Ship of Shadows
by Fritz Leiber
“Issiot! Fffool! Lushshsh!” hissed the cat and bit Spar somewhere.
The fourfold sting of the eye teeth balanced the gut-wretchedness of his looming hangover, so that Spar’s mind floated as free as his body in the blackness of Windrush, in which shone only a couple of running lights dim as churning dream-glow and infinitely distant as the Bridge or the Stern.
The vision came of a ship with all sails set creaming through blue, wind-ruffled sea against a blue sky. The last two nouns were not obscene now. He could hear the whistle of the salty wind through shrouds and stays, its drumming against the taut sails, and the creak of the three masts and all the rest of the ship’s wood.
What was wood? From somewhere came the answer: plastic alive-o.
And what force flattened the water and kept it from breaking up into great globules and the ship from spinning away, keel over masts, in the wind?
Instead of being blurred and rounded like reality, the vision was sharp-edged and bright—the sort Spar never told, for fear of being accused of second sight and so of witchcraft.
Windrush was a ship too, was often called the Ship. But it was a strange sort of ship, in which the sailors lived forever in the shrouds inside cabins of all shapes made of translucent sails welded together. And it was a ship that was not sailing anywhere, because it had everywhere in it—it was all there was.
The only other things the two ships shared were the wind and the unending creaking. As the vision faded, Spar began to hear the winds of Windrush softly moaning through the long passageways, while he felt the creaking in the vibrant shroud to which he was clipped wrist and ankle to keep him from floating around in the Bat Rack.
Sleepday’s dreams had begun good, with Spar having Crown’s three girls at once. But Sleepday night he had been half-waked by the distant grinding of Hold Three’s big chewer. Then werewolves and vampires had attacked him, solid shadows diving in from all six corners, while witches and their familiars tittered in the black shadowy background. Somehow he had been protected by the cat, familiar of a slim witch whose bared teeth had been an ivory blur in the larger silver blur of her wild hair. Spar pressed his rubbery gums together. The cat had been the last of the supernatural creatures to fade. Then had come the beautiful vision of the ship.
His hangover hit him suddenly and mercilessly. Sweat shook off him until he must be surrounded by a cloud of it. Without warning his gut reversed. His free hand found a floating waste tube in time to press its small trumpet to his face. He could hear his acrid vomit gurgling away, urged by a light suction.
His gut reversed again, quick as the flap of a safety hatch when a gale blows up in the corridors. He thrust the waste tube inside the leg of his short, loose slopsuit and caught the dark stuff, almost as watery and quite as explosive as his vomit. Then he had the burning urge to make water.
Afterwards, feeling blessedly weak, Spar curled up in the equally blessed dark and prepared to snooze until Keeper woke him.
“Sssot!” hissed the cat. “Sssleep no more! Sssee! Sssee shshsharply!”
In his left shoulder, through the worn fabric of his slopsuit, Spar could feel four sets of prickles, like the touch of small thorn clusters in the Gardens of Apollo or Diana. He froze.
“Sspar,” the cat hissed more softly, quitting to prickle. “I wishsh you all besst. Mosst ashshuredly.”
Spar warily reached his right hand across his chest, touched short fur softer than Suzy’s, and stroked gingerly.
The cat hissed very softly, almost purring, “Ssturdy Sspar! Ssee ffar! Ssee fforever! Fforessee! Afftssee!”
Spar felt a surge of irritation at this constant talk of seeing—bad manners in the cat!—followed by an irrational surge of hope about his eyes. He decided that this was no witch cat left over from his dream, but a stray which had wormed its way through a wind tube into the Bat Rack, setting off his dream. There were quite a few animal strays in these days of the witch panic and the depopulation of the Ship, or at least of Hold Three.
Dawn struck the Bow then, for the violet fore-corner of the Bat Rack began to glow. The running lights were drowned in a growing white blaze. Within twenty heartbeats Windrush was bright as it ever would be on Workday or any other morning.
Out along Spar’s arm moved the cat, a black blur to his squinting eyes. In teeth Spar could not see, it held a smaller gray blur. Spar touched the latter. It was even shorter furred, but cold.
As if irked, the cat took off from his bare forearm with a strong push of hind legs. It landed expertly on the next shroud a wavery line of gray that vanished in either direction before reaching a wall.
Spar unclipped himself, curled his toes round his own pencil-thin shroud, and squinted at the cat.
The cat stared back with eyes that were green blurs which almost coalesced in the black blur of its outsize head.
Spar asked, “Your child? Dead?”
The cat loosed its gray burden, which floated beside its head.
“Chchchchild!” All the former scorn and more were back in the sibilant voice. “It izzzz a rat I sssslew her, issssiot!”
Spar’s lips puckered in a smile. “I like you, cat. I will call you Kim.”
“Kim-shlim!” the cat spat. “I’ll call you Lushshsh! Or Sssot!”
The creaking increased, as it always did after dayspring and noon. Shrouds twanged. Walls crackled.
Spar swiftly swiveled his head. Though reality was by its nature a blur, he could unerringly spot movement.
Keeper was slowly floating straight at him. On the round of his russet body was mounted the great, pale round of his face, its bright pink target-center drawing attention from the tiny, wide-set, brown blurs of his eyes. One of his fat arms ended in the bright gleam of pliofilm, the other in the dark gleam of steel. Far beyond him was the dark red aft corner of the Bat Rack, with the great gleaming torus, or doughnut, of the bar midway between.
“Lazy, pampered he-slut,” Keeper greeted. “All Sleepday you snored while I stood guard, and now I bring your morning pouch of moonmist to your sleeping shroud.
“A bad night, Spar,” he went on, his voice growing sententious. “Werewolves, vampires, and witches loose in the corridors. But I stood them off, not to mention rats and mice. I heard through the tubes that the vamps got Girlie and Sweetheart, the silly sluts! Vigilance, Spar! Now suck your moonmist and start sweeping. The place stinks.”
He stretched out the pliofilm-gleaming hand.
His mind hissing with Kim’s contemptuous words, Spar said, “I don’t think I’ll drink this morning, Keeper. Corn gruel and moonbrew only. No, water.”
“What, Spar?” Keeper demanded. “I don’t believe I can allow that. We don’t want you having convulsions in front of the customers. Earth strangle me!—what’s that?”
Spar instantly launched himself at Keeper’s steel-gleaming hand. Behind him his shroud twanged. With one hand he twisted a cold, thick barrel. With the other he pried a plump finger from a trigger.
“He’s not a witch cat, only a stray,” he said as they tumbled over and kept slowly rotating.
“Unhand me, underling!” Keeper blustered. “I’ll have you in irons. I’ll tell Crown.”
“Shooting weapons are as much against the law as knives or needles,” Spar countered boldly, though he already was feeling dizzy and sick. “It’s you should fear the brig.” He recognized beneath the bullying voice the awe Keeper always had of his ability to move swiftly and surely, though half-blind.
They bounced to rest against a swarm of shrouds. “Loose me, I say,” Keeper demanded, struggling weakly. “Crown gave me this pistol. And I have a permit for it from the Bridge.” The last at least, Spar guessed, was a lie. Keeper continued, “Besides, it’s only a line-shooting gun reworked for heavy, elastic ball. Not enough to rupture a wall, yet sufficient to knock out drunks—or knock in the head of a witch cat!”
“Not a witch cat, Keeper,” Spar repeated, although he was having to swallow hard to keep from spewing. “Only a well-behaved stray, who has already proved his use to us by killing one of the rats that have been stealing our food. His name is Kim. He’ll be a good worker.”
The distant blur of Kim lengthened and showed thin blurs of legs and tail, as if he were standing out rampant from his line. “Assset izz I,” he boasted. “Ssanitary. Uzze wasste tubes. Sslay ratss, micece! Sspy out witchchess, vampss ffor you!”
“He speaks!” Keeper gasped. “Witchcraft!”
“Crown has a dog who talks,” Spar answered with finality. “A talking animal’s no proof of anything.”
All this while he had kept firm hold of barrel and finger. Now he felt through their grappled bodies a change in Keeper, as though inside his blubber the master of the Bat Rack were transforming from stocky muscle and bone into a very thick, sweet syrup that could conform to and flow around anything.
“Sorry, Spar,” he whispered unctuously. “It was a bad night and Kim startled me. He’s black like a witch cat. An easy mistake on my part. We’ll try him out at catcher. He must earn his keep! Now take your drink.”
The pliant double pouch filling Spar’s palm felt like the philosopher’s stone. He lifted it toward his lips, but at the same time his toes unwittingly found a shroud, and he dove swiftly toward the shining torus, which had a hole big enough to accommodate four barmen at a pinch.
Spar collapsed against the opposite inside of the hole. With a straining of its shrouds, the torus absorbed his impact. He had the pouch to his lips, its cap unscrewed, but had not squeezed. He shut his eyes and with a tiny sob blindly thrust the pouch back into the moonmist cage.
Working chiefly by touch, he took a pouch of corn gruel from the hot closet, snitching at the same time a pouch of coffee and thrusting it into an inside pocket. Then he took a pouch of water, opened it, shoved in five salt tablets, closed it, and shook and squeezed it vigorously.
Keeper, having drifted behind him, said into his ear, “So you drink anyhow. Moonmist not good enough, you make yourself a cocktail. I should dock it from your scrip. But all drunks are liars, or become so.”
Unable to ignore the taunt, Spar explained, “No, only salt water to harden my gums.”
“Poor Spar, what’ll you ever need hard gums for? Planning to share rats with your new friend? Don’t let me catch you roasting them in my grill! I should dock you for the salt. To sweeping, Spar!” Then turning his head toward the violet fore-corner and speaking loudly, “And you! Catch mice!”
Kim had already found the small chewer tube and thrust the dead rat into it, gripping tube with foreclaws and pushing rat with aft. At the touch of the rat’s cadaver against the solid wrist of the tube, a grinding began there which would continue until the rat was macerated and slowly swallowed away toward the great cloaca which fed the Gardens of Diana.
Three times Spar manfully swished salt water against his gums and spat into a waste tube, vomiting a little after the first gargle. Then facing away from Keeper as he gently squeezed the pouches, he forced into his throat the coffee—dearer than moonmist, the drink distilled from moonbrew—and some of the corn gruel.
He apologetically offered the rest to Kim, who shook his head. “Jusst had a mousse.”
Hastily Spar made his way to the green starboard corner. Outside the hatch he heard some drunks calling with weary and mournful anger, “Unzip!”
Grasping the heads of two long waste tubes, Spar began to sweep the air, working out from the green corner in a spiral, quite like an orb spider building her web.
From the torus, where he was idly polishing its thin titanium, Keeper upped the suction on the two tubes, so that reaction sped Spar in his spiral. He need use his body only to steer course and to avoid shrouds in such a way that his tubes didn’t tangle.
