by Ebbe Roe Smith
It was a Wedrevolution. I knew it was a Wedrevolution because I was having my hair lasered. I always have my hair lasered on Wedrevolutions. The smell of burning protein was in the air. Wisps of the stuff were making their way into oblivion, alongside my idle thoughts. I was thinking about the nature of things, the inevitable unfolding of the universe, the purpose and meaning of all time and space, you know, the usual stuff. But mostly I was thinking about the zirdonganburger I was going to wrap my incisors around come lunchtime.
Mr. Pierre had eight of his tentacled eyes on the job. They were shifting around like Medusa’s fabled hair, lining up the laser zaps. His other four peepers were perusing the morning’s news. I didn’t mind his distraction; Pierre, being a professional and all, was so plasmatically good at his job. Or so I thought till one of his laser streaks damn near took my nose off.
“Hey!” I yelped. “I came here for a hair cut, not a nose job!”
“So sorry, Mr. Tide,” Pierre’s voice synthesizing box apologized. He disengaged his distracted eye-stalks from the AM’s news and went back to giving me all of his multiple attention.
“What’s got you so interested that you nearly sliced your best customer in two?” I asked.
“Oh.” He gave me a nudge with one of his appendages, which sent me swinging around in my chair-space, facing the comm-zone output. Another of his snake-like thingies punched a button-space and the article he’d been watching sprang to life in the zone.
“The actors are coming!”
Indeed they were. We watched a pint-sized version of them slithering and sliding out of the hatch of a warp-point express, raising their amorphous heads to look around, their big, liquid eyes blinking and watering in the light of the cams. I gave an involuntary shudder, like I usually did when I saw them and my nether-lip curled in instinctive distaste.
“You frequent the theatre, Mr. Tide?” Pierre politely inquired.
“Can’t say I do,” I said. In the comm-zone the actors’ human owner was making an appearance. He was a big guy, big in the belly department, that is. He paused dramatically, framed in the doorway, gave us all a shot of his profile, revealed a set of teeth an orthodontist would have been proud to rent advertising space on, took a step forward, and nearly fell on his glutimus maximus after slipping on the slime trail his actor-pets had left behind them. An expression crossed his features like a nasty breeze and just as quickly got tucked away. He gave out a bad imitation of a good-natured chuckle and stepped away from the door-space, swinging back towards it with a sweep of the hand. From in there another hand appeared, a slim, female hand, a hand which lit on his like a poetic butterfly. The owner of it glided out. Pierre’s voice synthesizing box sighed.
“Ariadne Sulpher!” it gasped. “I saw her in The Rape of Jupiter’s Children. What a performance! What transcendence! What perfection!”
She was an impressive batch of protoplasm to be sure. It wasn’t just her beauty, which would have been enough. It was an aura of unreachable other-worldliness. She was an ache in the PM. She was the kind of woman you see and instantly know you will never have. And guess what? It turns out you were right. She was the kind of woman you want to want you, because that would mean you were something mighty special. She came out slow and graced her audience with a swivel of the head and a closed-mouthed, half-moon of a smile. It was a good thing she wasn’t my type, otherwise I might pine a little. As her consort started working the jaw muscles, Pierre hit the stop-space and made them go away.
“Surely you don’t mean to say you’re not going to see one of the performances,” Pierre’s box earnestly said as he snapped his laser to life and went back to cutting my hair.
“Ophiuchus Jones and Company are famous throughout the galaxy. The opportunity to see them perform is a rare treat.”
“Personally, I don’t get it,” I drawled. “Why dress up and rub elbows with a crowd when you can wait a fifty-second and catch them on the zone? That way if nature buzzes or I get the urge for a refreshing mist, I can freeze the thing and not miss a beat. Live theatre’s dead, as far as I’m concerned. It’ll be sharing the break-down terminal with, what did they call it? Where people used to stand around and sing at each other?”
“Opera,” Pierre’s v.s. box said, and if a box can sound droll, this one managed it.
“That’s the stuff,” I went on, oblivious to the fact that Pierre had ceased to work on my coif. “Who wants to be in the same cubicle as those actor-things anyway. They give me the creeps.” I looked up at my barber. His eye-stalks were staring at me, all twelve of them, twelve glassy stares. His laser snapped off. The haircut was over.
I tipped him large but I had a feeling it wouldn’t do me any good. I had a feeling the next time I commed for an appointment, Mr. Pierre would be all accounted up. He was a fastidious multi-ped. That’s why I liked him. He was impeccable in his profession. When he cut a head of hair, he cut every last one of them with precision and taste. That’s why he could pick and choose his customers. He didn’t need to waste his time and talents on boorish, unrefined, crass brain-cases like the one I’d just demonstrated I was wearing.
I stepped out of Mr. Pierre’s Laser Cut Emporium into the hustle and bustle of 1,145th. I shook my head and went to stuff a zirdonganburger into my big mouth.
I remember it like it was yesterrevolution. It was when the first murder happened.
2. Might Could
I saw all about it the next AM. I’d picked up a news-comm code from my friend Ezekiel on the way to my ritual stop at Bertha’s Biological Bungalow to pack up the protein and argue with the rudest waitress unit on Hub.
“Nasty business,” was all Zeke had said as he debited my account, shaking his head, which was all there was of him to shake, thanks to the horrific accident he’d suffered as a young man. A lapse of safety standards had resulted in him ending up neck-deep in the second hardest substance in the galaxy. They’d had to toss his body as a lost bet, and wire his head to a plastic pillow. He powered up the dented and scratched thing he called home and zipped down the avenue, calling out, “Murder! Murder most foul! See all about it!”
A glance at the See The Crime Scene! section told me it wasn’t an activity best associated with digestion, so I went to Sports! instead, to watch yesterAM’s Rodelian Rat Race, saving the gory stuff until I got to my office.
There, an alleyway materialized in the comm-zone, dirty, graffiti-ridden and depressing. The Greys were in full force, tip-toeing around like they were afraid of waking somebody. They needn’t. The somebody wasn’t going to wake up ever again, and the tip-toeing demonstrated the reason why. Whoever it was was spread across the alley floor and up the alley walls as if they ’d been put there with a paintbrush. If it hadn’t been for the color, you wouldn’t even be able to tell what species the thing had been.
The POV shifted and the rounded shoulders of a good-sized man filled the zone. He was faced away, looking down. Even before he turned around to face us, I knew I knew him.
“Canis Major, you son-of-a-bitch,” I said aloud. His hair was grayer, there was more of him, but it was him, all right.
“Captain, what have we got here?” the off-cam reporter asked.
“Oh, Captain is it now?” I threw in. He’d been a Corporal when I’d had the pleasure of his company. And before that, a patrolman, when our locker-spaces had been side-by-side and we’d knocked elbows on more than one occasion. He’d gone up. I’d gone out. Maybe I’d be a Captain now, too, if I’d stuck to the force. Sure, If I’d been willing to kiss every anus from here to Consensus Ball and crack every head that got in my way.
“We’ve got murder,” the recorded image of Captain Canis Major said.
“Really?” I sneered. “What advanced technique did you use to figure that one out?”
“What was the cause?”
“Cause of death hasn’t been determined yet.” Cause? Try having your guts spread across a wall.
“Any idea who did it?” the reporter asked.
Canis gave the guy the look I would have given him if I’d been there and turned back to his grisly scene as he murmured, “We’ve just begun our investigation.”
I said, “Freeze,” a little louder than necessary, swung around in my chair-space a little faster than normal, and stared grumpily at my wall-window, which was playing the scene I’d of seen if my wall had really been a window. I wasn’t sure why the vision of Canis Major made me mad. He really wasn’t such a bad guy, as Greys go. He didn’t step on my toes as much as some I could name. It wasn’t that I wanted his life. Being a Captain of Greys couldn’t have interested me less. It was just that he was a guy with more guts than ability and a little bit more than his share of arrogance, a guy who slid through the ranks where more talented feared to tread. I guess I was jealous, if you want to know the truth. Go ahead, zap me. My door-space indicator sounded.
“Appear,” I said absent-mindedly.
“Nasty business,” a familiar voice droned. I swung back around. Andy Romeda of The Evolving Star was there, staring at the frozen scene on my desk-space.
“Nasty enough,” I replied. “What do you want?” My darkish mood was still on me.
Andy raised his eyebrows. “Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed-space. Should I come back later or just fornicate myself?”
“Sorry. Pull up a chair-space, news-man,” I said, making the disgusting alley scene go away. “What can I get you? A cup of bean? A cartridge of soda pop? What?”
“Nothing, thanks, GPI,” he said, activating a chair-space and sitting down. “Busy these days?”
“Do I look busy?”
“How’d you like a job?”
“What sort of job and why are you the one peddling it?”
“The corpusguard sort and I’m peddling it because I’m on the committee.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Hardly. It’s a fine arts committee.”
“I’ve never understood that phrase. Fine as opposed to what?”
“It’ll account good.”
“Take me to your leader.”
“Don’t you want to know who you’ll be guarding?”
“Sure. Who is he?”
“He’s a her. Ariadne Sulpher, the actress. Impressed?”
“I guess that means I’ll have to see a play.”
“It might could.”
“Well, you can’t have everything.”
He stood up. “Come on, I’ll make with the introductions.” As I rose he said, “Oh, there’s one other thing...”
“This business in the alley? It might be connected.”
“Now you tell me.” We left there.
3. SPCA Rules
Ophiuchus Jones was angry and he wanted everyone to know about it.
“She doesn’t need a corpusguard!” he bellowed. He stalked back and forth through a small forest of waist-high geometric shapes. There was a sphere, a cube, a cone, a rectangle, a parallelogram, and one weird, twisty, fanciful shape. They were all different colors, bright colors, elemental; green, blue, yellow, black, white. The twisty one was red.
They were down on one of the stages of the Inner Theatre, down from my POV that is, since I was up where the audience sat, about where you’d measure the circumference of this ball-shaped space. On a dot beneath my feet, “Y-72” was imprinted. Over my head, a flock performance-lights floated around, tossing down a pool of light on the meeting of the committee.
“Be that as it may...” the Muthawa started to counter in their typical wavering vocal pattern. Jones towered over him. The delicate alien squinched his huge eyes up as the actor/director assaulted him afresh, bathing him in a saliva shower that shimmered in the light.
“There is no ‘as it may’! She doesn’t need some loutish oaf of a half-brained Neanderthal poisoning her air with his foul effusions! Have I made myself clear!?” This last was given to the rest of the committee which stood in a line like a pack of juveniles who’d been caught in the Rural Section smoking artificial-cigarettes. Beside the Muthawa, there were three humans, a Falerian, a Kalso Mabm and a Derovite. I felt something wet and looked down. An actor-thing had appeared next to me and was finding my leg particularly interesting. It was threatening to give me a slime-job with its intake hole.
“Ssst. Scat.” I said, under my breath. It looked up at me for a fraction with its big, meaningless eyes, then went back to doing whatever it thought it was doing to my leg.
“Get away from there,” I hissed a little louder and pushed at it with my foot. It looked at me again like I’d just ground its offspring up for sandwich meat and a big string of their ubiquitous drool slid out and hung there like a sack of gelatinous I-don’t-know-what.
“Who is this?” I looked up. Jones was staring down at me. He marched up the side of the Sphere towards me, walking as he talked. Andy broke ranks and followed. “Who is this person assaulting my property? My rehearsals are closed. How many times must I stress this!?” He examined me like an unclean thing.
“I’m the half-brained Neanderthal,” I told him. “ And you ought to keep your property on a leash. I didn’t bring my suit-code with me.”
“This!?” Jones queried, doing a tasty spin and using me for show-and-tell. “This is who is supposed to protect my Ariadne from harm? Gentlesentients, let’s get serious. What can this...” He gave me once over number two and dug around for an adjective. “...stringy individual...” Not bad, I thought, “...possibly have to offer in the way of protection?”
Andy stepped forward.
“Mr. Tide is highly competent, I assure you, sir.”
“He doesn’t look competent. He looks suspicious. I really can’t accept it. No corpusguard. Period. Now, If you’ll excuse me, I have a rehearsal to run.” He tried to slide around Andy but the veteran news-man stepped in his path.
“Mr. Jones,” he said, with some force. Mr. Jones stepped back, giving him the kind of smile you want to put your fist through.
“Yes, Mr. Romeda?”
“No corpusguard. No show.”
“I’m sorry, are you giving me an ultimatum?”
“No, sir. The insurance consortium is giving you an ultimatum. Without the corpusguard, they won’t indemnify the production.” Ophiuchus Jones froze for an instant, his eyebrows raised, staring at some middle distance. Then he came to life.
“Well, of course, why didn’t you say so in the first place,” he softly rattled off. He performed his spin for me again. “Welcome aboard, Mr....Tide, was it?”
“Red will do.”
The smile again, with a taste of cat in it. “Then Red it is. Grab a chair-space, Mr. Red.” And he swung away from me, yelling as he did, “From the top!” But the meter-high Puastafordeller, who’d been occupying one tiny corner of the stage, suddenly leaped to her tiny feet, waving a stop-chronometer she held in her tiny hand.
“That’s lunch, Mr. Jones!” she said with her tiny mouth. Jones stopped, a snarl on his face and tried to burn holes through the little creature with his eyes. “I’m sorry, Ophiuchus,” the actor-wrangler stammered. “SPCA rules. That’s lunch.”
“And that’s the morning.” Ophiuchus grumbled and stalked off. I watched the actor-wrangler struggling with a container twice her size that had “Actor Chow” printed on it. The scattered geometric shapes came to life, melting, colors fading to a sickly gray, turning into actor-things. They slithered towards the Puastafordeller. What she was pouring out looked like it’d been digested once or twice already, which it had, or so I understood. I turned to Andy.
“Am I going to hate you for this?”
“You might could.”
4. Family Love
Andy and I went to a fashionable little bistro around the corner from the Arcturus Memorial Performance Center where the table-spaces were small and the portions smaller but the view was large. The bistro was a mag zone, hung off the outer surface of the Inner Sphere. The diners floated around like a bunch of soap bubbles in a light breeze. Anytime you dropped your fork and leaned over to get it, you’d face the invigorating view of the inner surface of the Outer Sphere, sliding by a few kilometers or so below. Since vertigo and appetite were not particularly simpatico, I guess it was a good thing the meals weren’t built for size.
“You don’t have to worry about her while she’s in the Center,” Andy said. “Security’s been beefed up and nobody gets in without being scanned for ID.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I intoned, waiting for his eyes to quit dancing around and meet mine.
“It’s the functions you got to worry about. The cream of the Sphere are tripping over each other to throw a soiree and be able to say they had a couple of genuine artiste’s in their existing-cubicle.”
Andy gave it up. “What? What?” he asked, spreading his hands like an innocent man.
“When are you going to tell me what it’s got to do with the mess in the alley?”
“I’m getting to that.”
“You’re taking your damn time.”
Andy frowned and studied the landscape far below. “It started a couple of stops through their galactic tour.”
“The killings. Everywhere they went sentients started to get bumped off.”
“Not everywhere, but enough. Every few stops.”
“No chance it could be coincidence?”
Andy shook his head. “The...style of the killings suggests otherwise.”
“What do you mean?”
“They relate to the plays being performed.”
“The last show they did was The Mastication of Magellania. Ever seen it?”
“It’s a charming little three-acter about a guy who goes against the prevailing poli’s. He gets to take an acid shower for his trouble. The Greys think acid was used on the victim in the alley.
“That wasn’t on the zone.”
“No, it wasn’t.” The maitre de comp picked this instant to send my entree shunting into our zone. I had opted for pasta and sauce. Under the influence of Andy’s description, it strongly resembled the floor of a slaughter-structure. “That’s the classics for you,” Andy went on cheerily. “Unless somebody gets de-bowelled, or tossed into a gravity-hole, or breached in space, or separated from their head, it just ain’t good theatre.”
“What’s the play this time?”
“It’s called Ransom Of The Red Dwarf. ”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh,” Andy said, picking at his plate-space. “I guess it’s about family. Family love. Family conflict. That sort of thing.”
“That doesn’t sound too bloody.”
“No? There’s a scion of a big corporation, see. His one and only son gets kidnapped by this ultra-desperate bunch of rebellious types. They contact Daddy, demand their ransom. But Daddy’s conflicted. Aside from giving up all that capital, which goes against his grain, the kid’s a dwarf. Came out twisted. So Daddy hesitates. Tells himself he can’t open the door-space to terrorism. Starts to question whether the kid was his in the first place. Etcetera. Etcetera. But the rebels are committed. Their cause is just, even if they’re methods are a little screwy. They begin to send pieces of the kid home in various-sized boxes. Still the Daddy doesn’t give in. They’re chopping the kid into smaller and smaller bits. Meanwhile the matron of the house, played by Ariadne Sulphur, is signing for packages of gore from Galactic Express and going stone-crazy. Needless to say, just about everybody dies by the end.”
“You said it. If somebody wants to use it as an inspiration for mayhem, they’ ve got plenty of material to pick from.”
“So they think somebody is following this bunch around, bringing their little dramas to life.”
“That’s about it.”
“Has it occurred to anybody...”
Andy held up his hand. “I know what you’re going to say. Has it occurred to anybody that it could be somebody in the troupe that’s doing the killing?”
“That’s what I was going to say.”
“Like who? Jones is too cheap and paranoid to hire stage hands. He picks them up for minimum accounting where ever he goes. That leaves him, Ariadne, his actor-wrangler, and his little pack of greasy bunnies. I think we can discount the actor-wrangler. She’s only a half a meter tall. If Jones is responsible, he’s doing a great job of ruining himself. Since the rumors started to fly about the killings, he’s been getting cancellations right and left. He’s about one performance ahead of accountruptcy. That leaves the actors. Gimme a break, they’re just animals.”
“What about Ariadne?”
“It’s not her.”
“Why are you so sure?”
Andy pushed himself back in his chair-space and thought about how to say it. “You’ve never seen her perform, have you?”
“I think I’ve caught her on the zone.”
“Not the same thing. If you’d seen her live, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. See, she is the troupe. She’s what it’s all about. She’s the big deal. The rest is just window-space dressing. Ophiuchus, he’s an OK director, I guess, but as a performer, he’s small tubors. Fact of the matter is, it’s all Ariadne and you want to know why? Ariadne Sulphur is committing suicide by performance.”
“She is. She dies a little every time she acts. You’ll see. You’ll understand what I mean. When she’s done, she’s barely got the strength to crawl into her bed-space.” He went all inward-like. His mouth went a little bit slack. “Sometimes I think that’s what the rubes really come to see. Sometimes I think, secretly, all of us, all of her fans, are hoping they’re in the audience the PM she finally pops the bubble.”
5. Greasy Bunnies
For a guy who resented lunch, he took a long one. The things were resting, I guess. I guess that’s what they were doing when they hunkered down like that, having a geometric snooze. As I passed one of them, it came to life, though. It had been the oddball among shapes, not being symmetrical, a cube gone screwy, stretched up and curved over, like a hard-edged wave about to crash on an iron beach. It was a bright red but it pulsed purplish when I went by, then it gave up the cube and became itself; grey, flaccid, and greasy-looking. It crawled after me as I ascended the wall to the cheap seats. I activated a chair-space, flopped into it, let out an after-lunch sigh, and watched the thing following me ride its slime excretion right up to my tootsies. Then it raised, I don’t know, the head, I guess, that portion of its anatomy that had the eyes and mouth-hole, anyway. It stood there, looking at me like I was supposed to process its ticket or something.
