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All the Lives He Led
The first thing I remember is learning to duck-and-cover at Mme. Printemp's École et Académie, though I didn't know why I was doing it. Of course I knew something was wrong, because it made my mother very sad and my father angry, and I was glad when what they called the Treaty of Spitzbergen was signed with the Stans and we could all go back to being happy. Of course, I didn't know anything about a treaty. In fact I would have had no idea what a "treaty" was and I don't think I had actually ever heard the word "Stans." Then it was all peaceful days for quite a long time, until they weren't.
Well, I'll tell you all about that, though it gives me no pleasure. I'm not sure I should. What I know for sure is that it certainly isn't going to make me look good.
Come right down to it, there isn't very much of my life that does, is there? Robber of old people as a teen, worker at all sorts of illegal activities as a grown-up. No, I'm not proud of myself. If there's a reason to do this experiment in Telling All it isn't because I want everybody to know what a great guy I am. Anyway, let's get on with the introduction.
My name is Brad Sheridan. The year I want to tell you about is the summer of '79, which is when I was working at what they called the Giubileo.When I say Giubileo, you know what I'm talking about, right? That is, to give it its full name, L'Anno Giubileo della Citta di Pompeii, or, as I mostly called it when I had to call it anything, the Pompeii Jubilee.
That's where I was, that summer of 2079. If you were a tourist then I might not have to tell you much about the Jubilee, because if you were rich enough to afford it you were probably there yourself. Some thirty or forty million of you guys from the wealthy countries were. You came from places all over Europe and in both of the two Easts, the Near as well as the Far, plus the Pacific islands from Tahiti down to Tasmania, and just about everywhere in the world. Well, from some parts of the world, anyway. Not from the American Midwest. For sure not from some of the most heavily populated chunks of Canada either, especially from around Toronto and southern Quebec. Even there, there were a few surprises. Some people from North America did show up at Giubileo, at least from the lucky places like California and British Columbia.
Anyway, wherever you came from, you all seemed to enjoy the Jubilee. At least you did until everything went rotten at once, but we haven't come to that part of the story yet.
You should have enjoyed it. You got your money's worth at the Giubileo, because whatever you liked, the Jubilee had it for you. If your thing was sports you could watch the chariot races. If you liked thrill rides you could go to the Ferris wheel that gave you a four-minute overview of the whole city, both as it really was or as the Giubileo's virts had improved it. Or you could pay to get into the simulation chamber where they reproduced the whole bloody eruption of Vesuvius, exactly as any unfortunate AD 79 family would have experienced it, except that it was all virts and you didn't get killed. Or you could go for a ride on a slave (read: Jubilee-employee-) carried litter. If you wanted gore and brutality, you could go to the old Roman amphitheater, where they had plenty of both of those things. Twenty or thirty pairs of gladiators, a few of them real, would hack each other to death every afternoon for your sporting enjoyment. (Well, not all the way to death. Not for the real, live gladiators, anyway, and you could tell easily enough which ones were real. Those were the ones who worked for the Jubilee and never actually got a scratch, beingmostly college kids enjoying a paid vacation in Italy, or Indentureds from poor countries, like me, trying to support family members in the old country on what we could send back. The gladiators who you could see really getting chewed up, of course, couldn't actually feel any of their ghastly wounds. They were all virts.)
If you weren't all that into sports or spectacles there were plenty of other ways to spend your Pompeii sestertia, that is, the counterfeit Roman coins that the sidewalk money-changers sold you as you checked in. You could buy a meal in the Refectorium, where you would get approximately First Century Roman food, although at Twenty-first Century prices. If you wanted more authenticity while you were eating, that was available too. All you had to do was find seven other people who were willing to pay to eat with you, and then you had it made. To those seven you added in yourself and the "host"--or actually, more often the hostess, because, screw historical authenticity, the tourists liked having good-looking young women presiding over the meal they could make themselves imagine might turn into a regular Roman orgy. That would make up the right number of diners for a traditional nine-person Roman dinner party. Then the eight of you "guests" would get a more believable Roman meal. Exactly how believable depended on what you were willing to spend. Boar stuffed with kid stuffed with goose stuffed with lark didn't come cheap, and, so they told me, tasted lousy anyway, though it was, I guess, authentic. For the price of that meal you got heavy doses of atmosphere as well. You ate in one of the restored villas, all as authentic as anything, or at least looking that way, and you ate triclinum style, also adequately authentic. This meant that the nine of you diners lounged on three great couches and practiced the art of eating with one hand while you were resting your head on the other elbow. "Slaves," by which of course I mean volunteers (Indentureds rarely got jobs where there might be good tips), served the meal and watered the wine and stood by with bowls to catch the end product of all that ingesting in case you, as many couldn't help doing, puked it all right up again.
