|Infinity Hold Series
There's a story
every shark's heard . . . .
I've put the first five chapters of Infinity Hold below because I'd really like you to get hooked on this story. It's important to a lot of folks. As an ex-con who looked me up at a science-fiction convention once said to me, "Man, after reading Infinity Hold, I can't believe you didn't do time."
The opening of
a novel by
Barry B. Longyear
GREENVILLE, A.D. 2115
There's a story every shark's heard. It's supposed to have come from a crowbar pit on one of the upper rim-side planets. Maybe it was from Jonomann Penal on Menes, or Vandys Correctional in the Killilian Wastes on Rashnu. For all I know, it could have happened right here on Earth. It's about old protomo—a new shark on his first day in the crowbars.
After proto gets his uniform issue, he walks onto the block, and the first thing that greets him is a fist in his face. When the birds stop chirping, the new shark sees that the guy who decked him was the same guy who had been standing in front of him in the issue line.
"Why'd you do that?" protomo demands.
"You're new," he answers, then the slugger walks off.
Old protomo goes into a blind rage about this treatment, and he looks around for something to smash. The first thing he sees is a face and he drives his fist into it. With his anger cooled a bit, the new shark sees that the guy he punched was the guy who had been standing in the issue line behind him.
The fellow on the floor holds his jaw and asks, "Why'd you do that?"
Sharky answers, "You're new."
Thus endeth the lesson.
It used to be a tickle watching the protos being led to their cells. The oh-seven thousand door slammed open, then in came the cherry following the lime green directional lights. Held be all wide-eyed, dressed in stiff new crowbar blues, carrying a double armload of sheets, blankets, underwear, and his second uniform. You knew what those wide eyes were seeing. You knew what those new ears were hearing. You knew what proto was feeling because you been there once yourself.
Protomo was seeing cage after cage of trapped sharks—vicious, unpitying animals; his new peers. You picked up that word "peers" if you collected some breaks and worked the clock in one of those rehab hotels where all you did was put on the heads and put in your time. It's a soft clock and it's something to do. I was in one of them for a short stretch. Williamsburg Rehab. Then I got transferred to Old Miss; the joint with the view of the big runny; the Union of Terran Republics' Penal Center at Greenville. We called it the Crotch.
The proto who came to the Crotch faced the rock clock: hard time. And after his eyeballs soaked up all those bars and cruel faces, his ears got pounded numb by the combination of a thousand rads and vids all on different stations, each one going full-blast, trying to drown out the rest. Then the sharks shouting at the top of their lungs trying to talk and be heard over the racket. The constant rumble of bars moving, the dit-dit-dit of warning alarms, then the slam after slam of bars closing, the stains blowing orders and watch calls into their little hand rads.
Jeez, man, she was
Then there's that whiff. A blend of locker room, hospital, discount drug store, garage, mildew, and underground toilet. Stale sweat, dirty clothes, disinfectant, sixty different kinds of after shave, perfume, and deodorant, all overpowered by the constant smell of machine oil. The stuff that keeps those bars rolling, the locks turning, all that steel from rusting.
They say that after they were finished building Hell, the Devil loaded up an illegal hauler with the construction clean-up trash, and the hauler nosed around until he found a deserted place that no one would ever want. He dumped Hell's trash there, and they called it Mississippi. Then they found a fever swamp on the flood plain, they built a cesspool right in the middle of it, and they called it Greenville. When it came time for the Union of Terran Republics to build its maximum security facility for recidivists, incorrigibles, and unrehabilitatables, it seems the Minister of Corrections selected the site after accidentally getting knocked into a vat at the sewage treatment plant in the El Segundo Home for the Intestinally Gross.
Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, the air at Greenville was so heavy, every time a breeze blew, you could hear the splash. That's what proto was breathing when he took in the sights at Hell's Shitcan.
Protomo absorbed that atmosphere, his chin trembled, and his buns started getting tight. He had been dropped straight through the floor of the candy store right down into the heart of Hell. God but it made your guts twitch.
Proto wasn't thinking about that little thing he did on the block that bought him his room at the Crotch. He wasn't thinking about that little old lady he tapped but just happened to thin in the process, or that cute little teller he yellowed as he shoved that note across the counter and aimed that greasy, black gun muzzle between her breasts, or that jury of his "peers" that never had to grow up where you stole and killed just to work your way out from under the bottom of that mountain of bodies, despair, and garbage called "home." He wasn't even thinking about that judge who sat there, man, like he had to explain away the five-to-ten rock he was dropping on you.
Hell, proto wasn't even thinking about that lawyer of his, that cockroach cash register in the money threads who had collecting maximum court fees by running you through the juicer with a minimum of effort down to a science. No, that's not what protomo was thinking. All that was over. Done past. Ancient history.
What the new boy did is what we all did. He stopped thinking. Kept a numb skull. You think, man, and there's only one thing to think about: time. Time and where you're spending it. You think in Greenville, or in any other pit, and you buy yourself infinity in the white rubber room.
When protomo climbed those stairs and followed the lights down that gallery toward his cell, the sharks whistled at him, made smacking sounds with their lips, said things. You know what kind of things. A lot of them were kidding; a lot of them weren't. Then you knew what pro is feeling: chicken feathers. Running down the legs terror, man. Like, if proto can't get to a white throne in the next five seconds, his brand new blues won't be brand new no mo'. If proto knew anything, he'd start counting up the colors on those sneering, smirking faces, then check his own leather and pray like hell that his skin resembled the sharks in power.
—bay-beeee, will you
look at ol'
protomo, not a hair on that sweet thing—
Like I said: it was a tickle watching the protos come in. And I laughed. You had to laugh at something. It killed time, and killing time is where it was. But you laughed real quiet, man, because if you laughed too loud, you might never stop. Then it was back to the rubber room.
Sharks had ways of murdering the clock. Some fools studied like maybe someday they'd become tycoons, scientists, deep space navigators, or teachers instead of muckshuckers and deadheads. Some of the brothers killed time by talking about breaking out; others just talked; others just sat and stared at the walls. Some escaped by numbing their heads with loud music, stroke sheets, religion, or happy powders. A few mentally left the crowbars by writing stories and books. Some of them were even published, too. Some killed time by killing each other.
