Turnstyle aimed carefully, took into account the drift from the barely oscillating fan, and hit his brother Alphonse in the back of the head with a cigarette butt.
“Quit that,” Ingram said. Watching this is why she never liked being at Turnstyle’s place, but it beat staying at school.
“Why? He ain’t gonna notice. Fucking walltalker.” Turnstyle lit another cigarette and offered one to Ingram. She shook her head violently. “I think I still got some nanites left from the other night. I know for a fact there’s soy sauce in the kitchen.”
“Not on your life. My stomach still hasn’t recovered from the cooking oil wine you made last time.” Ingram started absent-mindedly picking at the exposed foam that blistered through a hole in the sofa.
“That was good shit,” Turnstyle said. “Good shit. You’re crazy. We could go see if we could find Al’s Roulette stash.”
“Oh, hell no!” Ingram said. “You do know why they call it ‘Roulette’ right? ‘Cause every time you take it there’s a chance your brain’s gonna explode! You wanna be a walltalker?”
“Maybe. Least Al’s never bored.” Turnstyle looked at his brother releasing a steady stream of words toward the wallpaper. Alphonse’s voice was barely above a whisper, and his face was blank. But he never stopped talking.
“I invented Roulette,” Turnstyle said, abruptly.
“No, seriously. Somebody had to turn grandpa’s stroke medicine into a rec drug. Why couldn’t it have been me? You’re saying I don’t see the entertainment value of something that connects your neurons in new ways?”
“First off, you don’t even know what a neuron is–”
“Secondly, if you had, you could afford some proper alcohol, and you wouldn’t have to reprogram the decontamination nanites.”
“Well, yeah…but…” Turnstyle scrunched down into the sofa. He took what was left of his cigarette and flicked it–still lit–at Alphonse. He missed by a good three feet.
“Was that lit? You’re going to burn the walls down, you are. What would your Pa say, you did that?”
“Same thing he always says: ‘Fuck! Why aren’t you in school?’ ” Tunrstyle stared at his 14-year-old older brother, who was staring at the wall. “Goddamn walltalker.”
“Ah, don’t be like that. Go get your soy sauce.”
“Why not?” Ingram said. “Nothing else to do.”
â€œSpace-faring monkies with a mirror fetish?â€
â€œYup. In The Day Ambrosia Paled by Kinstev Ramod, chapter six.â€
â€œDamn. Okay, uhhâ€¦ how about ice cream that turns your teeth green and carries a rare strand of the bubonic plague? Unleashed on a modern colony?â€
â€œAs a government experiment: Fire Warden by Jack Strapley. As a mad scientistâ€™s coup de grace: On Being Trembleton by Emilia dâ€™Oernga. With a time travel sub-plot: Terra Infirma by Marguerite Bloc. Sorry, Glenn. Itâ€™s all been done.â€
Glenn groaned and leaned back in his chair, running his hand through the long part of his hair and pulling it out over his eyes, staring at the brown strands in frustration. â€œDamn it all! How am I supposed to write if there arenâ€™t any original ideas?â€
â€œHey, come on, Glenn.â€ Neil grimaced at his friend in sympathy. â€œYouâ€™re just not thinking outside the box. Look, I know itâ€™s tough, but thereâ€™s got to be something you can do thatâ€™s not already in here.â€ He gestured at the Central Database terminal heâ€™d been using, the letters on the keyboard nearly worn off from the fruitless searches heâ€™d made.
Neilâ€™s words were encouraging, but his tone was notâ€”itâ€™d been months since Glenn had come up with his last viable story idea, and he still remembered the celebration theyâ€™d had. Now their fridge was bare, and there wasnâ€™t a drop of alcohol in the house. Neil let out a long sigh. â€œLookâ€¦ maybe you need a rest, yeah? Letâ€™s go out for a while. Weâ€™ll go to the club, see Jeannie and the guys, and just relax. I bet itâ€™d help. What do you say?â€
Glenn made a noise of frustration and sat up straight again. â€œNo. No! Weâ€™re almost out of cash. What good is going out going to do? Thatâ€™ll just make things worse. I have to think of something, and fast!â€
Neil sighed and turned back to the terminal. â€œGlenn, weâ€™ve been at this for hours. Youâ€™re gonna make yourself sick.â€
â€œNo. No, Iâ€™ve got one.â€ Glenn turned sharply, his face lighting up as his eyes latched onto Neil. He paused dramatically. â€œHow aboutâ€¦ a guy with writerâ€™s block trying to figure out what to put in a story?â€
Neil groaned loudly and threw a stylus at Glenn. â€œDo I even have to answer? I think itâ€™d break the database if I tried a search on that. Billions of billions of hits.â€
Glenn chuckled. â€œYeah, yeah, I know. Geez. I just wish that for once I could write something without caring that someone else already did it.â€
â€œYeah, I know. I know.â€
The two men stared in silence for a moment, Glenn at the ceiling, Neil at the screen that was nothing more than one massive search field.
â€œHow about a story about a writer who hacks into the Central Database and erases the old records so that editors will think his story is original?â€
â€œYou know,â€ Neil said with a slow grin, â€œI donâ€™t think that oneâ€™s been done yet.â€
After a while, you forget that itâ€™s summer. Months and weeks become meaningless numbers on the monitorâ€™s clock, and you donâ€™t bother asking anyone what they are doing on the weekend. You know. Theyâ€™re typing. You know.
You wait for the end of the shift and walk to the bar, seven blocks of August rain. â€œBeer,â€ you say, and the man obeys. Drops a pint on the table in front of you. You drum your fingers upon the wood, imagining text on the wall.
The beer is flat. The room is flat. Theyâ€™ve left you hanging, like they always do.
