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Strange Pulp 9: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 2)
In which Greg takes in a show and lands in the soup.
Welcome to Part 2 of Pocket Full of Stars! There will be eight installments in total. If you can’t wait for the next one, you can always—
Reading Time: 38 Minutes
I didn’t expect much.
The Signature was a boondoggle—a literal crystal ball plonked atop one of the city’s tallest towers in a hopeless attempt to lend an ugly building style. The floor was invisible; the walls perfectly clear, save the faintest hint of gold. There were entertainers who couldn’t set foot in the place without being overwhelmed by vertigo, but heights hadn’t bothered me since I left the navy. I thought the ballroom had a certain insane elegance. The same could not be said for the work performed there.
It was the kind of venue where more was always more. More rhinestones, more feathers, more bubbles, more smoke, more kick lines, more flesh. I’d seen tigers dance there. I’d seen dancers eat raw meat. I’d watched the place fill with a holographic sea of tropical fish. I’d endured three hours of a bizarre ordeal in which one hundred comics performed their acts at the same time. It was the kind of place, I guess I’m saying, where the Jude Pritchards of the world felt at home. But as I settled into my booth, which was right up against the barely-there wall, I felt a flutter in my stomach. I didn’t care what I was going to see. I was, for the first time in years, just happy to be at a show.
It began without warning.
The stage was empty and then it was not.
What appeared, well, I guess her name was K.
She had a bald green head, white eyes, and a thin scar running the length of her face. Her smile was not the rictus of the trained performer. It felt real. She wore a gray t-shirt and black sweats—rehearsal clothes!—and she stood alone on the stage.
She clapped. Matching yellow roses rose from her palms and bloomed so slowly that I felt I was watching a new universe being born. Flames poured from the thorns, danced up the stem, and swallowed the flower whole. For a moment, the after-image of the rose persisted—a flower carved from ash—and then it tumbled to the floor.
I’d been watching roses climb out of magicians’ hands since I was a kid, but I’d never seen it done with so little embellishment. And I’d never seen blood left behind on the palms.
Her whole act was like that: classic stuff done with the sort of elegance that takes a lifetime to master. She conjured a cat from thin air, dismembered it, then brought it back to life. She removed her hands and used them to play the piano while she pretended to sleep on the floor. She danced backwards across the stage, feet leaving trails of light that melted upwards and joined together until they formed a gleaming K. It was all so perfect that I forgot to feel jealous. I was simply in awe.
At the end, she flew.
This is a traditional finale for West Coast magicians. I don’t do it myself, because I’ve never found tech that lets me fly without looking like a chicken being hurled through the air, but many swear by it. K flew better than anyone I’d ever seen. She didn’t jump off the ground; she didn’t levitate. She simply stepped into the air.
The room was dead silent as she drifted above our heads. People reached out to touch her—sensible people, people who knew as well as I did that magic is not real. When she passed my table I kept my hands to myself—I know better than to bother a professional—but my eyes were working. I saw no wires. Her costume was too tight to conceal anti-grav units and her image showed none of the telltale distortion of an ion lift. I could almost believe she was really flying.
What a wonderful thing.
She picked up speed, blurring into smeared charcoal. My eardrums screamed when she passed over my head. My eyes felt swollen from the effort of keeping them fixed on her. But there was no question of looking away.
And then she dropped her emerald head and plunged toward me like an anti-Greg missile. I reacted in the most graceful way possible, covering my head and letting out a noise halfway between whimper and scream. It was only when the crowd cheered that I noticed I wasn’t dead. For a moment I thought they were clapping for me, and then I realized they were staring over my shoulder, through the wall—at the green-headed woman floating on the other side of the glass.
I ran my hand along the wall. It was half a meter thick. She’d passed through it like it wasn’t there. I don’t care how good your tech is—that’s simply not possible. I gave her a little wave.
She waved back.
And then she finished the show.
Oh, it was beautiful. She circled the ballroom, gold dust trailing out of her heels, carving calligraphy into the air. She clapped her hands and each mote exploded, its own tiny firework, and for one exquisite moment, I wasn’t an entertainer. I was crowd, simply enjoying the show.
The fireworks faded slowly. K gave a friendly wave and drifted below the ballroom towards the black fog. When she was out of sight, the crowd erupted in applause that shook the bones in my chest. I checked my watch. It was past midnight. Time to catch the shuttle up to Katzen. Time to check into my flight. Time to go.
Yeah. Definitely, unquestionably, time to go.
But I had to talk to her first.
I grabbed the nearest usher.
“Where does she go?” I said. He stared like it was the first question he’d ever been asked. “After the show—is there a dressing room? A backstage? Where does K go?”
“I don’t know. Down, I guess. Yeah, probably just down.”
I vaulted over the railing. When I reached the elevator, the applause was still going. It echoed for thirty floors.
