By Terry England
“Where’s dragon, mister? Make him come back.”
The little girl glared up at Jim Blankenship, Image Mage; stance, attitude and position in the middle of the street suggesting she was ready to hold up the entire parade until she got her way. He’d had to move fast to keep her from being trampled.
“Very shy,” Jim said, standing with feet apart, hands on hips. “No laugh, else he no come.”
“I promise, I promise!” She clapped her hands, jumped up and down.
“OK, then, I’ll see if I can, uh huh, here he comes.” Jim turned his head to the left. The dragon’s multi colored muzzle slowly slid over his shoulder until his bright yellow eyes just came over the top. One foot appeared around Jim’s left side, another over his right shoulder, then the dragon stopped, blinked twice.
“Come, now,” Jim said, “she likes you.”
A smile creased the long muzzle and the dragon flowed around his left side and onto his torso. It curled its entire body around Jim’s chest, flowing like water, flashing its scales in a dazzling array of colors and patterns. It twisted and turned a few more times, then stopped, stood on its hind legs, wrapped a wing across its chest and bowed three times, once to the left, once to the right, and once straight ahead. The little girl, who’d watched all this with wide eyes, laughed and clapped her hands again.
A woman stepped forward, took the girl by the hand. “Come, Ling,” she said, then to Jim, “Thank you,” her smile uncertain, one part glad the girl was entertained, one part unsure of the sanity of the almost naked man displaying himself to her little girl. It was a smile Jim got often. The girl waved as she left, and the dragon not Jim waved back. As he turned away, the dragon slipped around to his back and waved again, but Jim didn’t know if the girl was watching.
He returned to his place at the head of the parade, gave the signal to move forward. Just another day as part advertising medium, part safety officer.
He marched at a steady pace with the music of the Polyglot Band playing behind him, sandaled feet slapping the pavement, arms swinging with each step, chest, back and legs constantly rampant with images of every act in the circus with the performers in full costume, some flying through the air, others pretending to be in danger from the wild beasts that surrounded them. Then the commercial break, the announcement of the sponsor of the parade and why there was a parade at all: Feng Shusheng’s Circus of the Heart and Mind (New Shows Starting Tonight, New Acts, New Music, New Thrills and Amazing Sights), in six languages and three pictogram sets. Then the images again, the cycle repeating. How much an average parade watcher could see, much less make sense of, Jim always questioned, but Feng would reply simply, “You’d be surprised.” Path in front clear of obstacles and overexcited children, Jim set his mind into automatic mode, one part monitoring the graphics controller, another part watching the road ahead, and a third part remembering where to turn and what marching style to use according to what the band was playing. This was his usual mode, and not much else penetrated, including marching alone in the middle of the street clad only in a very small pair of swim trunks. This lasted until the turn onto Equatorial Boulevard, the road that split the island city in half. They now were heading directly east, the direction of sunrise – and the Space Elevator.
Only on clear, still days could the nanotube cable itself be seen from Proximity Island 40 miles west, but one or both of the giant platforms ascending or descending often would be visible. He once crawled along the platforms and the cable like a spider, checking, repairing, monitoring the health of the structure, looking particularly for damage from orbiting debris. Now, though, every week, he would lead a circus parade along Equatorial Avenue, memory recalling the ease of zero gee movement, the spectacular vistas, the exhilaration of just being on the world’s longest and thinnest carbon ribbon. And every time he turned that corner on Proximity Island, he’d have to dampen emotions about the unfairness of being laid off. The emotions sometimes would leak over into his body images and Feng didn’t like it when his circus took second position to past lives.
Finally, the parade turned north on Avenue Magnolia and the Elevator slipped from view. Jim returned to the auto mind routine for the six blocks to the Road of Joy, then right and the final block where they passed through the gate to the assembly area in front of Feng’s circus complex. He stepped aside and the rest of the parade flowed by, the bands and the elephants and the human performers winding in a spiral. Every time he watched, he was sure the entire entourage wouldn’t get through the gate, but it always did and always with the head of the parade in the exact center. Jim shut down his imaging system, becoming just another pale white man sweating in the tropical sun. Finally, the Tail Monitor signaled the Gate Monitor, who signaled the Ringmaster, who signaled with gesture and whistle that today’s parade was over. Immediately, the tidy coils of performers began breaking apart.
“Nice work on the girl,” the Ringmaster, Odd C de Vaca, said as he stepped up beside Jim and both headed toward a door. “The Polyglots were in one of their more energetic routines and one of them could’ve kicked her clean into the ocean.”
Jim nodded. “She was at the park we visited last week. My little dragon seemed to entrance her.”
“Well, keep practicing. You never know, you might catch the eye of an older and shapelier female with something even more, shall we say, entrancing.”
Odd grinned as a light flush traveled across Jim’s body. Jim sighed and turned in the direction of the locker room, where he traded the swimsuit for workout clothes. He wished he could get over his tendency to be embarrassed at off color remarks, especially since his white skin a definite minority color on the island broadcast that discomfort as well as any image he could generate. Not good for a guy who spends most of his working hours in very little clothing. He often wondered about his choice of jobs, but once the six month unemployment benefits ran out, it was find work or leave. Thirty seven of the 46 laid off Elevator employees did leave, but he stayed, hoping proximity would help in regaining the lost job. After a month of increasingly desperate searching and one eviction from a hovel, he finally walked into Feng’s office, expecting very little. But he already had one requirement for this job: a biocontroller surgically implanted in his neck. On the Elevator, it helped him process data on material and structural stresses and to extrapolate possible failure scenarios. For this job, the controller enabled him to send images down the sheen that coated his body, turning him into a living display screen.