Hours later, after you thought youâ€™d fought it off, you surface in the lobby but the receptionist does not smirk. Sheâ€™s used to this. You know sheâ€™s used to this.
â€œOvertime?â€ she says, and you nod. Overtime. Undertime. Time. They sit you down in the room lit only by the blue of a monitor, and you unfold into the refresh rate of the digital screen.
It seems like the document is typing itself, but in an accidental glance you see your hands floating over the keyboard. They seem to be plastic. You realize that itâ€™s been days since you slept.
Your bell tolls eight hours and you push yourself up, forcing numb muscles to move to the door. You walk to the bar, seven blocks of August rain. â€œBeer,â€ you say, and the man obeys. Drops a pint on the table in front of you. You drum your fingers upon the wood, imagining text on the wall.
Here in the Quiet Dark, a raygun can be your dearest friend. It warms to your touch, responds to your requests, and clears your way. It is the best partner one can expect to have in the Quiet Dark.
I’ve had Lizzette here for longer than most of my friends. Certainly longer than my living friends. It is not a weapon, it is not a tool. It is a partner, a friend. A lover.
That’s not queer, or nothing. But Lizzette’s saved my life far too often to be anything but a lover. And here in the Quiet Dark, love is a rare and flowered thing. You best find it where you can. Some of us up here, some claim to love their crate. But that’s a parasitic relationship, and any crate knows that, from the little cargo rockets to those faster-than-light frigates. They know who runs ’em to the scrap heap. No, me and Lizzette, here, we’re partners.
I tried giving her, up you know. Lizzette, the crate, the Quiet Dark, all of it. Settled down on a orb, found a woman who didn’t care when last I felt the sun and tried to live a life of noise and brightness.
I was warned. They all warned me, just like I’m warning you now. It never lasts. Not for us. Not after all the time in the Quiet Dark. I saw stars collide, you know? Watched a dark hole form and drag in the cosmos inside it. You think I could explain that to someone used to blue above? You think you’ll be able to?
The whole time, I wanted Lizzette there, at my hip. She’d been with me, she’d seen it all. But my girl didn’t want none of that. Proper men don’t carry guns, she said. But Lizzette wasn’t just a gun. She was my partner.
Don’t go thinking you’re any different. I can read a man’s scars as well as a veiwport. You’ve seen too much, same as me.
I suppose a fight between Lizzette and such a woman was destined to end only one way. I wish I had something to remember her by, like that necklace she always wore. But that went in the blast.
Probably just as well. I have Lizzette, after all. What more do I need, way out here?
â€œIâ€™m sorry, will you repeat that?â€ Admiral Bunka was squinting to hear, even though his very nervous ensign was right beside him.
â€œWe, uh, are at full stop sir. Thereâ€™s nothing left.â€ The young man was sweating and the two continued to look out the viewfinder towardsâ€¦well, nothing. The whole crew was there, staring out into what should have been space but where space stood it wasnâ€™t black. It wasnâ€™t white. It wasnâ€™t molecules. It was nothing.
â€œNothing?â€ The Admiral began to blubber off non-sense like an ancient car tries to shoot off its muffler when it starts. He pointed at the viewfinder and glared at his ensign with a twitch just above his left brow. â€œBaâ€¦dâ€¦ erâ€¦ donâ€™t give me that nonsense, ensign! Move us forward at once!â€
The ensign nodded nervously and returned to his post. Theyâ€™d been traveling for seven years now, at about five hundred times light speed, when they suddenly came to this rather impassable juncture. The ship just stopped, and the crew had been clueless for the past hour trying to decipher just what was in front of them.
Someone from across the room yelled out, â€œEnsign! Donâ€™t! Weâ€¦ we canâ€™t!â€
Bunka rose up and cleared his throat, â€œAnd why not, Sergeant Gimble?â€
Gimble was a stout man, but his eyes glowed with the seriousness of his words, â€œWeâ€¦ we canâ€™t just go forward into nothing! Then it will cease to be nothing!â€
â€œWhat fimble-tossle! Of course we can go forward. Itâ€™sâ€¦itâ€™s just a cloud.â€ The whole crew heard the Admiral, but they knew that he was lying. It was like telling someone who just had their arm cut off that they still had use of that limb. The ensign glanced at his Sergeant.
â€œWell, if nothing is nothing, then maybe if we go into it weâ€™ll change it into something.â€ In any moment other than this, those words that the ensign spoke would cause any man to bleed from the eyes, nose, and ears. As it was, the words unfolded a debate in the main cockpit.
Admiral Bunka was the first to try and add in his opinion, â€œWell, if weâ€™re next to nothing, then nothing is next to something. Therefore, nothing would be something. It canâ€™t be something if itâ€™s nothing.â€
â€œArenâ€™t we looking at nothing? Isnâ€™t it something weâ€™re looking at?â€ said the Sergeant as he stood up to get a better look at nothing.
â€œUhm. No. We canâ€™t describe what weâ€™re looking at. We may not even be looking at it. Itâ€™s barely even an it. Nothing, people. Weâ€™re talking about nothing here.â€ Now that the ensign had everyone thoroughly confused everyone on the deck, the three took a moment to look at each other before turning back to the viewfinder. The definition of nothing had these men absolutely confused, and they were suffering from a mild case of brainpan rupture.
Admiral Bunka appeared understandably perplexed, and rather upset at the whole situation. He stood up straight and nodded in personal acceptance of the decision he had made. â€œFull reverse then! Weâ€™ll go back the other way.â€
The Ensign returned to his seat and began typing the orders until he stopped and glanced back to Admiral Bunka, â€œSir, wouldnâ€™t that be going away from nothing?â€