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The Running of the Bulls
By Harry Turtledove, Greg Ruth
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
You are all a lost generation, she said back then. And anyone who looked at them as they spun their dizzy way through life would have had a hard time telling her she was wrong.
But one generation passes away and another generation comes along. This generation sticks its snout against the grindstone of work and never takes it away. That one plays instead. Or it marches off to war. Or it wanders aimlessly. There is one way to shape a lost generation, though not all who wander are lost.
Or a generation can march off to war and then wander aimlessly. After fighting a war and saving a world that probably does not need saving, a generation may find it lacks the strength and will for anything more. Her lost generation hatched that way.
So did mine. Even before the fighting ended, the docs were busy putting me back together again. They promised I would be almost as good as new when they got done with me. They were almost as good as their word, too.
When you talk about things like that, the little word almost covers a lot of ground. Most of the time, you do not even notice that word, especially when they aim it at someone else. But when they point it at you ... Oh, yes, you cannot help but notice it then.
Good old Baek Jarns — which is who I am — did not sail home to Dubyook once both sides signed the treaty, then. I could not face it. Sympathy from my family would have been bad enough. Sympathy from my girl would have been a thousand times worse. And all the sympathy from everybody in the world would do nothing to set things right, to set them back to how they were before the war. When the docs almost at you, you take what you can get. You do not take whatever you want. That choice is no longer on the table.
On this side of the ocean, my money stretches a lot further than it would back home. They took a beating over here. Even the winners over here took a beating. No one has any money to speak of. Anybody with even a little can pass for rich as long as he takes a few pains.
I know how to do that. And I know how to bring in some more even if my draughts from Dubyook do not come. People over there read the stories Baek Jarns writes about what things here in Ecnarf are like these days. And people in Ecnarf read the stories Baek Jarns writes about what things in Dubyook were like before the war.
I bet that sounds crazy to you. To tell you the truth, it sounds crazy to me. But that is how things work right now. If you take your pains, if you work your angles, you can do fine for yourself.
One way to work your angles is to be sure you know which places have the name for good grub and which places you can really eat at without spending every slug you have and without making your tongue want to curl up and die. They are two different lists, believe me. A few joints go on both of them, but only a few.
I am sitting in one of these eateries, going through a plate of eggs scrambled with sliced mushrooms. That is what they would call it on the side of the ocean where I grew up, anyhow. Here in gay Sirap, in most joints they call it an omelette. The fancy name lets them charge three times as much for the same thing, or they think it does.
On the menu behind the zinc-topped bar in my place, they bill it as an egg-and-mushroom scramble. In Ecnarfish, of course, not the king's Dunlinese or even the kind we talk in Dubyook, but they do. They do not give it a highfalutin name or a highfalutin price. They do not draw a highfalutin crowd, either. The place is full of touts and shopgirls and clerks and a couple of sweepers. A fellow who cannot be anything but an off-duty snoop reads the evening paper while he eats eggs and mushrooms just like mine.
A skinny working girl pauses by my table. She puts her hands on her hips, in front of her nice, round tail. She has painted her claws red. "You don't take me out anymore," she complains in a shrill voice.
"It would help if I'd ever set eyes on you before," I tell her. "What's your name?"
"Jajett," she says. "What's yours?"
Her eyes narrow. "That's a foreign name."
"Well, I'm a foreigner. Will you stop caring if I buy you dinner?"
Jajett sits down across from me, so I guess she will. The waiter comes over. "What'll it be?" he asks.
"Give the lady what I'm having," I say. "Oh — and fetch a couple of brandies."
"Fetch me a couple of brandies, too," Jajett exclaims.
The waiter looks a question at me. "Take care of it," I say. By the way he sketches a salute, he put in his time during the war. Not many Ecnarfish men his age — my age — missed out on doing a hitch. A lot of them did not live to see the end of it. Remembering dead friends and wondering why you are not dead yourself is not the smallest part of what goes into making a lost generation lost.
When her egg-and-mushroom scramble comes, Jajett digs in as if she has not eaten for days. For all I know, she has not, though she is pretty enough to make you think she would have scared up a little business somewhere.
She finishes fast. The dishwashers will not need to do much with her plate before they push it out again. She sends me a bright, hard smile. "Now what?" she asks.
If things were different, I might take her back to my flat, and you can draw your own pictures of what would go on after that. But things are the way they are. I am almost as good as the docs said I would be before the ether-soaked rag came down over my snout and they starting carving on me. Since things are the way they are, almost as good is not quite good enough.
Besides, those brandies buzz like wasps inside my head. I give back a smile just like hers, only I have better teeth. "How about we go for a ride, doll?" I tell her.