Or you could strip down and try the baths. They were a reliable crowd-pleaser. There you could get yourself oiled and scraped clean byanother "slave" using a copper thing like a dull straight razor, called a strigil. Or, if your tastes went that way, you could visit one of Pompeii's second-story whorehouses.
You couldn't actually get laid there, though. What you could do, for a little extra fee, was watch one of the whores, male or female, going at it with one or more of their customers, also with a choice of genders. That was pretty exciting, I guess I myself never wanted to see it enough to pay for even a reduced-rate employee ticket. Of course you knew going in that they would just be virts. It wasn't that the Jubilee couldn't have recruited live men and women for the job. They just weren't allowed to. Union rules.
Or getting closer to present cases you could've bought a cup of really bad "Greek" or "Roman" wine, and sat down to drink it on a bench beside one of those open-air Pompeiian wineshops--maybe the one I myself wound up running, halfway down the Via dell'Abbondanza--while you watched other tourists giggling to each other as they poked their fingers through the strolling virts of what were claimed to be historically accurate First Century Pompeiian citizens.
It was actually not a bad show. I might have enjoyed being there myself if I hadn't had to work so hard, both on the job the Jubilee paid me for as well as on the less legal ones I organized for myself. I didn't do those extra scams just for my own personal greed, you know. I did them because they were the only way I could send enough money home so that my mom and dad could keep on living some kind of a life in the Staten Island refugee village.
I think it must have surprised my parents that I was being such a dutiful son. Well, it surprised me, too. For most of my life I had been a long way from dutiful, parent-wise. But then, once I was out of the refugee villages, I decided I didn't care, I might as well be nice to the old farts. They were far enough away that they didn't bother me much anymore.
Taken all in all, working at the Jubilee wasn't the worst way to make a living. Some of my colleagues used to go on and on about how much they hated their jobs, and how different their lives would've been if only they'd been born to rich parents.
I didn't join in those sessions, though. I couldn't. I had been rich, I mean, or my family had, and look what it got me.
The thing about my parents having money was that they stopped having it at the same time everybody else did. I'm talking Yellowstone National Park.
I was about eight years old when Yellowstone happened, and pretty perplexed by the whole thing. I knew it was possible for people to lose their money and have to move away. I'm not just talking about my Uncle Devious (that crook) now. Sandy Stearman's family had had to do that when I was four, something about stock fraud that took his daddy away and left the rest of the family broke. But it wasn't even what happened when dear dishonest Uncle Devious was caught swindling that did our family in. That was bad enough--IRS agents, FBI, all kinds of people looking for that notorious swindler, my mother's brother-in-law--but we got past that (though somewhat poorer, because one of the people he swindled was my mom). But the real ruination of my life was done by Mother Nature herself, the old bitch. That was the Yellowstone ka-boom.
So by the time I was in my teens I hardly remembered what prosperity had been like.
I don't mean I hadn't noticed any changes. I certainly saw the difference between the eight-bedroom house overlooking the Missouri River where I'd lived since I was born and the tiny, shared-bath hovel that the government provided for us refugees on Staten Island. I did notice such things as, for instance, that Mom began looking older, and that she cried a lot. My father didn't, though. He not only didn't cry, he didn't even seem to care much one way or the other. He just sort of lost interest in wherever the hell we were, or whatever the hell we were doing. I couldn't help noticing that I wasn't going to a private school anymore, either. I was by then going to the Staten Island public schools, where the children of the old-time local families really hated us refugee kids from the villages, and showed it by beating us up after school. That is, they did untilthe refugee villages got completed. Then a couple thousand more of us refugees moved in and we began to outnumber the locals.