Down. It made sense. There were no doors on the outside of the Signature Tower, because people weren’t supposed to be out there. The only place to go was all the way down.
The trip was agony. Every dozen floors, my certainty faltered a bit more. But when I dropped into the black fog I saw a fleck of gold drifting past, and I knew I’d find her at the bottom.
You’ve never really known stink until you’ve walked the surface streets of Vegas. It was like every fart ever expelled in the city had fallen to earth, multiplied and unionized. Most of the pavement had rotted away. In its place was gurgling mud. It hardly seemed the place for a genius, but there she was, leaning on the wall, lit up crimson by the emergency light. She had her data card pressed against her face. The icy calm she’d shown at the ballroom was gone.
“Fuck your pickup radius! I need a goddamned cab!”
I pulled out my datacard. I filled the screen with a message: “I HAVE AN IDEA” and showed it to K. She gave me the finger and turned away.
“I told you, I’m at the base of the Signature Tower. Ground level. I’m not going back up to one of the main plazas because it the traffic will be terrible and—”
Her datacard whined. The call had been terminated. She was about to call the cab company back when she remembered I was there.
“And just what the fuck do you want?” she said.
I placed a call. Taki picked up on the first ring. Her voice was clipped, almost robotic.
“It’s Galaxy Greg. I’m at the base of the Signature Tower, got a colleague who needs a cab.”
K’s mouth was set in a firm scowl. All her fury at the cab company was now pointed at me.
“Did I ask for your help?” she said.
“So what the fuck are you doing?”
I took two steps back.
“I apologize for interfering,” I said. “Taki’s the only service in the city that’ll come this low, this late. If you don’t want the cab, I’ll take it and you can stay here.”
She slid her datacard back into her pocket.
“I’ll take it. And thanks, I guess. I’m sorry for being pissy. It’s been a weird night.”
“For me, too.”
She stared over my shoulder, trying to decide if she’d rather spend the next five minutes alone or in conversation with a suspiciously helpful stranger. One of the block’s last remaining streetlights chose that moment to flicker and die. She relinquished her scowl.
“All right,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Galaxy Greg. You might’ve heard of—”
“I got an invitation to your—”
“I didn’t send it.”
That raised all sorts of questions, but not ones I cared about. All that mattered was, I had less than four minutes to learn how to fly.
“Your show was exceptional,” I said.
“The best I’ve seen, well, ever.”
“You’re an entertainer?”
“I don’t expect this stage door shit from a fellow pro.”
She checked the time. The minutes were evaporating. My heart thudded in my ears.
“I want to know how you fly,” I said.
She laughed. There was no malice in it.
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Of course not.”
“If we worked together, like if we’d worked together for years, yeah. Maybe. But I’ve never even heard your name.”
“Where did you learn it?”
“Place called Batavia. They’ve got these roller coasters there, the kind that give a girl ideas.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“I’m not surprised. It’s an absolute shithole. I worked a gig there a while ago. A fucking disaster, but I learned a lot.”
“And you’re definitely not going to share?”
She shook her head.
I had a minute. Maybe less. I drummed my fingers on the Signature’s cracked concrete wall and said something insane.
“What if I never use it?”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no way I’d be able to do it as well as you. I wouldn’t even try. I just want to know how it works.”
“If you knew, you’d use it. You wouldn’t be able to resist.”
“Okay. So what if, and I know this will sound nuts, but what if I made a promise. Tell me how you fly and I will quit the business for good.”
My extremities were numb. Even making that offer, just suggesting it might be possible to quit—it felt like putting my head in an oven. Freeing and final all at once.
“I don’t want that on my conscience,” she said. “If you want to quit, buddy, that’s your call. Don’t make me choose for you.”
“Then tell me what it feels like.”
The light came back into her face. Before she could answer, the earth rumbled. Flashing yellow cut through the black fog.
“That’s my ride,” she said.
“It’s like...being held. You know that feeling when you’re with someone you really love, and you’re wrapped up in each other’s arms and everything is fitting together perfectly—no sweat, no misplaced elbows—and you’re so at ease that it’s like you’re weightless, like your body isn’t even there?”
I did. It had been a while, but I did, so I nodded. She shrugged. And that was it.
A rusted black cab lurched out of the dark and landed awkwardly in the mud. The window opened to reveal the driver, a stout young man who’d attempted to make up for premature baldness by growing an exceptionally stringy beard. His name was Zimmer. I’d had him before.
“Taki’s,” he said.
The passenger door slid open. K stepped inside and strapped herself into the cracked leather bench seat.
“Thanks for the help,” she said. “Even if I didn’t ask for it.”
The cab door slid shut, and my feet felt as heavy as they ever had. Just before it clicked shut, I grabbed the handle. Powerful gears strained against my hand.
