John Varley's unique blend of startling technology and genuinely human characters has won him every major science fiction award several times over for both his novels and his short fiction.
Blue Champagne collects eight thought-provoking stories from one of the genre's undisputed masters, including the Hugo Award-winner "The Pusher," and the Hugo and Nebula award-winner "Press Enter."
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Books by John Varley
The Ophiuchi Hotline
The Persistence of Vision
Picnic on Nearside
(formerly titled The Barbie Murders)
The Golden Globe
The Gaean Trilogy
The John Varley Reader: Thirty Years of Short Fiction
Things change. Ian Haise expected that. Yet there are certain constants, dictated by function and use. Ian looked for those and he seldom went wrong.
The playground was not much like the ones he had known as a child. But playgrounds are built to entertain children. They will always have something to swing on, something to slide down, something to climb. This one had all those things, and more. Part of it was thickly wooded. There was a swimming hole. The stationary apparatus was combined with dazzling light sculptures that darted in and out of reality. There were animals, too: pygmy rhinoceros and elegant gazelles no taller than your knee. They seemed unnaturally gentle and unafraid.
But most of all, the playground had children.
Ian liked children.
He sat on a wooden park bench at the edge of the trees, in the shadows, and watched them. They came in all colors and all sizes, in both sexes. There were black ones like animated licorice jellybeans and white ones like bunny rabbits, and brown ones with curly hair and more brown ones with slanted eyes and straight black hair and some who had been white but were now toasted browner than some of the brown ones.
Ian concentrated on the girls. He tried with boys before, long ago, but it had not worked out.
He watched one black child for a time, trying to estimate her age. He thought it was around eight or nine. Too young. Another one was more like thirteen, judging from her skirt. A possibility, but he’d prefer something younger. Somebody less sophisticated, less suspicious.
Finally he found a girl he liked. She was brown, but with startling blonde hair. Ten? Possibly eleven. Young enough, at any rate.
He concentrated on her, and did the strange thing he did when he had selected the right one. He didn’t know what it was, but it usually worked. Mostly it was just a matter of looking at her, keeping his eyes fixed on her no matter where she went or what she did, not allowing himself to be distracted by anything. And sure enough, in a few minutes she looked up, looked around, and her eyes locked with his. She held his gaze for a moment, then went back to her play.
He relaxed. Possibly what he did was nothing at all. He had noticed, with adult women, that if one really caught his eye so he found himself staring at her she would usually look up from what she was doing and catch him. It never seemed to fail. Talking to other men, he had found it to be a common experience. It was almost as if they could feel his gaze. Women had told him it was nonsense, or if not, it was just reaction to things seen peripherally by people trained to alertness for sexual signals. Merely an unconscious observation penetrating to the awareness; nothing mysterious, like ESP.
Perhaps. Still, Ian was very good at this sort of eye contact. Several times he had noticed the girls rubbing the backs of their necks while he observed them, or hunching their shoulders. Maybe they’d developed some kind of ESP and just didn’t recognize it as such.
Now he merely watched. He was smiling, so that every time she looked up to see him—which she did with increasing frequency—she saw a friendly, slightly graying man with a broken nose and powerful shoulders. His hands were strong, too. He kept them clasped in his lap.
* * *
Presently she began to wander in his direction.
No one watching her would have thought she was coming toward him. She probably didn’t know it herself. On her way, she found reasons to stop and tumble, jump on the soft rubber mats, or chase a flock of noisy geese. But she was coming toward him, and she would end up on the park bench beside him.
He glanced around quickly. As before, there were few adults in this playground. It had surprised him when he arrived. Apparently the new conditioning techniques had reduced the numbers of the violent and twisted to the point that parents felt it safe to allow their children to run without supervision. The adults present were involved with each other. No one had given him a second glance when he arrived.
That was fine with Ian. It made what he planned to do much easier. He had his excuses ready, of course, but it could be embarrassing to be confronted with the questions representatives of the law ask single, middle-aged men who hang around playgrounds.
For a moment he considered, with real concern, how the parents of these children could feel so confident, even with mental conditioning. After all, no one was conditioned until he had first done something. New maniacs were presumably being produced every day. Typically, they looked just like everyone else until they proved their difference by some demented act.
Somebody ought to give those parents a stern lecture, he thought.
* * *
“Who are you?”
Ian frowned. Not eleven, surely, not seen up this close. Maybe not even ten. She might be as young as eight.
Would eight be all right? He tasted the idea with his usual caution, looked around again for curious eyes. He saw none.
“My name is Ian. What’s yours?”
“No. Not your name. Who are you?”
“You mean what do I do?”
“I’m a pusher.”
She thought that over, then smiled. She had her permanent teeth, crowded into a small jaw.
“You give away pills?”
He laughed. “Very good,” he said. “You must do a lot of reading.” She said nothing, but her manner indicated she was pleased.
“No,” he said. “That’s an old kind of pusher. I’m the other kind. But you knew that, didn’t you?” When he smiled she broke into giggles. She was doing the pointless things with her hands that little girls do. He thought she had a pretty good idea of how cute she was, but no inkling of her forbidden eroticism. She was a ripe seed with sexuality ready to burst to the surface, Her body was a bony sketch, a framework on which to build a woman.
“How old are you?”
“That’s a secret. What happened to your nose?”
“I broke it a long time ago. I’ll bet you’re twelve.”
She giggled, then nodded. Eleven, then. And just barely.
“Do you want some candy?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the pink and white striped paper bag.
She shook her head solemnly. “My mother says not to take candy from strangers.”
“But we’re not strangers. I’m Ian, the pusher.”
She thought that over. While she hesitated he reached into the bag and picked out a chocolate thing so thick and gooey it was almost obscene. He bit into it, forcing himself to chew. He hated sweets.
“Okay,” she said, and reached toward the bag. He pulled it away. She looked at him in innocent surprise.
“I just thought of something,” he said. “I don’t know your name, so I guess we are strangers.”
