Read The Last Book in the Universe Online

Authors: Rodman Philbrick

The Last Book in the Universe (6 page)

BOOK: The Last Book in the Universe
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T
HE FIRST THING
I notice is the horrible stink. Think of moldy dead rats and rotten eggs and dirty diapers. This is worse, much worse. After crawling up through the hatch, I roll to one side and wait for my eyes to adjust to the glittery dimness. Except for the stink, it reminds me of Billy Bizmo's place, only bigger. A latchboss pleasure-crib stuffed with goodies and gizmos and every possible gaming device. There are lots of soft inflatos that mold themselves to your shape when you sit down, and thick massago-rugs that rub your feet while you walk, and all kinds of beautiful polished things. A lot of it isn't quite real. The glowing fish that swim in a holoquarium. The 3Ds of female dancers that float above a projection table, wiggling their arms and legs and dancing to music I can't hear.

The stink is real, though. Real enough to make your eyes water.

“Try not to breathe through your nose,” Ryter advises.

I can tell from his expression that he's not terribly surprised by what he sees or smells. I follow him to the center of the room, where we find a kind of huge round bed that seems to be the source of the horrible stink. Imagine a throne made of thick sleeping mats and you've got the idea.

“The poor wretch,” Ryter says softly.

Lying on the bed-throne is a shriveled, starving creature soaked in his own filth. Most of his hair has fallen out and lies in a fuzzy pile around his head. His teeth are gone, and his eyes are milky blind. I can barely make out the faded red monkey tattoo on his withered chest. At first glance you might think he's dead, but he isn't — not quite. His fingers twitch a little, and his mouth works, as if he's trying to speak, and you can see where veins pulse weakly in his scrawny neck.

A faint sound comes from his ruined mouth. “Mmm-mmm-mmm,” like the noise of a small motor running out of power.

Amber lights slowly blink on the silver boxes of the mindprobe machinery, going, bzzzt bzzzt bzzzt. I get the idea the thing in the bed is trying to talk to the probe machine, or thinks the probe is talking to him. Something like that. The weird thing is, the filthy, bone-starved creature seems to be smiling, as if unaware of his condition.

“What happened to him?” I ask.

The young tek boss has worked up the courage to follow us into the room. “Mongo has been looping for more than a year,” he says.

“Looping?” Ryter asks.

“A probe that keeps repeating in endless variations,” the tek boss explains. “You never have to come out, if you don't want. This one is called
Forever Eden,
and it's his favorite trendie. Mongo is in Eden now, living the life of a proov. He refuses to leave. He loves it there.”

A thick, grayish liquid oozes from around the needle stuck into the center of Mongo's naked skull. They call it brain ooze, and it happens when you probe for too long. They say that some of the more expensive probes last for twenty-four hours, but I never heard of anybody staying under for a whole year.

“So he's living in another world,” Ryter says. “Or he thinks he is.”

“Exactly,” the tek boss says.

“Can we shut off the machine?”

“If we shut it off, he dies. It's the only thing keeping him alive. The brain stimulation keeps his heart beating.”

“I see,” Ryter says. “And the reason nobody takes care of him or keeps him clean is because they're all terrified of Mongo the Magnificent?”

“Oh yes,” the tek boss says. “There was a time when to enter this room without permission meant instant cancellation. Mongo killed many, often for no reason. To look directly into his eyes was a death sentence.”

Ryter studies the tek boss. “Look around,” he suggests. “Are you still frightened of Mongo?”

The tek boss slowly shakes his head.

“Somebody has to take charge of the latch,” Ryter tells him gently. “Why not you?”

“Me?” the tek boss says, sounding terrified.

“You had courage enough to bring us here,” Ryter says. “If someone doesn't take over, and soon, then all will be lost. Without guidance, without a leader to lead them, the Monkey Boys have degenerated. They'll tear you and your men apart and then destroy themselves.”

“But why would they listen to me? I'm not a latchboss.”

“Neither was Mongo,” Ryter points out, “until he made himself one.”

 

After we leave, the young tek boss seals the hatch, but the stink of what happened to Mongo sticks with me. I'm thinking it could happen to Billy Bizmo, too, if he isn't careful. Part of me wants Billy to end up that way, for being so cruel about Bean, and the other part of me knows that as bad as the Bangers are, they'd be that much worse without someone to make the rules.