Some thinned the timepiece by getting into group activities. The chappies would shuck around singing hymns, the perverts and deadheads would hold therapy meetings, and we even had a theater group. On the men's side they were producing Brother Crowbar, an in-house ripoff of someone else's play. On the women's side they were rehearsing Mob Cinderella another ripoff of an even older work. There was a tap on the pipes that Mob Cinderella was a spoof written anonymously by a genuine goomba wiseguy, but it never paid to believe the taps. After all, a lot of sharks thinned the clock by sending out lies and rumors just to see how long they took to come back.
Whatever. It killed time.
Some—quite a few—killed the clock by killing themselves; taking a flyer off one of the upper galleries, a strip of trouser leg around the neck from the top of the bars, even drowning in a white porcelain throne. The young, pretty pros did that a lot. There used to be nets strung across the open spaces between the galleries to save the jumpers, but the nets were removed years ago. Anything but money to help ease the overcrowding problem.
When I wasn't prowling the library for something new to read, or listening to the yard gurus, I killed the clock by watching my fellow sharks at work, play, and destruction.
There were the yard monsters. They whittled on the clock by pumping iron for endless hours every day, cultivating the body grotesque. A black nationalist called Rhome Nazzar was their unofficial leader, and he wasn't just meat between the ears. I'd seen him at the library too many times to believe that. But Nazzar had killed a lot of angel cakes, and when the haystacks walked by, you could see them give Nazzar that I-just-wanted-to-make-certain-where-you-were look as they gave the homemade cutters in their pockets a little squeeze for comfort.
We had lots of political filberts, like the anarchist Martin Stays who foamed at the mouth for his first year at the hotel. When he arrived, no one got a chance to see what he looked like, he was dropped into the black hole that fast. And every time they'd let him out, he'd rip, tear, and foam at the mouth again. Then it was back in the black hole. Out of his first year in the Crotch, he couldn't of had more than a month in the yard. When he finally stopped foaming at the mouth and they let him out of the black hole for good, he hung out in the library some. Most of the time, though, he spent the same as me: watching the zoo, but real quiet.
Another pistachio was Nkuma, and he only had the one name. He was a semi-yard monster who went around spreading "the truth." He had been a libertarian communist who discovered Jesus and was doing infinity for thinning the entire family he had been holding hostage when the stains finally cornered him.
One strange character was Ice Fingers. The name he used in prison was Herb Ollick, but he was really a middle management goomba, head of his own small family, out of some Jersey rathole. Whether that was the truth or a let's-stir-up-some-trouble rumor was one of the hotly debated topics on slow news days. However, after all of the bets had been laid, Herb would never say one way or the other. He'd just smile, write in his cell a lot, and polish his diamonds. That's how he got the name Ice Fingers. He wore five diamond rings, two on his right hand, and three on his left. Sharks weren't allowed to wear rings, but Ice had some guard captain on the cob. The rings were very valuable, but no one made a try for them. After all, it was just possible that Ice really was a goomba.
We had a prize fighter staying with us. His name was Abner Pandro, but his fans knew him as Kid Scorpion. The wagering was that he could have captured the heavyweight title if he hadn't gotten offended by a vid reporter's question and turned the interviewer into road kill the next day. The Kid probably could have gotten away with it, except that when the stains arrived on the scene of the crime an hour later, Kid Scorpion was still driving over and backing up over the flattened remains of the visual fourth estate.
We had some notables on the women's side, too, although it wasn't often there was an opportunity to observe. Bloody Sarah, the UTR commando officer who was working the clock for murdering one hundred and fifty-some Suryian villagers, was our most famous prisoner. The next most famous prisoner was Marantha Silver, the MJ agent who everybody knew was doing the clock on a bad rap.
The women had their own yard monsters, too. There was a bull croc named Nance Damas who pumped a bit of iron and was there for torturing to death a rapist who had done a close friend of hers, and for torturing to death the six witnesses to the event who didn't do anything because they didn't want to get involved.
It was quite a place. As big Dave used to say, in the crowbar hotel you get to see the best of everything at its worst, and the worst of everything at its best. There was the Whacker. She was an ax-murderer from Washington who used to be a social worker. We had a police captain who threw the law books out of the window and thinned the sleaze he was after. There was the Soprano-maker, a pepper bit who used to geld her male friends with a razor when they disappointed her, and she must've had quite a crowd of disappointments, if you listened to the stories. But stories always grow hair in the crowbars. To live up to the crowbar yarns of her exploits, the Soprano-maker would have had to have been running through rush-hour crowds with a chain saw.
Anyway, there were lots of interesting people to watch at Old Miss. Watching the sharks was entertainment, and it kept me on top of what was happening. I knew the gangs, who to steer clear of, who to do favors for, and the little pieces of information that filtered through the grapevine or down the pipe from the front office.
I survived by becoming as valuable as I could to as many brothers as possible, and by being no trouble to the rest. I knew the score, the drill, the ropes, like any old hand at the game. I was twenty-seven; eleven of those years in the crowbar stacks. Three years in Lancaster Juvenile Rehab (assault), two and six in Binghamton with another deuce and a half at Jordensville (armed robbery), a deuce at Williamsburg Rehab with a move and another big one at Greenville (murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, resisting arrest) with, maybe, ten more on good behavior. Sixteen if I was naughty. I figured on doing the dime and walking through the door in the year 2125 at the age of thirty-seven. Then news of Tartaros came down the pipe. Brother Crowbar and Mob Cinderella were canceled.
WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR
The whole lodge had heard about Tartaros before—a planet where seventeen other planets dumped their worst sharks. It just had nothing to do with us. We'd heard Parliament blow wind at the subject, read the editorials against the penal colony, heard about the protests, saw the issue dropped time after time. Earth wasn't one of the planets belonging to the Tartaran con cartel, so who worried about that? There were always more important things to worry about, like scoring a powder, spreading some corn, staying alive and disease free.
But there was a turn in the arguments: for every shark supported in the crowbars, eight new jobs could be created, twenty families could be fed, or another step toward finding that elusive cancer cure could be taken. That's what came down the pipes from the front office. Earth had joined the human landfill. There were too many humans in too little space to waste precious resources on the anti-social element. The bottom line was the bottom line.
We were all going to be protos. All of us were officially notified three weeks after we already knew. Anyone doing numbers on murder one, rape, child molesting, unclassified acts of terrorism, a felony involving more than ten thousand credits (including the cost of apprehension and prosecution), a second felony of any kind, the "unrehabilitatable", and anyone who they felt like sending, were to be dumped on the big T. Everyone in the Crotch had already been classified as "unrehabilitatable." That's why we were in Greenville. So, we were all notified. All of our sentences had been "commuted" to exile on Tartaros.