She caught on to the game when she saw the twinkle in his eye. He’d practiced that. It was a good twinkle.
“My name is Radiant. Radiant Shiningstar Smith.”
“A very fancy name,” he said, thinking how names had changed. “For a very pretty girl.” He paused, and cocked his head. “No. I don’t think so. You’re Radiant . . . Starr. With two r’s. . . . Captain Radiant Starr, of the Star Patrol.”
She was dubious for a moment. He wondered if he’d judged her wrong. Perhaps she was really Miss Radiant Faintingheart Belle, or Mrs. Radiant Motherhood. But her fingernails were a bit dirty for that.
She pointed a finger at him and made a Donald Duck sound as her thumb worked back and forth. He put his hand to his heart and fell over sideways, and she dissolved in laughter. She was careful, however, to keep her weapon firmly trained on him.
“And you’d better give me that candy or I’ll shoot you again.”
* * *
The playground was darker now, and not so crowded. She sat beside him on the bench, swinging her legs. Her bare feet did not quite touch the dirt.
She was going to be quite beautiful. He could see it clearly in her face. As for the body . . . who could tell?
Not that he really gave a damn.
She was dressed in a little of this and a little of that, worn here and there without much regard for his concepts of modesty. Many of the children wore nothing. It had been something of a shock when he arrived. Now he was almost used to it, but he still thought it incautious on the part of her parents. Did they really think the world was that safe, to let an eleven-year-old girl go practically naked in a public place?
He sat there listening to her prattle about her friends—the ones she hated and the one or two she simply adored—with only part of his attention.
He inserted um’s and uh-huh’s in the right places.
She was cute, there was no denying it. She seemed as sweet as a child that age ever gets, which can be very sweet and as poisonous as a rattlesnake, almost at the same moment. She had the capacity to be warm, but it was on the surface. Underneath, she cared mostly about herself. Her loyalty would be a transitory thing, bestowed easily, just as easily forgotten.
And why not? She was young. It was perfectly healthy for her to be that way.
But did he dare try to touch her?
It was crazy. It was insane as they all told him it was. It worked so seldom. Why would it work with her? He felt a weight of defeat.
“Are you okay?”
“Huh? Me? Oh, sure, I’m all right. Isn’t your mother going to be worried about you?”
“I don’t have to be in for hours and hours yet.” For a moment she looked so grown up he almost believed the lie.
“Well, I’m getting tired of sitting here. And the candy’s all gone.” He looked at her face. Most of the chocolate had ended up in a big circle around her mouth, except where she had wiped it daintily on her shoulder or forearm. “What’s back there?”
“That? That’s the swimming hole.”
“Why don’t we go over there? I’ll tell you a story.”
* * *
The promise of a story was not enough to keep her out of the water. He didn’t know if that was good or bad. He knew she was smart, a reader, and she had an imagination. But she was also active. That pull was too strong for him. He sat far from the water, under some bushes, and watched her swim with the three other children still in the park this late in the evening.
Maybe she would come back to him, and maybe she wouldn’t. It wouldn’t change his life either way, but it might change hers.
She emerged dripping and infinitely cleaner from the murky water. She dressed again in her random scraps, for whatever good it did her, and came to him shivering.
“I’m cold,” she said.
“Here.” He took off his jacket. She looked at his hands as he wrapped it around her, and once she reached out and touched the hardness of his shoulder.
“You sure must be strong,” she commented.
“Pretty strong. I work hard, being a pusher.”
“Just what is a pusher?” she said, and stifled a yawn.
“Come sit on my lap, and I’ll tell you.”
* * *
He did tell her, and it was a very good story that no adventurous child could resist. He had practiced that story, refined it, told it many times into a recorder until he had the rhythms and cadences just right, until he found just the right words—not too difficult words, but words with some fire and juice in them.
And once more he grew encouraged. She had been tired when he started, but he gradually caught her attention. It was possible no one had ever told her a story in quite that way. She was used to sitting before the screen and having a story shoved into her eyes and ears. It was something new to be able to interrupt with questions and get answers. Even reading was not like that. It was the oral tradition of storytelling, and it could still mesmerize the nth generation of the electronic age.
“That sounds great,” she said, when she was sure he was through.
“You liked it?”
“I really truly did. I think I want to be a pusher when I grow up. That was a really neat story.”
“Well, that’s not actually the story I was going to tell you. That’s just what it’s like to be a pusher.”
“You mean you have another story?”
“Sure.” He looked at his watch. “But I’m afraid it’s getting late. It’s almost dark, and everybody’s gone home. You’d probably better go, too.”
She was in agony, torn between what she was supposed to do and what she wanted. It really should be no contest, if she was who he thought she was.
“Well . . . but—but I’ll come back here tomorrow and you—”
He was shaking his head.
“My ship leaves in the morning,” he said. “There’s no time.”
“Then tell me now! I can stay out. Tell me now. Please please please?”
He coyly resisted, harrumphed, protested, but in the end allowed himself to be seduced. He felt very good. He had her like a five-pound trout on a twenty-pound line. It wasn’t sporting. But then, he wasn’t playing a game.
* * *
So at last he got to his specialty.
He sometimes wished he could claim the story for his own, but the fact was he could not make up stories. He no longer tried to. Instead, he cribbed from every fairy tale and fantasy story he could find. If he had a genius, it was in adapting some of the elements to fit the world she knew—while keeping it strange enough to enthrall her—and in ad libbing the end to personalize it.
It was a wonderful tale he told. It had enchanted castles sitting on mountains of glass, moist caverns beneath the sea, fleets of starships and shining riders astride horses that flew the galaxy. There were evil alien creatures, and others with much good in them. There were drugged potions. Scaled beasts roared out of hyperspace to devour planets.
Amid all the turmoil strode the Prince and Princess. They got into frightful jams and helped each other out of them.
The story was never quite the same. He watched her eyes. When they wandered, he threw away whole chunks of story. When they widened, he knew what parts to plug in later. He tailored it to her reactions.