“What do you want?” I drawled nastily. It reacted by giving out a kind of juicy burp, which sent a wave of drool out of its mouth, down its front and over my toes. “Hey!” I stood up and stepped back. “You’re disgusting,” I told it and moved away a few rows. It followed me with its screwy eyes.
“Lop Side likes you.” said a voice, so tiny I had to think twice to be sure I heard it. I looked around. “Up here.” I looked up to the second stage at the other end of the sphere. It was the Puastafordeller actor-wrangler. I wandered up the wall, joining her gravitational reality, looked down at the tiny figure who on tippy-toes would come up to my knee. She was a fairly typical Puastafordeller. That is to say, she had the one eye in the middle of her forehead and the fleshy tendrils hanging down all around her, the three-fingered hands and the mouth so small you might swat it for a bug and think you were doing her a favor.
“What’d you call the thing?” I asked.
“Lop Side. That’s his name. He likes you. He’s the one slimed you before.”
“That kind of like I don’t need. My boots aren’t going to melt or anything, are they? ”
She laughed, I guess that’s what it was, either that or an insect had just entered the cubicle, and said, “Naw, that’s just a rumor. It’s harmless. When it dries you’ll hardly notice it was there. Just a little residual shine. Good for polishing.”
“You been working with these things a long time?” I asked her.
“Oh, annals and annals.” She jumped to her feet and grabbed a fistful of the muck that masquerades as their nourishment. “Ain’t that right, Lop Side?” She held out the goop. Lop Side shivered like a water balloon on the first bounce and started squirming in our direction. “I was a breeder’s assistant before I got this job.”
“So you’ve seen these monstrosities from the ground up.”
That laugh again, if that’s what it was. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. In fact, I was working for the human we got this batch from.” She got quiet for a sixty, and stared away with her one eye before pulling herself back as the actor-thing approached. “I’ve known this one since he was just a squirt,” she said, cheerful again. “Ain’t that right, Lop Side? Since he was just a wet spot on the ground.” The wet spot had reached us. It reared up and wrapped its mouth-hole around her fist. When she pulled her hand free it was a goobery, slimy mess. I winced. She saw my expression and buzzed like a bee again as she wiped the gunk off on her leg.
“They ain’t so bad. They’re smarter than people think, you know.”
“It’s their table-space manners I can’t get beyond.”
She laughed again, I guess, and threw a leg over the slimy creature. It started to writhe in reaction, but she took hold of it, with hands and feet, and talked to it, calming it down. Then she said, “Up, Lop Side, up!” and Lop Side changed shape. It grew from something short and long to something tall and thin, something as tall as I was. The wrangler rode it up, looked down at me from her perch. “Lop Side’s particular,” she said. “He don’t like just anybody.” She leaned down, putting her mouth next to the side of the thing’s head. “Ain’t that right, Lop Side?” Then she whispered something. I looked at the creature. Those creepy eyes were staring into mine. And it changed. The surface I was looking at writhed, then flushed red, and all of a sudden my own face emerged from it. It was like I was surfacing after a swim in some red, greasy gravy. It was a kind of rough-edged depiction of me, to be sure, but it was me. My crude mouth opened and air whistled into it. Then the air reversed direction and I spoke. There was a buzz to the sound, but it was close enough to my own inflection to recognize it. “It’s their table-space manners I can’t get beyond,” it said. The Puastafordeller laughed. Ophiuchus Jones came in screaming just about then.
“Up! Up! We are working! Lunch is over!” He held a long flexible pole, white, a meter or so in length that had a bright little red light on the end.
“I got ‘em! I got ‘em, Mr. Jones,” the actor-wrangler squeaked, throwing her leg off her greasy steed and racing across the audience band towards the sleeping shapes down on the other stage. But Jones was already moving through them, tapping them lightly with the end of the stick. When he did, they recoiled, losing all their geometry, a burst of color exploding from the touch-point of his pole. As he reached for a yellow cube the wrangler threw herself in the way.
“I’ll get her, sir! I’ll get her up.” Jones shrugged and moved on across the sphere to where I and the thing that the wrangler had been riding were. Lop Side was already up, but Jones gave it a tap anyway. It recoiled and headed for the opposite stage as fast as its slime could carry it. Jones looked at me.
“Here are the rules,” he said. And he told me the rules.
6. The Poisonous Truffle
The rules were simple. THE PLAY was the only thing that mattered. All of the Universe had just taken a right turn in order to facilitate the execution of THE PLAY and anybody that stood between Ophiuchus Jones and THE PLAY had better have a will-file in the Comp because they were going to need it. Whenever he mentioned THE PLAY his backbone stretched, his nose rose and he got the kind of look in his eyes I imagine a pagan priest gets just before he bashes some poor fur-bearer with his sacrificial hammer. You know, the “Sure, I’m spreading your brains all over this rock, but that’s OK because the Great God Wonga is on my side” kind of a look.
I guess that’s why he was so liberal with his actor-prod. It seemed he couldn’t give a direction without using it. And I guess that’s why it was so long, so’s he wouldn’t have to get up from his chair-space to apply it. He tap, tap, tapped his way through rehearsals and every tap was a hurt. Every little frustration was made just a little easier for the great man to bear by handing out a dose of agony. But it was for THE PLAY. As long as he was serving THE PLAY he could get away with it. He could even feel good about it. He was a lucky man. He’d found a rationalization for his rude behavior.
The shidoans know all about Ophiuchus Jones. The shidoans are the ancient alien race my sometime-guru char-ner-dec springs from. They’ve got what they call a “pantheon of great lies”. I don’t know all of the robust company that resides there. I know “capital letters” is there, also something called “proximity to greatness leads to greatness”. And the one that guys like Jones exist by. It goes like this, “exigency forgives cruelty”.
“No, no, no, no!” he screamed, tapping the unfortunate actor-thing with every negative. I was half way up the wall with the Puastafordeller actor-wrangler, who’s name was Io, by the way. She stiffened up every time he used the stick, as if she was the one getting zapped and her little mouth got tinier still. The actor-thing had been playing Detective Giacombinni-Zinner, a Grey-type sent to reason with the father in the play. Ophiuchus, naturally, was the father. He was tossing his lines out between inhalations of bean, from his seated directorial position, not putting much juice behind it, as far as I could see. His tapping stick had melted the actor back into the blobby shape it normally maintained.
“Again,” Ophiuchus said with a long-suffering sigh.
The actor-thing got back in character. A naked, green, fat man, from the waist up, grew out of the rock that had been their normal, trademark grey, which was more of a non-color than anything else, a sickly color that kind of gave you the queasies to look at, like you were looking at something you shouldn’t, something pre-birth, or post-death, something that was never meant to see the sun.
They never did, so I understand, see the sun, that is, back on their home planet when they were meter-long chameleons, crawling around a rain forest so dense it was a perpetual damp dusk, sliming their way from fern to moss and back again, dissolving small insects with their special juice, and turning into flowers or sticks or crawling things every time a predator came near. This was back before the genetic engineering boys found them and thought they’d be fun to play with. When they were done, the things had quadrupled in size and their powers of imitation had grown exponentially. The experimenters didn’t know what the hell to do with them, so they made them actors. They kinda sorta had to. They certainly weren’t good for anything except entertainment and when they had finished fiddling with the beasties’ double helixes and bumped up their size, they discovered their glop has lost its strength. No longer could it break down matter into something they could eat. They’d doomed the new creatures into a total reliance on the sentients who’d played God with their innards. If mommy didn ’t chew their food, they just weren’t going to eat. Thank you. Thank you very much.
The green, fat man opened an imitation mouth and hissed as it filled itself with air, puffing up like the deadly bloat-lizard of Cassiopeia.
“And, go,” the seated director said, twirling his stick in the air for the thing to see. The green, fat man spread his arms and spoke.
“Hear me, Phobos,” he intoned. “Crime is rife in our sector. Rebellion slinks in the back warp-point door-space. If your son has not been taken, trot him out. Let me lay my opticals on him. Or if he is, as I have heard, a prisoner of the political criminals, let us place our craniums side by side. You do neither yourself nor society a favor by dealing unilaterally.”
“My son is safe, Detective Giacombinni-Zinner,” Jones replied, in a rapid monotone.
“He’ s partying in the Southern Systems, as I said. I am an abider of law. I pay my tithe like any decent citizen. Your threatening tones impress me not. I’d look to my pension, were I you. My arms are long. Longer by far than your badge-code’s authority.”
“Be it on your brain-pan, then. You are the fertile muck the poisonous truffle thrives in.” the green man snapped back at him.
“Leave my planet,” Jones aka Phobos said, gesturing with his nasty stick. “Let not the shadow of your vacuum vehicle come between me and my sun again.” The green thing started to slime its way across the stage. Jones gave it a tap which sent a quiver through it. “Where?” he asked. The thing pointed to an exit.
“Exit southwest.” it said.
“I’ll let you know when the scene is over.” Jones told it. He stood up and the look in his eyes told us some tap tap tapping was about to occur. But something in the space changed. The actor-things stirred. Ophiuchus Jones looked up, up, up. “Ariadne, my love,” he purred. The white actor-prod collapsed in his hands into something a third as long. The red light on the end of it winked off. “Feeling better?”
7. Ariadne Sulpher
Ariadne Sulpher was standing on the second stage directly above, looking down at Ophiuchus. She didn’t walk, she drifted, down from her perch, moving into the audience band, heading towards us. She was taller than she’d looked on the comm-zone and even more impressive. Her eyes were the first thing to jump out at you. They were actor’s eyes, I guess, big, liquid and deep. They were the kind of eyes you felt you could crawl right into and curl up for a nap. The kind of nap where you woke a short time later from a dream you couldn’t remember. The kind of dream that threatened to spill tears onto your cheeks for no apparent reason.
The eyes were set in a face of disturbing balance and poise. Looking at it was like looking at a piece of art done with conviction and flair by a real master craftsman. I don’t mean a surgeon, mind you. There was no doubt that Nature grew this one, no mere mortal could have lasered it into place. It wasn’t a sum of parts. It went together.
It was a face that did things to you, even in repose. It was a sad face you wanted to make happy, a disturbed face you wanted to calm down, a face bordering on fear you wanted to reassure, a feverish face you wanted to cool down. It was a face you wanted to know, a face you wanted to wake up next to, a face whose comm coordinates you wanted to have in your dex. It was one heck of a face.
It was framed in a tangle of hair, a real mane, big, riotous in color and shape, and was planted on a long stalk of a neck, a strong, smooth pillar that sprang from the collar of something full and floor-length.
The actor-things, sprawled around the cubicle were up, looking at her. Ophiuchus Jones took a step towards her.
“My dove...” She held up a hand, silencing and freezing him.
“Who?” she said in a breathy, exhausted voice. Slowly she turned, like a doll hung from a wire, until those eyes rested on me. I was standing up. The last I’d looked I’d been sitting down. She drifted towards me on her ghost feet, stopped a breath and a half away and seemed to study me. “Do I know him? ” she asked Jones, though her eyes didn’t leave me.
“No, dear,” he told her. “He’s been sent to protect you. He ’s a detective.” Her head snapped to him then back to me. We all waited for her hair to settle.
“A detective!” she said, an excitation behind the barely whispered words. “Like in The Horse-head Conspiracy?”
“I know all about detectives. Detectives are like actors, aren’t they?”
I realized she was asking me. “I couldn’t say. You’re the first one I’ve met.”
“Do you know why? Do you know why detectives are like actors.”
“No. Why?” It felt like we were in a bubble, she and I.
“They both know that appearance is an illusion. Isn’t that right, detective?”
“Yeah, I could agree with that.”
“Do you know why they are not like actors?”
“They itch to strip the illusion away. They think they are getting to the truth beneath. Don’t you, detective?”
“Sometimes,” I told her. Her finger-tips were suddenly against my mouth, cool, smooth.
“But they’re not getting to the truth,” she went on, gently, earnestly, almost lovingly. “Do you know what they are getting to?”
“Guts!” she snarled, more than a little madness coming into her eyes. “ Guts, guts, guts!” The hand that had been against my mouth was suddenly up, a claw, poised to scratch my eyes out. Then Jones was behind her, pulling her away.
“Ariadne...” She wheeled to him slowly. Her eyes stayed on me until the last of the move. The claw-hand relaxed, flattened out, then smacked him across the face. He took it.
“That’s for hurting my friends with your stick.” She backed away from him, raising her arms. The actor-thing’s took it as a cue. Like a herd, they slimed their way towards her. She addressed me again. “These are my friends, detective. We’re the same, did you know? We’re brothers and sisters. We’re lovers.” The things had reached her. They surrounded her, pushed in from all sides, rubbed against her. They did they’re slime-burping bit. It rolled out of their mouth-holes, pouring over her. She took great handfuls of it, rubbed it against her face, her hair. Her eyes were half-closed in a kind of ecstasy. It was sensual. It was sexual. It was disgusting. Io, the Puastafordeller actor-wrangler, sidled up to Ophiuchus Jones.
“She’s got ‘em all worked up,” she said in her tiny insect’s voice, “They ain’t gonna be good for much else today.” Jones nodded, turning away from the gooey spectacle.
“That’s a wrap,” he breathed, and left without a look back. Rehearsal was over.
Once upon a time, so they tell me, they used sentients for all the play-acting that went on in the theatre. What a concept. Even the little guys who walked on, said a word or two and walked back off were actual thinking beings, earning a living, showing up for rehearsals, the whole works. Of course, that got to be pretty expensive, and the real actors, the stars, that is, weren’t crazy about it. Suppose somebody good came along? The audience might actually watch them. That would never do.
So when the greasy bunnies, as my friend Andy called them, got yanked up out of the slime it was a match made in heaven. They were a hell of a species for imitation, but they weren’t gonna fool anybody that there was any thinking going on in there. They were toys, toys that when you flipped the switch, off they went, doing what they were programmed to do. As fellow performers, they were bright colored fingers pointing to the real thing.
The victim of my protection was staying in, exhausted, I guess, by her long day of abusing detectives, slapping directors, and bathing in slimy actor vomit, so my services for the day were no longer required. I stepped out into the relative sanity of a phony world populated by a dozen dozen species that didn’t trust each other, glad to be done with the theatre for the day. But not quite.
A suspicious-looking character was hanging around and he “hssst” at me when I walked past. I stopped. He threw a couple of furtive glances up and down the vehicle zone and mumbled something I couldn’t catch.
“What is it, friend? I’m late for a date with dinner,” I told him.
He leaned in. “Play codes.” He nodded towards the Theatre which had a comm-zone ad pad attached that a family of four could have made themselves comfortable on. Towering over it, Ariadne Sulpher was doing some major emoting, cycling through gestures, throwing her hands up, clutching her heart, tossing an arm across her forehead and all the time glaring out with those big, tragic eyes of hers. The guy went on. “I got her greatest hits. I got Auriga In Springtime, I got The Queen Of The Dog Star, I got Orion ’s Belt, The Borealis Conundrum, Denebola Goes Native, you name it, I got it. They’ll charge a thousand chits in there for what I can give you for fifty. Trust me. It’s good stuff,” he finished earnestly.
Right. I was gonna trust some guy who was selling illegal play codes and who looked like he hadn’t visited a spray chamber in a couple of fifty seconds. But I accounted one anyway. It was cheap enough and wasn’t something I was going to watch more than once, anyway. I was just curious about what the big deal was with Ariadne Sulpher. Sure, I’d seen her; there wasn’t a sentient in the known Galaxy that hadn’t run across her on the zone, but I hadn’t been paying attention at the time. It was probably in passing, while I was searching for the replay of the latest Rodelian Rat Race.
I tubed it home, glad to get my scrawny butt out of the squeaky clean Inner Sphere, back to the Outer where a sentient could collect some honest dirt, just by walking down the vehicle zone. I stopped at one of my favorite spray joints, the Elbow Space, for a couple of cartridges of fermented vegetation and a meal of unappetizing appetizers. Then I trotted myself home to my own little cubicle and plopped myself down in front of the comm-zone.
I was impressed, I had to say. Even in the zone, Ariadne Sulpher managed to pull it off. She took it by storm. She was a dynamic bundle of energy that sucked you in. You wanted to stand in her wind and just let it rush over you. I don’t know what the story was. She was noble, that much I could figure out and hard times had come to roost, I could tell that. Andy was right. The plot leaned heavy on the gore factor. That’s where the actor-things came in. The bit where one of them staggered around with no head was pretty effective. I didn’t see the end, I fell asleep and dreamt of old girlfriends and dead sentients, coming back to visit.
8. The Vacuous Rich
Lop Side, the actor-worm that went red when it performed and had a fondness for wetting itself on my boots was playing the son, the red dwarf the play was named after.
Ophiuchus Jones seemed to especially have it in for this lump of slime. He got the stick more than most. Maybe he needed it. He was friskier than the others, easily distracted, prone to forgetting what he was supposed to be doing, “melting character” they called it. But when he was up and working, he was better than the others, if one worm can be said to be better than another. He had more spirit. You could almost believe there was a thought rolling around in there. Almost.
The character he became, when he was up and running in the “actor mode”, was squashed down with a great hump of a back like he’d been living under some major G’s for most of his life. Not an appealing face, but a great one for expressing agony; bulgy eyes and a big-lipped mouth, which spent most of its time pulled back over wide, crooked teeth. He was all red, except for the eyes and the teeth. They stayed with the grey pallor of their natural state. He, or it, rather, stood in the center of the second stage like a tree, arms outstretched, while his extremities disappeared; a finger here, an ear there, a nose which became a hole in its face. While it was subtracting itself on one stage, Ariadne was across on the other, begging her husband, dwarf or no dwarf, to pay the ransom, for God’s sake. It was a double scene, see. Above you saw what the dwarf was putting up with, while below the mother opined about her poor kid.
Ophiuchus sat on one of the other actors, who was being a chair at the moment while Ariadne ranted and raved around him.
She wasn’t going flat out. She was still figuring things out. You could see her mind working, reasoning. The anguish she portrayed was rote at this point. Sometimes she mumbled to herself. If she didn’t like something she’d go back and do it again. She basically ignored Ophiuchus and he in turn, just let her run. He was a traffic director, basically. He moved the slimy guys around so they wouldn’t get in her way.
Lunch was brought in. I didn’t eat much because the actors did. You try working your appetite next to a pack of giant slugs, sucking on pre-digested slop and making wet, groaning and grunting sounds. It didn’t hurt Ophiuchus’s appetite any. He was used to it, I guess, either that or he couldn’t hear them over the rattle of his own teeth. The only one who ate less than me was Ariadne. Matter of fact, she didn’t eat at all, that I could see. She paced, waiting for the break to be over so she could go back to work.
The afternoon was more of the same. The high prose eventually paralyzed my brain and I drifted into blessed semi-consciousness. When I snapped out of it, the Puastafordeller actor-wrangler was encouraging the actor-things to hunker down into their geometric snooze patterns. Ophiuchus was picking at the leftovers from lunch. And Ariadne sat in the first row of the audience-band, staring out like a dead woman.
My luck from the twenty four before wasn’t going to hold. We were stepping out this PM. A Derovitian widow, the renowned D’erotodlivver, who owned half of Hub and was owed by the other half, had graciously invited Ariadne Sulpher and Ophiuchus Jones to a reception at her cubicle. She was one of the Inner Sphere’s inner elite. One of her trinkets was The Evolving Star, the news net that Andy Romeda worked for. He stuck his head in while the rest of us stood around waiting for Ariadne to come back from whatever spooky realms she was visiting. He pressed a suit-code on me, and accompanied me to the men ’s cubicle, to make sure I used it.
