Dinner at deviants palac.., p.24
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.24

           Tim Powers
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  “Well! As far as what’s in it for me, I’ll tell you frankly that I’m spread just a bit thin at the moment, a trifle overextended; like a farmer with vast fields of ripe crop but no field hands or horses and only a couple of bushel baskets. And, too, ten years ago I foolishly indulged in the, uh, extravagance that left the Holy City paved in glass. Bang! Bang!”

  Rivas nodded, remembering Jaybush’s memory of the sudden unexpected white flash.

  “So,” the Messiah went on, “I’d find it useful to have a full partner, rather than just a lot of uninformed employees, who could travel back and forth between here and Irvine—bang!—and make sure everything’s proceeding efficiently, and perhaps give me useful advice from the point of view of an intelligent and informed native. We could present you as a sort of latter-day Saint Paul—once a merciless scourge of the true faith, but now, enlightened and forgiven, one of its stoutest pillars! I like it. Greg, Greg, why do you persecute me?” He chuckled hugely.

  “And,” he said, “as to the question of why you—my dear fellow, you underestimate yourself! I learned something about you, too, during our brief psychic linking. Why, in all my travels, I swear to you, never have I encountered such a fellow soul! Confess, confess—you too find other entities interesting only to the extent that they might give you pleasure or hindrance. Like me you consume with greedy haste everything you can get from them, and are indifferent to what may become of them afterward; you are in fact sickened by the sight of them afterward, like being forced to linger over the chilling, congealing remains of a dinner! And, like me, your real focus of attention, shorn of peripheral poses and pretences, is the one thing, the only thing, worth an eternity of regarding—yourself. You and I understand each other perfectly, boy. We could, without having to simulate any affection for each other, help each other considerably. We don’t merge with anyone, boy. We consume. You and I are always distinct, undiluted, individual. Quanta rather than arbitrary segments of continuum.” Jaybush laughed harshly. “We’re two of a kind.”

  Rivas stared across the deck table at the fat smiling face and knew that no one had ever understood him as thoroughly.

  “And is,” said Jaybush, “the offer still—how did you put it—‘definitely, absolutely unattractive’?”

  “No,” said Rivas.

  Neither of the women at the table had seemed to be paying any particular attention to the conversation—Uri had been staring earnestly into Jaybush’s face whether he was speaking or not, and Sister Windchime had been just as intently staring at her hands, wearing the expression of pained tenseness of someone who’s just swallowed a too-big mouthful—but now Sister Windchime looked up and met Rivas’s glance, and the look of hurt and betrayal in her eyes had doubled.

  Jeez, kid, thought Rivas, I’m agreeing with your damned Messiah, your precious god.

  The gondola was back, laden with steaming trays, and the waiter dexterously put the right plates in front of the right people and set out the drinks.

  “But I’m afraid,” Rivas added, touching the sewn-in lump under his collar for reassurance, “I’m going to refuse.”

  Jaybush, a forkful of some glowing trash halfway to his bulging mouth, paused to smile tolerantly. “Are you sure, my boy? Tell papa why.”

  Rivas downed the remainder of his tequila and refilled his glass. “Well,” he said almost comfortably, sure now that he would never leave Deviant’s Palace alive and that nothing he could say would change anything, “because of… a bald boy who died on a garbage heap. And a pile of old stove parts that died on a glass plain. And a murdering pimp who evoked, and died out of, loyalty. And a whore with a sense of justice. Am I boring you? And because of Sister Windchime, who has compassion, though you’ve tried hard to stamp it out of her. And because the hard selfish part of Greg Rivas is swimming around in a canal someplace.”

  “I understand, my boy,” said Jaybush gently, putting down his fork. “What you need is to see a little show, isn’t it?”

  “No,” said Rivas unsteadily.

  “I know you don’t mean that.” Jaybush smiled and clapped his blubbery hands and raised his voice and called, “I need some volunteers from the audience!” As if all twitched by the same string, half a dozen people leaped up from chairs at various tables.

  “One of the waiters is bringing around a boat,” Jaybush called to them. “I’d appreciate it if you’d all get into it, and he’ll bring it to a spot right in front of this raft.”

