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Strange Pulp 8: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 1)
In which Galaxy Greg doesn't quite kill the heckler but gets arrested anyway.
Welcome to the first issue of Pocket Full of Stars, a serialized novel in eight parts starring the interstellar nightclub magician Galaxy Greg. Click here to hear me talk about the book’s origins and read the first chapter. If you can’t wait to read the whole book, buy it now to get the ePub and PDF. And if you like it, for god’s sake—
Estimated Reading Time: 30 Minutes
Galaxy Greg, Galaxy Greg
Magic in his hands and in his left leg
Got a face like a hard boiled egg
Galaxy Greg, Galaxy Greg
Suit made of wonder, pocket full of stars
Traveling near and traveling far
Show you things that you never expect
Galaxy Greg, Galaxy Greg
—Old Spacer Hymn
I woke in a police wagon, mag-clamped to the ceiling, wondering where the hell my evening had gone. The Vegas PD had wiped my memory of the arrest, but there was blood on my suit and in my mouth and splattered across the tiles below my aching head, so I figured I hadn’t gone quietly.
I considered panicking. Scream, sob, piss my pants. But what would be the point? The Vegas cops were unlikely to release me just for being urine-soaked and sad. Weakness would only invite a beating.
I do not like beatings.
So I smiled—it’s what I do when I’m terrified—and tried to figure out what I’d been arrested for. My first thought was drunk driving, but then I remembered that I neither drink nor drive.
I strained my neck for a view through the back of the cargo area and caught a glimpse of the swirling neon of Vegas’ mid-range. We were climbing fast. I was twisting my wrists, testing them against the mag clamps, when the driver’s voice spat through the speaker beside my head—tinny and smug and absolutely hell on my ears.
“You can’t just go around killing people.”
I spat another mouthful of blood on the floor. Tried to, anyway. My mouth had gone abruptly dry. Even the blood was gone.
“I don’t kill people.”
“Sure you do. Says right here. You’re a magician, aren’t you, and you were arrested for the murder of Elwood Laabs.”
“I’ve never heard of Elwood Laabs.”
“Then why’d you kill him? I always figured, if you’re gonna do a murder, might as well be somebody you know. Anyway, he wasn’t the only one you did.”
I was silent for a moment. I breathed. It didn’t help.
“How many people does it say I killed?”
My voice had gone shrill. The panic was rising. I tried to hold it back—if it got on top of me, I was fully doomed.
“Two. Three if you count the cabbie which, I don’t know. The judicial unit will decide. It’s late, so everything’s powered down, but they should have you in after breakfast. They’ll talk you through everything, make you fully aware of your rights, have you executed by noon.”
“In a case this simple, you’d think they’d be able to get it done faster, but justice can’t be rushed.”
I squirmed. The mag clamps squeezed tighter. My hands were already turning pink. Soon I wouldn’t be able to move them at all.
“You wanna do me a favor?” asked the driver.
“Won’t take a second. Just speak in a nice clear voice—you can do that for me, right?—and say, ‘My name is Gregor Radzikowski—’”
Anger surged, fast enough that for the moment, the panic fell away. That was a good thing. Anger I could use.
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped.
“Ain’t it your name? Says right here—”
“You’ve got no right to it. You want to ask for something, call me by my stage name. Isn’t that on your form?”
Papers shuffled. Another car whipped past us, so close I could feel the swell of its displacement pocket through the wall. The wagon lurched, the driver cursed, and for a delicious moment, I thought we were about to crash. The wagon would spin out of control and smash into the nearest plaza. The mag-clamps would fail; the door would buckle, and I’d be able to slip away in the chaos.
No such luck.
The driver got us back on track and said, in a sweaty voice, “Sorry about that. I found it, the stage name.”
“So what I need from you is, in a nice clear voice, just say, ‘My name is Galaxy Greg and I killed those people.’”
“But I didn’t kill them!”
“So what? Say it anyway. Just for me.”
“I get a quarterly bonus if I can get ten felony suspects to confess before we land at the precinct. So far I’m at, uh, zero. It’d be a big help.”
Fear had crept into her voice. Perhaps it had always been there. Perhaps the narrowly avoided mid-air collision had simply brought it to the surface. It was the kind of thing I could have used—if I weren’t still strapped to the goddamned roof.
“My name is Galaxy Greg,” I said, “and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“If you didn’t kill anybody, what are you doing in the back of my wagon?”
“I don’t remember.”
