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Authors: Alfred Bester

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BOOK: The Starcomber
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“What price?”

“You will see when we are finished.”

Mr. Aquila deposited liquids and powders around the helpless artist in crucibles and petri dishes. He measured and cut fuses, set up a train from the circle to an electric timer which he carefully adjusted. He went to a shelf of serum bottles, took down a small Woulff vial numbered 5-271-009, filled a syringe and meticulously injected Halsyon.

“We begin,” he said, “the purge of your dreams. Voilà.”

He tripped the electric timer and stepped behind a lead shield. There was a moment of silence. Suddenly black music crashed from a concealed loudspeaker and a recorded voice began an intolerable chant. In quick succession the powders and liquids around Halsyon burst into flame. He was engulfed in music and fire. The world began to spin around him in a roaring confusion. . . .

*

The president of the United Nations came to him. He was tall and gaunt, sprightly but bitter. He was wringing his hands in dismay.

“Mr. Halsyon! Mr. Halsyon!” he cried. “Where you been, my cupcake? God damn. Hoc tempore. Do you know what has happened?”

“No,” Halsyon answered. “What's happened?”

“After your escape from the looney bin. Bango! Atom bombs everywhere. The two-hour war. It is over. Hora fugit, old faithful, Virility is over.”

“What!”

“Hard radiation, Mr. Halsyon, has destroyed the virility of the world. God damn. You are the only man left capable of engendering children. No doubt on account of a mysterious mutant strain in your makeup which it makes you different. Jeez.”

“No.”

“Oui. It is your responsibility to repopulate the world. We have taken for you a suite at the Odeon. It has three bedrooms. Three; my favorite. A prime number.”

“Hot dog!” Halsyon said. “This is my big dream.”

His progress to the Odeon was a triumph. He was garlanded with flowers, serenaded, hailed and cheered. Ecstatic women displayed themselves wickedly before him, begging for his attention. In his suite, Halsyon was wined and dined. A tall, gaunt man entered subserviently. He was sprightly but bitter. He had a list in his hand.

“I am World Procurer at your service, Mr. Halsyon,” he said. He consulted his list. “God damn. Are 5,271,009 virgins clamoring for your attention. All guaranteed beautiful. Ewig-Weibliche. Pick a number from one to 5,000, 000.”

“We'll start with a redhead,” Halsyon said.

They brought him a redhead. She was slender and boyish, with a small hard bosom. The next was fuller with a rollicking rump. The fifth was Junoesque and her breasts were like African pears. The tenth was a voluptuous Rembrandt. The twentieth was wiry. The thirtieth was slender and boyish with a small hard bosom.

“Haven't we met before?” Halsyon inquired.

“No,” she said.

The next was fuller with a rollicking rump.

“The body is familiar,” Halsyon said.

“No,” she answered.

The fiftieth was Junoesque with breasts like African pears.

“Surely?” Halsyon said.

“Never,” she answered.

The World Procurer entered with Halsyon's morning aphrodisiac.

“Never touch the stuff,” Halsyon said.

“God damn,” the Procurer exclaimed. “You are a veritable giant. An elephant. No wonder you are the beloved Adam. Tant soit peu. No wonder they all weep for love of you.” He drank off the aphrodisiac himself.

“Have you noticed they're all getting to look alike?” Halsyon complained.

“But no! Are all different. Parbleu! This is an insult to my office.”

“Oh, they're different from one to another, but the types keep repeating.”

“Ah? This is life, my old. All life is cyclic. Have you not, as an artist, noticed?”

“I didn't think it applied to love.”

“To all things. Wahrheit und Dichtung.”

“What was that you said about them weeping?”

“Oui. They all weep.”

“Why?”

“For ecstatic love of you. God damn.”

Halsyon thought over the succession of boyish, rollicking, Junoesque, Rembrandtesque, wiry, red, blonde, brunette, white, black and brown women.

“I hadn't noticed,” he said.

“Observe today, my world father. Shall we commence?” It was true. Halsyon hadn't noticed. They all wept. He was flattered but depressed.

“Why don't you laugh a little?” he asked.

They would not or could not.

Upstairs on the Odeon roof where Halsyon took his afternoon exercise, he questioned his trainer who was a tall, gaunt man with a sprightly but bitter expression.

