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Authors: Alfred Bester

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BOOK: The Starcomber
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As he slid down into darkness, he could hear the psychologist chuckle, but couldn't for the life of him understand what he was laughing at. . . .

*

He picked up his spade and followed the first clown into the cemetery. The first clown was a tall man, gaunt, bitter, but sprightly.

“Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?” the first clown asked.

“I tell thee she is,” Halsyon answered. “And therefore make her grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.”

“How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defense?”

“Why, ‘tis found so.”

They began to dig the grave. The first clown thought the matter over, then said, “It must be
se
offendendo
; it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act: and an act hath three branches; it is, to act, to do, to perform: argal, she drowned herself wittingly.”

“Nay, but hear you, goodman delver—” Halsyon began.

“Give me leave,” the first clown interrupted and went on with a tiresome discourse on quest-law. Then he turned sprightly and cracked a few professional jokes. At last Halsyon got away and went down to Yaughan's for a drink. When he returned, the first clown was cracking jokes with a couple of gentlemen who had wandered into the graveyard. One of them made quite a fuss about a skull.

The burial procession arrived; the coffin, the dead girl's brother, the king and queen, the priests and lords. They buried her, and the brother and one of the gentlemen began to quarrel over her grave. Halsyon paid no attention. There was a pretty girl in the procession, dark, with cropped curly hair and lovely long legs. He winked at her. She winked back. Halsyon edged over toward her, speaking with his eyes and she answered him saucily the same way.

Then he picked up his spade and followed the first clown into the cemetery. The first clown was a tall man, gaunt, with a bitter expression but a sprightly manner.

“Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?” the first clown asked.

“I tell thee she is,” Halsyon answered. “And therefore make her grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.”

“How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defense?”

“Didn't you ask me that before?” Halsyon inquired. “Shut up, old faithful. Answer the question.”

“I could swear this happened before.”

“God damn. Will you answer? Jeez.”

“Why, ‘tis found so.”

They began to dig the grave. The first clown thought the matter over and began a long discourse on quest-law. After that he turned sprightly and cracked trade jokes. At last Halsyon got away and went down to Yaughan's for a drink. When he returned there were a couple of strangers at the grave and then the burial procession arrived.

There was a pretty girl in the procession, dark, with cropped curly hair and lovely long legs. Halsyon winked at her. She winked back. Halsyon edged over toward her, speaking with his eyes and she answering him the same way.

“What's your name?” he whispered.

“Judith,” she answered.

“I have your name tattooed on me, Judith.”

“You're lying, sir.”

“I can prove it, Madam. I'll show you where I was tattooed.”

“And where is that?”

“In Yaughan's tavern. It was done by a sailor off the Golden Hind. Will you see it with me tonight?”

Before she could answer, he picked up his spade and followed the first clown into the cemetery. The first clown was a tall man, gaunt, with a bitter expression but a sprightly manner.

“For God's sake!” Halsyon complained. “I could swear this happened before.”

“Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?” the first clown asked.

“I just know we've been through all this.”

“Will you answer the question!”

“Listen,” Halsyon said doggedly. “Maybe I'm crazy; maybe not. But I've got a spooky feeling that all this happened before. It seems unreal. Life seems unreal.”

The first clown shook his head. “HimmelHerrGott,” he muttered. “It is as I feared. Lux et veritas. On account of a mysterious mutant strain in your makeup which it makes you different, you are treading on thin water. Ewigkeit! Answer the question.”

“If I've answered it once, I've answered it a hundred times.”

“Old ham and eggs,” the first clown burst out, “you have answered it 5,271,009 times. God damn. Answer again.”

“Why?”

“Because you must. Pot au feu. It is the life we must live.”

“You call this life? Doing the same things over and over again? Saying the same things? Winking at girls and never getting any further?”

“No, no, no, my Donner and Blitzen. Do not question. It is a conspiracy we dare not fight. This is the life every man lives. Every man does the same things over and over. There is no escape.”

“Why is there no escape?”

