The Figure in the Carpet
a short story
One night, we looked up and saw that Heaven was tearing apart. There were huge great rips in it.
From the sixteenth level, where Boudier's Bridge of Sighs extends high over the River Lethe in a graceful iron arch a hundred metres long, you could see the fabric of non-space shining through in a coruscating welter of sick colours. It looked as though a vast cat, a hundred kilometres long, had been using the vault of Heaven as a scratching post.
"What is it?" Jenny-Lynne asked, in a very quiet voice. She was leaning beside me on the balustrade. Along from us, to left and right, a lot of other people were doing similar and thinking similar thoughts; but there were no raised voices, and for once no Dead Boys at this time of night. If it weren't for the hideous yet beautiful lights in the sky, Jenny-Lynne and I would have been in our own very private world, here with her arm around my waist, mine around hers, the scent of her filling the tiny space about us. One of my uploaded memories told me about the Northern Lights, which wove greenly in the Arctic skies back on Earth, and possibly looked something like this. Or not. The memory showed me an image of rippling curtains of light, not these gashes rimmed by bleeding pixels.
G.O.D. had nothing to do with this. G.O.D.--the Graphical Output Device responsible for the way Heaven looks--liked to keep the skies orderly, black at night, blue in the day, and pink at dawn and dusk. Something had got into Heaven with enough force to disrupt it.
My relationship with Jenny-Lynne was starting to take off nicely, and I'd known for some time that I was due for a serious change of life, probably involving her. I had been wondering how Jenny-Lynne fancied living with me, and if so, where. But what we really didn't need was this.
I had been in Heaven for almost a year now, playing music, building machines, generally living the life I had--or am told I did--back on Earth. I, Boris Vian, lived in the last century, from 1920 to 1959, almost entirely in France, mostly in Paris, played the trumpet, wrote novels, and generally had a good time. And now I'm back. The XVI Level--I prefer the Roman numerals, faintly reflecting my memories of Paris--is a Level of bars, cafes, streets tiled with wet grey cobbles after a night of rain, fruit and vegetable stalls chanced upon early in the morning after a night spent blowing that ol' trumpet in a smoky cellar somewhere ... you get the picture. What's the point of Heaven if it isn't heavenly? On Earth I had a companion called the Schmurz; my constant pain. The Schmurz is gone now, not requested when my Soul was built for incorporation into Heaven.
Jenny-Lynne plays keyboards in a combo called the Dead Ladies of Clown Town. I first met her when the band played downstairs in Melodic Tom's a month ago. She gave me a lift home on the back of her motorbike, a gleaming black and silver beast that incarnated the sexual daydreams of my generation and hers. But then, Jenny-Lynne is very young. In 1973, high on love and LSD, she and her Harley-Davidson went over the crash barrier on Interstate 110 and hit a tree, fatally. She was twenty-four years old. A hundred years later, her copious writings and paintings were read by Heaven's Gate and she was uploaded here as a Soul. She is a few centimetres shorter than me, and has coffee-coloured skin, braided black hair and a nice smile. Her scent--praise the Programmers of Souls for allowing smell in this Heaven of ours!--is scorched and heady.
On the corner of Darrieux Street and Mario Praz Boulevard, the crowd was preparing to hang a pig.
There was a stink of sweat; of fear; and of something I could not determine, laid over it as surely as the tears in Heaven overlaid our universe. The pig, dressed in frock coat and cravat, squealed happily and shat on the platform as if knowing the release that had been prepared for it.
"This pig," said a man dressed in shabby black overalls, "stands accused of infanticide of the fourth order, to wit, that it did feloniously eat the offspring of one Jefferson Monk of this parish. It has been found guilty and will now be hanged."
And with a rush, the pig was borne into the noose, and jerked aloft where it kicked and squealed, voiding what contents of its stomach had not already gone floorwards, and died. Dead Boys standing around the square with eyes as vapid as the blades of their pocket-knives, giggled and nudged one another.
