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Table of Contents

Three men standing – not any Courtesy – His filthy Mind – What the Lord requires –

Three men standing around an upturned oil barrel, a weathered grey plank laid across the top. All of them their dark hair tightly curled and closely cropped, all of them wearing dull grey coveralls with short sleeves and lots of pockets. One of them’s holding a tool of some sort, a toothed wheel, a crank, edges blurry with rust, and he’s saying something to the others but it’s drowned out by the voice of an unseen narrator, by the dissident socialists of New Britain, retains a peculiar brand of socialism that is about as inefficient as socialism has ever been, yet Moambans seem to like it and feel a strong sense of attachment to their community and their island. One of the others takes the thing and points to where the wheel joins the crank, and they all laugh. His coveralls unzipped to the waist, underneath a T-shirt printed with an enormous stylized smiling man, the eyes squeezed to joyous slits. Mr. Charlock sitting at the edge of the bed isn’t watching the television. He’s watching Mr. Keightlinger’s back. Mr. Keightlinger his half-eaten sandwich still by his elbow watches the letters on the map. There’s a glass of water by the sandwich.

“Okay,” says Mr. Charlock. “What. So you think I’m a total amateur, is that it?”

The water inside the glass is trembling. The glass itself is buzzing faintly. Without looking up from the map, Mr. Keightlinger puts a hand on it to still it.

“John knows how I work, okay? He knows the drill. So him and me go out tomorrow watching the Bride, you stay here and tinker with your map and keep half an eye on that thing in the chair.” Leaning hands on his knees glaring at Mr. Keightlinger’s broad back. “End of the day you have what we need to get this Agravante thing off our backs, the Bride won’t have upped and run off to Seattle while we weren’t looking, and we’ll help out an old buddy of mine.” On the television a strip of sand white-hot in harsh sunlight cut by a straight sharp line of shadow, a naked man on his back, feet and shins reddening in the sun one arm over his eyes, skin painted with stripes and jagged shapes of fluorescent green and pink and yellow. His pooled white hair paler than the sand. His other hand idly stroking his stiffening cock. Remains very humid, the narrator’s saying, and near thirty-two degrees Celsius at all times. Nudism, though not universal, is widely practiced and quite obvious in all public places. I have no difficulty telling the girls from the boys there!

“That’s like a, a win-win-win,” says Mr. Charlock. “Well? Mr. Keightlinger? You trust me? Dr. Kilo?”

Mr. Keightlinger looks up from the map beard rustling against his shirt as he turns to say, “Don’t call me that.” The glass is buzzing faintly again.

“Do you trust me?” says Mr. Charlock.

Mr. Keightlinger lifts the glass of water and with his free hand catches the purple O before it can scoot off the table. “With my life,” he says.

“Your soul, bucko,” says Mr. Charlock. “Else this whole thing falls apart.” Shaking his head. On the television a leathery hand netted with small white scars delicately adjusts some beads strung on a complex swirl of wire. “I’m insulted, really, is what I am.” Mr. Charlock lies back, hands laced behind his head. “As if I’d believe Bottle John Wesson had a brother all this time and never told me.”

Ghostly gliding through the dark gully down train tracks bare feet balanced on a single polished rail that faintly shines in citylight reflected from the unseen clouds above. Naked but for a wide white cartwheel ruff about her throat. She’s been splashed with something that’s dried in crusted white swathes along her flanks and arms, her belly, her back. She stops suddenly still balanced on that rail. “Step out,” she calls. “My lady knows you are here, and would have you come before her.”

A man steps from the low trees to one side of the tracks, a man in a blue and black sarong and a loose white unbuttoned shirt. “The rain’s stopped the while,” he says. His hair is long and dark and gathered in a single braid down his back. A black patch covers one eye. “I thought I’d take a walk.” He turns back to the trees, crooks a finger at them. “You seem to have come uncapped.” The leaves shake and rattle, and a branch cracks loudly.

“Mooncalfe,” says the woman in the ruff. “I’d always thought you mad, not cruel.” Another man stumbles from the brush, dark hair a tangle about his head, pale blue windbreaker smeared with grime.

“Oh I am mad,” says the man in the sarong, grabbing the other man’s hand. “Mad as you’ve made me. Lead on, Linesse.”

