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The next time she went away, I was old.
I'd married again, once or twice. I even had a son and a daughter, both grown. The stories of Annie Jones I'd told them I now told to my grandchildren. They weren't true stories. The truth I kept locked away inside of me, to look at now and then when I was alone.
In fact, I made a good deal of money writing stories about Annie Jones. Like Annie Jones and the s.p.a.ce Squid. And Annie Jones and the Robots of Doom. And there were others, some of which were made into sensies. If Annie came back, she would find herself a legend, like Joan of Arc, or Buffalo Bill, or Neil Armstrong. I smiled to think of her reaction and hoped I would be out of her reach when she found out.
I still sat at the same table at the bar now run by my daughter and her husband. No longer posing, no longer intriguing, no longer waiting, just remembering and occasionally writing down a tale that had its start in a memory. My hair was white and thinning, and I was smaller than I had been, befitting my smaller life. And sometimes, I admit, satisfied, content, and happy, I fell asleep, nodding in my chair, dreaming dreams I kept to myself.
"Hey!" The voice, next to my head, woke me and almost made me fall backwards out of my chair.
"What have you done to me, old man?"
"Annie?" My eyes weren't as good as they once were, but the woman looming over me had longish black hair, and no tattoo. She was wearing a loose blouse and a short skirt. "Annie?"
"Yes, Annie, you s...o...b..ring, senile, son of a..."
"What have you done to yourself?"
She stopped and looked at herself. "What are you talk... Oh, I guess I look a little different than I did the last time you and I... Who gives a s.p.a.cer's s.h.i.t what the h.e.l.l I look like? What's all this c.r.a.p about Annie Jones and the Wh.o.r.e of Planet X, or whatever it is you've been spewing? Every time I try to pick up a lover or start a fight, people treat me like I wasn't real, like I'm sort kind of story book character come to life. I punched a cop just to see what would happen and she thanked me! Said, wait until she tells her kids that she got punched by Annie Jones. What have you done to me?"
When I was able to speak without letting her catch me laughing, I said, "I made you famous, that's all. Or, not you, so much as the idea of you." I risked a chuckle. "Made a lot of money at it, too."
"Money?" That calmed her down. "Well, I suppose if you did it to make money it's all right." She smiled. "I remember one time when we convinced the people on some hick world out beyond Andromeda that there was an asteroid coming that would wipe out half the planet. We sold about a thousand pa.s.sages aboard a ship that might have held six or seven people if they didn't mind getting to know each other real well." A laugh burst from her. "Then we left two days, or rather nights, before we were scheduled to and left them all behind. I always wondered if they were so relieved we'd lied to them about the asteroid that they didn't mind losing their money."
She pulled up a chair and we started drinking ale and telling lies. It was almost like going back in time. Almost like being alive. I could pretend that I could keep up with her, that I wasn't tired, that I didn't hope for one more night with her.
Eventually I said, "How about some food?"
"G.o.d, yes," she said. "I'm so hungry I feel like I could take a bite out of a neutron star. Where should we go?" She stood up, pushing her chair over, ready for whatever came next.
Except for what I suggested. "How about my place?"
She didn't laugh, which was a relief to me. She did look at me with pity, which made me angry, whether at her or at myself I wasn't sure.
"I have food," I said, with some heat. "And I can cook." She still looked like she wasn't sure how to break it to me that she wasn't anxious to leap into bed with the decrepit husk of what had been a man. "I just thought you might want a real meal for a change, that's all. I have no dark designs on your virtue, if that's what you're worried about." I stared at her, daring her to laugh. Which she did, forcing me to join her.
"Come on, then," she said. "Let's go and fill our bellies with something other than ale for a while."
No promises, I told myself, but a perhaps, a maybe, a could be. I didn't even mind that she helped me to my feet. Her touch warmed places that had been cold too long. No promises, I told myself, but a hope, a wish, a prayer.
Before we got to the door, it opened and a group of five, or ten, or a hundred people burst in, laughing, shouting, shoving, shaking the floor like a stampede of wild creatures in their rush to reach the bar. s.p.a.cers and the crowd they accreted as they cruised the port.
