Tuesday, July 15, 2008
It was late evening when I got to Police Headquarters, but Calvin was still there, just like he'd promised. He and another detective were sitting on opposite sides of a desk, going over printouts and eating bread pizza takeout from a street vendor.
"If I'd known you guys were hungry, I'd have offered to get you something," I said as I made my entrance.
Both of them looked up. With his mouth half-full, Calvin said, "That's okay, this is good stuff. The guy who makes it says he bakes his own bread, grows his own tomatoes, that sort of thing."
"Yeah, right," I told him and stuck out my hand to the guy on the other side of the desk. "I'm Ed Honlin," I said. "I don't think we've met."
He made that shifting of weight that people do when they abbreviate rising, and put out his hand to shake mine. His hand was faintly oily, and I'm sure that I picked up a trace of garlic and basil for my effort to be friendly, but that was okay.
"I'm Tol Sedik," he informed me. "Want any?" He gestured at the remaining food.
"No," I said. "I just ate." He shrugged and went back to his papers, or pretended to. But he'd shown a flash of recognition when I had stated my name, and I was now in at least part of his attention range.
"Long day?" I asked Calvin.
"Long enough," he replied. "We're up to our armpits in some excise tax scams, at least that's what I think. There are a couple of wholesalers who keep getting robbed just before tax inventory."
"And you think that it's bogus." It wasn't a question.
"Got it in one," he said. He paused for just a second, then said. "You got a package waiting. A couple of them actually. One's a data file that I've downloaded to my personal comm unit. Look under 'Skyfall.' The other is a bona fide they-actually-sent-it-down-the-pipe package from Anchorage. It seems to have a voice lock on it." He reached into his top desk pouch and pulled out his comm unit and a small package, just as advertised. He handed them to me.
"Can I take them into the other office?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, not really disappointed at not seeing the mystery missives. "Please do. You'd just interfere with our concentration here. What little of it we have left, I mean."
"Thanks," I said.
I very briefly debated giving Billy Greenleaf a call to let him know that the police were probably onto his partners in the tax scam racket, but what the hell? I didn't owe him any favors that month. Besides, there was no use in giving anyone ideas that I could be a pipeline. Playing both ends against the middle can leave you as the one in the middle.
So I padded into the next office and zipped the door behind me. I could hear Calvin and Tol get back to their important mastication of both food and clues.
I unlocked the "Skyfall" file with my access code, and was unsurprised to find list of names, each with a personal file subfolder. I scanned it briefly, but none of the names leaped out at me. Opening one of the files at random gave me more information than I ever wanted on one Michael Rosloff, biochemical technician, formerly of Hoffla Labs, Luna, now a fermentation engineer for Bavia Brewing Co., Sky City, Venus.
Big deal. Maybe there was something to find in the crew of immigrants, but it would take some study. Fortunately, there were only about thirty names on the list, all people who had worked at Luna or orbital biochem research facilities who had immigrated to Venus within the past ten years. Also fortunately, I had nowhere in particular that I needed to be that night.
The package was something else again. What had Landau sent to me?
"Okay, so what the hell are you?" I asked the box.
I'd given it enough phonemes, I suppose, and it opened for me, a series of seams coming apart that reminded me of Cheryl's method of disrobing a couple of nights previously. It isn't a secure lock mechanism; you can fool it with a recording, after all. It's usually used for things like birthday presents and such like.
Inside, there was a card, and a note. The card had my ugly face holoed into it, and official-looking type surrounding it, with three different kinds of coding strips on the back. The card said, Skyhook Public Investigator, and in parenthesis (Health and Security).
There was a note. It was from Landau:
"I understand your reluctance to perform any official duties for me. However, it occurs to me that there might be circumstances when you need the cover of at least minimal authority. Hence, this card. Use it or not, as you see fit. There is also a debit account for it; that also is yours if you so choose.
"Thanks again for your work to date. If you see them, give my regards to Mr. Reed and Ms. Carlyle.
The note had a scratch stripe on it. I brushed my fingertip across it and the note proved itself to be flash paper. Theatrical. I hoped that Landau was as amused by it as I wasn't.
There was a tap at the door skin and I said, "Yeah, what is it?"
It was Calvin. He handed me something wrapped in chamois cloth. It was heavy.
"I almost forgot," he said. "This was released from evidence yesterday. You're the man, so you get to keep it."
I unwrapped it enough to verify that it was the gun. A shell casing dropped from the bundle, but I caught it with my other hand before it fell to the floor.
"Two spent shells," he said. "Two live ones still remaining. I expect that the shells are worth something, too."
I nodded and held up the spent casing. "These were used to kill a man," I said. "I wonder what a collector would pay for them?"
He grinned. "I hadn't thought of that," he said. "But you're right; that probably ups the ante considerable."
I shrugged. "Or maybe not. Who knows from rich people?"
He gave me a look, but didn't say whatever he was thinking. "Well," he said. "Let me know how it turns out."
"You'll find out anyway," I told him, though I'm not sure what I meant by it.
I went over the list of names in the Skyfall file, one after another, hoping to find someone who looked to have been sufficiently inside to be able to shed some light on what the hell sort of thing had killed Lucy Dahl. When a disease that looks that much like another -- previous and artificial -- disease shows up, the first thing you wonder is if somebody got cute.
There were thirty-two names on the list, and most of them were nobodies. I'd asked for janitors, and I got four of those. Also six kitchen employees, and a plumber. The rest were mostly lab technicians. People who rise high in the scientific community are not prone to emigrate to a world where brewing accounts for a large fraction of the microbiology.
Of the thirty-two names, five were dead. I couldn't tell if they'd been included by mistake, or because Landau had thought that maybe their deaths had been related to this business. It didn't matter really. I looked through the dead files and there was nothing much to them. Two had died en route to Venus. That's not all that unusual; a sunsail voyage is long and stressful. Two others had been old; the last one had died in an accident, falling down a long access ramp in gravity that was four times what he was used to. It's a wonder more Lunar transplants don't go that way.
I had five names that looked like they might really know something and I went through their files, one by one. I was resolved to just make a cold call on one or two of them, to maybe ask a few background questions and see how they reacted.
Something kept nagging at me, though, and I couldn't put my finger on it. After a while, I just leaned back and let my mind drift. Slowly, the nagging began to settle on the dead files, on one in particular, in fact. The name of the guy was Quittel, Jorgen Quittel, which is not a common name. So why did it seem familiar?
I'd only been over one other list of names in the previous few weeks, and that was the list of General Delivery drops for Carnival. People without personal comm units still need to get messages sometimes, so there are semi-private services that take their mail. Some of them will accept object deliveries also, but that usually costs more, since it's harder to store bulk than comm files.
Carnival had two such services, little hole-in-the-wall shops where you paid a fee and collected anything that had come in for you since the last time you'd read your mail. Both would provide hard copy, and both had the usual encoded safeguards on the mail, which meant that only Skyhook or the police could eavesdrop. The really paranoid used secondary codes, some of them not worth the effort to break.
About half of the inhabitants of Carnival used the General Delivery shops, about six hundred, all told. I'd gone over the list a few times, as part of my general strategy of familiarizing myself with the landscape, and I'd looked up several personal files of citizens I'd encountered there. You can never tell when a little background edge will come in handy.
I called up the main General Delivery list once more, and scanned down to the Qs, all five of them: Quach, Quan, Quintana, Quinn -- and Quittel, first name Daniel.
Okay, that was quite a coincidence. So I jumped down a couple levels of detail in Jorgen Quittel's personal file, and there it was, one brother, born on the same date: Daniel Quittel.
They were fraternal twins. Fraternal twins are pretty rare on Luna; the parents have to have a double birth permit. Identical twins aren't even allowed to come to term except as part of some experimental project, and then they are rarely born to the same woman; one of the fetuses will be transferred to a different mother to carry to term. That wasn't the case here, so my first wild thought--that the wrong brother had been reported dead--couldn't be correct.
I put in another search to the main database in Skyhook for the file on Daniel Quittel. It only took a couple of seconds, and I briefly wondered just how high a level my new access code was. Brushing the thought aside, I began to read about Daniel Quittel.
Like his brother, he'd gone into medicine, but unlike Jorgen, Daniel had opted for clinical psychology. Graduate of Copernicus, middle of his class, so he was less of a star performer than his brother. He wound up in Luna City Psychiatric, the largest such institution on Luna. He had been an ordinary counselor and dispenser of psychotropic drugs. Three years previously, he'd left his job and shipped to Venus, on the very same sunship that had carried his brother, the same voyage upon which Jorgen had died.
All of which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. If Jorgen had somehow been affected by our mystery virus, and if Daniel had given him an anti-psychotic . . .
Jorgen's death certificate had been issued by the ship's physician, and it gave the cause of death as congestive heart failure. Whether or not that could have been mistaken for anaphylaxis, I couldn't say; there might have been some covering up in any case. Whatever else, it suddenly seemed like a good idea to give a try at finding Daniel Quittel, c/o General Delivery, Carnival Cluster.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
You've heard people talk about what it's like on Luna. There are plenty of people to talk about it, God knows. Half the population of Venus is no more than second generation immigrants, so you've heard plenty of stories. But even the immigrants forget what it's like, and it's not really something that can be explained. Life on Luna is tight, stingy. That's what it feels like, a constant tightness in your throat, a constant grasping at little things. Lunars live in cramped quarters, not because there's no room, but because Luna can't afford the water to humidify the air. A two-liter shower is a luxury. A large part of a man's estate can consist of the water in his corpse.
It all has to do with water, and the fact that Luna has none to speak of, really none at all. Most other things are plentiful. There's so much electric power that some of the solar fields are kept covered, and no more are being built. Electronics, photonic devices, anything that can be made out of silicon, oxygen, or aluminum, no problem. There's even supplies of iron from the meteor mines. But no water.
It's been better since Comet Alpha was captured, of course. They've eased some of the population restrictions; it's a lot easier to get a birth license nowadays. The biomes are being expanded and the air in the public corridors has enough humidity so that you don't need a mask to ward off scratch throat. But they're drawing Alpha down slowly; they're afraid of destabilizing the ecology or the economy, and it's easy to see why they're afraid.