“What's your name, may I ask?” Ryter says to the tek boss.

“Gorm.”

“That'll work,” Ryter says, musing to himself. “The Great Gorm. Why not?”

Meanwhile the Great Gorm looks like he's going to be sick. The color has drained from his cheeks, he's breathing sort of puffy, and his eyes have this faraway focus, as if he's looking at tomorrow and doesn't much like what he sees.

“What if I fail?” he asks.

“You must banish all doubt,” Ryter instructs him. “The other thing you must do is make up a few simple rules. That's what the Monkey Boys expect from their leader. A few rules strictly enforced.”

Gorm thinks it over. You can tell he's slowly getting used to the idea of taking over from Mongo, and the more he thinks about it, the more he likes it.

“If I'm the boss, they'll have to obey me,” he mutters to himself. “Obey or die, that's the first rule.”

Ryter nods, as if that's what he expected to hear. “I have a request for the Great Gorm,” he says, bowing his head.

“What?” says Gorm, lost in his thoughts. “Oh yeah, sure. Go ahead.”

“Two requests, actually. The first is that you release all prisoners as a gesture of goodwill,” Ryter suggests. “My second request is that you banish us from the latch. Have a squad of teks escort us to the border.”

Gorm looks at him sharply. “What? I assumed you'd stay and be my adviser.”

“We have a mission elsewhere,” Ryter says, making it sound grand and important. “But I do have one more piece of advice. Do not appoint an adviser until you're certain of your men. If I'm not mistaken, Mongo was adviser to the previous latchboss. The very one he assassinated.”

Gorm glances nervously behind him, then catches himself. I notice he's already looking bigger and stronger. “Mongo made his proclamations from the East Tower,” he says, eyes suddenly flashing. “The Great Gorm will do the same. I must tell them there's a new boss, new rules.”

Ryter studies him thoughtfully and then nods. “The king is dead,” he says. “Long live the king.”

 

 

L
ITTLE
F
ACE LOOKS
scared. You can't blame him. The teks who drive us away in their takvee aren't exactly friendly. Plus a wild mob of Monkey Boys chase after the takvee, hooting and screeching and throwing stones at us. Every time a stone hits the armor plating, Little Face tries to make himself even smaller than he is. Also, he hasn't said “chox” since we left the fort.

“We'll be okay,” I say, “soon as we're clear of this latch.”

That's what I tell him, but inside I'm not so sure. Replacing the latchboss was a good idea, but it's not like he's actually taken control. It'll be a while before the Monkey Boys get used to the idea.

“How did you know about Mongo?” I ask Ryter.

He shrugs. “An educated guess. From the evidence I assumed he was no longer in charge. I didn't know until we actually saw him.”

Which kind of amazes me, because he seemed so sure at the time. I'm also thinking how different he's turned out, nothing like the pathetic old gummy who was willing to let me rob him rather than fight back. Except, of course, that I didn't end up stealing the only thing he really cares about. So I guess he was bluffing me, too, and I fell for it, just like the tek boss.

The takvee we're riding in is dark and cool inside, with soft black upholstery programmed to mold itself around you. Everything is padded and reinforced and armored. What looks like windows are really vidscreen images of the outside, because even armored windows can be broken, with the right weapon. If you listen you can hear the faint hum of the cyber-brain that monitors the weapon systems, and stays wide-eyed for danger. They say a really good tactical urban vehicle can think for itself, almost, protecting the riders.

I'm thinking it must be cool to be a latchboss, always cruising around in a new takvee, with all those teks ready to die for me, and then I flash on the thing on the bed-throne. Until I saw what happened to Mongo, I thought that getting canceled was the worst thing that could happen. Wrong. Being dead and not knowing it is much, much worse.

 

We pass into the shadows of the tall steel bones of buildings high against the sky, and for a while it's as dark as night. There could be things in the shadows. Lurking, almost invisible things that want us dead, but I can't be sure. For some reason that makes me think of Bean. Is that how the blood sickness makes her feel, like something is waiting in the shadows to take her away? Is she angry that it's happening to her and not someone else? Is she afraid? What?

I can't stand to think about it or I'll start screaming, so I concentrate on joking around with Little Face so he won't be scared.