“What if I can guess how you do it?” I said.
“But what if I can?”
With an amused shrug, she nudged the button on the door. The gears relented. I hopped inside and flipped down the jump seat. The door closed. With a petulant whine, the car hoisted itself into the sky.
“Where to?” asked Zimmer.
“Bishop Embarkation Point,” she said. “Departures.”
He slammed the partition shut. The cab continued its labored ascent. I leaned forward and studied K’s face. She looked smug, happy. A smart kid with a secret.
“How many guesses do I get?”
“As many as you can squeeze in before we get to Bishop.”
I talked fast.
“I figure it’s not standard anti-gravs. They’re too big to fit inside your sweats. An ion lift would’ve made you look all fuzzy. Magnetokines would blow if you used them that long and it can’t be ordinary wires because then how do you go through the glass—and just how the hell did you get through that glass?”
Her expression gave nothing away. She wasn’t even looking at me, in fact—she was staring through the smoky tint of the passenger window, craning her neck at the sky.
“My best guess is that you’ve got a double on the outside of the glass. You slip through a trap and the double appears and they do the flying act outside. I don’t know where you hide a trap inside a room that’s a literal glass ball, but am I even halfway on the right track?”
“No,” she muttered. She twisted, searching for a better angle out the window. “Do you see that?”
I pressed my face against the glass.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“There—coming down that alley. Not that way, you dope, I mean up. Do you see in the sky?”
I twisted my neck until I saw the shape. It was long and black and falling fast.
No landing indicators. No running lights.
A car in free fall.
Aimed directly at us.
“Fuck!” shouted K. “Those bastards. They found me.”
“What bastards? Who found you?”
She tore at the door handle. The autolocks had engaged. It didn’t budge.
I twisted out of my safety harness and scrambled across the slick leather of the middle seat. I pounded the partition and screamed, “Watch the fuck out!”
But it was way too late.
The car hit us.
The force of the impact slammed me face first into the sticky plastic floor. Our roof buckled. The grille of a luxury town car showed through the gash. We dropped halfway to the ground, but our engines had life and we didn’t quite crash. K’s harness cut into her neck. Blood sluiced down her chest. I rolled around.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” yelled Zimmer. “Fuck!”
I smelled rubber burning, metal melting. The engines screamed, trying to obey whatever desperate instructions he was giving them.
We went nowhere.
Then, with a terrible scraping howl, the car that had rammed us tore itself free. For a moment, I saw the mat of black fog. I heard K moaning. I tried to get onto my feet or my elbows or my knees but there was no time—
The other car rammed us again.
Our engines died. We fell from the sky.
When we hit the ground, I bounced between the floor and the bench seat. Every part of my body took blows, but I did not die.
I know this, because I was still conscious when I looked through the shattered partition and saw Zimmer, his neck broken so sharply that bone showed through.
I was still conscious when I felt K’s blood pouring down across my back, when I turned and saw that a chunk of steel from the roof had pierced her head so deeply, her skull was split in two.
I was still conscious when a hand reached through the window and grabbed me by the neck.
I was still conscious when I felt the heckler wrap his hands around my throat.
After that, well. I was gone.
Where were we?
Oh yeah. The police wagon, whizzing through the Vegas mid-range, headed for a swift trial and a terribly permanent death. The driver was howling with laughter at the video of my arrest, which was still playing on the floor screen. We’d reached the part where the police arrived, wiped my memory, and then beat me senseless. It wasn’t an easy thing to watch, but that wasn’t my problem because I wasn’t watching it at all.
My eyes were on Gimlet. At my command, the sprite wriggled out of my pocket and drifted to the floor, spreading itself so thin that the glow of the screen shone through.
Press, I thought. Gimlet formed itself into a finger and began jabbing buttons on the back wall. I tensed my muscles, waiting for the one that would drop me to the floor.
But the locks stayed shut.
“So whaddaya think?” said the driver, breath short from laughing. “You kill the fucker or what?”
I didn’t say it because I believed it. I said it because I needed it to be true. Even if the man apparently named Elwood Laabs deserved to die for what he’d done to K and Zimmer, I didn’t want his blood on my hands. There was enough there already.
I nodded at the roof. Gimlet shot up to the ceiling and spread as thin as it could go.
“You can’t argue with video,” said the driver. “I mean, you can, but you’d look pretty stupid. That was your face, wasn’t it?”
“And you threw him to his death, didn’t you?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“So there you go. Can I get that confession now?”
“Even if I did kill Laabs—”
“There’s no if about it.”
“I didn’t kill the people in the car. He rammed us.”
“It seems important!”
“But it’s not on the tape. They execute you for one murder or three, friend, you’re gonna be just as dead.”
She was right. There was no talking my way out of this. I needed to leave.
