The Sky So Big and Black

Meme Wars (Volume 4 of 4)

John Barnes

Tor Books

Sky So Big and Black
At least I don't have to pretend I'm a scientist. I can admit I'm an artist. And a cop. I do have to admit that I'm a cop.
I raise my glass to my own reflection in the mirror by my door; lately this is as close as I get to drinking with a colleague. There might be a couple of hundred of us shrinks, nowadays, in all the parts of the solar system where there's any reason for us to exist--here on Mars, over on the Moon, out on the twenty-some settled asteroids, hunkered down in the Jovian moon colonies. Rightnow, during the emergency, I doubt they can afford any of us on Titan or Mercury, but there's probably someone with the training, currently emptying bedpans, cooking soup, mining methane, or something, and if an occasion came up I guess they could shift them to cover.
There might be seventy shrinks on the Moon, many of them exactly the kind of expert that Teri's case needs, and if anyone upstairs had had any sense that's where we'd have sent the poor kid in the first place, a whole Mars year ago, once we knew what was going on. But they didn't; the district officers decided that it could all be dealt with right here, so that they wouldn't have to arrange transportation for Teri, so that nobody above them would have to look at the case seriously--oh, sure, reports went up the bureaucratic pyramid, but nothing alarming, nothing with the big red stamp of INVASION POSSIBLE or WE'VE GOT TROUBLE.
And now there's this new problem. Maybe I should keep it from the district officers, just deal with it here and send them a report later. That would teach them a lesson. Last time they insisted that I cope with Teri all by myself; maybe this time I just will.
I wonder if cases like Teri's are happening a lot. I wouldn't necessarily know. People don't tell me things. I run up against walls of secrecy all the time. Almost anything might be being kept from me. So maybe cases like Teri's current situation are happening three a week, or something, ever since the Sunburst, and all being kept quiet. It's possible. I don't know. I'm not a scientist and I don't pretend to be. I'm not even a very good cop. Butat my art ... well, now that's an interesting question. I think I'm good.
Conscious thoughts are indices of deeper internal states. So thinking I'm good at what I do is an index. Is this particular index an observation, a delusion, or symptom?
It would also be so very much easier if I didn't like Teri. I should have been able to manage objectivity, I think, or maybe even to get really cop-ish and detest the brat. But, no, I wince when I think the word "brat" about her.
She's anything but, really. Unless you say that all roundita girls are brats, and I've been working here too long to think that; what they are, is confident.
And what water is, is wet.
I laugh at that. It's a habit, laughing at my own feeble jokes. The kind of habit a man gets when he has drunk too much by himself too often for all his adult life. Teri is brash and rude and aggressively ignorant, but she's also tender-hearted and trusting and exuberantly young despite everything that's happened to her, so of course I like her.
Besides, liking her is part of the art. To get to where you have at least some dim understanding of what it's like to be the person sitting across from you, you really have to find a way for you to like the suspect, or the patient, or the rogee, or whatever the term that we're allowed to call them currently is. (Way down here in this frontier town, I only have to go through standards and practices review every few groundyears, and in between I don't bother to know the currently correct terminology. Hell, ifI wanted to I could probably title my weekly notes to the chief "Dangerous Nut Report" and I'd never get hassled.)
I have received a recorded message from Teri, which clearly calls for a reply.
That's what triggered all my maundering silly speculation and all my bullshit philosophy. It's not what triggered my drinking, tonight or any other night; that requires no trigger. Everyone else has gone home for the day, out through the big front doors down the hall, into the warm afternoon sunlight that always makes Red Sands City glow so beautifully. It's the middle of southern autumn, as it was a Mars year ago when it all started. We still measure our own ages in groundyears and celebrate our birthdays on the Martian day that includes the exact groundyear anniversary of our births, but we do everything else now in Martian days and seasons and years, because that's what the sun obstinately insists on doing.
I look at the clock. That's another index--"lose time and find trouble," as we say. If I had looked up and it had been hours later than I'd expected, I'd have to hit that red button on my desk, the one that locks me in and calls in cops and shrinks to deal with the mess. But my time sense is just fine, so apparently so am I.
So the clock is, so far, only the index of what it's like outside: the last hour of daylight. I love autumn sunshine. I could be down in the park, looking back this way, watching that yellow-orange sunshine glow on the rock wall that forms the older, east side of the city, above. I could watch the people out enjoying the evening, or look out through the dome, over the shantytown, at the sun setting over the Hellspouts. I could be down there on that bench in fiveminutes, and com for a pizza, and have a little picnic there in the park.
Instead I reach for the bottle again. There will still be plenty of sunlight in the future, and what I'm thinking about is suited to profound darkness.
I don't really like the other cops much--the real cops, I'm sure they'd call themselves. They'll be out there enjoying the sun with their families; I have no family, so we don't usually have much to make small talk about.
All of the other cops piled out of here right at quitting time, maybe ten minutes after I got Teri's note. Some of them rode the big escalators down to their levels--most of our city is set back in the crater walls here, like old-time cliff dwellers in Arizona or Arabia or wherever that was (sometimes I'm nearly as hazy about history and Earth and all that as Teri or any other kid of her generation). Some now live out on the crater floor inside the dome--there are more and more residences there--though ever since the Sunburst and its aftermath, I think most sitters will want to live and work with plenty of dirt over and around them. Probably in a generation or two the stereotypical sitter will live in a cave and the rounditachi and Marsforms will make fun of us for it.
