by Willie Smith
part 1 of 2
It was gray as ten year old dog dung, gray as the puke of a mercury-poisoned oyster. A lot of people thought the blacks had done it. But they were just ignorant rednecks in a brown funk. All the colors were innocent. It was simply gray, it was nobody’s fault and nobody could swallow it. The air felt like a mistranslation. Something was afoot. People couldn’t stand it. War had broken out.
Bob Gray walked down the shadowless street. He had a big question weighing on his mind. He needed to find a clairvoyant to clear it up. Only, of course, there was a war on, so clairvoyants, condemned as traitors and spies, technically did not exist. But everybody knew a few still practised clandestinely down by the waterfront. People said you could find them by their dim lights. It was dusk, the whole city was blacked-out in anticipation of another laser attack; it was possible the clairvoyants wouldn’t even light up tonight, despite the reputed insignificance of their lights.
What did Bob have to decide? He couldn’t remember, he was too drunk. It had taken him several quarts of gray riesling before he could even get himself to get up and go out in the street after curfew.
He staggered around looking for dim lights. A seagull flew overhead and eliminated on Bob’s shoes. Bob saw red. He wanted to kill that gull. But it was already too dark. The gull taunted him as it spiraled high above the waterfront.
When Bob looked back down from cursing the invisible gull, his eyes lit on a frosted five-watt bulb screwed into a cheap ceramic socket nailed onto the plywood boarding up the broken window of an old bait and tackle shop. He rubbed his eyes and stared at the naked bulb. It was there. This was a clear violation. Feeling like a cross between a military cop and a sex pervert, Bob tried the door.
Unlocked. Letting the door close behind, he walked into the darkness.
Outside, lasers began to dance around in the street. From two hundred miles up the bomber satellites were making their nightly run. Not that there was much worth hitting, especailly down at the abandoned waterfront. The whole city was a shambles. The lasers were just feeling around for stray people wandering the streets. The war was only nine months old, but already 83% of the populace had been cleaned up. It was developing into a slambang affair, the kind of war you don’t bother to write home about, because home has probably already been destroyed, too.
About ten steps into the burned-out boarded-up old bait and tackle shop, Bob stopped and sniffed the air. Everything was black and slowly he became afraid that color was going to burst out. Ever since the war began, bursting colors had been threatening to rip his body to shreds.
It was after curfew. He was in a questionable area for dubious reasons. Outside, lasers cut quarter-mile deep zigzags in the street in less time than it takes an instinct to act. Friend, foe, mother and country alike were out to kill. It was nothing personal. The nation had gone gray and everything now was being done blind. Anything that moved was fair game. Anytime a color shined it meant enemy and vengeful hordes swarmed in to suffocate the glare.
Bob was a part of this gray. That was why being alone in the black like that made sweat scratch a fingernail down his spine — he knew he was in the wrong place. He sobered up and began to have that feeling that maybe he should kill himself after all.
A blue-white dot burst in front of him. A high thin electric voice called out from the center of the dot, “Okay, Mr. Gray, you’ve come with a problem. If you’re willing to meet our little fee, I’m sure you’ll find us of great help in putting you in contact with those outer spiritual beings who can ultimately always solve all your problems and answer all the questions, from who made Adam down to how much arsenic leaked out in Napoleon’s daily stool during his incarceration of the Isle of St. Helena. Ready to hear our terms, Mr. Gray?”
The sweat froze on Bob’s back. His hair stood on end like barbed wire. He hadn’t been this scared since when the sun had first disappeared from the smog, right around the time the war broke out. A lot of people had racial theories about where the sun had gone. Some said the blacks took it. Some said the whites had bought it up and sold it over to the reds, who, being yellow by nature, had run away and left the sun to degenerate in a cave below the ocean floor. Then there were the advocates of the intersolar tinfoil conspiracy. Bob hadn’t been this scared since all these thoughts and rumors first started machinegunning through his decaying brain.
“I need to make a decision,” he blurted out, “about whether I should kill myself!”
The dot winked and said, “Don’t we all?”
A high-radiation warhead cruised in overhead, roaring like a flying freight train. Thumped to earth somewhere downtown, sounded like around Sixth and Pine, where the whores used to make money, back when sex was still legal. Bob squinted down at the radium dial of his plumbometer. Point two-five. His lead/blood count was barely sufficient to sustain this latest attack. Another similar mishap while he was outside a shelter and he would have leukemia within three days.
Bob looked up anxiously at the tiny light hung in mid-air about ten feet from the tip of his nose. “Look,” he said, “I really don’t wanna hang around up here for very long. As you well know, I belong down in a shelter on a night like tonight.”
The dot twinkled and emitted a sputtering that closely resembled human laughter, “Night isn’t much different from day these days, Mr. Gray. Since they took the sun away, the only difference at night is that things get a little darker and a few more bombs come in than during the so-called daylight hours. Besides, Mr. Gray, we have definite information up here leading to the distinct possibility that you will not survive this war.”
“Do I kill myself?”