I gave him a look when it popped out of the hole in the wall. It was an iridescent number that never stopped changing colors. It gave me a headache, just looking at it.
“Just put it on.” Andy warned. “It’s a theme party. That’s the rage this quarter. You don’t want to stand out, do you?”
“So is this Ariadne kidding, or what?” I said as I suited up.
“What do you mean?”
“Is she as crazy as she pretends to be?”
“There’s a fine line between genius and madness.”
“Yeah, I think I heard that. On Justice On Parade, I think. It was a defense plea.” Andy ignored my irony.
“Let me see you.” He activated a mirror and stepped back so I could get a look. In the reflection I saw the corner of his mouth twitch as he suppressed a laugh. “What do you think?”
I was twinkling like the leftovers of a distant nova. “It’s every bit as bad as I thought.” I told him. “Doesn’t this look a little short to you?”
“I told you. It’s a theme party.”
“What’s the theme?”
“Innocent youth. Hence, the pajamas, get it?”
The Derovitian widow, Ms. D’erotodlivver, lived on D’erotodlivver Lane, in the D ’erotodlivver Heights section of D’erotodlivverland, that hunk of the Inner Sphere the D’erotodlivver Clan had laid claim to when they invested in the building of Hub. It was a respectable piece of real estate with a sec-zone around it that could codify, identify and fry all in one easy step. The place was lit up like a bad accident. The bizarre denizens of the Inner Sphere were up to their usual nonsense.
Like Andy said, they were doing themes this quarter. There’d been one just last week, with a post-nuclear-holocaust theme that had made Big Parties!, the popular comm-zone show that lets the common sentient have a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and alien. You could bet they were recording this one with the same hope in mind, and it had the look of a winner. Excess reigned in Ms. D’erotodlivver’s domain.
She’d re-landscaped her property into a miniature reproduction of Kid Continent, the juvenile section of Roscoe’s Play Planet. Roscoe’s is getting kind of seedy since Roscoe died, but in this generation’s youth, it had been the thrill of a lifetime, an ideal, frozen in time, and the crowd was throwing themselves into the nostalgia thing with abandon. The teenage fashions of a couple of three decades ago, clashed with kiddy clothes, buttercup jumpers, pea pod nighty-nights, and more than one made the misfortunate choice of arriving in nothing but an extra-large diaper.
There was enough cutesy patter going on to make you sick to your stomach right into next fifty second. I saw multiple thumb-suckings, knock-kneed gaits galore, and more doe-eyed eyelash flutterings by geriatrics than any sentient should ever be forced to witness. Everybody was trying to out-kid everybody else. Except for Ariadne. I guess since she did it for a living she wasn’t about to give it away for free. She moved through the perky, sparkling bunch like a dignified ship of state. The anger and fits of frustration I ’d seen during the day were gone. She was serene as the surface of a lake.
And there I was, in an over-grown pair of pajamas. I wasn’t right on her tail. I was circling, drifting through the crowd in a pattern that always kept me a leap away from my charge. She and Ophiuchus made lots of stops as bunches of admirers gravitated to them for an effusive session. Ophiuchus laughed too loudly as he snatched tid-bits from whatever tray happened to be sailing by at the time and Ariadne nodded politely, the wisp of a smile decorating her mouth. Wherever she was, she wasn’t here.
Neither was I. I was on input. The shidoans say more can be learned in silence than in all the clamor of the expanding universe. I don’t know about that but a little inner silence comes in handy when you’re on the job, guarding the corpus. “input” (the shidoans have a curious antipathy for capital letters) is a state-of-mind (they’re big on dashes, however) where you shut down non-essential personality-constructs and bump your perceptive-powers to the forefront of awareness-central. I don’t want to bore you with the details, especially at a party, so let’s just say I was looking and listening real hard, and more importantly, I was feeling. I was feeling the crowd.
They were a lively bunch. Their frenetic, manic energy rattled against my sensory-screen like sparks from a welding robot’s torch. I sensed elation, jealousy, intoxication, desperation, lust, and boredom, but no danger signs, no insanity, cold anger, restrained energy, or focus-maximum.
We were working our way toward the D’erotodlivver Mansion. First stop at all such affairs was an obligatory courtesy call on the hostess, in this case, the widow Derovitian, Ms. D’erotodlivver. The mansion had been turned into a giant dollstructure. The walls were folded out so all six floors were open to view. Giant-sized versions of kid toys were scattered through the place.
We found the hostess in a second floor bed-space cubicle. She was playing out her role as the “Universal Mother” as it was explained in the invitation. The cubicle had been turned into a version of the ancient Derovitian Birthing Chamber. Ms. D’erotodlivver was suspended in the middle of the space by strings of greenish, rubbery slime. She needed the support. There was no way she could handle the huge, writhing Birth Sack on her own. Of course, in this case it was a phony huge, writhing Birth Sack, fabricated for the party but it was pretty impressive all the same. Rumor had it that at the beep of PM/AM the sack would explode and a hundred Derovitian dancers and acrobats would come flying out.
Ms. D’erotodlivver looked distinctly uncomfortable dangling up there, but she raised three of her six arm in a gracious welcoming gesture that jiggled her twelve double chins. The double chin is a sign of beauty to the Derovitians. Seeing hers wag invitingly, always made one think of the rumors a rival news organization had spread that she kept a stable of impoverished Derovitians from whom she surgically farmed double chins, a charge she adamantly and vehemently denied.
Obligatories over, Ariadne and Ophiuchus didn’t waste any time splitting up. Ophiuchus headed for the gastronomical entertainments. I stayed with Ariadne as she strolled the scene, garnering nods and excited whispers wherever she went. I thought I was being pretty subtle, staying out of the subject’s consciousness, as we are taught, but when Ariadne finally settled, she called out, “Come and sit down, Mr. Red, stop skulking about like a Cordelian Cat.”
She’d grabbed a bench-space next to a faux refreshment stand that was probably an exact reproduction of a refreshment stand that had existed fifty annuals ago. It was at the top of a sculptured knoll that had been constructed to accommodate the mag-board riders who were falling down all over it. I had the impression they hadn’t been near a board for a long time, at least not since the last twenty four it hadn’t hurt to go to the toilet in the morning.
As I sheepishly emerged from behind the fake bush, a Sphergalonian waiter in the refreshment stand stretched his uni-appendage over to Ariadne and set a cartridge adrift in a zone before her. She snatched it out of the air and took a respectable suck of the contents. It was made up to look like a kid’s treat, as all the refreshments were at the party, but it obviously had an adult kick. Ariadne sank back in her bench-space and said with a sigh, “Can I account you an inhalation, detective?”
“Thanks, not while I’m working.” I stepped forward and scanned the downhill slope. Stark terror. Intoxication. Misguided confidence. Nothing to worry about.
“Oh, come on. It’s a party, detective.”
“You inhale when you work?”
“Point taken. Sit down at least.”
I sat down. She must have had an understanding with the Sphergalonian waiter because as soon as she pushed the empty cartridge away, the uni-appendage appeared with a new one. “Quite an affair, yes?”
“Yeah, it’s something all right.”
She looked out at the sea of middle-aged sentientanity, frolicking like the youth of the day. “How would I like to put ‘em all in one cubicle and suck the atmosphere out!” Her vehemence made me look at her. “You have a problem with that, detective?”
“Yeah, I could see a problem.” She glared at me, ready to do battle. “How you gonna get ‘em all in one cubicle at the same time?”
She threw back her head and laughed, a good laugh, and suddenly we were pals. The Sphergalonian waiter switched cartridges with her. A small group of noisy revelers trotted by. I scanned them. Intoxication. Intoxication. Intoxication. Intoxication. Intoxication. All’s well.
“How’d you get this gig, Red?”
“Andy Romeda. He’s a friend.”
“Seems like a nice fellow.”
“He’s a fan.”
She drifted past that by turning to her cartridge for a sip. When she returned she asked, “So, how does one become a detective?”
“Well, first you gotta get hit over the head with a steel beam.”
“Then you throw yourself in a pit full of wild Zirdongans and let them stomp on you for a good sixty or so.”
“Then you say, ‘Hey, that was fun. I think I’ll do it for a living.’”
She laughed again, a comfortable chuckle this time. We were both deflecting. She didn’t want to talk about acting and I didn’t want to talk about detecting. She won. We parried for awhile but she slipped past all my defenses, probed my soft spots and before you knew it I was babbling like a schoolboy. She was supposed to be the performer, yet she had me singing to her tune. She was the perfect audience, rapt, enthusiastic, complimentary. She drew me, like a pet on a mag-leash. I had the vague sense I was being played and I didn’t mind.
Why, with all the glittering sentientanity around us, she chose to spend her party time with a rough example of walking gristle such as myself I didn’t know but I felt complimented, somehow. Maybe she did hate the crowd, the “vacuous rich”, as she called them. Maybe she was tired and wanted to let some other sentient do the talking for a change. Maybe she was mining me for actor-stuff. It was like an interview, our conversation, the way she peppered me with questions, smart questions, questions that led somewhere, not the stupid questions the uninitiated usually ask, the kind that stop you in mid-stride and make you wish you’d never begun the conversation.
Or maybe, just maybe, her vital interest was for real. I was fascinating. I was a real interesting guy. I was so interesting, I had dry-mouth from expounding about myself. We sat out the party on our little knoll. We had more than one good laugh. We missed Ms. D’erotodlivver’s big show, but we heard it, hell, half of Hub heard it. I think they used too much propellant. A couple of acrobats made it halfway across the estate before tumbling to surface. We looked at each other and laughed. Then I got the itch. The laugh froze in my throat. My screen jingled me a wake-up call.
Ariadne looked at me quizzically. “Everything all right?”
I stood up, flicked a ‘just a sec’ finger at her, and started a sweep. Intoxication. Extreme intoxication. Unconsciousness. Absolute exhaustion. Preoccupation with feet. Violent desire. Addled disorientation. I stopped. I tracked back and caught a whiff of it again. A vile little worm of desire, tangled up with extreme anger. Somebody was in the phony bushes thinking murderous thoughts.
“Time to stroll.” I reached down and lifted her to her feet. She’d inhaled a steady stream of cartridges during our talk and swayed in my arms like something silk in a breeze. She flashed angry, her imperious tone was suddenly back.
“How dare you…!” Then she stopped, dropped it and smiled.
“You on the job, Red?”
“Yes, I am.”
The source of the psychic disturbance, as the shidoans call it, had flashed hot behind me when I pulled Ariadne to her feet, a little roller coaster of frenzy, confusion and desire. I stepped left to block the corpus from a direct line. The point of angst behind me registered frustration. It moved, sliding sideways. I spun Ariadne in my arms and marched her off, always keeping my back to the source.
I moved her against the flow of intoxicated, costumed revelers. My screens were clean for awhile, then I felt it, the disturbance, behind, following. Desperation was registering now, slipping in and out with the rising hatred and aching desire. I felt the familiar conflict between the detective and the corpusguard. The detective wanted to turn, ID the source and pin it to a wall, but the corpusguard wouldn’t let me. That would have put me out of contact with the corpus. and as the shidoans say, “it’s rarely a good idea to leave one’s body.”
I propelled Ariadne ahead, slithering through the flowing crowd which was drifting back to their sport after having gathered for the “universal birth event”. We detoured around Ms. D’erotodlivver, who was being carted around the space amongst the tatters of her birth sack, portraying the dead Derovitian Uber Mother after the act.
We hit the vehicle zone. I threw the old gentleman aside who was about to climb into the closest one and tossed Ariadne in. I yelled “Go!” at the auto-driver as I jumped in after her.
“I must have a destination.”
“Consensus Ball!” I screamed. The vehicle took off, straight up. I hung out the door-space, searching the crowd dropping below me. There were too many. Too many drunken fools. Hiding amongst them was a predator, sober and driven.
9. A Thousand Eyes
If she was my pal on Frirevolution, you wouldn’t know it by Satrevolution. I’d gone back to being the non-entity in the corner if a completely round space can be said to have a corner. Ariadne wasn’t pleased this AM. The twelve cartridges she’d inhaled the PM before probably had something to do with it, but things weren’t going well on the stages, I gathered. She was chopping Ophiuchus into bits every chance she got, and snarling at the animals. They sensed her mood and slithered about like beaten things. After she’d taken the Puastafordeller actor-wrangler apart for not controlling her charges, the miniscule alien retreated to the chair-space next to mine. I raised my eyebrows at her but she didn’t seem wounded. She shrugged. “Happens every time,” she buzzed happily. “it’s part of her process.”
When Ariadne blew a blast of vitriol at me just to spread the wealth, I took my offensive self elsewhere. I had her habits in hand so I knew that once she got rehearsing, she wasn’t going any place. I felt safe in leaving her for a sixty or so. An idea had been crawling around the lobes of my meager grey matter.
I tubed it to the Outer Sphere, hopped a local that dropped me in the vicinity of The Evolving Star and delevated to Andy Romeda’s corner office cubicle. He looked up with a worried expression.
“You’re not quitting on me, are you?”
“No, but I need a favor.”
“Was Big Parties! covering the D’erotodlivver affair last PM?”
“It’s a good bet. Why?”
“Because somebody there wanted Ariadne Sulpher, in the worst way.”
Andy sat up. “Who?”
“I don’t know. I was too busy covering her to find out. But if Big Parties! was there…”
Andy led me out of his cubicle and across the sprawling Comm Net Production Complex. Somewhere or other we crossed the invisible line that separated News from Entertainment. We popped in on a counterpart of Andy’ s, a big guy with beady black eyes in a slick suit.
“Andy!” the guy said. “What do you got for me?”
“A question. Were you guys on the D’erotodlivver thing last PM?”
“You cover it good?”
The big guy laughed. “From big bang to black hole, brother. The guests were wearing cams. We had ‘em mounted in their party ID.”
“Think you could find somebody who was there and show him to us?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s he look like?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re asking me to pick one unknown sentient out of that mob? You know how many images I gotta deal with from that party? We got footage of it from 1000 POV’s!”
I stepped up. “This one would have been hanging around Ariadne Sulpher.”
That caught the guy’s interest. He gave me the once-over and said to Andy, “ What’s this about?”
“This is Red Tide. He’s Aradne Sulpher’s corpusguard.”
The guy’s beady black eyes went even beadier. “This wouldn ’t have anything to do with them murders? The one’s been following her around the galaxy?”
Andy glanced at me, shrugged. “It might could.”
Without another word, the guy led us out of the cubicle. We delevated even further into the depths of the complex and popped out in the Editing Section. The beady-eyed man snagged a guy walking by.
“Hey, who’s on D’erotodlivver?”
“Otto. Cubicle seventeen.”
We went into cubicle seventeen and found ourselves up to our throats in miniature images of the party from the previous PM. Those probably presently in the throes of major hangovers cavorted gaily all over the cubicle. We waded through the nonsense to get to the center of the space where Otto, an octoped from Orion, glanced at us with the 360 degree eyeball on the top of his head.
“Go ahead,” the guy from Entertainment told me.
“I’m looking for somebody who was at the party. Probably following Ariadne Sulpher around, but staying out of sight.”
“You got his Party ID?” Otto asked. He didn’t stop working. His multiple appendages danced in the air, manipulating the editing zones. All around us scenes from the night before popped on and off, froze, and raced forward at high speed.
“I got nothing,” I told him.
Otto thought about it. “I’ll have to tag the actress first, before I can start a search for an unknown in her vicinity. May take awhile.”
“Get on it,” the big guy said.
“What about the Big Parties! episode?”
“You gotta tag the actress anyway, right? Just get on that.”
“You got it.” Otto made a few gestures and Ariadne Sulpher started popping up all over the cubicle. I saw myself in a couple places, close behind her, glancing this way and that. One of the POV’s may have been that of my urgent pursuer. I had no way of knowing. I knew one thing, though. I knew one with the clarity of absolute wisdom. The suit Andy’d ordered me into really was every bit as bad as I had thought.
We left Otto the octoped to his task. In the corridor outside, Andy smacked the big guy on the back. “Thanks for the favor, buddy.”
“Favor, nothing!” the guy laughed back. “If whoever you’re looking for turns out to be a cross-galaxy mass-murderer, I’ll have some great stuff for an episode of Killers Up Close.”
We climbed back into the delevator. “So what do you think’s with this creep? ” the guy went on, rubbing his hands together. “You think he wants to kill the Sulpher female or what?”
“Might could,” I said, thowing Andy a glance. “With a little luck, he ’ll get to Ariadne before we get to him. Then you’ll really have a show.”
The irony was lost on him. “Wouldn’t that be something?” He said. He sailed off the delevator, his beady eyes twinkling at the possibilities.
I had one more stop to make before heading back to the theatre for the afterPM’s session of play acting and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Captain Canis Major looked up from his desk-space. “Well, well, well,” he intoned, sitting back and letting the well-rehearsed hint of a sneer cross his features. “If it isn’t Red Tide, G.P.I. Thought you’d take your nose out of the garbage eliminator long enough to drop in and see what real Greys do for an existing, did you?”
“How’s it going, Lieutenant?” I said, just to give him a taste of his own.
He didn’t like the flavor. “That’s Captain, Tide, and what do you want? I’m a busy human.” He tried to look busy.
“Ariadne Sulpher.” That caught his attention. He looked up.
“What about her?”
“I’m guarding her corpus.” He snorted derisively. “Somebody was after her at the D’erotodlivver party last PM.”
“I don’t know.”
“What do they look like?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you know they meant her harm?”
I hesitated. “I caught some pretty intense stuff on a shidoan screen.” I got the reaction I expected. He leaned forward, enjoying the moment.
“Oh, shidoan stuff, huh?” Canis Major didn’t believe in the powers of the shidoans. If he couldn’t chop it up and eat it, it didn’t exist.” So let me get this straight,” he went on. “You ‘felt’ like somebody was after her?”
“If you want to put it that way.”
“And what am I supposed to do about your ‘feelings’?”
“I just thought you might like to know. How’s that murder investigation going, by the way?”
“What murder investigation?”
“The corpse that was spread all over the alley-space like fruit jelly.”
“In the parlance of the vehicle zone, that’s none of your fornicating business. ”
“Come on, Canis. If it had to do with Ariadne Sulpher…”
“We don’t know it had to do with her.”
“According to my sources it did.”
“Your sources can go suck a vacuum. That’s just a rumor. I live in the real universe, Tide. I don’t listen to rumors and I don’t worship aliens that look like over-grown peanuts. Quit wasting my little piece of eternity and take your ‘feelings’ out of my office-space.”
Futility is rarely fun, especially when you know before hand it’s coming to visit. I turned at the door-space. “Big Parties! was at D’erotodlivver thing. I got somebody working on isolating whoever was giving her the bad eye. You want to know about it?”
He didn’t look up. “Don’t make me repeat myself. It gives me gas.”
I thought of three or four clever things to say, but decided to save them for an opportunity when more sentients could witness my wit. I took my ‘feelings’ out of there.