“When we get where we're going, there'll be plenty of choxbars,” I tell him. “Choxbars stacked as high as those old buildings over there. Do you believe me? Huh?”

I have to prod him, but Little Face finally bobs his head and almost smiles, and a few minutes later we're back at the Pipe. The teks more or less dump us out of the takvee and take off before we can even thank them. They're worried about the mob of wild Monkey Boys catching up, and so are we.

“I was hoping for stairs,” Ryter says, looking at where the Pipe looms above us. “Or at least a ladder of some kind.”

We have to make do with climbing the rubble around the pylon. Little Face seems to be his old self now that our escape is in sight. He finds a path and leads us up the chunks of rubble. Ryter and me are both panting by the time we make it to the top, but Little Face, he's not even winded. He waits until we're almost there, gives us a big grin, and then jumps inside the open end of the Pipe. He claps his hands and chirps out, “Chox!” to let us know everything is okay.

I never thought that stupid word would sound so good.

This may sound fried, but the Pipe feels like home. We know the place, and what to expect, more or less. Even the rats are familiar, and not the least bit scary, compared to what we're leaving behind. The rats keep scurrying ahead of us, until their red eyes fade into the dimness.

“Lead on,” Ryter says to me with a grand gesture. “‘We've miles to go before we sleep. And promises to keep.'” After a moment, to let that sink in, he says, “That's from a poem.”

I'm too numbed to ask what a poem is, but as usual the old gummy seems to know what I'm thinking.

“The man who wrote the poem was called Robert Frost. He lived in the twentieth century,” he says. “All that's survived of his poetry is that one line. But even one line is a kind of literary immortality.”

“Lit-er-ary im-mortality,” I say, mimicking his know-it-all voice. “What's that?”

“It means part of you lives forever,” he explains. “The part of you that writes down words.”

“Yeah? And what if nobody cares about the words?”

“Someday they will,” he insists, and you can tell he believes that more than anything.

I don't know about words that make you live forever, but he's right about one thing. We've got miles to go, slogging along through the Pipe. Being careful to avoid the rusty holes and the clunky stuff that snags our feet.

There are parts of the Pipe that echo so much we sound like an army, and other parts where we can't hear anything, not even the skittery rats. Ryter says that's because of something he calls “acoostiks,” but I think the Pipe has moods like a living thing. Noisy moods, quiet moods, dark moods. Sometimes it feels real peaceful and soothing, like the Pipe wants us to feel safe. Other times I'm so scared it feels like my knees are coming unscrewed or something. But it doesn't matter what we feel. The Pipe doesn't care. The Pipe keeps us moving.

I keep expecting Ryter to stop and rest because he's old and worn out, but he just plods along, never complaining, and after a while I get this idea that inside he's a lot stronger than he looks on the outside. Sometimes he's as quiet as the Pipe; other times he runs off at the mouth about books and words and other stuff nobody cares about anymore.

This one time he goes, “What's in a name, Spaz? You of all people should know.”

“A name is just a word,” I tell him. “It doesn't matter.”

“No? What about Odysseus?”

“Who's Oh-dis-he-us?”

“Odysseus is many things. A name. A myth. A word.”

“Yeah,” I go, “a word nobody knows.”

“A word I know. And if you listen, you'll know, too.”

“Okay,” I say. “Have it your way. I'm listening.”

Ryter grunts in satisfaction. “In the beginning, Odysseus was just a man like any man. But he went on a long, dangerous journey, much as we are doing, and people spoke of it for generations, until eventually he became a myth. Later his adventures were written down in a book, and his name became the word for ‘long, adventurous journey.' Odyssey.”

“That's a stupid name,” I say.

“Oh? Some would say that ‘Spaz' is a stupid name.”

That pulls me up short. I'm trying to see what his face says, but it's too dark. “Are you trying to bork me off?” I ask him, shoving my finger into his scrawny chest.

“No,” he says gently. “I'm trying to make you think.”

“I don't want to think!” I tell him. Actually, I'm shouting. “I just want to keep walking until we get there, okay? So forget about words and myths and all that gummy stuff you like to spew, and just keep walking!”

After that, it's quiet for a long time.

BOOK: The Last Book in the Universe
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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