I went to the prison library and looked up Tartaros. The information on the planet, even its location, was classified. The information on the planet's name was not. According to the ancients, Tartaros was Hell's hell. What the Sibyl told Aeneas, as she took him on a guided tour of Hell, was that the gulf of Tartaros was so deep that its bottom was as far beneath their feet as Heaven was high above their heads. All in all, it did not sound as though being exiled to Tartaros had much chance of being a life-style upgrade.
Exile. It sounded like something out of the days of feudal kings, knights, and all that yore.
We waited, while I watched and listened.
I don't care where I put in my time, man. It's got to be better than this place."
"Bay-beee. You have obviously not gotten the word."
"Nobody is going to fetch you off that rock after your time is up, bay-beee. No way. Your sentence has been commuted, changed, you have been handed the sticky stick. Tartaros is for ever, bay-beee."
"What? Man, when my time is up, I go back on the block. That's what the smear in the black rags said. And, my man, that's just what I intend to do!"
"Sor-r-r-r-y, bay-beee. The man has changed the rules. Isn't that just like the little devil? Let me consult my crystal ball. I see in our futures a long voyage, and a long, long stay."
"You telling me, man, that we don't come back? No matter what our sentences are?"
"You got it, bay-bee."
"Don't we got some rights in this? What about appeals?"
"Sor-r-r-ry, bay-bee. No rights, no fights, no deals, no appeals. We are being put on infinity hold."
The family men began putting on the ants early. Cut off, no more contact, no more mail, no more packages filled with goodies some stain was paid not to notice. The coldest monsters in the crowbars would begin weeping at odd moments for no apparent reason at all. I listened to more than one sob story about Sonny, Sis, Fido and the Little Woman. Even the patriots started to come out of the closet, pissing and moaning about purple mountains majesty and amber waves of silicon chips.
The vids even got into it when the matter of pregnant prisoners came up. Why should the offspring suffer the punishment of the parent? Didn't that make the sins of the parent the sins of the child? I suppose the two-for-one reduction in the population totals helped the argument some, but the clincher was what it had always been: the children have been suffering for the sins of their parents since man invented sin. Why change now? Pregnancy was no ticket off of Tartaros. The abortionists had a busy season.
I heard some of the don goomba kingpinners were talking about hiring private raiders to come and lift them off the big T, as some of them began calling the planet. But the mob chiefs usually found their money was all dried up. That number two suit in the brotherhood got real assertive when he found out that number one was on his way to infinity hold.
The yard monsters kept pumping iron, but there were lots of furtive conversations between Nazzar and some of the others like Ow Dao, Steel Jacket, and The Match. For a time, security at the Crotch was maxed. The front office expected the hotel to entropize after getting the streak, and the stains were powered up to where they probably could have taken on the army of a medium-sized planet. I had no complaints. It kept the streets clean for a bit. But the man should have saved the taxpayers the change. The Crotch wasn't ready to rock. Instead, we were stunned. Thinking about change did that.
Straightmeats fear change; the unknown. But you sit in the crowbars long enough and change is something you pray for. Even a move to another pit looks like a holiday. The thing that made the T look good to the sharks at Greenville was that none of us knew anything about it. None of us'd ever been there, and none of us knew anyone who had been there. Not even the stains knew anything. The only ones who knew the real story were on Tartaros. There was no trouble, and, after a few days, the stains went back to business as usual.
Watching. It was a tickle the way the sharks packed up the few things they were allowed to bring. Rads and vids, photos of Mommy and Fido, feelthy peektures, some health pills packed with classified vitamins and minerals. The tobacco addicts were jamming as many nails as possible into those tiny metal boxes. They were jabbering away, grinning like they were going off to grandma's for a holiday. I wondered what was going to happen when the pills, the weed, and the little vials of alk, powder and other stuff ran out.
There's something invigorating in thinking about being smack in the middle of fifteen thousand freaked out sharks who are all fighting rats, bugs, snakes, and giant squids in their imaginations. But the deadhead puffs can always find a way to continue being a loser. Hell, you can grow alcohol anywhere. When they can't get anything else, some of the powder-puffs even get high by cutting off the blood to their brains until they pass out.
Me? I found myself—for the first time in my life—staring at the concrete walls of my cell, wondering about me, my life, the things I had done, the people I had done them to, the things that had been done to me. What about that teacher I punched out in high school that bought me my trey in Lancaster? You punch out people that have a mouth on them, and that bundle of wimps had a mouth on him. I got my trey, but at least that smear got his mouth wired shut. I was told he quit teaching. I did some good, then.
Good. All my life I was good. Never thought of myself as bad, although there was a lot of opinions on the other side of that. It had something to do with the definitions used by the straightmeats against the ones used by the sharks.
The straightmeats told me I was no good, but good was living up to your buddies. Loyalty. Good was never growing feathers on a job, pulling out and leaving your partner to entertain the stains. Good was keeping your blowhole shut when the man wanted you to roll on a brother to keep the numbers down when the clock was dumped in your lap. Good was stealing enough to keep your face fed and food on the table for your mother and kid sister. That was good. Good was walking down the street swinging, knowing no one would tangle with you because if you didn't stripe his ass, your gang would.
That five I did in Binghamton and Jordonsville for liberating that mom and pop grocery. I thought about that judge—wheezy old smear in the black rags—lecturing me on the "right to property."
The right to property. The judge he said, young man, he said, I don't think you will learn about this any other way. Five to eight in the Binghamton Crowbar Hotel where you will be denied your "right to property." I never had any bloody damned property in the first place. Big deal.
Half way through my nickel at Binghamton, Eddie "The Whisper" got a modified spoon slipped between his ribs because he couldn't keep his blowhole shut. The stains knew that I knew, so it was go to the juicer and sing or go to Jordonsville. Jordonsville it was. Good. I goddamned well knew what good was. I didn't need a spoon between my ribs because I couldn't keep the wind out of my hole.
But after I spent my nickel, the doors opened and I was back on the block. My mom was dead. My kid sister off with some deadhead. No job. The gang gone—jail, dead, or just plain out on juice or powder. Hell, even the tenement where I had grown up was gone. In its place was a big hole in the ground waiting for some agency and a lot of money nobody wanted to spend to fill it with another housing project designed to deal with over population by vertical filing.