It was especially easy for a cop to understand. We were all too aware of just how much violence hid beneath the surface, how much hidden evil can breed in the depths.
I was a cop, a member of the Luna City Police Department when I started out. My family has a history of police and security service; it's an upper class occupation on Luna. Most Luna City mayors are former policemen, and more than a few of the Pan Luna Board of Governors, and members of the Special Cabinet. Position counts for more than money on a world where the most important commodity is under strict administrative control. It takes maybe two metric tons of water to support a human being, and over ninety percent of that is sequestered in the biomes or leased to the farm syndicates. The Lunar Congress passes the laws on birth and death, but the Board of Governors controls the water that keeps you alive.
All the while, sitting directly overhead, is a world with kilometer deep oceans of water. On Luna, it's a crime to even talk about trying to return to Earth. Not that some people don't talk about it anyway, of course.
About ten years ago, I left the Luna City PD for a posting on the Cabinet Guard. The Guard is the most elite security force on Luna, descended straight from Colonel Maximilian's personal police force. The Guard is entrusted with protecting the Governors, the Congress, and the Special Cabinet. We were also responsible for oversight of all engineering projects, to make sure that nobody tried radio or video transmissions, or any other sort of communication with Earth. Earth's planetary defenses are still on red alert after over a century, and the last thing we wanted was for somebody to provoke an insane machine intelligence with a few thousand nuclear missiles still at its disposal.
So the Guard is a science police and a thought police. It's a nasty job, when you think about it, but when you think about the alternatives, well, those are nasty too.
I was with the Guard for a year and a half before I resigned my commission.
My resignation was a setup, an act meant to establish me as a deep cover agent. They picked me because I fit a profile and because I tested very high on certain talents. I had acting ability, as it turned out. I looked to be very good at immersing myself in a role. Little did I know.
Only a couple of the highest ranking Guards knew about the operation. It was code named 'Monaco;' I've heard of a few others with similar names since then. The setup looked legitimate. I developed 'personality conflicts' with my Captain, and my requests for transfer kept being delayed. The personality conflicts were real enough. Basil and I couldn't stand each other. Finally there was a snafu that I took the heat for, and I quit.
I immigrated to Korolev, on the far side of the Moon, and joined the police force there. Korolev is a mining city, with a fair amount of iron-based manufacturing and a small engineering college besides. Overall, it's pretty much out of the mainstream and doesn't get a lot of oversight. So it was quite a comedown for me, something of a scandal for the family. But because it's so out of the way, you get more in the way of fringe politics in Korolev. Maybe that's why it was the headquarters for the Whisper Society.
The Whisper Society was ostensibly an affinity group for those interested in Earth History. That's not illegal, just discouraged. So it draws people of a certain type, and some of those people wind up joining the inner circle, which is also a front. It's wheels within wheels, you get the idea. The first secret level is where they talk about contacting Earth again. Behind that are several illegal activities like drugs, booklegging, and unlicensed prostitution, ostensibly to raise money for the cause. Luna can be like that, just as I said. Beneath the surface, the skin crawls.
I'd been in the Whisper Society for about a year when I married Angie. To make a long story short, we'd met on a case, fell in love and got married. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I was pretty heavily into my role at that point, and Angie was ideal for me. She was beautiful, smart, and a higher level Society member than I was. She often went to meetings that I wasn't allowed into. It was all very romantic, pillow talk about forbidden subjects, fantasizing about what it would be like when we returned to Earth. She used to joke about making love in the ocean.
I can't really talk about what she meant to me. Words are useless. But she meant a lot. I loved her, you see.
Being in deep cover meant that I had specific orders to behave at all times as if I were just who I seemed to be. I was to wait for my pullout signal, then I'd return to Luna City for debriefing, and that would be it. No constant communication with the Guard to put the operation at risk, and less chance of a blown cover getting me killed, or worse, used as a disinformation feed. That would be worse from the Guard's point of view, of course.
But the Guard had other types of operatives trying to penetrate the Whisper Society. I discovered that the day I came home to find a couple of Society members waiting for me. Joshua Norman and John Cleary were their names.
Norman and Cleary are dead now. I'll get to that later.
Anyway, when I asked them where Angie was, they ordered me to accompany them. We left Korolev main dome and went to a Society safehouse in what used to be the 'bubble burbs,' the vacation residence dome of some millionaire before the Plague. The Society had purchased it, through some front or another, and it was supposedly used for hard copy record storage. In reality, they'd turned it into an interrogation site. A torture chamber, in other words. On the way out, Joshua and John told me that my wife was an agent for the Special Cabinet Guard.
I didn't know what to think, but of course I got scared. Was this some kind of a test? Had Angie been planted by the Guard to keep tabs on me, or was it a coincidence that we'd gotten married?
Of course what scared me the most was wondering if my cover had been blown as well, or if it was about to get blown by Angie talking. What was going to happen to me next, in other words.
But I stayed in character. I found that I'd gotten furious at Angie. How dare she hold out on me, betray me like that! How dare she put me at risk? And who else was in on this?
That was what all three of us wanted to know, and the method of asking the questions involved a great deal of pain for Angie.
It was pain that I helped inflict. In order to prove my loyalty to the Whisper Society, I was expected to take part in the torture of my own wife. That scared me as well. I was afraid that I couldn't do it. I was also afraid that I could.
There was another man waiting for us at the safehouse; his name was Hills, Leo F. Hills. The four of us took turns on Angie, peeling her layer by layer, physically and mentally. By the time she started to talk, her voice was barely audible; she'd screamed her voice to a croak. We learned that she was a monitor operative, keeping track of other agents, and judging how close they were to the optimum time for pullout, judging how reliable were the agents who were not in deep cover, the ones who would report regularly, judging which agents were in danger of going double and feeding disinformation back to the Guard.
We pulled a lot of names out of Angie. She was lying about most of them, of course, attempting to cover up the real spies by naming loyal society members. But Angie had apparently been exposed by some agent that the Society had in the Guard itself, so we had a separate list to check against. The list we had was mostly code names though, with only a few of them identified.
My own name wasn't on the list, but my code name was. Whenever we asked her who 'Treeline' was, my gut would tighten, because I kept expecting her to say, 'Ed Honlin is Treeline.'
But she never said that. Even after she broke completely, mind mostly gone, when she was just babbling, naming names, places, dates, she said nothing about me.
Except that she loved me.
And it was my hands that broke her. By the end, I was doing most of the work, the other three either didn't have the stomach for it, or they just wanted me to do it. There is a rapport that develops between people under intense circumstances, and I can't imagine a rapport more profound than that of pain and the giver of pain. Just before she died, I saw Angie wake for one last time, a look of awful clarity in her eyes. She looked up at me with more love than I've ever seen on the face of another human being.
"Sorry, love," she told me. "Better luck next life," and then she died.
That night was the last time I felt anything for quite a while. My performance had apparently cleared me of suspicion. In fact, it was decided that I had an important place in the Whisper Society, and I became the personal bodyguard of Jeffrey Tamir, one of the members of the Society's innermost cell. My responsibilities included insuring his personal protection, finding listening devices -- and interrogation. Mr. Tamir liked to be present during interrogations, especially those involving young women. Most of the young women lived.
In all of it, I played my part. I was following my orders, you see.
That went on for two years, and during that two years, I heard a lot. Enough to develop some strong theories about the ultimate purpose of the Whisper Society.
Then one night I had a visitation. I can't tell you by who or what, but let's call it a ghost. It was not my expected trigger, but the nature of the visitation was such that it was clear that my orders now were to make my report to the Guard.
So I sat down and recorded everything I knew, put a high level cipher to it, and submitted the report. I can't get very specific about the method of submission, either.
At that point, I was supposed to withdraw and return to Luna City for a full debrief. But I didn't. I didn't have enough information to satisfy myself, and besides, I had reason to believe that the Guard had been penetrated.
So I snatched Tamir. I went to his residence, told him that it was urgent he come with me, then hit him with a shock stick and hauled him to a safehouse, the same one where we'd killed Angie. I peeled Tamir as thoroughly as anyone I'd ever done, and when I'd finished, I went and got a couple of others for confirmation. A few of them died before they told me much. I was feeling rushed by this time.
What I found was this: The Whisper Society was just the tip of it. There was a set of interlocking secret organizations that had banded together for the purpose of a full scale revolution on Luna. Ultimately, they planned to launch an all out attack on the Earth's automatic defense system and to then reestablish contact with Earth.
Of course, if they failed, the machines that ran Earth Defense might well decide to nuke every population cluster on Luna.
Even if they never got that far, the plan included a preliminary wave of over one hundred assassinations of high LunaGov officials and a paramilitary takeover of all communication, transportation, and water distribution facilities. Most of the assassins were already in place and the timetable put the execution of the plan at only a few weeks away.
I used Tamir's emergency codes to call a meeting of the inner circle of the Whisper Society in Korolev. They were surprised and suspicious, of course, and about half of them didn't show. But quite a few did.
I blew the air seals on the meeting hall. There were maybe twenty-five people inside. They all died.
Then I started my sweep. Or may you could call it a spree. I had three uniforms, Luna City Police, Cabinet Guard, and Korolev Police. I swapped them back and forth as I hit my list of names, first in Korolev, then in Mendeleev, Maunder, Copernicus, and Theophilus. Most of them I killed quickly, but I made special trips for Joshua, John, and Leo G. They died more slowly than the others, and a lot more painfully.
I can't tell you how good it felt to kill them, how very, very sweet it was to watch them die.
They could have stopped me at any time, I think. The Guard, I mean. By the time the first few reports reached them, they'd had time to look over my report and they must have realized what I was doing. They could have stopped me.
They didn't though. Somebody threw up a news blackout, too, because there wasn't a trace of the story on any of the news channels, not even the mail nets. I was just a ghost, killing people who didn't die, just ceased to exist. I don't know what the Guard did with the families of those I killed. Protective custody, maybe. Or maybe they killed them, too.
I was on my mission for about a week. I don't think I slept even once during that time. I don't even remember when they brought me down. I can't sort out which of my memories was the last one before the hospital.