“Ah?” said the trainer. “God damn. I don't know, old Scotch and soda. Perhaps because it is a traumatic experience for them.”

“Traumatic?” Halsyon puffed. “Why? What do I do to them?”

“Ah-ha? You joke, eh? All the world knows what you do to them.”

“No, I mean . . . How can it be traumatic? They're all fighting to get to me, aren't they? Don't I come up to expectations?”

“A mystery. Tripotage. Now, beloved father of the world, we practice the push-ups. Ready? Begin.”

Downstairs, in the Odeon restaurant, Halsyon questioned the head waiter, a tall, gaunt man with a sprightly manner but bitter expression.

“We are men of the world, Mr. Halsyon. Suo jure. Surely you understand. These women love you and can expect no more than one night of love. God damn. Naturally they are disappointed.”

“What do they want?”

“What every woman wants, my gateway to the west. A permanent relationship. Marriage.”

“Marriage!”

“Oui.”

“All of them?”

“Oui.”

“All right. I'll marry all 5,271,009.”

But the World Procurer objected. “No, no, no, young Lochinvar. God damn. Impossible. Aside from religious difficulties there are human also. Who could manage such a harem?”

“Then I'll marry one.”

“No, no, no. Pensez à moi. How could you make the choice? How could you select? By lottery, drawing straws, tossing coins?”

“I've already selected one.”

“Ah? Which?”

“My girl,” Halsyon said slowly. “Judith Field.”

“So. Your sweetheart?”

“Yes.”

“She is far down on the list of 5,000,000.”

“She's always been number one on my list. I want Judith.” Halsyon sighed. “I remember how she looked at the Beaux Arts Ball. . . . There was a full moon. . . .”

“But there will be no full moon until the twenty-sixth.”

“I want Judith.”

“The others will tear her apart out of jealousy. No, no, no, Mr. Halsyon, we must stick to the schedule. One night for all, no more for any.”

“I want Judith . . . or else.”

“It will have to be discussed in council. God damn.”

It was discussed in the U. N. council by a dozen delegates, all tall, gaunt, sprightly but bitter. It was decided to permit Jeffrey Halsyon one secret marriage.

“But no domestic ties,” the World Procurer warned. “No faithfulness to your wife. That must be understood. We cannot spare you from our program. You are indispensable.”

They brought the lucky Judith Field to the Odeon. She was a tall, dark girl with cropped curly hair and lovely tennis legs. Halsyon took her hand. The World Procurer tip-toed out.

“Hello, darling,” Halsyon murmured.

Judith looked at him with loathing. Her eyes were wet, her face was bruised from weeping.

“Hello, darling,” Halsyon repeated.

“If you touch me, Jeff,” Judith said in a strangled voice, “I'll kill you.”

“Judy!”

“That disgusting man explained everything to me. He didn't seem to understand when I tried to explain to him. . . . I was praying you'd be dead before it was my turn.”

“But this is marriage, Judy.”

“I'd rather die than be married to you.”

“I don't believe you. We've been in love for—”

“For God's sake, Jeff, love's over for you. Don't you understand? Those women cry because they hate you. I hate you. The world loathes you. You're disgusting.”

Halsyon stared at the girl and saw the truth in her face. In an excess of rage he tried to seize her. She fought him bitterly. They careened around the huge living room of the suite, overturning furniture, their breath hissing, their fury mounting. Halsyon struck Judith Field with his big fist to end the struggle once and for all. She reeled back, clutched at a drape, smashed through a french window and fell fourteen floors to the street like a gyrating doll.

Halsyon looked down in horror. A crowd gathered around the smashed body. Faces upturned. Fists shook. An ominous growl began. The World Procurer dashed into the suite.

“My old! My blue!” he cried. “What have you done? Per conto. It is a spark that will ignite savagery. You are in very grave danger. God damn.”

“Is it true they all hate me?”

“Hélas, then you have discovered the truth? That indiscreet girl. I warned her. Oui. You are loathed.”

“But you told me I was loved. The new Adam. Father of the new world.”

“Oui. You are the father, but what child does not hate its father? You are also a legal rapist. What woman does not hate being forced to embrace a man . . . even by necessity for survival? Come quickly, my rock and rye. Passim. You are in great danger.”

He dragged Halsyon to a back elevator and took him down to the Odeon cellar.

