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BOY WHO WOULD LIVE FOREVER
From Istanbul to the Stars
On Stan's seventeenth birthday the Wrath of God came again, as it had been doing every six weeks or so. At the time Stan was alone in the apartment, cutting up vegetables for his birthday dinner. When he felt that familiar, sudden, overwhelming, disorienting, horny rush of vertigo he knew that it was what everybody he knew called "the Wrath of God" and nobody understood at all. Screams and sirens from outside the building told him that everybody else in that part of Istanbul was feeling it, too. Stan managed to drop the paring knife to the floor so he wouldn't cut himself. Then he staggered to a kitchen chair to wait it out.
People said the Wrath was a terrible thing. Well, that was true enough. Whatever the Wrath of God really was, it struck everyone in the world at once--and not just the people still living on Earth, either. Ships in space, the colonies on Mars and Venus, as long as human beings were still within the confines of the Solar System, they all were caught up in its madness at the same moment, and the Wrath's costs in accidents and disasters were enormous. Personally, Stan didn't mind it all that much. What it felt like to him was like suddenly being overwhelmedby a vast, lonely, erotic nightmare. Like, Stan thought, probably what it would be like to get good and drunk. The erotic part was not very different from some of the yearnings Stan himself felt often enough.
It didn't last very long. When it passed, Stan shook himself, picked up the things he had knocked to the floor and turned on the local TV news to see how it had gone this time.
It had gone badly enough. Fires, car smashes--Istanbul's aggressive drivers relied on their split-second reflexes to avert disaster, and when the Wrath took away their skill the crashes came fast. The single worst thing that happened this time was an oil tanker that had been coming into the Golden Horn. With everyone on both the tanker's tugs and its own bridge suddenly incapacitated, the vessel had plowed, dead slow and irresistible, into one of the cruise-ship docks on the Old City side, and there it had exploded into flame.
That was a really bad accident. Like any teenager, however, Stan had a high tolerance for other people's misfortunes. He yawned and got back to his chores, hoping only that the commotion wouldn't make his father too late in getting back home with the saffron and mussels for the birthday stew. When Stan finished with the vegetables he put them in a pot of cold water, and put a couple of his precious old disks on to play. This time it was Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Teagarden and the Firehouse Five Plus Three. Then he sat down to wait as he listened, thumbing through some of his comics and wondering if, this time, his father would have stayed sober long enough to get him some kind of a present for his birthday.
That was the moment at which the polis came to the door.
There were two of them, male and female, and they looked around the shabby apartment suspiciously. "Is this where the American citizen Walter Avery lived?" the woman demanded, and the past tense of the verb told Stan the whole story.
It didn't take the polis long to tell Stan just how it was that the Wrath had made a statistic of his father. Walter Avery had fallen down while crossing the street and a spellbound taksidriver ran right over him. There was no hope of holding the driver responsible, the woman said at once; the Wrath, you know. Anyway, the driver had long since disappeared. And, besides, witnesses said that Stan's father had been drunk at the time. Of course.
The male polis took pity on Stan's wretched stare. "At least he didn't suffer," he said gruffly. "He died right away. There was no pain."
The woman was impatient. "Yes, I suppose that is possible," she said, and then: "So you've been notified. You have to come to the morgue to collect the body before midnight, otherwise there'll be a charge for holding it an extra day. Good-bye."
And they left.
Since there would be neither mussels nor saffron for his birthday meal, Stan found a few scraps of leftover ham and tossed them into the pot with the vegetables. While they were simmering he sat down with his head in his hands, to think about what it meant to be an American--well, half American--orphan, alone in the city of Istanbul.
Two facts presented themselves. First, that long dreamed-of day when his father would sober up, take him back to America and there make a new life for the two of them--that day, always unlikely, was now definitely never going to come. From that fact it followed that, second, there was never going to be the money to pay for his college, much less to indulge his dream of flying to the Gateway asteroid and its wondrous adventure. He wasn't ever going to become one of those colorful and heroic Gateway prospectors who flew to strange parts of the Galaxy. He wasn't going to discover a hoard of priceless artifacts left by the vanished old race of Heechee. And he wasn't going to become both famous and rich.