For a job with a miniscule clothing expense, it paid surprisingly well. He could move into something more upscale than a hovel. Still, it was embarrassing, particularly at first, walking the length of the island almost naked. But Proximity Island was a place where nudity didn’t register much, so much so strip bars lost money. Entrepreneurs had to find other ways to get people to spend, and a circus was one. Especially one with the eclectic offerings Feng managed to find. It took Jim a while to understand people weren’t looking at him, they were looking at the images he created, and the more complex the image, the more he could hide behind them. Bare skin in those first days, though, wasn’t the only problem; learning to control the controller in a new protocol had been even harder.
Feng had the best fitness training center on Proximity, perhaps in the entire Pacific. He had to, if he wanted to keep the caliber of acrobats, trapeze artists, gymnasts and dancers that made his circus famous well beyond the island. Feng didn’t care where his performers came from as long as audiences kept cramming the arena to watch the “amazing and stupefying acts” (he wasn’t opposed to borrowing marketing techniques from American circuses, either; he was delighted when Jim copied the American circus poster styles from the late 19th early 20th centuries). The performers allowed Jim to use the equipment; after all, an Image Mage must maintain a decent canvas if he’s going to stay employed. At their request, though, he wore a T shirt, a relic from the first days when, watching a nubile young woman go through an elaborate exercise routine, an image of his thoughts flared up on his back. To make it worse, he didn’t know he was doing it until someone pointed to one of the mirrors. The incident sent him flying off to classes in yoga or Buddhism or TM, something, anything, to teach him how to keep from letting his thoughts through to his skin.
As he worked the lat machine, after the parade, he saw Feng enter the training center, stopping to greet and chat with people on the other machines. Jim finished his routine and sat and waited, wiping his face with a towel.
As Feng approached, Jim stood up, bowed slightly. “What’s cooking?” he said as he sat back down. The combination of formality and casual was part of Feng’s style.
“Greetings to Jim, Image Mage.” Feng’s bow was barely perceptible. Feng spoke flawless English when doing business, just as he wore light business suits on his wiry frame. Only during a show would anyone hear pidgin English Chinese Japanese patter and see him in empire patterned clothing. The wispy, flowing hair, mustache and pointed beard he groomed carefully, but mostly for the show, not for personal taste. “Odd informs me about the girl who, in her insistence in seeing one of your creations, was heedless and could have gotten injured. I’m glad you were aware enough to take care of the situation. I often worry your mind is too far away, perhaps riding the Elevator again.”
“I have learned what my job entails beyond the skin,” Jim said. “I’m happy to prove that occasionally.”
Feng’s slight bow was more a nod. “You have bettered yourself in all respects. Indeed, that’s one reason I’m here. The Golden Wave Gambling Centre is holding an Image Mage competition Friday night. You will participate.”
“Image Mage competition? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is a new endeavor,” Feng said, adjusting his stance. “Like the Independence Day tug o’ war among the harbor workers and the Bastille Day race for restaurant servers, this will be among the casino, circus and nightclub Image Mages in honor of East Timor’s Independence Day. The Orphan Children and Homeless Aid Society will benefit. The best gets a two week paid trip to Tokyo and a trophy. The next bests get lesser trophies. Sponsors, like me, get bragging rights. If you place, I’ll give you a bonus.”
Feng made his shrug look delicate.
Jim looked down at his towel. “On stage? Standard costume?”
“Come, come, Jim Blankenship, surely you’ve progressed beyond the basic level of shyness. You’re not a bad Image Mage now. Not the best, but if you concentrate you do well. A combination of natural talent and engineering background should serve you well, I should suspect. Your skin being as white as a blank page aids, too.”
“My mother would be so proud.”
Feng straightened. “Carlos, Grange and Boa will represent the Circus, too. Will you let them overshadow you? You need a routine, even a series of stills will do. You can do better, though.” Feng turned, stepped away and stopped at a bench press where a heavily muscled man just then slammed a barbell down. Feng greeted the leader of the acrobatic troupe the same way he had Jim.
Jim turned back to the lat machine, grabbed the pull bar and yanked it down, slamming the weights up. I am sure you can do better wasn’t encouragement, it was a command. He would be on stage Friday night and he would have a routine beyond a mere slide show or he would be walking the streets again. Feng had a way of making conditions like that clear with minimal words. Jim thought perhaps he should quit anyway, look for a better job. The thought stayed with him as he began the next set, but it eventually faded. He sighed, let the pull bar rise slowly. Rage all you want, he thought. You’re going to do it. You let yourself into this predicament, now you don’t have thecojones to change it. And while you’re thinking of a routine, try to decide why you keep doing it.
Friday night and Jim squirmed as he watched the in house monitor of the contest. It wasn’t competition that was bothering him most of it was pretty pedestrian, in his view it was the even tinier suit, stiff because it was new and had a way of finding a new square inch of tender skin to chafe. It also was stiff because it was the latest tech advance, containing sheen threads designed to carry an image across so there wouldn’t be any blank spots. Feng had delivered it that morning. On the screen, Tony Kortan stepped into the spotlight. Jim knew Tony from the Escadrille Bar, where Tony once had been bartender. He’d been a dullard then more than once, Jim had had to show him how to prepare a drink and he was just as unimaginative on the stage. Tony just wanted to show his workout sculpted body, a common charge against Image Mages. Tony’s displays were distorted by his bulging muscles, but Tony was just doing a slide show of nude women he probably thought were artistic. Cheesecake on beefcake, Jim thought.
You have to have a little of the artist in you, Jim remembered Nizo Ujiie telling him one day as she adjusted his controller from her handheld. Once installed, the system was his forever, but it was adaptable, which was Nizo’s job, along with training him how to make images once the sheen had been applied. Then art lessons lessons in perspective, technique, shading, colors, drawings. Jim was convinced none of it was needed, but Nizo had her arguments. And her authority.
Stigman Lee of the Sunrise Casino now took the stage, his massive body a classic illustration of why obesity wrecked a good display. His images of a steam train rolling through the American West circa 1930 would have been lovely except that the train quivered as it crossed a high trestle or folded over on itself on certain bodily curves. And the ponderousness of the canvas also drew attention to other parts of Lee’s body.