Soon Keeper glanced at his wrist and called, “Spar, can’t you keep track of the time? Open up!” He threw a ring of keys which Spar caught, though he could see only the last half of their flight. As soon as he was well headed toward the green door, Keeper called again and pointed aft and aloft. Spar obediently unlocked and unzipped the dark and also the blue hatch, though there was no one at either, before opening the green. In each case he avoided the hatch’s gummy margin and the sticky emergency hatch hinged close beside.
In tumbled three brewos, old customers, snatching at shrouds and pushing off from each other’s bodies in their haste to reach the torus, and meanwhile cursing Spar.
“Sky strangle you!”
“Earth bury you!”
“Seas sear you!”
“Language, boys!” Keeper reproved. “Though I’ll agree my helper’s stupidity and sloth tempt a man to talk foul.”
Spar threw the keys back. The brewos lined up elbow to elbow around the torus, three grayish blobs with heads pointing toward the blue corner.
Keeper faced them. “Below, below!” he ordered indignantly. “You think you’re gents?”
“But you’re serving no one aloft yet.”
“There’s only us three.”
“No matter,” Keeper replied. “Propriety, suckers! Unless you mean to buy by the pouch, invert.”
With low grumbles the brewos reversed their bodies so that their heads pointed toward the black corner.
Himself not bothering to invert, Keeper tossed them a slim and twisty faint red blur with three branches. Each grabbed a branch and stuck it in his face.
The pudge of his fat hand on glint of valve, Keeper said, “Let’s see your scrip first.”
With angry mumbles each unwadded something too small for Spar to see clearly, and handed it over. Keeper studied each item before feeding it to the cashbox. Then he decreed, “Six seconds of moonbrew. Suck fast,” and looked at his wrist and moved the other hand.
One of the brewos seemed to be strangling, but he blew out through his nose and kept sucking bravely.
Keeper closed the valve.
Instantly one brewo splutteringly accused, “You cut us off too soon. That wasn’t six.”
The treacle back in his voice, Keeper explained, “I’m squirting it to you four and two. Don’t want you to drown. Ready again?”
The brewos greedily took their second squirt and then, at times wistfully sucking their tubes for remnant drops, began to shoot the breeze. In his distant circling, Spar’s keen ears heard most of it.
“A dirty Sleepday, Keeper.”
“No, a good one, brewo—for a drunken sucker to get his blood sucked by a lust-tickling vamp.”
“I was dossed safe at Pete’s, you fat ghoul.”
“Pete’s safe? That’s news!”
“Dirty Atoms to you! But vamps did get Girlie and Sweetheart. Right in the starboard main drag, if you can believe it. By Cobalt Ninety, Windrush is getting lonely! Third Hold, anyhow. You can swim a whole passageway by day without meeting a soul.”
“How do you know that about the girls?” the second brewo demanded. “Maybe they’ve gone to another hold to change their luck.”
“Their luck’s run out. Suzy saw them snatched.”
“Not Suzy,” Keeper corrected, now playing umpire. “But Mabel did. A proper fate for drunken sluts.”
“You’ve got no heart, Keeper.”
“True enough. That’s why the vamps pass me by. But speaking serious, boys, the werethings and witches are running too free in Three. I was awake all Sleepday guarding. I’m sending a complaint to the Bridge.”
Keeper solemnly nodded his head and crossed his left chest. The brewos were impressed.
Spar spiraled back toward the green corner, sweeping farther from the wall. On his way he overtook the black blob of Kim, who was circling the periphery himself, industriously leaping from shroud to shroud and occasionally making dashes along them.
A fair-skinned, plump shape twice circled by blue—bra and culottes—swam in through the green hatch.
“Morning, Spar,” a soft voice greeted. “How’s it going?”
“Fair and foul,” Spar replied. The golden cloud of blonde hair floating loose touched his face. “I’m quitting moonmist, Suzy.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Spar. Work a day, loaf a day, play a day, sleep a day—that way it’s best.”
“I know. Workday, Loafday, Playday, Sleepday. Ten days make a terranth, twelve terranths make a sunth, twelve sunths make a starth, and so on, to the end of time. With corrections, some tell me. I wish I knew what all those names mean.”
“You’re too serious. You should— Oh, a kitten! How darling!”
“Kitten-shmitten!” the big-headed black blur hissed as it leapt past them. “Izzz cat. IZZZ Kim.”
“Kim’s our new catcher,” Spar explained. “He’s serious too.”
“Quit wasting time on old Toothless Eyeless, Suzy,” Keeper called, “and come all the way in.”
As Suzy complied with a sigh, taking the easy route of the ratlines, her soft taper fingers brushed Spar’s crumpled cheek. “Dear Spar…” she murmured. As her feet passed his face, there was a jingle of her charm-anklet—all gold-washed hearts, Spar knew.
“Hear about Girlie and Sweetheart?” a brewo greeted ghoulishly. “How’d you like your carotid or outside iliac sliced, your—?”
“Shut up, sucker!” Suzy wearily cut him off. “Gimme a drink, Keeper.”
“Your tab’s long, Suzy. How you going to pay?”
“Don’t play games, Keeper, please. Not in the morning, anyhow. You know all the answers, especially to that one. For now, a pouch of moonbrew, dark. And a little quiet.”
“Pouches are for ladies, Suzy. I’ll serve you aloft, you got to meet your marks, but—”
There was a shrill snarl which swiftly mounted to a scream of rage. Just inside the aft hatch, a pale figure in vermilion culottes and bra—no, wider than that, jacket or short coat—was struggling madly, somersaulting and kicking.
Entering carelessly, likely too swiftly, the slim girl had got parts of herself and her clothes stuck to the hatch’s inside margin and the emergency hatch.
Breaking loose by frantic main force while Spar dove toward her and the brewos shouted advice, she streaked toward the torus, jerking at the ratlines, black hair streaming behind her.
Coming up with a bong of hip against titanium, she grabbed together her vermilion—yes, clutch coat with one hand and thrust the other across the rocking bar.
Drifting in close behind, Spar heard her say, “Double pouch of moonmist, Keeper. Make it fast.”
“The best of mornings to you, Rixende,” Keeper greeted. “I would gladly serve you goldwater, except, well—” The fat arms spread “—Crown doesn’t like his girls coming to the Bat Rack by themselves. Last time he gave me strict orders to—”
“What the smoke! It’s on Crown’s account I came here, to find something he lost. Meanwhile, moonmist. Double!” She pounded on the bar until reaction started her aloft, and she pulled back into place with Spar’s unthanked help.
“Softly, softly, lady,” Keeper gentled, the tiny brown blurs of his eyes vanishing with his grinning. “What if Crown comes in while you’re squeezing?”
“He won’t!” Rixende denied vehemently, though glancing past Spar quickly—black blur, blur of pale face, black blur again. “He’s got a new girl. I don’t mean Phanette or Doucette, but a girl you’ve never seen. Name of Almodie. He’ll be busy with the skinny bitch all morning. And now uncage that double moonmist, you dirty devil!”
“Softly, Rixie. All in good time. What is it Crown lost?”
“A little black bag. About so big.” She extended her slender hand, fingers merged. “He lost it here last Playday night, or had it lifted.”
“Hear that, Spar?” Keeper said.
“No little black bags,” Spar said very quickly. “But you did leave your big orange one here last night, Rixende. I’ll get it.” He swung inside the torus.
“Oh, damn both bags. Gimme that double!” the black-haired girl demanded frantically. “Earth Mother!”
Even the brewos gasped. Touching hands to the side of his head, Keeper begged. “No big obscenities, please. They sound worse from a dainty girl, gentle Rixende.”
“Earth Mother, I said! Now cut the fancy, Keeper, and give, before I scratch your face off and rummage your cages!”
“Very well, very well. At once, at once. But how will you pay? Crown told me he’d get my license revoked if I ever put you on his tab again. Have you scrip? Or… coins?”
“Use your eyes! Or you think this coat’s got inside pockets?” She spread it wide, flashing her upper body, then clutched it tight again. “Earth Mother! Earth Mother! Earth Mother!” The brewos babbled scandalized. Suzy snorted mildly in boredom.
With one fat hand-blob Keeper touched Rixende’s wrist where a yellow blur circled it closely. “You’ve got gold,” he said in hushed tones, his eyes vanishing again, this time in greed.
“You know damn well they’re welded on. My anklets too.”
“But these?” His hand went to a golden blur close beside her head.
“Welded too. Crown had my ears pierced.”
“Oh, you atom-dirty devil! I get you, all right. Well, then, all right!” The last words ended in a scream more of anger than pain as she grabbed a gold blur and jerked. Blood swiftly blobbed out. She thrust forward her fisted hand. “Now give! Gold for a double moonmist.”
Keeper breathed hard but said nothing as he scrabbled in the moonmist cage, as if knowing he had gone too far. The brewos were silent too. Suzy sounded completely unimpressed as she said, “And my dark.” Spar found a fresh dry sponge and expertly caught up the floating scarlet blobs with it before pressing it to Rixende’s torn ear.
Keeper studied the heavy gold pendant, which he held close to his face. Rixende milked the double pouch pressed to her lips and her eyes vanished as she sucked blissfully. Spar guided Rixende’s free hand to the sponge, and she automatically took over the task of holding it to her ear. Suzy gave a hopeless sigh, then reached her whole plump body across the bar, dipped her hand into a cool cage, and helped herself to a double of dark.
A long, wiry, very dark brown figure in skintight dark violet jumpers mottled with silver arrowed in from the dark red hatch at a speed half again as great as Spar ever dared and without brushing a single shroud by accident or intent. Midway the newcomer did a half somersault as he passed Spar, his long, narrow bare feet hit the titanium next to Rixende. He accordioned up so expertly that the torus hardly swayed.
One very dark brown arm snaked around her. The other plucked the pouch from her mouth, and there was a snap as he spun the cap shut.
A lazy musical voice inquired, “What’d we tell you would happen, baby, if you ever again took a drink on your own?”
The Bat Rack held very still. Keeper was backed against the opposite side of the hole, one hand behind him. Spar had his arm in his lost-and-found nook behind the moonbrew and moonmist cages and kept it there. He felt fear-sweat beading on him. Suzy kept her dark close to her face.
A brewo burst into violent coughing, choked it to a wheezing end, and gasped subserviently, “Excuse me, coroner. Salutations.”
Keeper chimed dully, “Morning… Crown.”
Crown gently pulled the clutch coat off Rixende’s far shoulder and began to stroke her. “Why, you’re all gooseflesh, honey, and rigid as a corpse. What frightened you? Smooth down, skin. Ease up, muscles. Relax, Rix, and we’ll give you a squirt.”
His hand found the sponge, stopped, investigated, found the wet part, then went toward the middle of his face. He sniffed.
“Well, boys, at least we know none of you are vamps,” he observed softly. “Else we’d found you sucking at her ear.”