On our way home Jenny-Lynne and I passed a few other testimonies of this kind. A cow, crucified in a doorway, with the sign "Next Time You'll Give More Milk" around its neck; and the remains of other smaller animals that had been spitted and roasted on street corners by the Dead Boys.
"It's all so weird," Jenny-Lynne said, almost pointlessly. "That pig never ate anyone's child. No-one ever had a child around here except as some kind of toy. You're dealing with the sort of person who puts a brick under a hat and then leaps out and giggles when someone comes along and kicks it. Who are these Dead Boys?"
"Don't know," I said.
"Who are they? Tell me, Boris. Tell me!"
But I really didn't know. I'd been hoping she could tell me; she'd been alive more recently than I had. Sometimes she seemed to know nothing at all, while at other times she knew far more than I'd ever imagined.
We were at the mouth of Cole Porter Street, a narrow street whose inn signs flapped in an imperceptible breeze. Four greyish shapes detached themselves from the darkness and ambled towards us. Two walked upright, and in the shambling bodies of the other two there was something part dog, part human.
Dead Boys. I stiffened briefly, felt Jenny-Lynne's warm hand in mine.
"Keep walking," she murmured. I did; a slow stride, hoping that my terror would not shine through to the Boys. They swaggered closer, clothes vague shifting patterns of grey and black.
Then one of them raised a wicked black gun and squeezed the trigger. The world dissolved into pain.
Boris Vian walked into Melodic Tom's on Sidney Bechet Street with his trumpet in his hand. The Bar was already almost full; there were people on the stools, and at the tables, drinking the cheap wine of the Level. A dark figure at the piano practised arpeggios over and over again, then stopped and looked up, made a gesture of welcome at Vian and sat down again. Vian had only just hit town but he was already being made welcome.
Vian went up to the bar, accepted a glass of wine with a gesture of thanks, and drank it. Faces turned towards him curiously then looked away again. He raised the trumpet to his lips and ...
No boogie such as Armstrong or Basie would have cherished, no full round brassy sound. Vian frowned, lowered the instrument and looked at it. He pushed the valves a few times. He raised it once more and ...
Vian realised that he no longer knew how to play.
"Bad copy," the barman said, turning away. "Tell me about your mother." Boris Vian picked up the offending trumpet and flung it at the bar, shattering the long mirror into a million fragments.
"Why did you do that?" a man asked from the next table. Vian looked at him, shook his head sadly--if you don't know why, man, you don't belong here--, and left.
He walked through the streets of the Sixteenth Level like a ghost. He remembered that he had played the trumpet, back on Earth; but if he had been in Heaven before, he had no memory of it. That was usual; Souls were brought up with their knowledge of their Earthly lives, but each time they went up to Heaven it was in exactly the same form, like a chain letter. When he reached the little room he had been assigned, he flung himself on his bed and picked up a book from the bedside shelf. One of his; a police thriller published by Fleuve Noir in the late 1940s. He opened it, and began to read...
He didn't. He couldn't read. None of the words on the page made the slightest sense. He could see the letters but he could make no sense of them.
Bad copy the barman had said. What he had said after that--tell me about your mother--made no sense at all, but Bad Copy?
If our brains were simple enough to understand, he had once heard, we wouldn't be clever enough to understand them. Fine, but he could understand what Bad Copy meant.
Someone had brought him back as a sub-standard Soul!
Boris Vian flung the book from him and picked up the only other item on the shelf. It was a small framed photograph of a young woman; dark braided hair and a brown, oval face, and she was smiling with obvious happiness. At the bottom were written a few words:
To Boris, lots of love, Jenny-Lynne.
Who was Jenny-Lynne? Boris was intrigued. Lots of Love? At least there had been love, then. Loved, and lost.
Boris sat looking at this for some seconds before it dawned on him that he could read those words. He looked back at the book.
"C'était un matin de brouillard sur New York. Dans une gouttiere un homme abattu saignait ..."
He sighed. Just a matter of language. He'd been bilingual before, equally happy in French and English. It was just going to be English from now on. But Jenny-Lynne, who and where in Heaven was Jenny-Lynne?