You have to get people past the nipples and navel, Nizo had said during the third of four sessions applying the sheen, the cellular substance that caused the pigmentation changes in response to the controller’s signals. You stand before the audience in the flesh but whether they continue to see that flesh is based entirely upon your skill.
As Stigman waddled off the stage to polite applause, someone knocked on the door and a voice said “Time.” Jim grunted a response and stood, adjusted the suit again, tied the robe shut and left the dressing room. By the time he got to the staging area, Ali Mussad was on stage, displaying the delicate ink drawings of Nagato’s Twenty one Views of Mount Fuji, turning in dancer trained grace as each image dissolved into the next. Mussad’s renderings, all done with bright inkings of snow and sunlight on leaves and clouds, were all the more remarkable because his skin was dark brown and only with great effort could an imager overcome that hurdle. When finished, Mussad received an enthusiastic round of applause.
Jim didn’t know who allowed Jaz Correa to follow Mussad, perhaps someone who didn’t know that the two ex lovers hated each other. Sure enough, Correa, skin as dark as Mussad’s, proceeded to parody the other’s performance with mincing or exaggerated motions while displaying Raxex Jarsill’s parody of the Nagato work, Twenty one Views of a Goddam Hole in the Ground. The colors were as vivid, the ink lines as graceful as Nagato’s, but Jarsill had emphasized the things that made trash dumps look particularly ugly. Correa received some boos as he left the stage, but he likely didn’t care.
Violette Lai San, one of only three women in the competition Boa was one, but she and the others had competed in Round One stepped out of her robe and headed for the stage. A tall, lithe woman, she carried herself with grace and dignity despite wearing just a G string. The curves of her breasts and hips could be a disadvantage, but the one time Jim had seen her perform, she certainly made him forget the nipples, navel and all the other distractions. Now a light bank cast a dramatic backdrop as she took her first position, back to the audience, legs apart and arms raised. Music started to play and the lights changed hue and her body swirled color, which soon evolved into human forms. A man and a woman danced, at first apart, he on Violette’s back, she on her chest. As Violette began to dance herself, body moving sinuously like a ballerina, the figures continued to move with their own grace. They also moved toward each other. And each step they took, Violette’s movements picked up the pace.
“Hey, bub, excuse me, hah?” A bald man with an unlit cigarillo dangling from his lips jabbed his shoulder. “I know the dame’s purty and all, but I need t’know what light scheme you want.”
“Uh, I ” Jim almost told him as garish as he could get, but he hesitated when he saw what Violette was doing. She was on her toes, spinning, but the two dancing figures, joined now, continued to move with their own grace but remained in one place. And he couldn’t see her curves; the images stayed still as if they were being projected onto a flat cylinder instead of Violette’s body. That was artistry, all right, and damned fine discipline. Her graceful performance was gently tearing his plans of revenge against Feng to shreds. He sighed. “Everything black, one key reflectance light on me.”
“And cancel my music.”
“Y’got it. Luck.”
The audience responded strongly to Violette’s performance, even delaying his entrance. Finally, his name was called. He shucked the robe and walked out onto the stage, the bright spotlight exposing him to dozens of pairs of eyes and several camera lenses. He saw himself moving from various angles and slightly bigger than life on the screens scattered throughout the room. He could feel the gaze from the human eyes whether they watched him or a screen. The stage, like the rest of the backstage, was kept cool to keep sweat down, another factor to consider. He sweated in the parades, but parade watchers didn’t scrutinize his images for blurriness the way this audience would. He faced the audience, let his arms hang at his sides, tried to make himself loosen a little, shed the tension. He took a breath, then turned his skin black. Not melanin laden browns of human shades, but black, jet black, the black of space. He heard a few gasps, which surprised, then pleased him. He closed his eyes, kept his lips together, gave a short nod. The glare of the white light through his eyelids changed intensity. He waited a few seconds, listening to the coughs and the glasses clinking and a low murmur of voices somewhere to the right. In his mind, he saw a crescent of light form across his torso, shoulder to navel, grow broader and brighter until the curve of the Earth became visible. The sun suddenly appeared in a blaze of light, then moved out of the scene, but Jim showed the sunlight moving down the Elevator cable (speeding up the process for time’s sake), illuminating the tops of clouds and finally bathing the Pacific itself in morning light. With the Earth bright and blue below, Jim slowly turned around to show as much of the panorama of the planet from geosynchronous orbit as he could fit in and remember. One of the Elevator devices that had hooked into his controller was a lens on the back of his pressure suit helmet that effectively gave him a third eye. That was the image on his back; on the front was what he would see with his own eyes. He presented a sort of 24 hours in the life of the Space Elevator. He let Typhoon Zacharias swirl into view, the category 5 storm of three years before that left the usual track and came close enough to the Elevator’s anchor island to whip up the seas and force evacuations. The storm passed on; Jim now concentrated on cloud formations, thick ones, thin ones, showing how the sun reflected off the tops or melted them away, allowing the light to reach the Pacific. He switched to a scene from the outside of a platform descending almost to its base on Ascension Island, then showed the other platform as it rose toward Terminus, the view disconcerting because the massive structure seemed ready to snap free and hurl into the blackness. The view turned west and Proximity Island, a tiny speck now, glittered from sunlight reflecting off the many glass windows and towers. The curve of the Earth appeared again, and Jim turned the view back to straight down, where the terminator passed below quickly and the shadow began climbing back up the cable. His closing display was of a thunderstorm far below, hundreds of lightning flashes illuminating masses of clouds and an occasional fountain of electrical energy snapping upward in showers of blue or red. The glow of the Earth faded and eventually disappeared into the darkness again.
He took a couple of bows to some nice applause, then left the stage, skin still black.