“I dare not say; I dare not. Vox populi. Others have questioned and disappeared. It is a conspiracy. I'm afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Of our owners.”

“What? We are owned?”

“Si. Ach, ja! All of us, young mutant. There is no reality. There is no life, no freedom, no will. God damn. Don't you realize? We are . . . We are all characters in a book. As the book is read, we dance our dances; when the book is read again, we dance again. E pluribus unum. Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?”

“What are you saying?” Halsyon cried in horror. “We're puppets?”

“Answer the question.”

“If there's no freedom, no free will, how can we be talking like this?”

“Whoever's reading our book is day-dreaming, my capital of Dakota. Idem est. Answer the question.”

“I will not. I'm going to revolt. I'll dance for our owners no longer. I'll find a better life. . . . I'll find reality.”

“No, no! It's madness, Jeffrey! Cul-de-sac!”

“All we need is one brave leader. The rest will follow. We'll smash the conspiracy that chains us!”

“It cannot be done. Play it safe. Answer the question.” Halsyon answered the question by picking up his spade and bashing in the head of the first clown who appeared not to notice. “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation?” he asked.

“Revolt!” Halsyon cried and bashed him again. The clown started to sing. The two gentlemen appeared. One said: “Has this fellow no feeling of business that he sings at grave-making?”

“Revolt! Follow me!” Halsyon shouted and swung his spade against the gentlemen's melancholy head. He paid no attention. He chatted with his friend and the first clown. Halsyon whirled like a dervish, laying about him with his spade. The gentleman picked up a skull and philosophized over some person or persons named Yorick.

The funeral procession approached. Halsyon attacked it, whirling and turning, around and around with the clotted frenzy of a man in a dream.

“Stop reading the book,” he shouted. “Let me out of the pages. Can you hear me? Stop reading the book! I'd rather be in a world of my own making. Let me go!” There was a mighty clap of thunder, as of the covers of a mighty book slamming shut. In an instant Halsyon was swept spinning into the third compartment of the seventh circle of the Inferno in the fourteenth Canto of the Divine Comedy where they who have sinned against art are tormented by flakes of fire which are eternally showered down upon them. There he shrieked until he had provided sufficient amusement. Only then was he permitted to devise a text of his own . . . and he formed a new world, a romantic world, a world of his fondest

dreams. . . .

*

He was the last man on earth.

He was the last man on earth and he howled.

The hills, the valleys, the mountains and streams were his, his alone, and he howled.

Five million two hundred and seventy-one thousand and nine houses were his for shelter, 5,271,009 beds were his for sleeping. The shops were his for the breaking and entering. The jewels of the world were his; the toys, the tools, the playthings, the necessities, the luxuries . . . all belonged to the last man on earth, and he howled.

He left the country mansion in the fields of Connecticut where he had taken up residence; he crossed into Westchester, howling; he ran south along what had once been the Hendrick Hudson Highway, howling; he crossed the bridge into Manhattan, howling; he ran downtown past lonely skyscrapers, department stores, amusement palaces, howling. He howled down Fifth Avenue, and at the comer of Fiftieth Street he saw a human being.

She was alive, breathing; a beautiful woman. She was tall and dark with cropped curly hair and lovely long legs. She wore a white blouse, tiger-skin riding breeches and patent leather boots. She carried a rifle. She wore a revolver on her hip. She was eating stewed tomatoes from a can and she stared at Halsyon in unbelief. He ran up to her.

“I thought I was the last human on earth,” she said.

“You're the last woman,” Halsyon howled. “I'm the last man. Are you a dentist?”

“No,” she said. “I'm the daughter of the unfortunate Professor Field whose well-intentioned but ill-advised experiment in nuclear fission has wiped mankind off the face of the earth with the exception of you and me who, no doubt on account of some mysterious mutant strain in our makeup which it makes us different, are the last of the old civilization and the first of the new.”

“Didn't your father teach you anything about dentistry?”

“No,” she said.

“Then lend me your gun for a minute.”