10. No Crap
Ariadne Sulpher whacked Ophiuchus Jones again in the afterPM’s rehearsal. I thought it was undeserved, even though I have to say I enjoyed it in one of the darker places of my soul. He’d made a polite suggestion for a move Ariadne might possibly make to accompany one of her lines and she strode toward him like he was the guy that pushed the button that blew up her home planet. He saw it coming but didn’t move. He presented his face and took it like a martyr takes the ax or the flame or the laser. She railed at him, flogged his intelligence, his talent, his girth, and went on to curse his mother for not dumping his zygote when she had the chance.
Ariadne had a sheen of sweat on her face, apparently still feeling the effects of those cartridges of depressant she’d sucked on the night before. Then she headed for the exit-space, effectively calling an end to that twenty four’s rehearsal. I followed. In her present mood, I thought she might be heading out for an angry walk.
She was heading in the general direction of the back door-space to the performing complex, so I thought I might have been right, when she spun around and practically screamed at me, “Why are you following me!?”
“It’s my job,” I reminded her. She glared at me, breathing hard, then her eyes flicked past me.
“Ophiuchus, come.” He’d been following me, following her. He passed me with a scared glance and went to her. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of me. Then she spun on her heel and headed in another direction. I trailed.
They went down to the dressing cubicles. She paused before the door-space to hers’, gave me another glare, and said, “Do you mind awfully if I change my suit without your optical protection?”
“Sure, Ariadne,” I told her.
She marched towards me. I thought maybe I was going to get a taste of what she’d given Ophiuchus but she constrained her abuse to the verbal. “That’s Ms. Sulpher to you, detective. And don’t forget it.”
“All right, Ms. Sulpher.” She went into her cubicle, followed by Ophiuchus.
I gave out a little sigh and waited, amusing myself by looking at the row of mini comm-zone’s they had lining the wall of the hall where scenes from past plays were showing. The tiny performers pranced and danced and emoted. Actors, I thought, you gotta love ‘em. Hung on a wall.
“Mr. Tide.” Down the hall in front of Aradne’s, sorry, Ms. Sulpher’s, dressing cubicle stood Ophiuchus Jones. “Ariadne will be staying in,” he told me haughtily. “You may go.” He turned and headed down the hall.
I considered hanging around, just to make sure. In her mood, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d sent Ophiuchus out to clear me off, so that she could get out without the nasty detective following her. But even the greatest corpusguard in the galaxy, which I wasn’t, can’t protect somesentient who doesn’t want to be protected. I tubed it home. Before diving into the old bed-zone I commed the theatre, to make sure she hadn’t gone out. She hadn’t, only Ophiuchus, off in search of culinary delight, no doubt. So I went to sleep. I slept like a baby. I woke up to murder.
I saw all about it at Bertha’s Biological Bungalow over a Tuega omelette which I didn’t feel like finishing. The victim this time was a human. His body, or the biggest part of it, was found in his own cubicle. The rest of him was scattered around the general neighborhood, bits and pieces, digits and features. By the time of my viewing they hadn’t found all of him. The Greys were out in force, looking behind and under and around things, like some grisly scavenger hunt. The murder could have doubled for the events of Ransom of the Red Dwarf. That much was clear.
It must have been clear to Canis Major also, because when I showed up at the theatre, a Grey was waiting for me outside the door-space.
“You Tide?” he said, as if being Tide was a crime. I confessed. “Come on,” he said, “Captain Major wants you.”
“In a little sixty. I have to talk to my charge.”
He put his hand on me. “He wants you now.”
I de-handed myself. “Tell him to cultivate his hemorrhoids.” And I stepped through the door-space before he had a chance to grab me again. He tried to follow, but, since he hadn’t been cleared for entry, the sec-device scanned him for salient features, failed to recognize him, held him in the zone as the warning buzzers went off and a fleet of rent-a-Grey’s descended with their body-shockers pointed.
In the performing space, the troupe was gathering, gearing up to get to work. Io, the actor-wrangler, was cleaning up the mess the actors had made having breakfast. Ophiuchus was working his sweet tooth on the morning’s delectables. When Ariadne Sulpher saw me, she got up from her chair-space and walked towards me as I walked towards her. She was considerably calmer than the PM before.
“Ms. Sulpher…” I started.
“Red, please,” she cut me off reluctantly. “I’m sorry about my outrageous behavior yesterPM. Call me Ariadne, and if I ever tell you different, you have my permission to strike me down. Let’s be friends.”
“I’m not your friend, Ariadne.”
Sadness flashed behind her huge eyes. “I see.”
“I’ll be your friend when all this is over,” I finished. “Until then I’m your corpusguard, and I need you to do what I tell you.”
“I understand,” she said with a weary smile.
“You heard about what happened?” She nodded, mutely. “ I want you to stay in the complex until I tell you different. Affirmative?”
“Affirmative.” She snapped to attention and touched her lovely forehead in a theatrical salute, smiling a smile that could have melted an ice-cap. “You are the captain of my soul.” Then she reached out and grabbed my wrist. “Thanks for not hating me, Red.”
“I don’t know how anybody could hate you,” I told her, truthfully. “But there might be somebody out there who does. So let’s err on the side of caution.”
The Grey was waiting for me outside of the theatre structure. We climbed into the back of his cruiser and he angrily snapped, “Grey Headquarters.” We lifted off and he settled down to try out his best dirty looks. I ignored him. As a vehicle hole opened beneath us and we dropped through the surface of the Inner Sphere his frustration boiled over.
“Tough sentient, huh?” he snarled. I ignored him some more. He tried a veiled threat.
“Maybe somebody oughta teach you it ain’t smart to mess with the powers that be.”
“Hey, I wore the suit, pal,” I said, finally looking at him. “You’re at the bottom of the organization, and I happen know from experience the only power you have is to hold your own penis when you piss. So save it for the mirror-space.” Having added another mortal enemy to my pantheon, I looked away and enjoyed the view as we dropped free of the Inner Sphere and the surface of the Outer Sphere spread out below us. Me and my new best friend dropped like your proverbial rock.
Canus Major was waiting. I hardly got my boot into his cubicle before he started. “All right, listen up, Tide. I’m not saying I account any of this shidoan crap…”
“They don’t,” I threw in just for the fun of it.
“Crap.” He glared at me, catching on. It was true, never-the-less. shidoans have vestigial anuses but they haven’t used them since time out of mind. Their systems are so evolved, they use every iota of protein they take in. It has its down side. They have to watch what they eat. They don’t expel any nasty stuff, because they don’t take it in in the first place. Every so often you ’ll hear about a shidoan who strayed from the diet, ate something alien they couldn’t process. They’d blow up like a balloon and keel over dead.
He took the deadly pause he figured my levity warranted and went on. “This is murder, Tide. It’s my duty to follow every lead…”
“And you don’t have any of your own so you’ve come back to me. I understand.” I was making friends right and left this AM. Somebody should tell me to shut up. Come to think of it, sentients had, on more than one occasion. If memory served, it hadn’t done much good. Canus Major didn’t bother. He took a breath, and, surprise of surprises, got reasonable.
“OK, Red.” First names, no less. “Maybe I was a little hard on you yesterPM. But we’re after the same thing, right? What do you say you and me put history behind us and start over?”
They say old canines can’t learn new tricks, but this one apparently had. I’m not saying there was any sincerity behind his request, but he’d learned that when leaning on somesentient with the considerable mass of his suit wasn’ t going to get him what he wanted, he’d have to switch tactics. Behind his rueful smile, I had no doubt he was planning my utter destruction when the present crisis was over. “Sure, Canus,” I said. The hint of a wince at my familiarity told me I was right.
“Have you ID’ed the character you said was after the actress at the D’ erotodlivver thing?”
“I don’t know. Let’s find out how they’re doing. You mind?” I indicated his comm-zone.
He opened a channel. “Andy Romeda at The Evolving Star.” I said.
Andy’s head coalesced above Major’s, sorry, Canus’, desk-space. “Romeda, here.”
“Andy, Red. How goes the search?”
“I don’t know. I’ll transfer you.” He glanced down, then his head was replaced by the beady-eyed guy from Entertainment.
“What do you got for me?” he said, his usual opener. He probably said it to his contractee, when he climbed into their bed-space at PM.
“Red Tide, here. Any luck?”
“Timely, Mr. Tide. We just got your guy’s invite ID. Otto ’s collecting him now.”
“Captain Canus Major, here,” Canus said. The image of the beady man’s head spun around on the desk-space to face him. “We need a copy of that material at Grey Headquarters immediately.”
“No can do, Captain.”
“This is official Grey business, Mister.”
“This is also proprietary. We’ll be glad to show you what we’ve got, but we’re not sending it over the net where any data-pirate can pluck it. I’m sorry, Captain, but you’ll have to come on premises to see it.”
This was not Canus Major’s AM for respect. He injested the bitter medicine, then stood. “Let’s go, Tide.” We were back to last names again, apparently. We went.
11. The 2A739 Show
Otto, the octoped from Orion dimmed the lights. “We’ve put it in chronological order,” he whispered. We were in one of the entertainment complex’s main viewing cubicles so the image that sprang to life towered over us and almost gave me vertigo. We were viewing the rush that ensued when they opened the gate-spaces to the party. The anachronistically-clad party-goers were clawing and scratching and damn near trampling each other to be the first to taste the fruits of revelry. With Otto and myself were Andy Romeda, the beady-eyed entertainment guy, Canus Major and a couple of his subordinates.
The POV we were riding with was right behind a dark-haired human male. Apparently, he wasn ’t moving fast enough for our cam holder because a three-digit appendage came into the zone to push him aside. The dark-haired head spun around angrily and Otto froze the action. “That’s him,” Otto said.
He loomed above, a young human adult with a pair of intense, dark-rimmed eyes that glared back with more than a little menace. He looked capable of a full complement of emotion, that much was certain. His mouth was a tight line of anger. When Otto sent him back into motion he snarled something at our POV and spun back, joining the head-long rush into the D’erotodlivver estate.
“The next segment is where we ID’ed him,” Otto explained. This time the dark-haired individual was standing in a crowd of sentients, looking cam right. He stood out in that he wasn’t in costume. He wore a simple black suit, unlike the kid stuff all around him. Otto paused it and zoomed in, enlarging the party ID on his chest until it hung over us like a small moon. “Once we had the ID, the comp could pull up all instances where it was visible. With that we were able to construct this.” He did something and the party ID was replaced by a comp graphic, a representation of the dark-haired young man’s head. It spun, giving us a 360 view. As it did, dots popped out on it, annotating the salient features, right down to a small hank of hair that wouldn’t lay flat. “Then the comp was able to go back and do a re-search, using that data, for visuals when the ID wasn’t in view.” Otto finished, returning the view to the big close-up of the party ID.
“2A739, got it?” Canus Major demanded of his guys, who acknowledged with a nod.
“Access the party database, find out who he is, where he resides and anything else you can.” The guys scurried out of the cubicle. Otto manipulated his controls and the action before us resumed.
Our man in black had a hopeful, eager look on his face that went up a couple notches in intensity upon seeing something. His eyes scanned from right to left, like a couple of explosive devices homing in on target-central. He lifted a shaking hand and slipped it into a hidden pocket of his suit, just as the scene shifted.
“Of course, once we had his party ID, we could pull up the view from his cam, ” Otto narrated. “Here’s what he was seeing in that last segment.” We watched a pan from left to right. Dead center was the something Mr. 2A739 was watching. It turned out to be Ariadne Sulpher. She drifted across the zone, followed by a grinning Ophiuchus Jones. Trailing them, I saw myself replete in my silly pajama suit.
We went on to watch what might have been called The 2A739 Show, or, The Eager Man in Black, or, Secret Admirer, a series of quick-cuts taken from multiple POV’s interspersed with the view from his own invite-cam. His was always of Ariadne Sulpher; Ariadne chatting here, Ariadne walking there, Ariadne on display, usually from a distance, seen through intervening party-goers, but chronologically getting closer.
The views of him were of a sad-faced, emotionally-disturbed young man obviously in the throes of obsession, an obsession that grew in intensity as the party advanced. As those around him became more intoxicated, more giddy, he stayed cold sober, his attention never wavering from the object of his devotion, or hatred or whatever weird combination of the two he was experiencing. It was hard to say. Numerous times, we watched that shaking hand reach into that hidden pocket.
“What’s he going for?” I asked.
“Never caught it,” Otto replied. “I don’t think he pulled it out, whatever it was.”
“Weapon, maybe.” Canus Major threw in. Otto blinked his uni-eye, an octoped’ s version of a shrug, I guess.
Finally we found ourselves deep in some phony bushes. The hand we’d come to know reached into frame and moved aside an artificial branch. A short distance away Ariadne Sulpher sat. She threw back her head and laughed at something her companion said, her companion being myself. I sat facing away from the POV. We looked intimate and comfortable, like a couple of lovers. Which is what Andy Romeda must have thought because he glanced at me, questioning. I ignored it. Up there in the zone, the POV’s other hand now reached into frame. If it had the shakes before, now it had the convulsions. It was a claw, reaching for itself, going for that hidden pocket, it looked like to me. There in the zone, that giant version of myself tensed suddenly. Ariadne looked quizzical, then mouthed something. I raised a finger at her, then stood.
Back in the present, Canus Major’s guys burst into the cubicle. “Captain! ” one of them said urgently. “We got him!” We crowded around them. “Name’s Altair Charioteer. Lives in the Inner Sphere. His father is…”
“Regulus Charioteer,” Major cut him off. “I know. He ’s got the seventh biggest account on Hub. Go on.”
“Get this.” The guy hooked a thumb toward the zone. “The kid just got back from a trip. We ran a check through warp-point about where he’d been.” He paused for effect.
“Captain, he was on-planet at every one of these murders. Every damn one!”
“Let’s go.” Canus started to stride out of there.
I started to follow. Canus Major spun back and stuck a blunt finger in my chest.
“This is official Grey business now, Tide. I don’t need amateurs underfoot. See all about it in the comm-zone.” And he stormed off. I stood, bemoaning our lost, new-found friendship. Was it something I said?
The beady-eyed guy had shoved Otto aside and caused a harried Fungadorian to appear in the zone towering over us. “I need a residence. Altair Charioteer. Inner Sphere.”
The Fungadorian did something off-zone, looked back. “1711 Envy Lane,” he said.
“Assemble a Killers Up Close crew. Make that two,” Mr. Beady said, starting off. “We leave as soon as I get there!” he called back over his shoulder.
“Hey,” I called after him. “Can I get a lift?”
He didn’t even stop. “Sorry, Mr. Tide. Unless you’re an employee of the Comm Net Corporation, we can’t transport you. Insurance. I’m sure you understand.”
Feeling decidedly unwanted, I turned back to find Andy Romeda staring up at the zone, which had popped back to playing Otto’s compilation of Altair Charioteer at the D’erotodlivver affair. He emerged from the bushes and nearly crashed into a POV that was obviously some intoxicated fool. Altair Charioteer struggled to get past him. His anguished face loomed as large as a small structure over us. “Freeze,” Andy said. The face froze. We looked up at it.
“You gonna refuse me a ride, too?” I asked.
“Yep.” I looked at him looking up. “I’ve got a desk-space job now, Red, remember? They don’t give us vehicles. Let’s grab a tube.” But still he stared up at the face. “Might this be the face of a murderer?” he asked.
I took one more look. “It might could,” I answered.
Envy Lane wasn’t named for the modesty of the sentients who lived along it. I’d heard of Regulus Charioteer, too. He’d accounted his first gazillion in mining, I believe, getting in on the bottom surface of a dalibnium deal. Somesentient had found a planetoid of the stuff drifting all by its lonesome out in the Southern Systems. It was only three meters across, but so rare and valuable that the select group of investors that divied it up had nothing to complain about. He ’d been rich before. After the dalibnium deal he was ridiculously rich. He could have retired right then and there and lived in supreme comfort, him and however many generations of Charioteers he cared to generate. But even the rich have to amuse themselves, so he amused himself by getting richer. Big accounts make bigger accounts, so the saying goes.
By the time we got to the mega estate he called home, Envy Lane was no longer the envy of the neighborhood. The Greys had moved in en masse, and right behind them, the comm-net parade, both Entertainment and News. There were almost as many cams as there had been at D’erotodlivver’s. On top of it all, the activity was pulling in a crowd from all over Hub. The first live cam reports had gone out, the excitement was spreading, and spreading fast, as it always does with these deals. Something was up and the mob wanted to be there when it came back down.
Canus Major had set up shop in the mansion across the street. He was playing it cautious. Either that, or all the news-nets hadn’t shown up yet and he was waiting for optimum coverage. He deployed a regular army of Greys but made no move as of yet.
“The stand-off continues,” a news sentient we passed was earnestly telling the cam his operator wore. “Let’s have an insti-poll. What should the Greys do? A: attack. B: don’t attack. C:…” We moved on.
So that’s what they were calling it by the time we got there, a stand-off. The elder Charioteers weren’t home. They were off vacationing on one of the twelve planets they owned. Altair was in the place alone and apparently wouldn’t come out.
You could cut the tension with a laser. The Greys were testy with testosterone. “What are we waiting for?” I heard one snarl to another. Rumors were crackling through the assemblage like clouds trading electricity. “There’s a collection of dead children in there,” One guy told another, “freeze-dried and hung on a wall.”
I hitched my wagon to Andy Romeda’s star. Desk-space job or not, his credentials were good enough to get us past the Greys first line of defense and close enough to see the action.
I guess all the news-nets had arrived because Canus Major appeared from his temporary HQ and strode into the cleared space before the impressive residence. He had that gee-I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-do-this look on his face but I suspected he was giggling on the inside. He had his amplifier activated so when he said, “Altair Charioteer!” his voice boomed out and bounced off the expensive shrubbery. “Come out of the structure. Come out now. Come out with your appendages in view.” All eyes left him and went to the Charioteer residence. A long couple of little sixtys ensued. Then a surge of excitement went through the crowd. The civilians pushed forward, cams were raised, and so was the considerable weaponry that the Greys had brought to the party. A door-space had appeared in the Charioteer residence.
It was one of those over-done door-spaces the big accounts go for. First a bank of clouds appeared on the side of the structure. Billowing, wind-torn, stormy. Lightning flashed across the face of it. Then it began to break up, to shift, and bursting through was a glorious sun, blinding, sending streaks of light every which way. Angelic voices accompanied the whole thing. The clouds rolled back , the sun faded out and the dark hole of an open door-space became visible. Everybody held their breath. The smallish form of Altair Charioteer stepped into view.
“All I wanted,” he said and his small voice barely made it across to us. “All I ever wanted…” And he made the mistake of his young life. He reached into that secret pocket of his.
“Weapon!” somesentient screamed. And they opened up. Every guy dressed in grey that had a bodyshocker, laser-rifle, pulse-gun, or fingernail-zapper let loose. Altair Charioteer was knocked back into the residence like a Space Andy Doll. The guy they’d brought to knock the wall down, if it came to that, wasn’t about to be left out. He sent a charge into the hole after Charioteer that exploded within and took the face off the structure. When the dust cleared the fabulous residence was a smoking wreck. Altair Charioteer wasn’t just killed. He was obliterated.
Andy and I looked at each other from our prone positions. We and just about everybody else had thrown ourselves to surface when the place exploded.
“Well,” Andy said, “that’s one way to do it.”