“Nice buff job on the body, Jim,” someone shouted over the noise in Drago’s Place, a bar across the street from the Golden Wave Centre.
Jim jerked, looked up from his beer. “Well, well, Kelly Reese.” He stood up, indicated the empty half of the booth. “Still stuffing plastic Betty Boops into boxes?”
“Oh, come on, that was ages ago.” She shook her head, blond hair bouncing. “Working on Ascension now, loading platforms.” She slid into the booth. She wore a silver top and black pants, a blue scarf showing at her throat. “I supervise twenty five other souls stuffing boxes into containers for loading.”
“Pay better?” he said too loudly in the sudden quiet as the band stopped.
“Enough for an evening out. Heard about a contest of Image Mages. Didn’t know what that was until someone explained it. Imagine my surprise when this strait laced engineer I used to know walks out on stage in a G string.”
“Don’t know him.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t wear G strings. I’m more modest.”
She snorted. “Not by much. Nice display, though the Skylift Consortium might not approve.”
“It’s none of the Skylift’s business.” A lot of the private money for the Elevator had come from businesspeople who made no secret of their faith and connections. Properly, it was the Skylift Elevator Consortium; improperly, the LiftMetoJesus Consortium. “What I finally did was quite different from my original plan. Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes bunch were going to beat the crap out of Mickey Mouse and his gang. A riot of blood, gore, entrails and severed limbs. I had planned to use Serial Kill by the Bloodletters for the music.”
Kelly winced. “What made you change your mind?”
“Decided I wasn’t as pissed at my boss as I thought.”
A waitress stopped by the table. Kelly ordered a margarita, salt on the rim.
“Another beer, Dixie,” he said. She nodded and left.
Kelly rubbed a finger on the table’s surface. “Does that imaging stuff work all the time?”
“It’s connected to the controller, just like the Elevator circuits.”
“You could do something right now?”
Jim placed his hand flat on the table, palm down, fingers apart. The skin seemed to dissolve, showing the muscles and tendons underneath. Then the fingers became bony and long, black claws forming at the ends of each.
“Amusing. I’m surprised you’re wearing a shirt.”
“Why? When I’m not performing, I’m subject to the same habits as anyone else.”
“Aren’t Image Mages really exhibitionists – ”
“Strippers don’t walk around naked.”
“I saw some Image Mages pretend to have shirts on. I couldn’t tell if the illusion extended below their waists ”
“I wear clothes, not illusions.”
“I – ” The waitress arrived with their drinks. As she placed the bottle in front of Jim, she gave him a look, but he didn’t respond. After she left, Kelly licked the rim of her glass, then took a couple big swallows. “Ooo, that’s good,” she said. Then she looked at Jim again. “You were such a by the book guy. What happened?”
“A job, just like your factory job. Ex factory job.”
“Umm, there’s a bit of difference in working assembly lines or loading crates and walking around with your skin on display. Show me another image. Something on your chest.”
Jim shook his head.
“Come on, come on, don’t be a prude. You stood an inch away from buck naked in front of a crowd not two hours ago.”
“Because I was ordered to.”
“I hear you walk through the heart of Proximity in the same state. What’s a little chest exposure?”
Jim sighed, unbuttoned his shirt. “What?”
“You used to have hair.”
“The sheen has hair suppressant in it.”
He ran a hand through his short, brown hair on his head. “Obviously not.”
“Want to see?”
“Never mind. Show me a picture. Of something else, I mean.”
The Mona Lisa formed on his chest.
“Your nipples are her eyes?”
Jim sighed again. “Her eyes are a little close for that.” He erased the image.
Her eyes widened. “You got rid of your nipples?”
“I knew I could fool you. No, they’re camouflaged.” He let the flesh tone fade.
“Cute. No, gross. You must be a riot in bed.”
“Don’t have much chance to find out.”
“Aw, poor thing.” She sat back, looked at him. “Quite a profession you’ve picked. A member of the skin trade.”
“I’m still an engineer, same as you.”
“Yeah, see?” A engineering schematic for a computer circuit formed on his chest. Kelly snorted.
“You did look a bit uncomfortable on stage tonight,” she said.
“I still find it difficult to, as you say, stand near buck naked in front of strangers, yes.”
“Yet you still do it.”
“Money’s better than I expected.” He shrugged. “And it’s a new experience, that’s for damn sure. I’ll gladly give it all up for a job on the Elevator, though.”
“There’s rumors a recall is imminent,” Kelly said.
“There’re always rumors. But, yeah, I’ve heard about this one.”
“Competition will be fierce.”
“Engineers, any workers, with past experience will have an advantage.” He took a pull on his beer.
“Unless they did something stupid while laid off.”
She shrugged, hid her face by taking another drink. Jim took a swig of beer. Subtle, Kelly wasn’t.
“Penny for your thoughts,” she said.
Again he stayed quiet, but the image of a bagel formed on his chest. Then a Polish sausage came around his left side, pushed forward until it penetrated the bagel’s center, started sliding back and forth.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Kelly snapped and jumped up. “You have changed. That’s just – dumb!” She grabbed her drink and stalked off.
Dixie the waitress stopped at the table, peered at his chest, made a face. “You’ll never get a girlfriend that way.”
Jim felt his face burn as he rebuttoned his shirt. “That was the idea.”
“She was a girl.”
“Dixie, Dixie, Dixie. There are girls and there are bitches.”
Dixie shrugged. “Sometimes you have to give a little ”
“No, I don’t,” he snapped. “I do have standards, you know.” He looked down at the table, then back up. “I really do.”