She laughed. It sounded cruel, but she enjoyed it so much that she laughed again.
“Ya wanna see? Gregor, you dipshit, do you want to see?”
She popped in a tape. The floor flickered into the grainy black and white of SECTV. Two figures were visible, a big one and a little one, together on the cracked remains of an ancient traffic island. The big one had a pistol pressed against the little guy’s face, but the little guy showed no fear. He simply smacked the gun away, then grabbed the erstwhile gunman by the throat—
And dragged him into the air.
They flew fast. In a moment they were right in front of the camera—close enough that I could see the gunman squirming and sweating and screaming words that could not be heard.
Close enough that I recognized the other person—the person who was flying—as me.
Galaxy Greg. The streetlight flickered off my bald dome; the stars danced on my suit. It was me.
Holding a stranger by the throat.
And letting go.
The gunman looked up at me. He’d given up on screaming. His features were slack. There was a pathetic, childish hope in his eyes—as if he thought there was some chance that the person who’d dropped him wouldn’t really let him fall.
But he fell.
And he died.
“Believe it now?” said the driver.
I probably should have. Because in that moment before he dropped, I saw Elwood Laabs’s beady eyes, his lumpy jaw, his bowl cut. I knew who he was and I understood why I’d have wanted him to die. I even smelled peppermint. All of it was perfectly clear except for one small thing.
I can’t fly.
Nobody can fly.
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Magic isn’t real.
Singers sing. Actors act. Jugglers jug. When I stepped into the pit at Fang’s, less than twelve hours before my arrest, I was pretending to be a magician but really I was a fraud.
Not that I let it affect the act. My cuff links shone like platinum; my teeth like gold. A constantly-shifting map of the night sky danced across the silk of my tuxedo. There wasn’t even any blood on me yet. I looked as good as I possibly could and my act cut like a razor.
I started with the classics—telling audience members what day they would die, say, or dragging the drunkest son of a bitch in the crowd up on stage, placing my hand on his gut and pulling a horrifyingly lifelike recreation of a liver quivering out of his skin.
“Oh, it’s bad, it’s bad,” I said. “These white spots, no no you don’t want to see that.”
“Put it back,” he answered, smiling like he was joking, sweat pouring down his cheeks. “Just go on and put it back.”
“Have we got a doctor here? Anybody who’s confident with a knife? There are some lumpy bits on this poor fellow’s organ that I really think ought to be removed.”
And then he started to cry, just a little, and I made like I was sliding it back into his abdomen, and the relief in his face was exquisite. It was a disgusting trick, sure, but the classics are classics because they work.
Only that night nothing was clicking. Fang had added a dollop of codeine to the heavy smoke that snaked up from the mirrored floor. It left the crowd flaccid, and it’s hard to work with that.
It’s not the smoke, Greg. It’s that you suck.
That’s uncalled for.
You want to give them something to cheer for? Cut your throat and let it bleed.
They say every entertainer hears a voice, that we need the applause to drown it out. Mine happened to speak in the acid tones of my first mother. Lately it had been impossible to ignore.
And so I reached for something special. I tugged the handkerchief from my breast pocket, flicked it loose, and draped it across the back wall.
It spread across the concrete like ink on water. The wall ceased to exist.
A ripple of interest went through the crowd.
“I pray our host will forgive the damage. On warm nights like this, I find myself longing for fresh air.”
The tails of my suit fluttered gently. Through the wall came the stench of the alley, the squeal of fornicating rats. The audience tried to laugh it off, but they were starting to believe.
“You’re right,” I said. “No fresh air out there. Shall we aim a little higher?”
Are you kidding? The Flight of the Sprite?
The classics are classics because—
Shut the fuck up.
I raised my shaking palm. Sweat dripped down my forehead. A particularly theatrical vein bulged on my neck.
You’re overdoing it.
Beneath our feet, concrete tore.
Gotta start slower.
I hurled us into the sky.
Now that’s too much, too—
“Holy shit!” cried someone in the crowd. The voice shut up. For the first time all night, I really smiled.
“Isn’t it a pleasure to fly?” I said. “A ride in an airship or the Katzen shuttle is good. A trip in an interstellar cruiser is even better. But to fly like this, with nothing between yourself and the ground but a wobbly nightclub table—it’s the kind of pleasure that only birds are meant to know.”