Jenny-Lynne Sanchez stood at the Gates of Pearl and tried to get her bearings. She had been told to find a bar called Melodic Tom's on the 16th Level. Just one trouble; she couldn't read, and she couldn't speak. She'd tried asking directions but the words came out as a croak. She couldn't write it down either; she'd tried that but her hands shook so badly she couldn't form any letters. It was just like being on a very bad downer, she thought; just like that. Around her Souls and Programs ebbed and flowed, bustling up into the levels of Heaven from the Gates. Behind her the Plains of Lethe stretched green and brown, down into what was assumed to be the world of the living.
Someone elbowed her in the ribs, and as she pulled away, a vicious face looked up at her; a Soul, but of uncertain age, race or gender, it had one bleary and gleaming silver eye that stared at her with nothing but hatred.
"Feck orf?" the Soul said.
"Ah but where to, dear soul?" said Jenny-Lynne, feeling her knees about to give way underneath her. The Soul screamed and ran off. A knot of grey figures by a wall giggled and pointed. Jenny-Lynne pulled herself forward, wishing she had her motorbike, but knowing all the same that she would not have been able to ride it. That boxy structure up ahead must be a lift.
Jenny-Lynne reached the lift and by counting the scarlet signs on the walls, was sure enough that she'd got off at the Sixteenth. It certainly looked nice; onion-shaped domes, a big blue sky, long colonnades with interesting patterns on ... I could really groove on those patterns, she thought. That's all very well; but I don't know where Melodic Tom's is, what it is, or why I've got to go there. I think I'll just sit down on this marble staircase here and go to sleep ...
"Know that I, Haroun Al-Amrah, Emir of the Fifteenth Level, in the fourteenth year of my reign as Emir, do hereby decree that I have reached perfection in all things temporal. My carpets are the most perfect. My wives are the most serene of women. My camels are swift and without fleas. There are no beggars at my doorway ..."
Haroun Al-Amrah stopped writing and stood, jaw tensed in the style which he believed made him look heroic. It did not flatter him and made him look several years older than his thirty-nine years. He strode across one of the flawless carpets, between mirrors burnished to perfection, and paused to admire his reflection in one of them. It was a handsome reflection, he reflected. His stomach was nicely rounded, his beard full, his eyes dark above a proud Bedouin nose. He gathered his pristine white djellaba about him and strode on.
Through a window he glimpsed the sky; and the horrible tears in it. They were the one fly in the ointment of his life. They were so far beyond him, out there in the vault of Heaven. To fly there! He thought. To capture some genie, ride some magic carpet to the edges of Heaven's blue and see for himself just why this horror was allowed to pollute his days and nights ...
Haroun Al-Amrah paced onward, to the gates of his house. He began to walk down the long marble staircase, so clean, so opulent ...
and he came upon the recumbent figure of a woman lying upon it, hands clenching and unclenching as she lay otherwise asleep. She was dressed in a blue cotton dress and her head was decently covered. Haroun shivered. Here, upon his perfect steps? And yet, and yet, she was plainly a person in distress. She was also young, and far from unappealing.
Haroun stood watching her for some minutes, deep in thought, and then he reached down, seized the woman under the armpits, and bore her back into his palace.
Jenny-Lynne Sanchez woke up to a scent of jasmine and the echoing chirp of caged birds. There was a silken sheet over her, and she was lying on some kind of low bed. The room she was in was decorated simply, with geometric decorations and octagonal mirrors. She remembered coming into this level; she remembered falling asleep. But she did not remember coming here. Which only meant someone had either rescued her; or kidnapped her. She sat up, and tried to speak, but found only slurred syllables coming out.
At once footfalls echoed beyond the dark, narrow doorway. A hugely fat person of indeterminate sex, with rouged lips and jewelled fingers, peered in through the doorway and vanished again, clapping its hands. Jenny-Lynne smiled despite herself. She'd seen enough movies to know a palace eunuch when she saw one. Mind you, where you had palace eunuchs, you also had ...
"Haroun al-Raschid, I presume?" she tried to say when he walked in. He certainly looked the part; nothing like Charlton Heston but a lot like the Emir of a desert kingdom might really look, the real sweating, corpulent article. He had a strong face though, and thoughtful eyes.