A little further on and one side of the gully falls away a clearing then, and far beyond and below a highway and streetlights and bright-lit signs. A figure looms anonymous and impassive in a crude and blocky suit of wicker armor, head hidden away behind a great woven barrel of a helm. With a rustling rattling creak it lifts out an arm holding a long rattan pole to bar their way. At one edge of the little clearing a plain white sheet tied to tree branches and stakes driven into the ground. A movie flickers against it, a close-up of a kitten rubbing back and forth against a man’s unshaven cheek, a sudden cut to a crush of people in a subway stairwell that fades to blood cells coursing through a vein. A woman laughs. She sits in the grass facing the screen, her back to them, wrapped in a tattered black cloak. Two children, toddlers, wrestle in the muddy leaves beside her over a broken plastic fire truck. She lifts a gnarled grey stick, smooth and dull as driftwood, and the armored figure lowers its arm, pulling the rattan pole back against its body.

“Congratulations,” calls Orlando, and the woman cocks her head at that. “On finding a court of your own, out here in this counterfeit wild.”

She props a hand on one crooked knee. “And to you,” she says, grunting, pushing herself to her feet, “now that you might see the truth of things direct. There’s something about you.” She holds that stick up before him, a white-blue spark glimmering at its end.

“Eyes,” says Orlando, “eyes buzzing about me. I’d not have them see where I go, or the company I keep.”

“A courtesy!” She steps then from him to the man beside him hugging himself tightly in his windbreaker. “No one does me any courtesy. I know this man.” She draws back, the stick flaring, harsh blue-white light filling the clearing. “Kitchen knight!” she cries. “Boar-bane!” The man in the windbreaker cringes his face in his hands. Something’s growling in the darkness beyond the screen, where figments of cars chase each other against the heavy flow of traffic up a freeway. Orlando’s drawn his sword and holds it blade-down at his side. “Do nothing,” he says.

“Not any one thing?” she says, her stick still spitting light.

“He is in my keeping,” says Orlando, “and has been almost a week now. But – ” The other man looks wildly about at that, from Orlando to the palely naked woman beside him, the figure in wicker armor, the toddlers sitting frozen in the clearing, holding either end of the fire truck between them. “I don’t,” he’s saying, “you can’t,” and Orlando cuffs him on the back of his head and says, “I would bargain with you, lady.”

“No courtesy is ever done to me,” says the woman in the cloak. The harsh light from her stick dimming. “He’s not so much. Barely a mouthful. No boar-bane he, it was the girl did for my poor Erymathos. The one my sister’s taken to her bosom.”

“And he’s the key to her,” says Orlando. “Frankie Reichart, who’s held the Gallowglas, and whispered her sweet nothings.”

“Christ you fucking asshole you can’t do this – ” and then Frankie stops, Orlando’s hand a fist now in his hair, tugging. Orlando’s sword still pointed at the ground as he leans close, nose to ear. “I do what I want,” he says. “Well, lady? Somewhat more valuable, perhaps, than you’d thought a moment before?”

“I need no such key,” she says. Orlando smiles. “Perhaps,” she says, “Linesse,” she says, “my ugly duckling would like a Gallowglas of her very own.” Linesse in her ruff hands at her sides says nothing. “But such a jape is not worth all that much to me.”

“Oh,” says Orlando, eyeing the toddlers on the grass, “just one of your byblows.”

In his grey suit holding a newspaper up over his head against the rain Bottle John jogs the last few steps up to the orange car parked by a low white building that says Auto Upholstery over the door. The daylight all about him directionless and grey. He sets a cardboard tray with a couple of covered cups of coffee on the roof of the car but doesn’t open the door just yet. Down the sidewalk some empty tables under unfurled black umbrellas that say Captain Morgan. Parked by them a reddish brown car with a black stripe down its side.

Inside the orange car Mr. Charlock is slumped in the passenger seat, his head pressed against the window, tongue lolling in the corner of his half-opened mouth. Left eyelid twitching over a white eyeball. One hand jerks up swiveling about as Bottle John settles in the driver’s seat, then falls back against his chest, fingers trembling. Bottle John sets the coffee cups on the dashboard, tugs one free, wipes rainwater from the cover before taking a hesitant sip. His face screws up and he wipes his lips with a thumb, putting the cup back, tugging the other one free. The whole time he’s watching Mr. Charlock twitching and shivering, his jaw working now, mouthing soundless words with jagged shapes. His hand jerks up again, makes a fist, he’s biting his lip, sniffing the air, doubling over suddenly in a coughing fit, reaching for the dashboard, clinging to it, hauling himself up against it from some deep well. Bottle John nudges the cardboard tray along the dash until it brushes Mr. Charlock’s hand. “Coffee,” says Bottle John. “Black. Fuck-ton of sugar.” Mr. Charlock scrabbles for the cup, yanks it free slopping coffee steaming on his hand, wrenches it around and pours most of it down his throat in one long swallow. Lifts the cup away wobbling teeth clenched behind clamped lips the cords in his neck standing out eyes bulging rolling turning to settle on Bottle John watching from the driver’s seat. Mr. Charlock lets out a little puff of a cough and grabs a quick breath and then with a sigh he relaxes, slumps, face gentling, eyes closing, hands settling in his lap, wrapped around the cup of coffee. “Thank you,” he says.