Rixende said very rapidly in a monotone, “I didn’t come for a drink, I swear to you. I came to get that little bag you lost. Then I was tempted. I didn’t know I would be. I tried to resist, but Keeper led me on. I—”
“Shut up,” Crown said quietly. “We were just wondering how you paid him. Now we know. How were you planning to buy your third double? Cut off a hand or a foot? Keeper… show me your other hand. We said show it. That’s right. Now unfist.”
Crown plucked the pendant from Keeper’s opened hand-blob. His yellow-brown eye-blurs on Keeper all the while, he wagged the precious bauble back and forth, then tossed it slowly aloft.
As the golden blur moved toward the open blue hatch at unchanging pace, Keeper opened and shut his mouth twice, then babbled, “I didn’t tempt her, Crown, honest I didn’t. I didn’t know she was going to hurt her ear. I tried to stop her, but—”
“We’re not interested,” Crown said. “Put the double on our tab.” His face never leaving Keeper’s, he extended his arm aloft and pinched the pendant just before it straight-lined out of reach.
“Why’s this home of jollity so dead?” Snaking a long leg across the bar as easily as an arm, Crown pinched Spar’s ear between his big and smaller toes, pulled him close and turned him round. “How’re you coming along with the saline, baby? Gums hardening? Only one way to test it.” Gripping Spar’s jaw and lip with his other toes, he thrust the big one into Spar’s mouth. “Come on, bite me, baby.”
Spar bit. It was the only way not to vomit. Crown chuckled. Spar bit hard. Energy flooded his shaking frame. His face grew hot and his forehead throbbed under its drenching of fear-sweat. He was sure he was hurting Crown, but the Coroner of Hold Three only kept up his low, delighted chuckle and when Spar gasped, withdrew his foot.
“My, my, you’re getting strong, baby. We almost felt that. Have a drink on us.”
Spar ducked his stupidly wide-open mouth away from the thin jet of moonmist. The jet struck him in his eye and stung so that he had to knot his fists and clamp his aching gums together to keep from crying out.
“Why’s this place so dead, I ask again? No applause for baby and now baby’s gone temperance on us. Can’t you give us just one tiny laugh?” Crown faced each in turn. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongues?”
“Cat? We have a cat, a new cat, came just last night, working as catcher,” Keeper suddenly babbled. “It can talk a little. Not as well as Hellhound, but it talks. It’s very funny. It caught a rat.”
“What’d you do with the rat’s body, Keeper?”
“Fed it to the chewer. That is, Spar did. Or the cat.”
“You mean to tell us that you disposed of a corpse without notifying us? Oh, don’t go pale on us, Keeper. That’s nothing. Why, we could accuse you of harboring a witch cat. You say he came last night, and that was a wicked night for witches. Now don’t go green on us too. We were only putting you on. We were only looking for a small laugh.”
“Spar! Call your cat! Make him say something funny.”
Before Spar could call, or even decide whether he’d call Kim or not, the black blur appeared on a shroud near Crown, green eye-blurs fixed on the yellow-brown ones.
“So you’re the joker, eh? Well… joke.”
Kim increased in size. Spar realized it was his fur standing on end.
“Go ahead, joke… like they tell us you can. Keeper, you wouldn’t be kidding us about this cat being able to talk?”
“Spar! Make your cat joke!”
“Don’t bother. We believe he’s got his own tongue too. That the matter, Blackie?” He reached out his hand. Kim lashed at it and sprang away. Crown only gave another of his low chuckles.
Rixende began to shake uncontrollably. Crown examined her solicitously yet leisurely, using his outstretched hand to turn her head toward him, so that any blood that might have been coming from it from the cat’s slash would have gone into the sponge.
“Spar swore the cat could talk,” Keeper babbled. “I’ll—”
“Quiet,” Crown said. He put the pouch to Rixende’s lips, squeezed until her shaking subsided and it was empty, then flicked the crumpled pliofilm toward Spar.
“And now about that little black bag, Keeper,” Crown said flatly.
The latter dipped into his lost-and-found nook, saying quickly, “No little black bags, coroner, but we did find this one the lady Rixende forgot last Playday night,” and he turned back holding out something big, round, gleamingly orange, and closed with draw strings.
Crown took and swung it slowly in a circle. For Spar, who couldn’t see the strings, it was like magic. “Bit too big, and a mite the wrong shade. We’re certain we lost the little black bag here, or had it lifted. You making the Bat Rack a tent for dips, Keeper?”
“We’re asking you, Keeper.”
Shoving Spar aside, Keeper groped frantically in the nook, pulling aside the cages of moonmist and moonbrew pouches. He produced many small objects. Spar could distinguish the largest—an electric hand-fan and a bright red footglove. They hung around Keeper in a jumble.
Keeper was panting and had scrabbled his hands for a full minute in the nook without bringing out anything more, when Crown said, his voice lazy again, “That’s enough. The little black bag was of no importance to us in any case.”
Keeper emerged with a face doubly blurred. It must be surrounded by a haze of sweat. He pointed an arm at the orange bag.
“It might be inside that one!”
Crown opened the bag, began to search through it, changed his mind, and gave the whole bag a flick. Its remarkably numerous contents came out and moved slowly aloft at equal speeds, like an army on the march in irregular order. Crown scanned them as they went past.
“No, not there.” He pushed the bag toward Keeper. “Return Rix’s stuff to it and have it ready for us the next time we dive in—”
Putting his arm around Rixende, so that it was his hand that held the sponge to her ear, he turned and kicked off powerfully for the aft hatch. After he had been out of sight for several seconds, there was a general sigh, the three brewos put out new scrip-wads to pay for another squirt. Suzy asked for a second double dark, which Spar handed her quickly, while Keeper shook off his daze and ordered Spar, “Gather up all the floating trash, especially Rixie’s, and get that back in her purse. On the jump, lubber!” Then he used the electric hand-fan to cool and dry himself.
It was a mean task Keeper had set Spar, but Kim came to help, darting after objects too small for Spar to see. Once he had them in his hands, Spar could readily finger or sniff which was which.
When his impotent rage at Crown had faded, Spar’s thoughts went back to Sleepday night. Had his vision of vamps and werewolves been dream only?—now that he knew the werethings had been abroad in force. If only he had better eyes to distinguish illusion from reality! Kim’s “Sssee! Sssee shshsharply!” hissed in his memory. What would it be like to see sharply? Everything brighter? Or closer?
After a weary time the scattered objects were gathered and he went back to sweeping and Kim to his mouse hunt. As Workday morning progressed, the Bat Rack gradually grew less bright, though so gradually it was hard to tell.
A few more customers came in, but all for quick drinks, which Keeper served them glumly; Suzy judged none of them worth cottoning up to.
As time slowly passed, Keeper grew steadily more fretfully angry, as Spar had known he would after groveling before Crown. He tried to throw out the three brewos, but they produced more crumpled scrip, which closest scrutiny couldn’t prove counterfeit. In revenge he short-squirted them and there were arguments. He called Spar off his sweeping to ask him nervously, “That cat of yours—he scratched Crown, didn’t he? We’ll have to get rid of him; Crown said he might be a witch cat, remember?” Spar made no answer. Keeper set him renewing the glue of the emergency hatches, claiming that Rixende’s tearing free from the aft one had shown it must be drying out. He gobbled appetizers and drank moonmist with tomato juice. He sprayed the Bat Rack with some abominable synthetic scent. He started counting the boxed scrip and coins but gave up the job with a slam of self-locking drawer almost before he’d begun. His grimace fixed on Suzy.
“Spar!” he called. “Take over! And over-squirt the brewos on your peril!”
Then he locked the cash box, and giving Suzy a meaningful jerk of his head toward the scarlet starboard hatch, he pulled himself toward it. With an unhappy shrug toward Spar, she wearily followed.
As soon as the pair were gone, Spar gave the brewos an eight-second squirt, waving back their scrip, and placed two small serving cages—of fritos and yeast balls—before them. They granted their thanks and fell to. The light changed from healthy bright to corpse white. There was a faint, distant roar, followed some seconds later by a brief crescendo of creakings. The new light made Spar uneasy. He served two more suck-and-dives and sold a pouch of moonmist at double purser’s prices. He started to eat an appetizer, but just then Kim swam in to show him proudly a mouse. He conquered his nausea, but began to dread the onset of real withdrawal symptoms.
A pot-bellied figure clad in sober black dragged itself along the ratlines from the green hatch. On the aloft side of the bar there appeared a visage in which the blur of white hair and beard almost hid leather-brown flesh, though accentuating the blurs of gray eyes.
“Doc!” Spar greeted, his misery and unease gone, and instantly handed out a chill pouch of three-star moonbrew. Yet all he could think to say in his excitement was the banal, “A bad Sleepday night, eh, Doc? Vamps and—”
“—And other doltish superstitions, which wax every sunth, but never wane,” an amiable, cynical old voice cut in. “Yet, I suppose I shouldn’t rob you of your illusions, Spar, even the terrifying ones. You’ve little enough to live by, as it is. And there is viciousness astir in Windrush. Ah, that smacks good against my tonsils.”
Then Spar remembered the important thing. Reaching deep inside his slopsuit, he brought out, in such a way as to hide it from the brewos below, a small flat narrow black bag.
“Here, Doc,” he whispered, “you lost it last Playday. I kept it safe for you.”
“Dammit, I’d lose my jumpers, if I ever took them off,” Doc commented, hushing his voice when Spar put finger to lips. “I suppose I started mixing moonmist with my moonbrew—again?”
“You did, Doc. But you didn’t lose your bag. Crown or one of his girls lifted it, or snagged it when it sat loose beside you. And then I… I, Doc, lifted it from Crown’s hip pocket. Yes, and kept that secret when Rixende and Crown came in demanding it this morning.”
“Spar, my boy, I am deeply in your debt,” Doc said. “More than you can know. Another three-star, please. Ah, nectar. Spar, ask any reward of me, and if it lies merely within the realm of the first transfinite infinity, I will grant it.”
To his own surprise, Spar began to shake—with excitement. Pulling himself forward halfway across the bar, he whispered hoarsely, “Give me good eyes, Doc!” adding impulsively, “and teeth!”
After what seemed a long while, Doc said in a dreamy, sorrowful voice, “In the Old Days, that would have been easy. They’d perfected eye transplants. They could regenerate cranial nerves, and sometimes restore scanning power to an injured cerebrum. While transplanting tooth buds from a stillborn was intern’s play. But now… Oh, I might be able to do what you ask in an uncomfortable, antique, inorganic fashion, but…” He broke off on a note that spoke of the misery of life and the uselessness of all effort.
“The Old Days,” one brewo said from the corner of his mouth to the brewo next to him. “Witch talk!”
“Witch-smitch!” the second brewo replied in like fashion. “The flesh mechanic’s only senile. He dreams all four days, not just Sleepday.”