Neither of these new facts was a total surprise to Stan. His faith in either had been steadily eroding since skepticism and the first dawn of puberty arrived simultaneously, when he wasthirteen. Still, they had seemed at least theoretically possible. Now, nothing seemed possible at all.
That was when Stan at last allowed himself to cry.
While Stan was drearily cleaning up the kitchen after his flavorless birthday meal, Mr. Ozden knocked on the door.
Mr. Ozden was probably around seventy years old. To Stan he looked more like a hundred--a shriveled, ugly old man, hairless on the top of his head, but with his mustache still bristly black. He was the richest man Stan had ever met. He owned the ramshackle tenement where Stan lived, and the two others that flanked it, as well as the brothel that took up two floors of one of them. Mr. Ozden was a deeply religious man, so devout in his observances that he did not allow alcohol on his premises anywhere except in the brothel, and there only for the use of non-Islamic tourists. "My deepest sympathies to you on your loss, young Stanley," he boomed in his surprisingly loud voice, automatically scanning everything in sight for traces of a forbidden bottle of whiskey. (He never found any; Stan's father had been clever about that.) "It is a terrible tragedy, but we may not question the ways of God. What are your plans, may I ask?"
Stan was already serving him tea, as his father always did. "I don't exactly know yet, Mr. Ozden. I guess I'll have to get a job."
"Yes, that is so," Mr. Ozden agreed. He nibbled at a crumb of the macaroon Stan had put on a saucer for him, eyeing the boy. "Perhaps working at the consulate of the Americans, like your father?"
"Perhaps." Stan knew that wasn't going to happen, though. It had already been discussed. The Americans weren't going to hire any translator under the age of twenty-one.
"That would be excellent," Mr. Ozden announced. "Especially if it were to happen quickly. As you know, the rent is due tomorrow, in addition to last week's, which has not been paid, as well as the week's before. Would they pay you well at the consulate, do you think?"
"As God wills," Stan said, as piously as though he meant it.The old man nodded, studying Stan in a way that made the boy uneasy.
"Or," he said, with a smile that revealed his expensive teeth, "I could speak to my cousin for you, if you like."
Stan sat up straight; Mr. Ozden's cousin was also his brothel keeper. "You mean to work for him? Doing what?"
"Doing what pays well," Mr. Ozden said severely. "You are young, and I believe in good health? You could have the luck to earn a considerable sum, I think."
Something was churning, not pleasantly, in Stan's belly and groin. From time to time he had seen the whores in Mr. Ozden's cousin's employ as they sunned themselves on the rooftop when business was slow, often with one or two boys among them. The boys were generally even younger than himself, mostly Kurds or hill-country Anatolians, when they weren't from Algeria or Morocco. The boys didn't last long. Stan and his friend Tan had enjoyed calling insults at them from a distance. None of them had seemed very lucky.
Before Stan could speak, Mr. Ozden was going on. "My cousin's clients are not only men, you know. Often women come to him, sometimes wealthy widows, tourists from Europe or the East, who are very grateful to a young man who can give them the pleasures their husbands can no longer supply. There are frequently large tips, of which my cousin allows his people to keep nearly half--in addition to providing his people with Term Medical as long as they are in his employ, as well as quite fine accommodations and meals, at reasonable rates. Quite often the women clients are not unattractive, also. Of course," he added, his voice speeding up and diminishing in volume, "naturally there would be men as well." He stood up, most of his tea and macaroon untouched. "But perhaps the consulate will make you a better offer. You should telephone them at once in any case, to let them know of your father's sad accident. It may even be that he has some uncollected salary still to his account which you can apply to the rent. I will come again in the morning."