Well, I was fifty-two groundyears old when the Sunburst hit, and that's really too old to acquire any new, deep-rooted fears; I'd be scared if I saw it get suddenly bright or if all the power went off, but I'd know what I was scared of, and we'd be talking about scared, not unreasoning panic.
The idiots running the schools are trying to induce unreasoning panic in the next generation, now. For a wholeMars year they've subjected these kids to grief-counseling and anxiety-discussions and plain old fear-mongering intended to make the children permanently dependent on the self-misnamed "helping professions"--that is, make the children be permanently children. God, a tough roundita like Teri, if she heard all the counselors and human-servicers and educatoids talking and planning, would knock every one of them to the floor, and kick and spit on them while they begged for mercy.
The stupid things we're about to do to kids, just so the world will be a little more comfortable for grown-ups--it used to be the point was to get them out of school so they could go have lives, not keep them around as toys for their teachers and counselors to coddle and moon over. Hell, I got the certificate to be a shrink when I was eighteen, and by the time I was twenty, I'd lost count of the dying people I'd comforted, the crime scenes for which I'd answered the question "now what sort of person would do a thing like this?", the cops twice my age I'd lent an ear to when they had seen something horrible and needed to talk. Of course being a shrink was different, too--the main duty was still "tidings of comfort and pills," as my supervisor used to call counseling, and then after that came "putting all the nuts into one tree," which is what he called profiling. If you ask me, that work was harder, even if it wasn't quite as urgent as what we do now, and I miss that difficulty.
Before I was even twenty, I had had to improvise my way out of so many things that I had lost any fear of the new. We saw more, and we learned more, and it is theopinion of this experienced shrink that these kids don't really need counseling, they need a chance to get to work, to make and do and dream and think, to make adults out of themselves. And if you gave them half a chance they all would.
But so many in my damned generation say that they've had too much stress already and they want the world to calm down, just because it wasn't calm when they were kids. So we're going to build society in the form of a quiet garden for old people and let the kids rust away unused, soothing Grandma's nerves at the minor expense of making Junior narrow and dumb and lazy. The way every basically comfortable society turns out, given half a chance. The only thing we learn from history is convenient metaphors for our current follies.
God, I think. God.
He doesn't answer, and I'd be justifiably scared--but not in a panic!--If he did, since I would know it really was Resuna, or a tiny brain tumor, or some boo-boo in my mix of neurotransmitters.
But since he doesn't answer, I'm not afraid to talk to him, and I say, God, I am sounding more and more like Teri. Well, not like Teri right now, but like the scrappy, independent, rude bitch she's going to be when she's a grandmother--may her grandkids be numerous and just like her, if you're actually listening, God! Those are parts of my feelings and personality I usually keep under control, but there you have it, Teri always had a knack for bringing them out in me. There are many more ways than one for a human mind to be contagious, I suppose, andResuna is only the way that's so overt that we have the good sense to be frightened. The ancient, slower, subtler ways may still be the most profound.
I like that word, "profound," or rather I like thinking the word while looking at the glass of whiskey, my third since official quitting time. God probably likes the word "profound," too, but he's being as quiet about that as about every other issue, today, just like every day. Thank God.
I was going to go right home but Teri's message showed up. So I played it, and now I have all her files called up on my werp, and I'm reviewing them, from right back at the start of the case.
I'm on salary. And this is a closed case. They don't pay me any extra to do this. But I have a profound need--there's that word again. Smooth and deep and full of promise, I slide into "profound" the way the warm brown whiskey slides into me.
I watch her message all the way through--it's only a couple of minutes--and because I already know that she and I will have to talk, I send her a reply and tell her that I'm not doing anything tonight, to call if she wants, and we can talk all night if she needs to--and if I don't hear from her I'll get back to her with a written reply within a day or two.
She's about an hour and a half east of here. Ecospectors have to roo while the sun's up, they stop moving whenever the sun goes down, and they go to sleep early, so right now is about the exact center of the two-hour window in which Teri might call me. Very possibly any minute. I feel like just sitting and drinking and watching my blankscreen, waiting for the chime so that it will be time to switch it over to com and talk to her. There really isn't anything else that feels important.
Meanwhile I can have at least one more whiskey, sipping it slow and making it last, for the road I suppose. And still have enough working brain cells to be profound.
I like the way that word makes me think of Freud and Jung, of all the old profilers, of all the deep linguists--of every systematic shaman and cunning priest and kindly bartender and wise coach and perspicacious prostitute--of all the people who practiced this weird art I practice, before it had a name.
They were profound.
I'm a small-city cop. With enough whiskey and an interesting case in front of me, I can sometimes be a profound small-city cop. Or feel like it.
I call up Teri's first recording, from a Mars year ago, and fast-forward through all the business stuff and all the little tricks and jinks you do to get the rogee to talk at all, until I get to the trick that worked.
One of the oldest, which you tell them about directly, is to ask them to think about whatever they think of as the start of the story, and talk about whatever they associate with it. In fast-forward I see my lips drumming out "Don't tell me about it yet. Tell me about what it makes you think of. Tell me what it was like. Tell me what it reminds you of."
And she did, and I got in there to see what was happening inside her.
Some of those old tricks are good.
Profoundly good.
Copyright © 2002 by John Barnes