We didn't beat them up as much as they had done us, though. We couldn't afford to. The Staten Island cops were also recruited from the families of the old settlers. We quickly found out that whenever there was a fight we were the ones who were going to get slapped around, no matter whether it was us or the locals who started it.
Then, when the time came, I signed up as a freshman to go to New York A&M.
I guess I should explain what NYA&M was. Its full name was New York Agricultural and Mechanical University. It was not the kind of university that was intended for the academically gifted. Its purpose for being was to turn as many as possible of New York's wildblood youths into reasonably respectable citizens, capable of holding such minimally skilled jobs as waiter or, well, faculty member at NYA&M. I guess it was more or less a success. That is, when we wildbloods were in class we weren't out mugging tourists.
Anyway there was a good reason why I was there, and the reason was that no other college was going to give me a scholarship.
Well, to be truthful I should admit that I didn't really go to NYA&M, exactly, at least not in the sense of showing up for very many classes. I didn't have any reason to. NYA&M wasn't teaching anything I wanted to learn. I didn't have to know how to plant a Recovery Garden in my backyard; we didn't have a backyard. I wasn't going off to run earth-movers in Ohio or Kentucky for the Citizens Recovery Corps, either. It didn't pay much, and, anyway, who wanted to breathe all that lung-choking dust? So I attended classes at NYA&M just often enough to keep my scholarship, with its pitiful little stipend.
I did, once or twice, make the mistake of confusing NYA&M with some kind of actual institution for learning, like when I discovered that the recreational drug somadone had been invented in the Stans. You see, the Stans had been a fascinating mystery to me since childhood. Nobody would talk about them, but they were the people that manufacturedthe terrible drugs you could buy on any street corner that my mother said if I ever took I would turn into one of those haggard wrecks you saw in the government's "Don't Say Yes!" commercials. That was about all I did know about them, too, except that they were the reason we had the duck-and-cover drills at Mme. Printemp's, although my father said that if the talks broke down and the Stans started firing off those illegal nukes they were supposed to be hiding, a kitchen table wouldn't help. And where did these Stans live? Oh, somewhere in Europe, everyone said. Where exactly in Europe no one could say. Couldn't even confirm or deny my childish guess that maybe it was near the North Pole part of Europe, maybe floating around with Santa Claus in his great candy-striped houseboat.
So then I was a teen, and got into NYA&M. I had almost forgotten about the Stans because nobody wanted to talk about them, but one of our professors made me think of them. Well, sort of. He greeted us all, old fart pretending to be our friend, though he was at least fifty. He gave us a big smile and told us if we ever had any problems or questions we could always come to him. So I did. It took me five or ten minutes to come up with that nearly forgotten question about the Stans. So Professor A. Adrian Minkis turned away from the whiteboard and gave me another big grin. "Yes?"
"It's something I've always wondered about. What are the Stans?"
The smile didn't go away, but it shrank a bit. "Can I ask you, uh, Mr. Sheridan"--looking at his locator chart--"why you want to know?"
I was ready for that. "Well, Professor, uh, Minkis"--glancing at my locator card--"all anybody ever says is that it's better not to talk."
"It is," he said, looking around the room and obviously getting ready to ask, "Any other questions?"
I wasn't letting him get away with that. "But I thought it was important. Like having any contact with the Stans was against the law. Weren't they like threatening the whole world once?"
Mr. Minkis scowled at me, but then shrugged. "The Stans," he began, swinging into full lecture mode, "were a group of republics--Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan--that had been part of the old Soviet Union, long ago. They had been used by the Soviets to relocate important military and research facilities far from Moscow, and when the Soviet Union fell apart the Stans still had all those enormous facilities. Nuclear weapons, biowarfare research installations, all sorts of things. The rest of the world didn't trust them with all that weaponry and demanded they give it up, and they refused, and things looked pretty dicey there for a while, oh, fifteen years ago or so."
I said, "I remember! Duck-and-cover!"
"Yes, Sheridan," he said heavily, "exactly. It was an intolerable situation which was solved by the world expelling the Stans from all international organizations and forbidding anyone from going there."
He looked up at the big clock on the wall as though getting ready to end the session. I got one last question in, though. "But then how does stuff like somadone get out?"
