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Authors: Alfred Bester

The Starcomber

BOOK: The Starcomber
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THE STARCOMBER

ALFRED BESTER

Start Publishing LLC

Copyright © 2012 by Start Publishing LLC

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

First Start Publishing eBook edition October 2012

Start Publishing is a registered trademark of Start Publishing LLC

Manufactured in the United States of America

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

ISBN 978-1-62793-993-5

Take two parts of Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, mix violently, season with mystery and you have Mr. Solon Aquila. He is tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression, and when he laughs his dark eyes turn into wounds. His occupation is unknown. He is wealthy without visible means of support. He is seen everywhere and understood nowhere. There is something odd about his life.

This is what's odd about Mr. Aquila, and you can make what you will of it. When he walks he is never forced to wait on a traffic signal. When he desires to ride there is always a vacant taxi on hand. When he bustles into his hotel an elevator always happens to be waiting. When he enters a store, a salesclerk is always free to serve him. There always happens to be a table available for Mr. Aquila in restaurants. There are always last-minute ticket returns when he craves entertainment at sold-out shows.

You can question waiters, hack drivers, elevator girls, salesmen, box-office men. There is no conspiracy. Mr. Aquila does not bribe or blackmail for these petty conveniences. In any case, it would not be possible for him to bribe or blackmail the automatic clock that governs the city traffic signal system. These things, which make life so convenient for him, simply happen. Mr. Solon Aquila is never disappointed. Presently we shall hear about his first disappointment and see what it led to.

Mr. Aquila has been seen fraternizing in low saloons, in middle saloons, in high saloons. He has been met in bagnios, at coronations, executions, circuses, magistrate's courts and handbook offices. He has been known to buy antique cars, historic jewels, incunabula, pornography, chemicals, porro prisms, polo ponies and full-choke shotguns.

“HmimelHerrGottSeiDank! I'm crazy, man, crazy. Eclectic, by God,” he told a flabbergasted department store president. “The Weltmann type, nicht wahr? My ideal: Goethe. Tout le monde. God damn.”

He spoke a spectacular tongue of mixed metaphors and meanings. Dozens of languages and dialects came out in machine-gun bursts. Apparently he also lied
ad libitum
.

“Sacré bleu. Jeez!” he was heard to say once. “Aquila from the Latin. Means aquiline. O tempora O mores. Speech by Cicero. My ancestor.”

And another time: “My idol: Kipling. Took my name from him. Aquila, one of his heroes. God damn. Greatest Negro writer since
Uncle Tom's Cabin
.”

On the morning that Mr. Solon Aquila was stunned by his first disappointment, he bustled into the atelier of Lagan & Derelict, dealers in paintings, sculpture and rare objects of art. It was his intention to buy a painting. Mr. James Derelict knew Aquila as a client. Aquila had already purchased a Frederic Remington and a Winslow Homer some time ago when, by another odd coincidence, he had bounced into the Madison Avenue shop one minute after the coveted paintings went up for sale. Mr. Derelict had also seen Mr. Aquila boat a prize striper at Montauk.

“Bon soir, bel esprit, God damn, Jimmy,” Mr. Aquila said. He was on first name terms with everyone. “Here's a cool day for color, oui! Cool. Slang. I have in me to buy a picture.”

“Good morning, Mr. Aquila,” Derelict answered. He had the seamed face of a cardsharp, but his blue eyes were honest and his smile was disarming. However at this moment his smile seemed strained, as though the volatile appearance of Aquila had unnerved him.

“I'm in the mood for your man, by Jeez,” Aquila said, rapidly opening cases, fingering ivories and tasting the porcelains. “What's his name, my old? Artist like Bosch. Like Heinrich Kley. You handle him, parbleu, exclusive. O si sic omnia, by Zeus!”

“Jeffrey Halsyon?” Derelict asked timidly.

“Oeil de boeuf!” Aquila cried. “What a memory. Chryselephantine. Exactly the artist I want. He is my favorite. A monochrome, preferably. A small Jeffrey Halsyon for Aquila, bitte. Wrap her up.”

“I wouldn't have believed it,” Derelict muttered.

“Ah! Ah-ha? This is not 100 proof guaranteed Ming,” Mr. Aquila exclaimed brandishing an exquisite vase. “Caveat emptor, by damn. Well, Jimmy? I snap my fingers. No Halsyons in stock, old faithful?”