They tried to put me together again, afterwards. I'll give them that. I got plenty of counseling, and they went as far with the memory wipes as they dared. Memory wiping is a funny business. You can delete ordinary memories, but when a memory has an emotional charge to it, the process doesn't so much expunge the memory as it blunts the affect and strips away the emotion. I can remember some of the things I did, but not the why or how it felt. What was I thinking at the time? I don't know. What was I feeling? That is lost to me.
I did crack my file while I was hospitalized. It had a line about a "trauma that has become centralized." I did some research to find out that a "trauma that has become centralized" is jargon for saying that the memory of some event had become so important to me that to remove it would destroy my mind and personality.
I don't have to guess at what the event was, do I? "Sorry, love. Better luck next life." I've never felt so close to another human being as I did when I was torturing Angie to death. And she loved me so much that she died protecting me.
Did I mention that one of the Society members was a coroner? He faked Angie's death certificate. He also did an autopsy on her after she died. It was to check for electronic implants. They didn't find any, but they did discover that she had been pregnant. Something else I learned from Mr. Tamir, and it's the reason why he didn't live quite as long as some of the others.
I'd killed Angie to protect myself and my mission. Every time I hurt or killed someone while I was undercover, I was following orders to not jeopardize the mission.
But when I sent in my report, I do remember a feeling of overwhelming relief. I can do anything now, I thought to myself. After what I've been through, no one will blame me for anything I do.
Blame me? If anything, they helped me do it. They switched off law enforcement and let me run wild. Doing a job for them. A necessary and bloody job. Maybe it was necessary. It certainly was bloody.
So I went out and executed maybe a hundred people, all told. No, scratch that. I murdered a hundred people. Many of them were guilty of a conspiracy to kill even more people than I killed. Some of those I murdered probably didn't deserve to die. Some may not have known what they were a part of. But I was heading off a war. You don't pay that much attention to who you kill in a war.
It cracked the Whisper Society and several other of Luna's criminal sects. I single-handedly thwarted an assassination plot on dozens of highly ranked government officials. There were a lot of very important people who were very grateful for what I'd done, even if only a very select few knew exactly how I'd done it.
Some of my doctors wanted me confined permanently. Some of the Guard wanted me liquidated, I expect, while some others wanted me to return to duty. Instead, I asked for a one-way trip to Venus. They wiped my records cleaner than they could wipe my memory, and sent me on my way.
So here I am, free floating amid the clouds, with the light above and the dark and storms below.
Freedom is a slippery thing, you know? Most people think of it in terms of the restrictions they live under. Few realize that their own incapacities are more restrictive than any law. The greatest bar to murder, rape, or any other sort of evil is that most people aren't very good at them. Most people couldn't kill someone they loved if their lives depended on it.
But I can. I know I can. I've done it.
I can still love, I think. I'm reasonably sure that I've felt the emotion in the past couple of years. I still care for people, some of them, anyway. I'm not a total basket case. I insist on that much. I'm not completely dead inside.
I do believe that I love you.
Sometimes lovers say things. They say things like, "If you loved me, you'd stay," or "If you loved me you'd do what I need or want." There are a thousand things that lovers say to each other to test the bonds between them. I can't help anyone out in that department. And I do appreciate that you haven't asked me for proof of my love. I can't begin to tell you how much that has meant to me.
Because I loved her more than I'll ever love anyone else…I hope. I hope I never again love anyone that much, because the final test of love is nothing that anyone should ever have to face.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
The next morning, from a public comm in the hotel lounge, I called Calvin Lee to tell him that he could close down the investigation into the death of Molly Laird. I didn't need the Police Department stipend, and there was no reason I couldn't continue any investigation on my own hook. Besides, until the case was officially closed, they couldn't release the antique pistol from the evidence lockers. I figured that the time had come to sell the damn thing and turn the money over to Marjori as soon as she became Anna's legal guardian.
Calvin also told me that I had a file waiting for me at Police Headquarters. I guessed that it was the list of names that Landau had promised me. Calvin said that he didn't know where it came from, since it carried a high level code. I told him I'd come in and get it as soon as I could get away.
I felt better after the call, and Lewis commented on it. "You're looking a little better," he told me as I ordered juice and porridge for breakfast. "Last night Joey told me that he was worried about you."
"I get worried sometimes, myself," I told him. "One can tilt at windmills only for so long."
"'So saddle up my Rosinante, and sing a song of madness due,'" he quoted from a popular musical of the last century.
"'And when I've had my fill of love, I'll end my quest and marry you,'" I finished.
"I think that the production number starts about now," he observed. "All the poor hung-over gentlemen are now supposed to throw off their gloom, jump onto the tables and begin to gyrate."
I surveyed the room. "Right," I told him. "And we should all be so clever in the morning."
He shrugged. "So how are things going in Carnival?" He knew that I was spending a lot of time there, but I hadn't told him much besides the fact that I was looking for someone.
I shrugged back at him. "I broke a guy's foot yesterday," I said. "Other than that, nothing much happened. I was looking at the sideshows."
"They have a couple of casinos there, too, but the games are rigged."
"So what else is new?" I said.
I ate my breakfast, caught a couple of news summaries, then watched a live feed on the megastorm. It was indeed winding down; there had been no fatalities on this one, unlike the previous ones. One analyst attributed the good showing to the long lead time. It seems that there was some old research satellite out past Anchorage that some guy had managed to reactivate into a remote sensing station, and he'd made a prediction on the storm a full month before it happened. So everyone was expecting it. Hats off to the rebirth of meteorology, I suppose.
By that time it was clock noon, so I went over to Marjori Low's.
She greeted me at the door with a hug and a kiss. "How was your evening?" I asked her.
"Passable," she said. "You know how I hate society functions. But it was for charity, and Leo made it bearable. We went out for drinks afterwards."
She led me into the sunken living room but we remained standing, a little awkwardly, two people unsure as to exactly what to next say to each other.
"Would you please bring us a couple of fruit punches, James?" she said to one of the servants. He nodded, bowed and left the room.
"How is the adoption petition going?" I asked her.
"Smoothly," she said. "It's maybe a little slow. Leo says that it is unusual for a widow with grown children to try to adopt a young child. He was tactful enough not to mention the age factor."
"Leo is a good man," I told her, just as we got our drinks. Still, we both remained standing as the butler left the room.
"Yes," she said. She hesitated, then said, "Last night he asked me to marry him."
I took a long swallow of the fruit punch and put the glass down on a table. "I can see how that would make sense," I said carefully. "It would probably help the adoption."
She said, "Leo said that, too. He also said that children should have a father while they are growing up."
I nodded. "I'd make a lousy father figure. About as poor a role model as one could find."
She closed her eyes tightly, as if she were in pain. I stepped closer to her and she embraced me, small choking sounds coming from her throat as she seemed to be fighting back tears.
"I told myself that I wouldn't screw this up," she said. "That I wouldn't make demands, that I wouldn't ask things of you that you didn't want to do. But I'm so afraid of losing you."
I wiped a tear away from her eye and held her face between my hands. "Do you love him?" I asked her. She nodded, then shook her head.
"How the hell do I know?" she asked me. "What is love anyway? I loved Henry, loved him dearly, and I was so lost and angry when he died. Then I loved you, but it's not the same as it was with Henry. Now maybe I love Leo, and again it's not the same. He'd make a wonderful husband and father, and I don't think he's even that concerned with being compared to you."
She closed her eyes again and another tear leaked through. "As if anyone could compare with you," she said.
I snorted at that, and she said, "It's true, though. You're not like anyone else. Part of me is very proud of that, proud of my time with you, proud of the looks that people give us when we're together. First they think one thing, then they think something else, then they learn a bit more and they finally realize that they don't know what to think. I like that. I like shocking people. I like not being easy to figure out. Is that so bad?"
"No," I told her. "There's no harm to it, and it's not so bad at all."
"But now I'm greedy," she said. "I want both the excitement, and I want security, too. Pure contradiction. Like harnessing lightning. You can do it, but it won't be lightning anymore, just electricity."
I felt that I owed her something, owed her because she had come along when I needed someone like her, owed her because she thought so much more highly of me than I thought of myself. I wanted everything to be different from the way it was, for me to be different from the way I was. I wanted to be able to fight for love the way any normal man will fight for it, even at the cost of losing. Maybe I'd have even preferred to lose. Maybe I even wanted to experience normal loss, and normal heartbreak. Anything but what I really had.
Instead, I told her, "Please sit down. I have something that I need to tell you."
Saturday, June 28, 2008
I left Carnival after that; I was beginning to distrust my own actions.
I am not completely lacking in the ability to discern the implications and effects of my own behavior, though I have a number of blind spots, some of which I do not know. But after enough examples of pounding my own head into a wall, I do begin to notice.
I'd let the fights of the night before rattle me, and I'd made enemies to no good purpose. I'd been rude to Cheryl, and more violent than I needed to be when gaining admission to see Caine, the slash fighter. Just now, I'd broken Al's foot just because he pissed me off. If I kept this up, I could kiss off any hope of making progress in getting information out of Carnival. Word would get around that I was dangerous to talk to; I'd hurt somebody who didn't deserve it, or I'd get into a fight with someone a lot luckier that I am, and I'd take some serious damage myself. The odds were getting longer, and I was the one doubling up my bets.
I was afraid to go to the City for a late night prowl. I was genuinely afraid that I would kill somebody.
The problem was that I had no idea of why I was behaving like this. Was I just getting impatient? Was I feeling guilty about giving Molly Laird or her daughter short shrift, while I chased some phantom image on somebody else's radar screen?
Hell, if I really wanted to confuse myself, all I had to do was think about Marjori, and wonder what she was doing that night, and whether she was enjoying it, or if I had fled from Cheryl Chiba's company because I wondered what it would be like to tangle in the barbed wire.
Joey was still on duty when I docked at the hotel. He said, "Hi, Mr. Honlin. You're back early tonight."
"Sometimes the best you can do is to know when to quit, Joey," I told him.
He smiled at me. "You're just tired, Ed. You'll feel better in the morning."
I blinked at that. I think that was the first time he'd ever called me "Ed."
"When you put it like that, I have to believe you," I said, and his smile broadened into a grin. "Tell Fumio to give you a raise." Then I went inside to my room.