  Rivas watched as the six people, three of whom were women, stepped one by one into the boat the waiter was towing around the lagoon behind his gondola. At last the boat, with all of them on it now, was left rocking gently in front of Jaybush’s raft table.

  “Hi!” Jaybush called to the boat’s occupants.

  “Hi,” they all responded.

  “How’s everybody feeling? Glad to be here?”

  An overlapping chorus replied, “Sure!” “You bet!” “Damn right!”

  “Glad to hear it,” Jaybush assured them. “Now I want all of you to pay attention, okay? Please stand up—carefully, don’t want you all tumbling into the water—and each of you look straight at me and hold out your hands, palms up, as if you were carrying a dish.”

  Smiling cheerfully, the six people did as they were told, and after some jostling and elbowing they all stood facing Jaybush’s raft and holding out cupped hands.

  “Do you know what you’re holding?” Jaybush asked.

  They shook their heads, glanced at each other, shook their heads again. Rivas suspected that they’d been hypnotized.

  “What each of you is holding is his or her own face,” said Jaybush forcefully. “You’re all standing there holding your faces in your hands, and the fronts of your heads are as smooth as eggs! You’re all absolutely identical! Good heavens, don’t any of you drop your face, or get it switched with someone else’s!”

  None of the people moved, beyond some shiftings of weight and licking of lips, but now they were agitated, tense. Their hands were claws.

  “You can’t even speak!” marveled Jaybush. “You’re just egg things.” He picked up a salt shaker and tossed it into the water. His face was placid, but he put panic into his voice as he said, “You dropped them! You’ve all dropped your faces in the water!”

  All six of the people instantly leaped into the water, splashing Jaybush’s raft and sending their boat rocking away.

  “And are you, sir,” asked Jaybush, turning to Rivas, “holding on securely to your own face?”

  “Yes.” Rivas peered down at the agitated water.

  “Ah. Never any uncertainty about who it is in the mirror? Here’s a question—if there’s no mirror around, do you still have a face? Are you sure?” He followed the direction of Rivas’s gaze. “Oh! Oh, no, my boy, they won’t be coming back up. Would you?”

  Involuntarily Rivas again touched the lump under his collar. “I… don’t know.”

  “Identities can erode,” Jaybush said. “I’m offering you the chance to armor yours and preserve it forever—but they can erode.” He extended one fat finger and leaned toward Sister Windchime. “Merge with the—”

  “No,” said Rivas sharply.

  Urania had stopped chewing her taco and was looking alarmed again.

  Jaybush glanced at Rivas in feigned surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

  “Don’t give her the sacrament.”

  Sister Windchime hadn’t moved, but was staring hard at nothing and holding her fork so tightly that her knuckles were white.

  “But you’d benefit too,” Jaybush told Rivas. “We’d share, if we were linked. I’m in a mood to consume both these girls tonight, right down to the core, and bequeath two more pocalocas to the Venice streets. Bang! Bang! Of course, if my partner objected, I wouldn’t do it. Are you my partner?”

  Rivas was somehow certain that if he said “Yes” now, he would not be able to take it back later; so he pursed his lips and rapidly whistled the first ten notes of Peter and the Wolf while
simultaneously doing a gunning drum accompaniment with his knife and fork against the tabletop—and then a number of things happened all at once: Jaybush collapsed unconscious, Sister Sue registered clear surprise for the first time that evening, and a slingshot-propelled stone the size of a golf ball slammed hard into Rivas’s solar plexus. He was knocked back almost out of his seat, and for a moment he hung half off the raft, staring down—then his pain-clenched muscles relaxed and he slumped back down and forward across his plate, sending huge sport shrimps rolling away across the table, and he lay that way for a while, gagging and retching to get air into his abused lungs. He’d glimpsed something in the water below him, but the agony in his chest left him no attention for it.

  When, still wheezing, Rivas straightened up, Jaybush had recovered and was blinking around. “Well!” said the fat man with somewhat forced joviality. “You did it, boy. As surely as if you’d cut her throat with a knife. I’m sorry, Sister Sue, but Rivas has killed you.”