12. The Charioteer of Death
Andy and I got back to the theatre by afterPM. I was half way across the lobby when I realized we hadn’t been sec-scanned at the door-space. The reason soon became apparent. The whole fine arts committee was in the performing space as well as the upper management crowd for the Inner Theatre complex. There was a party atmosphere. Some expensive cartridges were being uncapped. Ophiuchus was laughing at his own jokes. The animals, sensing the energy in the cubicle, were flopping and slithering this way and that. Io, the actor-wrangler, was flitting about on her tiny feet, trying to keep them from slobbering on the visitors. Andy drifted over to one of his other committee members. They had a chat which included a couple of glances at me. Andy made his way back, wearing his “wry” look.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“For what?” I asked.
“You’re so darn good at what you do, you don’t have a job any more. With Charioteer dead, they figure Ariadne doesn’t need the protection.”
“Ah,” I said intelligently.
“I’ll make sure you get accounted.”
I nodded and moved past him, searching the small party that was going on.
“Red,” Andy said. When I looked back, he indicated “up” with a nod of his head. I looked. Over our heads, in performance space 2, Ariadne Sulpher, all alone in her gravitational reality, was moving about, obviously working. I thought about leaving her to her craft. I thought it would be an imposition to disturb her. I told myself to leave. But friends don’t do that, without saying goodbye. So I walked up through the audience band. Now the party was over our heads. She was turned away, repeating a move over and over, a simple move where she took two steps forward, then planted her feet, and threw down an arm in a simple gesture. But on her it was anything but simple. It had force. It had power. It was like a piece of dance.
“Ariadne,” I said.
She stopped in mid-gesture, took some time; to land from the actor-zone, I guess, and then turned around. “Hey, Red,” she said, smiling.”
“I just wanted to…”
“I know. It’s goodbye, then, is it?”
“That’s what they tell me.”
The smile broadened, but the happiness behind it didn’t. “Life of the tour.” She made a sad, little shrug. “Life of the detective, too, I’m betting.”
“We are alike.” We shared some eye stuff. “If I were to leave you a couple of ticket codes to opening PM, would you use them?”
It was my turn to shrug. “I’m a back stage-space kind of a guy.”
She nodded, staring at me, seriously now. “I’ll leave them in any case. Maybe you’ll change that mind of yours.” Then she stepped forward. “Thank you, Red Tide. Thank you for saving my life.”
Her hand flew up, fast, slipped around the back of my neck. Just as fast, she pressed her lips against mine and departed., stepping back. She looked at me, little desperately, I thought. Desperation, too, seemed to flutter behind her eyes. For somesentient whose life had just been saved, she didn’t seem very happy. That’s an artist for you. They were beyond me. I headed out. At the door-space I turned. She was back to practicing her little move. Two steps forward, plant and point.
A tiny buzzing nibbled at my consciousness. I looked down to find the miniscule actor-wrangler next to me. Lop Side, the red actor-thing was beside her. “Lop side wants to say goodbye, I think,” the Puastafordeller buzzed. Lop Side shifted shape, grew up till its meaningless face-area and big, gloopy eyes stared right at mine. Why so sad, buddy, I thought? You got it easy. Even your food comes pre-digested. I looked at Ariadne Sulpher, alone in her performance zone. Two steps forward, plant and point. Actors.
“So long, Lop Side,” I said. Lop Side put together a couple meaningless syllables, burped, and a sheet of drool rolled down its front. “Yeah, I know the feeling, pal.” I gave Io a wink. “Don’t get stepped on.” She buzzed her buzz of a laugh and I left there.
In the delevator heading for the lobby, I put my fingers to my lips. She was something, all right. They were tingling.
The beady-eyed guy from Entertainment had a good fifty second. Killers Up Close hit the zone and if anysentient on Hub wasn’t watching, it was because they didn’t use eyes to navigate. And, yes, I watched it, too. Andy Romeda and I rendezvoused at our favorite mist structure, figuring we needed some anesthesia to get through the thing. We were right. It was sanctimonious, pandering to the nasty in all of us, and loud. It presented Altair Charioteer as the worst thing on two legs. They showed him getting blown back into his home ad infinitum, in slow-motion, fast-motion, and step-by-step. His surprised look after he’d reached into his pocket and realized he was about to be blown to oblivion was part of the episode’s logo, with its title, The Charioteer of Death.
They’d gotten ahold of the official recordings of the crime scenes he’d left behind him, spread across the galaxy. We got the extreme pleasure of tip-toeing through the dismembered remains of an interesting variety of sentience.
They played to the bigger audience, the Outer Sphere, hinting darkly of the moral depravity of the Inner Sphere, even bringing up the oldest canard of them all; how the Outer Sphere soaks up all the nasty viols of the double suns, while the Inner Sphere basks in genetic safety.
But I especially needed to have a hiss of the hard stuff when Canus Major’s big head filled the zone. They had “brave” music playing, if you know what I mean. He was all self-effacing, serious, competent, and so professional you just wanted to smack him down. I did anyway. And it wasn’t because I had been delevated to the status of “unnamed tipster” either, let that be said. He humbly hinted he and he alone was responsible for taking out this monster predator. The interviewer asked him if he had any political aspirations. He did a “who, me?” number that reeked of insincerity. That’s when I hit the facilities and drained the overflow tanks.
When I returned the program had moved on. They had taken us into the Charioteer residence, into a particular cubicle they’d found. It had all the looks of a place of worship, and the reigning deity was Ariadne Sulpher. When you powered it up, she sprang into being in a thousand guises. You walked through her. She surrounded you. Her voice from a dozen plays formed an unintelligible babble, a babble that was all Ariadne. It was Altair Charioteer’s monument to absorption and obsession. Worship comes in all forms, I guess. Was that what the murders were to him, sacrifices to his Goddess? It wasn’t for me to decide. I just put the digit on the poor guy.
The next AM I was back on station, buttocks firmly planted in the zone of my chair-space, wall-window dialed to the view of Capricorn and 1,145th right outside of my office structure, fingers idly playing with the long-dead artificial-cigarette I kept around for laughs, studiously avoiding the comm-zone, which I knew would be full of the upcoming opening of Ransom of the Red Dwarf.
It would be the culmination of a fifty second of frenzy that Hub had got itself worked into. Killers Up Close had been followed up with Big Parties! They ran a marathon of Ariadne’s greatest hits, and pulled out an old episode of Real Live People that had profiled the senior Charioteer, Regulus. An image of Ariadne was the opening logo of the comm net news rag, Big News! and Altair’s likeness was featured in its rival, Bigger News! Three fictional accounts were in the works, rumor had it, one with the net actress, Paula Pleiades set to play Ariadne, if you can believe that.
Hub was saturated with the whole Charioteer episode. Art interconnecting with life in such a brutal and romantic way was too much for it. It was delirious with it, drunken on it, gorging itself like a hungry predator alone with a carcass.
Personally, I was sick of the whole thing and, sitting in my lonely office, I was glad to be out of it. Then I looked up and found myself staring at Regulus Charioteer. He was plainly visible in my wall-window. He was standing on the far side of the vehicle zone, a frozen figure in the flurry of pedoes moving about him. He seemed to be staring at my structure.
I was frankly surprised. You’d think a guy as rich as Regulus Charioteer would be able to hire somesentient to kill a guy if that’s what he wanted. He didn’t have to do it himself. I set my sec-scan to let me know if any weapons were walking through my door-space. It was a precaution I took by rote, but never took too seriously. Weapons, as I well knew, come in all shapes and sizes. For example, righteousness can be a hell of a one.
He looked about what a father whose child has just died in violence and disgrace would be expected to look like; exhausted, hopeless, distracted, trapped in the slow-motion torpor of absolute misery. His mind was wandering, that much was obvious. He had trouble keeping his cogitations on track. Every so often a wave of pain would sweep across his features, effectively wiping the data off his frontal lobes, making him look around with the completely addled expression of a sentient who has just passed through a warp-point.
He’d stood for a good thirty sixtys before he’d finally roused himself, like a sleepwalker waking up, and come across. I activated my silhouetter and he appeared on my door-space. He was shortish and had the spreading dimensions of a fifty-something human. I let him in. He didn’t go for my throat, try to scratch my eyes out, or curse me to the break-down terminal. He was painfully polite, deferential even, certainly not the image of the hi-powered business sentient for which he was renowned. I let him take his time, come to roost from whatever strange realms he was traveling in. His eyes finally focused on mine. His mouth opened, closed, opened again.
“I would like to hire you,” he said. I stared at him. Now, that I didn’t expect; attempted murder, yes, a job offer, no. “I need a good GPI and you come…” He looked down at his lap. “…highly recommended,“ he murmured.
Oh, boy. Here came the fun part. “Mr. Charioteer, there ’s something you have to know.” He looked back up. I took a breath. “I’m the unnamed tipster.” I tensed, waiting for the reaction. There wasn’t any.
“Yes, I know ,” he said.
“I don’t think you do, sir. It’s not like the net-comms had it. I’m responsible for bringing your son to the attention of the Greys.”
He simply nodded. “My sources informed me of that. I have sources, you see. Sources.” He looked away, went away, came back looked back. “You might say it was your competence that…” He broke off, drifted away again. A smile played across his lips. A sunny childhood was probably dancing through his brain. Then reality caught up, the smile went away, he pulled himself back with an effort. “Hence my request. I want the best, you see. I need the best.”
“For what?” I said, keeping it simple.
“To prove my son’s innocence.”
I was afraid of that. The only thing worse than a lover scorned is a parent bereft. The human across from me was growing older by the sixty under the pressure of his burden. In a twelve he’d be shuffling about like an octogenarian. I’d seen it before. Grief dries you out like a mean sun. This quest of his would not quench his thirst. I knew that, too. Better to get off this rocket to nowhere now before it consumed him.
“And what if he isn’t?” I said, not cruelly, but dead on.
“Then prove that!” Suddenly there was a fire in him. It lifted him up out of the chair-space. It choked him. “Prove it to me! It’s worse not knowing, don’t you see?” My expression must of said I thought we did know. He answered the unspoken assumption. “So he was on those planets! Does that mean he’s a murderer? It proves nothing!” He contained himself, rubbed a hand across his face. “I’m sorry. Look.” He took himself in hand and looked at me directly. “Talk to my wife. That’s all I ask.”
This was going from bad to worse. The last thing I needed in my life was a hysterical mother wetting my suit with her hopeless tears. But he’d found his mantra. He clung to it with the desperation of the recently bereaved. He wasn’t going to let me go until I talked to his wife. I guessed he was convinced her sorrow would break down my resistance. I figured he was in for a disappointment. But it ’s easy to shut down a fool or a bully, it takes more backbone then I have to tell somesentient their dead son wasn’t worth a trip to the Inner Sphere.
The structure on Envy Lane was locked down tight. They had a sec field around it that was impervious to sight or sound. What had been a gorgeous mansion was now a ball of unfocussed smoke. And with good cause. The comm-zone nets still had their crews camping out in the vicinity. I saw a little flurry of activity erupt as we drifted down. By the time they had their cams adhered to their eyes we were slipping through the fog of security.
Inside, there was a pale, sickly light, not a shadow in sight. A curtain of silence came down, pressed at your ears. You felt the necessity to talk soft. We landed on the parking zone in front of the place and climbed out of the vehicle.
The front of the Charioteer manse was still a gaping, blackened hole, which surprised me. With his kind of account he could have had the entire cubicle replaced in a couple of twenty fours, yet here it was, still a used war-zone. Then I saw the woman in front of it. She stood, hands on hips, talking to somesentient who was just inside the shadowed interior. Regulus Charioteer glanced at me and headed towards her. I followed.
She had one of those weird bodies that look like an amalgam of two. From head to waist, she was slim, slight even. Then she ballooned out, her hips, backside and legs seemed borrowed from a person three times her size. She lifted one of the fists that was resting on that generous shelf and scratched the back of a salt-and-pepper head of short, cropped hair. Then the scratching hand became a pointed finger and jabbed in the direction of the sentient she was talking to. What species of sentient, I couldn’t say. He was encased from top to bottom in a clean-suit. By now we were close enough to hear the conversation, or monologue, rather, since she was doing all the talking.
“…if you’re incapable of the task, then say you’re incapable of the task, but don’t whine to me to me about time frames and cost projections. I’m not interested in how much it will account, nor do I care how long it will take. All I want from you is your assurance that you can do the job. Now, can you do the job?”
The suited sentient looked back into the interior of the blasted cubicle. He, she, or it took his, her, or its time. There were other sentients in there, also suited, plus a lot of big machines, indecipherable to me. It was cold in there. You could see the exhaust streaming out of their suit’s breathers. The whole view of the interior shimmered slightly to the eye. I realized it was a clean-zone. That exploded cubicle was in a second lock-down beneath the grey sec-zone all about. The mystery sentient looked back to the woman with the salt and pepper hair and nodded, once.
“Good. Get to it.” I watched him walk back to join his comrades who were engaged in inexplicable behavior. One was down on his hands and knees, his helmeted head about a millimeter from the surface. He stopped his forward crawl, did something down there, and crawled on.
When I looked back, the woman was staring at me. She was, I have to say, an ugly woman, through no fault of her own. Her eyes were droopy and baggy, her nose longish and angled for optimum nostril viewing, her lips stingy, and her chin as weak as they come. What was interesting was that surgery could have improved a lot of it, but she hadn’t bothered.
“You’re Tide,” she stated. I admitted it. “This way.” She gestured off. I hesitated, glancing at all the activity in the destroyed cubicle. “You’re wondering what’s going on in there,” she accused. “I’m putting my son back together.” She stared into the space and declared, “When he goes into the break-down terminal, he will be whole. Come on.” And she turned, patting Regulus on the shoulder as she moved past him. “Lay down, Reg,” she said.
“I can’t sleep,” he started to protest.
“I didn’t say sleep,” she called back over her shoulder. “I said lay down.”
She took me around the side of the structure and through a much humbler door-space than had been blown out of the front of the place.
14. Lunch With Lyra
“You haven’t eaten,” the woman with the big bottom said as she preceded me into the kitchen. She apparently didn’t believe in questions, the way shidoans don’t believe in capital letters. It was quite a kitchen, the best kitchen I’d been in, although I hadn’t been in many.
Maybe it was the help’s twenty four off, but I doubted it. She handled the place like an extension of her strangely shaped body. She liked her food, that much was obvious, and she liked the best. Nothing but the finest and freshest were good enough for this matron of the inner class.
“Kitchen,” she said loudly and the cubicle came to life. It whirred and clicked and lit up and listened, I guess, because when she said, “Refreshment. Guest. Fermented,” an opening appeared in the wall and a canister emerged. It shunted across the space and hung before me. The logo of a particularly fine beer-mist danced on it. I took it. I had a hiss; ice-cold and delectable.
She called back over her shoulder, as she crossed the cubicle. “You do animal protein, I hope.”
“Oh, yeah,” I told her.
“Good. Tilurgian chicken,” she told the wall. A hole opened. She reached in and came back out holding a live bird by the throat. It squawked, or tried to, and flopped about, kicking with its four legs. She strode across the space, but veered about mid-way and came up to me. She transferred the kicking bird to her other hand and reached out. “I’m Lyra, by the way.”
I took her hand. We shook like a couple of big, strong men. “Red,” I told her.
“I know. How’s the beer, Red?” Finally a question.
“Good.” And she marched off to another part of the kitchen, saying, “Roast. Save the sticks. De-bone.” A hole appeared, she tossed the bird in. The door disappeared. There was a muffled squeal back there that ended abruptly. She turned back to me, smacking her hands together.
“You think I’m a lunatic, no doubt,” she said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Hiring a team of forensic archeologists to reconstruct a dead son.”
“I can appreciate the sentiment.”
“You don’t know me, Red, so I’m going to level with you. I ’m not sentimental.”
“OK.” I could account that. She certainly wasn’t the weeping mother I had expected to encounter. She was a piece of super-compressed matter is what she was. It made one wonder who was really behind Charioteer’s gazillions; the sad-eyed man lying down somewhere or this dynamo of an ugly woman.
“I have another reason for returning Altair and everything in that cubicle to its previous state.”
“What is it?”
“I’d like to know what he was reaching for in that pocket. Wouldn’t you?” The kitchen beeped. A hole appeared in the wall. The aroma of roast tilurgian chicken flooded the atmosphere, sending my salivaries into overtime.
“You seem pretty confident it wasn’t a weapon,” I said, drooling on my chin, watching her pull a plate-space of steaming chicken, neatly sliced except for the ‘sticks’ which stood up like four little sentinels. She must have caught me staring, because she tossed me one of them as she crossed the space, once again heading for another wall. She gave out a short bark of a laugh.
“Oh, I’m supremely confident it wasn’t a weapon, Red.”
I looked at the leg I was holding that had been walking around about a sixty and a half ago. To be polite, I had a bite. It was moist and tender and delicious. It would be rude not to eat it, I thought, a disrespect to the Tilurgian chicken.
“Bread. Sliced,” she told the kitchen as she set the chicken adrift in a zone. “He was a sensitive, you understand my meaning?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Tom.” For a little sixty I thought she was referring to her son; some middle or pet name, maybe. But I realized she was talking to the kitchen again when a tall rectangle of a hole appeared and a shelf slid out from the wall. On it, rooted in a block of artificial soil was a row of tomato plants. Gorgeous fruit, as big as your toddler’s head dangled, temptingly. She worked her way down the row, idly checking them for ripeness with her competent hands as she collected her thoughts. “My son was all messed up, there’s no doubt about that. He had neurosis on top of neurosis and not a little hostility.” She looked at me across the row of plants. “But it was all self-directed. I have that on good authority. The best chits can account. It was a condition. They gave it a name to justify their outrageous salaries. I forget what it was.” She picked her tom, detached it with a twist of her hand. “Lettuce,” she said.
Let us what, I wondered, then realized it was more kitchen talk. I was having a hard time concentrating because the overpowering aroma of baking bread kept vying for my attention. If I’d been a dog I’d of laid my head in her lap just about now and given her the beggar’s eye. The shelf of toms disappeared and was replaced with another shelf, this one holding lettuce plants, about seven in a row, bright green, glistening with water droplets.
“Chef laser,” she said. A kitchen laser flew to her. She snatched it out of the air and, bending down, snicked it on and expertly detached the lettuce from its root system. As the drawer disappeared, she took her tom and lettuce to the wall. “Tom, slice. Lettuce, clean. Sandwich, assemble. Leftovers to the unaccountable.” Everything went into the wall. She glanced at me. “Heavy on the mayo,” she added.
She leaned against the wall and worked on getting some plant nutrient goo out from under a thumbnail. She worked at it with the same efficiency and energy with which she did everything. “He was always an obsessive kid. This actress person was just the last in a long line of obsessions. That’s how Altair approached the galaxy; one obsession after another. He didn’t feel right unless he was in a frenzy. Neuralgia Agititus. That was it. Helluva name, huh?” She looked up, caught me gnawing the last crumb of tissue from the tilurgian chicken leg. “I’ll pay you twice your usual, plus a bonus for proof.”
“What kind of proof, Lyra?”
“There’s only one kind, Red. The truth.”
“What if you don’t like it?”
“I already know the truth. What I want is the proof. I know my little boy. Knew,” she corrected herself. And then it hit her. It hit her suddenly, hard, and was gone just as suddenly, tamped down by those stingy lips, beaten into shape by that stubborn, nothing of a chin.
The wall spit out a pair of giant sandwiches that spun in their zone. How am I ever going to get my mouth around that, I asked myself. We can only try.
It wasn’t the accounting, that’s never been one of my prime movers. Maybe it was her. If she could be so right about a sandwich, how could she be so wrong about a son? Hell, maybe it was just the sandwich. Everything in it had been alive fifteen little sixtys ago. It was the most delicious sandwich I ’d ever eaten, and I know sandwiches. If I took the job maybe she’d give me another one.