As I think I've said before, there isn't much in my room. I live in one of the upper lift bloons in Fumio's hotel, and I get charged by the kilo of occupancy. I have a couple of changes of clothing, some light bedding, and an inflatable chair that Calvin once brought over. If I want some light, I use a chembulb, they're good for a couple of hours; if I want food or drink, the cafe downstairs is open ninety-six hours a cycle.
I didn't need any extra light in my room that night. In addition to the dim twilight that leaked through the City to its dark shadow below, the megastorm down south was still churning the planet, and it had destabilized some of the strata farther to the north. We were getting more than our normal share of storms down below, in other words, and the flickering illumination was enough to light my room. Occasionally, there would be a flash brighter than a chembulb; most often the entire hotel was bathed in what the old astronomers had called "The Ashen Light of Venus," visible either during true night or in the shadows of the City.
I tried to calm myself by sitting seiza, searching for my center by watching after my breath as it settled down the path of my spine. My body seemed willing, but my thoughts refused to do anything but masquerade as chittering geese.
About twenty minutes into it, my door comm buzzed. I ignored it for the first few times, but the buzzing kept up, and eventually I rose and went to the door. The flap fell away as I unzipped it. Cheryl stood outside.
She smiled at me and said, "You couldn't have known that it was me out here, so I guess that you're this much of a shit to everybody. That makes me feel better, I guess. Can I come in?"
She was dressed pretty much as she had been dressed the night before, black-on-black striped body suit with spiked bracelets and belt, but the barbed wire had been replaced by what looked like cobwebs spun from liquid metal. Glints of light moved up and down the strands in slow time, except when a flicker of lightning outside seemed to energize them. After a few seconds I realized that they were probably responding to AM radio spectrum static -- electrical discharge sensitive jewelry.
She noticed my gaze and said, "You like it? It's called 'Weather or Not.' It was quite fashionable years ago, just after the first megastorm. I found it in a thrift store."
"Frugality is a virtue," I told her.
"Yeah," she said. "And I don't have that many. Do I have to ask to come in again?"
"Oh, sorry," I said. "Please come in."
She raised an eyebrow. "A 'please' and an apology. I'm impressed." She stepped in through the door. "Oh, and thank you," she said, as if an afterthought.
She looked around the room, while I rezipped the door. Not that there was much to see. "So," she said finally.
"So," I repeated. Then neither of us said anything for maybe a full minute. Finally she spoke; it was slightly louder than a whisper.
"Goddamn you," she said. "Goddamn you to hell."
"Nice to see you, too," I said. Then she slapped me, and I let her.
"That was for running out on me," she said, her voice getting louder, but it was still more a hiss than a yell. "You made me feel like shit. Did you enjoy that? Let her get all hot and greedy, then just poof, so long and goodbye? Did you think that it was funny?"
"I didn't really think about it," I said. "I'm sorry if I didn't meet your expectations."
"Expectations? Hell, I've had vibrators that did a better job than you."
I couldn't help myself; I laughed. She started to slap me again, and I caught her wrist, just below her bracelet. I held her hand about six inches from my face and looked into her face. "I am sorry," I said.
The anger drained away from her face, and after a moment she chuckled. "I guess it was pretty funny," she said. "You gave me a very sleepless night, though. I'm not used to being dumped."
"I can believe that," I told her.
I slowly released her wrist and she left her hand where it was, then tentatively brought it to my face in a slow caress. The sudden pain caught me by surprise and I quickly stepped back away from her. She laughed again, louder this time. I reached up to my cheek and my fingers came away with a smear of blood on them. She brought her own fingers to her mouth and licked them.
"First blood," she said.
I stepped forward and grabbed her wrist again, and looked at her fingernails, seeing what the dim light had hidden from me before. Her nails had been coated with some sort of plastic, then filed to razor sharpness. She could probably rip out a man's throat with talons like that.
She swung at me with her other hand, and I caught it as well, then brought both of her arms down to waist height and used them to push her to the wall. Her elbows poked into her stomach when her back hit the wall, and she gave a little huff as she exhaled. I held her there, pinned, for several seconds as I wondered what to do next.
Her bracelets had several slots in them, in a pattern that made them a match for the spikes. I brought her wrists together and fitted the spikes into the corresponding slots. There was a click, as if a mechanism had engaged, and her hands were locked together as if by handcuffs.
She looked me in the eyes, and said, "Congratulations. You just solved the puzzle."
Then the tiger stripes on her body suit began to come apart. It was held together with some sort of electrovelk, and the command had just been sent to unattach. The strips of her clothing came off slowly, in a completely passive striptease, until all that she wore was the spidery jewelry, her handcuff bracelets, and the spiked belt.
She licked her lips as she stared at me, her mouth a rictus, a slash of greed and expectation. A flash of light outside lit her face and glinted off of her exposed canines. She said, "Are you willing to finish it? Are you?"
With one hand I pushed her hands above her head. With the other I ripped off her belt, the last sharp thing that was between us.
The storm was still down below us when we were finished, but it felt like it was beginning to break. I finally pulled away and rolled over to near the inflatable chair about a meter away. Her breathing was nearly back to normal when she opened her eyes again. She did something to release her bracelets and then took them off completely, tossing them over onto the pile of her clothing.
"Want any souvenirs?" she said with a smug smile on her face. I shook my head.
"Suit yourself," she said, then stretched, a motion that would have been even more appropriate if she were still wearing her tiger suit. She sighed, then reached down to trace her fingers along the front of her hips, along her pelvis.
"I wonder if I'm very bruised," she said. "You were pretty rough, you know?" She looked very pleased with herself.
"Sweets for the sweet," I told her.
Monday, June 23, 2008
The next day was a light day, and I spent from morning to mid-afternoon running oxygen for the hotel. Sometime around 1500 by the twenty-four hour clock, I dropped down to the drift level and headed for the edge of the City. Once there, I let the bloon slowly rise, bypassing the City fringe and making mid-level out on the Circle.
I docked at a small cafe that was on the Great Circle comm and transport line between two suburban towns. After I had a piece of pie, I went into a private comm booth and placed a call to Skyhook. There isn't even the illusion of security on calls that go through radio transmission; from the Circle, though, it was light pipe all the way to Anchorage.
"This is Dr. Landau."
"Dr. Landau, Ed Honlin here."
"Hello, Mr. Honlin," Landau replied. "It's been over a week since your last brief, cryptic message."
What had I said last time? Something like "Still on it, no news." Hey sport, these things don't come quickly.
"Yeah," I said. "It's been about that long. Anyway, I've run across our friends from across the gulf of space."
If you can hear someone sitting up straight, that was the sound that came through the wire. "Where are they?" he asked.
"Still in Carnival Cluster," I told him. "Carlyle, at least is dressed out as a medical, a doctor going by the name of Warren."
"My guess would be that they are establishing themselves in medical practice for the cluster, so that the next wig case gets brought to them before it gets dumped on the City hospitals. They are also well placed to make blood tests without anyone being the wiser."
"That would make sense," he said. "In fact, I wish we'd thought of it."
He couldn't see me shrug. "It's a slow payoff routine," I told him. "It will take months to get any results, most likely."
"It's already been months," he said with what I took as self-recrimination. "Slow and effective is better than quick and ineffective."
"Well, yes, there is that."
He said nothing for a while, so I spoke up again. "There's another thing. In addition to the sex clubs I described to you, we have another possible contagion route to worry about." I then described the slash fight that I'd witnessed.
"Is that likely to be a problem?" he asked.
"I don't know," I told him. "On the plus side, there are fewer vectors than the clubs. On the negative side, the fighters aren't monks." I was thinking of Caine and his three women. "Also, the show goes on the road, sometimes, so you have the risk of sweeping up anything that's out in the upper latitudes."
"Should we think about cracking down on the entertainment clusters?" he asked me. "It's sometimes argued that such a policy would just force the behavior farther out, where we have less chance of keeping track of it."
I hesitated. I had no desire to be Big Brother's Judas goat. "Regulating the shadow clusters wouldn't be completely ineffectual," I said. "But it might not have the effect you want. Anyway, I think that it's premature to be making big changes. For one thing, I still haven't located anything concrete on Lucy Dahl. I'd prefer not to investigate anything while the cluster is under siege mentality."
"That sounds like you've made some contacts, though," Landau said.
"It might just be smoke," I told him. "Don't get your hopes up."
He sighed. "There doesn't seem to be much chance of that, Mr. Honlin."
I was about to ring off when I remembered. "By the way," I said. "Do you have anything for me on that list of names I asked for? Somebody local with some deep knowledge of the kind of thing we're dealing with?"
"Ah, yes," he said, sounding a little better at having something good to report. "I have at least a partial list of Luna to Venus immigrants who used to work for the four research facilities. It isn't a very long list, actually; high level people tend to stay put."
"I'll take low level people, too," I told him. "You can never tell what a janitor has picked up and read."
"I'll do another search, then," he told me. "You should have it by tomorrow."
"Thanks," I said, and clicked off.
My next call was to Marjori. "Hallo, love," I said when she came on line.
"Oh, Ed," she said, as if surprised to hear me. Well, it had been several days since we spoke.
"I just called to see how you and Anna are getting on," I told her.
"Famously," she said. "She sleeps through the night and always seems to need a nap just when I have something else to do. My own children should have been so accommodating. Suzette seems almost redundant. Anna is fun to play with, too."
"So you're having fun?"
"That's good," I said. "It makes me feel less guilty for neglecting you."
"I'm sure you have good reasons," she said.
"Um," I said, with a feeling that I'd just erred. Oh, well. "Any word from Leo?"
"Yes," she said. "As a matter of fact, he's escorting me to some dreadful charity thing, this evening. I told him how I hated the things and he bravely volunteered. That was while we were discussing the adoption. He's of the opinion that we should take care of that before proceeding with anything else having to do with the Graylings. Apparently one of the things that they might try is to petition for custody, which they could do as long as she had no legal guardian. Once adopted, she's safe."
"Sounds like a good idea," I told her. "Convey my appreciation to Leo."
"I will," she said, softly. We said a few more things, then I clicked off and headed back out to my waiting bloon.
I pulled in one last string of oxy-bloons, then traded the tug in for a one-man squid and headed back to Carnival. This time I docked at the farthest end of the elongated cluster. I wanted to scout out the sideshows.
