a small problem?”
“I’ll fix it.”
“Last time you had a small problem, the refrigeration system broke down, and we spent two weeks touring with no cold beer.”
“Beer,” the Nebraskan murmured. “Break’s half over.”
“We’ll meet tomorrow night, get the details straight, decide what we’re going to play. If,” he added icily, “we have a cuber among us.”
The Nebraskan fondled his mustache. “We could drug him for the flight,” he suggested.
The Gambler, galvanized, pushed himself away from the stage in the direction of the nearest bar, the Magician’s brooding gaze between his shoulder blades.
The Scholar shook his head. “How will we play without him? He plays those cubes like he’s inside our heads, hearing our music before we do.”
The Magician didn’t answer. Still frowning, he heard the rambling, chaotic noises in the club ebb to a distance, like a tide. A faint throb of cubing caught his ear, or the ghost of cubing from a different time.
He moved finally, it seemed to him toward the music. “Let’s get a beer while we have time. Don’t worry,” he added to the astonished Scholar. “We’ll have a cuber.”
Aaron, off duty, was sipping Scotch at one of the quieter bars: a broad, half oval of mahogany and brass that reminded him vaguely of old sailing ships. He was running through lists in his mind: lists of factory workers, private hospital personnel, army recruits, lists of names that could be lies, of lives that could be faked, all except for one incongruity, one careless detail at the moment of interface. Among 5.2 billion people scattered from Earth to the asteroids, how could he find someone who didn’t want to be found? She was picking rice in Dragon Sector, she was feeding birds and albino tigers in a zoo, she was leading Rim-Tours around the coast of Sundown Sector. She was studying for the priesthood. He mused over that one. But even they had credit numbers, ID cards, tax records. She had changed her name, but she couldn’t falsify every single record of her past, and there had to be that one moment when the two, past and future, overlapped into their complex identity. He stared into his Scotch, almost too tired of thinking to think. Why should I care? After seven years? What am I going to do with her if I find her? Shoot her because her crazy sister killed my—I want to find her. I need something from her. I need.
He stilled his thoughts and was immediately enveloped in memory. He tasted the ghost of a kiss. She was dressed in khaki, the last time. She kissed me good-bye and turned, damn near hitting me with her rifle as she went to board the troop-cruiser. Three months later she called me. She was pregnant, she was laughing, they were letting her come home early… She said I had a pirate’s face, she never wanted me to change it. She threw a frying pan at me once. Her eyes were so black you could fly in them…
Something hit his boots. He crawled out of the time-tunnel back to the present, back to Sidney’s Wonderland. He looked down bewilderedly. Half a dozen roses were scattered at his feet. He glanced behind him, saw a figure swathed in a cocoon of gold sequins, all but for one bare arm still gracefully completing the arc of its toss. Even the eyelashes glittered gold. The dark eyes smiled, but there was no telling what sex the slender arm belonged to. Aaron, distrusting ambiguities, let the roses lie.
“Whatever happened to the art of gentle conversation?” Sidney Halleck murmured beside him. “It went out with the bassoon.” He bent, scooped the roses off the floor and dropped them onto the bar. Aaron touched one. Sleek, shiny black acrylic, they were all perfect and they would never die.
“Sometimes it’s easier not to talk… No confusion, no embarrassment, no hurt… and no tomorrow.”
“That’s the rule of the rose. One night, no questions, no complications—”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter; no