Nights I would go out to the plush quarters and do a little liberating to keep change in my pocket. I only did easy stuff. I learned to do locks in Jordonsville, along with a few other things like boxes and alarms. I learned all about the "right to property": if you leave it sitting around like a damned fool, it's mine.
Half the time I didn't even have to do a lock. Doors left open, windows open, cellar doors open, fancy boxes on dressers shouting "Hey, look in here! This is where the good stuff is!", picture frames with shiny brass hinges on one side saying "Guess what's back here?" Then you open it up and find a "safe" that couldn't keep out a spastic with a hairpin.
Then my kid sister, Danine, was found dead in some dump. She had taken a bunch of pills because her old man had gotten bored with her and split. Before he left, he had turned Danine's sweet face into an ad for a horror flick. His name was Kosta something and he was a powder puff looking for a bit with some ass left to sell. I found him and thinned his shadow. I was a little crazy after that.
I still had the gun and I went into the first bank I saw and pulled it out. I didn't even need the money. But I needed to tap that bank guard, and that first stain with a badge that came through the door. When they laid the stripes and thumps on me, I guess I needed those too. The chaos, the broken bones, helped to kill what I was feeling inside.
Then there was the rehab facility at Williamsburg where they decided I was beyond hope. I couldn't see what was wrong with thinning Danine's old man, and they figured that wasn't a plus. I had been sorry about the two stains who got broken up, but they shouldn't have gotten in the way of my pain. That was it for the rehab.
Then they sent me to Greenville. But from there where? A place called Tartaros. The big T. Exile. Permanent sentence. Infinity hold.
There would be no mail, no vids, no phones, nothing but a free, no frills, one-way ride. That was all corners with me. There wasn't a single body on Earth I wanted to write or call me. I thought about that for a long time, then I bought permission for a call and punched in the number of a bit I knew. It was the only number I could remember. She didn't remember me at all, but she wished me luck.
When it came time to pack my belongings, I couldn't think of anything special I wanted to bring. I didn't have a thing that would be useful, and there wasn't anything I wanted to remember.
I mentioned this to the yard guru in the cell next to mine. His name was Big Dave Cole. To keep me sane he had lent me the first book I had ever read all of the way through. Southey's Life of Nelson . It kept me sane, and started me on reading. So when Big Dave talked, I listened. He said to me that I should bring a book. If I didn't enjoy it myself, I could always trade it to the print addicts for what I did want.
"There won't be many books on the T, Bando, and readers will pay almost anything to keep reading."
I spoke through my bars. "What book should I bring?"
He laughed. "Hell, anything. After a few days without reading, there'll be those who'll swap you mother, best bit, and cat for a seed catalog."
"I don't know." I sighed. "It's almost like a point of honor not to bring anything. Taking something is like saying that I'm going along. It's like I'm thumbing my nose at the stains one last time if I don't bring anything."
"That's like trying to get revenge on someone by punching yourself in the head, Bando. Real stupid." I heard Big Dave move around in his cell for a bit, then he laughed and said, "Here. Bring this one."
I saw the corner of an orange cover and I reached between my bars and pulled in the little pumpkin-colored book. Its title was Yesterday's Tomorrow: Meditations for Hard Cases.
"Nicos, Bando, 3340792. Stand at the door." It was a couple of stains with screenboards with more stains behind them herding the processed sharks out of the block. I stood at the door, grabbed the top of the bars, and waited until the stain was finished feeling me up.
"Any belongings, Nicos?" asked the short skinny one.
"You're not coming back from this one, sharkie. You sure you don't want to bring something with you from Earth? Some pressed flowers? A vid of your old gray-haired granny?"
"I got my blues, a back full of scars, and all the shit I can carry from you assholes. I got all I want from Earth." That book of Big Dave's was in my little box that would go in the cargo hold, but why should I tell him?
"Suit yourself, tough guy."
I always had.
TO GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE WE GO
They moved us in groups of fifty to the spaceport. It was another tickle to think about space, other worlds, stars. When you have your nose in the garbage, garbage is all you ever see or think about. Thinking about not being on Earth, about being out there in space somewhere, was a cruise.
I used to dream about flying among the stars when I was a kid and could still dream. I would eat up the stories of UTR deep space pilots and explorers, imagining myself zipping past pink gas clouds and huge red stars. At least I was going to get to see some of those things on the way to Tartaros.
On the bus I sat by the window. That way I got to see all those places I never saw in the daylight. Sure, I saw plush before when I used to do it for jewelry, cash, coats, coin and stamp collections. But that was work, and always at night. There were still neighborhoods like theirs, neighborhoods like mine; people like them, and people like us. All those big highways, glass office buildings, cozy little mansions saying bye-bye to old Bando Nicos. Can't use you, Bando. Time to put you away—far away from us good, good people.
Hell, no one noticed the bus. It was just another vehicle in another rush hour parade whining down another road. Fifty human beings on their way to infinity hold, but the world, the city, not one soul paused to take notice.
Maybe, somewhere in one of those glass office buildings, some government accountant was patting his fat belly and nodding over his backlit spread sheet. It took the Union of Terran Republics sixteen thousand credits a year to keep Bando Nicos locked up in Greenville. Now Bando and the whole joint were on their way to the spaceport and a place called Tartaros. Cost: the no-frills price of the trip. He'd pat his belly and nod again. Check, check, enter column, delete; the Ministry of Corrections was moving into the black.
I turned from the window and went back to watching my fellow animals. Nkuma was seated next to me, and in the aisle seat across from him was a defrocked priest whose name I never knew. Everyone just called him Fodder and he was rocking the clock for raping a young girl and killing two parishioners in an alcoholic rage. He was the most guilty shark I ever saw, constantly mumbling prayers that might, somehow, plea bargain his way out of the big toaster. Nkuma leaned over and said, "Pack it, Fodder. There ain't no way 'round the red suit." With his cuffed hand Nkuma touched a finger against his own knee. "Ssssssss!" He lifted his finger, shook it and blew on it. "Hot. Hot!" Then he laughed while Fodder continued his mumbling.
We never got to see the outside of the prison ship. The waiting pen had no windows, and there was nothing but a guarded corridor to the hatch. At the hatch I caught the whiff. It smelled like any other pit.
"Nicos, Bando, 3340792."