“And?” says Bottle John.

“And what?” says Mr. Charlock. “They’re just, they’re just talking. The hell else you gonna do at a strip club at eleven in the morning?”

“Man walks into a strip club with three women like that, doesn’t matter what time it is. You’re gonna have thoughts.”

“Well stop,” says Mr. Charlock, rubbing his eyes. “It’s distracting.”

Bottle John leans an elbow on the steering wheel and says, “You picking up what I’m thinking? Man, that is downright unsettling.”

Mr. Charlock’s digging at the corners of his eyes with his fingertips. “Don’t work like that,” he says, tugging his cheeks down, prying his eyes wide open.

“Like what,” says Bottle John.

“Like what you’re thinking,” says Mr. Charlock. He blows out another sigh and tips back his cup of coffee, draining the rest. Pulls off the top and tips it back again, shaking loose some sugary sludge from the bottom of the cup. “I just know you, John. You got a filthy mind.”

“You can call it filthy if you want,” says Bottle John, peering through the windshield at the nondescript black door past the umbrellaed tables. The neon sign at the corner of the building says Cocktails in big red unlit letters. Devil’s Point. “What I’m thinking is downright beautiful.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Mr. Charlock, shaking more sludge into his mouth.

“So this it? You go from saving the world to sniffing psychic panties?”

Mr. Charlock leans over, thwaps Bottle John on the shoulder. “How many ops we do together? And you still fuck that up?”

“Jesus, man, come on – ”

“It is sloppy thinking, is what it is. You’re still hung up on Foxtrot and her fucking mentalist bullshit.”

“She was pretty impressive, you gotta admit – ”

“She had long legs and an ass that looked great in ACU pants,” says Mr. Charlock, and Bottle John snorts. “She also had,” says Mr. Charlock, “a line in cold reading and parlor tricks that propped up a gift she did not understand. You think of it like psychic fucking powers, you’re working the wrong model. You’re thinking it’s rational, it’s repeatable, it makes some kind of sense. That it’ll behave.” Bottle John’s looking down, away, at his coffee, taking a sip. Mr. Charlock leans close, ducking his head, trying to catch Bottle John’s eyes. “That it’s a science, but it ain’t. It’s an art, okay? Doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. Doesn’t have to. It is right and true in a way that doesn’t give a shit about you and if you do not respect that it will get you killed.”

“Yeah,” says Bottle John. “You just pissed because she whipped your ass at poker.”

“Who’s sitting here, huh?” says Mr. Charlock. “Who’s sitting here in the car next to you, and who’s buried three miles deep under Jo’burg? Tell me that.” Bottle John takes another drink of coffee. “Poker,” says Mr. Charlock, reaching into his jacket. “I’ll show you some fucking poker.” He’s got a couple of playing cards and he hands one to Bottle John. The King of Clubs.

“What’s this?”

“Lick the back of it and stick it to your forehead.” Mr. Charlock licks his card and sticks it there just under his lank grey curl. The Queen of Diamonds. From another pocket he’s pulling a folded-up square of glossy paper, an ad ripped from a magazine, a sleek sports car with smokey glass and a rounded roof. “Come on, come on. They’ll be leaving soon.” He licks his thumb, smears saliva along the top of the ad, leans up to stick it against the windshield.

“The hell you doing?” says Bottle John.

“Orange car?” says Mr. Charlock. “Couple guys in suits? Pretty fucking noticeable. They look this way coming out, they’ll see a happy loving couple in a nice grey Audi.”

“Loving couple, huh,” says Bottle John, eyeing the red queen stuck to Mr. Charlock’s head. “That make you the girl?”