“It's extremely odd, Mr. Aquila,” Derelict seemed to struggle with himself. “Your coming in like this. A Halsyon monochrome arrived not five minutes ago.”

“You see? Tempo ist Richtung. Well?”

“I'd rather not show it to you. For personal reasons, Mr. Aquila.”

“HimmelHerrGott! Pourquoi? She's bespoke?”

“N-no, sir. Not for
my
personal reasons. For your personal reasons.”

“Oh? God damn. Explain myself to me.”

“Anyway, it isn't for sale, Mr. Aquila. It can't be sold.”

“For why not? Speak, old fish and chips.”

“I can't say, Mr. Aquila.”

“Zut alors! Must I judo your arm, Jimmy? You can't show. You can't sell. Me, internally, I have pressurized myself for a Jeffrey Halsyon. My favorite. God damn. Show me the Halsyon or sic transit gloria mundi. You hear me, Jimmy?”

Derelict hesitated, then shrugged. “Very well, Mr. Aquila. I'll show you.”

Derelict led Aquila past cases of china and silver, past lacquer and bronzes and suits of shimmering armor to the gallery in the rear of the shop where dozens of paintings hung on the gray velour walls, glowing under warm spotlights. He opened a drawer in a Goddard breakfront and took out an envelope. On the envelope was printed BABYLON INSTITUTE. From the envelope Derelict withdrew a dollar bill and handed it to Mr. Aquila.

“Jeffrey Halsyon's latest,” he said.

With a fine pen and carbon ink, a cunning hand had drawn another portrait over the face of George Washington on the dollar bill. It was a hateful, diabolic face set in a hellish background. It was a face to strike terror, in a scene to inspire loathing. The face was a portrait of Mr. Aquila.

“God damn,” Mr. Aquila said.

“You see, sir? I didn't want to hurt your feelings.”

“Now I must own him, big boy.” Mr. Aquila appeared to be fascinated by the portrait. “Is she accident or for purpose? Does Halsyon know myself? Ergo sum.”

“Not to my knowledge, Mr. Aquila. But in any event I can't sell the drawing. It's evidence of a felony . . . mutilating United States currency. It must be destroyed.”

“Never!” Mr. Aquila returned the drawing as though he feared the dealer would instantly set fire to it. “Never, Jimmy. Nevermore quoth the raven. God damn. Why does he draw on money, Halsyon? My picture, pfui. Criminal libels but n'importe. But pictures on money? Wasteful. Joci causa.”

“He's insane, Mr. Aquila.”

“No! Yes? Insane?” Aquila was shocked.

“Quite insane, sir. It's very sad. They've had to put him away. He spends his time drawing these pictures on money.”

“God damn, mon ami. Who gives him money?”

“I do, Mr. Aquila; and his friends. Whenever we visit him he begs for money for his drawings.”

“Le jour viendra, by Jeez! Why you don't give him paper for drawings, eh, my ancient of days?”

Derelict smiled sadly. “We tried that, sir. When we gave Jeff paper, he drew pictures of money.”

“HimmelHerrGott! My favorite artist. In the looney bin. Eh bien. How in the holy hell am I to buy paintings from same if such be the case?”

“You won't, Mr. Aquila. I'm afraid no one will ever buy a Halsyon again. He's quite hopeless.”

“Why does he jump his tracks, Jimmy?”

“They say it's a withdrawal, Mr. Aquila. His success did it to him.”

“Ah? Q.E.D. me, big boy, Translate.”

“Well, sir, he's still a young man; in his thirties and very immature. When he became so very successful, he wasn't ready for it. He wasn't prepared for the responsibilities of his life and his career. That's what the doctors told me. So he turned his back on everything and withdrew into childhood.”

“Ah? And the drawing on money?”

“They say that's his symbol of his return to childhood, Mr. Aquila. It proves he's too young to know what money is for.”

“Ah? Oui. Ja. Astute, by crackey. And my portrait?”

“I can't explain that, Mr. Aquila, unless you have met him in the past and he remembers you somehow. Or it may be a coincidence.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps. So. You know something, my attic of Greece? I am disappointed. Je n'oublierai jamais. I am most severely disappointed. God damn. No more Halsyons ever? Merde. My slogan. We must do something about Jeffrey Halsyon. I will not be disappointed. We must do something.”