Physical deformities are almost unknown on Luna; the genetic makeup of fetuses are monitored almost from the moment of conception, and uncorrectable defects are quickly aborted. Beyond that are gene replacement therapies, hormone and enzyme implants, and reconstructive surgery that can repair almost any injury. The extremes have been trimmed on the Procrustean bed of medicine in the name of survival.
On Venus, though, things are different. Even now, more than sixty years after the Skyhook opened up Venus to Lunar trade, there are still clusters and individual bloons that aren't on the comm nets, that never get near the equator, sub-populations that keep to themselves with a xenophobic devotion. Some shy away from religious conviction, some just don't like outsiders. As you might expect, there is a fair amount of inbreeding in the hermit clusters and more recessives come to the fore. Beyond that are accidents of development, or oddities of nutrition or training. And when a person sees or is seen as being too freakish to fit in, they leave to find other means of living, and other places to live.
So you can see the midgets in Carnival, and they have a giant, too. All the classics are there: the Fat Lady, the Pinhead, the Dog-faced Boy, even a pair of Siamese twins, though I suspect that they were attached by artifice, and can be disentangled any time they need a break from each other's company. That's the way it is in the sideshow; half of the draw is the sign over the stage; a good portion of the rest is often simple con. The name of the act can be more important than the act itself. The Rubber Man is just a contortionist, and the lure of the Snake Charmer is more to see real snakes than to see them respond to Man. I'm pretty sure that I can bench press more than the Strong Man, and I know that I'm more accurate than the Knife Thrower. I'm not interested in playing to an audience for money, but I don't despise those who make their living that way.
Besides the physical freaks, there are the mental cases. There's a long and inglorious history to that one. "Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes," you know. On pre-industrial Earth, the insane were judged as possessed by demons, and sometimes were dressed up and painted, then rented out to perform at parties for the aristocracy. We do things in a more egalitarian fashion: catch a glimpse of the depths at half a deb.
Very few males, in my opinion, have any epidermis records of ever having been connected vibrationally to organized crime bosses, in other than a direct light encounter.
A wall-eyed guy with a flat affect was chanting his rant below a sign that said, "Marat-Sade." Unlike the other barkers along the sideshow strip, his ravings made no particular sense. I expect that was the point. I'd check out that geek show some other day.
No males, in my opinion, have ever gotten any definite idea of either the vectors to their person from whence the organized crime boss vibrations are originating or the distance from their person from whence the organized crime boss vibrations are originating, in any other than a direct light encounter.
Across the way from Marat-Sade stood a barker who stood maybe one meter high, dancing slowly and pointing to a sign that said, "Girls with Tails and Other Things." I smiled at him and moved along, the saga of crime bosses beginning to fade.
No males, in my opinion, have ever gotten any specific identity of any organized crime boss when connected vibrationally at a distance in another direct light encounter.
"Hello, Ed," came a different, more familiar voice from behind me. I'd noticed him scurrying to catch up with me, while at the same time trying to look unhurried. He wasn't very good at it.
"Hi, Al," I said. His full name was either Albert or Alberto, depending on who he was trying to impress at any given moment. He was a small-time smuggler, part of a large and loose coterie of odd-job men of flexible ethics who lubricated the skids of Darkunder commerce. I'd run a few shipments up through the floor of the City for him once upon a time, but I hadn't had any dealings with him for many months.
He matched my walk and spoke in a way that only moved his mouth, something that he'd learned from old movies, I expect, though it looked a little like an imitation of the hebephrenic barker we'd just walked past. Only less impassioned.
"What brings you to Carnival, Ed?" he asked.
"This and that," I said.
"Word has it you've been asking around about some things."
"I'm a curious guy," I responded.
Albert wasn't quite as tall as I am, and he's skinny besides, but he's always tried to cloak himself in an aura of quiet menace that can be mistaken for the real thing if you haven't had much experience. I expect that he can be dangerous if you're quite a bit smaller than he is, or if you turn your back on him, literally or metaphorically. His tone of voice got darker when he next spoke.
"The word is that you're doing a police job," he said. "I thought you were through with the cops. That's what you said when you ran for us."
"You'll have to refresh my memory on that one," I told him. "I don't recall talking with you about the cops. Nor, for that matter, do I remember talking about you with the cops. Seems to me like anything else I do is none of your business."
He put his hand in his pocket, but kept it flat, so I didn't think he was about to pull anything out. Another tough gesture. I checked my peripheral vision to see if we had an audience. Just the barkers and the gawkers, as nearly as I could tell.
He said, "I think that you should keep it that way." He paused, I guess because that's the way his mental script told him to. Then he said, "It can get unhealthy to be closely associated with the police, especially after so many people trusted you in the past."
I stopped walking and he took a couple of steps before he realized that I was behind him and he turned to face me, a little bit of nervous animation on his face.
"What the hell is this all about?" I asked him, letting my annoyance find its own way out. "Did you and Hugh and Ray and the rest of the merry men draw straws to see who got to find old Ed to warn him off? Has anybody been jerking your collective chains, or are you just feeling paranoid? Or is there some sort of 'Find the stupidest twit in Darkunder' contest, and you're going for the top prize?"
He almost took a step backwards, as surprised at my sudden emotion as I was myself. Then he reminded himself how tough he was supposed to be.
"I'm just delivering a message," he said. "Smart guys don't ask too many questions."
"Yeah, and what about stupid guys?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Things happen," he said. "You're beginning to get a high profile, and that's not good for anybody."
I noticed with increasing surprise that I was getting angrier with every word he said. I didn't know if I was angry at the veiled threat, or the silliness of it all.
"Yeah, yeah," I told him. "You know where I live, yabba, yabba. But I can see pretty good, and I can see folks for a long time before they get there. And you know what?"
He didn't react to the question, so I moved to take a step towards him. His eyes widened very slightly, and he began a step back. I almost laughed. Halfway through the step meant he only had one foot on the floor. I extended my own step and brought my foot down hard on his instep. I heard a faint crack just before his yelp of pain. I only used enough force for a greenstick fracture, though.
I said, "If the guy who comes after me walks with a limp, I'll know it's you. Merry Christmas."
I turned and headed back the way I came.
Of those males who have ever been vibrationally addressed by organized crime bosses, all have experienced step and fetch vibrational conditions from the general direction of organized crime bosses, in my opinion, at the time of this writing. Males experience it, females don't experience it, is my present guess. Step and fetch vibrational conditions as experience by the recipient results in a situation where the male epidermis does something and, rather soon afterward, a remote entity knows what the male epidermis has had done, within a context of a surveillance relationship. It is a round trip communications loop from the remote entity to the male epidermis without the permission of the male epidermis and without the male epidermis being able to disconnect at the discretion of the male epidermis.Next Chapter
Friday, June 13, 2008
We exited The Arena right into another parade. This one consisted of maybe two score people carrying sticks that they clacked together in a syncopated pattern while they danced along. Clack clack, tic tic, then take two steps forward. More pounding then step to the side. For a brief moment I flashed on beaters driving wild animals in front of them for the hunt.
"What are you looking for?" Cheryl asked me as she clung to my arm. "I know some places where we can go…"
I shook my head. "I need to find a stairwell to the lower level," I told her. "I want to get a better look at those fighters, without their masks."
"Why?" she asked with a note of disappointment in her voice. No, Cheryl, I'm not that easy.
"You don't have to go along," I said.
She pulled away from me with an angry gesture. I was supposed to try to mollify her at that point, if I read the scenario right, then she'd allow herself to be coaxed into coming with me. Instead, I turned and headed up the street, against the flow of the parade.
"Hey, where…?" I heard her voice from behind me, but I'd set into a fast walk, and I doubt that she could move that fast when there were that many people in the way.
I found the access door about two hundred meters up the corridor. It was down a short side alley, and it was supposed to be locked, but it was a simple loop latch that nearly fell apart when I used my knife on it. Then the door unzipped just fine. I went in and zipped it closed behind me.
The stairwell spiraled down into the gloom of the next level. Down below was where a lot of the maintenance areas and living quarters for Carnival are located. The top levels, above the main drag, are mainly for extra lift and air circulation and supply. I'd sussed out the general physical layout of the cluster on my first few swings through Carnival cluster. It always helps to know where you are.
The fighters and their handlers had come from down below. I figured that to be where the dressing rooms were. I wanted to talk to the fighters.
The stairs ended in another dim alleyway. I made my exit and headed back toward the direction of The Arena.
The space below the main drag in Carnival was not well lit; anyone down there should know where they are or where they were going. In this case, that was easy. There were people milling in the corridor in front of an entrance, well-wishers, hangers-on, essos and exxons, anybody who wanted an entree to the backstage world. I pushed my way to the front and flashed my Sky City Police ID at the bouncer on duty.
"So what's this to me?" the guy asked with a hint of a sneer. Sky City Police have no official jurisdiction in Darkunder, but just because it's unofficial doesn't mean there is no leverage.
"Unemployment if I yank this cluster's tethering privileges," I told him, softly so no one else heard. "Some broken bones if I just decide to go in over you."
He looked like he was about to see if I had a bark/bite mismatch, but instead he nodded once and slipped back through the door, closing the flap, but not zipping it. After a few seconds, it opened again and he waved me in.
I went in cautiously; I might have pissed the guy off enough to try a sucker punch. But there was another, smaller guy now with him. The smaller guy looked like management. "So what's this about?" he demanded.
"My name's Honlin," I told him. "I just want to ask a few questions of some of the fighters."
He shook his head. "They're getting cleaned up after the fight," he said. "Then they rest. They deserve it."
"I'm sure they do," I told him. "I won't take long."
"Forget…" the guy began.
I slammed the bouncer in the solar plexus, just once, but hard enough to double him over, retching, onto the floor. The manager tried to yell something, but I had my fingers around his throat at that point, and nothing came out.
"You have my official apology," I told him. "I deplore the unnecessary use of violence. I also deplore wasting my time with assholes. Now we are going to go see the fighters."
He nodded, his eyes bulging. I let go of his throat and heard the sound of air going back into his windpipe. "Tell Fido here to resume his post," I told him. He nodded.
