The Big Time

Chapter 3

Hell is the place for me. For to Hell go the fine churchmen, and the fine knights, killed in the tourney or in some grand war, the brave soldiers and the gallant gentlemen. With them will I go. There go also the fair gracious ladies who have lovers two or three beside their lord. There go the gold and the silver, sables and ermine. There go the harpers and the minstrels and the kings of the earth. -Aucassin NINE FOR A PARTY I exchanged my drink for a new one from another tray Beau was bringing around. The gray of the Void was beginning to look real pleasant, like warm thick mist with millions of tiny diamonds floating in it. Doc was sitting grandly at the bar with a steaming tumber of tea-a chaser, I guess, since he was Just putting down a shot glass. Sid was talking to Erich and laughing at the same time and I said to myself it begins to feel like a party, but something's lacking. It wasn't anything to do with the Major Maintainer; its telltale was glowing a steady red like a nice little home fire amid the tight cluster of dials that included all the controls except the lonely and frightening Introversion switch that was never touched. When Maud's couch curtains winked out and there were she and the Roman sitting quietly side by side. He looked down at his shiny boots and the rest of his black duds like he was just waking up and couldn't believe it all, and he said, "Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis," and I raised my eyebrows at Beau, who was taking the tray back, and he did proud by old Vicksburg by translating: "All things change and we change with them." Then Mark slowly looked around at us, and I can testify that a Roman smile is just as warm as any other nationality, and he finally said, "We are nine, the proper number for a party. The couches, too. It is good." Maud chuckled proudly and Erich shouted, "Welcome back from the Void, Kamerad," and then, because he's German and thinks all parties have to be noisy and satirically pompous, he jumped on a couch and announced, "Heren und Damen, permit me to introduce the noblest Roman of them all, Marcus Vipsalus Niger, legate to Nero Claudlius (called Germanicus in a former time stream) and who In 763 A.U.C. (Correct, Mark? It means 10 A.D., you meatheads!) died bravely fighting the Parthians and the Snakes in the Battle of Alexandria. Hoch, hoch, hoch!" We all swung our glasses and cheered with him and Sud yelled at Erich, "Keep your feet off the furniture, you unschooled rogue," and grinned and boomed at all three hussars, "Take your ease, Recuperees," and Maud and Mark got their drinks, the Roman paining Beau by refusing Falernian wine in favor of scotch and soda, and right away everyone was talking a mile a minute. We had a lot to catch up on. There was the usual yak about the war-"The Snakes are laying mine fields in the Void," I don't believe it, how can you mine nothing?"-and the shortages-bourbon, bobby pins, and the stabiitin that would have brought Mark out of it faster-and what had become of people-"Marcia? Oh, she's not around any more," (She'd been caught in a Change Gale and green and stinking in five seconds, but I wasn't going to say that)-and Mark had to be told about Bruce's glove, which convulsed us all over again, and the Roman remembered a legionary who had carried a gripe all the way to Octavius because he'd accidentally been issued the unbelievable luxury item sugar instead of the usual salt, and Erich asked Sid if he had any new Ghost-girls in stock and Sid sucked his beard like the old goat he is. "Dost thou ask me, lusty Allemand? Nay, there are several great beauties, amongst them an Austrian countess from Strauss's Vienna, and if it were not for sweetling here ... Mnnnn." - I poked a finger in Erich's chest between two of the bright buttons with their tiny death's heads. "You, my little von Hohenwald, are a menace to us real girls. You have too much of a thing about the unawakened, ghost kind." He called me his little Demon and hugged me a bit too hard to prove it wasn't so, and then he suggested we show Bruce the Art Gallery. I thought this was a real brilliant idea, but when 1 tried to argue him out of it, he got stubborn. Bruce and Lilt were willing to pay any attention while doing it. The saber cut was just a thin red line on his cheek; she'd washed away all the dried blood. The Gallery gets you, though. It's a bunch of paintings and sculptures and especially odd knickknacks, all made by Soldiers recuperating here and a lot of them telling about the Change War from the stuff they're made of-brass cartridges, flaked flint, bits of ancient pottery glued into futuristic shapes, mashed-up Incan gold rebeaten by a Martian, whorls of beady Lunan wire, a picture in tempera on a crinkle-cracked thick round of quartz that had filled a starship porthole, a Sumerian inscription chiseled into a brick from an atomic oven. There are a lot of things in the Gallery and I can always find some I haven't ever seen before. It gets you, as I say, thinking about the guys that made them and their thoughts, and the far times and places they came from, and sometimes, when I'm feeling low, I'll come and look at them so I'll feel still lower and get inspired to kick myself back into a good temper. It's the only history of the Place there is and it doesn't change a great deal, because the things in it and the feelings that went into them resist the Change Winds better than anything else. Right now, Erich's witty lecture was bouncing off the big ears I hide under my pageboy bob and I was thinking how awful it is that for us that there's not only change but Change. You don't know from one minute to the next whether a mood or idea you've got is really new or just welling up into you because the past has been altered by the Spiders or Snakes. Change Winds can blow not only death but anything short of it, down to the featheriest