Mr. Solon Aquila nodded his head emphatically, took out a cigarette, took out a lighter, then paused, deep in thought. After a long moment, he nodded again, this time with decision, and did an astonishing thing. He returned the lighter to his pocket, took out another, glanced around quickly and lit it under Mr. Derelict's nose.

Mr. Derelict appeared not to notice. Mr. Derelict appeared, in one instant, to be frozen. Allowing the lighter to burn, Mr. Aquila placed it carefully on a ledge in front of the art dealer who stood before it without moving. The orange flame gleamed on his glassy eyeballs.

Aquila darted out into the shop, searched and found a rare Chinese crystal globe. He took it from its case, warmed it against his heart and peered into it. He mumbled. He nodded. He returned the globe to the case, went to the cashier's desk, took a pad and pencil and began ciphering in symbols that bore no relationship to any language or any graphology. He nodded again, tore up the sheet of paper and took out his wallet.

From the wallet he removed a dollar bill. He placed the bill on the glass counter, took an assortment of fountain pens from his vest pocket, selected one and unscrewed it. Carefully shielding his eyes, he allowed one drop to fall from the pen point onto the bill. There was a blinding flash of light. There was a humming vibration that slowly died.

Mr. Aquila returned the pens to his pocket, carefully picked up the bill by a corner and ran back into the picture gallery where the art dealer still stood staring glassily at the orange flame. Aquila fluttered the bill before the sightless eyes.

“Listen, my ancient,” Aquila whispered. “You will visit Jeffrey Halsyon this afternoon. N'est-ce pas? You will give him this very own coin of the realm when he asks for drawing materials. Eh? God damn.” He removed Mr. Derelict's wallet from his pocket, placed the bill inside and returned the wallet.

“And this is why you make the visit,” Aquila continued. “It is because you have had an inspiration from le Diable Boiteux. Nolens volens, the lame devil has inspired you with a plan for healing Jeffrey Halsyon. God damn. You will show him samples of his great art of the past to bring him to his senses. Memory is the all-mother. HimmelHerrGott. You hear me, big boy? You do what I say. Go today and devil take the hindmost.”

Mr. Aquila picked up the burning lighter, lit his cigarette and permitted the flame to go out. As he did so, he said: “No, my holy of holies! Jeffrey Halsyon is too great an artist to languish in durance vile. He must be returned to this world. He must be returned to me. È sempre l'ora. I will not be disappointed. You hear me, Jimmy? I will not!”

“Perhaps there's hope, Mr. Aquila,” James Derelict said. “Something's just occurred to me while you were talking . . . a way to bring Jeff back to sanity. I'm going to try it this afternoon.”

*

As he drew the face of the Faraway Fiend over George Washington's portrait on a bill, Jeffrey Halsyon dictated his autobiography to nobody.

“Like Cellini,” he recited. “Line and literature simultaneously. Hand in hand, although all art is one art, holy brothers in barbiturate, near ones and dear ones in nembutal. Very well. I commence: I was born. I am dead. Baby wants a dollar. No—”

He arose from the padded floor and raged from padded wall to padded wall, envisioning anger as a deep purple fury running into the pale lavenders of recrimination by the magic of his brushwork, his chiaroscuro, by the clever blending of oil, pigment, light and the stolen genius of Jeffrey Halsyon tom from him by the Faraway Fiend whose hideous face—

“Begin anew,” he muttered. “We darken the highlights. Start with the under-painting . . .” He squatted on the floor again, picked up the quill drawing pen whose point was warranted harmless, dipped it into carbon ink whose contents were warranted poisonless, and applied himself to the monstrous face of the Faraway Fiend which was replacing the first President on the dollar.

“I was born,” he dictated to space while his cunning hand wrought beauty and horror on the banknote paper. “I had peace. I had hope. I had art. I had peace. Mama. Papa. Kin I have a glass of water? Oooo! There was a big bad bogey man who gave me a bad look; and now baby's afraid. Mama! Baby wantsa make pretty pictures onna pretty paper for Mama and Papa. Look, Mama. Baby makin' a picture of the bad bogey man with a mean look, a black look with his black eyes like pools of hell, like cold fires of terror, like faraway fiends from faraway fears— Who's that!”

BOOK: The Starcomber
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