Rain pelted him as he crossed the street a half block from the bar, pondering whether that last statement was true. The walls of the buildings, the sidewalk, even the street were alive with motion and color, advertising signs flashing at him in profusion, trying to get him to buy this, that or the other. He could strip naked, turn on some like minded images and blend completely into the surroundings, his own urban camouflage. Hide in plain sight. With all this, he wondered why does anyone use human billboards? Novelty, the answer popped back. An ad on the sidewalk below, claiming Dr. Chen’s footpads would keep toe fungus itch away from his feet, was suddenly cut off in mid pitch when Jim crossed a wide, dark line stretching right and left, seeming to cleave buildings in half on either side. The line was a seam of two of the dozens of metal plates that the island city rested upon. Proximity Island, someone had dubbed it, and the name stuck. Built on a platform, built because the builders of the Elevator didn’t want this kind of place anywhere near their precious technological tour de force.
The inside of the tram stop shelter was surprisingly free of ads. Only a bright, garish light illuminated the interior where a woman sat covered head to toe in a dark green rain cloak. He sat down a little away from her.
“Congratulations on your second place win,” a soft voice said.
“Thank you, uh – ”
The woman slipped the hood off her head, letting her straight dark hair flow out. Her face was as delicate as a porcelain cameo despite darker skin tone; a touch of Asian, Jim guessed. Her hazel eyes were astonishingly clear and bright, capturing his gaze instantly.
“Uh, thank you again, Ms. Lai San. Coming from you, it’s high praise indeed. You were spectacular isn’t the word I’m looking for, but it gives the right idea. Everything about your performance was just … lovely.” He clamped his jaw shut to keep from rambling on.
“You’re very kind. Booker tells me you had something else in mind.”
“The light sound technician backstage. He does the lighting for my shows at The Crystal Palace.”
“Ah,” Jim said, smiling. “A little extra edge, then.”
Her smile lit her face. “Booker would gladly give me an edge, but I made him promise he’d do well by the rest of you. Why did you change your mind?”
“Uh,” he looked down, fingered the cloth of his trousers. “You.”
Her gaze remained on him.
“I suddenly felt that to follow such grace and beauty with raucous sound and grotesque sights would be … be, ah, blasphemous.” He shrugged, feeling the familiar flush race around his body. “I, I just didn’t feel comfortable, that’s all. It was petty and childish, what I had in mind.”
“It wasn’t childish to change your mind. An unusual choice, too. I doubly thank you for your thoughtfulness.”
He looked at her face, saw no contradictions there. “You’re very welcome. And congratulations to you. When are taking your prize trip?”
“I told Quisenberg, my boss, to send the club’s accountant. She works hard and is trying to raise two children without a husband. She has relatives in Japan and it will give her a chance to see them.”
“You don’t want to get off Proximity?”
“I desperately want off Proximity, Mr. Blankenship, but when I go it will be permanently. I am saving my money to leave my way.”
“I see. Good luck.”
They sat together on the bench for several seconds, watching the rain.
Jim started to say something, stopped, then took a deep breath. “Ms. Lai San, do you have any doubts about what you’re doing? Shame, I mean.”
She sat silent for so long Jim thought she wasn’t going to answer. Finally, she turned her face to him. “I studied ballet, Mr. Blankenship. I started when I was six, worked hard, spent hours in the studio practicing, learning, refining. I had the lead role in Nutcracker at twelve, danced with a professional troupe when I was sixteen. At the dance institute at twenty, I learned about supply and demand. Too many ballerinas, too few companies. If I’d been male, I’d of had a better chance because they’re always in short supply.” She fell silent, turned back to face the rain. “When you’re obsessed with something, you tend to not be prepared for the rest of the world. You go where they will hire you, and travel long distances to perform. And sometimes on those trips, the money runs out and company folds and you get stuck in a strange place.”
Headlights from the Blue Line tram flashed into the shelter as the silent vehicle slid to a stop. Violette stood up, looked back at Jim.
“I try to make what I do fall into the realm of art, Mr. Blankenship,” she said. “Perhaps I’m fooling myself, and when I see the faces of the watchers and hear their comments, I am fairly certain I am a fool. I reject shame, or at least push it away. I have standards, try to maintain dignity.” Her lips formed a slight smile. “Your words tonight helped.”
She turned and boarded the tram. Jim sat waiting for his, wondering at the ease humans often let themselves get trapped.
“The push is on, Blankenship. Six months ago, anyone would have laughed at you if you had said any such thing, but that’s the way things work. You never know.”
Jim nodded from the chair in front of the antique mahogany desk. Miles Mumford often brought up unnecessary details in whatever he talked about. But Jim forced himself to be agreeable; too much was at stake. Eight days had passed since the competition and suddenly the word went out like wildfire: recall. Mumford, director of personnel for the operating consortium in his temporary office on Proximity, was the first step.
“Several factors have converged that make expansion necessary,” Mumford went on. “Part of it is Elysium Station. It’s close enough to completion that we see tourists beginning to arrive next quarter. Plus increased trips to the Mars and Moon stations. Within the next five years, we believe, the call for permanent settlements will be issued. China and the Ariane group are competing for contracts using rocket technology, but why travel that way when the Elevator is at hand? Financing and design for enlarging the platforms are under serious consideration. The engineering prospects of adding another ribbon are under way. The potentials boggle the mind.”
“I worked with Hemlein on preliminary work for the new cable layers,” Jim said, finding the idea of Mumford’s mind being boggled scary.
“And we’re going to build new shuttle docks at Terminus. So we need engineers. And construction crews.”
Jim stirred. “I ”
“We’re looking at bright futures for the right people.”
“Sounds great ”
“Yes, well, we do have a problem here. You might not be among the right people.”
A chill ran down Jim’s spine. “I don’t understand. I received high scores on my work and design evaluations – ”
“Your engineering skills aren’t in question.” Mumford glanced at him, pulled something out of an envelope. “Your personal conduct is.” He set the item down in front of Jim, a still shot of him at the mage competition in the white light seconds before the stage went dark. “This is not an image the Consortium wants to project.”
Jim’s flush was deep, even as he realized Mumford didn’t know what he’d just said. “I’m not a stripper ”
Mumford’s eyebrows rose.
