Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Space Hockey Cadet

Titan Blues

“If I need something,
I'll invent it.”
—Mickey Spillane

Nobody walked the streets of Titan Town—not on a night like this. The Saturn moon was misty enough to be almost fog-like—a dark curtain between Saturn’s pale oval silhouette of purplish-green swirls far up above. Jet’abs went hissing by with faces he didn’t want to see. Even the eerie brilliance that was Saturn at night—seemed like a fairytale world off in the distance.

They dropped him off—a couple of guys from the Free Fall Killers team after he got his retirement bucks. He wanted to be alone and think to himself. So he pulled up the collar of his raincoat—and buried his face in the dark Saturnian Titan night.

It covered him like a blanket—it felt good to be alone. After the cramped quarters of the spaceship Quasimodo—the dumpy freighter shuttling SHL retirees to crummy hangouts like Titan Town.

He smoked one Rising Sun after another—flipping the spent roaches into the puddles on the pavement, letting them wink out with a fizzle. That’s what was going to happen to him—that’s why he wanted to be alone.

There wasn’t any life behind the windows of the prefab shacks along the street—on either side of him the buildings loomed and let him be alone. The dark streets of Saturn’s moon were all his—they gave in gladly and didn’t care whether he was alone or with some chick.

There were others like him—retired Space Hockey players with nothing else to do. He could feel them in the dark sharing their solitude with him. They huddled in their apartments watching shit on the vidscreens—not wanting to get wet and cold. They were like him—he could feel their mutant eyes follow him briefly before turning inward into their psi-welt solitudes.

Saturn loomed over him in the hard concrete night—oozing its weird glowing rings down through the towering canyons of plastic and steel. Crossing the bridge over the Ganymede riverbed down below—the rickety spidery steel skeleton linking Old Titan Town with New Titan Town.

Both were dumps—for old retired space hockey players. It was cheap—sometimes a game got played and a guy could make some extra bucks. Not much though—who wanted to see a bunch of old gimps limp painfully through 3-D space playing a game they didn’t believe in anymore. Even though they were all still pretty young—most of them in their twenties. Most of them burned-out quads.

He climbed the hump in the middle of the bridge—standing there leaning on the railing with a Rising Sun butt sticking out his lips. It gave him a buzz—and made him forget who he was.

He was Maurice Flambeaux—isn’t that what they said? He should’ve been dead—after that last game with the Vandals. The puck got sabotaged somehow—he woke up on the operating table with his head all smashed up. His lucky helmet saved him—but his days being an enforcer for the Free Fall Killers was over.

He looked down on the Ganymede dry riverbed—not exactly a gusher like the East River he said to himself. The rings of Saturn weren’t that great either—they looked more beautiful and romantic from Earth back when he was a kid. Up close you could see all the mining crap going on—the rings nothing but debris from the diamond and gold cartels.

He buried his face in his hands—and heard the voices of his fans. He could see their eyes and faces—and hear them cheering him on. He wondered what Heinlein would have said—his fav sci-fi juvie pulp fiction writer from back during his Earthside boyhood.

He laughed to himself—wondering what Heinlein his boyhood hero would say if he could see him now. Maurice wasn’t so tough after all—here he was all hands and no face. With an empty feeling inside his stomach and nowhere to go.

Heinlein was his hero—his juvie judge and jury long dead and old even before he was born. But it was Space Cadet and Star Troopers that made him seem alive to Maurice—that and Orphans of the Sky and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Those were the pulp fiction novels he’d poured over when he was a kid back in Toronto—back when he yearned to be a space hockey player way up there in Skyway orbit.

Now those days were over—it was more like Stranger in a Strange Land now. He felt weird walking with legs again—the Velcro joints were smooth and okay. His arms and legs were just as good as his old ones back on Earth—he was only twenty and his hair was dark and wavy.

He had muscles that wouldn’t quit—and a body like an avenging angel. There was a certain dignity feeling gravity again—making him feel the stature of being a giant athlete in repose. The poise of a young Gabriel—who’d blown his horn one two many times. How many asteroid worlds and gone space stations—had he left behind in victory and ruins.

He saw Heinlein’s face looking down at him—from the yellowish glow of Saturn’s burned-out rings. His eyes were empty—like an empty courtroom after a trial. His eyes were steel-blue and his demeanor was stiff and mean like the military man he was. His voice was edged with gentle bitterness—when it finally came like Maurice knew it would.

“Hell, kid—you liquidated them that last game. If I were there I would have called the cops—the way those bastards cheated you. They wired the puck and short-circuited your helmet. If I had a ray-gun in my hand—I would’ve taught them a lesson.”

“Yeah, great,” Flambeaux said to himself.

If he’d done this or that—if things had worked out differently. There were a lot of things that happen during a game—things that even psi-players know about but don’t talk about. Even your own players can be bought off if the price is right—there’s no honor amongst hardcore space hockey players.

Not really—there’s always a young aggressive ambitious guy who wants your place on the team. More than willing—to do what it takes to a champion for a night or a season. Bought off or not—it’s just the way things were.

“No BFD. It’s just SSDD.”—that’s all. Maurice shrugged. If he’d really loved Heinlein—he would’ve stayed back Earthside. Things would’ve worked out—his boyhood jouissance would have still been there.

He could have stripped naked in front of a mirror—without it throwing his past in his face. Without seeing the stumps of his arms and legs—reminding him he was only a secondhand hockey player now.

His two years in space had made him rich and famous—and showed him the power of the puck. And the obscene pleasures that make brutality and force—such an addictive sport. The spicy sweetness of murder—sanctified by interplanetary law and order.