She unholstered the revolver and handed it to Halsyon, meanwhile keeping her rifle ready. Halsyon cocked the gun.

“I wish you'd been a dentist,” he said.

“I'm a beautiful woman with an I.Q. of 141 which is more important for the propagation of a brave new beautiful race of men to inherit the good green earth,” she said.

“Not with my teeth it isn't,” Halsyon howled.

He clapped the revolver to his temple and blew his brains out.

*

He awoke with a splitting headache. He was lying on the tile dais alongside the stool, his bruised temple pressed against the cold floor. Mr. Aquila had emerged from the lead shield and was turning on an exhaust fan to clear the air.

“Bravo, my liver and onions,” he chuckled. “The last one you did by yourself, eh? No assistance from yours truly required. Meglio tarde che mai. But you went over with a crack before I could catch you. God damn.”

He helped Halsyon to his feet and led him into the consultation room where he seated him on a velvet chaise longue and gave him a glass of brandy.

“Guaranteed free of drugs,” he said. “Noblesse oblige. Only the best spiritus frumenti. Now we discuss what we have done, eh? Jeez.”

He sat down behind the desk, still sprightly, still bitter, and regarded Halsyon with kindliness. “Man lives by his decisions, n'est-ce pas?” he began. “We agree, oui? A man has some five million two hundred seventy-one thousand and nine decisions to make in the course of his life. Peste! It is a prime number? N'importe. Do you agree?”

Halsyon nodded.

“So, my coffee and doughnuts, it is the maturity of these decisions that decides whether a man is a man or a child. Nicht wahr? Malgré nous. A man cannot start making adult decisions until he has purged himself of the dreams of childhood. God damn. Such fantasies. They must go.”

“No,” Halsyon said slowly. “It's the dreams that make my art . . . the dreams and fantasies that I translate into line and color. . .”

“God damn! Yes. Agreed. Maître d'hôtel: But adult dreams, not baby dreams. Baby dreams. Pfui! All men have them. . . . To be the last man on earth and own the earth . . . To be the last fertile man on earth and own the women . . . To go back in time with the advantage of adult knowledge and win victories . . . To escape reality with the dream that life is make-believe . . . To escape responsibility with a fantasy of heroic injustice, of martyrdom with a happy ending . . . And there are hundreds more, equally popular, equally empty. God bless Father Freud and his merry men. He applies the quietus to such nonsense. Sic semper tyrannis. Avaunt!”

“But if everybody has those dreams, they can't be bad, can they?”

“God damn. Everybody in fourteenth century had lice. Did that make it good? No, my young, such dreams are for childrens. Too many adults are still childrens. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”

“Why did you do this?”

“Because I have faith in you. Sic vos non vobis. It will not be easy for you. A long hard road and lonely.”

“I suppose I ought to feel grateful,” Halsyon muttered, “but I feel . . . well . . . empty. Cheated.”

“Oh yes, God damn. If you live with one Jeez big ulcer long enough you miss him when he's cut out. You were hiding in an ulcer. I have robbed you of said refuge. Ergo: you feel cheated. Wait! You will feel even more cheated. There was a price to pay, I told you. You have paid it. Look.”

Mr. Aquila held up a hand mirror. Halsyon glanced into it, then started and stared. A fifty-year-old face stared back at him: lined, hardened, solid, determined. Halsyon leaped to his feet.

“Gently, gently,” Mr. Aquila admonished. “It is not so bad. It is damned good. You are still thirty-three in age of physique. You have lost none of your life . . . only all of your youth. What have you lost? A pretty face to lure young girls? Is that why you are wild?”

“Christ!” Halsyon cried.

“All right. Still gently, my child. Here you are, purged, disillusioned, unhappy, bewildered, one foot on the hard road to maturity. Would you like this to have happened or not have happened? Si. I can do. This can never have happened. Spurlos versenkt. It is ten seconds from your escape. You can have your pretty young face back. You can be recaptured. You can return to the safe ulcer of the womb . . . a child again. Would you like same?”

BOOK: The Starcomber
12.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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