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Authors: Alfred Bester

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BOOK: The Starcomber
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The cell door unbolted. Halsyon leaped into a corner and cowered, naked and squalling, as the door was opened for the Faraway Fiend to enter. But it was only the medicine man in his white jacket and a stranger man in black suit, black homburg, carrying a black portfolio with the initials J. D. lettered on it in a bastard gold Gothic with lubricous overtones of Goudy and Baskerville.

“Well, Jeffrey?” the medicine man inquired heartily.

“Dollar?” Halsyon whined. “Kin baby have a dollar?”

“I've brought an old friend, Jeffrey. You remember Mr. Derelict?”

“Dollar,” Halsyon whined. “Baby wants a dollar.”

“What happened to the last one, Jeffrey? You haven't finished it yet, have you?”

Halsyon sat on the bill to conceal it, but the medicine man was too quick for him. He snatched it up and he and the stranger-man examined it.

“As great as all the rest,” Derelict sighed. “Greater! What a magnificent talent wasting away. . . .”

Halsyon began to weep. “Baby wants a dollar!” he cried.

The stranger man took out his wallet, selected a dollar bill and handed it to Halsyon. As soon as Halsyon touched it, he heard it sing and he tried to sing with it, but it was singing him a private song so he had to listen.

It was a lovely dollar; smooth but not too new, with a faintly matte surface that would take ink like kisses. George Washington looked reproachful but resigned, as though he was used to the treatment in store for him. And indeed he might well be, for he was much older on this dollar. Much older than on any other for his serial number was 5,271,009 which made him 5,000,000 years old and more, and the oldest he had ever been before was 2,000,000.

As Halsyon squatted contentedly on the floor and dipped his pen in the ink as the dollar told him to, he heard the medicine man say, “I don't think I should leave you alone with him, Mr. Derelict.”

“No, we must be alone together, doctor. Jeff always was shy about his work. He could only discuss it with me privately.”

“How much time would you need?”

“Give me an hour.”

“I doubt very much whether it'll do any good.”

“But there's no harm trying?”

“I suppose not. All right, Mr. Derelict. Call the nurse when you're through.”

The door opened; the door closed. The stranger-man named Derelict put his hand on Halsyon's shoulder in a friendly, intimate way. Halsyon looked up at him and grinned cleverly, meanwhile waiting for the sound of the bolt in the door. It came; like a shot, like a final nail in a coffin.

“Jeff, I've brought some of your old work with me,” Derelict said in a voice that was only approximately casual. “I thought you might like to look it over with me.”

“Have you got a watch on you?” Halsyon asked.

Restraining his start of surprise at Halsyon's normal tone, the art dealer took out his pocket watch and displayed it.

“Lend it to me for a minute.”

Derelict unchained the watch and handed it over. Halsyon took it carefully and said, “All right. Go ahead with the pictures.”

“Jeff!” Derelict exclaimed. “This is you again, isn't it? This is the way you always—”

“Thirty,” Halsyon interrupted. “Thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five, ONE.” He concentrated on the flicking second hand with rapt expectation.

“No, I guess it isn't,” the dealer muttered. “I only imagined you sounded—Oh well.” He opened the portfolio and began sorting mounted drawings.

“Forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five, TWO.”

“Here's one of your earliest, Jeff. Remember when you came into the gallery with the roughs and we thought you were the new polisher from the agency? Took you months to forgive us. You always claimed we bought your first picture just to apologize. Do you still think so?”

“Forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five, THREE.”

“Here's that tempera that gave you so many heartaches. I was wondering if you'd care to try another? I really don't think tempera is as inflexible as you claim and I'd be interested to have you try again now that your technique's so much more matured. What do you say?”

“Forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five, FOUR.”

“Jeff, put down that watch.”

“Ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five . . .”

“What the devil's the point of counting minutes?”

“Well,” Halsyon said reasonably, “sometimes they lock the door and go away. Other times they lock up and stay and spy on you. But they never spy longer than three minutes so I'm giving them five just to make sure. FIVE.”

Halsyon gripped the pocket watch in his big fist and drove the fist cleanly into Derelict's jaw. The dealer dropped without a sound. Halsyon dragged him to the wall, stripped him naked, dressed himself in his clothes, repacked the portfolio and closed it. He picked up the dollar bill and pocketed it. He picked up the bottle of carbon ink warranted nonpoisonous and smeared the contents over his face.