  Sister Sue smiled brilliantly at Rivas and caressed her automatic.

  Urania, who didn’t seem to be following much of this, stared. “Rivas? Greg?”

  Rivas nodded, and then managed to choke out, “Yes.” A moment later he was able to add, “Came to… rescue you.” He looked at Jaybush. “That’s why… no musicians in the renaissance you… artificially induced for us? Because music… renders you unconscious?”

  Jaybush waved his massive arms. “You’re all dead!” he called up to the people on the tiers and bridges. He waved at the people on the other rafts. “Everyone!” He lowered his arms and remarked to Rivas, “Yes, that’s why. And it’s why I still try to suppress it, and why the pocalocas stomp anybody who even whistles a tune. It isn’t all music that does it, but I believe a blanket policy is best. It’s mainly the irregular rhythms you call gunning, and melodies with the kind of notes they used to call accidentals. Apparently my brain waves correspond in some fashion to your musical scale and times, and are damped out by certain violations of them. If you do that again, of course, my deaf guards will silence you again, and I’ll have them bind and gag you so that you needn’t feel called upon to interfere when I set about draining these two ladies in the most pleasurable way.” He smiled. “You know, in the buoyancy of salt water I am surprisingly agile, which of course is why I like to have a lot of canals available to me.” His smile grew broader and more kindly. “I really think we understand each other. And I don’t see why you should need time to consider my really very generous offer, so I won’t give you any time.”

  He extended his finger again toward Sister Windchime. “Will you link with me or not? Answer!”

  Rivas remembered the glimpse he’d got of the water under the raft, and belatedly he realized what he’d seen down there. At first he’d assumed that it was the drifting corpse of one of the face-divers… but it had been moving.

  He remembered Sevatividam’s unease—outright fear, in fact—when the planet of the floating globes and walruslike creatures had been picked clean; the walrus things were all dead, but there were hungry things swimming among the fallen globes… sentient replicas of the original creatures, each one accidentally formed when one of the originals had received Sevatividam’s touch while in extreme pain… and Sevatividam had feared them, for though attempting to drain him would kill any venturesome replica, totally overload it, the process would harm Sevatividam too…

  Rivas bit his middle knuckle thoughtfully—and bit a section of skin right off, though he was careful not to wince. Then he lowered his hand into the water below his submerged chair and let the blood leak into the water.

  Forgive me, he thought, trying to project the thought, as thoughts had been projected at him when, four days ago, his soul had hung bodiless in the sky over the Regroup Tent. I’m yours, he thought now, come and take me. I’m sorry I hurt you, sorry I fled from you. Come take my blood.

  Sevatividam’s finger moved closer to Sister Windchime.

  “Wait,” Rivas snapped. He’d felt a surge in the water under his hand. “I’ll give me to you—the part of me you’re interested in, anyway.”

  “My dear boy,” said Sevatividam, lowering his hand.

  Rivas felt teeth clamp onto his hand. He turned his surprised gasp into a smile—and then, contorting like a man trying very hard to strike a match on the seat of his pants, he yanked the hemogoblin up through the hole.

  In the instant of general stunned surprise he flung the squealing thing directly into Sevatividam’s face, and as a follow-through to the action he rolled forward out of his submerged seat, somersaulted across the raft—aware of the bang and aspirated thop of bullets being lashed past very close to him—and dove into the water, drawing his knife with his bitten left hand as he sank.

  He had no idea what to do now. He had probably got himself and Uri and Sister Windchime killed, but he was certain they’d all been doomed anyway.

  Then he was jarred by a solid boom and rattle of bubbles. Something big had impacted very hard with the water. There were further booms as more stuff crashed in, and thinking that whatever was going on might at least be distracting the gunmen, he kicked up to the surface.

  It was even noisier out in the air than it had been under water. There were mountainous rendings and crackings from overhead, and the long screams of people falling, and the evidently random pop and ricochet of gunfire, but Rivas’s attention was drawn to the raft he’d vacated moments ago—and not just because of the pain-convulsed figure of Sister Sue, who had clearly caught at least one of the bullets meant for Rivas.