Gimlet rippled across the ceiling, flattening a little bit more, until with a gentle pop it wedged itself between the locks and the roof. A magnetic charge pulsed across the sprite’s surface, making the whole world bend, and the locks faltered just long enough for me to plummet to the floor.
I landed like a sack of potatoes. Feeling flooded back into my hands and feet. Pain came with it. I writhed, biting my tongue to hold back a groan.
“Two minutes to the station,” said the driver. “Time to confess. Please, friend. My rent is due and, well that’s not your problem, but—”
“I’ll do it.”
She smiled so big, I could hear it through the wall.
“And they say killers are bad people! I tell you Gregor, I mean Mister Radzikowski, I mean, shit, what was it?”
“Galaxy Greg, you are all right.”
I was a lot of things, but I was definitely not all right. I crouched by the back window. We were cruising over Goodman Plaza, where the twisting bulk of police headquarters rose like some mad despot’s tomb. Before it, neon shone on gamblers, drunks, entertainers, sex workers, locals, and tourists who were far out of their depth. Vegas is a place to lose everything, including oneself, but it did me no good as long as I was inside the wagon. I inspected the door.
“Come on, friend,” said the driver. She was getting edgy. “No time like the now.”
“I just want to find the right words.”
“Make it quick. They’re waving us in to land.”
The door was bolted from the outside. I searched for seams, screws, an emergency hatch. I found none.
My cuff links rubbed against my wrist.
That was an idea.
My magnetokines were considered safe for indoor use at up to 65% of full power. Any higher and I risked breaking stuff. At the moment, breaking stuff was what I had in mind.
I tuned the cuff links to 100% power. I nestled them against the back door. I crouched against the wall and let Gimlet wipe the sweat from my forehead.
The wagon rotated above the landing platform.
“All right, buddy,” said the driver. “Last chance.”
I turned the cuff links on.
They glowed so bright I had to close my eyes.
“My name is Galaxy Greg—”
The concussion slammed me against the wall. My head snapped back, rattling my teeth in a most unsettling way. Alarms screamed from every surface. I slumped into a sad little pile and felt consciousness sliding away.
“Sweet Jesus Christ!” shouted the driver. And then she just screamed, so high and so piercing that, despite my addled body’s best efforts, I could not fall asleep.
I got my neck working well enough to raise my head. The walls were scorched and there was a corrosive ooze seeping from the ceiling. The smell was frightful. The damage was astonishing. But the door had was still there. Hanging on its hinges and unquestionably broken, but yes, still there.
“Well,” I groaned. “Damn.”
Something clacked beside my head. It sounded like a pair of lost teeth. My cuff links. I popped them in my pocket, as much for old time’s sake as anything else, peeled myself off the wall and walked across the compartment.
Tried to, anyway.
It was suddenly quite hard to put one foot in front of the other. At first I thought my legs had given out, but through the blackened plastic window panel, I saw sky, then fog, then sky, then fog, then sky, then—well, you get the idea.
We were spinning end over end, like a soda bottle chucked at the wall.
In seconds, we’d be dead.
I slammed against the door, kicked it and spat it and kicked it some more. It did not open. I wrapped both hands around the frame and flung my entire body at the damn thing. It groaned but did not break.
“Oh good god,” said the driver. “Please.”
I kicked the door again and again and again and somewhere in there, my luck turned. The hatch burst off its hinges and I was greeted by what, in this city anyway, passes for fresh air.
Our engines were dead and we were spinning too fast for me to see where the hell we were. There was nothing to do but tuck myself into a little Greg-shaped ball and I hope I landed on a bush or a fountain or a millionaire.
I tightened my grip.
I swung forward.
I was about to let go when the engines came back on.
The whole ship shuddered. Vents belched flames. The driver whooped as she pulled back on the stick, and it took everything I had to hang on as the ship pulled into a sharp climb. I tried to scramble back into the cargo hold, but it was no good. I was dangling from the back of the open door and there was nothing but black fog beneath my feet.
“I mean Jesus, sweet Jesus,” she yelled. “This is a goddamned mess!”
In a way, it was a stroke of luck. If I’d jumped, I’d have fallen to my death. But as I hung on by my knuckles, legs flapping uselessly, it didn’t feel like things were going my way.
We were three levels above the fog, which stank like someone had tried to pickle rotten meat. Did my entire city smell like this? No wonder nobody ever wanted to go outside. An omnibus glided underneath me and for one mad moment I entertained notions of dropping down onto it, but it was gone before I could find the courage to let go. I would just have to hang on, I decided, and wait for the next shitty surprise.
Shredded metal cut deep into my palms. The heat of the engines was quickly becoming unbearable. Sweat poured down my wrists. Every finger ached. And so my thoughts turned to my first mother.
Surprised by that?
Well, nothing fights fear like fear.