“Once I start the displays, the canvas disappears. I disappear.”
“Doesn’t look to me like you disappeared much. I can almost see your jewels.”
“Are you looking for them?”
“Now look – ”
“Did your spy tell you what images I displayed in the contest?”
“Oh, something about the Elevator and views from Earth. Which only makes it worse, Mister Blankenship. The consortium, particularly the Clear Light group, has worked hard to establish certain standards about the operation of the Elevator. Construction and safety, to be sure, but also moral standards. The Elevator is operated by people with outstanding moral principles who strive to maintain them daily. Daily, Mister Blankenship. They do not appreciate an associate turning his back on his moral behavior for such tawdry displays. Imagine if this got out. There are people all over this world, Mister Blankenship, who would love to drive a wedge into the Elevator business and send it all off to Ariane or China. Foreigners, can you imagine? This is an American project and it will stay an American project and those who practice immorality will not be a part. Do you understand?”
Jim sat up. “The controller will be disconnected and the sheen removed before I even set foot on Asencion. There will be no more displays, there will be just hard and competent work for the Consortium, the same as I did before the layoffs. This, this” – he indicated the flatimage – “was merely a job – ”
Mumford sat back, placing his fingertips together in a steeple. “Twenty three of the reductees were engineers, pretty much in the same position you were. Not one resorted to such … activity. A jet is landing here tomorrow with thirteen young and six experienced engineers, all competing for these same positions. Frankly, you don’t have a chance. You made your bed …”
“Mister Mum – ”
“This interview is over, Mister Blankenship.”
When Odd snapped at Jim two hours later to get ready for the matinee, Jim grabbed the short, wiry man by his red coat and hurled him into a stack of costume boxes. He ran out of the circus complex, up Avenue Magnolia and along Equatorial until he spotted a bar that matched his mood, dark, stinking of stale beer and crowded with unkempt men. He spent the first half hour imagining what he would do to Kelly Reese. Mumford hadn’t mentioned her name, but he had no doubt. Her way of dealing with the competition he wondered if she had dug up dirt on the other 22 schmucks trying to get back, too. He gave up because the beer was making it harder for him to keep control. Couldn’t let images of murder slip; on Proximity, visual threats were on a par with spoken threats. He didn’t stop the drinking, though. He kept the beers going, eventually ending up in a third bar sans shirt. He sort of remembered three Aussie sailors asking to see porn, and he’d obliged until the bartender grabbed his arm.
“You go,” the man said. “Now.”
“No one appreciates good art,” he mumbled as the fat but strong man pushed him but not the sailors out. All he had on now was a pair of cargo shorts and sandals, leaving him pretty well exposed. Well, his fashion style lost him his job, so why not? He shrugged, staggered into another bar, one where he wasn’t the only topless person, male or female, in attendance. A beer and a margarita later the latter for variety he decided he still wasn’t drunk enough. Upon returning from the restroom (where he scared off some guy soliciting a blow job by imaging cockroaches crawling all over his body), he sat down at an open stool, ordered another beer. As he drank he stared into the crowd, seeing nothing until an elegant woman in evening gown with some kind of animal fur draped over her bare shoulders stopped at the bar next to him. He stared into the dead eyes of the mink or whatever, vaguely wondering why anyone would want to keep the head. He looked at the woman a moment and the next instant she was displayed on his chest, naked upper body bouncing up and down rapidly, breasts bobbing, a look of ecstasy on her sweating face. Her body below her navel disappeared under his shorts, but her open handed slap told him she got the context. So did her escort, a bull necked man swathed neck to shoes in a black cut away tuxedo, who aimed a fist in his direction. Jim’s fuzzed mind still made his body twist enough so the blow hit neck instead of face. The man quickly reared back to strike again, but a pair of giant hands grabbed him and lifted him off the floor.
“No more, no more,” said someone with an even larger bull neck wearing a leopard skin patterned garment that left one shoulder bare. “I put you down, if you try to hit again, I throw you to floor. You capiche?”
Tuxedo man said something, to which the strongman said something like “pfaff” and slammed tuxedo man down. “You don’t listen too good, no?”
Jim was trying to make sense of that when someone grabbed him, spun him around and propelled him out the door.
“Fuckin’ bartenders ”
“No bartender.” Jim was spun around again and Odd C de Vaca’s face loomed close. “Try to toss me now, gringo.”
Jim started to say something, but yelled and tore free of Odd’s grasp. Fire licked at his body, but he fell in haste to get away. Flames roiled across his chest and legs, and he almost screamed, but another slap stung his face.
“Look closer, idiot.”
Jim looked. “Oh.” He didn’t have a clue as to why he was imaging fire on his body, but watched a moment, sitting on the sidewalk as dozens of feet shuffled past. “Cool.”
“Best douse the image lest a fighter of fires inundates you with cold water rapidly egressing from a tubular conveyance.”
Jim looked up at the speaker. Boris, partial to wearing his leopard skin costume everywhere, also had a penchant for changing the way he talked. Jim never could decide which side of the man was real and which was affectation.
“Yeah.” He watched the flames die as if someone had shut off the fuel. “That was pretty good, though,” he mumbled. “Now what did you say? Try to toss you ag’n? OK.” He tried to get to his feet, almost fell, but a large hand under his arm yanked him back up. He was held between Boris and Odd as the crowds swerved around them in that practiced way city dwellers have. He shook Boris off.
“OK, Odd, let jusht me shtand ” One knee collapsed. Boris grabbed him again.
“Stand? Hardly, pendejo. Come on, Boris.”