fancy . They blow thousands of times faster than time moves, but no one can say how much faster or how far one of them will travel or what damage it'll do or how soon it'll damp out. The Big Time isn't the little time. And then, for the Demons, there's the fear that our personality will just fade and someone else climb into the driver's seat and us not even know. Of course, we Demons are supposed to be able to remember through Change and in spite of it; that's why we are Demons and not Ghosts like the other Doublegangers, or merely Zombies or Unborn and nothing more, and as Beau truly said, there aren't any great men among us-and blamed few of the masses, either-we're a rare sort of people and that's why the Spiders have to Recruit us where they find us without caring about our previous knowledge and background, a Foreign Legion of time, a strange kind of folk, bright but always in the background, with built-in nostalgia and cynicism, as adaptable as Centaurian shape-changers but with memories as long as Lunan's six arms, a kind of Change People, you might say, the cream of the damned. But sometimes I wonder if our memories are as good as we think they are and if the whole past wasn't once entirely different from anything we remember, and we've forgotten that we forgot. As I say, the Gallery gets you feeling real low, and so now I said to myself, "Back to your lousy little commandant, kid," and gave myself a stiff boot. Erich was holding up a green bowl with gold dolphins or spaceships on it and saying, "And, to my mind, this proves that Etruscan art is derived from Egyptian. Don't you agree, Bruce?" Bruce looked up, all smiles from Lili, and said, "What was that, dear chap?" Erich's forehead got dark as the Door and I was glad the hussars had parked their sabers along with their shakos, but before he could even get out a Jerry cuss-word, Doc breezed up in that plateaustate of drunkenness so like hypnotized sobriety, moving as if he were on a dolly, ghosted the bowl out of Erich's hand, said, "A beautiful specimen of Middle Systemic Venusian. When Eightaitch finished it, he told me you couldn't look at it and not feel the waves of the Northern Venusian Shallows rippling around your roofs. But it might look better inverted. I wonder. Who are you, young officer? Nichevo," and he carefully put the bowl back on its shelf and rolled on. It's a fact that Doc knows the Art Gallery better than any of us, really by heart, he being the oldest inhabitant, though he maybe picked a bad time to show off his knowledge. Erich was going to take out after him, but I said, "Nix, Kamerad, remember gloves and sugar," and he contented himself with complaining, "That nichevo-it's so gloomy and hopeless, ungeheuerlich. I tell you, Liebchen, they shouldn't have Russians working for the Spiders not even as Entertainers." I grinned at him and squeezed his hand. "Not much entertainment in Doc these days, is there?" I agreed. He grinned back at me a shade sheepishly and his face smoothed and his blue eyes looked sweet again for a second and he said, "I shouldn't want to claw out at people that way, Greta, but at times I am just a jealous old man," which is not entirely true, as he isn't a day over thirty-three, although his hair is nearly white. Our lovers had drifted on a few steps until they were almost fading into the Surgery screen. It was the last spot I would have picked for the formal preliminaries to a little British smootching, but Lili probably didn't share my prejudices, though I reruembered she'd told me she'd served a brief hitch in an Arachnoid Field Hospital before transferred to the Place. But she couldn't have had anything like the experience I'd bad during my short and sour career as a Spider nurse, when I'd acquired. my best-hated nightmare and flopped completely (jobwise, but on the floor, too) at seeing a doctor flick a switch and a being, badly injured but human, turn into a long cluster of glistening strange fruit-ugh, it always makes me want to toss my cookies and my buttons. And to think that dear old Daddy Anton wanted his Greta chile to be a doctor. Well, I could see this wasn't getting me anywhere I wanted to go, and alter all there was a party going on. Doc was babbling something at a great rate to Sid-I just hoped Doc wouldn't get inspired to go into his animal imitations, which sound pretty fierce and once seriously offended some recuperating ETs. Maud was demonstrating to Mark a 23rd Century two-step and Beau sat down at the piano and improvised softly on her rhythm. As the deep-thrumming relaxing notes hit us, Erich's face brightened and he dragged me over. Pleasantly soon I had my feet off the diamondrough floor, which we don't carpet because most of the ETs, the dear boys, like it hard, and I was shouldering back deep into the couch nearest the piano, with cushions around me and a fresh drink in my hand, while my Nazi boy friend was getting ready to discharge his Weltschmerz as song, which didn't alarm me too much, as his baritone is passable. Things felt real good, like the Maintainer was just idling to keep the Place in existence and moored to the cosmos, not exerting itself at all or at most taking an occasional lazy paddle stroke. At times the Place's loneliness can be happy and comfortable. Then Beau raised an eyebrow at Erich, who nodded, and next thing they were launched into a song we all know, though I've never found out where it originally came from. This time it made me think of Lili, and I wondered why-and why it's a tradition at Recuperation Stations to call the new Lili, though in this case it happened to be her real name. Standing in the Doorway just outside of space, Winds of Change blow 'round you but don't touch your face; You smile as you whisper tenderly, "Please cross to me, Recuperee; "The operation's over, come in and close the Door."

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