I was three years old when she gave me my first hardball. It was a tightly woven wad of electrical wiring, no different from any other toy until I picked it up and it started to cook the flesh of my right hand.
I tried to drop it but she wrapped her fist around mine and squeezed until my flesh smoked, then kept it there for eight minutes more. When we were done with that, we did the left hand.
“You’ll have ten minutes of that every day,” she said, “until you turn five.”
“What happens then?”
“You’ll get twenty minutes. An entertainer’s hands must be strong. A magician’s, the strongest of all. Yours have a long way to go.”
It was the first time I hated her. Stars knew it wasn’t the last. The hardball never stopped hurting, but by the time I was ten I could squeeze one for an hour without grimacing. This was just part of my training—her crusade to make me the finest magician the universe had ever known. My callouses had only grown thicker with time. The twisted metal of the wagon’s door frame couldn’t pierce them. But even the strongest hands can’t last forever. I needed somewhere to land.
We were corkscrewing towards one of the pedestrian plazas, from which music and smoke dripped like thick rain. The driver was trying to nudge us over the lip, hoping to belly flop us onto the concrete. We were almost at the plaza’s glass wall when the port engine quit.
“No, god damn it, no,” muttered the driver. There was no fear in her voice. Just a simple unwillingness to die.
I imagined her in the cabin, slapping buttons and flicking switches ands spinning dials, trying to coax a little extra out of her ruined government issued craft. I wished I knew her face or at least her name. I wish I’d seen her expression when she found the button she was looking for.
“All right,” she said. “Fuck it.”
She shifted every ounce of remaining power into the starboard engine. A blue flame exploded out of the grate, slamming the ship into a suicidally tight turn. I spun away from the flame, tendons screaming and bones straining terribly close to the breaking point.
The ship slipped under the plaza. She wrenched it onto its side. I squeezed every muscle in my body and held onto the hatch, knowing that if I slipped for even a moment I would be barbecued.
The ship whipped up.
Concrete and steel turned to dust. The driver’s voice melted into a wordless scream. My vision went white and pain was everywhere and then I either lost consciousness or things simply became too terrible for my senses to bear, because the next thing I knew I was face down on the plaza, trying to remember how to breathe.
Two strong hands flipped me onto my back. I forced my eyes open and was confronted with something unfamiliar—kindness—shining from the face of an exceptionally burly tourist wearing a green visor and a long, snowy beard.
“You’re alive,” he said. I’m not sure who was more surprised—him or me. “Rescue folks are coming. You better not move.”
I don’t like being told what to do, so I sat up. A spike of pain split my low back—it felt like a scythe through my spine—but I didn’t let it knock me down. I grabbed hold of the tourist’s forearm—it felt like a steel beam—and let him pull me to standing.
“Mister,” he said, “you really oughta sit down.”
“I’ve got a shuttle to catch.”
I was five meters from where the wagon had torn through the floor of Goodman Plaza. Fire danced along the gash. Water and sewage poured from a tangle of burst pipes. The plaza was scattered with rubble and wounded. A couple dozen people were down, some screaming, some not. There was no way to tell who was dead.
Accident assessment units poured from police headquarters. They’d be followed by rescue craft and kill units and worse. I did not intend to be here when they arrived. I threaded a path between the hole in the concrete and the police wagon, trying to remember the quickest way to the Embarkation Point. There was an alley on the far side of the plaza, I thought, which led to an ion lift that would put me pretty much there. But getting there meant walking past the wreck.
The cabin had been pulverized. The driver’s body hung halfway out of the shattered windscreen. Ribbons of flesh drooped from her face. Every part of her was crimson with blood.
She was dead because she tried to do her job. Dead because I got in the way. I tried to tell myself that she’d chosen a shitty career, that she knew the risks, but it didn’t wash. She was probably a contract worker, not even a full-blooded cop. Only a driver. And I didn’t even know her name.
The AAUs were closing, their oblong bodies screaming through the air, searchlights swinging wildly across the wreckage. I took a step away from the wreck. I prepared to find out if I could still run.
And then the driver coughed.
I forced myself to look back. She shook, blood oozing from her mouth, glass cutting deeper into her arms as she tried to free them from the wreck. Sounds came from her that were very far from words.
The AAUs were ten meters away.
I dropped to my knees and knocked the glass away from the driver’s arms. There was so much blood in her eyes, I’m not sure if she could see me or not, but she knew who I was.
“Greg,” she groaned.
I slid my hands under her armpits and tugged. She screamed. Her legs were trapped. There was nothing I could do.
“You should run,” she said.
I pulled Gimlet from my pocket and wiped the blood off her face. More blood replaced it. I wiped that away, too.
“You really didn’t kill those people?” she said.
“Not the people in the car. The other guy, Laabs...I have to believe it was somebody else.”
