, he threw a tantrum, rolling about on the floor, whimpering, leaking tears, wailing that bad things were going to happen. I assured him that I would have no trouble in determining who had painted the symbol; I could not believe that there were more than a handful of people on Solitaire with ties to the Magnificence. But this did nothing to soothe him. Finally, though I realized it might be a mistake, I told him he could spend the night in my quarters.
'Just this once,' I said. 'And you'd better keep damn quiet, or you'll be out on your bum.'
He nodded, beaming at me, shifting his feet, atremble with eagerness. Had he a tail he would have wagged it. But by the time we reached my quarters, his mood had been disrupted by the dozens of stares and curses directed his way. He sat on a cushion, rocking back and forth, making a keening noise, completely unmindful of the decor, which had knocked me back a pace on opening the door. Arlie was apparently in a less than sunny mood herself, for she had slotted in a holographic interior of dark greens and browns, with heavy chairs and a sofa and tables whose wood had been worked into dragons' heads and clawed feet and such; the walls were adorned with brass light fixtures shaped like bestial masks with glowing eyes, and the rear of the room had been tranformed into a receding perspective of sequentially smaller, square segments of black delineated by white lines, like a geometric tunnel into nowhere, still leading, I trusted, to something resembling a bedroom. The overall atmosphere was one of derangement, of a cramped magical lair through whose rear wall a hole had been punched into some negative dimension. Given this, I doubted that she would look kindly upon Bill's presence, but when she appeared in the far reaches of the tunnel her chestnut hair done up, wearing a white Grecian-style robe, walking through an infinite black depth, looking minute at first, then growing larger by half with each successive segment she entered she favoured him with a cursory nod and turned her attention to me.
''Ave you eaten?' she asked, and before I could answer she told me she wasn't hungry, there were some sandwiches, or I could do for myself, whatever I wanted, all in the most dispirited of tones. She was, as I have said, a pretty woman, with a feline cast of feature and sleek, muscular limbs; having too many interesting lines in her face, perhaps, to suit the prevailing standards of beauty, but sensual to a fault. Ordinarily, sexual potential surrounded her like an aura. That day, however, her face had settled into a dolorous mask, her shoulders had slumped and she seemed altogether drab.
'What's the matter?' I asked.
She shook her head. 'Nuffin'.'
'Nothing?' I said. 'Right! You look like the Queen just died, and the place is fixed up like the death of philosophy. But everything's just bloody marvellous, right?'
'Do you mind?' she snapped. 'It's personal!'
'Personal, is it? Well, excuse me. I certainly wouldn't want to be getting personal with you. What the hell's the matter? You been struck by the monthlies?'
She pinned me with a venomous stare. 'God, you're disgustin'! What is it? You 'aren't broken any 'eads today, so you've decided to bash me around a bit?'
'All right, all right,' I said. 'I'm sorry.'
'Nao,' she said. 'G'wan with it. Oi fuckin' love it when you're masterful. Really, Oi do!' She turned and started back along the tunnel. 'Oi'll just await your pleasure, shall Oi?' she called over her shoulder. 'Oi mean, you will let me know what more Oi can do to serve?'
'Christ!' I said, watching her ass twitching beneath the white cloth, thinking that I would have to make a heartfelt act of contrition before I laid hands on it again. I knew, of course, why I had baited her. It was for the same reason that had brought on her depression, that provoked the vast majority of our aberrant behaviours. Frustration, anger, despair, all feelings that no matter their immediate causes in some way arose from the fact that Solitaire had proved to be an abject failure. Of the twenty-seven ships assembled and launched, three had thus far returned. Two of the ships had reported no hospitable environments found. The crew of the third ship had been unable to report anything, being every one of them dead, apparently by each other's hands.