I shuffled out of the pack and made my way down the bare-metal aisle between the drab-looking seats. Whoever built that ship had saved a bundle on interior decorating. In the back of my head was an itch that wondered if I could keep sane doing nothing but sitting in one of those minimalist flight couches for the days it would take to reach Tartaros. When I imagined the ship, I expected to see windows. I thought I could kill the clock watching the stars pass by. But there were no windows. I felt panic gnaw at my edges. Close places make it hard to breath. I have to see the outside or I suffocate.
I stopped before a stain who was carrying a bad look and a screenboard. After checking the number on my jacket against his board, he nodded toward a half-filled row of seats. "In there, Nicos."
I looked toward the rear of the compartment. Rows and rows of cons. They looked like galley slaves in one of those old Roman ships. I glanced at the stain. "When do we get issued oars?"
His eyes were covered by his cap's visor. The rest of his face was like brick. "Oars?"
I shrugged. "Forget it."
His cheek muscles twitched. "Don't make trouble Nicos."
"What'll you do, stain? Put me in jail?"
The tiny mouth beneath the guard's visor cracked into a humorless grin. "No more jails for you, burr-head. But I might arrange for you to make the trip to Tartaros with a couple of broken knees. Maybe you'd like a little walk outside after we take off? Maybe I just won't let you use the white throne for the trip."
The man always has the power. I did what I should have done in the first place: shut my blowhole. Again the guard nodded toward the half-filled row of seats. "Put your striped ass in that chair and buckle up, tough guy."
I moved in, sat in the last empty seat, and buckled the metal mesh belt across my upper thighs. Just for the laughs I tried to release the buckle.
I looked and saw that my left-hand companion was one of the yard monsters from Greenville. One of the black gang that broke arms for Snowflake. Freddy something. I had done him a couple of favors. "Never hurts to try."
Freddy something nodded once, then closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of his couch. I looked to my right as another yard monster, Dick Irish, dropped into the next seat and buckled up. I closed my eyes and swallowed. Dick Irish's arm was one of the many snapped by Freddy in the line of duty. Irish nudged me with his elbow, grinned, and talked in a low whisper. "Keep low, Nicos. I got a little present for that black bastard." He glanced at Freddy then opened his jacket just enough for me to see the handle of a home-made cutter.
My gut knotted as I contemplated those two sweetmeats having a slash-and-snap contest in my lap. I glanced up at the compartment's overhead and whispered to Irish: "Up there, Dick."
He looked up. "What?"
"See those things that sort of look like air vents?"
Irish frowned and nodded. "Yeah? What about them?"
"Cameras. They're watching us every second."
He glared at the air vent for a moment, shrugged, and leaned back in his seat. "How long's it going to take for the stain to work his way down a row full of sharks? I can make ground round out of Freddy before anyone gets here. I'm on infinity hold. I ain't got nothin' to lose."
I moistened my lips and whispered again. "Don't be a jerk. They got comp-run light cutters tied in with the cameras. You'll be cut in half before you can get that edge all the way out of your jacket." I glanced at Freddy, but the monster still had his eyes closed. When I looked back at Irish, he was glowering at the overhead. He rubbed his chin, then clasped his hands over his belly and turned his face in my direction. "You sure, Nicos?" I nodded emphatically. He looked back at the overhead, then closed his eyes. "God damn stains."
The knot in my gut eased just a bit. Cameras? Light-cutters? Computers? How long was it going to take for old sweetmeat on my right to figure out that those air vent-looking things were only air vents? I felt an elbow nudge my left am and I looked into Freddy something's smiling face.
"Smart," he whispered. "Stay smart." He resumed his sleeping pose while that protomo feeling crawled all over me. Greenville was beginning to look better and better.
In the ship, we were stuck in rows sixteen across. A few sharks were cut loose long enough every now and then to hand out tasteless little box chows to the rest. You went to the white throne under escort, and when you stood up to make the trip, you got to see the whole compartment. It was a long trip, and I got to count the rows a lot of times.
Fifty-four rows, and all were full. Eight hundred and sixty-four cons in that compartment. Twenty compartments in the ship. Seventeen thousand two hundred and eighty cons. Maybe. I never got to see the sizes of the other compartments.
When the stains took you to the white throne, you were put through a zatz thing that cleaned you, clothes and all. You didn't feel clean at all, but it sort of killed the smell. I knew some of the happy-powder boys who had hollowed out heels, had sewed sweet death into their seams, and had even dissolved their shit and soaked their blues in a saturated solution. None of the stuff made it through the zatz.
"Man, how can that thing clean out a sealed glass container?" The whine came from a powder-puff three or four seats down from Dick Irish. He had his shoe off and was looking with great woe upon an empty vial that protruded from the back of his heel.
When the puffs began getting tense with the sweat-writhe-and-heave thing, the guards and even some of the sharks thought it was funny. At least the sharks that weren't sitting near them thought it was funny. A lap puddled in puke does terrible things to one's sense of humor.
When the puffs started seeing tentacles and strangling their seat mates, prescription downs were issued. I didn't even want to think about what the puffs would be like after landing. After the downs had all done past.
You got to brush your own teeth with a recycled toothbrush dipped in a paste that tasted like frog fungusfrappe'. Back in my seat, the metal mesh belt was locked in place, then it was back to staring at the insides of my eyelids.
What can you do when you can't do anything? At first I tried sleeping. That constant rumbling vibration from the ship's engines helped to drown out the noises around me, but it's tough to sleep for weeks if you're still alive.
I hummed songs, I thought of every piece of my past that I could remember, I tried figuring numbers in my head, which was a waste. I couldn't do much with numbers when I had a calc. Without a box, I was helpless.
It got so that I would have given my left leg, and a good bit of my right, to get Big Dave's book out of my box in the cargo hold. There were a few paperback books that had been carried on board, but they never seemed to travel my way. I began having fantasies about the wonderful time I would have when I could plant my feet on solid ground, open Yesterday's Tomorrow , and read until I went blind.
Finally Freddy got bored enough that he wanted to talk. What he wanted to talk about were the men, women and children, in and out of hotels, that he had tortured, maimed, and killed. With surprising gracefulness he would gesture with his hands as he talked, and the stories frightened me so that it took quite a bit of mental effort to remember to blink every now and then.
There was a shark sitting in front of me who carried a long face on a slender body. The stains would call him out when it was his turn to visit the throne, which is how I knew his name was Clark Antess. I thought I had remembered him from the vids. He was a former member of Parliament, had been appointed by the First Minister to head the UTR Defense Force's Office of Procurement making him the number two man in the Ministry of Defense.