I twisted my hand. We whipped around a corner and kept rising toward the untainted beauty of the city’s spires. I pushed my hand higher—it was aching now—and we plunged into the stream of flying cars. A crimson limousine bore down, its grille shining like surgical steel. Just before it crushed us, an easy flick of my wrist spun us away.
“You fucking lunatic!” shouted someone in the back. His scream dissolved into hysterical sobs.
Things were really clicking now.
I bent my elbow, tilting the room so that we could see the whole bleak spread of Vegas stretching towards the horizon, and then I whipped my hand and flung us through the tattered remains of the ozone layer all the way to outer space.
The strain nearly knocked me out. I bent double, fighting for air, then forced up my head for a well-deserved look at the stars.
They were a knockout. They always are.
It’s not just that they’re pretty. It’s the sheer number of them, the knowledge that most are larger than our yellow dwarf, that each is girdled by worlds whose size and beauty but Earth to shame. It makes a fellow feel small.
I think that’s a good thing, every once in a while.
I let my crowd soak it in. They breath was ragged. More than one was crying. The sharp smell of vomit drifted across the heavy smoke. Lovely stuff, all around.
“Should we press on?” I said. “To Jupiter? The colonies? Past the Redline? Beyond? What would we find? Death, probably. But death is better than loneliness. Death is something new.”
And that’s where I fucked it up.
Because that shit about loneliness—that was Gregor talking, not Galaxy Greg, and one of the crucial rules of surviving on stage—right up there with, “Try to keep your pants on,”—is that you never let your true self show. And that’s why what happened next hurt a lot more than it should have.
The voice cracked like a whip across my back.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“You’re bullshit, Galaxy Greg.”
My mothers taught me two ways to deal with hecklers. Either you make fun of them until they cry or you have the sec units throw the bastard out. Normally I’d have taken the former approach, but that night I was scattered. I nudged my foot towards the panic button on the floor. Before I could reach it, my heckler came to me—vaulting over the rail and thudding into the stage so hard the wood splintered.
He was bigger than I’d realized. Drunker, too. His eyes were small, black, and too close together. His hair was a pale orange dome, like somebody had tried to use his skull to juice a grapefruit. His neck looked like knotted snakes and he walked in a cloud of peppermint cologne. His vest bore the logo for the New Horizons Initiative, an intergalactic nonprofit, and he carried a beer bottle that, in his fist, looked the size of a crayon.
“Get the fuck off my stage,” I whispered, “or I’ll have the sec units tear you apart.”
“Before they get to me,” he slurred, “I’ll kill you.”
“What is up your ass, man?”
He stepped towards me. The boards shook. The crowd was silent—either they thought it was part of my act, or they were dazed from the heavy smoke. I stood as tall as I could manage, ready to defend my stage. Before I could throw a punch, he bumped me with his hip. It felt like getting hit with an entire sidewalk. I hit the boards and rolled toward the panic button. I jabbed it once, twice, three times. No alarm sounded and no sec units came.
My heckler curled his fingers around the gash in the wall. He pulled. The hole crumpled into a heap, leaving nothing but chipped white paint.
“See?” he said. “Bullshit.”
The crowd laughed. The mutiny was complete. The heckler wadded up my handkerchief and pelted it at me. My shaking hands folded it messily and jammed it back into my pocket.
“It’s called a sprite, folks,” he said. “Kids’ toy. It can flatten itself out thinner than paper, stick to things, show whatever you want. But it’s still bullshit.”
He was right. My handkerchief was a sprite. Bought it for $79 and had been using it for years, even as age made it unreliable and strange. I should have replaced it but it was the closest thing I had to a pet. I called it Gimlet. I didn’t like how he’d talked about it.
The thought flashed on like a neon sign.
I brushed the dust off my trousers. The stars on my suit rippled underneath my hand.
“That sprite can also sharpen itself to a point hard enough to autograph diamond,” I said.
“Is that your big finish? You gonna cut me?”
Yeah. Cut him.
I shook my head.
Peel his skin.
I shook my head harder.
Pop out his eyes and eat em like cherries.
“I don’t want to!” I shouted.
He smiled a vicious smile. I smiled back, trying to regain whatever stage presence I’d possessed five minutes prior. I suspect I looked demented.
“I don’t need to cut you,” I said. “I can do this.”
I crossed my arms and stared. I squinted, putting everything I had into it, focusing on his stupid wet eyes until his boots rose a few centimeters off the floor.
Good. That’s good.
