Sunday, December 23, 2007

Chapter sixteen: And That Explained Everything

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His name was Lewis, just the one name both first and last. He told me with a laugh that he'd had another name, but he'd lost it in a poker game several years back. I didn't know whether he was pulling my leg, but then he told me he was a Stochastacist and that explained everything.

Stochastacists are also called Everites, not after their founder, but after some guy who wrote a paper in physics, ‘way back in the 20th century. It has something to do with quantum mechanics and alternate realities, and nobody really takes it too seriously except the Stochasticists who have built a sort of religion around gambling and luck. Lewis told me about some of the Chancings he'd been to, that's what they call a certain kind of ceremony, a Chancing, and they sounded very strange. Sometimes, at the instigation of tossed coins, or dice, or turned cards, or any number of other things, a Stochastacist would just up and change his or her entire life, going off to look for something or someone that they might never find, or going back to school, emigrating offworld, God only knows what all, and that may be the point for all I know.

Lewis himself had recently been at loose ends, so he went to a Chancing to see where he might go, and the fortune telling seemed to point him towards Sky City. Since the only skill he had that might be salable there was bloon piloting, he thought he'd try to get his near City sail license.

"Have you ever been to Sky City before?" I asked him.

"Nope," he replied with a grin.

"Does this bloon even have a transponder?" I asked, looking around and not seeing evidence of one.

"Nope again," he said, his grin getting even bigger.

"Do you have any money?" I asked, knowing full well what the answer would have to be.

"Third time nope," he said.

"Didn't anybody tell you that you needed these things even to dock at Sky City?"

He shrugged. "Oh, I didn't expect it to be easy," he said. "But you roll the cubes and see what turns up. If the wave function never collapsed, well, I could always head north again."

"But," he said with another lopsided grin, "I don't need any of those things now, do I? The dice came up eleven for me on this one."

I was still groggy from anoxia. "What do you mean?" I asked him.

"I've got you," he told me. "And you're going to help me out."

Hell, I thought. He's right.
Lewis told me about some of the Chancings he'd been to… and they sounded very strange.

"You know, pardner," he said as he watched my reaction with amusement. "We Everites think that odd happenstances are what life is all about. Every one of us is an odd happenstance when you think about it; life itself is an oddity, and conception and birth are highly unlikely events. Now here you are, somebody blows you out of the sky, and you climb onto a damn topfoil and managed to fly it back up from down below, and who should you happen to snag onto but me? The one guy in the whole sky here who can really appreciate what this is. Man, I was actually starting to question my faith, and the dice pulled up a goddamn miracle for me. Hell's bells, I could take you to my minister and he'd nominate you for Stochastic Sainthood. Anybody as unlikely as you to be alive is a Saint as far as we're concerned. And now you're going to help me get into Sky City, just like the dice told me to do, aren't you?"

I smiled weakly and shook my head in bemusement. What do you do when you find yourself as a bit player in somebody else's movie? "Yes, I guess I will," I told him. "One of us at least got really lucky today, and I'd just as soon say it was you."

# #

My fall had taken me farther out than I'd figured, and so far down that the differential drift had been sizable. Apparently I'd also wound up gliding almost due east in my frantic search, with the net result that we were now about 30 kilometers northeast of Sky City. Lewis had been doing a zigzag tack to slowly catch up to the City when I'd entered the picture, and we had lost some distance in the interim. I figured that our best approach was to connect to the Circle, and take it from there.

The first large cluster on the Circle east of the City is Norville, and the second is Howston. The third is Hagentown, and that's where Lewis and I pulled in. I used my deb card to berth his bloon, and rented a motor squid for the ride back to the City. But first I called Marjori Low.

"Hello, darling," were her first words, and I noticed that I still liked the way they sounded in her voice. "Where are you?"

"Hagentown," I answered. "It's a long story."

"You can tell me over dinner," she suggested.

I sighed. My back was beginning to seize up from the strain of muscling the topfoil around, and my skin felt like I'd gone swimming in vitriol. It occurred to me that before we even started back, I needed to wash off.

"Look," I told her, "Remember that part about 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know?" I felt her stiffen at the other end.

"Yes?" she said, her voice tightening as well.

"I may have just gotten considerably more dangerous to know. Somebody just tried to kill me, I have no idea who."

"Oh, dear," she said, her voice reflecting genuine concern. "Is there any way that I can help?"

"I hadn't really thought about that," I told her. "I'm more concerned with your safety. I seem to have become a bit radioactive all of a sudden, and you might want to reconsider getting close to somebody this hot."
"Somebody just tried to kill me, I have no idea who."

She was silent long enough to make me wonder if I'd said something tactless. But finally she said, "Ed, this is on the level, right?"

"I wouldn't lie about something this important," I said.

"So it's my call, yes?" she asked.

I thought about that a moment. Yes, I thought to myself. She was an adult and able to make her own decisions. "Yes," I told her. "This one is really your call."