"Get back outside," he told the bouncer, in a raspy voice, still constricted from my throat hold. The bouncer was trying to get back to his feet. After he made it and began an unsteady walk toward the door, the manager-type and I headed inside. I had one hand wrapped around his wrist in a come-along that wasn't very painful, but the guy kept complaining.
"Is this necessary?" he asked.
"Probably not," I admitted. "But it's fun."
It was easy to find the way to the post-fight dressing rooms. All we had to do was follow the smell of sweat and blood. There were four dressing rooms, in a row along a narrow hallway, but two were empty, the two glove boxers having already left, I surmised. The two remaining rooms were pretty crowded near the doorways, especially Caine's.
As we neared the door, the manager-type seemed about ready to call out to some more security guys who maintained a vigil just outside of the dressing rooms. I tightened my grip on his wrist and he winced.
"Sure," I whispered to him. "You can make a scene, and try to get some more people to throw me out. And what does that get you? Maybe a broken wrist, if you try to do it now. Worse if you try it later, since that would really piss me off. You might also wind up with a couple of damaged employees, not to mention the likelihood of getting yourself in Dutch with Skyhook. Didn't you see my badge? I'm special appointment to upstairs. You don't need that kind of trouble. Not just to stop someone from asking a few questions."
For a second I was worried that he wouldn't buy it. His pride had been wounded and that makes people stupid. But he was bright enough to wonder how silly he'd look in a body cast maybe, and he had up front evidence of how strong my hands are. So he introduced me to the two security men as if I belonged there.
"J. J., Twill, this is…" he looked blank.
"Honlin," I repeated. "Ed Honlin."
"Ed Honlin," he said, without missing another beat. "He's going in to see Caine. Just for a few minutes. It's okay."
The two guys parted. I let go of the manager-type's wrist. "Thanks," I said with a smile. "I owe you one."
"Yeah," he said flatly. "I owe you one, too."
Inside wasn't as crowded as I'd feared, because the room was quite large, probably twenty meters deep, though it was only maybe four meters wide. There was a cluster of people around the door, and another group over to the right at what I took to be a wet bar. Caine was about halfway back, and behind him was nothing much, just some storage lockers. I headed back, cautiously, since I hadn't made any friends on the way in.
There was a knot of people around him, four females, three of whom were dressed for speed. The one who had plenty of clothes on was a medical type, dressed mainly in white, a tall, rangy blonde with eyes the color of almonds. She was busy sewing cuts and putting on butterfly bandages. She seemed to be nearly done.
The group looked up as I approached. "Mr. Caine?" I inquired.
Caine looked at me and gave a short laugh. "Stage name," he said. "Call be Bill. William Bomar." He glanced at the medical tending his cuts. "I'd rise to shake hands, but, well, you know." He flashed a smile.
"You're from Luna?" I asked. It had been obvious from the way he moved when he fought. Some of it had been like looking at myself in the mirror.
"Yeah," he admitted. "Eight years ago. What's this about?"
I showed him my police ID. One good thing about Lunars is that they respect the police. One of his girls took the card and showed it to him. Then she handed it back. He nodded.
"So, Mr. Honlin, what's up?" he asked again, wincing slightly as the med cut a suture line. She was finishing the last cut to his scalp.
"It's nothing special," I told him. "I'm trying to get some information about a guy who might have spent some time in Carnival here. He was good with a knife, so I thought he might have tried out the fights." I showed him Costello's picture. He stared at it for several seconds.
"Morgue shot," he observed. I nodded.
"He killed a girl and got killed in the process," I told him. "I'm seeing if he has any backtracks."
Bomar scowled. "Killing girls is not a nice thing to do," he said quietly. A couple of his girls nodded at this wisdom.
"No," I said. "It's not very nice at all."
He stared at the picture for a while longer. "He does look familiar," he said at length. "I think it's him I'm remembering, too, not just a type. Give me a few seconds on it."
The woman stitching his cuts had finished. She stood up and stooped down to get to a bag, reached in and removed a tube of ointment. She looked at the other three women, and said, "This salve should go onto the cuts when you change the dressings. I'm sure you can find some help in that. It's to prevent scarring." She said it with about as much emotion as someone giving street directions.
"Yeah, sure, Doctor Warren," Bomar told her. "Thanks again." He watched as she left.
"She's lots better than the old guy," he said appreciatively. "Prettier, too."
"What are we, squid pus?" said one of the three woman and the other two nodded.
"Shut up, Judy," Bomar said. "Without the Doctor, I'm a mass of scar tissue, and none of you would have anything to do with me."
"Oh, I don't know," said another. "I think that scars are sexy." She lightly touched one of his bandages.
"Bullshit, honey," he said pleasantly. "The only things you think are sexy are blood and money."
"I'm kind of fond of penises," said the third one, and that one got a laugh from the others.
Bomar looked at me. "I've heard of you, haven't I?" he said.
"I don't know," I said. "Have you?"
"Yeah," he said. "You train with McElroy, right?"
Close enough, I thought. I nodded.
"And you're another ex-cop," he said.
"Another?" I asked, not that I was surprised.
"I was on the force in Clavius for a few years before I immigrated," he said.
"So why'd you leave?" I asked.
He shrugged. The movement looked painful, given his current state, but he didn't seem to mind. "I didn't like it much," he said. "No special reason." He was lying, just like we all do. But I wasn't interested in prying.
"About Costello," I said, indicating the photo again.
"Yeah," he said. "I was hoping more would come to me." He paused. "As best I can recall, this guy came through a few months ago, trying to get into the game. Said he was good with a knife. That's okay, but we don't do knife fights; they're too dangerous. Sometimes they get staged way out on the rim, so they can be taped for folks who like to watch the really hard-core stuff, but the folks here won't touch it. Slash fights are about the limit, and personally, I expect those to get shut down before too long."
"Why is that?" I asked.
He looked at me. "Were you here tonight?" I nodded. "Well, there you are," he said. "Things like tonight are pretty common. Near riots. Some night there's going to be a real thing and somebody's going to get killed or seriously hurt, and there it goes. No one wants to give the pricks in the City an excuse to shut us down. We blow in the breeze, you know?"
He paused. "Anyway," he continued, "This guy Costello, he may have been good with a knife, but he didn't cross over too well. That's my guess, anyway. I couldn't have seen him more than twice, then he was gone, so that's what must have happened.
I nodded. This was a lot more information than I'd ever expected to get. "Who would have made the decisions on Costello?" I asked.
"One of the personal managers, I'd say," he replied. "Mine is Bobby, over there by the bar. You might ask him."
"Thanks," I told him. "I'll do that."
I pulled out a few other pictures, and fanned them. "Do you recognize any of these women?" One of the photos was of Lucy Dahl.
While Bomar looked at the pictures, one of his girls spoke. "I'm pretty sure I've seen that one," she said. She pointed at Lucy's photo.
My throat tightened. "Where?" I asked.
She scowled. "Not around here," she said dubiously.
"Not in Carnival?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Oh, I didn't mean that. I mean, I hardly ever leave the place, so it would have to be in the cluster somewhere. But more out on the edges. Like in the sideshow areas. Probably just walking down the street. But I'm pretty sure I've seen her."
I pulled out a couple of cards with my name and number on them and passed them out. "If either of you remember anything more, please call me, okay?" I said. "I'll make it worth your while." The girls perked up at this.
"Sure, Ed," said Bomar. "Maybe you can come by sometime and we can spar a little."
"I'd like that," I told him. Then I gave everyone my best smile and left.
On the way out, I checked with Bobby, last name, Fulton, William Bomar's manager, to see if he knew anything more about Costello, but Bobby had a convenient memory. That was all right. I'd pushed my luck far past the point of reasonable that night.
I'd come down there to see Caine because the way he moved in the ring gave me the wild thought that he was Harmon Reed, the Lunar Guard operative who was also trying to track Lucy Dahl. But without his mask, I could see that the resemblance was just body type and the fact that he moved like a Lunar transplant. That Bomar had a memory of Costello was just a stroke of good fortune; his girlfriend's recognition of Lucy Dahl's picture was like filling an inside straight.
I had no simile for the coincidence involved with the doctor, though. I'd come down hoping to find Harmon Reed, but the doctor who sewed up Bomar's wounds was Juliet Carlyle.
Which also meant that Reed and Carlyle now knew I was investigating Carnival.
Friday, June 6, 2008
"But it was over so fast!" complained Joan while we waited for the crowd to settle and for the next fight to begin.
"So how long does it take you to come?" Cheryl asked with a little bit of a curl to her lip. Joan gave another giggle at Cheryl's sophisticated bon mot, while John continued to rub her body in the places that weren't covered with barbed jewelry.
Cheryl turned back toward me, and I asked, "Is this one of your standard Darkunder outings?"
"You mean, go to the fights then find some place where we can screw?" she asked. She showed her teeth; I'd call it a smile.
"You can't, you know," I told her, watching her face. There was a brief expression of confusion that flickered across it.
"Can't what?" she asked me.
"Shock me. You can't shock me. You're working a nice contrast here from the time Calvin and I had dinner with you. There you were cool and witty in a post-debutante sort of way, and here you're doing a good female slime-wrestling impression. I appreciate it, really I do. But it's not going to shock me, no matter what, so if it's an effort, or if you're doing it for my benefit, don't bother."
An angry look flashed across her face, but it died almost immediately and she laughed. Her whole body moved with her laughter, and then she squirmed closer to me in her seat and took hold of my arm. "I'm really glad we ran into you," she said. Then the public address system squawked and began to announce the next fight.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event of the evening, a blood match between two major stars of slash fighting."
The crowd cheered its approval, with special notice given to the mention of "blood." Two men appeared on the fight platform, rising from their respective trapdoors slowly, milking every bit of applause from the spectators. Ah, show biz.
"The challenger tonight is a newcomer from the far north, where they gut bloons before breakfast, and slice open squids for lunch! He was weaned on razor blades and learned to walk on broken glass! This man sleeps on a bed of nails. This man cuts no deals; this man deals in cuts! I give you, in white, Jaxon Manic!"
Both men were dressed in tight body suits that looked quite a lot like what Cheryl and her companions wore, sans the barbed wire, and the clothing extended up into hooded masks that looked like a cross between movie ninja and biocontainment gear. Both men were well built, and the sheen of their clothing highlighted their muscle definition. Certainly the material was too thin to leave anything to the imagination. Any thinner and you'd be able to make out the label on their loin cups.