The crowd chuckled. It’s a good bet most of them thought he was a plant. I wondered how much farther I’d have to go before they realized this was absolutely not part of the act.
I lifted him higher. Not for the voice—I was ignoring the voice, I refused to acknowledge the voice—but because I felt like it, dammit. Pain lanced across my forehead like I’d been kissed by a branding iron. I raised him higher, almost to the first row, and his smile—if this is even possible—grew more smug.
“Call that magic?” he said. “It’s still bullshit. Cheap tech. You’ve got, what, a mini ion lift hidden beneath the stage? Or it’s magnetokines, little ones, in those cuff links of yours. Big fucking deal.”
I don’t kill people.
“Shut the fuck up!” I shouted. It was only when the voice laughed that I realized I’d said it out loud.
You’re losing it.
No shit. Anybody who hears voices in their head is probably losing it.
Idiot. The cuff links are overloading. They’re gonna fucking blow. Either push him higher or let him drop.
That’s the frustrating thing about the voices in our heads. They tend to be right. My sleeves were smoking and the flesh on my wrists was beginning to scorch. I should have walked away. But I didn’t like the way the voice had laughed at me. I pushed a meter more.
Towards the ceiling.
Towards the chandelier.
Did I forget to mention the chandelier? My apologies. There’s been so much going on—it’s hard to keep track of every minor architectural detail.
Not that Fang’s chandelier was minor. It was four meters across, a swirling mass of glittering golden shards that made the room look like it was filled with drunken fireflies. A monstrosity, really, but Fang had inherited it from her mother and there was no way she’d ever take it down. Each shard was suspended by its own personal anti-grav unit. Each was razor sharp.
The heckler had no idea. He was still laughing at me, still moaning “Bullshit,” still waiting for me to give in. It wasn’t until the chandelier ruffled his bowl cut that he realized he was sliding into a meat grinder.
He was too preoccupied to scream. He writhed like he was drowning, struggling against something he could neither see nor understand. Nervous laughter filtered through the crowd and was quickly swallowed by silence.
I raised him a little more.
“For god’s sake,” cried someone in the third row. “Put him down!”
I don’t know why I was doing it. All I knew was that in that moment, even as the psychic link with the magnetokines threatened to tear my skull in half, it felt good.
The heckler looked away from the chandelier. His coal black eyes locked on mind. He seemed to be begging.
So I gave it everything I had. With one last agonizing push, I shoved him up into the shards.
One clipped his scalp. Another caught him on the shoulder. A few more lanced across his back. The shards flung the blood across the audience. They screamed in a kind of excited disgust. The heckler’s screams were not enough to drown out the sound of metal cracking against bone.
But the stink of blood had broken the voice’s spell. I let the Heckler drop. He cracked into the stage. I’m sure it hurt, but it didn’t kill him. I know because he was still moaning, “Bullshit,” as I fled the stage.
Naturally, I got fired. It’s almost impossible to get rid of a bonded entertainer if they show up on time and more or less sober, but even in Nevada it’s considered uncouth to slice open a ticket holder’s head. Fang offered two weeks’ severance. I said no. I was baffled by what I’d done. I was ashamed.
I went home.
My clan, the Rodina Radzikowiskich, occupied eight floors of a windowless government tower seventeen levels below Fang’s place. My status as a headliner entitled me to a single room: nineteen square meters of mint green concrete block that I wasn’t allowed to paint. Still, it was home, and most of the time I was happy to return to it. That night, as I snuck around to the back lift, all I could think was that my first mother was going to kill me.
You’ve seen her billboards. A lady with hair like dirty ice wielding a deck of aces, purple flames all around her head. Stage name Priscilla, Queen of Obfuscation. Real name Nastasza Sojka. A brilliant nightmare of a woman, seventy-four years old and still holding down the main stage at the Campbell, eight shows a week. She’d been the greatest magician of her generation and when I was born she declared that I would be the greatest star of mine. She taught me to read, to tie my shoes, to palm a coin, to shave, to lie—priceless lessons, all of them paid for in welts and bruises and a lifetime of anxiety and emotional ache. Of her thousand maxims, one of her favorites was that, “An entertainer should never leave a gig except on their own terms.”
