Friday, May 23, 2008

Chapter fifteen: …or tell you a lie of such towering audacity…

Previous Chapter

When I was young I used to fall into dictionaries. There is a lot of human history in the history of words, and when the study of history is regulated, as it is on Luna, any glimpse of it can carry the delicious hint of the forbidden.

"Carnival" comes from the Latin, the etymological lookup tells me. "Carne vale," literally, means "Goodbye flesh." It used to be a time of merrymaking (another deliciously archaic word: merrymaking) before the asceticism of Christian Lent. The last day of it, Mardi Gras (literally: Fat Tuesday) was the big blowout. Entire cities on old Earth would give themselves over to the festivities, and tourists would come from all over the world to take part.

Somewhere in the deal, long before the Silence, another sort of carnival began. These were associated with circuses, apparently, a wandering patch of entertainment that brought amusement from town to town before the advent of mass entertainment. The people of the carnival would show off their freakish bodies, or freakish talents, connive the locals in (usually rigged) games of chance or strange skills, let the children ride animals or mechanical rides, then move on to the next town before the amusements began to pale, or the rubes began to see through the cons.

The Carnival Cluster in Darkunder was a mixture of the two sorts of carnivals, I think, a free-fire zone party and parade for people who just want to blow off steam, and a bit of a con job for those who don't mind being taken. In fact, some sections of it are still it are still itinerant, leaving the niche beneath Sky City for months at a time to go out into the distant clouds far from the equator, to bring the same sorts of timeless entertainment and chicanery to those who still lack better sources of fun. For the first few decades of Venus' colonization, such freefloating carnival clusters were the main source of amusement for a frontier existence, and a fondness for that era still lingers, or so I'm told.

When I first came to Venus, when I couldn't sleep (and that was often) I roamed the clubs and party clusters of Darkunder, seldom lingering for long, always on the move because stillness was abhorrent to me. I spent some time in Carnival, enough to get the taste of it, but not really enough to digest it entire.

It's a big place, the biggest in Darkunder, at least when the nomad clusters are hooked in. Unlike many clusters, it makes no pretense of having a center. Carnival cluster makes a long arc below City Center, a ten kilometer long semi-circle as close to the below-the-City deep descending portion of the Skyhook as is allowed by law. It's one of the oldest parts of Darkunder, a fit place for the pleasures of the hindbrain to be serviced.

It's an easy shuttle ride from the Skyhook, and Carnival cluster is a favorite entertainment spot for the highborn and the mighty, as well as those with energy and a taste for the outré. You can spend an entire evening there "en masque," anonymous, with a false face made publicly presentable by cash. Periodically there is talk about "cleaning up Darkunder," while means Carnival cluster and others like it, but the talk always leads to nothing. Too many people like it the way it is, even if they seldom admit it. Each large entertainment cluster has its own security force, and its own vague sort of law. There are two basic rules in Carnival, "Don't bother the help," and "Don't interfere with someone who is spending money." That seems to cover a lot of human existence, actually.

Carnival is a place of long broad corridors; entire bloons are given over to the thoroughfares, and on any given night you can see at least one or two impromptu parades. The corridors are lined and littered with temporary booths, and a successful booth might move to the side and become a sideshow attraction. The more permanent features are the clubs, and the largest clubs are called theaters. There are two rules for the clubs, that match the rules for the cluster: any customer can leave at any time, for any reason, and any club may ask any customer to leave at any time, for any reason. Both rules have the force of high custom, if not law, and all business, I'll say it again for emphasis, is done in cash.

When Landau of Skyhook Public Health and Safety asked for my help, I hadn't been to Carnival in over two years. It had changed in that time, of course; the layout of the place changes from night to night, and fashions come and go as rapidly as the fickle tastes that drive them. I recognized fewer than half of the clubs from my earlier excursions. In fact, the sideshow booths looked more permanent to my (perhaps ironic) eye.

Carnival holds maybe ten thousand people on any given peak time, which is well past midnight by the twenty-four hour clock. The cluster could probably hold a maximum of twenty thousand souls, more, if some of the furniture were jettisoned, an activity that does occur from time to time, though always from faux vandalism, not necessity. There are maybe one or two thousand full timers, those who live and/or work in the cluster. One of them had been Lucy Dahl, a woman with no official background (there are many such), and no address save General Delivery, Carnival 300965-4926, a semi-private Ident code.

Now Lucy Dahl was dead, of a possibly terrible disease, though more likely a coincidental one. And I was supposed to find, not Lucy herself, since she was dead, but rather where she had been. I was to search out, not the needle in the haystack, but rather the place where the needle once resided.