The third brewo whistled against the evil eye a tune like the wind.
Spar tugged at the long-armed sleeve of Doc’s black jumper. “Doc, you promised. I want to see sharp, bite sharp!”
Doc laid his shrunken hand commiseratingly on Spar’s forearm. “Spar,” he said softly, “seeing sharply would only make you very unhappy. Believe me, I know. Life’s easier to bear when things are blurred, just as it’s best when thoughts are blurred by brew or mist. And while there are people in Windrush who yearn to bite sharply, you are not their kind. Another three-star, if you please.”
“I quit moonmist this morning, Doc,” Spar said somewhat proudly as he handed over the fresh pouch.
Doc answered with sad smile, “Many quit moonmist every Workday morning and change their minds when Playday comes around.”
“Not me, Doc! Besides,” Spar argued, “Keeper and Crown and his girls and even Suzy all see sharply, and they aren’t unhappy.”
“I’ll tell you a secret, Spar,” Doc replied. “Keeper and Crown and the girls are all zombies. Yes, even Crown with his cunning and power. To them Windrush is the universe.”
“It isn’t, Doc?”
Ignoring the interruption, Doc continued, “But you wouldn’t be like that, Spar. You’d want to know more. And that would make you far unhappier than you are.”
“I don’t care, Doc,” Spar said. He repeated accusingly, “You promised.”
The gray blurs of Doc’s eyes almost vanished as he frowned in thought. Then he said, “How would this be, Spar? I know moonmist brings pains and sufferings as well as easings and joys. But suppose that every Workday morning and Loafday noon I should bring you a tiny pill that would give you all the good effects of moonmist and none of the bad. I’ve one in this bag. Try it now and see. And every Playday night I would bring you without fail another sort of pill that would make you sleep soundly with never a nightmare. Much better than eyes and teeth. Think it over.”
As Spar considered that, Kim drifted up. He eyed Doc with his close-set green blurs. “Resspectfful greetingss, ssir,” he hissed. “Name izz Kim.”
Doc answered, “The same to you, sir. May mice be ever abundant.” He softly stroked the cat, beginning with Kim’s chin and chest. The dreaminess returned to his voice. “In the Old Days, all cats talked, not just a few sports. The entire feline tribe. And many dogs, too—pardon me, Kim. While as for dolphins and whales and apes…”
Spar said eagerly, “Answer me one question, Doc. If your pills give happiness without hangover, why do you always drink moonbrew yourself and sometimes spike it with moonmist?”
“Because for me—” Doc began and then broke off with a grin. “You’ve trapped me, Spar. I never thought you used your mind. Very well, on your own mind be it. Come to my office this Loafday—you know the way? Good!—and we’ll see what we can do about your eyes and teeth. And now a double pouch for the corridor.”
He paid in bright coins, thrust the big squunchy three-star in a big pocket, said, “See you, Spar. So long, Kim,” and tugged himself toward the green hatch, zig-zagging.
“Ffarewell, ssir,” Kim hissed after him.
Spar held out the small black bag. “You forgot it again, Doc.”
As Doc returned with a weary curse and pocketed it, the scarlet hatch unzipped and Keeper swam out. He looked in a good humor now and whistled the tune of “I’ll Marry the Man on the Bridge” as he began to study certain rounds on scrip-till and moonbrew valves, but when Doc was gone he asked Spar suspiciously, “What was that you handed the old geezer?”
“His purse,” Spar replied easily. “He just forgot it now.” He shook his loosely fisted hand and it chinked. “Doc paid in coins, Keeper.” Keeper took them eagerly. “Back to sweeping, Spar.”
As Spar dove toward the scarlet hatch to take up larboard tubes, Suzy emerged and passed him with face averted. She sidled up to the bar and unsmilingly snatched the pouch of moonmist Keeper offered her with mock courtliness.
Spar felt a brief rage on her behalf, but it was hard for him to keep his mind on anything but his coming appointment with Doc. When Workday night fell swiftly as a hurled knife, he was hardly aware of it and felt none of his customary unease. Keeper turned on full all of the lights in the Bat Rack. They shone brightly while beyond the translucent walls there was a milky churning.
Business picked up a little. Suzy made off with the first likely mark. Keeper called Spar to take over the torus, while he himself got a much-erased sheet of paper and holding it to a clipboard held against his bent knees, wrote on it laboriously, as if he were thinking out each word, perhaps each letter, often wetting his pencil in his mouth. He became so absorbed in his difficult task that without realizing he drifted off toward the black below hatch, rotating over and over. The paper got dirtier and dirtier with his scrawlings and smudgings, new erasures, saliva and sweat.
The short night passed more swiftly than Spar dared hope, so that the sudden glare of Loafday dawn startled him. Most of the customers made off to take their siestas.
Spar wondered what excuse to give Keeper for leaving the Bat Rack, but the problem was solved for him. Keeper folded the grimy sheet, and sealed it with hot tape. “Take this to the Bridge, loafer, to the Exec. Wait.” He took the repacked, orange bag from its nook and pulled on the cords to make sure they were drawn tight. “On your way deliver this at Crown’s Hole. With all courtesy and subservience, Spar! Now, on the jump!”
Spar slid the sealed message into his only pocket with working zipper and drew that tight. Then he dove slowly toward the aft hatch, where he almost collided with Kim. Recalling Keeper’s talk of getting rid of the cat, he caught hold of him around the slim furry chest under the forelegs and gently thrust him inside his slopsuit, whispering, “You’ll take a trip with me, little Kim.” The cat set his claws in the thin material and steadied himself.
For Spar, the corridor was a narrow cylinder ending in mist either way and decorated by lengthwise blurs of green and red. He guided himself chiefly by touch and memory, this time remembering that he must pull himself against the light wind hand-over-hand along the centerline. After curving past the larger cylinders of the fore-and-aft gangways, the corridor straightened. Twice he worked his way around centrally slung fans whirring so softly that he recognized them chiefly by the increase in breeze before passing them and the slight suction after.
Soon he began to smell soil and green stuff growing. With a shiver he passed a black round that was the elastic-curtained door to Hold Three’s big chewer. He met no one—odd even for Loafday. Finally he saw the green of the Gardens of Apollo and beyond it a huge black screen, in which hovered toward the aft side a small, smoky-orange circle that always filled Spar with inexplicable sadness and fear. He wondered in how many black screens that doleful circle was portrayed, especially in the starboard end of Windrush. He had seen it in several.
So close to the gardens that he could make out wavering green shoots and the silhouette of a floating farmer, the corridor right-angled below. Two dozen pulls along the line and he floated by an open hatch, which both memory for distance and the strong scent of musky, mixed perfumes told him was the entry to Crown’s Hole. Peering in, he could see the intermelting black and silver spirals of the decor of the great globular room. Directly opposite the hatch was another large black screen with the red-mottled dun disk placed similarly off center.
From under Spar’s chin, Kim hissed very softly, but urgently, “Sstop! Ssilencce, on your liffe!” The cat had poked his head out of the slopsuit’s neck. His ears tickled Spar’s throat. Spar was getting used to Kim’s melodrama, and in any case the warning was hardly needed. He had just seen the half-dozen floating naked bodies and would have held still if only from embarrassment. Not that Spar could see genitals any more than ears at the distance. But he could see that save for hair, each body was of one texture: one very dark brown and the other five—or was it four? no, five—fair. He didn’t recognize the two with platinum and golden hair, who also happened to be the two palest. He wondered which was Crown’s new girl, name of Almodie. He was relieved that none of the bodies were touching.
There was the glint of metal by the golden-haired girl, and he could just discern the red blur of a slender, five-forked tube which went from the metal to the five other faces. It seemed strange that even with a girl to play bartender, Crown should have moonbrew served in such plebeian fashion in his palatial Hole. Of course the tube might carry moonwine, or even moonmist.
Or was Crown planning to open a rival bar to the Bat Rack? A poor time, these days, and a worse location, he mused as he tried to think of what to do with the orange bag.
“Sslink offf !” Kim urged still more softly.
Spar’s fingers found a snap-ring by the hatch. With the faintest of clicks he secured it around the draw-cords of the pouch and then pulled back the way he had come.
But faint as the click had been, there was a response from Crown’s Hole—a very deep, long growl.
Spar pulled faster at the centerline. As he rounded the corner leading inboard, he looked back.
Jutting out from Crown’s hatch was a big, prick-eared head narrower than a man’s and darker even than Crown’s.
The growl was repeated.
It was ridiculous he should be so frightened of Hellhound, Spar told himself as he jerked himself and his passenger along. Why, Crown sometimes even brought the big dog to the Bat Rack.
Perhaps it was that Hellhound never growled in the Bat Rack, only talked in a hundred or so monosyllables.
Besides, the dog couldn’t pull himself along the centerline at any speed. He lacked sharp claws. Though he might be able to bound forward, caroming from one side of the corridor to another.
This time the center-slit black curtains of the big chewer made Spar veer violently. He was a fine one—going to get new eyes today and frightened as a child!
“Why did you try to scare me back there, Kim?” he asked angrily.
“I ssaw shsheer evil, isssiot!”
“You saw five folk sucking moonbrew. And a harmless dog. This time you’re the fool, Kim, you’re the idiot!”
Kim shut up, drawing in his head, and refused to say another word. Spar remembered about the vanity and touchiness of all cats. But by now he had other worries. What if the orange bag were stolen by a passerby before Crown noticed it? And if Crown did find it, wouldn’t he know Spar, forever Keeper’s errandboy, had been peeping? That all this should happen on the most important day of his life! His verbal victory over Kim was small consolation.
Also, although the platinum-haired girl had interested him most of the two strange ones, something began to bother him about the girl who’d been playing bartender, the one with golden hair like Suzy’s, but much slimmer and paler—he had the feeling he’d seen her before. And something about her had frightened him.
When he reached the central gangways, he was tempted to go to Doc’s office before the Bridge. But he wanted to be able to relax at Doc’s and take as much time as needed, knowing all errands were done.
Reluctantly he entered the windy violet gangway and dove at a fore angle for the first empty space on the central gang-line, so that his palms were only burned a little before he had firm hold of it and was being sped fore at about the same speed as the wind. Keeper was a miser, not to buy him handgloves, let alone footgloves!—but he had to pay sharp attention to passing the shroud-slung roller bearings that kept the thick, moving line centered in the big corridor. It was an easy trick to catch hold of the line ahead of the bearing and then get one’s other hand out of the way, but it demanded watchfulness.
There were few figures traveling on the line and fewer still being blown along the corridor. He overtook a doubled up one tumbling over and over and crying out in an old cracked voice, “Jacob’s Ladder, Tree of Life, Marriage Lines…”
He passed the squeeze in the gangway marking the division between the Third and Second Holds without being stopped by the guard there and then he almost missed the big blue corridor leading aloft. Again he slightly burned his palms making the transfer from one moving gang-line to another. His fretfulness increased.
