watching the lights go down

other worlds through sunglasses


automatic earth, don't cry, this is the long-distance call
Rook the Librarian gisho
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[Origific] Graduate
Something of a continuation of Scenery. Sort of. In the same continuity, at least.



Starseeds are wonderful cars. There were only a few hundred made, though, because they didn't sell. I got mine secondhand. I'd sell my sould to keep it, although I didn't know it then. But maybe it is my soul. Certainly it's my conscience.

*

When I was a kid I had a paper route. Not like kids in the suburbs used to have paper routes back when everyone liked to get their papers in newsprint; I bicycled around the city in the dead of night delivering blocks of green paper wrapped in brown, advertisements for companies that did not exist, little horoscope scrolls I kept like cigarettes in my breast pocket. It was not without its dangers. I kept a short crowbar of the kind sometimes called a jemmy in the handlebar basket; cargo went in the back under a cover, unless I expected to have to throw it, in which case it went under the crowbar. I was sometimes called Jemmy too. More usually nobody bothered about my name. I was just the kid with the paper route, and I was very reliable.

My talent is superhuman reflexes. You have to have some sort of talent to get ahead.

Ma Leona's talent was telepathy. Of course that was even more reliable than a kid with a paper route for telling people things in confidence but while she could read people's minds she couldn't send thoughts except to a natural reciever. I had all the telepathic talent of a brick but she could tell I wasn't going to cheat her, so she gave me the paper route. I was twelve when I graduated. Well, I like to think of it as graduating.

I like to think she didn't notice I'd never driven a car before. I was on the other side of the room, and she'd said my thoughts were so fast, so childishly strange, she had trouble picking them up. But she knew I was honest, and she had very little choice at that stage.

*

I am faster than anyone else on the road. I can afford to be - reflexes, and the Starseed. I am its eyes and ears and it is my muscles. It moves exactly where I want it to. It mvoes so fast, so simply, that it scared people. That's part of why it never sold. Sports car drivers are control freaks. It's a very demanding car. Anyone who wasn't used to such responsiveness tended to oversteer, which made them say it wasn't very responsive at all, and think, if they were honest, that they couldn't handle it.

It didn't look like a sports car, either. It was advertised as one, but its curves were more reminiscent of an upturned bathtup. They made them in Arizona but its size was more typical of the UK. Four people could fit in it, if they were very friendly. The outside was as much plastic as metal, but not in any graceful way. The convertible top was weather-resistant cloth, and it bulged in unsightly ways.

She's beautiful, all silver and gray. I'm the only one who knows how beautiful she is.

People were scared of a nuclear motor. It didn't make enough noise, they said, they couldn't tell when it was working too hard. They didn't like the idea of all those gamma-rays near their legs. They didn't know. They didn't want to try.

*

There was nobody following me for most of the way. Near Chicago a couple goons in matching suits showed up, but I lost them on the freeway. Some kind of TLA. I've given up telling them apart; it's all the same at the other end of the rifle, and the TLAs use unmarked cars.

All Metaxos said was, "You're late."

"I'm not Gooney either," I said. "Ma Leona went to heroic lengths to get this to you in time. Don't diss her. Gooney's in jail right now. He's the one who dropped the ball."

"Gooney does not drop balls," Metaxos said firmly. "I have no doubt the charges were falsified." He had a thick, unplacable accent, and he spoke every sentence as a declaration. He was a foot taller than me, too, and had muscles like Vienna sausages. It seemed to bother him that it didn't bother me. He could have snapped me like a twig, but why would he have when I'd just saved his ass and we both knew it?

Maybe that was why - he didn't like having a skinny little kid see his weak spot. "I don't doubt either," I said. "Nobody's saying Gooney was stupid. Just had some very bad luck, is all."

Metaxos said, "Hah!"

"So that's why I'm here. My names Jemmy Starseed, by the way, and I already know you. You're Metaxos." Adding the Starseed was a stroke of sudden inspiration. I'm not deep but I can think circles around people anyway. I get like that sometimes.

The suitcase was sitting on the desk between us, and taking up a lot more space than its volume allowed. Fake red lizardskin. I guess the idea was that the Feds knew we took ourselves too seriously to transport things in red lizardskin briefcases. "Fair enough," said Metaxos. "Do not expect a tip. Ma Leona has already been paid in full."

I leaned against the door, tried hard to look casual, even tugged my cap down over my eyes for noir-effect. "I wasn't expecting a tip. But, you know, I've got an empty car. And I have to be back in Seattle anyway."

"Hah!" said Metaxos again. It was like a verbal tic, really, like he was trying to prove he was tough. Why does a guy who's six-foot-five and looks like he could rip a desk in half have to act like he doesn't believe a word I'm saying to feel secure? "I prefer to contract with professionals for the sort of work I need. I'd hardly put one of Ma Leona's field agents to such trouble ..."