The lift dumped me at the end of my hallway, where mold twisted along the ceiling and a mat of heavy smoke blocked the carpet from view. We’re a sociable clan, so most of the doors were propped open. As I slunk towards my room, I heard Kid Wareham practicing his stand-up, which was abysmal, and the Dink Twins trading phrases of an operatic duet, which was sublime. I saw tumblers and dancers, heard singers and storytellers, was treated to the clink of marionettes and the aching scream of a glass harmonica. These were my cousins and they were brilliant, even Kid Wareham—you had to respect a guy who didn’t let a total lack of talent stop him from chasing his calling. I loved them, I guess, and on a night when I was desperate for solace I should have been able to confide in them, but even on a good day their skill left me feeling like a fraud. I slumped on.
I was turning the key in my lock when somebody pressed a shotgun to my scalp.
“You stupid bald piece of shit,” she said.
Jude Pritchard had been bullying me since before we could walk. In daycare, she stole every cupcake I ever got. In middle school, she snuck the pencils out of my pencil pouch, gnawed on them, then put them back. In high school she just beat the shit out of me. None of it really bothered me, though, until she stole my vocation.
Her parents were tumblers and she’d been raised to do the same thing, but when she was sixteen Jude announced that magic was her dream. It took her two months to master skills I’d been practicing for a lifetime. She could do everything—sleight of hand, prognostication, mind reading, close up routines, escape work, and mammoth, jaw-dropping illusions. Her trademark was trick-shooting, which she melded to magic in a way that, as far as our records go, had never been done before. She’d juggle dinner plates and blast them with her shotgun; turn nickels into quarters and pepper them with her Thompson; ask an audience member to shoot her in the face only to reveal that the bullets had disappeared—that kind of thing. She was headlining before I even hit the Starlight Circuit, and from the first time the curtain rose on her, she was a sensation. The screen, radio, cereal boxes—the whole thing. She made more money than any entertainer in the family, my first mother included, but she refused to leave the building—she liked to stay close to her roots. I think she just wanted to make sure she could always rub our noses in her success.
You’re probably thinking I’m jealous. You’re absolutely right. Jude was better than me, richer than me, smarter than me, prettier than me. On top of that, my mothers loved her. They’d have forced us to marry if I hadn’t been so mercifully gay.
I’d like to say her act was terrible, but it was good. Obvious, crowd-pleasing, heavy on the pyrotechnics and gunfire and glitz, but I’m not a snob. I don’t even mind that she stole material, which she did relentlessly. Magic is built on secrets and secrets invite espionage. When she took my Starburst, a trick I’d spent three years perfecting, slapped some fireballs on it and called it the Living Flame, the worst thing about it wasn’t that she’d stolen my idea. It’s that she did it so much better than I ever could.
“Your gun is bruising my brain,” I said. The gun pulled away. I turned around. Jude wore a skintight purple jumpsuit with silver lightning bolts on the sides. Her hair was bright red, teased up to the ceiling. Her duster was ice blue and her face sparkled with gold. That was another place where she and I differed. She wore her stage clothes all the time because she liked being recognized. I wore mine because I had no other clothes.
“You really fucked things up tonight,” she said.
“Word gets around quick, huh?”
“Priscilla’s pissed. I’d lay low.”
“That was sort of the plan.”
She raised the gun. For a moment I thought she was going to shoot me, but instead she did something far more shocking. She put her palm on my shoulder and made a face like she almost cared.
“What you and I have is a calling, Greg. There’s no walking away from that. You are going to be fine.”
God damn it.
She’s charmed you, hasn’t she? Got you thinking old Greg’s being unfair, that she’s humble and kind and just here to help. Believe it if you want, but there’s one other thing you should know. Two years prior, when one of the hallway cats pissed on her welcome mat, she stomped it to death.
Honest to god.
There was blood on the ceiling. Bone and brains all over the floor. She didn’t say a fucking thing, but once she was sure everybody on the hall had seen, she rolled the corpse up in the mat and dropped the whole package down the incinerator.
Since then the cats have avoided her and so have I.
“Anytime you want to come by for a talk or a cup of tea or, shoot, anything, you just knock on my door,” she said.
I nodded. Without breaking eye contact, I unlocked my door and disappeared. I’m good at that kind of thing.
My apartment was, well, let’s not talk about my apartment. Everything was mint green and dusty, and the place was so cramped I could spit clear across it without trying hard. If I dwell on the details—the mold on the toilet; the way that even though it had no windows, there was still a constant draft—you’re going to get the idea that I’m some kind of sad sack. And I’m not, really. I swear.