"My name is Haroun Al-Amrah," he said. "I am the Emir of the Fifteenth Level."
"Nearly right," Jenny-Lynne thought, collapsing onto the bed once more.
Boris Vian strode the streets of the 16th, asking questions. He went into Melodic Tom's but the barman refused to speak to him. When he suggested to the barman that he might shove a whisky bottle up his nose, the barman told him to go ahead and try.
"But all I want to know," Vian said, "is who requested me this time? I was told to go to Melodic Tom's. But now I find I'm a substandard copy. You said so yourself." He stood with his hands outspread on the bar, looming down at the irritable barman. Next to the barman, he could also see his poor, abused trumpet, sitting on end on the counter. "Wasn't you, was it?"
"Nope," said the barman. "Now get."
Vian picked him up by the collar.
"Shan't," he said. "It was you, wasn't it? You know something. And what's this about my mother?" The barman tried to hit out at Vian but the former trumpeter headbutted him for insurance purposes.
"You ... shag ... your ... mother," the barman said. Vian headbutted him again and rammed him against the counter. Something cracked. The barman went limp and Vian dropped him. There was something unmistakable about a dead Program. Slowly the barman began to dissolve, leaving smears of hideous light across Vian's arms. Vian grabbed his trumpet from behind the bar, and took to his heels. Two grey figures watched him from the shadows and tittered.
He ran into Darrieux Street and headed for a basement room. His friend the pianist would be the person to go and see. Alphonse Lazuli and he went back years. They'd studied together in the 1940s, and played in the same bands, Boris on trumpet, Alphonse tinkling the ivories.
Vian opened the door to the basement and stepped inside. It was near dark, lit only by two flickering oil lamps. In the middle of the room stood the wreckage of Alphonse Lazuli's piano. The cocktail attachment, which linked every note to an ingredient (the cocktail produced by Jelly Roll Boogie was particularly fine) was broken and bled alcohol and juices onto the wood-block floor.
By the far wall, a slumped shape trembled intermittently. Vian went over to it and rolled it on its back.
"Alphonse!" he said. "What happened?"
"I ... can't ... play ... any more," Lazuli said. He sat up, and blinked. "Same as you had, Boris. I sat down at the piano and just didn't know what to do. Couldn't read music either."
"You're another bad copy," Vian said gently, helping his friend to his feet.
"Well thanks very much," Lazuli said.
"No offence," Vian said, "but that's what's happening. When did it happen?"
"Soon as I arrived," Lazuli said, "last night."
"Last night? But you were here ... ah. Yes."
"Yes?" Lazuli asked suspiciously.
"You must have been killed between last night and now. But as Krishnamurti said, past lives don't matter because you don't remember them."
"He obviously never came to Heaven."
"Well, we could probably find him," Vian said, grinning. "And if we wanted a doctor, we could probably find Albert Schweitzer. But what we want right now, is a way out."
"Why's that?" Lazuli said.
"Oh, you know that barman at Melodic Tom's ... yes? Obnoxious little turd? Well, I had an unfortunate argument with him, and ... er ..."
"Murdered him?" Lazuli said, throwing his hands up in horror.
"It was an accident," Vian replied. "Besides, what else are you doing today? You can't play the piano. What else is there, for a muso who can't muse? Being on the run sounds like a cool idea to me. It won't take long for Heaven's Gate to twig." Like slow messages up the spine of a brontosaurus, the loss would be felt and cleansing squads would flood into the area.
"Run?" Lazuli said. "Where?"
"The next level sounds like a good idea. Oh, and have you ever seen this woman?" Without much hope, he took the picture of Jenny-Lynne from his pocket and showed it to his friend; but to no avail.
Hector Guimard's immortal Métropolitain signs, suitably altered, adorned the lift gates on the 16th Level. Just another little touch of Paris for the residents. But Vian and Lazuli were in no mood for Art Nouveau as they descended, Vian clutching his trumpet in a sweating hand.