The child was sleepy. Sooner or later she would surrender. He needed her in a trance state, neither awake nor asleep. That is when the story would end.
* * *
“. . . and though the healers labored long and hard, they could not save the Princess. She died that night, far from her Prince.”
Her mouth was a little round 0. Stories were not supposed to end that way.
“Is that all? She died, and she never saw the Prince again?”
“Well, not quite all. But the rest of it probably isn’t true, and I shouldn’t tell it to you.” Ian felt pleasantly tired. His throat was a little raw, making him hoarse. Radiant was a warm weight on his lap.
“You have to tell me, you know,” she said, reasonably. He supposed she was right. He took a deep breath.
“All right. At the funeral, all the greatest people from that part of the galaxy were in attendance. Among them was the greatest Sorcerer who ever lived. His name . . . but I really shouldn’t tell you his name. I’m sure he’d be very cross if I did.
“This Sorcerer passed by the Princess’s bier . . . that’s a—”
“I know, I know, Ian. Go on!”
“Suddenly he frowned, and leaned over her pale form. ‘What is this?’ he thundered. ‘Why was I not told?’ Everyone was very concerned. This Sorcerer was a dangerous man. One time when someone insulted him he made a spell that turned everyone’s heads backwards so they had to walk around with rear-view mirrors. No one knew what he would do if he got really angry.
“‘This Princess is wearing the Starstone,’ he said, and drew himself up and frowned all around as if he were surrounded by idiots. I’m sure he thought he was, and maybe he was right. Because he went on to tell them just what the Starstone was, and what it did, something no one there had ever heard before. And this is the part I’m not sure of. Because, though everyone knew the Sorcerer was a wise and powerful man, he was also known as a great liar.
“He said that the Starstone was capable of capturing the essence of a person at the moment of her death. All her wisdom, all her power, all her knowledge and beauty and strength would flow into the stone and be held there, timelessly.”
“In suspended animation,” Radiant breathed.
“Precisely. When they heard this, the people were amazed. They buffeted the Sorcerer with questions, to which he gave few answers, and those only grudgingly. Finally he left in a huff. When he was gone everyone talked long into the night about the things he had said. Some felt the Sorcerer had held out hope that the Princess might yet live on. That if her body were frozen, the Prince, upon his return, might somehow infuse her essence back within her. Others thought the Sorcerer had said that was impossible, that the Princess was doomed to a half-life, locked in the stone.
“But the opinion that prevailed was this:
“The Princess would probably never come fully back to life. But her essence might flow from the Starstone and into another, if the right person could be found. All agreed this person must be a young maiden. She must be beautiful, very smart, swift of foot, loving, kind . . . oh, my, the list was very long. Everyone doubted such a person could be found. Many did not even want to try.
“But at last it was decided the Starstone should be given to a faithful friend of the Prince. He would search the galaxy for this maiden. If she existed, he would find her.
“So he departed with the blessings of many worlds behind him, vowing to find the maiden and give her the Starstone.”
He stopped again, cleared his throat, and let the silence grow.
“Is that all?” she said, at last, in a whisper.
“Not quite all,” he admitted. “I’m afraid I tricked you.”
He opened the front of his coat, which was still draped around her shoulders. He reached in past her bony chest and down into an inner pocket of the coat. He came up with the crystal. It was oval, with one side flat. It pulsed ruby light as it sat in the palm of his hand.
“It shines,” she said, looking at it wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“Yes, it does. And that means you’re the one.”
“Yes. Take it.” He handed it to her, and as he did so, he nicked it with his thumbnail. Red light spilled into her hands, flowed between her fingers, seemed to soak into her skin. When it was over, the crystal still pulsed, but dimmed. Her hands were trembling.
“It felt very, very hot,” she said.
“That was the essence of the Princess.”
“And the Prince? Is he still looking for her?”
“No one knows. I think he’s still out there, and some day he will come back for her.”
“And what then?”
He looked away from her. “I can’t say. I think, even though you are lovely, and even though you have the Starstone, that he will just pine away. He loved her very much.”
“I’d take care of him,” she promised.
“Maybe that would help. But I have a problem now. I don’t have the heart to tell the Prince that she is dead. Yet I feel that the Starstone will draw him to it one day. If he comes and finds you, I fear for him. I think perhaps I should take the stone to a far part of the galaxy, some place he could never find it. Then at least he would never know. It might be better that way.”
“But I’d help him,” she said, earnestly. “I promise. I’d wait for him, and when he came, I’d take her place. You’ll see.”
He studied her. Perhaps she would. He looked into her eyes for a long time, and at last let her see his satisfaction.
“Very well. You can keep it then.”
“I’ll wait for him,” she said. “You’ll see.”
* * *
She was very tired; almost asleep.
“You should go home now,” he suggested.
“Maybe I could just lie down for a moment,” she said.
“All right.” He lifted her gently and placed her prone on the ground. He stood looking down at her, then knelt beside her and began to gently stroke her forehead. She opened her eyes with no alarm, then closed them again. He continued to stroke her.
Twenty minutes later he left the playground, alone.
* * *
He was always depressed afterwards. It was worse than usual this time. She had been much nicer than he had imagined at first. Who could have guessed such a romantic heart beat beneath all that dirt?
He found a phone booth several blocks away. Punching her name into information yielded a fifteen-digit number, which he called. He held his hand over the camera eye.
A woman’s face appeared on his screen.
“Your daughter is in the playground, at the south end by the pool, under the bushes,” he said. He gave the address of the playground.
“We were so worried! What . . . is she . . . who is—”
He hung up and hurried away.
* * *
Most of the other pushers thought he was sick. Not that it mattered. Pushers were a tolerant group when it came to other pushers, and especially when it came to anything a pusher might care to do to a puller. He wished he had never told anyone how he spent his leave time, but he had, and now he had to live with it.