When Stan called the consulate, Mr. Goodpastor wasn't in, but his elderly secretary was touched by the news. "Oh, Stanley! This terrible Wrath thing! How awful for you! Your father was a, uh, a very nice man." That part was only conditionally true, Stan knew. His father had been a sweet-natured, generous, unreliable drunk, and the only reason the consulate had given him any work at all was that he was an American who would work for the wages of a Turk. And when Stan asked diffidently if there was any chance of uncollected salary she was all tact. "I'm afraid not, Stanley. I handle all the vouchers for Mr. Goodpastor, you know. I'm sure there's nothing there. Actually," she added, sounding embarrassed, "I'm afraid it's more likely to be a little bit the other way. You see, your father had received several salary advances lately, so his account is somewhat overdrawn. But don't worry about that, dear. I'm sure no one will press a claim."
The news was nothing Stan hadn't expected. All the same, it sharpened his problem. The Americans might not demand money from him, but Mr. Ozden certainly would. Already had. And would soon be doing his very best to collect. The last time someone had been evicted from one of his tenements Stan had been watching from the roof and had seen Mr. Ozden seizing every stick of their possessions to sell for the rent owed.
Which made Stan look appraisingly around their tiny flat The major furnishings didn't matter, since they belonged to Mr. Ozden in the first place. Even the bed linens and the kitchenware were Ozden's. His father's skimpy wardrobe would certainly be taken. Stan's decrepit music player and his stacks of ancient American jazz recordings; his collection of space adventures, both animé and morphed; his school books; the small amount of food on the shelves--put them all together and they would barely cover the rent. The only other things of measurable value were the musical instruments, his battered trumpet and the drums. Of course Mr. Ozden had no proper claim to the drums, since they weren't Stan's. They'd been brought there and left by his friend Tan Kusmeroglu, when Tan's parents wouldn't let them do any more music making in their house.
That Stan could do something about. When he phoned Tan'shome it was Tan's mother who answered, and she began weeping as soon as she heard the news. It was a while before Mrs. Kusmeroglu could manage to tell Stan that Oltan wasn't home. He was at work, but she would get the sad message to him at once, and if there was anything they could do ... .
When he got off the phone with Mrs. Kusmeroglu, Stan looked at the clock. He had plenty of time before he had to get to the morgue, so he opened up the couch he slept on--he wasn't quite ready to move into his father's bed--and lay down in case he needed to cry some more.
He didn't, though. He fell asleep instantly, which was even better for him. What woke him, hours later, was Tan Kusmeroglu standing over him. Stan could hear the braying of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer from the little mosque around the corner, almost drowned out by Tan's excited voice as he shook Stan awake. "Come on, Stan, wake up! The old fart's at prayer now and I borrowed my boss's van. You'll never have a better time to get your stuff out!"
That meant they had ten minutes at most. Stan didn't argue. It took less than that to load the drums, the trumpet, the precious music disks and player and a handful of other things into the van. They were already driving away before Stan remembered. "I have to go to the morgue," he said.
Tan took his eyes from the tour bus that was weaving from side to side before them and the delivery truck that was trying to cut in from the side long enough to glance at Stan. His expression was peculiar--almost unTanly sympathetic, a little bit flushed in the way he always looked when about to propose some new escapade. "I have been thinking about that," he announced. "You don't want to go there."
"But they want me to identify my father's body. I have to."
"No, you don't. What's going to happen if you do? They're going to want you to pay for a funeral, and how are you going to do that? No. You stay out of sight."
Stan asked simply, "Where?"
"With us, stupid! You can share my room. Or," he added, grinning, "you can share my sister's if you'd rather, only you would have to marry her first."