“Mr. Gray,” the dot grew small and intense, “this is a business. A bit of a shady business, true, but a business nonetheless. I’m going to have to ask you to fulfill your end of the bargain before we proceed to the question and answer period. Do you agree to our terms?’
“After the interview you will immediately enlist in the Army to Find the Sun.”
Bob was flabbergasted. For several long tired seconds he stood in the dark feeling the air warm as it reacted to the radiation from the detonated bomb. His mouth dried. Thickly he licked his lips. “But,” he finally got out, “that’s certain death!”
The dot widened and dimmed, “You came here with a question, Mr. Gray. A problem that your personal resources and your access to the local propaganda outlets failed to solve. Would you like an honest spiritual answer to your problem, or would you prefer returning to your shelter every bit as much in the dark as when you emerged?”
“But clairvoyants are outlawed by an Act of Congress; enemies of the state; traitors from within; degenerates. How can my joining the Army to Find the Sun be any kind of recompense for your illicit operation? Don’t you know the military is out to get you? Every Morning Propaganda Broadcast opens with a denunciation of clairvoyants, gypsies and fortune tellers. They consider activities like yours as being inspired by the reds. Some local ministers even go so far as to say the whole creeping lot of you are just a bunch of blacks lurking around down here like wharf rats.”
The dot glimmered through an off-center sweep that could easily be interpreted as a shrug. “There are certain trade-offs. Didn’t it ever occur to you to wonder why we haven’t been liquidated, if the government and the military are so cocksure of our whereabouts? It would take a small platoon of laser tanks less than half an hour to melt down and clean up the entire waterfront. But here I am giving out unauthorized information.” The dot shrank, hardened. “Information you haven’t even paid for. Do you agree to the terms, Mr. Gray?”
It was dark and Bob was in an indecisive funk. A paper was being jiggled at his wrist. From out of nowhere a pen floated into his right hand. Not knowing at all if he was doing the right thing, he signed along a line he couldn’t see, but that felt right. Right away, the paper disappeared.
“Thank you, Mr. Gray.” The dot grew to the size of a dime and assumed a bland sheen. “Now let’s get down to brass tacks. You can’t decide whether to kill yourself or not — is that right?”
“Yeah,” said Bob, beginning to feel apprehensive about the paper. “Does that mean I’m on active duty in the AFS as soon as I walk out of here?”
“Please, Mr. Gray, one question at a time. And kindly remember, as in all encounters with the occult, you are only allowed three questions. Please choose carefully.
“Now, while we’ve been wasting time bickering about formalities, our computers have been scanning the spiritual memory banks for an answer to your first question. It seems the only solution they can turn up by utilizing all available real time is for you to join the Army to Find the Sun, which, of course, you’ve just so obligingly done. Would you like to formulate a second question now, Mr. Gray?”
“What in the fuck is this all about?” Bob blurted.
The dot grew large as a dartboard, gray as the face of a dollar bill. “The rescue, resuscitation and eventual return of the sun. We didn’t even need to consult the computers to get the spirits to chorus out an answer on that one. I’m surprised you didn’t hear their tinny little voices yourself, Mr. Gray. Now, how about that third question?”
Bob recoiled in shock. Then, remembering embarrassment wasn’t necessary in the dark, he at once regained composure. Promptly lost himself in deep thought. He had muffed it. He had one last question to ask. Bob closed his eyes. Listened to the blood ringing in his ears. He strained and thought as carefully as he thought it was humanly possible to think.
He broke it down:
Why had he come? Because he couldn’t decide whether to kill himself or not. His life seemed to mirror the state of the nation, the city and even his local propaganda outlet; that is, his life seemed a total waste. Already the continual lead-injects were beginning to impair his thought processes. But without the enzyme-bonded lead, of course, cancer lurked just around the corner. Leukemia, bone cancer, malignant thyroid — it didn’t matter, rapid death was the end result of foregoing lead-injects. The lead was rotting away his brain, but still, he knew that much.
“Have you fallen asleep?”
Bob opened his eyes; snapped to attention. The dot had shrunk to a pinpoint blazing like a tiny blue diamond. He forced his muscles to relax. He was here as a last resort. Nothing mattered, even if the clairvoyant knifed and mugged him or the place was raided. He resigned himself to the straightforwardness of the lost.
“No. I’m standing here weighing my thoughts... preparing to... to formulate my third question.”
“Now,” said the dot, “be frank with us all you want. But be careful you don’t accidentally ask a question in the process. Whatever question you next vocalize will be construed as your third query. The subsequent answer to which will formally conclude our present arrangement. After that you will be lifted to Space Wheel 29A and readied for your mission.”
“Incidentally, as long as you seem so intent on taking your time and also by way of keeping you from drifting off asleep standing here in the dark, I’ll acquaint you with your mission, as well as a little of what the AFS expects out of you as a detacher-capsule pilot.”
“Whu...?” Bob started to say then slammed his mouth shut.
“Did you say something, Mr. Gray?”
Copyright © 2006 by Willie Smith