So, while they didn’t care if he amused himself by pulling the legs and arms off infant puller pups, they were all just back from ground leave and couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get on each other’s nerves. They ragged him mercilessly.
“How were the swing-sets this trip, Ian?”
“Did you bring me those dirty knickers I asked for?”
“Was it good for you, honey? Did she pant and slobber?”
“‘My ten-year-old baby, she’s a pullin’ me back home . . .”
Ian bore it stoically. It was in extremely bad taste and he was the brunt of it, but it really didn’t matter. It would end as soon as they lifted again. They would never understand what he sought, but he felt he understood them. They hated coming to Earth. There was nothing for them there, and perhaps they wished there was.
And he was a pusher himself. He didn’t care for pullers. He agreed with the sentiment expressed by Marian, shortly after lift-off. Marian had just finished her first ground leave after her first voyage, so naturally she was the drunkest of them all.
“Gravity sucks,” she said, and threw up.
* * *
It was three months to Amity, and three months back. He hadn’t the foggiest idea of how far it was in miles; after the tenth or eleventh zero his mind clicked off.
Amity. Shit City. He didn’t even get off the ship. Why bother? The planet was peopled with things that looked a little like ten-ton caterpillars and a little like sentient green turds. Toilets were a revolutionary idea to the Amiti; so were ice cream bars, sherbets, sugar donuts, and peppermint. Plumbing had never caught on, but sweets had, so the ship was laden with plain and fancy desserts from every nation on Earth. In addition, there was a pouch of reassuring mail for the forlorn human embassy. The cargo for the return trip was some grayish sludge that Ian supposed someone on Earth found tremendously valuable, and a packet of desperate mail for the folks back home. Ian didn’t need to read the letters to know what was in them. They could all be summed up as “Get me out of here!”
He sat at the viewport and watched an Amiti family lumbering and farting its way down the spaceport road. They paused every so often to do something that looked like an alien cluster-fuck. The road was brown. The land was brown, and in the distance were brown, unremarkable hills. There was a brown haze in the air, and the sun was yellow-brown.
He thought of castles perched on mountains of glass, of Princes and Princesses, of shining white horses galloping among the stars.
* * *
He spent the return trip just as he had on the way out: sweating down in the gargantuan pipes of the stardrive. Just beyond the metal walls unimaginable energies pulsed. And on the walls themselves, tiny plasmoids grew into bigger plasmoids. The process was too slow to see, but if left unchecked the encrustations would soon impair the engines. His job was to scrape them off.
Not everyone was cut out to be an astrogator.
And what of it? It was honest work. He had made his choices long ago. You spent your life either pulling gees or pushing c. And when you got tired, you grabbed some z’s. If there was a pushers’ code, that was it.
The plasmoids were red and crystalline, teardrop-shaped. When he broke them free of the walls they had one flat side. They were full of a liquid light that felt as hot as the center of the sun.
* * *
It was always hard to get off the ship. A lot of pushers never did. One day, he wouldn’t either.
He stood for a few moments looking at it all. It was necessary to soak it in passively at first, get used to the changes. Big changes didn’t bother him. Buildings were just the world’s furniture and he didn’t care how it was arranged. Small changes worried the shit out of him. Ears, for instance. Very few of the people he saw had earlobes. Each time he returned he felt a little more like an ape who has fallen from his tree. One day he’d return to find everybody had three eyes or six fingers, or that little girls no longer cared to hear stories of adventure.
He stood there, dithering, getting used to the way people were painting their faces, listening to what sounded like Spanish being spoken all around him. Occasional English or Arabic words seasoned it. He grabbed a crewmate’s arm and asked him where they were. The man didn’t know so he asked the Captain, and she said it was Argentina, or it had been when they left.
* * *
The phone booths were smaller. He wondered why.
There were four names in his book. He sat there facing the phone, wondering which name to call first. His eyes were drawn to Radiant Shiningstar Smith, so he punched that name into the phone. He got a number and an address in Novosibirsk.
Checking the timetable he had picked up—putting off making the call—he found the antipodean shuttle left on the hour. Then he wiped his hands on his pants and took a deep breath and looked up to see her standing outside the phone booth. They regarded each other silently for a moment. She saw a man much shorter than she remembered, but powerfully built, with big hands and shoulders and a pitted face that would have been forbidding but for the gentle eyes. He saw a tall woman around forty years old who was fully as beautiful as he had expected she would be. The hand of age had just begun to touch her. He thought she was fighting that waistline and fretting about those wrinkles, but none of that mattered to him. Only one thing mattered, and he would know it soon enough.
“You are Ian Haise, aren’t you?” she said, at last.
* * *
“It was sheer luck I remembered you again,” she was saying. He noted the choice of words. She could have said coincidence.
“It was two years ago. We were moving again and I was sorting through some things and I came across that plasmoid. I hadn’t thought about you in . . . oh, it must have been fifteen years.”
He said something noncommittal. They were in a restaurant, away from most of the other patrons, at a booth near a glass wall beyond which spaceships were being trundled to and from the blast pits.
“I hope I didn’t get you into trouble,” he said.
She shrugged it away.
“You did, some, but that was so long ago. I certainly wouldn’t bear a grudge that long. And the fact is, I thought it was all worth it at the time.”
She went on to tell him of the uproar he had caused in her family, of the visits by the police, the interrogation, puzzlement, and final helplessness. No one knew quite what to make of her story. They had identified him quickly enough, only to find he had left Earth and would not be back for a long, long time.
“I didn’t break any laws,” he pointed out.
“That’s what no one could understand. I told them you had talked to me and told me a long story, and then I went to sleep. None of them seemed interested in what the story was about, so I didn’t tell them. And I didn’t tell them about the . . . the Starstone.” She smiled. “Actually, I was relieved they hadn’t asked. I was determined not to tell them, but I was a little afraid of holding it all back. I thought they were agents of the . . . who were the villains in your story? I’ve forgotten.”
“It’s not important.”