“Then you’d better find out who.”
“I can’t do that.”
No you can’t.
The driver coughed blood across her tunic.
“You can,” she said. “Or not. What the fuck do I care? But right now, asshole, you need to run. You’re an escapee. A killer. That’s Code P for sure.”
What the hell was Code P?
It rang a faint bell, somewhere deep in my mind, but I ignored it. Her skin was getting cold. She would be dead soon.
The AAUs hovered. Cameras snaked down from their bellies, scanning the dying and dead.
“Hey!” I shouted. They did not turn my way.
“There’s no point,” she said. “I’ll be fired for this. They’ll take my health insurance. I’m fucked, friend, fully fucked.”
“But you won’t be dead.”
I waved my bloody handkerchief and jumped as high as I could. The force of landing sent an astonishing cascade of pain through my legs and back. One of the AAUs turned my way.
“She needs help!” I shouted. “Like, fucking now!”
Lights flashed. Cameras snicked.
I’d been seen.
I looked down at the driver. At first I thought I recognized a look of gratitude on her face, but then I saw she’d passed out. There was nothing to do but take her advice.
Once upon a time, the Bishop Embarkation Point was the pride of Vegas. Built 178 levels above the heart of the old old strip, it offered soft pretzels, fountain soda, and shuttles to low Earth orbit every six minutes. When they leveled Scottsdale to build the Heavy Launch Center, Bishop’s traffic dried up. Shuttles to Katzen were knocked down to every twenty minutes, then every half hour, then every hour-ish. The ceiling was dropped from 125 meters to scalp-level, with the filled in space being rebuilt as truly heinous condos, and one of the city’s most beautiful places transformed into its most wretched. It was one of those absolutely heinous crimes—the sort nobody notices because they happen constantly.
I arrived at Bishop fifteen-ish minutes before Shuttle A’s next flight to Katzen. Normally I’d have passed the time looking for signs of Bishop As It Was—a faded mural or the base of one of the mammoth columns that once held up the ceiling—but that morning, as the sun made a feeble attempt to penetrate the Vegas gloom, I had other things on my mind.
The trip from Goodman had been shockingly easy. I switched the pattern on my suit to a mess of red and orange blotches, into which the bloodstains vanished like soup down a drain. It shouldn’t have worked. But it did. When I arrived at Bishop, I expected to see my mug plastered across every news-screen—“Handsome Magician Wanted For Murder!”—but there was nothing but the standard cocktail of fashion, fires, drunken celebrities and mine collapses. Maybe I’d gotten lucky. Maybe every record of my supposed crime—
Supposed? What do you mean, supposed? You saw the video, you killed the fucker, you might as well own it.
Had been wiped away in the wagon crash.
Oh yeah! And you blew a police wagon to shit and just about killed its driver—there’s gotta be a felony in there somewhere.
Maybe the driver had been so touched by my ham-fisted attempt to drag her from the wreck—
The wreck you caused.
That she told them I’d been killed in the crash.
Or maybe the poor thing died.
She was alive when I left.
People don’t always stay that way.
She called in Code P.
And just what is Code P?
It sounds like death.
I tried to put it out of mind. The Luna 2 was sailing out of Katzen at 8:14. MEL had told me to be on it. She’d also told me not to fuck anything else up.
One of those promises I could still keep.
A basketball tournament was in town—or wrestling or something? As though I cared—and the Hall of Waiting was packed with hungover tourists in matching sweatshirts. The autoterminals were dead, naturally, so I took my place in a long, snaking line and awaited an audience with the lone ticket agent. I was almost at the front when a shift in the line caused me to brush the elbow of the supplicant ahead of me—a gangly university student with a moustache that looked stapled on. He whipped around and said, “Take two steps back or I’ll rip off your fucking head.”
I stepped back. My new friend sneered. His breath was half whiskey.
“You gonna say sorry or what?” he said.
“Look at me when you speak.”
I gave what I hoped was an inoffensive smile. He stared, trying to decide whether or not he might enjoy ripping off my head, and then he grinned.
“I know who you are,” he said.
I scanned for exits. There was the street, which was no good, and two dizzyingly steep flights of stairs that led to Shuttles A and B. Shuttle A was already blockaded by ticket takers. The steps to B were clear.
The moustache flexed a clammy fist, then wrapped it around my shoulder and pulled me tight into a suffocating fog of liquor and cologne.
“You’re Galaxy Greg,” he said.
I swallowed, trying to hide my fear.
“I saw your show. It sucked.”
“That’s very kind, thank you.”
“Nothing personal, dude, don’t get weepy. All magic acts suck. Yours sucked less than most.”
“That’s a wonderful review. I’ll ask my agent about quoting it on the posters.”
“Sick. Now let’s get a picture.”