I’ll admit you’ve met me at a low ebb. Even before the debacle at Fang’s, even before the voice turned violent, I’d been in a funk. I couldn’t say why. It wasn’t that I was almost 40, that it had been months since I’d had sex and years since I’d had sex that was any good. It wasn’t that my life was almost completely devoid of affection or love. It was to do with the work.
Ever since I’d first picked up a deck of cards, the work had been my only friend. It gave me something to think about when I was waiting to fall asleep, something to wake up for when there was every reason to wallow in bed. It was like cold fusion, giving back more than I put in, keeping me happy even when everything in my life suggested that happiness was not something I deserved. It was a tiny god that spoke to me alone.
Only lately, the god had gone quiet.
For most of my life working on my act didn’t feel like work at all. It was simpler than breathing—just let me work and I’d be happy. Let me work and time would melt by.
Lately, the thought of work made me want to vomit. I kept showing up because I’m a professional, but my touch was gone. I’d tried ignoring it. Tried exercise, therapy, meditation, masturbation. It just got worse. I’d gone to a psychic—there were eight on my floor—and as he flipped my cards his face sank and the furrows in his brow went deep.
“Cousin,” he said, “you’re fucked.”
And I was. Because when you’ve given your life to the work and the work walks out the door, you might as well quit. What I’d done at Fang’s that night—it certainly made quitting look sensible. But that would mean goodbye Galaxy Greg. That would mean settling down as Gregor Radzikowski, who’s nothing but a lonely man in a shitty apartment with—
A whistle tore through my melancholy. It was the kettle—the only thing in the apartment I really liked—an honest to god kettle rigged up to an antique hot plate that spared me the torture of whatever the bev units called tea. This was not the first time it had rescued me.
I opened a tin of Nepalese black tea. It smelled of cold breeze whipping down from the Himalayas and the song of birds whose names I didn’t know and whose colors I would never see. I dumped a tangle of brittle leaves into my two cup Brown Betty and was hanging my tea scoop on its hook when it slipped out of my fingers and fell between the cold chest and the wall.
I bent myself over the chest, straining my fingers and squishing my organs and failing utterly to grip the scoop. I stood up, smoothed my suit, and decided that before quitting I’d need to try something dumb. Something we’ve all done—on a Sunday morning, say, when you’re blissfully wrapped in your least itchy blanket and your datacard pings and before you give in and get out of bed you open your hands and try to make it fly across the room. We keep trying even though it never works because, shit—what if one day it does?
I opened my fingers and gave the scoop the devilish stare I usually reserved for promotional posters.
“Up,” I said.
It didn’t move.
My hands burned.
Veins bulged in my neck.
The scoop stayed put. Because of course it did. I can’t move shit with my mind and neither can you. So I bent a coat hanger and got on my knees and was dragging out the scoop when my datacard chimed.
I flinched, afraid it was my first mother, but no. It was only MEL.
I poured my tea and tapped the button. Her weary green face fluttered up from the screen. She said nothing. She just lit a cigarette and shook her head.
MEL, as you may know, is a slightly forced acronym for Mel Emulating Lifeform. A standard representation unit, it was invented a century back by Mel Clumpf, a mid-range agent who hated the idea that death might get in the way of her ten percent. As she drew her last breath, she embedded her consciousness in the cloud and went on with her work. She found more success as a digital agent than she ever had in life—clients liked an agent with a mute button—and MEL went into mass production. Nearly every entertainer in Vegas uses one, which means that many deals are negotiated MEL to MEL. If that sounds like a conflict of interest, well, MEL says it’s fine and don’t you think MEL would know?
“Are you stupid or just crazy?” she asked.
“The fucker got under my skin.”
“Not that, asshole. I mean Fang offered severance and you said no. What the fuck are you doing saying no to free money? And who the hell told you to negotiate without your agent turned on?”
“It didn’t seem right to take it.”
Can pixels pale? If so, MEL turned as close to white as hologram green can get.
“Don’t say shit like that,” she said. “It’s blasphemous. You want me to chase Fang on the severance?”
“It’ll at least cover the damage to the chandelier, the blood all over the banquettes. I’m gonna chase.”
She extinguished her cigarette and consulted the notepad at her elbow. The notepad was a nice touch—there’s no reason for a cloud-based program to use one, but it made her feel real.
“Says here, ‘Ask the kid how he’s feeling.’ So how you feeling, Greg?”
“I’m okay. Tired, I guess. Just tired.”
“Shut the fuck up. Something’s eating you and if you can’t tell your agent who can you tell?”