“I guess not. But something is.”
“Maybe you should tell me what it is. Maybe you can answer the question that’s been in the back of my mind for twenty-five years, ever since I found out that thing you gave me was just the scrapings from a starship engine.”
“Was it?” he said, looking into her eyes. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it was more than that. I’m asking you if it wasn’t more.”
She looked at him again. He felt himself being appraised for the third or fourth time since they met. He still didn’t know the verdict.
“Yes, I guess it was more,” she said, at last.
“I believed in that story passionately for . . . oh, years and years. Then I stopped believing it.”
“All at once?”
“No. Gradually. It didn’t hurt much. Part of growing up, I guess.”
“And you remembered me.”
“Well, that took some work. I went to a hypnotist when I was twenty-five and recovered your name and the name of your ship. Did you know—”
“Yes. I mentioned them on purpose.”
She nodded, and they fell silent again. When she looked at him now he saw more sympathy, less defensiveness. But there was still a question.
“Why?” she said.
He nodded, then looked away from her, out to the starships. He wished he was on one of them, pushing c. It wasn’t working. He knew it wasn’t. He was a weird problem to her, something to get straightened out, a loose end in her life that would irritate until it was made to fit in, then be forgotten.
To hell with it.
“Hoping to get laid,” he said. When he looked up she was slowly shaking her head back and forth.
“Don’t trifle with me, Haise. You’re not as stupid as you look. You knew I’d be married, leading my own life. You knew I wouldn’t drop it all because of some half-remembered fairy tale thirty years ago. Why?”
And how could he explain the strangeness of it all to her?
“What do you do?” He recalled something, and re-phrased it. “Who are you?”
She looked startled. “I’m a mysteliologist.”
He spread his hands. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“Come to think of it, there was no such thing when you left.”
“That’s it, in a way,” he said. He felt helpless again. “Obviously, I had no way of knowing what you’d do, what you’d become, what would happen to you that you had no control over. All I was gambling on was that’d you remember me. Because that way . . .” He saw the planet Earth looming once more out the viewport. So many, many years and only six months later. A planet full of strangers. It didn’t matter that Amity was full of strangers. But Earth was home, if that word still had any meaning for him.
“I wanted somebody my own age I could talk to,” he said. “That’s all. All I want is a friend.”
He could see her trying to understand what it was like. She wouldn’t, but maybe she’d come close enough to think she did.
“Maybe you’ve found one,” she said, and smiled. “At least I’m willing to get to know you, considering the efforts you’ve put into this.”
“It wasn’t much effort. It seems so long-term to you, but it wasn’t to me. I held you on my lap six months ago.”
She giggled in almost the same way she had six months before.
“How long is your leave?” she asked.
“Would you like to come stay with us for a while? We have room in our house.”
“Will your husband mind?”
“Neither my husband nor my wife. That’s them sitting over there, pretending to ignore us.” Ian looked, caught the eye of a woman in her late twenties. She was sitting across from a man Ian’s age, who now turned and looked at Ian with some suspicion but no active animosity. The woman smiled; the man reserved judgment.
Radiant had a wife. Well, times change.
“Those two in the red skirts are police,” Radiant was saying. “So is that man over by the wall, and the one at the end of the bar.”
“I spotted two of them,” Ian said. When she looked surprised, he said, “Cops always have a look about them. That’s one of the things that don’t change.”
“You go back quite a ways, don’t you? I’ll bet you have some good stories.”
Ian thought about it, and nodded. “Some, I suppose.”
“I should tell the police they can go home. I hope you don’t mind that we brought them in.”
“Of course not.”
“I’ll do that, and then we can go. Oh, and I guess I should call the children and tell them we’ll be home soon.” She laughed, reached across the table and touched his hand. “See what can happen in six months? I have three children, and Gillian has two.”
He looked up, interested.
“Are any of them girls?”
Megan Galloway arrived in the Bubble with a camera crew of three. With her breather and her sidekick she was the least naked nude woman any of the lifeguards had ever seen.
“I bet she’s carrying more hardware than any of her crew,” Glen said.
“Yeah, but it hardly shows, you know?”
Q. M. Cooper was thinking back as he watched her accept the traditional bulb of champagne. “Isn’t that some kind of record? Three people in her crew?”
“The President of Brazil brought twenty-nine people in with her,” Anna-Louise observed. “The King of England had twenty-five.”
“Yeah, but only one network pool camera.”
“So that’s the Golden Gypsy,” Leah said.
Anna-Louise snorted. “More like the Brass Transistor.”
They had all heard that one before, but laughed anyway. None of the lifeguards had much respect for Trans-sisters. Yet Cooper had to admit that in a profession which sought to standardize emotion, Galloway was the only one who was uniquely herself. The others were interchangeable as News Anchors.
A voice started whispering in their ears, over the channel reserved for emergency announcements and warnings.
“Entering the Bubble is Megan Galloway, representing the Feelie Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of GWA Conglom. Feeliecorp: bringing you the best in experiential tapes and erotix. Blue Champagne Enterprises trusts you will not impede the taping, and regrets any disturbance.”
“Commercials, yet,” Glen said in disgust. To those who loved the Bubble—as all the lifeguards did—this was something like using the walls of the Taj Mahal for the Inter-conglomerate Graffiti Championship finals.
“Stick around for the yacht races,” Cooper said. “They should have at least told us she was coming. What about that sidekick? Should we know anything about it if she gets into trouble?”
“Maybe she knows what she’s doing,” Leah said, earning sour looks from the other four. It was an article of faith that nobody on a first visit to the Bubble knew what they were doing.
“You think she’ll take the sidekick into the water?”
“Well, since she can’t move without it I sort of doubt she’ll take it off,” Cooper said. “Stu, you call operations and ask why we weren’t notified. Find out about special precautions. The rest of you get back to work. A.L., you take charge here.”
“What will you be doing, Q.M.?” Anna-Louise asked, arching one eyebrow.