His datacard slipped into his hand so quick, it might have been spring loaded. He flipped it around to face us. My normally rosy complexion had given way to a slack pallor. I twisted out of his arms. The line parted behind me. I felt the spotlight heating up.
“Excuse me, asshole,” he said. “I asked for a picture.”
“Why? You said my show sucked.”
“I like souvenirs.”
I ducked underneath a plastic rope, formally abandoning my spot in the line. The moustache reached for my neck.
That’s when the lights went out. Every screen, every bulb, every glowing pinprick inside of Bishop Embarkation died at once. I thought I was imagining it until the people around me began to scream. Not shrieks, not yet—just yelps and yips and cries of “Oh god!”
Next came drums. A breakneck jazz solo that tumbled out of every surface—and even before the screens came to life I understood that I needed to leave or die.
This was Code P.
The P stood for Professional, a program instituted with great fanfare a few years prior—a program that would have sounded like a joke if it hadn’t left so many fugitives dead. Based on the maxim that it takes a thief to catch a thief, the Vegas PD reasoned that it must take an embezzler to catch an embezzler, an arsonist to catch an arsonist, a plumber to catch a plumber, an au pair to catch an au pair, a product manager to catch a product manager—
A magician to catch a magician.
If somebody’s running, you don’t make the police waste time chasing. You get someone who knows them—who hates them—and let them bring them in or gun them down.
Code P means convicted in absentia. It means shoot on sight. And I happened to have a rival who was the best shot in the system.
A gout of fuchsia flame burst from the scuffed station tile, followed by a cloud of red smoke. When it parted, Jude Pritchard stood in the middle, crimson curls high atop her head, lightning flashing across her flanks, blue duster fluttering and a plastic smile smeared across her face. She wore a holster that had a stubby little shotgun nestled inside.
“Hey folks,” she said, in the down home, not-quite-southern accent that she used on stage. “This is, well, this is a slightly unusual thing. My name is Buckshot Jude and, heck, I bet some of y’all know my work. Usually it’s magic. But a few hours ago the local police came to me for help, and y’know, I do everything I can to help out our boys in blue.
“What I’m trying to say is, we got a killer on the loose.
“The fella’s name is Galaxy Greg.”
My foot slammed into the first step. Behind me—way too fucking close—Jude pulled her shotgun from the holster and fired it straight into the air.
Sparks burst from it. They sped upwards, swirled together, and formed into cursive letters that spelled my name.
“Killed three people so far. Before this is done I figure he’d like to kill a few more. And it just breaks my heart because, folks, he’s a neighbor of mine. I thought he was a friend. It just goes to show, well...there’s no point in me getting sentimental. I’m new at this man-hunting business, but the sheriff’s given me a badge and a license to kill and a picture to share with y’all.”
She snapped her fingers. Every ad in the place, every departures board, every note begging customers not to spit on the floor—all of it changed to a picture of me.
It was an old headshot, taken not long after I left the navy, back when I still had a few wisps of hair. Beneath my chin cleft—which was adorable then and remains so now—the text read, “FIFTY THOUSAND NEW BUCKS! DEAD OR ALIVE! DEAD PREFERRED!”
Something about those fifty thousand bucks really fired the imagination of my friend with the moustache. He screamed: “That dude! I know that dude! It’s Galaxy Greg, holy shit. He’s right here!”
Well, I had been. But I wasn’t anymore. I’d slipped up the stairs while the room was distracted by my picture. As far as they were concerned, I’d simply disappeared.
The steps wrapped around the smooth gray bulk of the waiting shuttle. Cold steam, stinking of mint, poured from its vents. Small windows showed row upon row of not-quite-comfortable yellow seats, tipped backwards so their occupants could face the stars. I kept climbing until I reached the shuttle’s nose. Once this platform had given a dizzying view of the Hall of Waiting—an iconic place to snap a picture for the feed before being hurled into orbit. Now I found myself outside a condominium window where a young girl drank juice through a silver straw. She smiled. I waved.
“Can’t see you,” squawked the man in the shuttle door. He wore a mirrored jumpsuit and matching pillbox cap. He had blindingly white teeth and truly unsettling smile. According to his tags, his name was Bentley. “She’s got the viewscreen on. All the brat does is watch the shows. Waste of a goddamned brain.”
“I watched the shows plenty when I was a kid.”
“So did I. And look where it got me! A horrible job in a horrible city on a planet that should have been dead three centuries’ past.”
“Shut up! What the hell do you want?”
“Shuttle B ain’t leaving for an hour or so. Shuttle A’s going in eight minutes.”
“I’m not in a hurry.”
“Awful sweaty for a man that’s not in a hurry. But what do I care if you want if you want to waste an hour of the only life you’ll ever have. Gimme your ticket.”
“That’s the thing. I don’t have one.”