"Annie!" they yelled when they saw her. "Annie Jones!" they trumpeted.
And she answered them. "Trisha! Sasha! Wen Ho!" And more. She was surrounded and torn from me by the mob, swept away by a wave of old friends and shipmates. I stood and watched them go. Even though they were just a few feet from me, they seemed to recede into the distance until I was alone, a million miles from anyone.
I went back to my table and waited.
There comes a time when old ceases to have meaning and the young become impatient to have you die and get out of the way. When every day you wake up is a miracle, or a curse, and you are never sure which.
I waited, no more pretending to myself. I hung on, day after day after day. I could hear the whispers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they wondered if I would ever die. They loved me, I think, but enough was enough. Besides, I still had some money to leave them.
Yet, even though there were no promises, I waited.
And, finally, she came.
"Peter?" she said, leaning over me as I lay in bed. Her voice was strained with the effort of trying to fit her normal shout into a whisper. Her hair was silver this time, the metal, not the color, though she was no longer young. The way she moved, the way she stood, were still filled with confidence, but some of her brashness was gone, as if she'd met a situation or two somewhere in her travels which she hadn't been able to handle all by herself. "Peter," she whispered again, a little louder, when I didn't respond. She leaned closer, trying to see if there was life in my eyes, to hear if I still breathed.
I did breathe. I breathed in the scent of her, the scent of a time before I was born and the time to come after I was dead. I smelled crowded ships visiting a hundred worlds with a thousand taverns. Blood and sweat and s.e.x and fear and joy. I inhaled Annie Jones like a drug.
And when I exhaled, I let it all out.
"You never promised to come back," I said. "But you always did. And I never meant to wait for you, but when I wasn't spending my time thinking about the last time, I was hoping there would be a next time."
"Then you're a fool," she said, but she stroked my forehead as she said it. "I'm Annie Jones and I don't care about anyone but me. I'm a traveler through s.p.a.ce and time, and, if sometimes by chance I happen to come back, I always go away."
"I know who you are, Annie, and I'm glad that you came back. But this time it's me that's going away with no promise to return." I smiled at her. "And, unlike you, I mean it." And I swear I saw a tear fall. And I was happy, not that she was sad, but that, in her way, she loved me.
They stopped beating Trelayne when they saw that he enjoyed it. The thugs that pa.s.sed as cops in that town on Long Shot backed away from where he lay curled on the dirt floor, as if he was something dead or dangerous. He watched them lock the door of his cold little cell again. Disgust and something like fear showed in their eyes. The taste of their contempt for him mixed with the sharpness of his own blood in his mouth. And the Scream in that blood shot another stab of pleasure through him.
He expected their reaction. The Merged Corporate Ent.i.ty guarded its secrets well, and Scream was its most precious. Long Shot lay far from any Ent.i.ty project world and well off the jump route linking Earth and the frontier. No one on this backwater planet would know of the drug, let alone have encountered a Screamer or an Angel. That was why he had picked it.
Their footsteps receded, and the outer door of the plasteel storage hut that served as the town jail clanged shut. Alone, he rolled onto his side on the floor, relishing the agony the movement brought. He tried to recall how he came to be there, but the Scream in him turned each attempt into an emotional sideshow. Finally he remembered something burning, something...
It had been one of their better shows.
He remembered now. Remembered last night, standing in the ring of their makeshift circus dome, announcing the performers to an uncaring crowd, crying out the names of the d.a.m.ned, the conquered. Each member of his refugee band emerged from behind torn red curtains and propelled themselves in the manner of their species into or above the ring, depending on their chosen act.
He knew the acts meant little. The crowd came not to see feats of acrobatics or strength, but to gawk at otherworldly strangeness, to watch aliens bow in submission before the mighty human. Trelayne's circus consisted of the remnants of the subjugated races of a score of worlds, victims to the Ent.i.ty's resource extraction or terraforming project: the Stone Puppies, lumbering silica beasts of slate-sided bulk-Guppert the Strong, squat bulbous-limbed refugee from the crushing gravity and equally crushing mining exploitation of Mendlos II-Feran the fox-child, his people hunted down like animals on Fandor IV.