“I’m going to get a closer look.” He pushed off, and flew toward the curved inner surface of the Bubble.
* * *
The Bubble was the only thing Q. M. Cooper ever encountered which caught his imagination, held it for years, and did not prove a disappointment when he finally saw it. It was love at first sight.
It floated in lunar orbit with nothing to give it perspective. Under those conditions the eye can see the Earth or Luna as hunks of rock no bigger than golf balls, or a fleck of ice millimeters from the ship’s window can seem to be a distant, tumbling asteroid. When Cooper first saw it the illusion was perfect: someone had left a champagne glass floating a few meters from the ship.
The constricted conic-shape was dictated by the mathematics of the field generators that held the Bubble. It was made of an intricate network of fine wires. No other configuration was possible; it was mere chance that the generator resembled the bowl and stem of a wine glass.
The Bubble itself had to be weightless, but staff and visitors needed a spin-gravity section. A disc was better than a wheel for that purpose, since it provided regions of varying gravity, from one gee at the rim to free-fall at the hub. The most logical place for the disc was at the base of the generator stem, which also made it the base of the glass. It was rumored that the architect of the Bubble had gone mad while designing it and that, since he favored martinis, he had included in the blueprints a mammoth toothpick spearing a giant green olive.
But that was only the station. It was beautiful enough in itself, but was nothing compared to the Bubble.
It floated in the shallow bowl of the generators, never touching them. It was two hundred million liters of water held between two concentric spherical fields of force, one of them one hundred meters in diameter, the other one hundred and forty. The fields contained a shell of water massing almost a million tonnes, with a five-hundred-thousand-cubic-meter bubble of air in the middle.
Cooper knew the relevant numbers by heart. Blue Champagne Enterprises made sure no one entered the Bubble without hearing them at least once. But numbers could not begin to tell what the Bubble was really like. To know that, one had to ride the elevator up through the glass swizzle stick that ended in the center of the air bubble, step out of the car, grab one of the monkeybar struts near the lifeguard station, and hold on tight until one’s emotions settled down enough to be able to believe in the damn thing.
* * *
The lifeguards had established six classes of visitor. It was all unofficial; to BCE, everyone was an honored guest. The rankings were made by a guest’s behavior and personal habits, but mostly by swimming ability.
Crustaceans clung to the monkeybars. Most never got their feet wet. They came to the Bubble to be seen, not to swim. Plankton thought they could swim, but it was no more than a fond hope. Turtles and frogs really could swim, but it was a comical business.
Sharks were excellent swimmers. If they had added brains to their other abilities the lifeguards would have loved them. Dolphins were the best. Cooper was a dolphin-class swimmer, which was why he had the job of chief lifeguard for the third shift.
To his surprise, Megan Galloway ranked somewhere between a frog and a shark. Most of her awkward moves were the result of being unaccustomed to the free-fall environment. She had obviously spent a lot of time in flat water.
He pulled ahead and broke through the outer surface of the Bubble with enough speed to carry him to the third field, which kept air in and harmful radiation out. On his way he twisted in the air to observe how she handled the breakthrough. He could see gold reflections from the metal bands of her sidekick while she was just an amorphous shape beneath the surface. The water around her was bright aquamarine from the camera lights. She had outdistanced her crew.
He had an immediate and very strong reaction: what a ghastly way to live. Working in the Bubble was very special to him. He griped about the clients, just like everyone did, complained when he had to ferry some damn crustacean who couldn’t even get up enough speed to return to the monkeybars, or when he had to clean up one of the excretory nuisances that got loose in surprising numbers when somebody got disoriented and scared. But the basic truth was that, for him, it never got old. There was always some new way of looking at the place, some fresh magic to be found. He wondered if he could feel that way about it if he lived in the middle of a traveling television studio with the whole world watching.
He was starting to drift back toward the water when she burst free of it. She broke the surface like a golden mermaid, rising, trailing a plume of water that turned into a million quivering crystals as it followed her into the air. She tumbled in the middle of a cloud of water globes, a flesh and metal Aphrodite emerging from the foam.
Her mouthpiece fell from her lips to dangle from its airhose, and he heard her laugh. He did not think she had noticed him. He was fairly sure she thought she was alone, for once, if only for a few seconds. She sounded as delighted as a child, and her laughter went on until the camera crew came grumbling out of the water.
They made her go back and do it over.
* * *
“She’s not worth the effort, Q.M.”
“Who? Oh, you mean the Golden Gypsy.”
“You want your bedroom technique studied by ninety million slobs?”
Cooper turned to look at Anna-Louise, who sat behind him on the narrow locker room bench, tying her shoelaces. She glanced over her shoulder and grinned. He knew he had a reputation as a starfucker. When he first came to work at the Bubble he had perceived one of the fringe benefits to be the opportunity to meet, hob-nob with, and bed famous women, and had done so with more than a few. But he was long over that.
“Galloway doesn’t make heavy-breathers.”
“Not yet. Neither did Lyshia Trumbull until about a year ago. Or that guy who works for ABS . . . Chin. Randall Chin.”
“Neither did Salome Hassan,” someone chimed in from across the room. Cooper looked around and saw the whole shift was listening.
“I thought you were all above that,” he said. “Turns out we’re a bunch of feelie-groupies.”
“You can’t help hearing the names,” Stu said, defensively.
Anna-Louise pulled her shirt over her head and stood up. “There’s no sense denying I’ve tried tapes,” she said. “The trans-sisters have to make a living. She’ll do them. Wet-dreams are the coming thing.”
“They’re coming, all right,” Stu said, with an obscene gesture.
“Why don’t you idiots knock it off and get out of here?” Cooper said.
They did, gradually, and the tiny locker room at the gee/10 level was soon empty but for Cooper and Anna-Louise. She stood at the mirror, rubbing a lotion over her scalp to make it shine.
“I’d like to move to the number two shift,” she said. “You’re a crazy Loonie, you know that?” he shot back, annoyed.