Jim’s senses reeled, confusing him; he was dimly aware of being pulled along for a short while, then stuffed into a back seat where he stared at an upholstery seam. He just sort of sighed and stayed in that position. When the vehicle stopped, Boris, who stood six six and was built like a tank, slipped an arm around his waist and carried Jim like a rag doll. Boris tossed him on a bed. Jim tried to cling to the edges of the mattress as it tilted and whirled, but finally it slowed and stopped. He broke into cold sweats and trembled, a state that he would swear lasted an hour, but he couldn’t tell because he eventually drifted off into the agitated slumber of a drunken man.
Jim had expected to be called to Feng’s office before the sun rose the next morning, but he got through a shower and a cup of coffee before being informed Feng was in Hong Kong for two more days. However, he was already on Feng’s schedule for 7 a.m. three days hence. In addition, he was on suspension; Boa would lead Tuesday’s parade. He should be grateful, Odd informed him, that he hadn’t been tossed out on his ear. Jim thanked him, head banging to the rhythm of a Polyglot cadence although the band wasn’t playing, then apologized for tossing him. Odd shrugged, said things happen, but you know, he added, sometimes those things come around and bite. To which Jim agreed, then – out of Odd’s earshot – said, “Fuck.”
While Feng didn’t see things in the black and white opposites the Consortium tended to do, the circus owner still had his rules, his expectations of conduct. Circuses always have had reputations of being dens of unsavory characters, Feng had told Jim – often – and in order to maintain success, he must require all employees, whether they be performers or roustabouts or support personnel, to be circumspect in many things. Discipline was paramount for a successful circus act, but discipline in the lives of the rest of the employees was a given, too. And Jim had breached that expectation, had made a fool of himself in public and had created a scene, all traceable to Feng Shusheng’s Circus of the Heart and Mind.
Jim at least had a little time, given Feng was off island. He figured he’d need to come up with a script begging for his job, work on wording promises of better behavior if given a second chance. Or at least he sort of thought about it as he moped around the circus complex. He finally settled in front of a terminal and glared at the blank screen for several moments. He heard a clunk, looked over to see someone had placed a bottle of Binge be Gone™ on the desk. He made a face at it, deciding it was better to suffer because it would spur creativity in his letter of pleading. He tried to settle his gaze on the screen, finally turning it on. He was about to initiate a writing program but hit the news tab instead. He scrolled through the list, hardly seeing the type, until a certain name caught his attention. He opened the file, then sat up as he read more. He grabbed the bottle of Binge be Gone™ and drank the vile tasting liquid in three gulps. In two minutes, the stuff had done its job, clearing mind and body and boosting alertness. A plan had formed in his mind and he needed to muster all the clarity he could to sell it.
“I have read the reports about your … incident,” Feng said slowly, hardly breaking cadence of the puffs from his pipe, carved by hand into the shape of a smiling face. “The police graciously stood aside and let my people handle the situation. Do you have anything to contest in this report?”
“No, Odd has it down fairly well. I just wonder who he talked to to get the lowdown on the stuff he didn’t see.” Jim tried to maintain an air of sedateness, having learned that a calm demeanor was the best way to deal with Feng’s anger. The possibility of losing the job was reason enough to be nervous, but here he sat facing his boss in nothing more than a pair of shorts. Consortium management wouldn’t have let him approach in such a state, much less into Mumford’s office, but Jim still wasn’t sure about Feng’s reaction.
“Odd knows many people, and he knows many of the people I know, so he was able to get what he needed. What we must discuss now is your position in the organization. Please listen.”
“I’m all ears.”
Feng started to speak, but lowered his pipe and gave Jim a look of exasperation.
Jim suppressed a grin as he looked down at the hundreds of images of ears that covered his body, small ones, large ones, right side up, upside down, ear after ear piled on more ears.
“This is no time for jests, Mr. Blankenship.”
Jim cleared his throat and the images. “It was done to shut you up, Mr. Shusheng. I’ve had it up to here” a line appeared on his neck, then disappeared “with lectures on morals. I lost one job, a fine job, one I enjoyed very much, because some self righteous people decided I was an immoral man. All because of the work I do for you. Now you’re planning to tell me my anger over losing that job was the sign of an undisciplined mind. Maybe so. And that the drunken rampage and some of the subsequent activities brought shame to you and your famous circus. No, it didn’t. Shame on me, yes, but just me. I was insulting and gross. I was drunk, I was angry, I did outrageous things, but I didn’t hurt anybody. Not even Odd. Don’t lecture me, Mr. Shusheng. You have your report, I apologized to Odd, I would apologize to anyone I insulted if I could find them, I apologize to you for being an asshole this one time.” Jim stopped, took three deep breaths, and looked directly at Feng.
Feng sat unmoving, puffing carefully. “So,” he finally said. “Now that your conscience is as blank as your chest, what do you suggest I do with you?”
“I have a proposal.”
“A proposal? This is amusing. An engineered fired for ” An eyebrow cocked. “Why are you changing the subject?”
The image of the Space Elevator had formed on Jim’s chest, one platform just about to reach Terminus.
“Space.” Feng nearly spat the word. “All you think about, getting back up there, on your precious Elevator. All the damn thing does is go up and down, up and down, like a whore riding on top. It’s passé, a dead end. Why do you worry so?”
A shuttle left Terminus and sailed above the blues and whites of the Pacific Ocean until sunlight glittered off something far ahead. The spot quickly resolved into a double wheeled space station, rotating slowly and sedately.
Feng nodded slightly. “You heard the news about me, Jerl Quisenberg and Mattox McCrumber, I see. We formed a partnership that bought large areas of space no pun intended on Elysium Station.” He smiled. “You see it as a way back. You want a job. I must say, a weightless Image Mage does have some little appeal. Rotating above the customers like a chicken on a rotisserie, perhaps. We’ll have to apply sheen to the bottoms of your feet, of course. Can’t afford any blank spots.”
The scene on Jim’s chest switched to the interior of a casino, but the game represented took up four walls as a little brown ball bounced among several rods, finally sticking to a red square. A number flashed and some of the crowd in the half dome could be seen cheering while others despaired.