"In the other corner, in black, is Caine, the current champion of The Arena Slash Ring!"
The rest of it was drowned out by the crowd. I caught something about "undefeated by rivers of blood" but I may have heard it wrong.
Both men were carrying a weapon, the crux of the forthcoming combat. It looked like a slightly shortened billy club, with three long, thin, knife edges set into it, each one quarter of the way around. The remaining flat edge I guessed as being for blocking and parrying. The club looked to be a soft plastic, slightly flexible, but tough.
The blades were narrow, no more than half a centimeter in depth, and there was no point to the weapon, just a blunt tip at each end. The blades ended far enough from each tip to make each end a handle. So "slash fighting" seemed to be basically short stick fighting, but with the added ability to make shallow cuts. Jabs wouldn't penetrate, but a straight strike could open a welt, and grabbing your opponent's weapon was out of the question.
The bell rang and the two fighters began to circle one another. Caine shifted his slasher back and forth from hand to hand. Manic kept his in his left hand, and kept rotating his wrist as he moved. Neither man seemed anxious to begin.
Suddenly, Caine darted forward and whipped his slasher toward Manic's left hand, apparently aiming for the wrist. Manic's elbow came up and the two weapons met, with Caine's being parried to the outside. There was a brief clack, and Caine withdrew.
This repeated itself several times, usually with Caine on the offensive. On the third or fourth time, however, rather than withdraw, Caine used his left hand for the slash attack, and as the two weapons met, he swung his right hand toward Manic's face.
Manic flinched, and as Caine withdrew, he flipped his slasher across the back of Manic's hand. The fabric parted slightly and a slight line of pink and red appeared.
"First cut!" cried out somebody to my left; I don't think it was any of my companions. The crowd seemed ready to surge to its feet, but then subsided back into the seats.
"Is that legal?" I whispered to Cheryl. "Using something other than the weapon, I mean. Can they kick or punch each other?"
"Anything they can get away with," she told me. "But they only score with blood."
As if to prove her correct, Manic tried to kick Caine in the knee, a crippler that would have left his opponent considerably less nimble. But he received nothing but a gash on his calf for his troubles.
The two then began a series of thrust and parries, with Manic on the defensive. He took a weak jab to his chest at one point, but he managed to cut Caine's biceps in the process.
It went on like that for a while; neither man was doing serious damage to the other, but the small cuts began to multiply. The idea seemed to be to use kicks and punches to set up an opponent for point gathering cuts, or, alternatively, to use the threat of a cut to try for some blow that would significantly weaken one's opponent. There were no rests allowed, so eventually one or the other would begin to make mistakes as his stamina ran out.
Or when his patience ran out. After about twenty minutes of back and fourth, Manic suddenly gave a piercing scream and ran full tilt at Caine. I could see some sense to it, especially if an opponent were good at the bloodletting, but not so hot at the rest of the fight. In that case such a tactic would give up some points on the attack, with the hope of a grapple that could do some real damage to the opponent. Unfortunately for Manic, Caine was as good at the rest of it as he was with the slasher. He sidestepped Manic's attack and slammed him in the sternum with the tip of his club when Manic got near enough. Then Manic was past him, and Caine made two quick, long cuts to Manic's lower back as he, Caine, backed off.
Then Caine made a mistake, probably thinking that Manic wouldn't try the same tactic immediately, he let himself relax slightly. But Manic came around without a pause and, screaming another bloodthirsty cry, came at Caine again. Caine slipped slightly; I couldn't see, but there might have been some blood on the floor by that time, since each fighter had at least one slow dripping wound. Manic took advantage of Caine's off balance posture and swung his stick high, with his whole weight behind it. Caine partly blocked the blow, but enough of it got through to glance off his head. The blades gleamed red in the light of The Arena, and suddenly Caine was bleeding from a scalp cut, just over his right ear.
Scalp cuts are real bleeders. The fabric that covered that part of Caine's head quickly soaked, and as the first rivulet of blood slid behind his ear to trickle down his neck, the crowd roared approval and leapt to its feet. One section began to chant "Manic! Manic!" and Caine glared at them.
Then, with his own weapon, Caine reached around and cut himself over his left ear, in a place symmetric to the cut that Manic had just inflicted.
For the barest instant there was a beat of silence; fighters cutting themselves was not a common thing, I guess, nor was it common for someone to so obviously sneer at the audience. Then there came a huge roar as Caine launched himself at Manic.
It looked like a berserker attack, no skill, no forethought, just overwhelming force. But it wasn't. To my eye it was a pure mastery of movement; force meeting little opposition because of the angles in which it was directed. Caine went in through Manic's defenses like smoke through a grating, and his left elbow came forward with a savage strike to Manic's lower rib cage. Manic's sudden exhalation of breath was lost in the thunder of the crowd, and I could see Manic's knees wobble. Caine's stick came down on the inside of Manic's elbow, then again, same spot, and Manic's stick slipped through his grasp.
Manic tried to protect himself from the sudden onslaught of blows that Caine rained down upon him. He fell to his knees trying to reach for his slasher, to maybe regain at least some possibility of rejoining the battle. But Caine was concentrating his strikes to Manic's head, and the blood was flowing freely, covering Manic's head with it, sluicing down into his eyes. Manic was nearly blind at this point, his white mask now bright red, and he was holding his hands to his eyes, both to try to clear them, and also to protect them from Caine's blows.
The overhead lights were flashing, a signal to end the match, I think, but the crowd had gone berserk, much more so than Caine. I could see spatters of blood whip off of Caine's weapon and splash upon the wire mesh of the screen that shielded the platform. Some of the spectators had left their seats and were trying to climb the wire mesh, but it was too fine for handholds. Others were pounding at it, and yelling. Some were pressing their lips against it. I couldn't tell whether trying to yell more directly into the ring or whether they were feeding on the blood that leaked through.
The trapdoors opened up and people spilled out of them, swarming over Caine and Manic, holding Caine's arms, pulling the slasher from his grasp. The new people in the ring were heavily padded and wore night vision goggles, or so I surmised, because then the lights went out.
They were only out for a few seconds, but when they came back on again, the stage area was empty. The crowd was still stone crazy, though. Several fights seemed to have broken out. One erupted only a few feet away from me, I think that it involved the guy that had tried to block our seats when we came in. I couldn't tell who was at fault, but I was annoyed, so I stepped over and rabbit punched one of the participants, and he dropped to his knees. The other guy looked disappointed and looked at me as if trying to decide whether to take me on as a consolation prize. I smiled at him and stepped away. He decided not to pursue it.
I took Cheryl's arm and leaned close to her ear. "Let's get out of here," I told her.
She fastened herself to my arm without even a backwards glance toward John and Joan. That was just as well. They seemed about ready to rip off each other's clothing and go at it on the spot. At any rate, they were temporarily oblivious.
It was surprisingly easy to get out, once we made it back out of the seating area, but we had to climb over some seats to do that. Once that was accomplished the combination of my size plus Cheryl's spiky clothing opened a pathway to the door. Thus we made our escape.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
It was in the third week of my slow infiltration of Carnival cluster that the megastorm hit. It was at the south pole of Venus, and Lewis had been right, the live footage of it was impressive. All the news channels were full of the thunder and lightning it and people followed the storm's course as if it were a war. There weren't many casualties; people had learned the lessons of how to ride out the fury from previous experience.
With the news of the storm, there began a mass migration of bloon fishermen from the northern to the southern hemisphere, because the dust stirred up by a megastorm causes a huge upsurge in the bloon populations in the storm's aftermath.
The storms effects were felt even at the equator; the overturning of the atmosphere at the south pole generated planetary waves that rippled along the natural stratifications in the Venusian atmosphere. The City and the Circle around Venus started a slow undulation that the control systems of the City worked hard to dampen. They were largely successful, and a good thing, too. Uncontrolled oscillations of that magnitude could rip the seams of the City apart.
In Darkunder, the altitude controls for the clusters are inferior to those of the City and the Circle. Small clusters are less at risk; they don't flex to waves that are longer that the cluster size. They do bob in the air currents, however, and the storm brought a mild sense of unaccustomed movement to the land of shadow.
I watched the storm for a few hours in the afternoon, then headed over to Carnival. I took a taxi, letting someone else drive for a change. It was light night; I wasn't sure how long I'd be away from my hotel and I didn't want to tie up one of Fumio's transport bloons for so long a time.
When we arrived at Carnival, I noticed that it had grown since the day before. Many of the traveling shows were returning for the duration of the storm, to make preparations before heading south to entertain the fishermen during the great bloon harvest that was in the forecast. Another shuffle of the cards, I guess; another Carnival hand to play.
I paid the driver and sent him on his way. Then I headed toward theater row.
There are five main theaters in Carnival, performance spaces large enough to hold as many as five hundred people at a time, though it would overload the cluster if all were to be filled at once. One of the theaters, called The Labyrinth, has been cut up into a multitude of smaller spaces, public, semi-private, and private. The Labyrinth specializes in sex, a venue for voyeurs and exhibitionists, people meeting people that they don't particularly want to ever see again, but who they want to see for a night. It's not a very good market for prostitutes, except as stage acts; The Labyrinth specialized in amateur talent. It also seemed like a good place to track certain types of disease vectors, and I'd been keeping my eye on it for a while, with no success. I had, however, checked its history well enough to have found a couple of outbreaks of hepatitis G in which it had been implicated. People never learn.
Three of the other four theaters in Carnival were general performance spaces that swung from light opera to Shakespeare to power quintets. The remaining theater was called The Arena.
The Arena was another specialized venue; it specialized in fights. Mostly this was human combat, but I saw one cockfight staged during my time there. Beyond that there was boxing, judo, full contact karate, kendo, fencing, you name it. As long as it involved a winner and a loser, The Arena liked to put it on the stage, especially if there was the possibility of blood involved. It was this aspect of it that interested me.
I'd been to The Arena three times in the three weeks I'd been investigating, and I hadn't seen the entire repertoire of the place yet. That night, there were two scheduled competitions, Olympic-style gloved boxing, and a relatively new thing called "slasher." I hadn't seen a slasher fight yet, but from its description, it was something I needed to check out.