She turned at the waist and glared at him.
“That’s redundant and racist,” she said. “If I wasn’t such a sweet person I’d resent it.”
“But it’s true.”
“That’s the other reason I’m not going to resent it.”
He got up and embraced her from behind, nuzzling her ear. “Hey, you’re all wet,” she laughed, but did not try to stop him, even when his hands lifted her shirt and went down under the waistband of her pants. She turned and he kissed her.
Cooper had never really understood Anna-Louise, even though he had bunked with her for six months. She was almost as big as he was, and he was not small. Her home was New Dresden, Luna. Though German was her native tongue, she spoke fluent, unaccented English. Her face would inspire adjectives like strong, healthy, glowing, and fresh, but never a word like glamorous. In short, she was physically just like all the other female lifeguards. She even shaved her head, but where the others did it in an attempt to recapture past glory, to keep that Olympic look, she had never done any competitive swimming. That alone made her unique in the group, and was probably what made her so refreshing. All the other women in the lifeguard force were uncomplicated jocks who liked two things: swimming, and sex, in that order.
Cooper did not object to that. It was a pretty fair description of himself. But he was creeping up on thirty, getting closer every day. That is never a good time for an athlete. He was surprised to find that it hurt when she told him she wanted to change shifts.
“Does this have anything to do with Yuri Feldman?” he asked, between kisses.
“Is that his shift?”
“Are we still going to be bunkmates?”
She drew back. “Are we going to talk? Is that why you’re undressing me?”
“I just wanted to know.”
She turned away, buckling her pants.
“Unless you want to move out, we’re still bunkmates. I didn’t think it really meant a hell of a lot. Was I wrong?”
“It’s just that it might be simpler to sleep alone, that’s all.” She turned back and patted his cheek. “Hell, Q.M. It’s just sex. You’re very good at it, and so long as you stay interested we’ll do just fine. Okay?” Her hand was still on his cheek. Her expression changed as she peered intently into his eyes. “It is just sex, isn’t it? I mean—”
“—if it isn’t . . . but you’ve never said anything that would—”
“God, no,” he said. “I don’t want to get tied down.”
“Me, either.” She looked as if she might wish to say more, but instead touched his cheek again, and left him alone.
* * *
Cooper was so preoccupied that he walked past the table where Megan Galloway sat with her camera crew.
“Cooper! Your name is Cooper, right?”
When he turned he had his camera smile in place. Though being recognized had by that time become a rare thing, the reflexes were still working. But the smile was quickly replaced by a more genuine expression of delight. He was surprised and flattered that she had known who he was.
Galloway had her hand to her forehead, looking up at him with comical intensity. She snapped her fingers, hit her forehead again.
“I’ve been trying to think of the name since I saw you in the water,” she said. “Don’t tell me . . . I’ll get it . . . it was a nickname . . .” She trailed off helplessly, then plunked both elbows on the table and put her chin in her hands, glowering at him.
“I can’t think of it.”
“Don’t tell me.”
He had been about to say it was not something he revealed, but instead he shrugged and said nothing.
“I’ll get it, if you’ll just give me time.”
“She will, too,” said the other woman, who then gestured to an empty seat and extended a hand to him. “I’m Consuela Lopez. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’m . . . Cooper.”
Consuela leaned closer and murmured, “If she doesn’t have the goddam name in ten minutes, tell her, huh? Otherwise she won’t be worth a damn until she gets it. You’re a lifeguard.”
He nodded, and his drink arrived. He tried to conceal his amazement. It was impossible to impress the waiters at the promenade cafes. Yet Galloway’s party did not even have to order.
“Fascinating profession. You must tell me all about it. I’m a producer, studying to be a pimp.” She swayed slightly, and Cooper realized she was drunk. It didn’t show in her speech. “That devilish fellow with the beard is Markham Montgomery, director and talent prostitute.” Montgomery glanced at Cooper, made a gesture that could have been the step-outline for a nod. “And the person of debatable sex is Coco-89 (Praisegod), recordist, enigma, and devotee of a religiosexual cult so obscure even Coco isn’t sure what it’s about.” Cooper had seen Coco in the water. He or she had the genitals of a man and the breasts of a woman, but androgynes were not uncommon in the Bubble.
“Cheers,” Coco said, solemnly raising a glass. “Accly your am tance to deep make honored.”
Everyone laughed but Cooper. He could not see the joke. Lopez had not bothered him—he had heard cute speeches from more rich/sophisticated people than he could count—but Coco sounded crazy.
Lopez lifted a small, silver tube over the edge of the table, squeezed a trigger, and a stream of glittering silver powder sprayed toward Coco. It burst in a thousand pinpoint scintillations. The androgyne inhaled with a foolish grin.
“Wacky Dust,” Lopez said, and pointed the tube at Cooper. “Want some?” Without waiting for an answer she fired again. The stuff twinkled around his head. It smelled like one of the popular aphrodisiacs.
“What is it?” he asked.
“A mind-altering drug,” she said, theatrically. When she saw his alarm she relented a little. “The trip is very short. In fact, I gave you such a little squirt you’ll hardly notice it. Five minutes, tops.”
“What does it do?”
She was eyeing him suspiciously. “Well, it should have done it already. Are you left-handed?”
“That explains it. Most of it’s going to the wrong side of your head. What it does is scramble your speech center.”
Montgomery roused himself enough to turn his head. He looked at Cooper with something less than total boredom. “It’s like inhaling helium,” he said. “You talk funny for a while.”
“I didn’t think that was possible,” Cooper said, and everyone laughed. He found himself grinning reflexively, not knowing what was funny until he played his words back in his head and realized he had said something like “Pos that ib think unt I bull . . .”
He gritted his teeth and concentrated.
“I,” he said, and thought some more. “Don’t. Like. This.” They seemed delighted. Coco babbled gibberish, and Lopez patted him on the back.
“Not many people figure it out that fast,” she said. “Stick to one-word sentences and you’re okay.”
