Authors: Mike Resnick
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
"You're making all this up, right?" said Dante.
"Yeah, what the hell, I'm making it all up." Virgil signaled to the bartender. "Two Dust Whores."
"What's a Dust Whore?" asked Dante.
"You're about to find out."
"I don't understand."
"You've got Democracy written all over you, poet," said Virgil Soaring Hawk. "Virgil was Dante's guide through Heaven and Hell. I figure a new Dante needs a new Virgil to show him the ropes. Right now I'm going to introduce you to one of our local drinks."
"What the hell, why not?" agreed Dante.
"Let's go sit at a table," suggested Virgil.
"What's wrong with standing here at the bar?"
"I don't like turning my back to the door. You never know what's going to come through it."
"Whatever you say," said Dante, walking to a table in the farthest corner of the tavern.
"Glad you agree," said Virgil, sitting down opposite him. The men at the two nearest tables immediately got up and moved to the other side of the tavern.
"Why does everyone move away from you?" asked Dante.
Virgil sighed deeply. "They don't like me very much."
"Have they got some reason?"
"Not any that I agree with," said Virgil.
"What the hell did you do?" asked Dante.
"I don't think I'm going to tell you."
"I don't want you making a rhyme out of it and reciting it in bars all over the Frontier."
"I can always ask someone on the other side of the tavern," said Dante.
"You'd do that to the only friend you've made on the Frontier?" asked Virgil.
Dante stared at him in silence for a long moment. Virgil stared right back.
The bartender dropped off the drinks and left immediately.
"What goes into them?" asked Dante, staring at the purple- green liquid that was smoking as if on fire. "They look like they're going to explode."
"It varies from planet to planet," said Virgil, taking a long swallow of his own drink. When he didn't clutch his throat or collapse across the table, Dante followed suit, and promptly grimaced.
"Jesus! This stuff'll take the enamel off your teeth!" He paused. "Still," said Dante at last, "it's kind of warming. Got an interesting aftertaste." He frowned. "I don't know if I like it."
"After you've had a few more, you'll know," said Virgil with conviction.
"All right," said Dante. "Now the drinks are here and I've had half of mine. So why did you approach me and what do you want to talk about?"
"I want to talk about you."
"Me?" repeated Dante, surprised.
"What are you doing out here?" asked Virgil. "Why have you come to the Inner Frontier? You're no settler, and you don't strike me as a killer. No human comes to New Tangier IV to play at the casino, so I know you're not a gambler. You haven't offered to trade or sell anything. So why are you here?"
"Did you ever hear of Black Orpheus?"
"Everyone out here has heard of Black Orpheus," answered Virgil. He grimaced. "He was probably about as black as you are white."
"I'm here to finish his poem."
Virgil Soaring Hawk stared at him expressionlessly.
"Well?" said Dante.
"Why not choose something easy, like going up against Tyrannosaur Bailey?"
"Who's Tyrannosaur Bailey?"
"It doesn't matter. Black Orpheus was one of a kind. He was unique in our history. What makes you think you can be another Orpheus?"
"I can't be," admitted Dante. "But I can follow in his footsteps." He paused, then added with conviction: "It's time."
"What do you mean?"
"I take it Tyrannosaur Bailey is a formidable figure?"
"He's about fifteen formidable figures all rolled into one ugly sonuvabitch."
"You make him sound fascinating—but I've never heard of him until just now. No one in the Democracy has, and probably ninety percent of the Inner Frontier hasn't either." Dante took another sip of his drink. "The Democracy is so damned regimented! All the really interesting characters are out here on the Frontier. It's time someone wrote them up the way Orpheus did, before they're gone and we have no record of them."
"You don't think the Secretary of the Democracy is interesting? What about Admiral Yokamina, who has six billion men under his command?"
"They got where they are by following the rules and fitting the mold," replied Dante. "All the men who broke the mold are out here, or on the Outer Frontier."
"Or dead," said Virgil.
"Or dead," agreed Dante. "Killing is one of the Democracy's specialties. They killed a friend of mine as we were preparing to come here."
"Did he have it coming?"
"Nobody has it coming—and it was a she."
"What was her crime?"
"She tripped a man," said Dante.
"That's all," repeated Dante. "The Democracy doesn't seem to care who trips it these days."
"What uniquely individual crimes did you commit?" asked Virgil.
"Nothing that deserved that kind of retaliation."
"They obviously saw it differently."
"They always do. That's why I'm here. The Democracy stops at the borders to the Inner and Outer Frontiers."
Virgil stared at him as one would stare at a child. It was a look that seemed to say:
If you're that dumb, is it even worth the effort to set you straight?
may stop," he said at last. "But the
"What are you talking about?"
"They come out in force and take what they need," said Virgil, "whether it's fissionable material, or food for newly colonized worlds, or conscripts for the military. Any Man or planet that objects gets the same treatment that any alien or alien planet would get."