Clark Antess had been caught with his manicured fingers in the till to the sweet sound of three mills. What that long face had to have been pondering was this vaporous thing fools call justice. See, there was a bird in the Ministry of Defense who had done the very same thing Clark had done, except that he had done it two years earlier for eight times the change. That fellow had done eight months on a rehab farm and was on parole publishing his book by the time the nabs got Clark.
It was all in the timing. An election came rolling around and it was again time to interview a couple of bums, drag out the drug addicts, and just to show the folks that we're not just down on the little people, let's nail someone who wears a suit.
So Clark found himself with a bag full of bad numbers and riding a rocket to Hell's hell thinking that if he had stolen thirty mill instead of three, he wouldn't be on his way to infinity hold. Instead he'd be in group therapy nodding his head and telling some counselor how he'd seen the light and was bent on mending his ways just as soon as the movie and vid-serial rights from his life story were negotiated.
One time when he came back from the throne and was facing me before he sat down, I held up my right fist and said "Justice!"
He looked at me with those sad eyes, turned around, and sat down without replying. Freddy jabbed me with his elbow and observed, "You're always lookin', Bando. Always lookin'."
"I don't mean anything by it. Just killing the clock, same as everyone else."
Freddy grinned and shook his head. "No, you watchin', but not like everybody else. See, when the other yard eagles look around they're tryin' to find somethin' to laugh or shout at. They're tryin' to fill the moment. When you look you see things maybe you shouldn't."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do." He sat up, faced me and opened his big brown eyes. "I've seen you lookin' with all those gears turnin' in your head. Sometimes when I catch you lookin' at me or Irish or some other shark, sometimes I get the feelin' you're takin' somethin' that don't belong to you."
"If I believed in vampires, I'd say you was soul-stealin'."
"Freddy, do you believe in the big bats?"
"No. I don't believe in vampires." Freddy closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of his couch. "That's why I figure you're some kind of ghoul livin' off the rest of us somehow—eatin' us with your eyes."
Dick Irish wanted to talk about the new world we were going to, how it was a fresh start for all of us, and that he would go straight and make himself into a new man just as soon as he had finished butchering Freddy and settling a few other old scores he had in mind. Between trying to sleep sitting up, my legs hurting from sitting so much, being locked up with no windows, and listening to the yard monsters' horror stories, I was a long way from getting rested. Above the sink in the throne room was a mirror, and every time I looked at it, the fellow who looked back had aged a year.
There was a game we played like twenty questions, except we only allowed eight questions. One of us would pick a shark and answer questions on the yard eagle's criminal record or crowbar history while the other two tried to guess the shark's name. Dick Irish was as thick as frog-foot fungus, but Freddy was sharp. Anyway, he knew a lot about the sharks.
"Male?" asked Freddy.
Freddy looked up at the air vent. "Arson?"
Freddy squinted his eyes at me and asked, "Does he pump iron?"
I nodded and tried to keep a poker face. There were maybe two hundred yard monsters at Greeneville. "He pumps iron. You got one more question."
"Swindler? Yirbe Vekk? Steel Jacket?"
"Yeah. Now you pick one."
Freddy closed his eyes and flexed his fingers as though he were strangling a rhino. "I got one."
I blew my eight questions, and an additional eight questions that Freddy gave me out of the goodness of his heart. I couldn't guess who it was, and Freddy expanded on the game. He gave me a five-minute description of the shark, and the only thing I managed to figure out was that, whoever the yard eagle was, he was a real asshole. Then I gave up and Freddy told me. The shark was Bando Nicos. I got tired of the game.
Watching. Maybe half-way through the trip the sharks stopped making like a trip to grandma's for the holidays. First quiet, then talk; pumping the stains for something on Tartaros. But none of them had been there either. One of the seventeen other planets using the big T had supplied the prison ships, but the UTR had supplied its own guards. The talk got angry, then the guards shuffled us around to different seats. I said good-bye to Irish and Freddy and let my guts unwind for the first time in days.
I wound up with a pussyfaced filbert from Lewisburg Max on my right. He was a terrorist who looked like a daisy with a beard and sideburns. On my left was the aisle. In the aisle seat across from mine was Big Dom from Greenville. Him I knew. He was a big Greek with a brain the size of a pea who killed his clock by lifting weights ten hours a day. I had done Dom a few favors back in the Crotch.
"Dom. How goes it?"
The giant grinned, half the teeth missing from his head. "Need my weights, Bando. Dom needs his weights."
"Can't be too long, now."
"All this energy in me's ready to explode. I can't find no way to work it off. You know this ship ain't got no windows?"
"I want to look at the stars, Bando."
"Just cruise, Dom. Can't be too long now. Just cruise."
"What about my energy? How can I work it off?"
"Try isometrics. Like you push and pull against things." I put my hands on the back of the seat in front of me. "Like this, and push. It'll work your arms, back and shoulders. Get your legs into it and you can even work those too."
Dom placed his hands on the back of the seat in front of him and pushed. There was a hellishly loud cracking sound and Dom just about folded the shark in that seat in half. Those seats weren't supposed to move, and when they replaced the back on that one, I saw the steel back supports the big man had snapped in two. He looked at me, his hairless eyebrows raised, looking very guilty.
"It's okay, Dom," I said to him. "It can't be too long now. Just cruise."
Dom nodded. End of conversation. The hairy thing on my right opened his mouth for the first time and whispered. "That sweetmeat a friend of yours?"
"What's it to you?"
The hair nodded at Dom. "We're going to need friends like that where we're going."
I looked at the kid. "What do you know about where we're going, Pussyface?"
The kid grinned. Nice dental work peeked out of all that hair. "I'm not like the rest of you yard eagles. I got ways of finding out. Tartaros is going to be my place."
I laughed. "You?" Skinny little punk. I laughed again.
The kid nodded. "Me."
I shook my head. "Look, Pussyface"
"My name is Garoit. Darrell Garoit."
"Okay, Darrell Garoit, you pussyface. For openers, it's sharks with think-goo, coin, and connections that run the pits. Next, you're a pussyfaced little punk. Punks don't run the crowbars; they get run by the powered up sharks. Last, just what is it that you know about Tartaros?"
He sneered at me, leaned his head back against his seat, then closed his eyes. I wrapped the fingers of my right hand around his skinny wrist and squeezed. "Pussyface, I can bust this arm like a twig. Now, I asked a question."