Choking and shouting, he brought the nurse to the door.

“Let me out of here,” Halsyon cried in a muffled voice. “That maniac tried to drown me. Threw ink in my face. I want out!”

The door was unbolted and opened. Halsyon shoved past the nurse-man, cunningly mopping his blackened face with a hand that only masked it more. As the nurse-man started to enter the cell, Halsyon said, “Never mind Halsyon. He's all right. Get me a towel or something. Hurry!”

The nurse-man locked the door again, turned and ran down the corridor. Halsyon waited until he disappeared into a supply room, then turned and ran in the opposite direction. He went through the heavy doors to the main wing corridor, still cleverly mopping, still sputtering with cunning indignation. He reached the main building. He was halfway out and still no alarm. He knew those brazen bells. They tested them every Wednesday noon.

It's like a game, he told himself. It's fun. It's nothing to be scared of. It's being safely, sanely, joyously a kid again and when we quit playing, I'm going home to mama and dinner and papa reading me the funnies and I'm a kid again, really a kid again, forever.

There still was no hue and cry when he reached the main floor. He complained about his indignity to the receptionist. He complained to the protection guards as he forged James Derelict's name in the visitors' book, and his inky hand smeared such a mess on the page that the forgery was undetected. The guard buzzed the final gate open. Halsyon passed through into the street, and as he started away he heard the brass of the bells begin a clattering that terrified him.

He ran. He stopped. He tried to stroll. He could not. He lurched down the street until he heard the guards shouting. He darted around a comer, and another, tore up endless streets, heard cars behind him, sirens, bells, shouts, commands. It was a ghastly Catherine Wheel of flight. Searching desperately for a hiding place, Halsyon darted into the hallway of a desolate tenement.

Halsyon began to climb the stairs. He went up three at a clip, then two, then struggled step by step as his strength failed and panic paralyzed him. He stumbled at a landing and fell against a door. The door opened. The Faraway Fiend stood within, smiling briskly, rubbing his hands.

“Glückliche Reise,” he said. “On the dot. God damn. You twenty-three skidooed, eh? Enter, my old. I'm expecting you. Be it never so humble . . .”

Halsyon screamed.

“No, no, no! No Sturm und Drang, my beauty,” Mr. Aquila clapped a hand over Halsyon's mouth, heaved him up, dragged him through the doorway and slammed the door.

“Presto-changeo,” he laughed. “Exit Jeffrey Halsyon from mortal ken. Dieu vous garde.”

Halsyon freed his mouth, screamed again and fought hysterically, biting and kicking. Mr. Aquila made a clucking noise, dipped into his pocket and brought out a package of cigarettes. He flipped one out of the pack expertly and broke it under Halsyon's nose. The artist at once subsided and suffered himself to be led to a couch, where Aquila cleansed the ink from his face and hands.

“Better, eh?” Mr. Aquila chuckled. “Non habit-forming. God damn. Drinks now called for.”

He filled a shot glass from a decanter, added a tiny cube of purple ice from a fuming bucket, and placed the drink in Halsyon's hand. Compelled by a gesture from Aquila, the artist drank it off. It made his brain buzz. He stared around, breathing heavily. He was in what appeared to be the luxurious waiting room of a Park Avenue physician. Queen Anne furniture. Axminster rug. Two Hogarths and a Copley on the wall in gilt frames. They were genuine, Halsyon realized with amazement. Then, with even more amazement, he realized that he was thinking with coherence, with continuity. His mind was quite clear.

He passed a heavy hand over his forehead. “What's happened?” he asked faintly. “There's like . . . Something like a fever behind me. Nightmares.”

“You have been sick,” Aquila replied. “I am blunt, my old. This is a temporary return to sanity. It is no feat, God damn. Any doctor can do it. Niacin plus carbon dioxide. Id genus omne. Only temporary. We must search for something more permanent.”

“What's this place?”

“Here? My office. Anteroom without. Consultation room within. Laboratory to left. In God we trust.”

“I know you,” Halsyon mumbled. “I know you from somewhere. I know your face.”

“Oui. You have drawn and redrawn me in your fever. Ecce homo. But you have the advantage, Halsyon. Where have we met? I ask myself.” Aquila put on a brilliant speculum, tilted it over his left eye and let it shine into Halsyon's face. “Now I ask you. Where have we met?” Hypnotized by the fight, Halsyon answered dreamily. “At the Beaux Arts Ball . . . A long time ago. . . . Before the fever . . .”