"Oh," he said, "not everybody obeys the law, do they? Class dismissed." And never would he talk about the Stans again.
So NYA&M was a washout, but I didn't really care. I had better things to do with my time. Specifically, I spent most of my time on the street, hustling bucks in the Big Apple.
I don't like to talk too much about that period in my life.
That isn't conscience speaking, exactly. I was doing a lot of illegal things, sure, but so were the ten thousand other kids, refugees like me or even the local-born, who roamed the city's streets, working pretty much the same scams I was. Panhandling. "Guiding" the tourists, or anyway the dumber ones among them. Hanging around the side-street bars to roll the most nearly paralyzed of the drunks as they staggered in the general direction of their hotels.
That wasn't particularly profitable. Even drunks didn't carry much actual currency, and what can you do with cash cards that are keyed to the owner's sweat chemistry? There'd be jewelry, maybe, if you could find a fence who wouldn't cheat you and then turn you in anyway. But at best the profits were small.
But I did what I had to do to get them.
Let's face it. I was a mean little turd. The only thing that I can say in my defense is that I hadn't chosen that life. It was just the only life that was available for me. When I watched those old-time kid shows on the screen--that is, the pre-Yellowstone ones, all of them about well-washed boys of about my age who had moms who packed them lunches and went to parent-teacher meetings for them, and, especially, had dads who went to the office and brought home presents for their kids--well, while I watched those old shows I really wished I was in one of them.
But I wasn't. If Yellowstone hadn't happened I might have become one of those kids once, but Yellowstone did happen and I wasn't. And at least I had the sense to stay away from the kid terrorist groups that were getting organized about then.
Well, all right, maybe I didn't always stay totally away, because there was this one time that happened when I was about eleven. That one was a biggie, all right, although it wasn't actually about anything that was going on in the city of New York itself. What it was was this terror bunch that called themselves the Crusaders for the True Bishop of Rome. I had no idea what that meant, but I knew what they had done. They had firebombed the Sistine Chapel when the cardinals were supposed to be electing a new pope there. According to the news, they killed three of the cardinals, but it didn't make much difference. Old Jerome II got elected anyway. So, going home that night on the hydroferry, about six of us kids were talking about it, and one thing I said must have rung a bell.
A neighbor kid named Artie Mason pulled me aside when we got to the Staten Island dock. "You sound like a man with principles," he told me--an assessment that really took me by surprise. I don't just mean the bit about having principles; it was also the first time anybody had ever called me a man. "Would you risk your life for something important?"
"Depends on the money," I said, being a smart-assed kid with, really, no detectable principles at all. It was the wrong answer for Artie, I guess. He dropped the matter. And a couple of weeks later he was missing from class. From all of his classes. Permanently. It wasn't until nearly fiveyears had passed and I heard he was in the Southeast Alaska Correction Center--residence limited to suspected terrorists--that I figured out what the question was that he had been going to ask me.
That's the way it went. Petty crime is what kept us going. I didn't do as much as some of the others. I didn't sell drugs, especially the old harmfully addictive ones like heroin or cocaine. There wasn't much of a market for them when somadone came along, but I didn't actually sell even that. Well, I mean I didn't sell it myself. I did stand lookout while dealers sold any amount of their somadone smokes or salves or licky sticks or whatever the fashion was at that moment in those remote and mysterious places called the Stans that nobody seemed to want to talk about, where the somadone and all kinds of other strange things came from.
Actually somadone is what put the Afghan and Colombian drug lords out of business--as good at making you feel good as the hard stuff but with no harmful physical effects at all. Unless you stopped taking it, in which case you got all the withdrawal symptoms of any cold-turkey quitting. Of course everybody knew that, which is why the only people who got hooked voluntarily were addicts to one of the older, harder drugs who were having their health totally destroyed thereby. This was a problem for our local drug dealers, which they dealt with in various ways--by giving away free somadone-laced lemonade, or by handing out somadone-enriched jelly beans at kindergartens. That's when I learned never to take anything edible from a stranger--or, for that matter, from most of the people who weren't strangers to me at all. The person I learned it from was my poor old aunt Carrie, but I'll tell you more about her later.
