Authors: M John Harrison
THE CENTAURI DEVICE
M. John Harrison
Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 31
‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’
And they, so perfect is their misery,
Not once perceive their foul disfigurement . . .
JOHN MILTON, Comus
Truck, Tiny, and Angina Seng
It was St. Crispin's Eve on Sad al Bari IV when Captain John Truck, impelled by something he was forced to describe to himself as 'sentiment,' decided to visit The Spacer's Rave, on the corner of Proton Alley and Circuit (that chilly junction where the higher class of port lady goes to find her customers).
'Don't accept any cargo,' he told his bos'n as he prepared to leave
My Ella Speed
, 'for at least two weeks. Especially don't accept any vegetable seeds. I will never haul pumpkins again, any shape or form.'
'What's a pumpkin?' asked the bos'n, who was a Chromian dwarf called Fix. He was good with an axe — or so he said — but backward.
'A pumpkin is what your head is,' explained John Truck smugly. 'Children wear them for the same reason you have filed your teeth. 'Don't forget, no vegetable seeds.'
And with a jaunty wave, he quit the ship.
He reached the Alley by way of Bread Street and East Thing, a damp wind tangling his long hair. He walked with his shoulders hunched and his head bent as if he were bored with it all (which he was, to the extent that anybody is), his tight snakeskin combat jacket and big leather hat straight out of the questionable past of the Galaxy.
Spaceport hustlers and buskers worked the streets all the way from the port to the service areas, their peculiar instruments glimmering in the green street light They solicited him, but he ignored them. He had seen them before, shivering with cold and with fear of the long, incomprehensible future in the night winds of a hundred planets, waiting out their time in the bleak hinterlands of a thousand ports. They would go home later to the same greasy doorways and park benches and barren flops, or ride the
systems until dawn: threadbare losers for whom he could find no compassion because they so resembled himself. Their aimless, eccentric hearts, their odors of loss, demanded a response he was not yet prepared to give — because it would be an admission of kinship.
This isn't to say they made him unhappy — or that he lacked charity; he was just hollow, nothing had ever filled him up.
Since his demob from the Fleet, a year after all the hysteria of the Canes Venatici incident had come to nothing but the same kind of worn diplomacy that had begun it, he had worked all over the sky, traveling a slow Archimedean spiral in three dimensions, tracking in from Venatici through the Crow and the Heavy Stars. He had driven half-tracks on Gloam and Parrot, built roads on Jacqueline Kennedy Terminal; he had sung revolutionary songs and pushed meta-amphetamines to the all-night workers on Morpheus — not because he was in any way committed to the insurrection that finally blew the planet apart, but because he was stuck there and broke.
After five years, he had ended up on Earth, where everybody ends, guarding heavy plant machinery for the Israeli World Government, where he was paid handsomely for every Arab he shot, but not enough — not enough for dirty work. He had found himself wetting his trousers every time somebody fired a gun (in fact, that had worn off after a time, but he still told it that way, against himself with a lot of gestures and funny voices — especially to port ladies), and tapping a streak of savagery he hadn't suspected in himself. He found no sense of purpose in that stupid half-war, either. Finally, it was too terrifying to find himself going through the psychological maneuvers necessary to continue without the accompanying commitment. He left it alone, but in his customary indecisive manner. He drifted away.
Had he not saved his bounty money and bought with it
My Ella Speed
, something which caused him to scratch his head), his seven-year trip from demob day to Sad al Bari IV might easily have ended at the periphery of the port; accomplished by means of his horny thumb, a cheap musical instrument, and his hat in the gutter the wrong way up to receive bread. Instead of on his head where it belonged.
Even the purchase of the boat had, at the time, assumed the air of a fortunate accident.
Unused to ethanol — still the sole legal euphoric of Earth — he had stumbled, smashed out of his head and laughing, into a breaker's yard somewhere in the temperate zones; then passed out cold when he realized what he'd spent his money on. John Truck was a loser, and losers, despite the evidence to the contrary, survive on luck. Not that he'd considered it luck then, lying on his back with the rusty, twisted towers of wrecks spinning through his brain (and thinking, Oh God, what am I going to
It was his personal disaster that he never learned to resist the flow of events; he never learned to make steerage way.