A guy, a big, burly human, had his hand in the crack of my ass. I dislocated his arm, knocked him to surface, and was about to stick a finger through his eye when I was knocked aside by three or four other big bodies. Alarms were going off. Sentients were screaming. What happened? How did I get myself in this deadly predicament? They had both arms pinned. I managed to slip one free using a shidoan “shrinking-snake” maneuver and, with a “garden-hose” attack, knocked the ones who’ d been holding me back. But others were waiting. They pounced on my flailing arm and I was pinned again. The leader of this evil squad, I assumed, was in my face, screaming at me.
“Warp-point! Warp-point!” Finally it got through. Warp-point? I stopped struggling. “You’ve just gone through a warp-point!” Ah, that explains it. Or did it? I started struggling again.
“Is that any reason to stick your hand up my ass!”
“You soiled yourself, sir! Our man was just cleaning you up.”
I stopped struggling. Ah. I see. I went through a warp-point and soiled myself. See, that made sense. The clean-up man was in the corner experiencing the agony of having his shoulder re-inserted in the socket. “Sorry about that,” I called over to him. I don’t think he heard me. I reminded myself to tip the guy well. The crowd of attendants still held me warily. “I’m OK. You can let go.” They looked to their leader first, getting the nod. When they let go, they jumped back.
They left me alone in my recovery cubicle. I tossed my soiled suit into the break-down terminal and punched my code for a new one. I took a spray and stretched out on the bed-space. Over the next sixty my life slowly trickled back into my mind from wherever it went when it was subjected to warp travel. You never get used to it. How can you? You slide into consciousness without the faintest idea who you are, where you are, or what century it is. It’s different for everysentient. Some will take a full fifty second to remember their name. I’m one of the lucky ones. All I do is crap in my suit.
I lay there putting it back together. My name was Red Tide. I was a GPI on the artificial system known as Hub. I was here on a job, here being the Fomalhaut system. I was employed by Regulus and Lyra Sandwich, no, that’s not right. Charioteer, yes, that was it. The job had to do with the death of their son, Altair. I was looking for evidence that he didn’t commit a string of grisly murders that stretched across the galaxy. I’d be following that trail, throwing myself through the disorientation of multiple warp-points.
As I waited for the shuttle that would take me off of the warp-point station and to my destination, I inhaled a double-bean and wandered over to a window that took up one whole wall of the waiting-cubicle. It was a display, a living display of the ecosystem of the place I was heading. There was a jungle beyond the window, a jungle shrouded in fog, a crowded mass of big, wet plants. It was a pale jungle, no vibrant greens, or startling reds. It was all sickly ivories, and grayish browns and pale, pale purples; the colors of life that thrives without sunlight. A leaf jiggled like it was alive and something crawled out from beneath it. A slimy thing, about a half a meter long, the exact color of the plant it emerged from. It was an actor in its pre-evolved state, a wild ancestor of Lop Side and it was on the hunt.
Some insect-type, a big, fat yellow one, was minding its own business, fullfilling its insect-type destiny as the proto-actor rode toward it on its slime-trail, changing from the light grey of the leaf to the mottled brown of the display ’s floor.
“Look out. Behind you,” I muttered. The slimy thing stopped, shuddered disgustingly, and launched a gob of slime from its hole of a mouth. The gob hit the insect-type squarely, the thing reacted instantly, tried to take off into the underbrush, but it was already too late. The actor-thing had it by a rope of slime and as it reeled in its victim, the toxic crap went to work. There was bubbling going on in there and wisps of smoke rolled off the quivering thing. By the time the predator reached its lunch, it was a formless mass of gooey protoplasm, ripe for ingestion without the necessity of chewing. I turned away from the gruesome display. The vehicle had arrived. Next stop: Torlolia, the ancestral home of the actor.
Torlolia wasn’t a vacation spot. Fomalhaut never really shone on it since it was swathed in an eternal blanket of clouds. It was hot, real hot, with the kind of humidity that makes you start dripping the instant you encounter it. Nobody is dry on Torlolia. There’s a cloying sickness to the air. It presses in on you like a distant relative taking liberties. Nobody is in a good mood on Torlolia. Nobody really wants to be there. It’s gloomy, uncomfortable and depressing. It’s also a treasure trove. The planet-wide jungle is home to an incredible variety of plants, plants that had yielded up their fair share of drugs, compounds, products, fibers. They’d been mining it for a hundred three hundred and sixtys and still, new species, sub-species, or sub-sub-species kept turning up.
It was the early miners, the lonely sci-guy’s burrowing deep into the immense jungle that first started messing with the genetic code of the aboriginal actors. They did it because they had nothing better to do. They were alone in the bushes, talking to the twigs probably, and the slimy things were close to hand and had a quick turn-around, genetically speaking. It wasn’t for profit, at first. It was for companionship. They increased its size, diluted its toxic spit so it wouldn’t burn them when they picked it up, taught it a few tricks. Its ability to imitate its surroundings seemed to expand exponentially with its size, hence it was born for the stage-space, as the saying goes.
The atmosphere hit me like a wet fist as I stepped out of the terminal-structure. The defoliant sprinklers were going, giving the air a metallic, nasty taste. It was the only way a property could keep its integrity on Torlolia. Without the sprinklers, the flora would cover the place in a couple cycles. I was already dripping by the time I swung a leg over a rented one-sentient vehicle, tapped it into glow, ascended, pointed my sweaty nose in the direction of the coordinates I ’d been given, and indicated acceleration. I sailed out over the canopy; hot, mean, grey clouds above; greedy, washed-out vegetation below. I had a vague hope that moving would make things cooler, but it didn’t. The air felt thick, palpable. It wasn’t like flying, it was like swimming. I felt like a Giant Varutian Crustacean, taking his last dip in the cooking broth.
It was all the same, everywhere you looked; grey, grey, grey, all the way to the horizon. A million shades of grey. There were colors, but their only function seemed to be to tint the eternal grey. I had to look straight down to believe I was actually in motion. After a small eternity of boring sameness, my destination appeared on the horizon. At first it was just a multi-colored splash against the background of fuzzy grey. Then it resolved into something hard-edged, sentient-made, perfectly round, plopped down in the middle of all that grey stuff like a flying saucer that had just crash-landed, which wouldn’t have been far from the truth. It was a pre-fabricated unit, made to order, a series of structures all growing out of a central circular base, that had been hauled to the site by a giant carrier and dropped on top of the unsuspecting forest. Instant home, or in this case, instant actor-training facility.
I performed a lazy circle over the place. It was what I’d come to expect. All the structures surrounded a central area that had been left clear and upon which were cavorting a dozen or so of the slimy performers. Their trainers moved among them. The winking lights I saw in the uncertain gloom of a Torlolia morning told me where Ophiuchus Jones had probably accounted the shock stick he was so fond of using on his cast. This was where they had started. This was where they’d trained their little band of thespian monsters before setting off on their galactic tour. It was also where Altair had begun his last spin around the stars. He’d been on Torlolia, too, at the beginning.
I put my little one-sentienter down next to a tour vehicle that had obviously chewed up many a kilometer. The actor-training facility doubled as a tourist attraction. A fungadorian sitting at the edge of the parking-space took my card, accounted my admission, and rattled off the major thrills I was about to experience in her curious patois.
“The actors be now in morning train session. Two groups this AM. Children’ s-function entertain consortium, and poli-doubles unit. No be miss the actors’ feeding. It be highly amusing and for small token you can be feed them youself. You want account a cam to record you visit?”
I declined the offer and moved past her, down a tunnel that opened onto the open space where the greasy bunnies were at play, separated by a shimmering mag-wall from the dozen or so tourists, denizens of the tour vehicle, I guessed, a pack of poor fools who’d found themselves on bleak Torlolia with nothing to do, so they’d come out to see the sights, what there were of them. They didn’t look impressed, just hot, sweaty, and bored. At the center of it all, the actors were being put thr ough their paces, poked, prodded, cajoled, offered first reward, then punishment, punishment, then reward.
True to the fungadorian’s word, there were two groups this AM. One group had morphed into a batch of clowns. They tottered about on big clown feet, sporting big clown noses. They were practicing making balloon animals without balloons. Instead they used portions of their own convertible anatomy. The trainer for the second group poked his flopping, slithering charges into a line and stepped back from them. He waved his shock stick so they all could see it, then brought it down. The actors morphed, growing into exact replicas of a middle-aged, graying human. They looked exactly alike to me, but the trainer walked down the line, lightly zapping one whose stomach stuck out a bit too far, another, whose hairline apparently wasn’t receding enough. Then he stepped back.
“Wave!” he called. The row of phony humans waved. “Smile!” the trainer yelled. The humans smiled. I looked back to the clowns, hobbling about, blowing up balloons. Hmm, I wondered, which is the poli-doubles group?
Over by the clowns, down near the shimmering wall, a skipithicus was stretched out on his back, paying no attention to the show, his long double-tail flicking idly. He seemed to be about to go to sleep. I grabbed the chair-space behind him.
“Hey,” I said, friendly-like. His reptilian eyes flicked over to me. His shovel-shaped head gave a nod just this side of imperceptible. He went back to his dozing. “You the wrangler?” I asked, ignoring his body language. He didn’t bother looking over this time.
“I’m not part of the show, mister. I just work here.”
It looked like I’d have to go the professional route. Talk to the head sentient of the facility and work my way down. I had no doubt that throwing the name Charioteer around would get results and cooperation. I’d probably end up talking to this very skipithicus in thirty sixtys or so but it would be in some little cubicle, and he would be wary and resentful. Then I saw the name on his suit, “Leo”. “You’re Leo?” I tried, putting surprise and delight into my voice. Now he was suspicious. He glowered at me.
“What about it?”
“Io says hi.” It was worth a shot. The feisty Puastafordeller actor-wrangler struck me as an individual who cultivated friendships wherever her tiny body took her. It worked. The grumpy skipithicus instantly changed, sat up, smiling at me with his double-row of razor-sharp incisors.
“No kidding! How’s Io doing?”
“Good. She sends her best. She’s on Hub, you know. Working Ariadne Sulpher’s bunch.”
“I knew that. I was here when they were imprinted.” He offered me a scaly, six-fingered hand with a set of claws that could have dis-emboweled me. “Leo Minor, and, yeah, I’m the wrangler.”
“How do you know, Io? You in the slime trade, Red?” He gestured towards his bunch that were clowning it up on the other side of the shimmer.
“No. We were both working for Sulpher. She was watching the actors, I was watching the actress.”
He tilted his ellipsoidal noggin, frowned.
“Corpusguard,” I explained.
“You a Grey?”
“Ah.” A light came into his murky, green eyes.
“So you were here, huh? When her batch got imprinted?”
“Yeah.” He waited.
“Look, Leo. I’m on something else now.”
“Uh huh.” He waited some more.
“You mind if I ask you a question or two?”
He shrugged. “Hey, any friend of Io’s...”
I held out my hand, palm-up and activated the digi viewer in my sleeve. “Ever seen him before?” Altair Charioteer, as he had been in life, hovered above my hand. Leo Minor took a look.
“Sure, I remember him,” he said. “He was hanging around while Io trained her bunch.”
“Did he ever approach them? Try to get close to Ariadne Sulpher?”
Leo did a skipithicus version of a frown. “I don’t recall anything like that.”
“How’d he strike you?”
“He had one foot in the weird category, I guess, now that I think about it. Kind of intense, you know? Seeing actors get imprinted is pretty boring, when you come right down to it. Mostly repetition, see? That’s why they call it imprinting, not learning. I tend to keep an eye on the intense ones.”
“We had us some god fans come through once. They looked like tourists to me, but they weren’t here for the sights. All of a sudden they charged the platform, sprayed the beasts with inflammables and combusted ‘em. Nasty.”
“Why’d they go and do that?”
“Seems they thought it was a sin for animals to take on sentient form. A corruption of the temple of the flesh, kind of a deal.”
“I got you. But this guy never tried to get close to Ariadne.”
“Sorry, not that I saw.”
“So, tell me, Leo. Was there anybody else? Hanging around? Anybody you’d also slide into the weird category?”
Leo thought. Something crossed his reptilian brain, but he snorted, dismissing it.
“What?” I asked.
“I was gonna say the Med, but he don’t count. He works around here. No, nobody.”
“Breeder. He runs a farm. He supplied Io with her squirts.” A clawed thumb jerked towards the actors. “She was working for him, matter of fact. Left him to wrangle for Sulpher. According to Io he’ s weird with a capital ‘W”, but living in the gray’ll do that to you. It was odd him hanging around for the training, come to think of it. Usually the breeders’ll just drop the slime and scoot.”
“Leo! For crying out loud!” It was Leo’s trainer. One of the clown actors was bent over one of the poli-doubles actors. They were apparently having sex. The trainer was zapping them with his red-tipped stick but they were beyond caring. The outraged tourists were trying to protect their offspring from the ghastly spectacle of a clown copulating with a politician. They rose from their seats and stampeded for the exit, driven by the agitated urging of their tour guide. Leo skipped through the shimmer and started yelling at the clown actor to cut it out. He and the poli-doubles wrangler tried to untangle the copulating animals. The other ones were getting excited and pairing off. One of the trainers started spraying water on them, chasing them around the platform. It was pandemonium.
“Hey, Leo!”, I yelled. “Where can I find this Med guy!”
Leo looked up, his hands full of slimy actor. “Follow the tour!” he yelled. “It’s their next stop!”
16. The Med
The tour vehicle was just lifting off when I reached the parking area. I hopped on my transport and rose into the grey sky. Below, in the actor’s pen, things were calming down. The winking lights of the punishment rods were having their way. I followed the receding tour vehicle out over the monotonous vegetation.
I didn’t know what I expected to get from this “Med” person. I even tapped my one-sentienter into hover and hung motionless over the grey jungle, watching the tour vehicle grow smaller as I thought about it. If he was part of the industry he wasn’t likely to have any information that would lead me to a pan-galactic murderer. But then again, I didn’t know what I expected to learn from this whole trip to Torlolia. The murders hadn’t started when Jones and his greasy band had gathered here. It was a couple of warp-points later that the first corpse turned up. I was here in the name of impeccability.
The shidoans have a saying, translated loosely as, “The fuss budget’ll be the last to go,” meaning basically that the individual with a prevailing philosophy of seeking impeccability will tend to survive the longest. As long as I was scrambling my electrons zapping through warp-points, I may as well make sure I didn’t miss any tricks, and that every square millimeter of my hind-quarters was covered. (the shidoans have another saying, “the bee’ll find the buttonhole”. They don’t have bee’s on their home planet, nor do they use buttons but that’s a close enough approximation). Hence I decided to start looking on Torlolia but didn’t have much confidence on finding anything.
I was tempted to turn my sweaty self around, head back to the warp-point terminal, find a dark cubicle with major atmosphere conditioning and a decent assortment of fine mists and forget about it. But the impeccability itch had me. Besides, when a creature with a double tail, six fingers and a mouth full of four-inch daggers tells you somebody is weird, it’ s probably worth taking a look. The tour vehicle was just a dot now, about to slip into the blurry line that constituted the horizon on Torlolia. I hit acceleration and went thataway.
I caught up with it as it was setting down on a patch of naked earth. There was no pre-fab construction here. This was the real deal, carved out of the hungry, grey jungle and eternally in danger of losing its battle with it. The smell of defoliant hung in the air like a bad idea. I followed the tourist bunch as they trooped along an overgrown path toward a bunch of ragged structures half-buried in grey vegetation. They looked like they’d been there since God made the place, or abandoned it, more likely. Everything had a grayish sheen, the smallest of the local fauna, microscopic plants, insidiously working to cover whatever stood still in their growth path long enough for them to take hold. Even the sign that drifted in its mag-zone over the entrance glowed weakly through a layer of the fuzzy stuff. “PHINEAS SICKLE, MED, BREEDER OF VEGETATUM IMITATUS RALPHUS”, it said, and below, “ACTORS MADE TO ORDER”. Vegetatum Imitatus Ralphus was the name the first sci-guy had planted on the original actors. I believe his name was Ralph. Beneath the sign squatted another fungadorian. They apparently had the market on the low account jobs in this sector. I stayed tucked at the back of the tourist group, and passed as one of them, I assumed, since I wasn’t asked for a bite out of my card.
There was a feeling about the place and it wasn’t good. I’ve been through a few crime scenes in my time and there was something about this place that reminded me of them. You walk into a crime scene with a certain dread, because you know that you’re going to see something you’d rather not. There ’s a tension in the pit of the stomach as you wait for the bad stuff to be revealed. Every door-space you walk through is charged with a vague, scary emotion. You start to desire to see it and get it over with. You walk a little faster, scan each cubicle you come upon a little harder. Where’s the gore? Give me the gore and get it over with. That’s the way this place felt. There was a gloom about it that went beyond the already gloomy terrain. The structures were as blank and silent as a guilty sentient who knows his life depends on denying his guilt. The interiors hinted at little cubicles buried in the basements of dictatorial regimes where very bad things happen.
Me and the rest of the tourists took the thousand chit tour. First they showed us the clean cubicle, which wasn’t. It was a grubby, little, ill-lit space behind a window where mock sci-guys in dirty lab suits worked with some ancient-looking machinery. They added insult to injury by saying it was the cutting edge of actor-breeding technology, the implication being that they were continuing to improve their product rather than resting on their laurels. Implicit was the hint that we should be grateful for their, dare I say it, impeccability. The dead actor they were digging into for fresh DNA to play with didn’t seem too awfully grateful to me.
They showed us the nursery where the squirts were born and grown to viable size. They were about an inch long at birth and see-through. They looked a bit like somebody had just cleared their nose and didn ’t bother using a hanky.
Finally they took us outside and showed us the growing pits. These were long pits dug with precision into the forest floor, then fused glassy-hard by some applied heat. There were three of them, each containing actors of a certain size; small, medium and large you might say. They explained that the separation was necessary, because it had been found that actors in the frenzy of feeding had been known to display cannibalistic tendencies toward their younger siblings.
The walls of the pits were too slick for their slimy occupants to get a grip on, but that didn’t stop them from trying, constantly, to climb out. Each pit seemed to be filled to capacity with the beasts, sloshing around in their own waste and slimy secretion, erupting in mysterious waves of flight from one end of the pit to the other as non-verbal rumors of who-knows-what, bad stuff at one end of the pool or good stuff at the other, rushed through the population.
We were sampling the odor of the final pit when I saw a human appear, a bit stooped, balding. Our guide stepped up to announce that it was our lucky AM. We were getting a glimpse of the Med himself, Phineas Sickle. He appeared at the far side of the pits from us, wandering in a distracted way toward the middle one.
“Good AM, Med Sickle!” the guide called across the chasm of frenzied young actors. His head jerked up with a start. He stared at us out of a pair of scared eyes, then put it together. Dignity replaced fright, but dignity over-played it. He raised an arm in a gracious salute, and took a deep, theatrical bow. When he came back up he didn’t look as us again. He continued his interrupted journey toward the pit. As the guide droned on, I watched him. He snatched up a net on a long pole that was laying handy, and scooped up a gob of squirming actors. He did it one-handed and with a casual confidence that signaled familiarity. He brought the net in under his face and began to pick through his catch, tossing the rejects back into the pit. When he found one he liked he held it up in an iron grip and twisted it about, giving it a good going-over. Satisfied, he dumped the others, dropped the net and wandered back the way he’d come, still holding up his catch, still staring at it.