“The Wacky Dust scrambles the sentence-making capability of the brain,” Montgomery said. He was sounding almost enthusiastic. Cooper knew from experience that the man was speaking of one of the few things that could excite him, that being his current ten-minute’s wonder, the thing that everyone of any importance was doing today and would forget about tomorrow. “Complex thoughts are no longer—”
Cooper slammed his fist on the table and got the expected silence. Montgomery’s eyes glazed and he looked away, bored by poor sportsmanship. Cooper stood.
“You,” he said, pointing at all of them. “Stink.”
“Quarter-meter!” Galloway shouted, pointing at Cooper. “Quarter-meter Cooper! Silver medal in Rio, bronze at Shanghai, 1500-meter freestyle, competed for United N.A., then for Ryancorp.” She was grinning proudly, but when she looked around her face fell. “What’s wrong?”
Cooper walked away from them. She caught him when he was almost out of sight around the curved promenade floor.
“Quarter-meter, please don’t—”
“Don’t me call that!” he shouted, jerking his arm away from her touch, not caring how the words came out. Her hand sprang back poised awkwardly, each joint of her fingers twinkling with its own golden band.
“Mr. Cooper, then.” She let her hand fall, and her gaze with it, looked at her booted feet. “I want to apologize for her. She had no right to do that. She’s drunk, if you hadn’t—”
“I no . . . ticed.”
“You’ll be all right now,” she said, touching his arm lightly, remembering, and pulling it away with a sheepish smile.
“There are no lasting effects?”
“We hope not. There haven’t been so far. It’s experimental.”
She shrugged. “Naturally. Isn’t everything fun?”
He wanted to tell her how irresponsible that was, but he sensed she would be bored with him if he belabored it and while he did not care if Montgomery was bored with him, he did not want to be tiresome with her. So when she offered another tentative smile, he smiled back, and she grinned, showing him that gap between her front teeth which had made a fortune for the world’s dentists when one hundred million girls copied it.
She had one of the most famous faces in the world, but she did not closely resemble herself as depicted on television. The screen missed most of her depth, which centered on her wide eyes and small nose, was framed by her short blonde curls. A faint series of lines around her mouth betrayed the fact that she was not twenty, as she looked at first glance, but well into her thirties. Her skin was pale, and she was taller than she seemed in pictures, and her arms and legs were even thinner.
“They compensate for that with camera angles,” she said, and he realized she was not reading his mind but merely noticing where he was looking. He had given her a stock reaction, one she got every day, and he hated that. He resolved not to ask any questions about her sidekick. She had heard them all and was surely as sick of them as he was of his nickname.
“Will you join us?” she asked. “I promise we won’t misbehave again.”
He looked back at the three, just visible at their table before the curved roof cut off his view of the corridor promenade, gee/1 level.
“I’d rather not. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but those are pretty stock types. I always want to either sneer at them or run away from them.”
She leaned closer.
“Me too. Will you rescue me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Those three could teach limpets a thing or two about clinging. That’s their job, but the hell with them.”
“What do you want to do?”
“How should I know? Whatever people do around here for a good time. Bob for apples, ride on the merry-go-round, screw, play cards, see a show.”
“I’m interested in at least one of those.”
“So you like cards, too?” She glanced back at her crew. “I think they’re getting suspicious.”
“Then let’s go.” He took her arm and started to walk away with her. Suddenly she was running down a corridor. He hesitated only a second, then was off after her.
He was not surprised to see her stumble. She recovered quickly, but it slowed her enough for him to catch her.
“What happened?” she said. “I thought I was falling—” She pulled back her sleeve and stared at the world’s most complicated wristwatch. He realized it was some sort of monitor for her sidekick.
“It isn’t your hardware,” he said, leading her at a fast walk. “You were running with the spin. You got heavier. You should bear in mind that what you’re feeling isn’t gravity.”
“But how will we get away if we can’t run?”
“By going just a little faster than they do.” He looked back, and as he had expected, Lopez was already down. Coco was wavering between turning back to help and following Montgomery, who was still coming, wearing a determined expression. Cooper grinned. He had finally succeeded in getting the man’s attention. He was making off with the star.
Just beyond stairwell C Cooper pulled Galloway into an elevator whose door was closing. He had a glimpse of Montgomery’s outraged face.
“What good will this do us?” Galloway wanted to know. “He’ll just follow us up the stairs. These things are slow as the mid-town express.”
“They’re slow for a very good reason, known as coriolis force,” Cooper said, reaching into his pocket for his keys. He inserted one in the control board of the elevator. “Since we’re on the bottom level, Montgomery will go up. It’s the only direction the stairs go.” He twisted the key, and the elevator began to descend.
The two “basement” levels were the parts of the Champagne Hotel complex nearest hard vacuum. The car stopped on B level and he held the door for her. They walked among exposed pipes, structural cables, and beams not masked by the frothy decorations of the public levels. The only light came from bare bulbs spaced every five meters. The girders and the curved floor made the space resemble the innards of a zeppelin.
“How hard will they look for you?”
She shrugged. “They won’t be fooling around. They’ll keep it up until they find me. It’s only a question of time.”
“Can they get me in trouble?”
“They’d love to. But I won’t let them.”
“It’s the least I could do.”
“So my room is out. First place they’d look.”
“No, they’d check my room first. It’s better equipped for playing cards.”
He was mentally kicking himself. She was playing games with him, he knew that, but what was the game? If it was just sex, that was okay. He’d never made love with a woman in a sidekick.
“About your nickname . . .” she said, leaving the sentence unfinished to see how he would react. When he said nothing, she started over. “Is it your favorite swimming distance? I seem to recall you were accused of never exerting yourself more than the situation required.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for John Varley
"A remarkable storyteller."—Publishers Weekly
"[Varley's] warmly engaging, intelligent short stories are at least as good as his tirelessly inventive, irreverent novels. Splendid."—Kirkus Reviews