"Down, gentlemen?" said an elderly woman behind a grille.
"Why down?" said Vian.
"Why not?" said Lazuli.
"Up, gentlemen," said the woman, "is the Intorsion. Where the Dead Boys rule. You don't want to go there, m'dears. Nobody wants to go there..."
"Down it is, then," said Boris Vian. And the two stepped into the lift. A minute later they stepped out into the hot, dry world of the Fifteenth Level. The call to prayer echoed faintly from minarets on the skyline. Vian and Lazuli walked on amiably, through streets that seemed deserted. There was no sound but the ongoing drone of the prayer call. No sound, until from behind them came the unmistakable snick of swords being drawn.
"Stop," commanded a deep voice. Vian and Lazuli stopped, and turned as one. Behind them stood two imposing men in long robes, holding up even more imposing swords.
"Infidels," said one of them. "Know ye not the call to prayer?"
Vian and Lazuli said nothing.
"Know ye not that none should be afoot and that all should kneel?"
"You're not kneeling," Lazuli pointed out. The swordsman who had spoken took his sword and simply cut Lazuli's head off. Just like that. Lazuli fell to the ground in two pieces; the head rolled off into the gutter. Very slowly, Vian went to his knees.
"That is better," he was told. "As you are obviously an infidel, you will be spared the catachresis of prayer. Come with us." Vian stood obediently and followed the two men. The streets were indeed empty; and clean, very clean. It was nothing like the 16th Level and nothing like Vian had ever seen. He followed up to the steps of a vast palace, whose marble reflected the sun in a thousand colours. Ornamental fountains played in the shade, and peafowl strutted and called. Vian felt the fabric of his city suit sticking to his back as they headed towards the entrance.
Inside, all was refreshingly cool. The two men led on, ending in a vast chamber whose walls were pierced with narrow archways, and whose floor bore a huge silken carpet adorned with geometric patterns. The guards indicated that Vian should take his shoes off. He did, and was ushered inside. At the far end of the room stood a single, sparse throne. And on it, a single far from sparse man. He sat, right elbow on the arm of the throne, hand cupping his cheek, staring at Vian with eyes that never seemed to blink. Behind the throne there was a green silk curtain edged with golden braid.
He raised his left hand and the guards departed noiselessly.
The man kept staring at Vian, until Vian finally got the message. It was knees time again. He lowered himself slowly and, remembering some half-forgotten image, lowered his forehead to the carpet.
"It is perfect," the man said. Then there was a long silence. "The carpet. It is without flaw. The finest in Heaven. I love to collect perfect things. But it is so difficult in this strange world. Have you noticed the holes in the sky? You may rise. You may also speak."
Vian raised his head, and then stood, facing the man in the throne.
"I have noticed," he said. "I have also wondered what they were."
"Good," the man said. "I also wonder what you are."
"My name is Boris Vian," Vian said. "I was a musician."
"You were? Not, you are?''
"I was, until I was most recently brought back. I have strangely lost the ability to play."
"That is indeed a shame," the man said. "Many men lose something when they come to Heaven. Maybe that is why I collect perfect things. To remind myself that I am Haroun Al-Amrah, Emir of the Fifteenth Level. As such I believe I am entitled to what is good. Do you not think?"
"I believe all men are entitled to as much good as they themselves produce," Vian said.
"Very good," the Emir replied. "And those who do ill shall have ill come to them. Someone stole your knowledge of music, Boris. There is also a young woman in my charge. She has lost the ability to speak, and she moves with difficulty. I am not a cruel man, Boris. There are those who say I am, but they confuse the capacity for cruelty with its execution. There is far more difference between killing someone horribly and killing them mercifully, than between killing them and not killing them at all. Caliph Murad said that; a man I follow in many things. You have come to me for justice."
"I have?" Vian nearly said, then converted it to, "I have. O Emir. May you rule forever."
The Emir stood, and clapped his hands twice. An enormously fat person wearing too much makeup and jewelery hastened in, fussily.