“Fucking hell,” says Mr. Charlock, snatching the card from his head. “Operational security, nimrod!” Rubbing his knuckles across the queen’s face, then licking the card and putting it back in place. “No stupid questions while I’m working.” From another pocket now he’s drawing out a pair of classic black sunglasses, an owl’s feather tied to one side.

“Aw hell man,” says Bottle John. “I hate that thing.”

“It hates everybody,” says Mr. Charlock, putting them on. “Lick it and stick it already.”

Bottle John licks the back of his card and sticks it to his forehead. “The hell you chasing out here, anyway?” he says.

“Ain’t it obvious?” says Mr. Charlock. He’s grinning now. “Ultraterrestrials from Sefirah X.”

The green B up on Swan Island now in a channel of milky sunlight from the curtains opened not much more than a handspan. The red Q lit up still on the corner of Everett and 20th. Out of the light on the other side of the map the orange B and the yellow Y together there where Foster Road begins to slice diagonally across the regular grid of streets. A clink and a rattling buzz as the purple O under an overturned water glass beats itself against the table. “That’s quite distracting,” says Ezra. Mr. Keightlinger looks up from the map but doesn’t say anything. He taps the glass. The buzzing stops.

The wheelchair back in the dark alcove by the bathroom Ezra’s leaning heavily on the nearer bed, sliding with uncertain steps closer to the table so he can peer over Mr. Keightlinger’s broad back at the map. “I can help, you know,” says Ezra.

That broad back hunches in a shrug.

Ezra sits on the bed, lifting his legs to resettle his feet in shining black shoes too large for the rest of him, like his hands, like his eyes behind those spectacles. “Your name starts with a P,” he says. “But it doesn’t sound like a P. The Lord has whispered your name to me, though I could not catch it. Your partner, Dr. Charley, though. The Lord has said nothing to me about him. Butterscotch?” A couple of yellow-gold candies dandled in the big pale palm of his hand. Mr. Keightlinger shakes his head, the clumsy club of his ponytail waving back and forth. Ezra unwraps a candy and pops it into his mouth. “We have no quarrel with you,” he says around the candy clicking against his teeth. “Some might open the book and cite Exodus, chapter twenty-two, verse eighteen: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’.” He smiles to himself, big hands folded together in his narrow lap. “But I have seen too many things in this world to forget the unknowable, the constantly surprising majesty of God. He truly works in mysterious ways, and even one such as you, and your partner, and your deviltry, can all be part of His plan.” He sucks on the candy, works it between his teeth. In the glass on the table the O is buzzing again. There’s a crunch. Ezra lifts his eyebrows in a little sigh, chews, swallows. “I can be so impatient sometimes,” he says. “What the Lord requires of me already is more than I could ever ask of myself. I have learned not to presume what else I might do, to fulfill my part in His plan. I hardly even witness, anymore.” He’s toying with the second candy in his palm. “My younger self would be so disappointed in me.” Unwraps the candy, pops it in his mouth. “Such a hard lesson to learn, for something so obvious. That nothing in this world is pure. Especially oneself.”

Mr. Keightlinger taps the glass again and the buzzing stops. He opens his mouth and pulls out a pink plastic X. He wraps his fist about it and closes his eyes and sweeps his fist over the map, back and forth, in and out of that pale band of light, slowing, his fist opening, the X taken gingerly between thumb and fingers, eyes still closed the hand lowering to place the X just so. Opening his eyes. Hand hovering over the pink X there by the river at the bottom of the map, where the street grid curls around a lakelet just south of a skinny, claw-shaped island. The rest of the letters scattered well above and around it, turning and twitching in place. The yellow Y and the orange B together sliding down Powell toward Thirty-ninth, wobbling a little over a crease in the map. Mr. Keightlinger stands and scoops up a ring of keys from the top of the television set.

“Are we going somewhere?” says Ezra.

“No,” says Mr. Keightlinger, opening the door.

“But,” says Ezra pushing himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the bed, “I don’t understand. What am I to do?”

“Answer the phone,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “If it rings.”

Table of Contents

Handbook for Space Pioneers, written by L. Stephen Wolfe and Roy L. Wysack, ©1978.

M.E.Traylor    27 August 2010    #

Oh my gosh, the delicious, meaty details of how things work. Sort of. I can’t wait to find out if Orlando is going to get the shit beaten out of him by Northeast. And what is up with her? Seriously. I have no clue, not even a workable theory (though a vague hope).

MeiLin Miranda    27 August 2010    #

happy sigh

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