"Okay, then listen up," she said. "For the past several years I've been frozen in a goddamn ice cube. Liquor couldn't melt it, and neither could any of a stupid series of strange men in stranger circumstances. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever get warm, and then you come along, and for some reason, the ice cracks and I begin to thaw. Now you think I might want to get clear because you're too hot? Darling, I want that heat in the pit of my stomach, got that? I need you and I want you and I'm not going to let you out of my clutches, so forget that idea, just fold it up and toss it. Now are you coming to dinner tonight, or what?"

I felt a smile creep out from under my own private cloud. "Can I bring a new friend?" I asked her. "His name is Lewis. He and his dice just saved my life."

# #

We first headed back to Fumio's hotel. I'd hosed off with some water from a vending machine, but I needed a real shower and a change of clothing. Besides, I had to report Bess's loss and check on some other things.

Joey was naturally puzzled when Lewis and I pulled up in a rented squid with no Bess in sight. "Meet me down in the lobby," I told Lewis, and he nodded. I'd already told him about Joey, and I wasn't looking forward to this meeting.

"Where's Bess, Mr. Honlin?" he asked, straight off, the concern evident on his face and in his voice.

I lie a lot, but not to children, and Joey would always remain a child. And there wasn't much I could do to soften this one.

"I have bad news, Joey," I told him. "Bess is dead. Somebody tried to kill me and they got Bess as part of the try."

His face screwed up like he was going to cry, but he didn't. "How did it happen?" he asked.

"Somebody put some incendiaries on her outer skin. There were at least three of them and they blew too many holes in her for her to stay up."

He was still fighting the tears back, I could tell. I tried to soften it as best I could. "It was real quick, Joey, and bloons don't feel much pain anyway. I don't think she suffered."

Most people don't think much about bloons as living creatures; a lot of people don't make the distinction between living and dead ones, except as a matter of convenience. But Joey loved bloons probably like Sheila loved her plants. They are beneficial creatures without a trace of evil in them, and Joey responded to that.

He nodded at my words. "Who did it?" he asked.

I took a deep breath. "I don't know," I told him. "I was hoping you might remember something. Did you have to leave here for any stretch of time earlier today? To go to the bathroom maybe, or to take any sort of long break? It would have been at least ten or fifteen minutes."
Joey loved bloons probably like Sheila loved her plants.

His eyes darted a little, and his chin quivered. "It wasn't your fault, Joey," I told him. "It's not your job to be here every second, and you couldn't have known."

My words calmed him a little and he appeared to think. "There may have been once," he told me. "There was some guy with a lot of bags and he told me to help him take them to the lobby."

"Where was the front hop?" I asked.

"He told me to do it," Joey replied. "Even after I told him that I don't walk so well."

"How long were you gone?"

Joey shrugged. "I don't do so well with time, Mr. Honlin. You know that."

I put my hand on his shoulder. "You do fine, Joey," I told him. "You didn't see anybody else when this guy told you to carry his bags?" He shook his head.

"Would you recognize him again?" I asked.

"Maybe," he replied. "But he didn't check in. Maybe a half hour later he left again. He had the front boy carry his bags out again."

He looked at me seriously. "I didn't like him very much," he told me.

"No, I guess not," I said. "What did he look like?"

"Shorter than you are, but still big. Good muscles. He walked a little funny, like many of them do. Like everything is too heavy. Brown hair." He scrunched his forehead. "I can't remember what color his eyes were."

"That's okay," I told him. "You did very well. I wish all witnesses were as good as you."

Which was the honest truth, as I verified immediately. The front desk clerk had almost no recollection of the guy, who'd come in claiming a reservation that didn't exist. When the clerk had offered to book him anyway, the man refused and walked off. The desk clerk had forgotten his face by the time he was out of sight.

That made the man a decoy, probably, but whose? Thinking about that led to the question of who would want me dead, and that thought produced a depressingly long list. Especially since the bombs probably had a less than fifty-fifty chance of killing me, so it could have been someone just trying to scare me or maybe even just distract me a little. Someone who didn't care if the distraction went so far as turning my body into falling char.

So with those cheery thoughts on my mind, I went to look for Lewis.

I found him in the lounge, his back toward me, chatting with Madame Fumio. She was otherwise unescorted. She waved when she saw me, and when Lewis turned in my direction, she mouthed "Meren," silently and turned her thumb down in a quick gesture of dismissal.

Lewis, I thought to myself, you really are one lucky son of a bitch.

"Hi, Ed," said Lewis as I joined them. Madame Fumio here was just telling me how you used to be a cop on Luna."
Funny how nearly getting killed makes an attractive woman seem downright beautiful.

"That's me," I said cheerfully. "I'm going to get cards made up. 'Ed -- I used to be a cop on Luna, you know -- Honlin. No job too small or degrading. Special rates for cloud diving.'"

Fumio scowled fleetingly as her eyes took in my still macabre appearance. "I just asked Lewis how you two met and he told me that you just showed up out of the blue, and that I'd better ask you about it. Is there something I should know?"

I sighed. "Tell you what," I said. "I'm in urgent need of a full shower and change of clothes. Then I'd like to make a phone call." I smiled at her. Funny how nearly getting killed makes an attractive woman seem downright beautiful. "Then, if you can wait that long, and if Marjori says it's okay, I can tell everybody the whole thing over dinner."

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