  A man trying to scream while inflating a balloon would probably have produced sounds like the ones Sevatividam was making now, and as Rivas blinked up at the spectacle he saw Sevatividam’s bulk visibly diminishing. The Messiah’s narrowing arms were tearing at a luminous membrane that covered his head, and during the couple of seconds it took Rivas to swim to the raft and scramble back aboard, the membrane—which was twitching and pulsing independent of Sevatividam’s wrenching at it—doubled the intensity of its glow, then tripled it, and then began actually to flicker with pale flames.

  Another thing rushed down through the smoky air and exploded a splash when it hit the water, and Rivas realized that it was masonry, that the whole structure was coming down. Because Sevatividam was losing power?

  Sister Windchime had already got up out of her chair, and Rivas shouted at Uri, “Up! Come on! We’ve got to get out of here!”

  Uri sobbed and extended her hands—one of which still clutched the remains of a taco—toward Jaybush. “Lord, save us!” she wailed.

  Rivas put down his knife, drew back his left hand and balled it into a fist, and then carefully gave her a solid downward punch next to her chin. Her mouth was knocked open, but clacked shut again when her head hit the table. “Get a boat,” he shouted to Sister Windchime, “and get her and you into it.” He retrieved his knife and turned to Jaybush. A bullet sang past and actually stung the end of his nose, so he crowded closer to the Messiah, almost hugging him.

  It hurt to be that close, for the hemogoblin was definitely burning now, but through its dazzlingly vaporizing substance Rivas could see Sevatividam’s eyes glaring specifically up at him, full of agony but full of promise too.

  Rivas winked at him and drove the knife blade through the clinging hemogoblin into the tanned slab of chest, digging around a bit before finding a gap between the ribs.

  A strange thing happened when he drew the blade out; as if he’d reached into a tub of water and stabbed a hole in the bottom, the burning hemogoblin began draining into Sevatividam. Now there was fear in the pouchy eyes, and something like… pleading?

  Not certain that it was by his own volition, Rivas now swiped the blade across the corded throat, and after the first hard-propelled gout of blood had burst out and rocked him back, and he’d dragged his sleeve across his eyes to be able to see again, he saw an angular object about the size of a thumb joint emerge from the opened throat and hover unsupported in the a
ir in front of his face.

  It quivered, and the blood disappeared from it in a fine spray, and he saw that it was a crystal.

  Behind him Sister Windchime had found a gondola and wrestled Uri’s bulk into it—the gunfire had stopped, but the rain of stone was getting worse, the water was choppy, the air full of splash spray, and the night sky more and more visible beyond the buckling walls and ceiling—but Rivas slowly reached out and took hold of the crystal.

  Instantly there was a voice in his head: Swallow me. You win. You’re the boss. I’ll work for you. Swallow me.

  He knew what it would mean—to live forever, always knowing who he was, with a cozy border between what was himself and what wasn’t, never to be hurt; in fact, never to be touched.

  A week ago he might have been tempted. He pushed the crystal into the tequila bottle and firmly corked it.

  He turned around. Sister Windchime was in the gondola with Uri and was clutching the edge of the raft, but not patiently. Rivas tossed the bottle into the little boat and started forward. The light was bad with most of the hanging lamps extinguished, and so though he heard the hollow coughlike sound of another section of roof giving way, and even looked up in useless alarm, he never saw the piece of stone that came tumbling down through the smoke-fouled air and broke his head.

  Chapter Eleven

  THE GANG OF POCALOCAS, most of them squinting in the noonday sun but a few staring wide-eyed, hurried wrathfully down the street where the singing had seemed to come from. People skipped out of their way into doorways, and then when they’d passed peered after them nervously.

  Crouched on a fire escape high above them, Urania Barrows watched them disappear around the corner. When they were gone she shivered, and clung more tightly to her perch because her eyes weren’t focusing. The pocalocas were gross dirty creatures, Urania knew that, but every time a gang of them strode past she found herself wanting to join them, graft herself smoothly onto the group. She sensed that they had something she used to have, something she missed now.

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