We had gotten a late start on the colonization of space, far too late to save the home planet, and it was unclear whether the piddling colonies on Mars and Europa and in the asteroids would allow us to survive. Perhaps it should have been clear, perhaps we should have realized that despite the horror and chaos of Earth, the brush wars, the almost weekly collapse of governments, our flimsy grasp of the new technologies, despite the failure of Solitaire and everything else ... perhaps it should have been more than clear that our species possessed a root stubbornness capable of withstanding all but the most dire of cataclysms, and that eventually our colonies would thrive. But they would never be able to absorb the desperate population of Earth, and the knowledge that our brothers and sisters and parents were doomed to a life of diminishing expectations, to famines and wars and accidents of industry that would ultimately kill off millions, it caused those of us fortunate enough to have escaped to become dazed and badly weighted in our heads, too heavy with a sense of responsibility to comprehend the true moral requisites of our good fortune. Even if successful the lightship programme would only bleed off a tiny percentage of Earth's population, and most, I assumed, would be personnel attached to the Seguin Corporation and those whom the corporation or else some corrupt government agency deemed worthy; yet we came to perceive ourselves as the common people's last, best hope, and each successive failure struck at our hearts and left us so crucially dismayed, we developed astonishing talents for self-destruction. Like neurotic Prometheans, we gnawed at our own livers and sought to despoil every happy thing that fell to us. And when we grew too enervated to practise active self-destruction, we sank into clinical depression, as Arlie was doing now.
I sat thinking of these things for a long while, watching Bill rock back and forth, now and then popping a piece of hard candy into his mouth, muttering, and I reached no new conclusions, unless an evolution of distaste for the corporation and the world and the universe could be considered new and conclusive. At length, weary of the repetitive circuit of my thoughts, I decided it was time I tried to make my peace with Arlie. I doubted I had the energy for prolonged apology, but I hoped that intensity would do the trick.
'You can sleep on the couch,' I said to Bill, getting to my feet. 'The bathroom' I pointed off along the corridor 'is down there somewhere.'
He bobbed his head, but as he kept his eyes on the floor, I could not tell if it had been a response or simply a random movement.
'Did you hear me?' I asked.
'I gotta do somethin',' he said.
'Down there.' I pointed again. 'The bathroom.'
'They gonna kill me 'less I do somethin'.'
He was not, I realized, referring to his bodily functions.
'What do you mean?'
His eyes flicked up to me, then away. "Less I do somethin' good, really good, they gonna kill me.'
'Who's going to kill you?'
'The men,' he said.
The men, I thought, sweet Jesus! I felt unutterably sad for him.
'I gotta find somethin',' he said with increased emphasis. 'Somethin' good, somethin' makes 'em like me.'
I had it now he had seized on the notion that by some good deed or valuable service he could change people's opinion of him.
'You can't do anything, Bill. You just have to keep doing your job, and this will all wash away, I promise you.'
'Mmn-mn.' He shook his head vehemently like a child in denial. 'I gotta find somethin' good to do.'
'Look,' I said. 'Anything you try is very likely to backfire. Do you understand me? If you do something and you bugger it, people are going to be more angry at you than ever.'
He tucked his lower lip beneath the upper and narrowed his eyes and maintained a stubborn silence.
'What does Mister C say about this?' I asked.
That was, apparently, a new thought. He blinked; the tightness left his face. 'I don't know.'
'Well, ask him. That's what he's there for ... to help you with your problems.'
'He doesn't always help. Sometimes he doesn't know stuff.'
'Try, will you? Just give it a try.'
He did not seem sure of this tactic, but after a moment he pawed at his head, running his palm along the crewcut stubble, then squeezed his eyes shut and began to mumble, long, pattering phrases interrupted by pauses for breath, like a child saying his prayers as fast as he can. I guessed that he was outlining the entire situation for Mister C. After a minute his face went blank, the tip of his tongue pushed out between his lips, and I imagined the cartoonish voice thus I had been told the implant's voice would manifest speaking to him in rhymes, in silly patter. Then, after another few seconds, his eyes snapped open and he beamed at me.
'Mister C says good deeds are always good,' he announced proudly, obviously satisfied that he had been proven right, and popped another piece of candy into his mouth.
I cursed the simplicity of the implant's programming, sat back down, and for the next half-hour or so I attempted to persuade Bill that his best course lay in doing absolutely nothing, in keeping a low profile. If he did, I told him, eventually the dust would settle and things would return to normal. He nodded and said, yes, yes, uh-huh, yet I could not be certain that my words were having an effect. I knew how resistant he could be to logic, and it was quite possible that he was only humouring me. But as I stood to take my leave of him, he did something that went some way toward convincing me that I had made an impression: he reached out and caught my hand, held it for a second, only a second, but one during which I thought I felt the sorry hits of his life, the dim vibrations of all those, sour, loveless nights and lonely ejaculations. When he released my hand he turned away, appearing to be embarrassed. I was embarrassed myself. Embarrassed and, I must admit, a bit repelled at having this ungainly lump display affection toward me. Yet I was also moved, and trapped between those two poles of feeling, I hovered above him, not sure what to do or say. There was, however, no need for me to deliberate the matter. Before I could summon speech he began mumbling once again, lost in a chat with Mister C.