“Sspar, you isssiot—!” Kim began.
“Ssh!—we’re in officers’ territory,” Spar cut him off, glad to have that excuse for once more putting down the impudent cat. And true enough, the blue spaces of Windrush always did fill him with awe and dread.
Almost too soon to suit him, he found himself swinging from the gang-line to a stationary monkey jungle of tubular metal just below the deck of the Bridge. He worked his way to the aloft-most bars and floated there, waiting to be spoken to.
Much metal, in many strange shapes, gleamed in the Bridge, and there were irregularly pulsing rainbow surfaces, the closest of which sometimes seemed ranks of files of tiny lights going on and off—red, green, all colors. Aloft of everything was an endless velvet-black expanse very faintly blotched by churning, milky glintings.
Among the metal objects and the rainbows floated figures all clad in the midnight blue of officers. They sometimes gestured to each other, but never spoke a word. To Spar, each of their movements was freighted with profound significance. These were the gods of Windrush, who guided everything, if there were gods at all. He felt reduced in importance to a mouse, which would be chased off chittering if it once broke silence.
After a particularly tense flurry of gestures, there came a brief distant roar and a familiar creaking and crackling. Spar was amazed, yet at the same time realized he should have known that the Captain, the Navigator, and the rest were responsible for the familiar diurnal phenomena.
It also marked Loafday noon. Spar began to fret. His errands were taking too long. He began to lift his hand tentatively toward each passing figure in midnight blue. None took the least note of him.
Finally he whispered, “Kim—?”
The cat did not reply. He could hear a purring that might be a snore. He gently shook the cat. “Kim, let’s talk.”
“Shshut offf! I ssleep! Ssh!” Kim resettled himself and his claws and recommenced his purring snore—whether natural or feigned, Spar could not tell. He felt very despondent.
The lunths crept by. He grew desperate and weary. He must not miss his appointment with Doc! He was nerving himself to move farther aloft and speak, when a pleasant, young voice said, “Hello, grandpa, what’s on your mind?”
Spar realized that he had been raising his hand automatically and that a person as dark-skinned as Crown, but clad in midnight blue, had at last taken notice. He unzipped the note and handed it over. “For the Exec.”
“That’s my department.” A trilled crackle—fingernail slitting the note? A larger crackle—note being opened. A brief wait. Then, “Who’s Keeper?”
“Owner of the Bat Rack, sir. I work there.”
“A moonbrew mansion. Once called the Happy Torus, I’ve been told. In the Old Days, Wine Mess Three, Doc told me.”
“Hmm. Well, what’s all this mean, gramps? And what’s your name?”
Spar stared miserably at the dark-mottled gray square. “I can’t read, sir. Name’s Spar.”
“Hmm. Seen any… er… supernatural beings in the Bat Rack?”
“Only in my dreams, sir.”
“Mmm. Well, we’ll have a look in. If you recognize me, don’t let on. I’m Ensign Drake, by the way. Who’s your passenger, grandpa?”
“Only my cat, Ensign,” Spar breathed in alarm.
“Well, take the black shaft down.” Spar began to move across the monkey jungle in the direction pointed out by the blue arm-blur.
“And next time remember animals aren’t allowed on the Bridge.”
As Spar traveled below, his warm relief that Ensign Drake had seemed quite human and compassionate was mixed with anxiety as to whether he still had time to visit Doc. He almost missed the shift to the gang-line grinding aft in the dark red main drag. The corpse-light brightening into the false dawn of late afternoon bothered him. Once more he passed the tumbling bent figure, this time croaking, “Trinity, Trellis, Wheat Ear…”
He was fighting down the urge to give up his visit to Doc and pull home to the Bat Rack, when he noticed he had passed the second squeeze and was in Hold Four with the passageway to Doc’s coming up. He dove off, checked himself on a shroud and began the hand-drag to Doc’s office, as far larboard as Crown’s Hole was starboard.
He passed two figures clumsy on the line, their breaths malty in anticipation of Playday. Spar worried that Doc might have closed his office. He smelled soil and greenery again, from the Gardens of Diana.
The hatch was shut, but when Spar pressed the bulb, it unzipped after three honks, and the white-haloed gray-eyed face peered out.
“I’d just about give up on you, Spar.”
“I’m sorry, Doc. I had to—”
“No matter. Come in, come in. Hello, Kim—take a look around if you want.”
Kim crawled out, pushed off from Spar’s chest, and soon was engaged in a typical cat’s tour of inspection.
And there was a great deal to inspect, as even Spar could see. Every shroud in Doc’s office seemed to have objects clipped along its entire length. There were blobs large and small, gleaming and dull, light and dark, translucent and solid. They were silhouetted against a wall of the corpse-light Spar feared, but had no time to think of now. At one end was a band of even brighter light.
“Careful Kim!” Spar called to the cat as he landed against a shroud and began to paw his way from blob to blob.
“He’s all right,” Doc said. “Let’s have a look at you, Spar. Keep your eyes open.”
Doc’s hands held Spar’s head. The gray eyes and leathery face came so close they were one blur.
“Keep them open, I said. Yes, I know you have to blink them, that’s all right. Just as I thought. The lenses are dissolved. You’ve suffered the side-effect which one in ten do who are infected with the Lethean rickettsia.”
“Styx ricks, Doc?”
“That’s right, though the mob’s got hold of the wrong river in the Underworld. But we’ve all had it. We’ve all drunk the water of Lethe. Though sometimes when we grow very old we begin to remember the beginning. Don’t squirm.”
“Hey, Doc, is it because I’ve had the Styx ricks I can’t remember anything back before the Bat Rack?”
“It could be. How long have you been at the Rack?”
“I don’t know, Doc. Forever.”
“Before I found the place, anyhow. When the Rumdum closed here in Four. But that’s only a starth ago.”
“But I’m awful old, Doc. Why don’t I start remembering?”
“You’re not old, Spar. You’re just bald and toothless and etched by moonmist and your muscles have shriveled. Yes, and your mind has shriveled too. Now open your mouth.”
One of Doc’s hands went to the back of Spar’s neck. The other probed. “Your gums are tough, anyhow. That’ll make it easier.”
Spar wanted to tell about the salt water, but when Doc finally took his hand out of Spar’s mouth, it was to say, “Now open wide as you can.”
Doc pushed into his mouth something big as a handbag and hot. “Now bite down hard.”
Spar felt as if he had bitten fire. He tried to open his mouth, but hands on his head and jaw held it closed. Involuntarily he kicked and clawed air. His eyes filled with tears.
“Stop writhing! Breathe through your nose. It’s not that hot. Not hot enough to blister, anyhow.”
Spar doubted that, but after a bit decided it wasn’t quite hot enough to bake his brain through the roof of his mouth. Besides, he didn’t want to show Doc his cowardice. He held still. He blinked several times and the general blur became the blurs of Doc’s face and the cluttered room silhouetted by the corpse-glare. He tried to smile, but his lips were already stretched wider than their muscles could ever have done. That hurt too; he realized now that the heat was abating a little.
Doc was grinning for him. “Well, you would ask an old drunkard to use techniques he’d only read about. To make it up to you, I’ll give you teeth sharp enough to sever shrouds. Kim, please get away from that bag.”
The black blur of the cat was pushing off from a black blur twice his length. Spar mumbled disapprovingly at Kim through his nose and made motions. The larger blur was shaped like Doc’s little bag, but bigger than a hundred of them. It must be massive too, for in reaction to Kim’s push it had bent the shroud to which it was attached and—the point—the shroud was very slow in straightening.
“That bag contains my treasure, Spar,” Doc explained, and when Spar lifted his eyebrows twice to signal another question, went on, “No, not coin and gold and jewels, but a second transfinite infinitude—sleep and dreams and nightmares for every soul in a thousand Windrushes.” He glanced at his wrist. “Time enough now. Open your mouth.” Spar obeyed, though it cost him new pain.
Doc withdrew what Spar had bitten on, wrapped it in gleam, and clipped it to the nearest shroud. Then he looked in Spar’s mouth again.
“I guess I did make it a bit too hot,” he said. He found a small pouch, set it to Spar’s lips, and squeezed it. A mist filled Spar’s mouth and all pain vanished.
Doc tucked the pouch in Spar’s pocket. “If the pain returns, use it again.”
But before Spar could thank Doc, the latter had pressed a tube to his eye. “Look, Spar, what do you see?”
Spar cried out, he couldn’t help it, and jerked his eye away.
“What’s wrong, Spar?”
“Doc you gave me a dream,” Spar said hoarsely. “You won’t tell anyone, will you? And it tickled.”
“What was the dream like?” Doc asked eagerly.
“Just a picture, Doc. The picture of a goat with the tail of a fish. Doc, I saw the fish’s…” His mind groped, “… scales! Everything had… edges! Doc, is that what they mean when they talk about seeing sharply?”
“Of course, Spar. This is good. It means there’s no cerebral or retinal damage. I’ll have no trouble making up field glasses—that is, if there’s nothing seriously wrong with my antique pair. So you still see things sharp-edged in dreams—that’s natural enough. But why were you afraid of me telling?”
“Afraid of being accused of witchcraft, Doc. I thought seeing things like that was clairvoyance. The tube tickled my eye a little.”
“Isotopes and insanity! It’s supposed to tickle. That’s the field. Let’s try the other eye.”
Again Spar wanted to cry out, but he restrained himself, and this time he had no impulse to jerk his eye away, although there was again the faint tickling. The picture was that of a slim girl. He could tell she was female because of her general shape. But he could see her edges. He could see… details. For instances, her eyes weren’t mist-bounded colored ovals. They had points at both ends, which were china-white… triangles. And the pale violet round between the triangles had a tiny black round at its center.
She had silvery hair, yet she looked young, he thought, though it was hard to judge such matters when you could see edges. She made him think of the platinum-haired girl he’d glimpsed in Crown’s Hole.
She wore a long, gleaming white dress, which left her shoulders bare, but either art or some unknown force had drawn her hair and her dress toward her feet. In her dress it made… folds.
“What’s her name, Doc? Almodie?”
“No. Virgo. The Virgin. You can see her edges?”
“Yes, Doc. Sharp. I get it!—like a knife. And the goat-fish?”
“Capricorn,” Doc answered, removing the tube from Spar’s eye.
“Doc, I know Capricorn and Virgo are the names of lunths, terranths, sunths, and starths, but I never knew they had pictures. I never knew they were anything.”
“You— Of course, you’ve never seen watches, or stars, let alone the constellations of the zodiac.”
Spar was about to ask what all those were, but then he saw that the corpse-light was all gone, although the ribbon of brighter light had grown very wide.
“At least in this stretch of your memory,” Doc added. “I should have your new eyes and teeth ready next Loafday. Come earlier if you can manage. I may see you before that at the Bat Rack, Playday night or earlier.”