“The army will get you out. We take you to Turkey at once and effect a compromise.”

Halsyon was transferred to the custody of a tall, gaunt, bitter army colonel who rushed him through underground passages to a side street, where a staff car was waiting. The colonel thrust Halsyon inside.

“Jacta alea est,” he said to the driver. “Speed, my corporal. Protect old faithful. To the airport. Alors!”

“God damn, sir,” the corporal replied. He saluted and started the car. As it twisted through the streets at breakneck speed, Halsyon glanced at him. He was a tall, gaunt man, sprightly but bitter.

“Kulturkampf der Menscheit,” the corporal muttered. “Jeez!”

A giant barricade had been built across the street, improvised of ash barrels, furniture, overturned cars, traffic stanchions. The corporal was forced to brake the car. As he slowed for a U-turn, a mob of women appeared from doorways, cellars, stores. They were screaming. Some of them brandished improvised clubs.

“Excelsior!” the corporal cried. “God damn.” He tried to pull his service gun out of its holster. The women yanked open the car doors and tore Halsyon and the corporal out. Halsyon broke free, struggled through the wild clubbing mob, dashed to the sidewalk, stumbled and dropped with a sickening yaw through an open coal chute. He shot down and spilled out into an endless black space. His head whirled. A stream of stars sailed before his eyes. . . .

*

And he drifted alone in space, a martyr, misunderstood, a victim of cruel injustice.

He was still chained to what had once been the wall of Cell 5, Block 27, Tier 100, Wing 9 of the Callisto Penitentiary until that unexpected gamma explosion had torn the vast fortress dungeon—Vaster than the Chateau d' If—apart. That explosion, he realized, had been detonated by the Grssh.

His assets were his convict clothes, a helmet, one cylinder of O2, his grim fury at the injustice that had been done him, and his knowledge of the secret of how the Grssh could be defeated in their maniacal quest for solar domination.

The Grssh, ghastly marauders from Omicron Ceti, space-degenerates, space-imperialists, cold-blooded, roach-like, depending for their food upon the psychotic horrors which they engendered in man through mental control and upon which they fed, were rapidly conquering the galaxy. There were irresistible, for they possessed the power of simul-kinesis—the ability to be in two places at the same time.

Against the vault of space, a dot of light moved, slowly, like a stricken meteor. It was a rescue ship, Halsyon realized, combing space for survivors of the explosion. He wondered whether the light of Jupiter, flooding him with rusty radiation, would make him visible to the rescuers. He wondered whether he wanted to be rescued at all.

“It will be the same thing again,” Halsyon grated. “Falsely accused by Balorsen's robot. . . . Falsely convicted by Judith's father. . . . Repudiated by Judith herself. . . . Jailed again . . . and finally destroyed by the Grssh as they destroy the last strongholds of Terra. Why not die now?”

But even as he spoke he realized he lied. He was the one man with the one secret that could save the earth and the very galaxy itself. He must survive. He must fight.

With indomitable will, Halsyon struggled to his feet, fighting the constricting chains. With the steely strength he had developed as a penal laborer in the Grssh mines, he waved and shouted. The spot of light did not alter its slow course away from him. Then he saw the metal link of one of his chains strike a brilliant spark from the flinty rock. He resolved on a desperate expedient to signal the rescue ship.

He detached the plasti-hose of the O
2
tank from his plasti-helmet, and permitted the stream of life-giving oxygen to spurt into space. With trembling hands, he gathered the links of his leg chain and dashed them against the rock under the oxygen. A spark glowed. The oxygen caught fire. A brilliant geyser of white flame spurted for half a mile into space.

Husbanding the last oxygen in his plasti-helmet, Halsyon twisted the cylinder slowly, sweeping the fan of flame back and forth in a last desperate bid for rescue. The atmosphere in his plasti-helmet grew foul and acrid. His ears roared. His sight flickered. At last his senses failed. . . .

When he recovered consciousness he was in a plasti-cot in the cabin of a starship. The high frequency whine told him they were in overdrive. He opened his eyes. Balorsen stood before the plasti-cot, and Balorsen's robot and High Judge Field, and his daughter Judith. Judith was weeping. The robot was in magnetic plasti-clamps and winced as General Balorsen lashed him again and again with a nuclear, plasti-whip.

BOOK: The Starcomber
12.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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