Proton Alley is as cold as all the other streets; any warmth you think you might have found there always turns out to be an illusory side-product of the color of the vapor signs. All its denizens have digested their experience of life so well that nothing of it remains to them.
They start fresh and naïve every day, but still regard you with empty eyes. No warmth: but John Truck basked in its familiarity, which is perhaps an acceptable substitute on any evening dedicated to a Saint.
Outside The Spacer's Rave, an ancient fourth-generation Denebian with skin blackened and seamed, and eyelids perpetually lowered against the actinic glare of a star he hadn't seen for twenty years, was reciting lines from the second canto of
The Fight At Finnsburg
. His hat was at his feet. His boots were cracked, but his voice was passable, booming out over the heads of passing whores and stoned Fleet men:
The Marty Lingham discovered a bleak
orbit; hooked by a fuchsia dwarf,
perihelion at the customary handful
of millions: cometary, cemetery.
He showed his nasty old teeth to Captain Truck, recognizing another loser, however well disguised. He screwed up his dreadful face, winked.
'An intellectual, am I right, bos'n — ?' he began his spiel, stepping craftily into Truck's bee-line.
'If it hadn't been for that,' Truck swore later, 'I might have given him something.'
Inside the Rave, it was a different matter: inside, Tiny Skeffern, the Galaxy's last great musician, was blowing his brains out through his instrument like the contents of a rare egg.
John Truck knew him of old. He stood five foot three and slightly built in the Rave's confusion of spots and strobes and kaleidomats, tapping his right foot. His hair was sparse, curly, and blond — at twenty-two years, he already had a bald patch. When he wasn't playing, he was spring-heeled, he was a leaper; when he was, he stayed in one place for minutes on end, giving the ladies a reserved but cheeky smile. He was an enthusiastic loser from way back, and he nodded when Truck came in.
He played a four-hundred-year-old Fender Stratocaster with all the switchgear jammed full on, through a stack of Luthos amps — each one with a guaranteed output of half a kilowatt— and a battery of Hydrogen Line thirty-inch speakers. He had a loose-limbed Denebian queen, all pink flares and slashed sleeves, on bass; his drummer was a local man, looking seedy and aggressive by turns like all good drummers. His sound: His sound was long-line and hairy, slow and grinding, full of inexplicable little runs and complications. He stalked the Denebian bass through the harmonies; he made sounds like breaking glass and exploding quasars, like dead ships and orbital confrontations and eras of geological upheaval; he made sounds like God.
'I'm a highway child,' he sang, 'so don't deny my name.'
Which was all as it should be.
John Truck licked his lips and bought himself a knickerbocker glory topped with little crystals of tetrahydrocannabinol; he had a look at the audience. They were mostly musicians from other bands, but there was a sprinkling of spacers, who, like John Truck, understood that music had died out in the year 2000 and that the New Music was the old music. Only the winners escape, Truck thought as the old Strat wailed (taking fours with a wholly imaginary wind which nevertheless sent tremors of intent down the backs of his calves and thighs: the port wind, the compass wind). The rest of us get carried by the music. Why not?
There was only one woman in The Spacer's Rave that night. Her name was Angina Seng, and she was looking for John Truck. He wasn't to know it: he could only see her back. Her hair was long and coppery, she held herself with a certain dramatic tension. Her bottom looked nice. So while Tiny Skeffern screwed it out of his glossy, priceless antique for the disconnected, the discontented and the rudderless of the whole duty universe, John Truck fell precipitately in and out of love with her. It was an impartial, on-off passion, for every spaceport lady seen fleetingly in a crowd. He was prone to that sort of thing.
In a hiatus between sets, Tiny brought the Fender over.
He bobbed about for a moment, grinning sentimentally; sat down. Truck looked with affection at his bald spot, beaded with sweat.
'Tiny, you play worse and worse. Who's the girl?'
Tiny huffed, wiped his sleeve over the guitar's immaculate white polymer finish. He shrugged. Even when the Strat wasn't plugged in, the stubby, clubbed fingers of his left hand ran up and down the frets like small, undeveloped animals looking for a way out of the wind.
'Oh, thanks. She's not regular. Can you believe it, I've been here three bloody weeks.'