“Great, Doc, but now I’ve got to haul. Come on, Kim! Sometimes business heavies up Loafday night, Doc, like it was Playday night come at the wrong end. Jump in, Kim.”
“Sure you can make it back to the Bat Rack all right, Spar? It’ll be dark before you get there.”
“Course I can, Doc.”
But when night fell, like a heavy hood jerked down over his head, halfway down the first passageway, he would have gone back to ask Doc to guide him, except he feared Kim’s contempt, even though the cat still wasn’t talking. He pulled ahead rapidly, though the few running lights hardly let him see the centerline.
The fore gangway was even worse—completely empty and its lights dim and flickering. Seeing by blurs bothered him now that he knew what seeing sharp was like. He was beginning to sweat and shake and cramp from his withdrawal from alcohol and his thoughts were a tumult. He wondered if any of the weird things that had happened since meeting Kim were real or dream. Kim’s refusal—or inability?—to talk any more was disquieting. He began seeing the misty rims of blurs that vanished when he looked straight toward them. He remembered Keeper and the brewos talking about vamps and witches.
Then instead of waiting for the Bat Rack’s green hatch, he dove off into the passageway leading to the aft one. This passageway had no lights at all. Out of it he thought he could hear Hellhound growling, but couldn’t be sure because the big chewer was grinding. He was scrabbling with panic when he entered the Bat Rack through the dark red hatch, remembering barely in time to avoid the new glue.
The place was jumping with light and excitement and dancing figures, and Keeper at once began to shout abuse at him. He dove into the torus and began taking orders and serving automatically, working entirely by touch and voice, because withdrawal now had his vision swimming—a spinning blur of blurs.
After a while that got better, but his nerves got worse. Only the unceasing work kept him going—and shut out Keeper’s abuse—but he was getting too tired to work at all. As Playday dawned, with the crowd around the torus getting thicker all the while, he snatched a pouch of moonmist and set it to his lips.
Claws dug his chest. “Isssiot! Sssot! Ssslave of fffear!”
Spar almost went into convulsions, but put back the moonmist. Kim came out of the slopsuit and pushed off contemptuously, circled the bar and talked to various of the drinkers, soon became a conversation piece. Keeper started to boast about him and quit serving. Spar worked on and on and on through sobriety more nightmarish than any drunk he could recall. And far, far longer.
Suzy came in with a mark and touched Spar’s hand when he served her dark to her. It helped.
He thought he recognized a voice from below. It came from a kinky-haired, slopsuited brewo he didn’t know. But then he heard the man again and thought he was Ensign Drake. There were several brewos he didn’t recognize.
The place started really jumping. Keeper upped the music. Singly or in pairs, somersaulting dancers bounded back and forth between shrouds. Others toed a shroud and shimmied. A girl in black did splits on one. A girl in white dove through the torus. Keeper put it on her boyfriend’s check. Brewos tried to sing.
Spar heard Kim recite:
“Izz a cat.
Killzz a rat.
Greetss each guy.
Thin or ffat.
Saay dolls, hi!”
Playday night fell. The place got hotter. Doc didn’t come. But Crown did. Dancers parted and a whole section of drinkers made way aloft for him and his girls and Hellhound, so that they had a third of the torus to themselves, with no one below in that third either. To Spar’s surprise they all took coffee except the dog, who when asked by Crown, responded, “Bloody Mary,” drawing out the words in such deep tones that they were little more than a low “Bluh-Muh” growl.
“Iss that sspeech, I assk you?” Kim commented from the other side of the torus. Drunks around him choked down chuckles.
Spar served the pouched coffee piping hot with felt holders and mixed Hellhound’s drink in a self-squeezing syringe with sipping tube. He was very groggy and for the moment more afraid for Kim than himself. The face blurs tended to swim, but he could distinguish Rixende by her black hair, Phanette and Doucette by their matching red-blonde hair and oddly red-mottled fair skins, while Almodie was the platinum-haired pale one, yet she looked horribly right between the dark brown, purple-vested blur to one side of her and the blacked, narrower, prick-eared silhouette to the other.
Spar heard Crown whisper to her, “Ask Keeper to show you the talking cat.” The whisper was very low and Spar wouldn’t have heard it except that Crown’s voice had a strange excited vibrancy Spar had never known in it before.
“But won’t they fight then?—I mean Hellhound,” she answered in a voice that sent silvery tendrils around Spar’s heart. He yearned to see her face through Doc’s tube. She would look like Virgo, only more beautiful. Yet, Crown’s girl, she could be no virgin. It was a strange and horrible world. Her eyes were violet. But he was sick of blurs. Almodie sounded very frightened, yet she continued, “Please don’t, Crown.” Spar’s heart was captured.
“But that’s the whole idea, baby. And nobody dont’s us. We thought we’d schooled you to that. We’d teach you another lesson here, except tonight we smell high fuzz—lots of it, Keeper!—our new lady wishes to hear your cat talk. Bring it over.”
“I really don’t…” Almodie began and went no further.
Kim came floating across the torus while Keeper was shouting in the opposite direction. The cat checked himself against a slender shroud and looked straight at Crown. “Yesss?”
“Keeper, shut that junk off.” The music died abruptly. Voices rose, then died abruptly too. “Well, cat, talk.”
“Shshall ssing insstead,” Kim announced and began an eerie caterwauling that had a pattern but was not Spar’s idea of music.
“It’s an abstraction,” Almodie breathed delightedly. “Listen, Crown, that was a diminished seventh.”
“A demented third, I’d say,” Phanette commented from the other side.
Crown signed them to be quiet.
Kim finished with a high trill. He slowly looked around at his baffled audience and then began to groom his shoulder.
Crown gripped a ridge of the torus with his left hand and said evenly, “Since you will not talk to us, will you talk to our dog?”
Kim stared at Hellhound sucking his Bloody Mary. His eyes widened, their pupils slitted, his lips writhed back from needle-like fangs.
He hissed, “Schschweinhund!”
Hellhound launched himself, hind paws against the palm of Crown’s left hand, which threw him forward toward the left, where Kim was dodging. But the cat switched directions, rebounding hindwards from the next shroud. The dog’s white-jagged jaws snapped sideways a foot from their mark as his great-chested black body hurtled past.
Hellhound landed with four paws in the middle of a fat drunk, who puffed out his wind barely before his swallow, but the dog took off instantly on reverse course. Kim bounced back and forth between shrouds. This time hair flew when jaws snapped, but also a rigidly spread paw slashed.
Crown grabbed Hellhound by his studded collar, restraining him from another dive. He touched the dog below the eye and smelled his fingers. “That’ll be enough, boy,” he said. “Can’t go around killing musical geniuses.” His hand dropped from his nose to below the torus and came up loosely fisted. “Well, cat, you’ve talked with our dog. Have you a word for us?”
“Yesss!” Kim drifted to the shroud nearest Crown’s face. Spar pushed off to grab him back, while Almodie gazed at Crown’s fist and edged a hand toward it.
Kim loudly hissed, “Hellzzz ssspawn! Fffiend!”
Both Spar and Almodie were too late. From between two of Crown’s fisted fingers a needle-stream jetted and struck Kim in the open mouth.
After what seemed to Spar a long time, his hand interrupted the stream. Its back burned acutely.
Kim seemed to collapse into himself, then launched himself away from Crown, toward the dark, open-jawed.
Crown said, “That’s mace, an antique weapon like Greek fire, but well-known to our folk. The perfect answer to a witch cat.”
Spar sprang at Crown, grappled his chest, tried to butt his jaw. They moved away from the torus at half the speed with which Spar had sprung.
Crown got his head aside. Spar closed his gums on Crown’s throat. There was a snick. Spar felt wind on his bare back. Then a cold triangle pressed his flesh over his kidneys. Spar opened his jaws and floated limp. Crown chuckled.
A blue fuzz-glare, held by a brewo, made everyone in the Bat Rack look more corpse-like than larboard light. A voice commanded, “Okay, folks, break it up. Go home. We’re closing the place.”
Sleepday dawned, drowning the fuzz-glare. The cold triangle left Spar’s back. There was another snick. Saying, “Bye-bye, baby,” Crown pushed off through the white glare toward four women’s faces and one dog’s. Phanette’s and Doucette’s faintly red-mottled ones were close beside Hellhound’s, as if they might be holding his collar.
Spar sobbed and began to hunt for Kim. After a while Suzy came to help him. The Bat Rack emptied. Spar and Suzy cornered Kim. Spar grasped the cat around the chest. Kim’s forelegs embraced his wrist, claws pricking. Spar got out the pouch Doc had given him and shoved its mouth between Kim’s jaws. The claws dug deep. Taking no note of that, Spar gently sprayed. Gradually the claws came out and Kim relaxed. Spar hugged him gently. Suzy bound up Spar’s wounded wrist.
Keeper came up followed by two brewos, one of them Ensign Drake, who said, “My partner and I will watch today by the aft and starboard hatches.” Beyond them the Bat Rack was empty.
Spar said, “Crown has a knife.” Drake nodded.
Suzy touched Spar’s hand and said, “Keeper, I want to stay here tonight. I’m scared.”
Keeper said, “I can offer you a shroud.”
Drake and his mate dove slowly toward their posts.
Suzy squeezed Spar’s hand. He said, rather heavily, “I can offer you my shroud, Suzy.”
Keeper laughed and after looking toward the Bridge men, whispered, “I can offer you mine, which, unlike Spar, I own. And moonmist. Otherwise, the passageways.”
Suzy sighed, paused, then went off with him.
Spar miserably made his way to the fore corner. Had Suzy expected him to fight Keeper? The sad thing was that he no longer wanted her, except as a friend. He loved Crown’s new girl. Which was sad too.
He was very tired. Even the thought of new eyes tomorrow didn’t interest him. He clipped his ankle to a shroud and tied a rag over his eyes. He gently clasped Kim, who had not spoken. He was asleep at once.
He dreamed of Almodie. She looked like Virgo, even to the white dress. She held Kim, who looked sleek as polished black leather. She was coming toward him smiling. She kept coming without getting closer.
Much later—he thought—he woke in the grip of withdrawal. He sweated and shook, but those were minor. His nerves were jumping. Any moment, he was sure, they would twitch all his muscles into a stabbing spasm of sinew-snapping agony. His thoughts were moving so fast he could hardly begin to understand one in ten. It was like speeding through a curving, ill-lit passageway ten times faster than the main drag. If he touched a wall, he would forget even what little Spar knew, forget he was Spar. All around him black shrouds whipped in perpetual sine curves.
Kim was no longer by him. He tore the rag from his eyes. It was dark as before. Sleepday night. But his body stopped speeding and his thoughts slowed. His nerves still crackled, and he still saw the black snakes whipping, but he knew them for illusion. He even made out the dim glows of three running lights.