I slid along the fringe of my group of tourists, then popped around the corner of a structure they were standing next to. Out of sight, I sprinted to the far corner of the building, put an eye around the edge, and just caught the white of Sickle’s suit as he disappeared into another structure. I walked across like I knew what I was doing and stepped inside.
It was hot. A smell wrapped itself around my head, crawled into my ears, caressed my skin like an unwanted lover. It was the smell of corruption, of unwashed bodies, uncleared food, uncleaned spills, of rottenness and death, death, death. I was in a scrawny little space that ran the length of the structure. It was a combination storage and office-space or had been. Whatever organization had once reigned here was long gone. The shelves were filled and the over-flow had slowly spilled out and taken over the rest of the space. Data discs were spewed everywhere, in piles, in boxes, all over the floor, where ever they’d fallen. Equipment, mystifying things, was scattered about in pieces, some corroded and blackened with use, some still peeking out of the packing material they’d arrived in.
There was a door to my left that led on into the structure. A sound was coming from there, a droning non-stop blurble of sound. I walked over and the blurble became intelligible. A voice was chattering away to itself in a wheezy, little monologue.
“…yes, you’re a fine little squirt, aren’t you? You’ re full of the juice, yes, yes. Where do you think you’re going? Come back here. There is no place to go. Look at you, striving to thrive. Striving to thrive…”
I stepped into the doorway just in time to see Med Sickle, the owner of the monologue, slice the actor he’d gotten from the pit from tip to tip. He stood with his back to me at a lab table-space that looked more like something out of a slaughterstructure. He cut the thing open with a flourish, raising the lab laser at the end of the stroke almost above his head, holding it with a tricky little grip, pinky extended, like a chef trying out the soup.
“Not so frisky now, are we?” he purred to the dead thing.
“Med Sickle,” I said.
He was around, staring at me, lab laser glowing in his hand, that same panic I’d seen outside was in his eyes, except that up close it was tinged with insanity. Then Mr. Dignity grabbed the spotlight again and everything changed. He raised his eyebrows politely, curiously. The lab laser snapped off. “Yes? Can I help you?”
I took the direct route, appealed to the dignified guy rather than the wacky, scared one. I wanted to get out of that cubicle as fast as I could. The smell that had hit me when I entered the structure was nothing to what was in here. I was at the source. The table-space he’d been working at was piled with the corpses of dead actors and I didn’t think they were j ust this AM’s take. Cleanliness wasn’t part of Mr. Fast Knife’s scientific method. I wanted to do my impeccability thing and be gone away from here, out of this reeking space, out from under those cloying clouds, off this sick little planet. I was humble, apologetic, embarrassed for taking up his valuable time. He was forgiving, gracious, eager to please. Maybe I was overplaying it, too. He invited me to lunch.
17. The Tale of the Frisky Weasel
That tour group and I were linked by destiny to spend the twe nty four together. Rita’s Ralph House was the third stop on their cultural tour of Torlolia, and was where the good med Sickle took me for a chat and a chew. He acknowledged the guide’s greeting with another one of his meaningless waves and took me to a far corner of the restaurant ’s seating area, which was on a back deck that hung out over Orion’s Lake. They called it a lake even though you couldn’t see any water. What you could see was the slimy grey layer of vegetation that covered the lake, said to be three meters thick in places. It undulated dully with the motion of the liquid beneath, a gelatinous carpet, framed by the perpetual Torlolian vegetation and the eternal Torlolian cloud cover. Not what I’d designate a garden spot, but the tourists were dutifully working their cams, forming and re-forming in grinning groups, with all that grey muck as a background, right next to the sign that warned in twelve languages the dangers of falling in.
“Two Ralphies, Rita,” Sickle told the Fungadorian that appeared at our table-space. “And something to inhale, perhaps?” He gave me a hopeful look.
“Please,” I said. “And this is on my account, of course.” The good med brightened and ordered up a couple of expensive canisters. Rita scuttled off to oblige. Sickle looked out at the jiggling lake scum.
“Your first visit to Torlolia, Mr…I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten …?”
“Tide. Red Tide, and, yes, it is. Interesting planet.”
“Ha!” he exploded, loud enough to snag some wary glances from the tourist bunch across the way. “It’s the waste repository of the galaxy is what it is. Designed to disgust. Designed to disgust.” Med Sickle was prone to repetition if he found he liked the taste of a phrase. “But our destinies are in the driver’s space, aren’t they?” he continued. “We go wither they fly us. Hence my own incarceration upon this slimy sphere.”
I was hungry, ‘was’ being the optimum word as soon as Rita arrived with our lunch and mists and I realized what a Ralphie was. An immature actor tucked into a bun stared up at me with its two dead eye-holes. I stared back at it, feeling like I’d just stepped in something of mysterious and disgusting origin. The good med was working his lips, obviously dealing with some salivary action that the arrival of the cooked thespian had set off, as he poured, shook, and splattered every condiment the table-space had to offer on the crisp, grey back of the dead thing. He took a healthy hiss of his mist cartridge before asking heartily, “And what destiny leads you hither, sir?”
I’d been vague back in the cubicle of stink, not wanting to go into lengthy explanations while bile was tickling the back of my throat. I’d indicated that his expertise in the breeding of actors had ‘led me hither’. As Sickle took a man-sized bite, lopping off the head of his lunch, I told him, “I’m investigating a string of murders.”
Med Sickle froze. He stopped chewing. His hand, which had been reaching for his mist, stopped dead still in mid air. His eyes flicked to my face and he gave me the look. I wasn’t trying to trip him up. It wasn’t a technique I was employing to catch him unawares. I was being blunt because, simply, I wanted out. My salute to impeccability would end as soon as I got out of this restaurant and I wanted to get out of this restaurant. The smell of the sandwich was a bit too close to the smell in Sickle’s nasty lab. I had figured the slightly crazy sci-guy that was eating his work across from me had nothing to offer in the realm of revelation. But that was before he gave me the look.
I’ve seen the look a thousand times. Once you’ve seen it you never forget it. You never mistake it for something else. The shidoans have a saying, “you can’t be here because i already am.” They’re talking about the nature of water. You can’t drop a rock in water, they say, without making waves. No way. Not in the finite reality that is our universe. Drop a rock. Make a wave. Period. It’s about displacement. Water is ultimately displaceable. That’s its nature, unless it’s frozen, and then it’s no longer water. It’s ice.
And so it is, the shidoans continue, with the look. The look is a wave. It’s a result of displacement, too. It doesn’t happen for no reason. It happens for a reason. I’ d just dropped a rock deep in Med Sickles’ brain, and the look was the displaced wave that splashed behind his eyes. My quest for impeccability had just paid off. I knew it as surely as I knew I wouldn’t be putting this lunch anywhere near my mouth. It was guilt that sat, frozen, before me. I didn’t know the nature of the guilt, how deep it went, whether it was guilt in action or simply guilt in knowledge, but guilt is guilt. Guilt is the absence of innocence. When guilt arrives, innocence gets displaced.
“Are you all right, sir?” I asked, seeming quietly concerned, while at the same time letting him know that I’d seen the look, the look had been noted. He looked back at me. It melted away, the look, but Mr. Dignity didn’t take its place this time. Instead it changed to something else, something without artifice, something weary and old. Its owner slowly began to chew again, tastelessly, like a robot, swallowed. Then he smiled, a curiously cold, confident smile, letting me know that he knew that I had noted the look. He continued his interrupted movement to grab his mist, had a good, long suck. He dropped his actor sandwich on his plate-space, stood and walked to the railing that separated the restaurant’ s deck from the lake of slime. I let him make the march alone, then stood up and followed. His eyes were scanning the undulating carpet.
“I’m always reminded of the apocryphal tale of Bootes when I look at this lake. Heard it?”
“Can’t say I have.” I was letting him run. That’s another thing about guilt. It likes to talk.
“They tried to clear it once.”
“The lake. For water sports of all things. As if anyone on Torlolia is in the mood for sport. Clearing it wasn’t the problem, of course. All that required was a decent amount of defoliant. Do you know what the problem was?”
“Keeping it cleared,” I guessed.
He smiled. “Exactly. Keeping it cleared. They’d go to sleep at PM and by AM it’d be slick with slime. Take a twenty-four off and it’d be a couple of millimeters thick. Leave for a seven and it’d be back in its entirety. Greedy scum. Greedy scum.” He turned to look at me. “That’s what happened when they introduced the Furratum Disculpious.”
“To the lake?”
“To Bootes. Bootes was a quaint little orb in the Arcturus system. Just east of the Corona Borealis. E.O.”
“Right you are. Had a delicious clime. Long growing season. Gentle sunlight. In a word, paradise. Then along came the Furratum Disculpious, known by its popular moniker, the frisky weasel. Probably introduced as a pet. Some parental gift to a beloved offspring. Cute as a child’s toy. Furry, affectionate, clean in its habits, playful. A delight. Except for one thing.”
“That being?” I fed him.
He looked back out at the lake. “They copulated like mad demons. They could copulate a dozen times a sixty, if they chose. And they chose.”
He barked that laugh again. “Ha! Right you are again. Wouldn’t you. Wouldn’t you. Naturally they began to spread. Wasted no time in escaping the bounds of their pens, cages, and cubicles. Took to the wild where they spent the better part of their twenty fours copulating and eating. Eating and copulating. One frisky weasel doesn’t eat a whole lot. But a billion? By the time the inhabitants woke up to the threat, it was too late. Horrendous scenes followed, right out of the dreams of the mad. Wholesale slaughter of the furry creatures. The surface was slick with the blood of the cute. The squeals were deafening as millions of the sweet things went under the knife, the gun, the ray, the spray. All to no avail. The ecosystem was devastated. Vegetation gone. Vegetation eaters gone. Meat eaters gone. The very climate changed. Desertification. Loss of atmosphere. Finally, sentients gone. They left it to the hordes of copulating fur balls. Since there was nothing left to eat, they began to eat each other. Natural selection kicked in. Those with the sharpest teeth survived, passed their eager genes on. The species evolved into a clawed, fanged thing with a naked head and a vicious attitude. Ugly as sin. It took close to twenty twelves, but finally the last one ate the second to the last one and it was all over. Paradise laid waste by a frisky weasel.”
“Sounds like a cautionary tale to me.”
“I never looked at it like that. I only saw in it the incorruptibility of the principle of generation. Life is programmed to survive and to propagate, given the opportunity.”
“Strive to thrive,” I quoted him.
“That’s right. We claw our way into the universe, and, like the frisky weasel, if claws will keep us breathing another sixty, another little sixty, we will grow claws. Life can’t be stopped, trust me. There may be obstacles in the vehicle zone but the vehicle of life will navigate them. Those obstacles will be gotten by. Not by me? Fine. I have no complaint with that.”
“What are you talking about, Med Sickle?”
He looked at me and the glint of madness was back. His eyes went wide, showing too much white. “I know where this is going. Scientists must be realists. Anything less is a recipe for failure.”
“Where what is going?”
He took hold of the railing, leaned back, took a deep breath of the noxious air of Torlolia, released it in a heart-felt sigh, and said with a sneer on his face and in his voice, “You’re the detective. Why should I do your job for you? Nobody did mine for me. You figure it out.” And he launched himself over the railing. One little sixty he was standing next to me, the next he was in the air. He sliced through the slime covering the lake like a kitchen-laser through a gelatinous dessert. The wound was instantly healed with his passage. One of the tourists screamed. Rita appeared next to me.
“Anything we can do?” I asked, as we both stared down at the featureless surface below us.
The fungadorian shook her head. “It be deep,” she explained. “There be current down there. By time you find him? He be dead long time.” He was dying now, silently, in the dark, as we stood there, as the tourists crowded the rail, pressing off pic after pic of the blank, undulating surface. His mouth was filled with slimy juice, stopping it forever from revealing the guilt that caused him to give me the look, the look that made him jump into the deadly scum. He be dead long time.
18. Ransom of the Red Dwarf
My companion and I maneuvered our way across the lobby of the Arcturus Memorial Performance Center, through a glittering crowd of excited sentients, clothed in finery, precious gems, and elaborate hair creations. The place was abuzz with a hundred tongues and other organs of vocalization. Sure enough, my deepest fears had been realized. I was going to see a play.
Any sentient who was any sentient was here, which didn’t begin to explain my presence. I caught a glimpse of Canis Major, stuffed into his formal suit which seemed to be a size or two too small. He looked right at me and feigned bored non-recognition. I called over his nick-name from our twenty fours in the Greys, “Hey, Caney!” just to pull his mag leash. I also got the cold stare, or, rather, eight of them, from Mr. Pierre, my once-upon-a-time barber. The Derovitian widow, Ms. D’erotodlivver was holding court in one corner. In another, I spotted Andy Romeda happily chatting with a couple other members of his fine arts committee. He gave my companion a glance and frowned a question at me. I returned a non-committal shake of the head. The lights dimmed. A buzzer sounded. I took my companion by the elbow and steered toward the entrance to the Inner Theatre.
True to her word Ariadne Sulpher had saved a couple seat-spaces for me. They were right on the edge of the audience band, the side that bordered Theatre 2. We settled in. I activated the program and perused it until the audience had maneuvered into their seat-spaces and quit their elbow jostling and animated jawing. The lights dimmed. The music swelled. The play began.
The action started in Theatre 1, above our heads, from our gravitational reality. I’d seen it all in rehearsals, minus the costumes and dramatic lighting. It was different in performance, and even a crass clown such as myself had to admit, there was an excitement charging the atmosphere. It impelled the story and resonated with depth, unlike the flat, worksentient’s feeling of the preparatory stuff. We were introduced to Phobos, Ophiuchus Jones’ character, his lovely wife, played by Ariadne, and son, represented by the red actor-thing, Lop Side. They were rich and happy and love flowed through their cubiclehold. Lop Side dutifully kissed his parents and headed off to school.
Switch to Theatre 2. Here comes Lop Side, the red son, namesake of the play, his school back pack adhered to his twisted back. “What a joy is morn,” he says. “How softly does our star peer from the shoulder of our moon. Though I may be crippled in form, yet my heart is unimpaired and fills with the sweet wonder of existence. But who comes here? Who are these that impede my path?”
The rest of the troupe of actors slide in from all points of the compass, surrounding Lop Side. “We are of the Committee for a Free Quadrant,” the green one snarls.
“We struggle against tyranny in all manifestations,” says Mr. Blue.
“We have pledged our last oxygen intake to the task of liberty for all sentience,” adds Yellow.
“You, young dwarf, are coming with us,” throws in White. “Your corporeality will be accounted for, if not in chits, then in plasma that is as red as yourself.”
“My father is no poli,” Lop Side complains. “He is a busi-sentient. He oppresses no one.”
Black steps forward. “You lie from ignorance, oh twisted one. He has become rich from the fruit of the collective forest. For every chit he has accounted, a thrill of misery has been enjoined. You are our prisoner. Struggle not, or pain shall be your reward.”
They move in on him. “Help! Oh, help!” he calls out. “I am encapsulated!” Lights out on Theatre 2. Lights up on Theatre 1. Enter Ariadne, agitated, followed by Jones, concerned.
“What is it, my contractee?” Jones intones. “Why do you start? Why do you stare? Why do you wring your appendages and clench your incisors?”
“I know not,” Aradne replies. “I am all frozen to the core. My heart beats against my chest like some caged beast. I am sure some thing of horror is in the works.”
And so it went. The scion of Phobos’ gazillions was kidnapped. The ransom demand was sent. Phobos’ long hesitating slide began, and Lop Side, much to Ariadne’s horror, started to be subtracted. It wasn’t until late in Act 1 that Ariadne made it over to our theatre. Back over in number 1, Jones was lying to Detective Giacombinni-Zinner, and Aradne showed up on our side to angst in the background. Her back was to us when the lights went up. Lop Side had hunkered into a box-shape, representing one more package of gore, sent from the revolutionary kidnappers. Ariadne pulled the move I’d seen her rehearsing. It seemed so very long ago after two trips through a warp-point.
She turned, took two steps, threw an arm down upon spotting the box and froze. She had a line, I knew, from watching her work before, but she didn’t say it. She wasn’t looking at the box any longer. She was staring fixedly at my companion. Med Sickle, actor-breeder and sci-guy, late of the planet Torlolia, sat next to me.
The audience was rapt, waiting. They were used to her taking, long pauses filled with a rising emotion from which she would characteristically burst into speech. But not this time. She took one step back, then another. Her hand, as if it had a mind of its own, lifted, lost itself in her mane of luxurious hair, took hold and pulled. It came away, all of it. Beneath she was as bald as an egg. Now the audience knew that something was wrong. An undercurrent of murmuring, gasping, confused whispering, the rustling of material, began to race through the theatre. Ariadne dropped her wig to surface. Her breathing became audible, a ragged, shuddering kind of breathing. Her eyes, her huge actor’s eyes, became huger still, filled with a fear. Anguish swept over her features. She raised both her hands now and pressed them against her head, as if to prevent it from splitting in two. The anguish became pain. She glistened with sweat. She shuddered. She shook her head, no, no. And then she changed.
Her face seemed to melt and another face took its place. She gained forty annuals, an up-turned nose, a double-chin, all within the space of a few seconds. Someone screamed. The noise in the audience swelled to a roar as Ariadne changed again. Her skin turned bright amber, her nose became three holes in the center of her face, her mouth disappeared altogether. She had changed races, become a N’oc’to’sa’berian before our very eyes.
“Ariadne!” >From the far side of the theatre, Ophiuchus Jones bellowed. “Ariadne! No!” With everyone else I turned to look. He was desperately clawing his way through the audience band, trying to reach her. But she was gone, in more ways than one. She changed again and again. Now she was a man, now a woman, now a Verutovian, now a Sentient Ant from Tega 6. Her body flailed about as if the changes constituted some strange form of seizure. Then I put them together, then I knew where I’d seen them before. They were the faces of the victims that had been profiled on Killers Up Close!, the victims of murder that had formed a trail of mayhem that had followed Ophiuchus Jones and his troupe of actors across the galaxy. Something told me Ariadne had seen them, too. But not on the zone.
Jones burst out from the fringe of horrified audience. “A riadne!” he went for her, but she threw up a hand bringing him to a dead stop. She was Ariadne again, staring fixedly to surface. She lifted her eyes slowly, and sought me out, locked eyes with me. The hint of a smile reached across to me. Then she looked up, up, up, to Theatre 1 above her head. She seemed to be concentrating, willing something to happen. The hand she still held raised, turned into a claw. She sank to her knees. She jerked as her stomach clenched, clenched again.
“Ariadne, no!” Jones bound forward, grabbing at her, but stepped back immediately looking at the hand that had touched her, then waving it in the air as if it stung. He watched in desperation and confusion as, once more, she jerked with some inner spasm. She opened her mouth wide, wide, as wide as humanly possible and then some more, as if her jaw had become unhinged. Wisps of smoke rolled out of it. She spasmed again and suddenly vomited forth, spewed, really, a gush of liquid, thick like mucous, that poured out and down over her face. A moaning erupted from her and rose into a shriek, a bubbling shriek because the vomiting continued. Her features began to melt again. But they weren’t going anywhere this time. They were just melting. Ariadne Sulpher was dissolving before our eyes. She cried out like an inhuman thing. Lop Side melted out his box-shape as the rest of the troupe of actors piled out of the entrances. They’d lost all character, had become the plain grey lumps they were. They slithered and flopped across the stage area, surrounded Ariadne and took up her cries as if they felt the pain she was in. They danced on her perimeter like a parent watching their child burn and being able to do nothing about it. Ophiuchus made one more attempt to get to her and the animals nearest him turned viciously, snarling and roaring in beastly rage. He staggered back and sank to the surface, weeping. Pandemonium shook the theatre. Panicked theatre-goers fought for the exits, stumbled over each other, screaming.