Everybody in the Kusmeroglu family worked. Mr. Kusmeroglu was a junior accountant in a factory that made Korean-brand cars for export. Tan delivered household appliances for a hardware store. His sixteen-year-old sister, Naslan, worked in the patisserie of one of the big hotels along the Bosphorus. Even Mrs. Kusmeroglu worked at home, assembling beads into bracelets that spelled out verses from the Koran, for the tourist trade--when she wasn't cleaning or cooking or mending the family's clothes. Even so, Stan knew without being told, they were barely making ends meet, with only the sketchiest of Basic Medical and a constant fear of the future. Going back to complete his schooling was now as hopelessly out of the question for Stan as it had been for Tan. So was sponging off the Kusmeroglus for any length of time.
He had to find a way to make money.
That wasn't easy. Stan couldn't get a regular job, even if there was one to be got, because under Turkish law he was now an unregistered nonperson. He wasn't the only one of that sort, of course. There were millions like him in poverty-stricken Istanbul. It wasn't likely the authorities would bother trying to track him down--unless he turned up on some official record.
The good part was that the season was nearly summer. The city's normal population of 25 million, largely destitute, was being enriched each week by two or three million tourists, sometimes even more. These people, by definition, had money and nothing better to spend it on than Istanbul's sights, meals, curios and inhabitants. "You can become a guide," Mr. Kusmeroglu pronounced at dinner. "You speak both Turkish and English without flaw, Stanley. You will do well."
"A guide," Stan repeated, looking, out of courtesy to his host, as though he thought it a good idea, but very far from convinced.
"Of course a guide," Tan said reprovingly. "My father is right. You have learned all you need to know about Istanbul already--you remember all those dull history classes when we were at school together. Simply subtract the Ottoman periodand concentrate on those crazy empresses in the Byzantine, which is what tourists want to hear about anyway. Also we can get guide books from the library for you to study."
Stan went right to the heart of the matter. "But I can't get a guide's license! The polls--"
"Will not bother you," Tan's mother said firmly. "You simply linger around Topkapi, perhaps, or the Grand Bazaar. When you see some Americans who are not with a tour group you merely offer information to them in a friendly way. Tell them you are an American student here--that is almost true, isn't it? And if any polis should ask you any questions, speak to them only in English, tell them you are looking for your parents who have your papers. Fair-haired, with those blue eyes, you will not be doubted."
"He doesn't have any American clothes, though," Naslan put in.
Her mother pursed her lips for a moment, then smiled. "That can be dealt with. You and I will make him some, Naslan. It is time you learned more about sewing anyway."
The endless resources of the Lost & Found at Naslan's hotel provided the raw material, the Kusmeroglu women made it all fit. Stan became a model American college student on tour: flared slacks that looked like designer pants, but weren't, spring-soled running shoes, a Dallas Dodgers baseball cap and a T-shirt that said, "Gateway or Bust," on the front, and on the back, "I busted." The crowds of tourists were as milkable as imagined. No, more so. The Americans on whom he concentrated all seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with. Like the elderly couple from Riverdale, New York, so confused by the hyperinflated Turkish currency that they pressed a billion New Lira banknote on Stan as a tip for helping them find clean toilets when a million or two would have been generous. And then, when he pointed out the error, insisted that he keep the billion as a reward for his honesty. So in his first week Stan brought back more than Tan earned at his job and almost as much as Naslan. He tried to give it all toMrs. Kusmeroglu, but she would take only half. "Save for the future, Stanley," she instructed him kindly. "A little capital is a good thing for a young man to have."
And her daughter added, "After all, some day soon you may want to get married."
Of course, Stan had no such plans, although Naslan certainly was pretty enough in the perky pillbox hat and miniskirt that was her uniform in the patisserie. She smelled good, too. That was by courtesy of the nearly empty leftover bits of perfume and cosmetics the women guests of the hotel discarded in the ladies' room, which it was part of her duties to keep spotless. It had its effect on Stan. Sometimes, when she sat close to him as the family watched TV together in the evenings, he hoped no one was noticing the embarrassing swelling in his groin. He was, after all, male, and seventeen.