I chewed on my cheek. It didn’t help. I guess that meant I’d have to tell the truth.
“The heckler said I was bullshit.”
“I think he was right.”
She acted surprised. Did a whole show of letting her mouth hang open. But I think she’d known exactly what I was going to say.
“No way,” she said.
“You don’t have to coddle me.”
“That’s literally my job. You think you’re bullshit, you’re gonna have to convince me.”
I took a deep breath. The butterflies in my stomach kicked up. There’s not much scarier than saying the things that you want.
“When I was growing up, magic was everywhere. My second mother could put her hand through the wall and steal the neighbors’ fruit. My uncle sang so pure, colors dripped from the air. I had a cousin who could walk on the walls. The impossible was ordinary and it was all so goddamned fun. And then I got older and I was initiated into the three strong illusions and I learned it was all fake. Mom had a trap door in the galley wall. Uncle Hank could sing, yeah, but the colors were caused by a gaseous hallucinogen squirted out by the flower in his buttonhole. And Nell, the wall walker? She just had really sticky shoes. You get it? Bullshit.”
“Boo-fucking-hoo. You’ve been doing this twenty years, you just figured that out?”
“No. But every year it bugs me worse. Makes me think I should have chosen a different vocation, learned to sing or dance or whatever.”
“Nobody chooses a vocation. They choose you.”
“So how come I got stuck with the one that’s all lies?”
MEL shrugged. The nice thing about confiding in a hologram is that she’s programmed not to judge. The trouble, of course, is that she also doesn’t care.
“So what?” she said. “You want me to teach you to waltz?”
“I want it to feel how it did when I was a kid. I want the magic to be real, MEL. I want to fly. No wires, no ion lift, nothing in my cuff links. I just want to step into space and soar.”
“And if that’s impossible?”
I sipped my tea. It tasted bright and light and clear. When I lowered the cup, MEL was still staring. I drew a slow breath, aware that what I was about to request was even more foolish than asking her to make magic real.
“I want to go back on the road.”
She laughed, which made sense, because what I’d said was laughable. I’d done my time on the Starlight Circuit. I’d played every shitty club on every shitty station. I’d stood knee deep in the mud of half-terraformed planets, killing myself to make half-starved colonists smile. I’d watched unreal suns rise on far off worlds and then gone back to bed because I had three shows that night and I knew I’d be a zombie without the sleep. I did it for the same reason every entertainer does it—to get back to Earth, preferably Vegas, preferable one of the top range clubs. I hadn’t made it to the top, but I’d come close. You only went back on the Circuit if you were washed up or insane.
“That’s a stupid goddamned thought,” she said. “You’re not finished. You’re in time out. There are other clubs. There’s Miami, or New York, or maybe Fang comes around. I mean it’s not like you killed that guy—you just mussed his hair. A tour, Christ, at your age? Why put yourself through that hell?”
MEL scowled. I went on.
“When I was on the road, the bills were a hodgepodge. A high wire act, then light opera, ax throwing, a little barbershop, a little Shakespeare, some ballet, some tap. You’d get jugglers, tumblers, cat trainers, high kickers, knockabout, slapstick, hypnosis, telepathy—and somewhere in there, you’d get me. Every show was different; every night I walked away with fifteen new ideas. Working at Fang’s, same follows same follows same. My act is perfect.”
“And perfect’s no fun.”
“Now you’re getting it!”
I smiled and I meant it and it felt very good. Words poured out of me and I had no idea why I was saying them but I knew full well that they were the truth.
“I want to do two nights in every system in the Breadbasket. I want to sleep in roachy motels, live on canned food, make regrettable sexual decisions with the crews of long range freighters. I want to feel the stars flying by under my feet, MEL. Can you make my dreams come true?”
“The Starlight Circuit is in tatters. Don’t you read the trades?”
“Only to fight insomnia.”
“B.F. Blake, the Killian Sisters, and the Tripartite Pact have bought up nearly every stage in the Near Spread. They book like businessmen—there’s no hodgepodge and no cat trainers—and they won’t touch anybody who just got fired from Fang’s.”
“You said ‘nearly every.’ What’s left?”
“Medicine shows. Street corners. Some colleges—not the nice ones.”
“Book it. Whatever you can get, just book it and I’ll go.”
“As your agent, I cannot advise—”
“How bout as my friend?”
“I’m not your friend, kid. I barely exist.”
“That’s better than most people I know.”