Anyway, the cops didn't bother with the likes of lookouts like me. The dealers did bother, though. The one or two times a cop did succeed in getting past me I got a pretty good working over from my employer of the moment to remind me to be more vigilant. That was bad enough but what was hard work then was trying to keep my mother from looking at me too closely for a few days, until the bruises lightened up. (My father wouldn't have noticed anything as trivial as a few dozen black-and-blues. Maybe if I'd turned up with an ear missing.) Oh, and I never pimpedanybody, either. I might have tried, before I got good at other skills, but I was only fourteen years old then and the girls just laughed at me. Besides all the good-looking girls had gone off to be nanas or au pairs--or hookers--in Kuwait and Madagascar, and it was only the homely ones that had stuck around New York.
So those were the things we did. Since they couldn't put all of us in jail, we kept right on doing them.
Actually the cops were a lot more worried about terrorism than our kiddy crime. They had all the reason in the world to feel that way, of course. I mean, you just had to look down Fifth Avenue at the stump of the old Empire State Building to see what kind of thing they were worrying about. That had been the Unborn Babies Are Worth More Than Living Sinners attack, back in '47 or so.
I don't want to give the impression that it was all one-sided. The news said otherwise. They'd rounded up and convicted everybody involved in chopping the top off the old Empire State, and in our civics class at NYA&M the teacher bragged that the government had finally got positive proof that the master terrorist of the age, somebody named Brian Bossert, had died of his wounds after his attack on the city of Toronto, Canada.
It was the first time I'd heard the name Brian Bossert, and, oh, how I wish it had been the last.
I didn't really care what terrorists did, you know. Why then did I spend time watching terrorist actions on the news channels? Simple. They were doing something interesting, which the other news wasn't. It was of no interest to me that the king of England had to face a parliamentary committee of inquiry because it had been alleged that he was considering turning Catholic, or that the vice president of the United States of America, or what was left of it, was having an affair with the president's wife. None of that had anything to do with me.
I did wonder sometimes why the US loonies didn't employ their own gangs of terrorists, doing things like maybe going around and setting off bombs to punish the rest of the world for not--I don't know--maybe for not somehow preventing Yellowstone? It wasn't that Americans didn'thave the skills for terror. I mean, look at all the home-brew nutties who showed their annoyance by blowing up a building here or there, or taking the occasional computer net down, in the old days. New York was still a pretty good target for the crazies, too, though usually on a smaller scale. It was a slow day when we didn't hear guns going off somewhere or see smoke coming out of a building. Some days it was a relief to go back home at night, because back in Staten Island we weren't much bothered by terrorists. Once, I remember, a bunch of descendants of the old Lenni Lenape Indian tribe got liquored up and shot up a police station in Freehold, New Jersey, because they wanted their ancestral lands back. But even if you counted the one-eighths and the one-sixteenths among them there weren't enough authentic Lenni Lenapes left to signify.
Anyway, I knew very well that there was nothing in New York for me. Nothing anywhere else in North America, either, it looked like, because even the parts of the continent that had been spared by damn Yellowstone were full of young people exactly like myself. Even the native East Coast kids couldn't find jobs at any decent pay, because us refugee kids were taking any jobs there were for practically nothing.
It wasn't much of a life for a growing boy, and that's a fact.
I did manage to stay out of jail most of the time. The reason for that was because when the cops did happen to pick me up, they mostly preferred to deal with whatever municipal ordinance I had infracted by punching me out in some alley to save the paperwork. So my life was pretty much crap.
I did know how I might be able to make it better, though. I knew where the money was, and I knew it wasn't anywhere near Staten Island.
As a kid, like every little kid, I had fantasies of running away, maybe to what was left of the Amazon to start a career as a highwayman, or maybe as a sheriff who put the highwaymen away, or running off to the semi-mythical Stans, those rogue countries that had faced down the whole rest of the world by the threat of starting World War Last.
And maybe I had another reason for venturing out into the wide world--like maybe looking for my Uncle Devious, who was more appropriately known, though not by us, as the Reverend Delmore DeVriesMaddingsley. And maybe then making him cough up whatever he had left unspent of my mother's trust fund that he had embezzled.
That wasn't realistic. I knew that. But what I also knew was that any place would be better than Staten Island.
Copyright © 2011 by Frederik Pohl