Bentley’s smile turned sickly. The light from the apartment glinted on his fillings and I swear he actually rubbed his hands together.
“The people in that apartment—when the kid’s not there, you know what they do? Filthy things. Oh, absolutely unspeakable. The sort of things would make my grandmother hang herself if she saw. They forget I can see. They don’t understand that I got to get mine.”
“Charming. Can I board now?”
“Make an offer.”
“Pah! That’s a steak dinner. I want a vacation.”
“What kind of vacation is that? A bus to Reno? I want to forget this hellhole. I want to dip my toes in the sea.”
“I could go as high as—”
He shook a crooked finger. His smile, somehow, grew even less appealing.
“Pull out your datacard, open your banking program, and I’ll handle the rest.”
A kind of laugh dribbled out of him.
“Way I figure, if a man can’t afford a sixty buck shuttle ticket, he’s either broke or running. With a suit like that, you can’t be broke. So what are you running from?”
Far below, footsteps clanged on metal. I flinched, and he saw, and that was when I lost.
“When she gets here,” I said, “you’ll keep quiet?”
“As the grave.”
“You’re a creepy fuck, you know that?”
His eyes glowed. He knew.
I handed over the datacard and tried not to vomit as he keyed up a total transfer from my savings to his.
“Twelve thousand bucks,” he said. “That’s all?”
He shrugged. Pressed a button. There was a little chirp as two decades’ work disappeared. I wanted to hit him but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t imagine a version of reality in which it would help.
“Utility closet in the first cabin is unlocked,” he said. “Cram yourself in there and you’ll be golden.”
I gave a quick nod and climbed inside, wrinkling my nose against the stale, disinfected air common to shuttles everywhere. I climbed until I reached the utility closet. I was easing it open when my hand froze.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said, and climbed on.
The hatch to the next cabin was locked. I danced my fingers across the keypad, trying to persuade the locking subroutine that it should let me pass. It opened just wide enough for me to squeeze into the second cabin, which was just like the first except a little bit closer to Jude. I used Gimlet to slice into a ceiling tile. I wedged myself between a wad of wiring, oxygen masks, and emergency equipment, then pulled the tile shut behind me. The space was pitch dark and smelled powerfully of rubber. I wasn’t safe, but at least I could sort of breathe.
Ten minutes later, I heard the cabin hatch open. Jude entered mid-monologue, her voice syrupy sweet and absolutely pulsing with rage.
“Now come on. You said the first cabin. He wasn’t there. I’m new to this whole man hunting racket but I gotta figure he kept climbing down.”
“If you would just—”
She smacked his head into the wall.
“We have to get out of here,” he moaned. “The shuttle is leaving—”
Another smack. He stopped arguing.
“Today’s meant to be my day off, friend. Do you know how rare that is? I was gonna sleep in, paint my toenails, and spend a few hours at the gun range. Instead the cops dragged me out of bed and told me that as long as Greg is free, my ass belongs to them. So I will find him if I have to tear this shuttle down to the studs.”
That was it, then. There was nowhere else to run. She would find me and she would give me a trick shot in the stomach and that would be the end of a not-terribly-impressive career.
I tugged my data card out of my pocket. I thumbed through my recordings to find something I hadn’t posted before. I finally settled on an inadvertently recorded closeup of my nose hairs. I tweaked the geotagging to place me on the steps of the Golden Spire and I dumped it onto my feed. The datacard companies swear that screwing with the geotagging is impossible, but impossible stuff is what I’m good at.
Jude’s phone dinged. She let out an agonized groan.
“Lord almighty, sometimes I think everybody is stupid except for me. You see this?”
“Looks like a nose.”
“It’s Greg, on the steps of the Golden Spire Casino, at least thirty minutes away.”
“I swear to god, he was right here.”
“I’d hit you again but I don’t have the time. What’s the fastest way out of this tub?”
I didn’t exhale until I heard them climb away. The hatch shut behind them. I spent the next half hour sweating, flinching at every sound, expecting to be surprised by a shotgun blast to the chest, but eventually the silence of the empty shuttle gave way to the grunts and complaints of a few hundred miserable passengers. Lights dinged, buckles clicked, drinks poured and engines thrummed. A few minutes later the walls were shaking and I was on my way to the stars.
I’d like to say I felt free. That the moment of liftoff brought me back to some happy moment of my childhood, when my second mother took me to Katzen for an ice cream sundae and all was right with the world. But when I was a kid ice cream made me throw up and even if it hadn’t, I was too tired to waste time on the past. As soon as the Gs hit I passed out.
Again came the hands of Yoshi Falk, with his chest and lips and everything else. This time there was nothing to interrupt the dream and our passion was allowed to follow its natural course. I think I was entitled. It was the closest I’d get to pleasure for quite some time.