"Bring the woman," the Emir ordered. The fat one hurried out. The Emir sat silently. Presently, the fat one returned, with a slender figure in blue silk behind him. The fat one hastened from sight behind the curtain with a perplexing wink, and the woman bowed before the Emir, visibly twitching occasionally.
"Turn," the Emir said, "and show yourself to this man." The woman did so, throwing back the covering from her head.
"Jenny-Lynne!" Vian exclaimed.
"What?" The Emir roared. "You know this woman? You are here under false pretences! You come here claiming to seek justice, and all the time you are intent on stealing my woman!"
"Your woman?" Vian said. He walked forward. Jenny-Lynne stopped him with a raised hand when he was ten paces from her.
"I come here seeking only justice," Vian repeated. "I seek only for the name of the person who killed me, and brought me back in an incomplete form; unable to read my mother tongue, and unable to play the trumpet. I seek the perfection that was taken from me. You should understand that. Otherwise, I must leave."
"You may not," said the Emir.
"Am I a prisoner?" Vian asked.
"You are my guest," the Emir said, "and you have asked for justice. This shall be granted you. How should you leave before this has been done? As you say, I seek perfection in all things. In this too. Also, in the woman you call Jenny-Lynne."
Jenny-Lynne, however, was staring at the carpet.
Vian followed her gaze. Something about it was troubling her; yes, and him too. Perfect, the Emir had said. Vian clutched his trumpet. How could he not know how to play it? He had always known.
"Can you bear to have imperfection around you at all?" Vian asked. "Jenny-Lynne and I, we are but humble peasants. Neither of us function as we should. On Earth, I had something called the schmurz, my constant ..."
" ... pain," the Emir mumbled. Then he looked up, and looked hard at Vian. The eyes each side of the Bedouin nose burned with dark fire. Jenny-Lynne was still staring at the carpet. At first Vian could not understand the words, but as she repeated them her voice became stronger and stronger.
"Perfection ... is not perfect ... here. The figure ... in the carpet."
"You speak?" the Emir growled. "You both speak out of turn."
"Out of turn, maybe," Vian said, "but not out of mind. Your guards, when they arrested me and my friend, whom they then killed, said, 'the catachresis of prayer'. That's wrong, O Emir. They meant 'catechism', but they were wrong. Jenny-Lynne -" Vian strode forward, as the Emir leapt to his feet, and caught Jenny-Lynne's right hand in his left. Then he raised the trumpet to his lips.
"You try my patience," the Emir said. "I could have you beheaded. I could have you ride the Mare of Steel."
"And you are not a cruel man?" Vian said. "And what then, O Emir? Will you bring us back in some other imperfect form?"
"I?" the Emir roared. "I could bring you back in all perfection."
"My old human form wasn't perfect," Vian said. "As you knew. You knew about the Schmurz. You could have uploaded my datafiles, true. But not in this amount of time, if you hadn't known me. No Soul has access to that."
"I?" the Emir roared, again. "Out! Leave my palace! Guards!"
"Not that easy," Jenny-Lynne said, her voice still slurred as though she were drunk. The palsied twitching of her limbs had all but stopped. "You're wrong, Haroun baby. About the carpet."
"This is getting repetitive," Jenny-Lynne said. "yes, you, Haroun Al-Amrah. This carpet is not perfect."
"No? And how do you know?"
"Do we get our freedom if we prove it to you?"
"You do, if you can find a flaw in it." The Emir smiled wickedly, stroking his beard. Jenny-Lynne began to pace, the slow edges of the carpet crisping under her pale brown feet. She walked round clockwise, and when she passed Boris Vian, gestured to him with a tiny gesture. He walked the other way and paced the other side of the carpet, with scarcely a sound. At the far end, so far that the Emir's dark eyes burned less bright from this distance, they joined hands. A small number of the Emir's guards looked on, intrigued by this strange new development.
"O Emir," Jenny-Lynne began, her voice resonating in the marbled, mirrored hall,
"It is told that many years ago in the City of Baghdad, there lived a rich man. He had many fine things, many beautiful wives, many fine camels, many strong sons. One day he descended into the market of Baghdad and spoke to a carpet-maker.