“Oh, my love, my sweet,” Ophiuchus moaned. The fluid pouring out of her was caustic. Her skin melted. Her flesh bubbled. She smoked with the heat. The theatre’s combustion detection system sensed the hot spot and kicked in, spraying a fine mist into the space from a thousand points, transforming it into a foggy landscape. What had been Ariadne screamed in agony, fell to the surface and rolled over and over, leaving a blackened, smoking, greasy trail across the surface. She took a long time to come to rest. Most of the audience had fled. Those that remained stood in shocked silence staring at the smear on the surface of Theatre 2. The actors, still vocalizing an undefined emotion, closed ranks around her remains. Canus Major appeared next to me.
“What the hell just happened, Tide?”
I intoned, staring at the mess on the floor, at the ring of protective animals, “You figure it out. Why should I do your job for you? Nobody did mine for me.” He grabbed me with one hand, shoved me aside, but didn’t let me go.
“Who is this?” he snarled, staring at Med Sickle, standing next to me. Sickle stared back, confused, looking scared, like a child. “Who are you!?” Major yelled. Sickle looked to me.
“Down,” I said. He sank to the floor and as he did, he morphed back into the actor-thing that he really was.
Canus Major didn’t let go of me until a couple of his heavy matter types had been summoned to take over the job. They hustled me over to Grey Headquarters and into one of their ugly little cubicles where the lights hurt the eyes and the chair-spaces hurt the hindquarters. They let me sit for a couple of twenty-fours until Canus Major hustled in and stood over me exuding his usual brand of threat.
“Let’s have it,” he said. So I gave it to him.
“He spliced her.”
“Who spliced who?”
“Med Sickle spliced Ariadne Sulpher.”
“Spliced her with what?”
Major turned away in disgust. “Oh, hell…” He swung back, made a big sigh. “Let’s start at the top, Tide. Don’t leave anything out.”
So I started at the top. I told him how I’d been hired by Lyra and Regulus Charioteer to either establish or disprove their child Altair’s guilt in the murders he’d been atomized for. I told him how I’d started my quest on Torlolia, the ancestral home of the actor. I told him how I came to be standing on the deck of Rita’s Ralph House staring down at the slimy grave of Med Sickle.
“Why’d he jump?” Major demanded.
“I don’t know for sure. This is where the rumors start. It’s conjecture from here on in.”
“I got you.”
“I think he knew it would come out. What he’d been up to.”
“He’d done it before, apparently, a couple of three hundred and sixty fives back. Those were the rumors, anyway, that were floating around the actor industry. Seems a pack of poli’s showed up. That’s what everybody figured they were, anyway. But they weren’t looking for the usual; actors-doubles. They didn’t bother with the training center. They went straight to Sickle’s farm. And some of the bunch that showed up were wearing quad collars.”
“When they passed through the terminal, some were dangling, dead from the neck down, no doubt about it. Something was going on, that’s for sure. Sickle booted his regular staff out for a couple of fifty-seconds, gave them a paid vacation. That sent a ripple through the community, because Sickle wasn’t known for his generosity. When the poli-types passed through the terminal on their way out, they were minus the quad collars.”
“They weren’t prisoners anymore?”
“They weren’t period. Less left than arrived.”
“What happened to them?”
“Nobody knows. But Sickle’d been playing mix and match for awhile. This came from his staff. Harmless stuff mostly. Splicing actor DNA with invertebrates. And a couple of tons of new equipment had been showing up before all this started. Sickle’s account had gotten inexplicably fatter.”
“So they figured these prisoners got spliced?”
“That’s what they figured.”
I shook my head. “No idea. But they think it was a failure, what ever it was.”
“What made them figure that?”
“Sickle. He got depressed after they left. Angry. He was never the nicest human, but afterwards he became intolerable. Sucked a lot of mist. Started to go downright out of the zone, according to some. I thought he had a few lobes loose myself.”
“So Sulpher got the same treatment as the prisoners?”
“Looks like. She spent some time at the farm, which was strange enough. Usually they don’t go anywhere near the pits. They get their animals delivered to the training center. But she showed up and spent some time sequestered with Sickle. When she got back to the center, rumor has it, she didn’t look so good.”
“But why? Why would she do that? That’s crazy.”
“So you accounted yourself an actor, trained him to imitate Sickle…”
“Imprinted, that’s what they call it.”
“…and brought him here. Why?”
I shrugged. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Give it to me anyway. I’ll decide what I like.”
“The shidoans have a saying…”
“Oh, sibling…” He rolled his eyes, disgusted-like.
“I told you you wouldn’t like it.”
“I was at a dead end. Nothing but conjecture, like I said. And even if it was true, so what? So Ariadne Sulpher got an injection of actor crap. So some poli’s had been playing the same game with some prisoners? Who cares? They were probably heading for the break-down terminal anyway, if I know my poli’s. Why kill yourself over it? Why take a dive in a lake of slime. Unless…”
“Unless there was more to it than some sick science.”
“Murder. That’s what he was afraid was going to be laid at his door-space step.”
“You think he did those murders?”
“ I didn’t say he did them.”
“Then who?” I was silent, letting him do the brain work. He did. “Not Ariadne Sulpher?”
“You saw her tonight. Those were the victims that she cycled through.”
“She could have seen those on the zone.”
“Why recreate them just before she went up in smoke?”
“How should I know? You’re reaching, Tide.” He turned away, stared at the wall, frowning. Then he threw back over his shoulder, “What’s this shidoan saying?”
“‘Shake the box.’ That’s the short version. The long one is, ‘if you find a box and are afraid there’s something nasty in it, shake it before you stick your appendage in.’ I wondered what Ariadne would do if she thought her secret was about to come out. I didn’t know she’d self-destruct.”
He wheeled back on me. “Well, you shook it all right. And now all the principal actors are dead, if I can use that term in another context.”
“Except for one.”
“Ophiuchus Jones. Rumor has it he was with Ariadne at the farm.”
Major turned to one of his subordinates. “Get Jones over here. Now.”
They wasted no time, and neither had Ophiuchus Jones. They found him at warp-point central about to scoot halfway across the galaxy. They brought him back. It didn’t take long before he was blabbering for all he was worth. I knew his type. He was one of these sentients that play dirty with every fiber of their being and then, when it all comes out, confesses to it with the same total fervor.
“It was my fault. It was all my fault,” he chanted. As usual he overplayed it, even if the emotion behind his words was genuine. “I’m guilty.”
“Guilty of what?” Major asked.
“I pushed her into it. I pressured her. I preyed on her fears.”
“Fear of what?”
“Of losing it.”
“Losing what? Let’s stop talking in code, Mr. Jones. I’m a simple Grey operative.” I managed to control a snigger.
“It!” Ophiuchus said passionately. “The spark! The inspiration! The magic! Her talent, man! Her talent! It was all my fault.” He buried his face in his hands. “I should have coddled that which I whipped. I should have used it spoonful by spoonful. Instead I gulped it down! I pushed her out onto the circuit. I added plays. I extended the season. I bullied her. I berated her. I was greedy.” He looked up, did a pretty fair imitation of Ariadne Sulpher. “’I can’t do it, Ophiuchus,’ she said to me. ‘I’m all used up.’ Did I listen? I did not. All I could think of was my account. I knew she was nearing the end. You can’t give as much as she gave and expect it to go on forever. It’s irreplaceable. Especially if you abuse it by going to the fount too often. She was the fount. I was the fool who gobbled it up.”
“So you were over-working her. What happened then?”
“We went to Torlolia to pick up our troupe. And I heard the rumors.”
Major flicked his eyes over to me. “What rumors?”
“About Med Sickle. About certain experiments.” He put his hand over his eyes, a gesture of abject shame. “He’d been splicing actor and human. I thought if Ariadne could have a taste of that, just a taste, it would buoy her up. If she was part actor herself it would give her the strength to continue. I was desperate. She was weary, so weary. I could see she wasn’t going to make it. She was on the verge of snapping. You have to understand,” he appealed to us, “that ’s all she lived for. To act was her life. If she lost that she would have nothing. I was trying to help her.”
Canus Major hissed between clenched teeth.
“Why?” I threw in from the corner Canus Major had allowed me to occupy.
Jones looked confused. “I told you. It was her life…”
“No, no.” I stood up. “Why had Med Sickle been splicing actors and humans before you showed up? What for?”
Jones swallowed hard. “He was a scientist. That’s what they do. They, they push the boundaries. They…”
“Uh uh.” I stood over him. “Who were the poli’s? Why were they covering the accounting for the experiments?”
Jones looked up at me like I was something with claws and teeth and was considering eating him. He swallowed hard again. Then nodded, almost imperceptively. He looked around as if the walls had ears, leaned forward and whispered. “Spies! They were spies! They trying to create the ultimate operative, that’s was they wanted. A sentient that could change his form at will. Think of it! No door-space would be closed to him. There would be no confidence that would be denied him. No victim he could not get next to. It was a brilliant idea, really.”
“What went wrong?”
“Wrong? I don’t know what you…”
I grabbed him by the front of his suit, yanked him to his feet. “What went wrong!?”
“Easy, Tide,” Major growled, but didn’t step between us.
Jones was gasping in fear. He stammered, “The subjects, the…” his eyes toured the cubicle guiltily, “…volunteers,” he lied, “They’d gone insane, murderously insane! They turned on each other, They turned on their bosses. They had to destroy them.”
I threw him to the surface like a dirty thing. Major joined me standing over him, his hands knotted into fists. “And knowing that you pushed the Sulpher woman into going down the same corridor?”
“Med Sickle said he’d been working on the process!” Jones wailed. “He thought he’d beaten the problems! He said the subjects before weren’t rational to begin with! He was confident the same thing wouldn’t happen again!”
“But it did, didn’t it?”
Jones clamped his mouth shut like a kid caught with an illegal cookie. His eyes searched for succor and found none.
“Didn’t it!” Major roared.
Jones burst forth, weeping and talking at the same time, an avalanche of words. “Yes! Yes, it did! It did! It was the third stop on the tour. She woke up that morning, screaming. I rushed into her cubicle and her hair, her beautiful hair, her luxurious hair, was all over the bed space. It had fallen out in the PM. It was taking hold, you see? The process. We got her a wig. We were doing The Decapitation of Capricornus.” He calmed then, remembering, “That PM she was brilliant, as good as I’d ever seen her. Effervescent. But afterwards, after the performance she was nervous. She couldn’t sit still, couldn’t sleep. I thought she was just excited from the show. She went for a walk, to burn off some energy. I went to my bed-space. In the AM, it was all over the news. Someone had been killed. Horribly. I went in to wake her up. I stood over her.” He squinched his eyes shut as if feeling pain. “She was clutching it like a child’s rag doll.”
“The head! The head! The victim’s head was missing! It was all over the comm-zone. Just like in the play! I screamed at her, ‘Ariadne, what have you done!’ She was like she was on mist. Groggy. I slapped her and all she did was laugh.” He sneered with distaste, remembering. “She was like some beast, sated from the kill. Covered with blood. I didn’t know what to do. I was torn between turning her in and…” He appealed to us again, fresh tears springing from his eyes. “But I couldn’t. Not my Ariadne. Not my precious Ariadne. She was my life, my soul.”
“Your meal ticket.” I threw in.
He stared at the surface shamefully. “I dumped the head in the break-down terminal. Atomized it. Cleaned her up. We moved on.”
“And she did it again.”
“I tried to stop her! Really I did! But it was like a compulsion. It would build in her over time. She became like a caged animal. I tried to lock her up. I tried to control her. But she was wild. It would have been me, don’t you see? She would have killed me if I hadn’t let her out! She was insane!”
It clicked for me. One of those shidoan snap-pics of sudden clarity. “No, she wasn’t.” I said. Everyone in the cubicle looked at me. “She reverted. That’s why her goo got toxic just like the ancestors of the actors. They were meat eaters. She was just following a couple billion years of evolution. She was on the hunt.”
20. A Case Of Rescue
Andy Romeda had been right, although he hadn’t known the half of it, back when he’d told me that Ariadne Sulpher was committing suicide. I’d seen it in her eyes when she looked at me, just before she’d coughed up that scum and burned herself to death. It was a purposeful act that had started long before the end. It had started back on Torlolia when she’d let Ophiuchus Jones and Med Sickle splice her with the genes of greasy bunnies. She’d been waiting since then for somebody to put the digit on her, to stop her, to put her out of her misery. When they finally did, she took care of the details herself. Suicide by acting. I suppose there are worse ways to go, but not many.
I sat in my office cubicle on the corner of Capricorn and 1,145th staring at the view I’d dialed on my wall-window. It was of space, just space, a few stars. Stars. Giant balls of raging hydrogen, but so far away they seemed like friendly points of light. They were like the emotions we sentients are blasted with as we move through this life. The farther away we get from them, the less they blaze. They become harmless dots that wink out and are forgotten, until we bump into the next blazing rage. So it was with the tragedy of Ariadne Sulpher. She was fading into the background. She, too, would be forgotten.
Hub had convulsed itself once again with her passing. The comm-zone shows had obsessed about her for a couple of fifty seconds. Killers Up Close! had squawked with the exact same outrage and self-righteous tone they’d used when Altair Charioteer had been their subject. No hint of the fact that they’d had it all wrong was made and nobody seemed to notice. This time Ophiuchus Jones was the target of their venom. Ariadne retained her image as “brilliant artist” with “tragic victim” thrown in for good measure. When Killers Up Close! was done, Justice on Parade, took over, the comm-zone show that “takes you right into the judges’ chamber-cubicle.” Jones was given a hefty sentence for concealing, if not condoning the murders. He gave quite an impassioned speech at his sentencing, full of remorse and dramatic angst. He said he would write his memoirs in his cell-space as a “warning to all who seek to profit from murder,” and managed to hint that they’d make a hell of a comm-zone movie before the judge cut him off.
It was cold comfort to Regulus and Lyra Charioteer that their son was proved innocent, as cold as the corpse that Lyra, in her dogged, determined way, had managed to re-construct from a billion or so pieces of blasted flesh. She put him back together just to send him into the break-down terminal to once again be taken apart. But she’d succeeded in her quest, her quest to find out what he’d been reaching for when the Greys opened up on him with everything they had, what he’d been reaching for again and again at the widow D’erotodlivver’s swanky party. They’ d reconstructed that, too. She showed it to me at the ceremony to send him on his way.
“What is it?” I asked, as she held it out to me, a simple blue tube with a couple of button-indicators inscribed on it.
“Pheromone collector,” she said and broke down as she said it. I wrapped the ugly woman in my arms and let her soak the shoulder of my suit with her tears. So there it was. Altair Charioteer had only been trying to collect a sample of Ariadne Sulpher’s pheromones. He’d wanted to own a few infinitesimal pieces of the woman he worshiped and adored, invisible, microscopic, but real. Lyra clamped down on her pain, pushed me away with a terse nod of thanks and went to put the collector with the galactic remains of her son. They sent him off. They were off, too, she and her contractee. They were done with Hub. They were retiring to one of their planets where they would settle down to wait. To wait to heal or to succumb to the pain of their loss. Looking at the ashen shell that Regulus presented, I suspected it would be a long wait.
I went back to my office-cubicle and here I sat, waiting also, because I wasn’ t alone. Over in the corner, the slimy actor-thing I’d accounted on Torlolia was doing nasty things to my surface. I’d made arrangements for it to be picked up and taken back home. It was probably the only actor-thing on Hub at the min, because the Consensus, in their wisdom had decided the actors of Ophiuchus Jones’ troupe had to be destroyed. The reasoning was that they’d been ruined by their contact with a human that was part of them as well, but I suspected it was more some twisted expression of revenge for the whole sordid affair. The Consensus tended to think that way. Somebody had to pay for the mess, if not somebody, then some thing, and it was all so awful that death seemed the only worthy rate of exchange. Hence, they killed a pack of poor, dumb animals.
My door-space indicator buzzed. I opened it and there stood Io, the Puastafordeller actor-wrangler. She trotted in on her tiny feet, waved a tiny hand, said, “Hey, Mr. Tide,” in her tiny voice. She was ready for travel. A dented, faded-red case, covered with winking, living pictures from all the corners of the galaxy she’d visited, was adhered to her back, towering over her tiny head.
“Don’t lean forward, Io,” I said. “if that thing falls on you, you’re a goner.”
She buzzed that crazy, insect-sound that passed for laughter in her circle and dis-attached the case, setting it to surface. She didn’t waste any time seeking out her charge. The actor-thing was up, staring at her with its meaningless eyes. “Is this the squirt I’m supposed to take home?”
“That ain’t an ‘it’. That’s a girl.”
I shook my head. “How the hell can you tell?”
“Oh, I can tell. Ain’t you a girl?” she said to it in an excited tone that made “her” come to life, recognizing a pal. “She” flopped and slithered over and Io rubbed the disgusting “girl”, pulling a handful of the pre-digested slop they eat out of her pocket. “She” swallowed most of Io’s arm slurping it up.
“No problem. I’ll send you whatever chits I get for her.”
“Don’t bother. Consider it your fee for giving me a clean surface back.”
She buzzed a laugh. “Yeah? Then maybe I’ll keep this one for myself. She looks like a good breeder. I’m thinking of setting up a farm when I get home.”
“Best of luck. Sorry about what happened to that other bunch.”
“Yeah, me, too.” Io said. She stood for a few little sixtys in silence. There was nothing more she could say on the subject. Then she came to life. “Well, I’d best get a move on. I got a date with a warp-point. You mind? I know this gal’s been imprinted. Easier to get across Hub that way.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Up,” she said to the girl actor-thing, and it grew into Med Sickle. Io looked up at “him”. “That was one sick human, I gotta say. Weird to be traveling with him.”
“No argument,” I replied.
She re-adhered her traveling case to her back. I opened the door-space for her. “So long, Mr. Tide. Maybe we’ll meet again.”
“That’d be OK by me, Io.”
“Go on, girl.” Med Sickle trotted excitedly out the door-space, without a look back at me. Io started to step out, but paused in the door-space way, seeming to adjust the case on her back. Something moved on the surface of it, and as I watched, a face emerged. It was as if someone were surfacing from a pool of faded-red liquid. I realized it was my face. I winked at myself.
“That’d be OK by me, too,” I said, and then I was gone, melted back into the surface of the case. I chuckled. I chuckled again. I chuckled a third time and didn’t stop. The chuckle turned into a laugh. I threw back my head and laughed some more, and didn’t stop. Io joined me, buzzing her own brand and walked out. The door-space ceased to be, but my laughter didn’t, not for a long, long, time. It was a real belly-acher, a back-slapper, the kind that almost stops, then starts up again, until you can hardly remember what started you up in the first place. When I finally settled down, I found that my eyes were filled with tears, but from sadness or joy, I couldn’t begin to tell you. But that’s life, right? It’s not like the theatre. They don’t tell you going in if it’s a comedy or a tragedy.