And the Angels. Always the Angels.
But curled in the dirt in the cold cell, recalling last night, Trelayne pushed away any thoughts of the Angels. And of her.
Yes, it had been a fine show. Until the Ta'lona died, exploding in blood and brilliance high above the ring, after floating too near a torch. Trelayne had bought the gas bag creature's freedom a week before from an ip slaver, knowing that its species had been nearly wiped out.
As pieces of the fat alien had fallen flaming into the crowd, Trelayne's grip on reality had shattered like a funhouse mirror struck by a hammer. He could now recall only flashes of what had followed last night: people burning-screaming-panic-a stampede to the exits-his arrest.
Nor could he remember doing any Scream. He usually stayed clean before a show. But he knew what he felt now lying in the cell-the joy of the beating, the ecstasy of humiliation. He must have done a hit when the chaos began and the smell of burnt flesh reached him. To escape the horror.
Or to enter it. For with Scream, horror opened a door to heaven.
Someone cleared their throat in the cell. Trelayne jumped, then shivered at the thrill of surprise. Moaning, he rolled onto his back on the floor and opened his eyes, struggling to orient himself again.
A man now sat on the cot in the cell. A man with a lean face and eyes that reminded Trelayne of his own. He wore a long gray cloak with a major's rank and a small insignia on which a red "RIP" hovered over a green planet split by a lightning bolt.
The uniform of RIP Force. A uniform that Trelayne had worn a lifetime ago. Gray meant Special Services: this man was RIP, but not a Screamer. RIP kept senior officers and the SS clean.
The man studied a PerComm unit held in a black-gloved hand, then looked down at Trelayne and smiled. "h.e.l.lo, Captain Trelayne," he said softly, as if he were addressing a child.
Trelayne swallowed. He was shaking and realized he had been since he had recognized the uniform. "My name is not Trelayne."
"I am Weitz," the man said. The PerComm disappeared inside his cloak. "And the blood sample I took from you confirms that you are Jason Lewiston Trelayne, former Captain and Wing Commander in the Ent.i.ty's Forces for the Relocation of Indigenous Peoples, commonly known as RIP Force. Convicted of treason in absentia three years ago, 2056-12-05 AD. Presumed dead in the MCE raid on the rebel base on Darcon III in 2057-08-26."
Trelayne licked his lips, savoring the flavor of his fear.
"You're a wanted man, Trelayne." Weitz's voice was soft. "Or would be, if the Ent.i.ty knew you were still alive."
The Scream in Trelayne turned the threat in those words into a thrilling chill up his spine. He giggled.
Weitz sighed. "I've never seen a Screamer alive three years after RIP. Dead by their own hand inside a month, more likely. But then, most don't have their own source, do they?"
The implication of those words broke through the walls of Scream in Trelayne's mind. Weitz represented real danger-to him, to those in the circus that depended on him. To her. Trelayne struggled to focus on the man's words.
"...good choice," Weitz was saying. "Not a spot the Ent.i.ty has any interest in now. You'd never see Rippers here-" Weitz smiled. "-unless they had ship trouble. I was in the next town waiting for repairs when I heard of a riot at a circus of ips."
Ips-I.P.'s-Indigenous Peoples. A Ripper slur for aliens. Weitz stood up. "You have an Angel breeding pair, Captain, and I need them." He pushed open the cell door and walked out, leaving the door open. "I've arranged for your release. You're free to go. Not that you can go far. We'll talk again soon." Looking back to where Trelayne lay shivering, Weitz shook his head. "Jeezus, Trelayne. You used to be my hero."
Trelayne slumped back down on the floor, smiling as the smell of dirt and stale urine stung his throat. "I used to be a lot of things," he said, as much to himself as to Weitz.