That was him—he couldn’t have said it any other way. Heinlein would probably have shook his head in disgust—a boyhood fan and hero worshipper like Maurice failing him. Down there in the muck and slime of the jungle—up there in space with the stink that hangs in freefall oozing from the bodies of the dead. There in the half-light of too many dusks and dawns—spliced together with the crisscross of dead hockey players and bloody pucks.

Maurice could still taste death on his lips—and he still found it palatable making it impossible for him to ever eat the fruits of normal Earthside civilization again.

He’d always been alone from then to now—nothing but scum in the gutter, his instincts and guts all twisted the way gladiators and soldiers of fortune end up thinking cynically about everything.

Even the rain of Titan falling down on his face this night—lacked the purity of ever washing the sewer and scum from his face. Did the good and the meek inherit the earth—the Earthsiders supposedly knowing the cleanliness of law and justice?

Maybe someday he’d die—and the world would benefit from his death. There’d be no more perplexing questions like—Why did he live and breathe here and now? And what possibly could be the reason—for his existence when there was no good in him? None at all.

So it gave him back his soul of toughness—his hate and bitterness encased in the armor of cynicism and weltschmerz that spanned so many worlds. Heinlein would have dismissed him—before Maurice could sneer and make the wise-crack answer he had ready for his onetime boyhood hero.

If he were still living, Heinlein would’ve reached for his typewriter and written another novel with ease. With all the earmarks of a good Ace pulp fiction paperback double-novel worthy of a Hugo—and made a good case for Maurice maybe ending up like a Citizen of the Galaxy.

On the other hand, Heinlein might have just watched Maurice with his knowing eyes—bright with that peculiar kind of horrified disgust that makes people fascinated by watching some kind of nasty, fascinating mutant or grotesque freak in a circus cage fidget in the limelight.

It didn’t make any difference—Maurice didn’t want sympathy. Some of it was probably there with Heinlein—maybe on some kind of shortwave nod and okay vibration that some juvie sci-fi writers seemed to have with incorrigible juvenile delinquents way back then when kids still read books and dreamed of other worlds.

But there were some things Heinlein probably could never have said to a kid like Maurice—and there were plenty of times he could have. Heinlein was good at picking up human interest stories—from the lower depths of hell. He was good at grimacing and sneering at fate—and had a knack even when he was deadly sick and almost dead a couple of times of liking a guy like Maurice and appreciating the kid’s cynicism at such a young age.

Andre, handsome, bad boy Andre. Waiting by his dressing-room door after a game—Maurice walking up to him, watching Andre’s lips pout into a ripe, meaty kiss. The endless rows of ogling eyeballs—jumping ahead of him, looking at Andre’s low-cut jumpsuit throwing a challenge with every puff of his Saturn spice cigarette. The eyes cruising the French Martian kid—with his black boots shiny in the light. His legs and body and shoulders—almost too good to be true.

And when they saw Andre’s face—knowing that was a young male beauty capable of the extremes of every emotion. His jet-black hair and the look he gave him in front of everybody—giving them all something to remember. For one long second—all the outraged eyeballs bulging with outraged love.

That’s right—Andre was his. It took a long time for him to find out just how much his he was—he dragged it out as long as he could. He’d never forget him—even though he was back home again on the red planet Mars. It was the only decent thing that had happened to Maurice—he’d been lucky.

Andre said—“Let’s get out of here, Maurice. I hate the whole space hockey racket. Get out while you can.”

But he couldn’t—it was all that Maurice could think about now. The whole damn Space Hockey League had ruled his life too long—he couldn’t just shut the door and drive away from it. He didn’t listen to Andre—he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. He was just a big guy with an ugly reputation—a guy who had every earthly reason to be an Orphan in the Sky. That’s what Heinlein would’ve said—and it was true.

He didn’t even tell Andre goodbye. A couple of times he looked in the mirror—and thought he saw him there. But then he looked closer—and it was himself there instead. He used to be able to look at himself in the mirror and laugh without giving a damn how ugly he was. He was looking at himself—the way the hockey fans did back then. But that was then—and this was now.

He was sweaty and cold at the same time—something happened after the SHL franchise dumped him. He missed it—maybe he had a taste for death. Maybe he liked it too much—to taste anything else. He felt twisted and rotten inside. Was that what he was feeling now—going through shitty Thanatos withdrawal? He heard about it happening with other guys—but most space hockey players didn’t get beyond two years with the team. They didn’t have a chance to go through withdrawal—they were dead.

That’s why he’d parked the Jet’ab—and took a walk in the rain. He didn’t want to think about things—so he walked and smoked and crossed the bridge. It took awhile to get his face back—after burying it in his hands awhile. Eventually things straightened out—they usually did.

He was a killer—he was a legalized murderer. He had no reason for living anymore—not being a SHL Free Fall Killers player. Maybe he was more the Mickey Spillane type—rather than Robert Heinlein?

He had the blues—Chet Baker in the background. His voice was like silk—more silky and smooth than Neptune’s streamlined methane clouds. He couldn’t get “My Funny Valentine” out of his head—it kept coming back and back again.

It reminded him of “Space Between the Stars”—an old sci-fi novel he’d read a long time ago. Surely he had a double somewhere out there—somebody he could talk with amongst all those planets, moons and stardust? A telepathic brother—faster than the speed of light?

He shrugged—still standing there on the bridge. After another Rising Sun smoke—his lungs relaxed the way they liked to do. The starboard lights of ships taking off—out into the blackness of outer space again.

Maybe it wasn’t all murder and spectral space hockey. Maybe the rottenness wasn’t all inside him—maybe he was a killer only by coincidence. Maybe he didn’t like to kill at all Maurice thought to himself—the Titan fog turning into rain again.

Then it snowed—over the girders and heavy nylon-steel lines. The wind blew—the snow hissed down on Titan. Maybe Heinlein was right—he was just another one of Methuselah’s Children. That’s all.

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