"'O carpet-maker', he said, 'I wish the finest, most beautiful carpet that has ever been made. It must be wholly without flaw.' Now hearing this the carpet-maker was downcast, but seeing that this was a very rich man, and seeing that he was a poor carpet-maker, he decided to take on the task of making a perfect carpet.
"The carpet-maker toiled day and night for a year, and at the end of the year he and his sons bore the carpet to the rich man. They unrolled it in the great hall of the rich man's palace and the rich man went down on his hands and knees to examine it. He commanded the carpet-maker to stay while he did so. Now, despite the strange sight of a rich man on his knees before a humble carpet-maker, the carpet-maker grew afraid, and the rich man's guards put their hands on the hilts of their knives, seeing this.
"The rich man examined the figures in the carpet, and the decorations and the designs, and at the end of a day and a night, he discovered a tiny mistake in the margin of one of the figures.
"'What is this?' he roared, his hand leaping to the hilt of his dagger. 'There is a mistake in this carpet!' And with this he plunged his dagger into the heart of the carpet-maker, and the carpet-maker's blood splashed the priceless silks of the carpet. The carpet-maker looked up at the rich man, and with his dying breath he said,
'Of course there is a mistake. It was a deliberate mistake. Only Allah is perfect.'"
"So then," Jenny-Lynne said, "You've been had, O Emir. This carpet is flawed because it has no flaw. The real thing always did. So much for your Arabian nightmare." She clicked her fingers twice, and was almost surprised when she stayed where she was.
"No!" the Emir yelled. "Paradox! I took from you ... and from you ..."
"And from many others," said a plummy voice. "And from Heaven itself. Hence the tears in the firmament, which caused him such grief. All his fault! He wanted perfection, and what was he prepared to do for it?" The eunuch walked forward from behind the curtain. He had wiped his makeup off and taken off the rings, all except one, which glowed with a carnelian fire upon the third finger of his right hand.
"He was quite prepared to have people killed," the eunuch went on, "and to shortchange people like you. And like me. I never claimed not to be missing something. He, though, had that power to take, and take, and take. He wasn't perfect himself, because of that. We're not supposed to be able to do things like that." He grinned amiably, yet in a way that said, this is no fool that you have before you. "A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox! I did try to warn you."
The Emir turned and ran at the eunuch. The eunuch, dodging around the throne, ran down onto the carpet.
"And that," the eunuch said, "is why there are holes in Heaven. It's him. He's a disease, and Heaven does not need him. He is ... wrong."
"Guards!" the Emir yelled. "Guards! Kill them!"
The captain of guards, a huge man with deep black skin, stood and shrugged.
"Nope," he said. "I don't intend to." And he barred the way, Vian and Jenny-Lynne behind him, the Emir before him, the Emir panting and fuming before the captain's sturdy arms, barrel chest and very sharp sword.
"Go now," the eunuch said. "Don't turn back."
They went, and they didn't turn back. So they didn't see the captain of guards slice the Emir's head off. But they heard it.
In a room above Charlie Parker Street, on the 16th Level, a tall man dressed in jeans and an open-necked shirt is sitting, head down, over an electric guitar. He strums some chords, feels the life of the instrument through his fingers, savours the clear, crisp sound resonating through the late afternoon air. Tonight there is a jam session at Melodic Tom's. Boris is going along to lay down some sound on the guitar, and Jenny-Lynne will be performing on keyboards. The police were around a few days ago about a damaged program; but they went away apparently satisfied with the claim of self-defence.
Outside in the street, the distant sound of a motorcycle grows closer and finally comes to a snarling halt underneath the window. A door slams, and feet clatter on the stairs. Boris puts down the guitar. Jenny-Lynne Sanchez opens the door and Boris goes to hold her for a long, wordless minute. Eventually, they break the embrace.
"You're happy today," Jenny-Lynne says. "But you could do with some more chord practice."
"Ah well," Boris Vian says, "nobody's perfect."
"True," Jenny-Lynne agrees. "But we've got soul."
© Chris Amies 2002.
This story appears here for the first time.
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