"All right!" Darrell Garoit rubbed his released wrist, then gave me a bad look. "There's no hotel on Tartaros. No crowbars, no stains. Nothing but cons. My group, the Freedom Front, we fought against the UTR joining the con dump on Tartaros, so I've studied all about it. See, there's no jail, no government, no guards. A guy with political savvy can go a long way there, if he can stay alive long enough. I plan to stay alive."
"You're packed. What kind of system is that? How do they get any work done, or keep the sharks off each other's throats without hightowers keeping watch?"
"No guards of any kind, Nicos. No stains, no front office. We'll be on our own."
"That doesn't make any sense. What is it, then?"
"It's a dump. But it's the raw stuff of political evolution. Anarchy of a kind waiting for Utopia."
I looked around for a face, but couldn't find it. "Look, Garoit, my bunch from Greenville has a terrorist in it ten times riper'n you. He's an anarchist, too." I chuckled. "He's bigger'n you, too. You get a chance, you find Martin Stays and tell him how you're going to run the place. If it's like you say, he'll be thinking the same thing you are. Watch out for him when he starts foaming at the mouth, though. He's about due."
The kid nodded and smiled. "It's true. You'll find out."
Tartaros makes sense, if you think about it. If you think about it like a budget-strapped prison system up to its high pockets in population, sharks, angry taxpayers, and anti-crime pressure groups. Dump the cons. It gets rid of them, no maintenance costs, no crowded prisons, and who cares what happens? The cons are being all set free, so why should they complain?
Free. Why that word yellowed my guts confused more than just me. All cons want to be free, except for a few sickies who can't sleep without a pile of crowbars to hug. But most cons want to be free. If what the kid said was true, then I could go off in the mountains or forests, set up my own shack and be at peace with myself. Maybe I could find a woman. There had to be female exiles from Greenville on board the ship. Exile to Tartaros could be the best thing that ever happened to me.
I thought about it, and thought about it some more. With each thought my cabin in the woods dream faded a bit more. Cons had been dumped on Tartaros for over forty years. We wouldn't be dropping into an uninhabited paradise. Forty years is a lot of cons, and the more that cons run a place, the more deadly and unpredictable that place becomes. What's more, if it was paradise, the man would have his own cabin put up there. No one ever turned paradise over to sharks. Tartaros would be something else.
No walls, no bars, no guards—but what? The word spread, but that question "What?" kept things under control. We were all going to be free. But what is "free?" Take a shipload of dumb sharks and have them ponder their first philosophical question. A lot of frowns, a lot of head shaking, a lot of fear, but no trouble.
By the time the ship entered Tartaros's atmosphere, I made certain of two things: Big Dom was going to stick to me like a second skin, and Darrell Garoit, former crazy bomber for the Freedom Front—whatever the hell that was—would be with us. Maybe he'd run things for a while. There was a new set of ropes to be learned, and he talked like he knew a few knots.
FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST
Before the hatch opened each of us was issued a heavy parka, five days worth of those little box chows and a plastic bottle of water in a sack, and a kit bag containing the personal belongings each of us had been allowed to bring along. I checked and my kit bag had only Big Dave's book in it, so I put my box chows and water in the bag, as well.
The hatch opened, and there was nothing but blackness beyond the illuminated bay. An icy smell of sulfur and dust crept into the ship. As soon as I stood at the head of the ship's ramp, I slung my kit bag on my shoulder and that protomo feeling was on me like slime on slugs.
Outside it was the kind of cold that sticks the insides of your nostrils together when you inhale. The area around the ship was lit up with a huge umbrella of yellow light. You could see that the ground was loose sand with little clumps of round-bladed grass sticking out here and there. Paradise it was not.
The edge of the light umbrella seemed to steam the ground where it touched. "The ship puts out a force field to keep the old sharks on the planet from attacking it." I looked back and saw Garoit staring wide-eyed at the yellow lights. His eyes aimed at me and he gave one of those nervous grins.
"No question about it, Nicos. This is a one-way trip."
I looked around and saw the expressions on the faces of a few of the powder puffs. They were beginning to take in that whatever deals they might have made with the guards to obtain various valuable medicines were null and void. Once we stepped beyond the yellow umbrella, there would be no more contact with the stains. The expressions were of resignation and suppressed panic.
A few of them, as always, put aside their panic to become predators. Each one began doing an inventory on the remaining puffs, making a mental list of who was probably holding what. This data was collated against each puff's physical strength and speed, as well as against each deadhead's place in the disembarkation order. Sworn lifetime friendships and blood brotherhoods were evaporating as everyone reassessed his priorities.
I saw Freddy waving a finger at me as he shook his head and mouthed the words, "Watching, Bando? Still watching?"
I shrugged and waved a hand in return as I faced the hatch. The names were called and checked off a screenboard as a body admitting to each name exited. The guard reading the names was the same stain who had ranked me on that first day before I had even gotten to my seat. On the trip I had learned that his name was Crawford.
"Nicos, Bando, 3340792."
I held up my right hand and wiggled my fingers. "That's me."
Crawford looked up from his board, his gray eyes laughing at me. "Well, this is it, tough guy." He nodded toward the hatch. "How's it look?"
"At least it's got a big beach," I answered with my usual you-can't-touch-me grin. The grin melted as I looked upon one of the last persons I would see who would make it back to Earth. "Crawford, have a good trip back." What the hell, it didn't cost anything.
The stain looked out of the hatch and back at me. "Good luck, Nicos." He held out his hand.
I nodded and shook hands with him. "Thanks. It looks like I can use some."
Before he let go of my hand he looked like he was trying to decide if I'd be worth the waste of a few words. I passed the test. He said, "Anytime before you arrive at the gates of Hell, Nicos, you can change your own luck."
I gestured with my head toward the hatch. "Here?"
He gave my hand a final shake, "Even here. Give it a try." He released my hand and called out the next shark's name and number.
After we were all out, the ship closed its hatches, turned off the lights, then gave us a two-minute warning to stand clear. We stumbled off in the dark, away from the ship, then watched as it rose into the night and fired off with a blinding white streak of light. I watched it until the light disappeared over the horizon. Big Dom stood next to me. He pointed up at the sky.
"Bando, look. I don't see no stars."
I looked up. "Your eyes haven't adjusted to the dark yet. Maybe it's just cloudy."
My eyes were adjusted to the dark. I could make out a couple of faint stars, but the rest of the sky was blank. The sky wasn't overcast. It was just empty. I pointed the two stars out to Dom, but the big man was crying.