Then he saw two figures floating toward him. He could barely make out their eye-blurs, green in the smaller, violet in the other, whose face was spreadingly haloed by silvery glints. She was pale and whiteness floated around her. And instead of a smile, he could see the white horizontal blur of bared teeth. Kim’s teeth too were bared.
Suddenly he remembered the golden-haired girl who he’d thought was playing bartender in Crown’s Hole. She was Suzy’s one-time friend Sweetheart, snatched last Sleepday by vamps.
He screamed, which in Spar was a hoarse, retching bellow, and scrabbled at his clipped ankle.
The figures vanished. Below, he thought.
Lights came on. Someone dove and shook Spar’s shoulder. “What happened, gramps?”
Spar gibbered while he thought what to tell Drake. He loved Almodie and Kim. He said, “Had a nightmare. Vamps attacked me.”
“An old lady and a… a… little dog.”
The other officer dove in. “The black hatch is open.”
Drake said, “Keeper told us that was always locked. Follow through, Fenner.” As the other dove below, “You’re sure this was a nightmare, gramps? A little dog? And an old woman?”
Spar said, “Yes,” and Drake dove after his comrade, out through the black hatch.
Workday dawned. Spar felt sick and confused, but he set about his usual routine. He tried to talk to Kim, but the cat was as silent as yesterday afternoon. Keeper bullied and found many tasks—the place was a mess from Playday. Suzy got away quickly. She didn’t want to talk about Sweetheart or anything else. Drake and Fenner didn’t come back.
Spar swept and Kim patrolled, out of touch. In the afternoon Crown came in and talked with Keeper while Spar and Kim were out of earshot. They mightn’t have been there for all notice Crown took of them.
Spar wondered about what he had seen last night. It might really have been a dream, he decided. He was no longer impressed by his memory-identification of Sweetheart. Stupid of him to have thought that Almodie and Kim, dream or reality, were vamps. Doc had said vamps were superstitions. But he didn’t think much. He still had withdrawal symptoms, only less violent.
When Loafday dawned, Keeper gave Spar permission to leave the Bat Rack without his usual prying questions. Spar looked around for Kim, but couldn’t see his black blob. Besides, he didn’t really want to take the cat.
He went straight to Doc’s office. The passageways weren’t as lonely as last Loafday. For a third time he passed the bent figure croaking, “Seagull, Kestrel, Cathedral…”
Doc’s hatch was unzipped, but Doc wasn’t there. Kim waited a long while, uneasy in the corpse-light. It wasn’t like Doc to leave his office unzipped and unattended. And he hadn’t turned up at the Bat Rack last night, as he’d half promised.
Finally Spar began to look around. One of the first things he noticed was that the big black bag, which Doc had said contained his treasure, was missing.
Then he noticed that the gleaming pliofilm bag in which Doc had put the mold of Spar’s gums, now held something different. He unclipped it from its shroud. There were two items in it.
He cut a finger on the first, which was half circle, half pink and half gleaming. He felt out its shape more cautiously then, ignoring the tiny red blobs welling from his finger. It had irregular depressions in its pink top and bottom. He put it in his mouth. His gums mated with the depressions. He opened his mouth; then closed it, careful to keep his tongue back. There was a snick and a dull click. He had teeth!
His hands were shaking, not just from withdrawal, as he felt the second item.
It was two thick rounds joined by a short bar and with a thicker long bar ending in a semicircle going back from each.
He thrust a finger into one of the rounds. It tickled, just as the tube had tickled his eyes, only more intensely, almost painfully.
Hands shaking worse than ever, he fitted the contraption to his face. The semicircles went around his ears, the rounds circled his eyes, not closely enough to tickle.
He could see sharply! Everything had edges, even his spread-fingered hands and the… clot of blood on one finger. He cried out—a low, wondering wail—and scanned the office. At first the scores and dozens of sharp-edged objects, each as distinct as the pictures of Capricorn and Virgo had been, were too much for him. He closed his eyes.
When his breathing was a little evener and his shaking less, he opened them cautiously and began to inspect the objects clipped to the shrouds. Each one was a wonder. He didn’t know the purpose of half of them. Some of them with which he was familiar by use or blurred sight startled him greatly in their appearance—a comb, a brush, a book with pages (that infinitude of ranked black marks ), a wrist watch ( the tiny pictures around the circular margin of Capricorn and Virgo, and of the Bull and the Fishes, and so on, and the narrow bars radiating from the center and swinging swiftly or slowly or not at all—and pointing to the signs of the zodiac).
Before he knew it, he was at the corpse-glow wall. He faced it with a new courage, though it forced from his lips another wondering wail.
The corpse-glow didn’t come from everywhere, though it took up the central quarter of his field of vision. His fingers touched taut, transparent pliofilm. What he saw beyond—a great way beyond, he began to think—was utter blackness with a great many tiny… points of bright light in it. Points were even harder to believe in than edges, but he had to believe what he saw.
But centrally, looking much bigger than all the blackness, was a vast corpse-white round pocked with faint circles and scored by bright lines and mottled with slightly darker areas.
It didn’t look as if it were wired for electricity, and it certainly didn’t look afire. After a while Spar got the weird idea that its light was reflected from something much brighter behind Windrush.
It was infinitely strange to think of so much space around Windrush. Like thinking of a reality containing reality.
And if Windrush were between the hypothetical brighter light and the pocked white round, its shadow ought to be on the latter. Unless Windrush were almost infinitely small. Really these speculations were utterly too fantastic to deal with.
Yet could anything be too fantastic? Werewolves, witches, points, edges, size and space beyond any but the most insane belief.
When he had first looked at the corpse-white object, it had been round. And he had heard and felt the creakings of Loafday noon, without being conscious of it at the time. But now the round had its fore edge evenly sliced off, so that it was lopsided. Spar wondered if the hypothetical incandescence behind Windrush were moving, or the white round rotating, or Windrush itself revolving around the white round. Such thoughts, especially the last, were dizzying almost beyond endurance.
He made for the open door, wondering if he should zip it behind him, decided not to. The passageway was another amazement, going off and off and off, and narrowing as it went. Its walls bore… arrows, the red pointing to larboard, the way from which he’d come, the green pointing starboard, the way he was going. The arrows were what he’d always seen as dash-shaped blurs. As he pulled himself along the strangely definite drag-line, the passageway stayed the same diameter, all the way to the violet main-drag.
He wanted to jerk himself as fast as the green arrows to the starboard end of Windrush to verify the hypothetical incandescence and see the details of the orange-dun round that always depressed him.
But he decided he ought first to report Doc’s disappearance to the Bridge. He might find Drake there. And report the loss of Doc’s treasure too, he reminded himself.
Passing faces fascinated him. Such a welter of noses and ears! He overtook the croaking, bent shape. It was that of an old woman whose nose almost met her chin. She was doing something twitchy with her fingers to two narrow sticks and a roll of slender, fuzzy line. He impulsively dove off the drag-line and caught hold of her, whirling them around.
“What are you doing, grandma?” he asked.
She puffed with anger. “Knitting,” she answered indignantly.
“What are the words you keep saying?”
“Names of knitting patterns,” she replied, jerking loose from him and blowing on. “Sand Dunes, Lightning, Soldiers Marching…”
He started to swim for the drag-line, then saw he was already at the blue shaft leading aloft. He grabbed hold of its speeding centerline, not minding the burn, and speeded to the Bridge.
When he got there, he saw there was a multitude of stars aloft. The oblong rainbows were all banks of multi-colored lights winking on and off. But the silent officers—they looked very old, their faces stared as if they were sleep-swimming, their gestured orders were mechanical, he wondered if they knew where Windrush was going—or anything at all, beyond the Bridge of Windrush.
A dark, young officer with tightly curly hair floated to him. It wasn’t until he spoke that Spar knew he was Ensign Drake.
“Hello, gramps. Say, you look younger. What are those things around your eyes?”
“Field glasses. They help me see sharp.”
“But field glasses have tubes. They’re a sort of binocular telescope.”
Spar shrugged and told about the disappearance of Doc and his big, black treasure bag.
“But you say he drank a lot and he told you his treasures were dreams? Sounds like he was wacky and wandered off to do his drinking somewhere else.”
“But Doc was a regular drinker. He always came to the Bat Rack.”
“Well, I’ll do what I can. Say, I’ve been pulled off the Bat Rack investigation. I think that character Crown got at someone higher up. The old ones are easy to get at—not so much greed as going by custom, taking the easiest course. Fenner and I never did find the old woman and the little dog, or any female and animal… or anything.”
Spar told about Crown’s earlier attempt to steal Doc’s little black bag.
“So you think the two cases might be connected. Well, as I say, I’ll do what I can.”
Spar went back to the Bat Rack. It was very strange to see Keeper’s face in detail. It looked old and its pink target center was a big red nose criss-crossed by veins. His brown eyes were not so much curious as avid. He asked about the things around Spar’s eyes. Spar decided it wouldn’t be wise to tell Keeper about seeing sharply.
“They’re a new kind of costume jewelry, Keeper. Blasted Earth, I don’t have any hair on my head, ought to have something.”
“Language, Spar! It’s like a drunk to spend precious scrip on such a grotesque bauble.”
Spar neither reminded Keeper that all the scrip he’d earned at the Bat Rack amounted to no more than a wad as big as his thumb-joint, nor that he’d quit drinking. Nor did he tell him about his teeth, but kept them hidden behind his lips.
Kim was nowhere in sight. Keeper shrugged. “Gone off somewhere. You know the way of strays, Spar.”
Yes, thought Spar, this one’s stayed put too long.
He kept being amazed that he could see all of the Bat Rack sharply. It was an octahedron criss-crossed by shrouds and made up of two pyramids put together square base to square base. The apexes of the pyramids were the violet fore and dark red aft corners. The four other corners were the starboard green, the black below, the larboard scarlet, and the blue aloft, if you named them from aft in the way the hands of a watch move.
Suzy drifted in early Playday. Spar was shocked by her blowzy appearance and bloodshot eyes. But he was touched by her signs of affection and he felt the strong friendship between them. Twice when Keeper wasn’t looking he switched her nearly empty pouch of dark for a full one. She told him that, yes, she’d once known Sweetheart and that, yes, she’d heard people say Mabel had seen Sweetheart snatched by vamps.
Business was slow for Playday. There were no strange brewos. Hoping against fearful, gut-level certainty, Spar kept waiting for Doc to come in zig-zagging along the ratlines and comment on the new gadgets he’d given Spar and spout about the Old Days and his strange philosophy.
Playday night Crown came in with his girls, all except Almodie. Doucette said she’d had a headache and stayed at the Hole. Once again, all of them ordered coffee, though to Spar all of them seemed high.