This was going to be a shoe-in. "No trouble at all, I assure you. I'm getting paid, aren't I?"

"So why should I give you money instead of a proven courier?"

"How the hell do you think couriers get proven? I was here in twenty-four hours. Admittedly the package should have left three days ago, but we've covered that. I shook off the feds in the suburbs. They must have known somone was coming but it took them that long to figure out it was me. Three-quarters."

"Half," he said, but he didn't say no, and he would up paying me sixty-five percent of standard rate for a package with nobody looking for it especially.

*

When I got the Starseed she was red on the metal and white on the plastic. I took my first comission and bought a uniform silver paint job. It made her stand out a lot less on the road. She wasn't meant to be wild, and I couldn't afford it in my job. It wasn't a very good paint job, but shiny cars catch the eye. You'd have to look at my Starseed, actually see her, to know how beautiful she is.

She's only been involved in one race. It was in Texas, against a man with a cherry-red Mustang and a ten-gallon hat, and we won. He took me out to dinner afterwards, and introduced me to fire-alarm chili, and said I reminded him of his son, who was studying to be a veterinarian.

I must have been sixteen then but I'd given up keeping track, really. Already then it felt strange to leave the car for so long.

*

Gooney was in jail though no fault of his own and there were a lot of very specialized and only mildly illegal computer chips that needed to be in Chicago the morning of the day after tomorrow. I came in from my paper route to report all deliveries successful and that is what Ma Leona told me when I asked her why she was looking so upset.

"Too late. Nobody would take them now." If it was truly too late, she wouldn't have mentioned it, though. She had her head on her hands and her hair was falling all around them like a lion's mane.

I had to ask. "What happened to Gooney?"

"Drug charges. They couldn't stick anything else on him so it had to be drug charges."

"Oh." I paused. "They got him right before he was leaving, right?"

"Yes. And we didn't expect to hear from him until he was in Chicago, so of course it wasn't until an hour ago we started worrying, and then I ran his name and found out."

"Hard knock," I said sympathetically. "Look, where's the package right now?"

"It's being brought over." A habit of hers was to speak in the passive voice and avoid names. I figured I knew who was bringing it - a burglar I knew, a nice fellow who could have easily gotten into Gooney's other apartment which was probably where he had left the suitcase while he checked his car out and ran maps and all the stuff good couriers do before a long trip. "Maybe I can still find someone. Will you go over to Karoly's place and ask if he's up for a sudden job? I need to call everyone who believes in phones."

Karoly? She wanted Karoly? She must be desperate. "No," I said, with another sudden inspiration. "Why don't I do it?"

"Jemmy?" She sat up and looked at me funny. "I don't want you to get shot. Besides, you have your paper route."

"I'm not the only kid with a route. Get someone to cover for me."

"You don't have a car."

"Give me the Starseed. I'll make it somehow. You never drive that thing anyway."

"I'd have to pay you, and I already paid Gooney. In cash. The feds probably took it." She looked flustered again. Ma Leona wouldn't insist he pay it back, in recognition of their long relationship, and it would probably take a lot more money to spring him. It had to be done, but it left her short.

"Give me the Starseed," I repeated.

Her eyes went wide. "You mean it," she said. "You know how much that thing cost me?" But the bargaining was an automatic reaction for her; she could see and hear and thought-read my determination, my surety that this was the best way out of the problem, my devotion to the job. I've always been devoted to my job. Once on my paper route I ran into a gang of firestarters. I broke my wrist and came home with two black eyes but I didn't lose a single paper.

"Yeah. A keg of beer. You told me last Christmas."

"True." And Ma Leona began to laugh. Her mood-swings were something of a legend around the office. "Alright. It's a deal."

The key was on a fob reading "Albequerque" and depicting a pine tree. It would have to go, I decided as I hauled the red lizardskin suitcase three blocks to the house where Ma Leona kept the Starseed in the yard. There were going to be a lot of changes very soon.

*

Kids always give up their paper route when they get old enough. Some of them stay on as agents in other capacities. Some go straight and get into or back into school. I know of one who even went to college and became a lawyer. He's a county prosecutor now, but he never broke the oath. He'd never touch Ma Leona's people.

I graduated too. I'm not hers anymore, or at least, not exclusively. I work for anyone as long as it's not an ugly job. Some things I won't touch. It's not my hands I'm worried about; they were dirty long ago. It's my Starseed. She deserves better. Illegal is fine, but I like to think I have standards, although I've never written them down. But I just know - some things should not touch her backseat.

The crowbar still sits next to the driver's seat, although I have only needed to use it twice since I began. Sentimentality, perhaps.

Or a way or remembering my name.

OK

(Anonymous)
Clean up the spelling and grammar and send this to Analog.

Re: OK

Are you kidding? I want to have a lot mroe fun with Jemmy first. And do something with more of a plot - this was just to cement in my mind how Jemmy got started in the business.

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