Jajett smiles some more. "How about we do?" she says. She does not even ask where. I pay the bill. I leave a tip over and above the service charge they tack on hoping you will not notice. We walk out into the night together as if we have known each other for years. Flagging a cab is the easiest thing in the world.
* * *
Some places, you go to eat. If you want to do some drinking, too, you can. Other places, you go to drink. If you want to do some eating, too, well, again, you can. The food will not be so good as at a proper eatery. But if you have already been drinking for a while, you do not much care.
We go from the first kind of place to the second kind. As we are about to walk in, they throw a drunk out. He already has blood dripping from the corner of his mouth, so he is a disorderly drunk. When he staggers to his feet — they really give him the bum's rush — he looks ready to tangle with anybody he can get his hands on.
I am the closest anybody handy. I have been known to fight a drunk or three in my time. It settles your supper and aids the digestion. But I do not get to tangle with this one. Jajett yells something at him so filthy that I understand only a quarter of it, and I speak Ecnarfish pretty damn well, let me tell you. The bit I do get is the nice part, too.
If a man said anything like that to me, I would kill him. I would have to, or break every mirror I own. No judge, no court, could blame me. Chances are they would hang a gong around my neck on a red ribbon to show I committed a public service.
You cannot go around killing women, no matter what they say. It gets you talked about. The disorderly drunk shrivels up and lurches away, all his pride and temper blown to hell and gone. We stroll into The Gilded Peasant. Or maybe it is Pheasant — I never can remember.
Already inside are half a dozen friends and acquaintances of mine. I am anything but surprised. I always expect to run into people I know there. The place caters to expatriates, and to their money.
I am still saying hello and how are you and what have you been up to when Jajett gets into a screaming row with the proprietor's daughter. Unlike the disorderly drunk, the daughter gives as well as she gets. She knows a working girl when she sees one. She is not shy about going into detail on that score, either. Jajett points out that an innkeeper's daughter is not like to be able to brag about her virtue.
Things quickly roll downhill from there. The daughter and Jajett both seem to be having a rare old time. Since they do, I get the proprietor to pour me a brandy. Then I go back to my friends.
Pointing toward the two gals still slanging away at each other, Ett Brashli says, "You always did know how to liven up an evening, didn't you, Baek?"
"Never a dull moment when I'm around," I agree, and knock back half the brandy at a gulp. I did not look for Lady Ett to be here tonight.
She is a noblewoman from across the Sleeve, which is what they call the channel between Dunlin and Ecnarf. She likes it better here than she does in Dunlin. That is what makes an expat, I suppose. I sure like it better here than I do back in Dubyook.
When I first came to Sirap, right after the war ended, I felt lower than if I were still in a trench. I had just found out that the sawbones' almost was not good enough, and that it did not look as if it ever would be good enough. Not the kind of thing to lift a man's spirits.
But when I met Ett Brashli, it did not seem to matter. She did not seem to care. She cared about me, not about the almost. The way I was then, that seemed a bigger miracle than any of the ones the preachers go on about in the temples. That she cared about me made me care about myself, which I had quit doing. Ett Brashli is one of those people who are good for other people. There are never enough people like that, dammit. Never.
If you meet somebody like that, you want to keep her forever. I would not have been able to keep Lady Ett forever even without the almost. I understand that now, though I did not then. No one ever keeps Lady Ett for long. She is one of those people, too. It is sad, but there you are.
And here I am, knocking back brandy at The Gilded Peasant. And there is Ett Brashli. And there is the guy she is with now, another Dunliner. His name is Kime Kelbam. The only thing wrong with him, aside from his having her when I do not, is that money dribbles through his fingers like water. He is younger than I am, and he has gone through more cash than I will ever see.
Kime knows Lady Ett and I were tight not so long ago. He cannot very well not know. Ett has never been good at keeping secrets, and she never will be. You need to understand that from the start if you want to have anything to do with her. If knowing bothers him, he has never shown it. He always treats me like an old chum, and he is no different now. He is a good egg, Kime is.
He treats Obert Ohn like an old chum, too. Obert came over here to make something of himself that he could not in Dubyook. He has done a little writing, which is how I know him. Some of it is not too bad. Some of it, I must say, is not too good.
What he has made of himself since he met Ett Brashli is a nuisance. He moons after her as if he just now discovered women. If she told him to take a long hike off a short pier, he might leave her alone. Or he might go and do it — you never can tell. But she will not tell him anything like that. She is too kind. And how many people can resist being worshiped as if they are gods?
"What's your friend's name? Do you even know?" Without Ett's smile, the question would be snotty.