Ask a straight question of Carnival people and they will either ignore you or tell you a lie of such towering audacity that you feel an urge to pay them by the word, at fiction rates. Press the matter and you will be shown the door. Argue too hard and you may find that the door option has become unavailable. I was looking for a phantom in a world of fantasy.

Dr. Landau's investigators had apparently researched the mores of Carnival the hard way. In reading their reports, I was surprised that only one of them had been seriously injured. The job needed a light touch. Which is, of course, why they came to me. I am, as all will tell you, light touch personified. They may even avoid laughter until you leave the room.

However. Despite my harsh words to Calvin, I was operating under a cover story. That my cover story might be as provocative as my real intention was part of its charm. I was going to pretend that Bert Costello was a Carnival regular (which he may have been for all I knew) and try to track him. Using Landau's high level access codes, I'd modified Costello's records to give him a General Delivery address in Carnival. I'd make a few discreet inquiries to check the pressure gradients. And I'd wander around and watch. And listen. As a great philosopher said, you can see a lot by just observing.

I had a story within a story. I could spend a lot of time in Carnival as just a patron. Story number one. If I needed to ask general questions, I was looking for someone who knew Bert Costello. Story number two. Eventually, I might catch some word of Lucy Dahl; then I'd need to invent Story number three.

This was going to take time. All good recon missions do. Landau had been impatient, the impatience born of desperation. I considered the matter less urgent.

And why was that? I thought about the situation while I wandered the hectic corridors of Carnival that first night. There was always music in the air; not infrequently two or three discordant forms would wrestle for sway above the din. More often, different groups of musicians would find a common theme to hold among themselves, the hollow beat of congas dancing with the hybrid mixture of a Dixieland waltz. Or a brass band would depart from march tempo just long enough to allow the atoballet dancers to twirl by.

If it turned out that Lucy Dahl had indeed died of a contagious disease, what then? That would depend on whether or not the disease vectors could be located and isolated. It would depend on whether or not the disease was treatable, or curable, or whether an effective vaccine could be found. The specter of the Madness Plague on Earth is certainly enough to wreck a man's restful sleep (if one had it to begin with, another "advantage" that I have over so many others). But, in truth, the Madness was unique in human history, and there are few diseases that approach its impact. Landau was correct; a disease of only a fraction of the virulence of the Plague would doom Luna and the artificially maintained colonies, but only if they came between the hammer and the anvil. If none of the ordinary measures were of effect, then extraordinary measures would be used. Extraordinary measures would end or greatly limit interplanetary trade.

Twenty-five years ago, that would have been a disaster; the lifeline between Venus and Luna was stretched tight as a noose. But that equation had changed with Comet Alpha, and its hoard of hydrogen from which water could be made. Luna could go it alone if need be, though great privation would result. And the social structure on Venus would flip and flop. Sky City would shrink to a fraction of its current size without the river of trade that went through it.

But it was not clear to me that the end result would be a bad thing. Life away from Sky City seemed always various and often wonderful to me. For every Taylorville that I'd seen, there was a Marley Farm, with its ganja-loving squires; for every family like the Andersons there were people like Lewis and his tribe of Stochasticists. I admired the world that had grown up within the living bloons and I sometimes worried about what effects of the ongoing migration from Luna would have on it.

Still and all, I am by birth and rearing a conservative person. All policemen are, to a large extent, I think. Also, I did have family back on Luna, an ailing father and a young sister whom I barely knew, assorted cousins and other kin. That I never communicated with these people did not eliminate the bonds of blood. I had personal ties to Luna from my previous lifetime; I did not relish the thought of the sort of disruption that a system wide pandemic could wreak. I would work to prevent it, and if my actions seemed measured and without the frantic flurry induced by panic, well, that was good, too.

So I wandered the corridors of Carnival, thinking my thoughts, seeing the sights, and wondering who and for whom Lucy Dahl had been. This was likely to be a project of some length, and I hoped that the time would be well spent.

In the days that followed, I set to work on my various jobs. During the days of light, I spent my time as I usually did, ferrying oxygen between the light beyond the City and the Dark beneath it. On some evenings I would then go over to Carnival to sit in clubs or walk the corridors, occasionally striking up conversations with those who worked and played there. During the two days of cyclical darkness, my time there was more lengthy, more intense. Some nights I would take the mask and wander silently. Occasionally I would hire a prostitute and spend the night in one of the Carnival cribs, saying hello to the flesh, carne salve, in the flesh there may be salvation. And slowly, slowly, I began to see the weave of the place, to feel its rhythms and to learn its secrets.

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