'Good night, Bill,' I said.
He gave no response, as still as a Buddha on his cushion.
I stood beside him for a while, less observing him than cataloguing my emotions, then, puzzling more than a little over their complexity, I left him to his candy and his terror and his inner voices.
Apology was not so prickly a chore as I had feared. Arlie knew as well as I the demons that possessed us, and once I had submitted to a token humiliation, she relented and we made love. She was demanding in the act, wild and noisy, her teeth marked my shoulder, my neck; but as we lay together afterward in the dark, some trivial, gentle music trickling in from the speakers above us, she was tender and calm and seemed genuinely interested in the concerns of my day.
'God 'elp us!' she said. 'You don't actually fink the Magnificence is at work 'ere, do you?'
'Christ, no!' I said. 'Some miserable dwight's actin' on mad impulse, that's all. Probably done it 'cause his nanny wiped his bum too hard when he's a babe.'
'Oi 'ope not,' she said. 'Oi've seen their work back 'ome too many toimes to ever want to see it again.'
'You never told me you'd had dealings with the Magnificence.'
'Oi never 'ad what you'd call dealin's with 'em, but they was all over our piece of 'eaven, they were. 'Alf the bloody houses sported some kind of daft mark. It was a bleedin' fertile field for 'em, with nobody 'avin' a job and the lads just 'angin' about on the corners and smokin' gannie. 'Twas a rare day the Bills didn't come 'round to scrape up some yobbo wearing his guts for a necktie and the mark of his crime carved into his fore'ead. Nights you'd hear 'em chantin' down by the stadium. 'Orrid stuff they was singin'. Wearin' that cheap black satin gear and those awrful masks. But it 'ad its appeal. All the senile old 'ooligans were diggin' out their jackboots and razors, and wantin' to go marchin' again. And in the pubs the soaks would be sayin', yes, they do the odd bad thing, the Magnificence, but they've got the public good to 'eart. The odd bad thing! Jesus! Oi've seen messages written on the pavement in 'uman bones. Coloured girls with their 'ips broken and their legs lashed back behind their necks. Still breathin' and starin' at you with them 'ollow eyes, loike they were mad to die. You were lucky, John, to be living up in Chelsea.'
'Lucky enough, I suppose,' I said stiffly, leery of drawing such distinctions; the old British class wars, though somewhat muted on Solitaire, were far from dormant, and even between lovers, class could be a dicey subject. 'Chelsea's not exactly the Elysian Fields.'
'Oi don't mean nuffin' by it, luv. You don't have to tell me the 'ole damn world's gone rotten long ago. Oi remember how just a black scrap of a life looked loike a brilliant career when Oi was livin' there. Now Oi don't know how Oi stood it.'
I pulled her close against me and we lay without speaking for a long while. Finally Arlie said, 'You know, it's 'all nice 'avin' 'im 'ere.'
'Bill, you mean?'
'I hope you'll still feel that way if he can't find the loo,' I said.
Arlie giggled. 'Nao, I'm serious. It's loike 'avin' family again. The feel of somebody snorin' away in the next room. That's the thing we miss 'avin' here. We're all so bloody isolated. Two's a crowd and all that. We're missin' the warmth.'
'I suppose you're right.'
I touched her breasts, smoothed my hand along the swell of her hip, and soon we were involved again, more gently than before, more giving to the other, as if what Arile had said about family had created a resonance in our bodies. Afterward I was so fatigued, the darkness seemed to be slowly circulating around us, pricked by tiny bursts of actinic light, the way a djinn must circulate within its prison bottle, a murky cloud of genius and magic. I was at peace lying there, yet I felt strangely excited to be so peaceful and my thoughts, too, were strange, soft, almost formless, the kind of thoughts I recalled having had as a child when it had not yet dawned on me that all my dreams would eventually be hammered flat and cut into steely dies so they could withstand the dreadful pressures of a dreamless world.
Arlie snuggled closer to me, her hand sought mine, clasped it tightly. 'Ah, Johnny,' she said. 'Toimes loike this, Oi fink Oi was born to forget it all.'
Table of Contents
|Barnacle Bill The Spacer||1|
|A Little Night Music||79|
|Sports in America||179|
|The Sun Spider||205|
|All the Perfumes of Araby||239|
|Beast of the Heartland||265|