“Ah? Si. It was one half year ago. I was there. An unfortunate night.”

“No. A glorious night . . . Gay, happy fun . . . Like a school dance . . . Like a prom in costume . . .

“Always back to the childhood, eh?” Mr. Aquila murmured. “We must attend to that. Cetera desunt, young Lochinvar. Continue.”

“I was with Judy. . . . We realized we were in love that night. We realized how wonderful life was going to be. And then you passed and looked at me. . . . Just once. You looked at me. It was horrible.”

“Tch!” Mr. Aquila clicked his tongue in vexation. “Now I remember said incident. I was unguarded. Bad news from home. A pox on both my houses.”

“You passed in red and black. . . . Satanic. Wearing no mask. You looked at me . . . A red and black look I never forgot. A look from black eyes like pools of hell, like cold fires of terror. And with that look you robbed me of everything . . . of joy, of hope, of love, of life. . . .”

“No, no!” Mr. Aquila said sharply. “Let us understand ourselves. My carelessness was the key that unlocked the door. But you fell into a chasm of your own making. Nevertheless, old beer and skittles, we must alter same.” He removed the speculum and shook his finger at Halsyon. “We must bring you back to the land of the living. Auxilium ab alto. Jeez. That is for why I have arranged this meeting. What I have done I will undone, eh? But you must climb out of your own chasm. Knit up the raveled sleeve of care. Come inside.”

He took Halsyon's arm, led him down a paneled hall, past a neat office and into a spanking white laboratory. It was all tile and glass with shelves of reagent bottles, porcelain filters, an electric oven, stock jars of acids, bins of raw materials. There was a small round elevation in the center of the floor, a sort of dais. Mr. Aquila placed a stool on the dais, placed Halsyon on the stool, got into a white lab coat and began to assemble apparatus.

“You,” he chatted, “are an artist of the utmost. I do not dorer la pilule. When Jimmy Derelict told me you were no longer at work, God damn! We must return him to his muttons, I said. Solon Aquila must own many canvases of Jeffrey Halsyon. We shall cure him. Hoc age.”

“You're a doctor?” Halsyon asked.

“No. Let us say, a warlock. Strictly speaking a witch-pathologist. Very high class. No nostrums. Strictly modern magic. Black magic and white magic are passé, n'est-ce pas? I cover entire spectrum, specializing mostly in the 15,000 angstrom band.”

“You're a witch-doctor? Never!”

“Oh yes.”

“In this kind of place?”

“Ah-ha? You too are deceived, eh? It is our camouflage. Many a modem laboratory you think concerns itself with tooth paste is devoted to magic. But we are scientific too. Parbleu! We move with the times, we warlocks. Witch's Brew now complies with Pure Food and Drug Act. Familiars 100 per cent sterile. Sanitary brooms. Cellophane-wrapped curses. Father Satan in rubber gloves. Thanks to Lord Lister; or is it Pasteur? My idol.”

The witch-pathologist gathered raw materials, consulted an ephemeris, ran off some calculations on an electronic computer and continued to chat.

“Fugit hora,” Aquila said. “Your trouble, my old, is loss of sanity. Oui? Lost in one damn flight from reality and one damn desperate search for peace brought on by one unguarded look from me to you. Helas! I apologize for that, R.S.V.P.” With what looked like a miniature tennis line-marker, he rolled a circle around Halsyon on the dais. “But your trouble is, to wit: You search for the peace of infancy. You should be fighting to acquire the peace of maturity, n'est-ce pas? Jeez.” Aquila drew circles and pentagons with a glittering compass and rule, weighed out powders on a microbeam balance, dropped various liquids into crucibles from calibrated burettes, and continued: “Many warlocks do brisk trade in potions from Fountains of Youths. Oh yes. Are many youths and many fountains; but none for you. No. Youth is not for artists. Age is the cure. We must purge your youth and grow you up, nicht wahr?”

“No,” Halsyon argued. “No. Youth is the art. Youth is the dream. Youth is the blessing.”

“For some, yes. For many, not. Not for you. You are cursed, my adolescent. We must purge you. Lust for power. Lust for sex. Injustice collecting. Escape from reality. Passion for revenges. Oh yes, Father Freud is also my idol. We wipe your slate clean at very small price.”

BOOK: The Starcomber
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