As is, I smile back. When Ett Brashli smiles at you, you cannot help smiling back. "She's Jajett," I say. "So there." I stick out my tongue at Lady Ett like a little kid.
She laughs at me. No, with me. Obert Ohn sends me a look that should stretch me dead on the shabby carpet. I think he must have had his sense of humor surgically removed along with his tonsils when he was small. Naturally, he resents anybody who managed to grow up with a whole one.
Something smashes, back near the bar. Sweet Jajett and the proprietor's daughter do not get along at all. Two large, burly waiters hustle Jajett to the door. She bites one of them. He slaps her. She bites him again. She has spirit, that one. They throw her out, spirit and all.
"Sirap is getting dull," Kime says.
"How drunk are you?" I ask him. "They put on a show like that, and you say it's dull?"
"Maybe it's getting too exciting," Ett Brashli says. "They really are the same thing when you look at them the right way, aren't they?"
"No," I answer.
She shakes her head in mock sadness. "Poor Baek. Always so literal. What Kime means is, we want to get out of Sirap for a while. Out of Ecnarf altogether, in fact. We're thinking of taking the train down to Astilia and watching the bulls in Amblona. You've done that, haven't you?"
"Yes," I say. "Are you sure you want to? It's not all pretty, you know."
"That's the point," Ett says. "The whole point."
I look over at Kime Kelbam. As far as I know, he has never gone to Amblona. But he was in the war. He will have a notion of what I mean when I say it is not all pretty. Lady Ett does not seem to.
But he just shrugs. "It will be something different, anyhow."
"Yes! It'll be something different!" For Ett Brashli, that is the only thing that matters. She goes out of her mind when things stay the same for long. Even aside from my almost, we would not have lasted as a couple. Nothing she does ever lasts. But we would have had one hell of a time for a while. We did have one hell of a time for a little while.
"I studied Astilian at the university," Obert Ohn says. "I'd like to get the chance to speak it."
"Well, come along, then, for heaven's sake," Kime says. "You may even end up useful. Who knows?"
"Who knows anything for sure these days?" Lady Ett says.
There are an awful lot of things I do not know for sure. Ask anyone. He will tell you. You can count on that. If the anyone you ask is a woman, she will tell you even more. You can count on that, too. But I do know the chance Obert Ohn wants is not the chance he talks about.
Kime has to know the same thing. He says what he says even so. It is not that he does not care. But Ett will do what Ett will do, and you can either get out of the way or stay there and get smashed. With her like that, Kime already understands the running of the bulls. He may want to see it, but he does not need to.
* * *
Lady Ett and Kime get their tickets to Amblona and go on down with some other people they know. Obert Ohn and I follow them a few days later. No one is in any tearing hurry. Ett has some side trips she wants to make. Kime does not mind. It would not do him any good if he did, but he does not. And Obert and I plan on getting in some fishing. Northern Astilia has some good trout steams.
I do not know a better way to travel than the train. There are faster ways, but a train is plenty fast. Someone else does the driving, so you do not have to pay attention to what is right in front of you. You can read a magazine article if you like, or write one. You can lean back in your seat and close your eyes and let everything go on without you.
Or you can look out the window. The countryside in Ecnarf is fine. South of Sirap, the war did not hurt it badly. And Astilia stayed out of this latest round of madness. The scars there are old. Most of them have healed over.
Even high up in the mountains that mark the border between Ecnarf and Astilia, the meadows stay green and beautiful. Animals graze on them. From a train window, the animals look like dots — small gray ones, bigger ones brown or black. Herdsmen, themselves as brown and wizened as tree trunks, stump across the grass or sit in the shade of the boulders as they keep an eye on their beasts.
Some of the herdsmen carry shotguns. One, I notice, has a businesslike army rifle. They say a few tyrs still prowl the upper reaches of the mountains. I do not know whether that is true, but they say it. I know pters of prey wheel in the cloud-dappled sky, because I see one every now and then. Without the herdsmen, the flocks would take bad losses from them. They lose some animals as things are, but not so many.
We stop at the border to clear customs. An inspector looks through our luggage. Then, with great formality, he stamps our passports. Obert Ohn tries to talk with him in Astilian. The look the inspector gives Obert says he is not there to chat. He gravely goes on to the next compartment.
"Not a very friendly fellow, is he?" Obert Ohn sounds crestfallen.
"No, not very," I say. If anyone is less likely to be friendly than an Astilian customs inspector, I cannot imagine who he might be.
Excerpted from The Running of the Bulls by Harry Turtledove, Greg Ruth. Copyright © 2013 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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