But he was also thoroughly taken up by his new status as an earner of significant income. He memorized whole pages from the guidebooks, and supplemented them by lurking about to listen in on the professional guides as they lectured to their tour groups. The best places for that were in sights like the Grand Mosque or Hagia Sofia. There all the little clusters of a dozen or a score tourists were crowded together, with their six or eight competing guides all talking at once, in half a dozen languages. The guide gossip was usually more interesting than anything in the books, and always a lot more scurrilous.
Eavesdropping on them carried a risk, though. In the narrow alleyway outside the great kitchens that had once served Topkapi Palace he saw a couple of the licensed guides looking at him in a way he didn't like as they waited for their tour groups to trickle out of the displays. When both of them began talking on their carry phones, still looking at him, he quickly left the scene.
Actually, he was less afraid of the guides, or of the polis, than he was of Mr. Ozden finding him. What the old man could do if that happened Stan didn't know. In a pinch, he supposed he could actually pay off the overdue rent out of the wads of lira that were accumulating under his side of the mattress heshared with Tan. But who knew what law he had broken by his furtive departure? Mr. Ozden would, all right, and so Stan stayed far away from his old tenement.
It wasn't all work for Stan. If he got home in time he helped Mrs. Kusmeroglu with the dinner--she affected to be amazed by his cooking skills, which were actually pretty rudimentary. Then usually they would all watch the family's old thousand-channel TV together. Mrs. Kusmeroglu liked the weighty talk shows, pundits discussing the meaning of such bizarre events as that inexplicable Wrath of God that visited them from time to time, or what to do about the Cyprus question. Mr. Kusmeroglu preferred music--not the kind the boys played, though. Both Tan and Stan voted for programs about space or sports. But then it seldom came to a vote, because what Naslan liked was American sitcoms--on the English-language channels, so she could practice her English--happy groups of wealthy, handsome people enjoying life in Las Vegas or Malibu or the Tappan Sea, and Naslan talked faster than anyone else. It didn't matter. They shared things as a real family. And that was in some ways the best part of all for Stan, who had only the sketchiest memories of what living in a family was like.
Although the Kusmeroglus were all unfailingly kind to Stan, their tolerance did not extend to allowing the boys to get out the drums and trumpet in the house. So once or twice Stan and Tan lugged their instruments to the school gym, where the nighttime guard was a cousin and nobody cared how much noise you made when school was out
It wasn't the same, of course. When they were twelve-year-olds in school, they had had a plan. With the Kurdish boy on the bass fiddle and the plain little girl from the form below theirs on keyboard, they were going to be a group. The four of them argued for days, and finally picked out a winner of a name: "Stan, Tan and the Gang." The plan was to start small, with birthday parties and maybe weddings. Go on to the clubs as soon as they were old enough. Get a recording contract. Make it big ... . But then the Kurdish boy got expelled because his father was found to be contributing money to the undergroundKurdistani movement, and the little girl's mother didn't want her spending so much time with boys anyway.
It wasn't too much of a blow. By then Stan and Tan had a larger dream to work on. Space. The endless frontier. Where the sky was no limit to a young man's ambitions.
If they could only somehow get their hands on enough money to do it, they were determined to go to Gateway, or maybe to one of the planetary outposts. Tan liked Mars, where the colonists were making an almost Earthlike habitat under their plastic domes. Stan preferred the idea of roaming the ancient Heechee catacombs on Venus, where--who knew?--there might still be some old artifacts to discover that might make them almost as rich as a Gateway prospector.
The insuperable problem was the money to get to any of those places. Still, maybe you didn't need money, because there were other chances. The famed old explorer Robinette Broadhead, for instance, was rich beyond avarice with his Gateway earnings, and he was always funding space missions. Like the one that even now was gradually climbing its years-long way toward the Oort cloud, where some fabulous Heechee object was known to exist but no one had found a way to get to it other than on a slow, human rocket ship. Broadhead had paid the way for volunteers to make that dreary quest. He might pay for others, when Tan and Stan were old enough. If by then everything hadn't already been explored.