"Them stars's all I could see from my window in Greenville. I knew them stars, Bando. The names, stories, and everything." He looked down and shook his head. Then that look came over him. It was the way the head hung and the shoulders slouched. It said, "It is the purpose of the universe to dump on me. So what's new?" That's how the shark makes it from one day to the next without taking it slam between the eyes. I squeezed Dom's shoulder and looked up at the sky.
I knew enough about stars to know that they could have stuck us all the way outside the galaxy and the sky would still be crowded with lights. There should be thousands of galaxies up there, each one looking like a star, unless we had been stuck on the outside edge of the universe. Then, I thought, maybe that's what they had done. God, it made my guts knot.
I pulled on Dom's arm. "What're you looking for? A post office? C'mon. We better find a place to hole up for the night. You seen Pussyface?"
Dom looked around, a head and a half above the crowd of sharks. Somewhere there was talking, then everyone talking at once. Dom pointed toward a bunch of dark figures huddled together in their parkas. "The beard's over there."
We slogged through the crowd, our shoes filling with sand, until we came up on Garoit and his group. Six men and four women. I thought I recognized a couple of them from Greenville. He looked around at us, then held his right hand out toward his ten listeners.
"Nicos, Dom, these are the other members of the Freedom Front." A few of them nodded at us. Garoit turned back to his buddies.
"Later we'll pool our chow. Then I'll distribute according to need." He looked back at us.
"You two understand that?"
I laughed. Whatever had Pussyface been smoking? Dom walked until he stood inches away from Garoit. Then the giant looked down at the fuzzy little man and poked Garoit in the chest. "What's mine is mine, hairball. You got a problem with that?"
Garoit licked his lips and backed away, rubbing his chest. "No, Dom. No problem." He pointed at two of his buddies as the crowd of sharks started talking louder.
"Shaw, Emil, hold me up."
The two lifted Garoit up into the dark until he was sitting on their shoulders. Then he held out his hands and shouted. The strength of his voice surprised me.
"Listen to me! All of you, listen!" The blowholes quieted down some. In the distance there were the sounds from the other gangs that were organizing, but they quieted down and listened.
"I don't think the old sharks on this planet know about us yet," said Garoit." That's why the ship put us down on the night side. But, they'll find out about us soon enough, and we have things they want—new coats, clothes, food."
He sat silent for a long moment, then he said in a quiet voice. "The only way we're going to survive, is if we stand united. Right now there are sixteen, seventeen thousand of us. Nobody is going to tangle with a united force our size—"
The voice stood out, and was joined by other voices.
"Did ya hear the blowhole on that beard?"
"The overripe mushrooms do grow in the dark."
Then most of the cons turned away and gathered with gangs and around leaders that they knew; prison gangs from their former hotels. A lot of them moved off into the night. Some, about sixty, stayed to listen to Garoit.
Martin Stays, Greenville's answer to Pussyface, was one who stayed. I saw Freddy there, which meant that Dick Irish couldn't be far behind. I saw Steel Jacket, Nazzar, and a couple of other Yard monsters from the Crotch. Most I just couldn't see because of the dark, but I heard Ice Finger's voice, Kid Scorpion's and a few others.
Garoit slung the bull around for half an hour about freedom, equality, and crapternity. About the only thing he said that did make any sense was that being part of a strong group was the only sure way to stay alive. It seemed to me that depended on the quality of the gang you joined, and seventy flabby or underfed filberts was a wimp-looking bunch compared to some of the other gangs out there on the sand.
I was about to jab Dom in the arm and find a healthier new society to join, when a huge mob began working its way toward Garoit. Fifteen hundred, maybe two thousand bodies. From what I could see and hear, they were mostly women. They surrounded Garoit and his tiny band, then one of them separated from the others and walked up to the beard as his two buddies lowered him to the ground.
Her hood was up, and she stood a half-head taller than Garoit. "We want to know what you plan to do, and how you plan to do it. And don't stick your flag in my face, tiny. Just give me the facts."
Garoit stared at her for a moment, then pulled at his beard. "Let me ask you: what do you want?"
"We're women dropped in the middle of a pack of real hungry sharks. What in the hell do you think we want?"
Garoit nodded. "I see." He nodded some more, then looked at her. " What's your name?"
I had heard about Nance Damas for years. Bull croc, yard monster, torturer, murderer, and all-around graduate of Old Miss's Finishing School. I squinted to see her face, but it was too dark.
"My name is Darrell Garoit." Old Garoit looked like he was busting a gut swallowing eight-hundred political slogans, trying to find the words that would win over Nance Damas and her crowd rather than have her leave him flat or break him in two. "We stick together. We protect each other. That's what we plan to do."
Nance looked around, then faced Garoit again. "Who's going to boss this gang?"
Garoit looked around at the electorate, and I could see him eating his own flag. "It's not a gang, and there's no boss. First we get out of here. Find a place to hole up. Then we talk about it. Then we vote."
"What if you lose the vote, fuzzy? Do you take your ball and go home?"
"Grunt all you want in the women's yard, Damas," Garoit said under considerable steam. "Here I said we vote on it, and that's what I meant."
Nance stood quiet for a time, then she looked up as we all heard a fight here, a fight there, breaking out. The first long night was already in progress. She looked back at Garoit. "Okay. Let's hole up. Then we talk."
But there was some that wanted right then to talk. Who's going to run the thing—red, yellow, white, black, male, female, straight, gay, fried, clean—a couple of fights, a lot of serious threats, a cutter or two pulled, a few drips of blush on the sand. Between Nance and Pussyface we tabled everything. For the time being, we'd stick together and sort out the banners in the morning.
It was the biggest gang, so me and Dom went along. Maybe another couple of hundred other men joined as we left. Maybe it was because we were the biggest gang; maybe it was because we had most of the women. We walked a couple of hours until we came to an area with tall dunes capped by that grass. We put out guards and huddled down together for warmth and to try and get what sleep we could.
There were a few of the sharks, men and women together, who began to talk and they must have kept it up for an hour or more. I glanced up a couple of times, and they were talking out their troubles. I snuggled against Dom, and I saw him looking up at the night sky. I supposed it wouldn't have hurt anybody if they'd found a place with more stars. I turned over, got a mouthful of sand, and spat it out. The stuff tasted like sulfur and chalk. My body began shaking with chills as the wind picked up.
Free at last; free at last. God damn it all to hell, anyway. Free at last. . . .
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