Spar covertly studied their faces. Though nervous and alive, they all had something in their stares akin to those he’d seen in most of the officers on the Bridge. Doc had said they were all zombies. It was interesting to find out that Phanette’s and Doucette’s red-mottled appearance was due to… freckles, tiny reddish star-clusters on their white skins.
“Where’s that famous talking cat?” Crown asked Spar.
Spar shrugged. Keeper said, “Strayed. For which I’m glad. Don’t want a little feline who makes fights like last night.”
Keeping his yellow-brown irised eyes on Spar, Crown said, “We believe it was that fight last Playday gave Almodie her headache, so she didn’t want to come back tonight. We’ll tell her you got rid of the witch cat.”
“I’d have got rid of the beast if Spar hadn’t,” Keeper put in. “So you think it was a witch cat, coroner?”
“We’re certain. What’s that stuff on Spar’s face?”
“A new sort of cheap eye-jewelry, coroner, such as attracts drunks.”
Spar got the feeling that this conversation had been prearranged, that there was a new agreement between Crown and Keeper. But he just shrugged again. Suzy was looking angry, but she said nothing.
Yet she stayed behind again after the Bat Rack closed. Keeper put no claim on her, though he leered knowingly before disappearing with a yawn and a stretch through the scarlet hatch. Spar checked that all six hatches were locked and shut off the lights, though that made no difference in the morning glare, before returning to Suzy, who had gone to his sleeping shroud.
Suzy asked, “You didn’t get rid of Kim?”
Spar answered, “No, he just strayed, as Keeper said at first I don’t know where Kim is.”
Suzy smiled and put her arms around him. “I think your new eye-things are beautiful,” she said.
Spar said, “Suzy, did you know that Windrush isn’t the Universe? That’s it’s a ship going through space around a white round marked with circles, a round much bigger than all Windrush?”
Suzy replied, “I know Windrush is sometimes called the Ship. I’ve seen that round—in pictures. Forget all wild thoughts, Spar, and lose yourself in me.”
Spar did so, chiefly from friendship. He forgot to clip his ankle to the shroud. Suzy’s body didn’t attract him. He was thinking of Almodie.
When it was over, Suzy slept. Spar put the rag around his eyes and tried to do the same. He was troubled by withdrawal symptoms only a little less bad than last Sleepday’s. Because of that little, he didn’t go to the torus for a pouch of moonmist. But then there was a sharp jab in his back, as if a muscle had spasmed there, and the symptoms got much worse. He convulsed, once, twice, then just as the agony became unbearable, blanked out.
Spar woke, his head throbbing, to discover that he was not only clipped, but lashed to his shroud, his wrists stretched in one direction, his ankles in the other, his hands and his feet both numb. His nose rubbed the shroud.
Light made his eyelids red. He opened them a little at a time and saw Hellhound poised with bent hind legs against the next shroud. He could see Hellhound’s great stabbing teeth very clearly. If he had opened his eyes a little more swiftly, Hellhound would have dived at his throat.
He rubbed his sharp metal teeth together. At least he had more than gums to meet an attack on his face.
Beyond Hellhound he saw black and transparent spirals. He realized he was in Crown’s Hole. Evidently the last jab in his back had been the injection of a drug.
But Crown had not taken away his eye jewelry, nor noted his teeth. He had thought of Spar as old Eyeless Toothless.
Between Hellhound and the spirals, he saw Doc lashed to a shroud and his big black bag clipped next to him. Doc was gagged. Evidently he had tried to cry out. Spar decided not to. Doc’s gray eyes were open and Spar thought Doc was looking at him.
Very slowly Spar moved his numb fingers on top of the knot lashing his wrists to the shroud and slowly contracted all his muscles and pulled. The knot slid down the shroud a millimeter. So long as he did something slowly enough, Hellhound could not see it. He repeated this action at intervals.
Even more slowly he swung his face to the left. He saw nothing more than that the hatch to the corridor was zipped shut, and that beyond the dog and Doc, between the black spirals, was an empty and unfurnished cabin whose whole starboard side was stars. The hatch to that cabin was open, with its black-striped emergency hatch wavering beside it.
With equal slowness he swung his face to the right, past Doc and past Hellhound, who was eagerly watching him for signs of life or waking. He had pulled down the knot on his wrists two centimeters.
The first thing he saw was a transparent oblong. In it were more stars and, by its aft edge, the smoky orange round. At last he could see the latter more clearly. The smoke was on top, the orange underneath and irregularly placed. The whole was about as big as Spar’s palm could have covered, if he had been able to stretch out his arm to full length. As he watched, he saw a bright flash in one of the orange areas. The flash was short, then it turned to a tiny black round pushing out through the smoke. More than ever, Spar felt sadness.
Below the transparency, Spar saw a horrible tableau. Suzy was strapped to a bright metal rack guyed by shrouds. She was very pale and her eyes were closed. From the side of her neck went a red sipping-tube which forked into five branches. Four of the branches went into the red mouths of Crown, Rixende, Phanette, and Doucette. The fifth was shut by a small metal clip, and beyond it Almodie floated cowering, hands over her eyes.
Crown said softly, “We want it all. Strip her, Rixie.”
Rixende clipped shut the end of her tube and swam to Suzy. Spar expected her to remove the blue culottes and bra, but instead she simply began to massage one of Suzy’s legs, pressing always from ankle toward waist, driving her remaining blood nearer her neck.
Crown removed his sipping tube from his lips long enough to say, “Ahhh, good to the last drop.” Then he had mouthed the blood that had spurted out in the interval and had the tube in place again.
Phanette and Doucette convulsed with soundless giggles.
Almodie peered between her parted fingers, out of her mass of platinum hair, then scissored them shut again.
After a while Crown said, “That’s all we’ll get. Phan and Doucie, feed her to the big chewer. If you meet anyone in the passageway, pretend she’s drunk. Afterwards we’ll get Doc to dose us high, and give him a little brew if he behaves, then we’ll drink Spar.”
Spar had his wrist knot more than halfway to his teeth. Hellhound kept watching eagerly for movement, unable to see movement that slow. Slaver made tiny gray globes beside his fangs.
Phanette and Doucette opened the hatch and steered Suzy’s dead body through it.
Embracing Rixende, Crown said expansively toward Doc, “Well, isn’t it the right thing, old man? Nature bloody in tooth and claw, a wise one said. They’ve poisoned everything there.” He pointed toward the smoky orange round sliding out of sight. “They’re still fighting, but they’ll soon all be dead. So death should be the rule too for this gimcrack, so-called survival ship. Remember they are aboard her. When we’ve drunk the blood of everyone aboard Windrush, including their blood, we’ll drink our own, if our own isn’t theirs.”
Spar thought, Crown thinks too much in they’s. The knot was close to his teeth. He heard the big chewer start to grind.
In the empty next cabin, Spar saw Drake and Fenner, clad once more as brewos, swimming toward the open hatch.
But Crown saw them too. “Get ‘em, Hellhound,” he directed, pointing. “It’s our command.”
The big black dog bulleted from his shroud through the open hatch. Drake pointed something at him. The dog went limp.
Chuckling softly, Crown took by one tip a swastika with curved, gleaming, razor-sharp blades and sent it off spinning. It curved past Spar and Doc, went through the open hatch, missed Drake and Fenner—and Hellhound—and struck the wall of stars.
There was a rush of wind, then the emergency hatch smacked shut. Spar saw Drake, Fenner, and Hellhound, wavery through the transparent pliofilm, spew blood, bloat, burst bloodily open. The empty cabin they had been in disappeared. Windrush had a new wall and Crown’s Hole was distorted.
Far beyond, growing ever tinier, the swastika spun toward the stars.
Phanette and Doucette came back. “We buried Suzy. Someone was coming, so we beat it.” The big chewer stopped grinding.
Spar bit cleanly through his wrist lashings and immediately doubled over to bite his ankles loose.
Crown dove at him. Pausing to draw knives, the four girls did the same.
Phanette, Doucette, and Rixende went limp. Spar had the impression that small black balls had glanced from their skulls.
There wasn’t time to bite his feet loose, so he straightened. Crown hit his chest as Almodie hit his feet.
Crown and Spar giant-swung around the shroud. Then Almodie had cut Spar’s ankles loose. As they spun off along the tangent, Spar tried to knee Crown in the groin, but Crown twisted and evaded the blow as they moved toward the inboard wall.
There was the snick of Crown’s knife unfolding. Spar saw the dark wrist and grabbed it. He butted at Crown’s jaw. Crown evaded. Spar set his teeth in Crown’s neck and bit.
Blood covered Spar’s face, spurted over it. He spat out a hunk of flesh. Crown convulsed. Spar fought off the knife. Crown went limp. That the pressure in a man should work against him.
Spar shook the blood from his face. Through its beads, he saw Keeper and Kim side by side. Almodie was clutching his ankles. Phanette, Doucette, Rixende floated.
Keeper said proudly, “I shot them with my gun for drunks. I knocked them out. Now I’ll cut their throats, if you wish.”
Spar said, “No more throat-cutting. No more blood.” Shaking off Almodie’s hands, he took off for Doc, picking up Doucette’s floating knife by the way.
He slashed Doc’s lashings and cut the gag from his face.
Meanwhile Kim hissed, “Sstole and ssecreted Keeper’s sscrip from the boxx. Ashshured him you sstole it, Sspar. You and Ssuzzy. Sso he came. Keeper izz a shshlemiel.”
Keeper said, “I saw Suzy’s foot going into the big chewer. I knew it by its anklet of hearts. After that I had the courage to kill Crown or anyone. I loved Suzy.”
Doc cleared his throat and croaked, “Moonmist.” Spar found a triple pouch and Doc sucked it all. Doc said, “Crown spoke the truth. Windrush is a plastic survival ship from Earth. Earth—” He motioned toward the dull orange round disappearing aft in the window “—poisoned herself with smog pollution and with nuclear war. She spent gold for war, plastic for survival. Best forgotten. Windrush went mad. Understandably. Even without the Lethean rickettsia, or Styx ricks, as you call it. Thought Windrush was the cosmos. Crown kidnapped me to get my drugs, kept me alive to know the doses.”
Spar looked at Keeper. “Clean up here,” he ordered. “Feed Crown to the big chewer.”
Almodie pulled herself from Spar’s ankles to his waist. “There was a second survival ship. Circumluna. When Windrush went mad, my father and mother—and you—were sent here, to investigate and cure. But my father died and you got Styx ricks. My mother died just before I was given to Crown. She sent you Kim.”
Kim hissed, “My fforebear came from Circumluna to Windrush, too. Great grandmother. Taught me the ffigures for Windrushsh… Radiuss from moon-ccenter, 2,500 miles. Period, ssixx hours—sso, the sshort dayss. A terranth izz the time it takess Earth to move through a consstellation, and sso on.”
Doc said, “So, Spar, you’re the only one who remembers without cynicism. You’ll have to take over. It’s all yours, Spar.”
Spar had to agree.