Of course, those were childish dreams. Stan no longer hoped they could actually become real. But he still dreamed them.
Meanwhile there was his work as a guide and his life with the Kusmeroglu family, and those weren't bad, either. In his first month he had accumulated more money than he had ever seen before. He made the mistake of letting Naslan catch him counting it, and she immediately said, "Why, you're loaded, Stanley! Don't you think it's about time you spent some of it?"
He gave her a guarded look. "On what?"
"On some decent clothes, for God's sake! Look, Friday'smy day off. Dad won't let me skip morning prayers, but afterward how about if I take you shopping?"
So the first thing that Friday morning Stan and Naslan were on a bus to the big supersouks and Stan was accumulating his first grown-up wardrobe. Everything seemed to cost far more than Stan wanted to pay, but Naslan was good at sniffing out bargains. Of course, she made him try on six different versions of everything before letting him buy any. Then, when they had all the bundles they could carry and half his bankroll was gone, they were waiting for a bus when a car pulled up in front of them. "Hey, you!" a man's voice called.
It was a consulate car, with the logo of the United States of America in gold on its immaculate black door, and the driver was leaning out, gesturing urgently to Stan. "Aren't you Stan Avery, Walter Avery's son? Sure you are. Listen, Mr. Goodpastor's been looking all over hell and gone for you. Where've you been hiding yourself, for God's sake?"
Stan gave Naslan a trapped look. "I, uh, I've been staying with friends."
Behind the stopped car half a dozen others were stuck, and they were all blowing their horns. The driver flipped them an obscene gesture, then barked at Stan: "I can't stay here. Look, Mr. Goodpastor's got something for you. Have you at least got an address?"
While Stan was trying to think of an answer, Naslan cut in smoothly. "But you're not sure of what your address will be, are you, Stan? He's getting ready to move into his own place," she informed the driver. "Why don't you send whatever it is to where he works? That's the Eklek Linen Supply Company. It's in Zincirlikuyu, Kaya Aldero Sok, Number 34/18. Here, I'll write it down for you." And when the consulate driver at last unplugged the street and was gone, she said sweetly, "Who knows what it might be, Stan? Maybe they want money for something or other, maybe your father's funeral? Anyway, there's a foreman at the linen supply who likes me. He'll see that I get whatever it is, and he won't tell anybody where it went."
But when Naslan brought the envelope home, thick with consular seals, it wasn't a bill. There was a testy note from Mr. Goodpastor:
When we checked the files it turned out your father still held a life-insurance policy, with you as beneficiary. The face amount is indexed, so it amounts to quite a sum. I hope it will help you make a proper life for yourself.
Stan held the note in one hand, the envelope it was attached to in the other, looking perplexedly at Mr. Kusmeroglu. "What does 'indexed' mean?"
"It means the face value of the policy is tied to the cost of living, so the amount goes up with inflation. Open it, Stanley. It might be quite a lot of money."
But when Stan plucked the green U.S. government voucher out of its envelope the numbers were a cruel disappointment. "Well," he said, trying to smile as he displayed it to the family, "what shall we do with it? Buy a pizza all around?"
But Naslan's eyes were sharper than his. She snatched it from his hand. "You stupid boy," she scolded, half laughing, "don't you see? It isn't lira, it is in American dollars! You're rich now, Stan! You can do what you like. Buy yourself Full Medical. Marry. Start a business. Even go to a whole new life in America!"
"Or," Tan put in, "you can pay your way to the Gateway asteroid, Stan."
Stan blinked at him, then again, more carefully, at the voucher. What Naslan had said was true. There was plenty of money there--easily enough for the fare to Gateway, indeed much more than even that would cost.
Stan didn't stop to think it over. His voice trembled as he said, "Actually, there's enough for two. Shall we do it, Tan? Shall we go to Gateway?"
Copyright © 2004 by Frederik Pohl