Weitz shook his head again. "We'll talk soon, Captain." He turned and left the hut.
Think of human emotional response as a sine wave function. Peaks and valleys. The peaks represent pleasure, and the valleys pain. The greater your joy, the higher the peak; the greater your pain, the deeper the valley.
Imagine a drug that takes the valleys and flips them, makes them peaks too. You react now to an event based not on the pleasure or pain inherent in it, but solely on the intensity of the emotion created. Pain brings pleasure, grief gives joy, horror renders ecstasy.
Now give this drug to one who must perform an unpleasant task. No. Worse than that. An immoral deed. Still worse. A nightmare act of chilling terminal brutality. Give it to a soldier. Tell them to kill. Not in the historically acceptable murder we call war, but in a systematic corporate strategy-planned, scheduled, and budgeted-of xenocide.
They will kill. And they will revel in it.
Welcome to the world of Scream.
-Extract from propaganda data bomb launched on Fandor IV ComCon by rebel forces, 2056-10-05 A.D. Attributed to Capt. Jason L. Trelayne during his subsequent trial in absentia for treason.
Feran thought tonight's show was their finest since the marvelous Ta'lona had died, now a five-day ago. From behind the red curtains that hid the performers' entrance, the young kit watched the two Angels, Philomela and Procne, plummet from the top of the dome to swoop over the man-people crowd. Remembering how wonderfully the fat alien had burnt, Feran also recalled the Captain explaining to him how that night had been bad. The Captain had been forced to give much power-stuff for the burnt man-people and other things that Feran did not understand.
The Angels completed a complicated spiral dive, interweaving their descents. Linking arms just above the main ring, they finished with a dizzying spin like the top the Captain had made him. They bowed to the applauding crowd, folding and unfolding diaphanous wings so the spotlights sparkled on the colors.
Feran clapped his furred hands together as Mojo had taught him, closing his ear folds to shut out the painful noise of the man-people. As the performers filed out for the closing procession around the center ring, Feran ran to take his spot behind the Stone Puppies. Guppert the Strong lifted Feran gently to place him on the slate-gray back of the nearest silica beast.
"Good show, little friend!" Guppert cried. His squat form waddled beside Feran. Guppert liked Long Shot because it did not hold him to the ground as did his home of Mendlos. "Of course, Guppert never go home now," he had told Feran once, his skin color darkening to show sadness. "Off-planet too long. Mendlos crush Guppert, as if Stone Puppy step on Feran. But with Earth soldiers there in mecha-suits, now Mendlos not home anyway."
Waving to the crowd, the performers disappeared one by one through the red curtains. Feran leapt from the Stone Puppy, shouted a goodbye to Guppert, and scurried off to search for Philomela. Outside the show dome, he sniffed the cool night air for her scent, found it, then turned and ran into the Cutter.
"Whoa, Red! What's the rush?" The tall thin man scowled down at Feran like an angry mantis. The Cutter was the healer for the circus. "Helpin' us die in easy stages, s'more like it," was how the Cutter had introduced himself when Feran had arrived.
"I seek the Bird Queen, Cutter," Feran replied.
Sighing, the Cutter jerked a thumb towards a cl.u.s.ter of small dome pods where the performers lived. Feran thought of it as the den area. "Don't let him take too much, you hear?"
Feran nodded and ran off again, until a voice like wind in crystal trees halted him. "You did well tonight, sharp ears."
Feran turned. Philomela smiled down at him, white hair and pale skin, tall and thin like an earth woman stretched to something alien in a trick mirror. Even walking, she made Feran think of birds in flight. Philomela was beautiful. The Captain had told him so many times. He would likely tell Feran again tonight, once he had breathed her dust that Feran brought him.
"Thank you, Bird Queen," Feran replied, bowing low with a sweep of his hand as the Captain had taught him. Philomela laughed, and Feran bared his teeth in joy. He had made the beautiful bird lady laugh. The Captain would be pleased.