"I didn't know," admitted Dante. "None of us do."
Virgil shrugged. "Maybe I'm being a little hard on them. Sometimes they pay for what they take, though it's never what it's worth. And if they come to a mining world with, say, thirty miners working it, and grab a couple of hundred pounds of plutonium, well, they'll probably use it to fight off some alien army that would otherwise subjugate a planet with ten million Men on it." Virgil paused. "But we don't
that. We just know they come and they take and they leave and no one can stand up to them. So maybe it's comforting to think they have some noble purpose for plundering the Frontier whenever they want."
"Are they on New Tangier IV?"
"The Democracy?" Virgil shook his head. "You might go years without running into them. Or you might run into them three times in a month. It depends on where you are and what they want at the moment."
"Okay, forewarned is forearmed. But in the meantime, I still need material for my poems, so I still plan to travel the Frontier."
"I was hoping you'd say that."
"Because we're going to make a deal," said Virgil. "You'll need a guide, and I've worn out my welcome in the New Tangier system."
"How?" asked Dante.
"How," replied Virgil, holding up his right hand in a sign of greeting.
"I beg your pardon?"
"An old Injun joke. Forget it."
"How did you wear out your welcome?"
"How can I put this delicately?" said Virgil. "I indulge in certain, shall we say, unmentionable acts with members of . . ."
"The opposite sex?" Dante offered.
"The opposite species," Virgil corrected him.
"Is that against the law?"
"We don't have too many laws on the Frontier," answered Virgil. "It's against at least 400 laws back in the Democracy."
"What species do you perform these unmentionable acts with?" asked Dante.
"Why should I limit myself to one species?"
"So what's you're saying is . . ."
"What I'm saying is that I've worn out my welcome," answered Virgil. "We'll talk about it more after you've adjusted to the Frontier."
"Okay—but I'll probably spend all my spare time wondering who you did what with."
"It'll give you something to do while we're traveling between planets."
Dante finished his drink and slapped some bills on the table. "I'll have another one of these."
"Credits," noted Virgil. "They'll take them here, but most Frontier worlds don't have much use for Democracy currency."
"Speaking of Frontier worlds, where are we going next?"
"As I remember my
, I guide you through the nine circles of hell." Virgil paused. "Of course, you were in hell when you lived in the Democracy. You just didn't know it."
"I knew it. That's why I came out here."
"Oh, you're still in hell. It's just a less structured, less orderly one."
At that moment a tall, burly man appeared in the doorway. He was covered with reddish dust, which he brushed from his heavy coat.
"I'm looking for the poet," he announced.
"You mean the Rhymer," Dante corrected him.
The tall man glared at Dante. "I'm Hamlet MacBeth," he said furiously. "Does that mean anything to you?"
"I know who you are."
"Have we ever met before?"
"No," answered Dante.
"Then why are you spreading lies about me?"
"What I wrote was the truth and you know it," said Dante.
"Hi, Hamlet," interjected Virgil. "Come join us."
Hamlet stared at Dante. "You're with
?" he demanded, jerking a thumb in Virgil's direction.
"That's right," answered Dante.
"You don't choose your friends any more carefully than you choose your subject," said MacBeth. He stepped into the tavern, and two more men entered with him. "How many worlds have you been kicked off of, Injun?"
"I stopped counting when I ran out of fingers and toes," replied Virgil easily.
"I hear tell you turned a couple of your mutant ladyfriends into corpses," added one of the other men, staring at Virgil through narrowed eyes.
"That's a lie," replied Virgil. "They were corpses
I met them."
"Did you hear that?" roared the man. "Did you hear what he just said?"
"Excuse me for a moment," Virgil said softly to Dante. "I'll be back as soon as I clear up this little misunderstanding." He got up and began walking toward the three men. "I know you don't mean what you say, but I wish you wouldn't embarrass me in front of my new friend."
"Your new friend ain't gonna be around that long, Injun, " said MacBeth. "We got nothing against you, at least not today. If you're smart you'll keep out of our way."
"Come on over to the bar," said Virgil. "I'll buy you a round of drinks, and then maybe we can all be friends."
"Keep your distance, scumbag!"
"You really shouldn't call people names like that," remarked Virgil, still approaching them. "Even scumbags have feelings."
"What are you going to do about it?" demanded MacBeth pugnaciously, his right hand resting on the butt of his holstered burner.
said Virgil softly.
His hands moved so fast that Dante couldn't follow them, but suddenly he had a knife in each, and an instant later all three men lay writhing on the floor, gagging and clutching their necks as blood spurted forth. None of them had had a chance to draw a weapon.
Virgil calmly walked back to the table, paying no attention to any of the other patrons, who stared at him but made no move to stop him. By the time he rejoined Dante, all three men had stopped thrashing and were still, each lying in an increasing pool of his own blood.