I wanted to jump through that holo screen and grab MEL by the shoulders, to hug her until she came around. I needed this to work.
“As your friend, Greg, I think you need a few months off.”
“If I take a break, I’ll die.”
She inspected her fingernails. They were long, black, immaculate. She rapped each one against her desk, as if counting off all the reasons this was a bad idea. And then she broke.
“There’s a booker on Lyceum owes me a favor.”
“College crowd, huh?”
“They’ll eat you alive.”
“I can’t wait.”
“Okay. We’ll start you there and see how it goes. But I’m telling you this is a fucking mistake.”
“Noted. When’s the next flight?”
Her eyes rolled back as she consulted the interstellar flight schedules. After a few seconds, her gaze returned to me.
“You’re booked third class on the Luna 2, leaving Katzen tomorrow at 8:14. That gives you twelve hours to get the shuttle into LEO. Until then, try not to fuck anything else up.”
“You are my digital queen.”
She stubbed out her cigarette. The call ended.
I sipped my tea. I was buzzing. All that bullshit with the heckler—it was like it had happened to someone else. I finished the tea and smiled for a while and eventually fell asleep.
I can tell I was in a good mood because my unconscious treated me to one of my favorite dreams.
Fucking in a zero gravity bathroom stall.
My hair—I had hair!—floating above my shoulders. A pair of hands stopping me from drifting away.
Hands so strong they left red marks, so rough they scratched my skin.
The hands of a man who had to be dead by now, which was fine by me since it meant I’d never have to talk to him again.
The hands of Yoshi Falk.
Those hands pulled me toward his chest, his face, his lips, and I wanted him like nobody ever wanted anything before. I wanted him and I was going to have him and the fire between us was going to burn holes in the fucking universe.
I leaned in for a kiss and—
Was woken by a message thunking out of my mail chute. Dreams always stop right before the good part, huh? I pressed my fingers against my side. I could still feel his grip.
I poured another cup of tea. I popped open the message’s plastic case and found a ticket that showed a woman in white soaring over the Vegas skyline, glitter trailing in her wake. It smelled like peppermint—not as strongly as the heckler had, but still enough to make my stomach turn.
Her head turned and spoke.
“Tonight Only! The Signature Ballroom! K the Magician Presents Real Magic! Real Wonder! Real Thrills! Shows at 6, 9, and 12! No Latecomers Allowed!”
I tossed it in the trash.
I’m sure you’re disappointed. You wanted Greg to go to the magic show. Well I’m sorry, but I hate watching other magicians work. When they’re bad, it’s torture. When they’re good, it’s worse. Besides, I’d already taken off my shoes, and after a certain time of night, there’s no going back from that.
I brushed my hand across the radio dial. I spun past dance music and the country ballads, past exquisite Nigerian funk and questionable French rock, until I landed on one of the local college stations, where the DJs prattled endlessly about music they loved but didn’t understand. I wondered if they had a college station on Lyceum. It was probably terrible. I couldn’t wait.
Another message popped out of the slot, a flimsy sheet of yellow paper on which someone had written, “Take the ticket, Greg. It will change your life.”
You’d think that would give me pause, but hyper-targeted marketing was nothing new. There were ads that used my name, my picture, my sexual fantasies. Lately I’d seen toothpaste ads that used footage captured directly from my nightmares—“Use Dent-o-Glue And Your Teeth Will Never Melt Again!” A note with my name on it did not impress. And anyway, I resented the implication that my life needed changing. I had a tour booked, didn’t I? What more could an entertainer ask for?
Before I’d finished crumpling that note, another message dropped out of the chute.
“Good god,” I said. “This is becoming repetitive.”
But this note was different from the two that had come before. Lilac stationary. Lavender perfume.
My first mother had decided to get in touch.
I popped open the plastic. It was a short message, but in her looping handwriting, it filled the whole page.
“I’ll be over in three minutes,” it said. “I expect a full explanation of your sudden employment troubles and also French toast.”
I flipped my trashcan upside down and dug the ticket out of the mess. I’m not sure why, but suddenly a magic show seemed like an excellent idea.
Digging the story? Catch a typo? Comment and let me know! If you’ve got any questions about the book or writing generally or, heck, anything, comment and I will respond! And if you’ve got any predictions for the next issue, share those too! If you guess right, I’ll send you a custom image of Greg, twisting across the background of your choice, suitable to use as a background pic or avatar.
Thank you so much for reading!