Procne came to stand behind Philomela, his spider-fingered hand circling her slim waist. "Where do you go now, Feran? Does Mojo still have ch.o.r.es for you?" He looked much like her, taller, heavier, but features still delicate, almost feminine. His stomach pouch skin rippled where the brood moved inside him.
"He goes to the Captain's pod," Philomela said. "They talk, about the times when the Captain flew in the ships. Don't you?"
Procne's eyelids slid in from each side, leaving only a vertical slit. "The times when those ships flew over our homes, you mean? Your home too, Feran." Procne spun and stalked away, his wings pulled tight against his back.
Feran stared after him, then up at Philomela. "Did I do wrong, Bird Queen?"
Philomela folded and unfolded her wings. "No, little one, no. My mate remembers too much, yet forgets much too." She paused. "As does the Captain." She stroked Feran's fur where it lay red and soft between his large ears, then handed him a small pouch. "Feran, tonight don't let the Captain breathe too much of my dust. Get him to sleep early. He looks so... tired." Feran took the pouch and nodded. He decided he would not tell the Captain of Philomela's face as she walked away.
> > > > > > Merged Corporate Ent.i.ty, Inc. > > > > > > Project Search Request Search Date: 2059-06-02 Requestor: Weitz, David R. Major, RIP Special Services Search Criteria: Project World: All Division: PharmaCorps Product: Scream Context: Field Ops/Post-Imp Clearance Required: AAA Your Clearance: AAA > > > > > > Access Granted. Search results follow. > > > > > > Scream mimics several cla.s.ses of psychotropics, including psych.o.m.otor stimulants, antidepressants, and narcotic a.n.a.lgesics It acts on both stimulatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters hallucinogenic effects by maintaining neurotransmitter balance. It enhances sensory ability, speeds muscular reaction and lessens nerve response to pain. It affects all three opiate receptors, induct intense euphoria without narcotic drowsiness.
Physical addiction is achieved by four to six ingestions at dosage prescribed in Field Ops release 221.7. 1. Treated personnel exhibit significantly lowered resistance to violence. Secondary benefits for field operations include decreased fatigue, delayed sleep on set; and enhanced mental capacity.
Negative side effects include uncontrolled m.a.s.o.c.h.i.s.tic or s.a.d.i.s.tic tendencies, such as self-mutilation or attacks on fellow soldiers. Scream is therefore not administered until military obedience programming is completed in boot camp. Long-term complications include paranoid psychoses and suicidal depression. depression. Withdrawal is characterized by hallucinations, delirium and seizures, terminating with strokes or heart attacks.
Attempts to synthesize continue, but at present our sole source remains extraction from females of the dominant humanoids on Lania II, Xeno sapiens lania var. angelus (colloq.: Scream Angel). The liquid produced crystallizes into powder form. Since the drug is tied to reproduction (see Xen.o.biology: Lania: Life Forms. 1275), ensuring supply requires an inventory of breeding pairs with brood delivery dates spread evenly over- > > > > > > File Transfer Request Acknowledged > > > > > > Xen.o.biology File: Lania: Life Forms: 1275 The adult female produces the drug from mammary glands at all times but at higher levels in the reproductive cycle. s.e.xual coupling occurs at both the start and end of the cycle. The first act impregnates the female. The brood develops in her until delivery after thirty weeks in what the original Teplosky journal called the "larval form," transferring then to the male's pouch via orifices in his abdominal wall. For the next nineteen weeks, they feed from the male, who ingests large quant.i.ties of Scream from the female... The brood's impending release as mature nestlings prompts the male to initiate the final coupling- * * *
Trelayne lay in his sleep pod at the circus waiting for Feran and the hit of Scream that the kit brought each night. The meeting with Weitz had burst a dam of times past, flooding him with memories. He closed his eyes, his face wet with delicious tears. Though all his dreams were nightmares, he did not fear them. Terror was now but another form of pleasure. Sleep at least freed him from the tyranny of decision.
Twenty again. My first action. I remember... Remember? I'd give my soul to forget, if my soul remains for me to barter.
Bodies falling against a slate-gray sky...