“Elysium Station. Pretty high falutin’ name for an orbiting gambling joint,” Jim said.
Feng waved a hand dismissively. “Gambling is to the rest of Elysium as a toenail is to the body of Venus. There are many more opportunities ”
He now imaged a basketball hoop attached sideways high up on a wall. A player in blue soared toward it, but a player in red zoomed in on an intercept course. The blue player still got off his shot and the ball zipped straight through the hoop.
Jim blanked his chest. “Is that the best you can do?”
Feng’s body straightened, an offended look on his face. “They’re among our plans ”
“Now you listen to me.” Jim sat forward, on the edge of the seat, trying hard not to let a flush ruin his intensity. “Listen to someone who’s been there, worked there, slept there, defecated there. Transplanting Earth bound sports isn’t going to cut it. Basketball? And your other big plan, football? You have any idea what would happen if someone kicked a football in zero gee?” On his chest, a fully padded figure kicked the ball, which shot straight up, puncturing a hole in the roof, decompression sucking said player out. “Come on! You’ll need something new, something challenging. You’re a businessman, you know what risk is. ‘Gravity defying feats’ go the ads I often image for you. Imagine if there wasn’t any gravity.” A complex structure formed on his chest, looking like a polyhedron made up of segments of interlocking parts, until he zoomed in. The parts were humans, who began spinning and tumbling. “And audiences not confined to chairs bolted to a floor.” Small groups of figures attached to each other appeared. The acrobats broke off the human sphere, began soaring around the grouped figures.
“Customers aren’t going to be content with watching, oh, no. They’re going to want to participate, to see for themselves the joys and wonders of zero gee they’ve heard about all their lives. They’re going to want to float” he showed figures rising slowly in a large, cylindrical room, some just relaxing as if on a lounger, others waving their arms and legs, some with eyes closed, bodies in postures of meditation “or soar” figures now moved rapidly along, some as if diving off a high board, others backwards, others holding hands and spinning “or fly.” figures with wings flapped over a section of wall where others sat strapped to chairs, sipping beverages through straws in containers attached to the tables.
“Do you see, Feng? Can you envision living, moving in zero gee? I can. And I’m an engineer, I’ve already designed such places.” The schematic again appeared on his chest, but this time the lines and angles dissolved into three dimensional renderings as he spoke. “I can see and I can plan and I can make real. And, I can do it on a budget. I can give you a place more wondrous than your competitors because I’ve seen what they’re planning and they’re still thinking mere transplanted ground activities. I’ll give you a pleasure dome that people will flock to. I have the technical training, and I have the imagination.” He shrugged. “Much of the last thanks to you. I did come in second in the competition, after all.”
Feng knocked the dregs out of his pipe, slowly refilled it, tamped the tobacco with slow care, then lit it from a silver, footed lighter until his head was wreathed in smoke. “By the way,” he said slowly. “Ms. Lai San has signed on to the project.”
“Well, that’s very niiiicccce … hmm, a ballerina in zero gee. An imaging ballerina in zero gee ” Jim saw Feng’s gaze move to his chest. He looked down to see an image of her sensuous form turning gracefully in a spotlit area sans floor or walls, covered only in images of white topped mountains. Jim blanked the image, glared at Feng, who was smiling serenely. “You bastard.”
In the distance, the south platform crawled its way down the cable, navigation lights blinking. Jim watched its progress from a bench on the strip of sand called East Beach, although the sandless beach ended with a 30 meter drop to the ocean. In two weeks, he would ride that Elevator up again, this time as a passenger. Feng, at their meeting, had waited just a few more minutes, then told him what his salary was going to be. Shock must have registered on his face because Feng had smiled again.
Someone stepped up behind the bench. Violette Lai San sat down next to him, her short, white, strapless sun dress making his T shirt and shorts look positively frumpy.
“So,” he said, “you’re getting off Proximity by going up.”
“It has ” She stopped, turned to him. “Mister Blankenship, I believe you and I will be working together. Before we start, however, I must inform you of something.”
“You’re not really a ballerina.”
“No, that part is true. I did have a dream, I did study a long time. I just never said where.” She looked in the direction of the Elevator, then looked back. “Lai San is just an attempt to exoticize my name. Lai San, Larson. Violette Larson from Des Moines, Iowa.”
“You don’t look Iowish.”
“My great grandfather, a corn fed Iowa farm boy as my grandfather used to describe him, joined the Air Force and was posted to Vietnam.”
“Ah. And in an exotic land, he fell in love with an exotic woman.”
“Fortunately, the love was requited. He took her back to Iowa, and here I am.”
“To our great advantage.”
The smile again lit up her face.
“This doesn’t change anything, does it?” he said. “Whether you bill yourself as Lai San or Larson, you still have the talent and, I presume, are still willing to give it a go in zero gee.”
“I am looking forward to the challenge. I have a few ideas.”
“Excellent. You’re hired.”
She smiled again, leaned back, stretched, then relaxed. Flowers of all colors and varieties sprouted on her legs, shoulders and arms. He kept his face passive and eyes on the Elevator until he heard her giggle. He looked down at his own legs and saw dozens of bees zooming and flitting, cramming themselves on his right thigh as if trying to get across to her. “Oh, goddamnit!” he snarled, feeling a flush spreading across his face. “I’m sorry, I I can do better at control.”
She placed her hand on his. As he watched, one bee appeared on her leg, landed on a bright red flower.
“Now that is the most blatant pick up line I have ever seen,” he said.
She laughed, and it was a musical sound. Their fingers interlaced. Both turned toward the ocean and watched as the platform reached bottom. Her flowers began waving in a breeze; he carefully allowed white, puffy clouds against a blue sky to appear on his thighs. A sun peeked out from behind a cloud, casting rays toward the earth. Their arms and shoulders touched, and in that place and at that moment, Jim was content.
Copyright 2008 Terry D. England