The larger clubs and theaters are near the midway of Carnival, where the air is a swirl of light and shadow, and there is always a babble of a crowd. I trailed a parade when I arrived, a procession of costumed dancers following a drum line toward who knows what destination. The costumes seemed to have an animal theme, with wolves and tigers in the majority. People seldom dress as sheep or cattle; they prefer to fantasize about freedom and power.
I was maybe a hundred meters from the Arena when I heard a woman's voice from behind me. "Hello, Ed," someone said, and I turned around.
It was Cheryl Chiba, Calvin Lee's former girlfriend. She was with two other people, one male, one female, both about her age. All three were wearing masks, but they were for show only, black eyemasks that covered little more than eyeglasses would. Black was the central theme of the trio, in fact. Cheryl wore a striped black leatherette body suit that had a peacock sheen to it, barely visible in the shifting lights of the Carnival corridors. The stripes were dark gray on the black, and the whole things would have been unisex, except that the body that it enclosed was so obviously female. Wrapped around her at various places, as jewelry, were strands of metal, twisted together like barbed wire. Her belt band and bracelets were both fully spiked; the belt had several strands of chain dangling from it. The overall effect was an apparently deliberate traipse along the boundary between bondage and outright sado-masochism, a sexuality-in-your-face sort of outfit, with all the equipment fully tuned.
Cheryl's companions were similarly dressed, though the effect was less pronounced. They looked like xerx plant copies, following along after the original.
"Hello, Cheryl," I said, turning. "What brings you to these parts?"
She let a smile break though the intense blasé expression that young people have always worn as an attempt to appear worldly. She held out a hand to me, and I touched it briefly in greeting, wondering just how much damage a full embrace from her barbed outfit could do to a man.
"We're here for slash night at the Arena," she said. "This is John and Joan, not their real names, but an accurate simulation." Her eyes glittered behind the mask, and her voice was slightly revved, like someone with a stimulant buzz on. Her companions seemed to vibrate slightly; they didn't have the sort of muscle control that Cheryl had, and their movements were vaguely spastic. Cheryl's had a more controlled, whiplike character to them. I wondered just what mix they were on.
"Nice to meet you," I told the two of them, and offered a handshake to each of them. The girl giggled when I touched her.
"So are you headed for the fights?" Cheryl asked me. "I hear that Caine is fighting tonight."
"I'm going to The Arena, yes," I told them, as the four of us began to walk again. "I don't know any individual fighter's name; I only got interested a few weeks ago."
"Why the sudden interest," she asked. "Are you thinking of taking up a hobby?"
I shrugged. "No particular reason," I told her. "Just curious."
"Is this the guy you told us about?" said John. "It is, isn't it? The cop-oid who does the jump kicks and who did the sky dive that time?" Cheryl made a face at him.
"Jeez, John, you can be such a pleege. Why don't you just ask him his dick size while you're at it?" Then she said to me. "Sorry if I blabbed," she told me.
I shrugged again. "No matter," I said. "These stories grow with each retelling." I paused. "Rather like my dick size, in fact." Both John and Joan giggled.
Then we reached the Arena, paid our tickets and went inside.
The Arena can hold maybe four hundred people without crowding, but it was crowded that night, and the four of us had to push our way through the crush of people at the door. We'd gotten seats near the front, but there were a lot of people milling around in the standing room section behind the seats. There was an edge to the spectators. Violence as a spectator sport can do that. The main ring was an elevated platform at the center of the space, surrounded by wire mesh. From the looks of the crowd, I could see why the fighters might feel safer that way.
One guy tried to block our path as we neared the seats; I couldn't tell if he was just harassing the rich folk, or if it was meant as some sort of challenge to me. I sometimes get that, most often in a certain kind of bar, and it has always baffled me why the challengers are so often guys who can't fight worth a damn. That looked to be the case with this one, certainly.
The guy was more intelligent than some, though, or maybe my cheery smile, and "Excuse me," confused him. Anyway, the four of us slid by him without a protest. The aisle wasn't quite narrow enough to block without effort, and I don't think this guy wanted to expend much effort. Or maybe he didn't want to miss the fight.
We'd arrived between rounds of a gloved boxing match. Olympic-style boxing has lasted for centuries; it found a good match between style and bloodshed, and it has served as a crowd pleaser ever since. I've tangled with a few boxers from time to time, and they are not my favorite sport. They're tough and they know how to take and inflict pain.
Every martial art has to solve an important conundrum, which is, how do you make it real? You can do kata until your body is hard and tuned, but you still don't know how you will react in a real fight, when there is something at stake other than a raised eyebrow from the sensei.
So the fighting arts tend to divide into two categories: those that test, and those that hold competitions. Each has its drawbacks. Those that give tests can only hope that the fear of failure somehow approximates the fear of death or mayhem that comes when someone is really trying to do you harm. That it works at all gives some indication of the relative importance that we give our egos and our bodies.
Competition, even full contact competition, brings a more subtle problem. No martial art will last long if it kills its students with any regularity. But that means that the strongest techniques -- those that can kill -- must somehow be blunted. I have seen powerful and well-trained men lose an encounter because their training included too much of pulled punches, and proscribed strikes. They simply didn't get reality through to their reflexes.
The introduction of gloves into boxing (the old word was "fisticuffs" because all the hitting is done with the fists) produced another paradox. The gloves are to protect the hands; bare-knuckled fighters break their hands too often, and that shortened careers and lost students. Also, the gloves, because of the way that they cushioned the blow, actually improve the momentum transfer between a thrown punch and the body or head of the target. The paradox then, was that hand protection translated into increased risk to the head and its contents. Knockouts became far more common after the introduction of the gloves allowed a punch to bounce a man's brains back and forth inside his skull, rather than expending its energy in breaking bones. And with the knockouts came a greater risk of brain damage, and occasionally, of death.
So, although Olympic-style boxing has no truck with killing blows like elbow strikes, or choke holds, or neck breakers, it carries a significant risk to the boxer. It makes the combat real with the oldest of tricks, reality.
The reality that night was of a crowd in the opening throes of blood lust. We'd arrived just before the beginning of the fourth round, in what was billed as a twelve round fight. My first impression was that it would to go the distance. Both men were near-heavyweights, each massing easily above ninety-five kilos. There the similarity ended, however. One fighter was a short, squat, bull of a man, with a pneumotube body and a glaring expression. The other was taller, and seemingly quicker on his feet. He seemed to glide over the floor, his feet never leaving the springy surface of the cage the two of them inhabited. He was always just outside of the little one's reach, firing off short jabs that missed three-to-one and did seemingly little damage when they landed, but enough to score points with the judges and the crowd, and enough to infuriate his smaller foe.
I glanced over at my companions. They had slid into our seats before me; I'd chosen to stay in an aisle seat, Cheryl to my immediate left. Ordinary sound was drowned in the ambient noise and frequent shouts from the crowd, but occasionally, I'd hear a rasp of breath intake from one of the three. Often enough, one of them would shout encouragement to one of the fighters, adding to the surrounding din. I couldn't see her two companions, but Cheryl's brow had developed a sheen of sweat that matched the speedy glitter in her eyes.
Another roar from the crowd brought my attention back to the front. The small one had landed a vicious body strike to the abdomen of the tall one, and the tall one reached out to grab his small opponent behind the head, pulling him into a clinch. There were scattered catcalls as the referee moved in to separate them.
As the seconds passed, I began to wonder at my original judgment. The short one, for all his seeming sluggishness, was slowly modifying his style to take into account the quickness of his longer reached opponent. He already knew enough to roll away from the jabs; now he was beginning to roll forward when he wanted to attack.
The round ended, and the two men went back to their corners, and their handlers appeared through trap doors in the platform floor. The short one was bleeding through multiple cuts to his face and one fairly bloody one to his scalp. He grimaced as the styptic salve was applied to it, but was otherwise occupied in rapid conversation with his trainer. The tall one was unmarked, but he was also talking to his trainer, and he seemed a little worried.
The handlers vanished to where they had come from, and the fifth round began. The short one charged at the tall one, and just as he entered the dangerous range of his opponent's reach, his hips began an almost imperceptible rotation. The jab that was meant to stop him bounced off of his suddenly turning head, like someone punching through a swinging door. And like a swinging door, the short one's body cocked back and came at the taller opponent with a snap.
The tall one managed to get his other hand between himself and the roundhouse right that came at him, so it was primarily his own glove that jolted him. It was enough to interfere with his timing, and when he tried to pull a clinch with his free right hand, the short one ducked under it and landed a short but powerful blow to his short ribs.
The tall one should have gone down, then, to recover his breath. But he didn't and remaining erect was costly. The short one loosed a series of blows that broke through his opponent's guard and pushed him back to the padded wire mesh of the cage. I saw the tall one's legs quiver, like he was now trying to descend to the sanctuary of the floor, but he was pinned.
The crowd had leapt to its feet, and the sound of it was enough to feel as a physical thing. The referee was trying to get between the two fighters, but the small one was just pounding away at the taller man, feet set, like he was working a heavy bag. Finally, the referee grabbed his arm, the short one stepped back, and the tall man slid to the floor. Even then he wasn't limp; he kept trying to sit up, his eyes curling backwards into his head, but his body trying to continue its schedule, trying to get up and keep fighting.
The referee declared the short one the winner, and the trapdoors erupted with each fighter's handlers coming from below. The short boxer did a little victory dance while the taller man was lead off the platform, then the referee repeated the victory announcement, and everyone deserted the stage.
Then the lights came up, and a voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be a twenty minute intermission. Drinks are available at the rear, and from the roving vendors. If you leave the building and wish to be readmitted, please get your hand stamped before you leave."
"All right!" exclaimed John, who was sitting farthest from me. "And that was just the warm up act." He leaned over and kissed Joan full on the lips. She reached up to stroke his hip.
"Now, now, children," Cheryl said. "This isn't The Labyrinth, or even The Cave. Save it for later." Then she looked over at me and said, "Pretty plasmoid, eh? Maybe even coronesque?" A bead of sweat ran down her forehead and onto her cheek. I felt the cool air descend from the blowers high above us.
"Surface of the sun," I told her, but I felt like ice was thickening in my veins.