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Stars: Original Stories Based On The Songs Of Janis Ian

Stars: Original Stories Based
On The Songs Of Janis Ian
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edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick

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Lucky Bat Books, 2012.

Three "best" & seventeen honorable mentions (including Janis' story!) in Year's Best SF 2004, ed. by Gardner Dozois.

Also features Spider Robinson, Mercedes Lackey, Robert Sawyer, Stephen Baxter, Nancy Kress, Howard Waldrop, Harry Turtledove.

"This dazzling, highly original anthology, ignited by the meeting of songwriter Ian and a host of SF writers affected by her music at the 2001 Worldcon, showcases 30 mostly superior stories, each based on one of her songs. Some contributors take Ian at her word that science fiction is 'the jazz of prose,' responding to many of society's sharpest wounds with bittersweet improvisatory descants, like Terry Bisson in 'Come Dance with Me,' David Gerrold in 'Riding Janis' and Orson Scott Card in 'Inventing Lovers on the Phone,' tales that probe the angst of adolescence… The entire anthology seems to vibrate with the death throes of one world passing away, while far stranger ones struggle to be born. Their commonality, Ian tells us in her introduction, is that 'They have heart. They have life. They have truth.' No artist - nor any reader - could ask for more." - Publisher's Weekly

Second Person Unmasked

Janis Ian

September 2003

From Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian.

He said – I've broken stallions
I've broken mares, too
Given time, and the right frame of mind
I swear I'll break you

--from "His Hands", by Janis Ian

So by the time you get there, you figure you've done pretty much everything a man can do in this life, right?

And you're tired of worrying about consequences and all that – right?

I know. I've been there.

Under the leaded skies of Low Port, anything looks possible. You amble out of the ship like you haven't got a care in the world, when all the time you're feeling just a tiny twinge of discomfort. Like there's something you ought to remember, something from way back when, before you were so God-almighty sure of yourself and everything you do. Only it's just on the tip of your tongue, and you're not talking.

They left a map in the cabin yesterday, when they finished cleaning up your mess and changing the sheets. Something to guide you through the down time, while the ship's in for maintenance. You leaf through it while you eat breakfast in the morning, checking out the ads, looking over the list of local customs. Amateur stuff, really, complete with tips for getting along with the natives. There's a picture of one, and some small print you ignore. They're humanoid, like most of the settled universe. That'll do.

You hadn't thought about natives when you decided to come here, but it's no big deal. You're always a stranger, and strange places are nothing new. You've always landed on your feet. Sometimes, when you're drunk enough to believe in an Almighty, you think He probably has a special place in His heart for you. Nothing else could explain your kind of luck, or the bullets you've dodged. Even on the ship, your luck's been holding, but you only indulged yourself once. You're pretty proud of that, showing some restraint. It isn't easy. So you walk down the gangway and out into the night

* * *

There's got to be some action in a port this size, paid action if necessary, though you'd prefer to talk her into it. Always feels better that way, watching their eyes go wide after they find out just how complete a seduction you intend. The lamb that goes willingly to slaughter tastes all the sweeter, or something like that.

You amble down toward what the guidebook identified as the "dangerous zone", smiling as you recall its dire warnings about pickpockets and slave traders. You've been here before. You know the drill.

One hand's in your pocket, and the other's tucked into your belt, but the money's not in either place, right? Anyone knocking into you with the thought of sticking a hand in there is in for a nasty shock. That little spring-loaded double switchblade you picked up at the last stop might come in handy tonight, and you won't need to lift a finger to make blood flow.

The belt, now, that's seen a lot of usage. You'd hate to lose it, so your hand stays where it is, tucked right in between the sharpened buckle and the first loop on the right.

Versatile things, belts.

As you walk down the sidewalk, past the drifters and the grifters who have nowhere better to go, you catch a glimpse of yourself in a tourist shop window. You've put on quite a bit of weight, eating three meals a day on the ship. Not terribly pleasing to look at, but then again, you aren't here to please. You're just here to survive, and have a little fun. Your kind of fun.

Your stride takes you past the tourist section and into the low rent area. You can tell it right away; the buildings are narrow, jammed together as closely as possible to block out any opportunity for light. The street lamps flicker, casting hallucinatory shadows against the dingy shop windows. Old-fashioned neon flames here and there, injecting a note of false warmth into the gathering dark. Not many people on the street, and those that are, mind their business. It's a quiet night, almost spooky in its intensity, but that's just as well for your purpose.

You've got a high forehead, with Don't-fuck-with-me written across it in lines that took decades to accumulate. Filthy beggars reach out to you, whining I lost my leg on The Charon, Mister, help me out wouldja?, or pretending they spent time in the slave pits cracking rock. Anything for a hand-out. Once they see your face, they melt back into the shadows.

You walk a little further, enjoying the sense of conquest. You'll find what you're looking for, you always do.

About halfway down, when your legs are just about starting to feel tired, you spy the place. It's the same in every port. Same cheap signs, half-eaten by time and negligence. Same run-down decorations in the window, beckoning the weary traveler, promising companionship and good cheer. Same fake atmosphere, same sluggish trade, same flat-line employees, all the same. Nothing new under the sun, as they say.

You pause at the threshold, letting your eyes become accustomed to the darkness. Perfect. There's a jukebox in the corner playing some godawful thrash-band thing, and a sign saying WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE THIS MEANS YOU!! over the bar. You walk toward the mirrored counter, and the bartender suddenly gets busy mopping out a beer stein. You know you've made an impression with your entrance, because everyone in the place looks away from you.

You'd better have made an impression; the suit cost enough. Let them think you're a rube out for a good time, spending his savings on keeping up appearances. Let them think you're a fool. You've fooled them before.

And the extra weight doesn't hurt here, does it? Just adds to the overall impression of untraveled stupidity, mixed with a shy desire to try something, anything, new before you go back home for good.

So you sit yourself down at one end of the tattered bar, where you can survey the room in the mirror without appearing too interested. Shadows veil your face like a shroud, keeping it anonymous and forgettable. The bartender takes his time getting to you, suspiciously eyeing the tailored shirt. Don't get many of those in these parts, I can tell you that right now. But you put him at ease with a couple of carefully chosen words, and before too long he's back with a tall one, chilled just the way you like it.

You put everyone at ease. It makes things so much simpler, in the long run.

* * *

After a while you get up to use the facilities, and on the way back you sling a couple of creds into the juke, just for laughs. You have a tin ear, so you ask the nearest table what they'd like to hear. The man bristles, but the two floozies sitting with him light up, pleased at the interruption on a dull weekday night. They think it's cute, you apologizing for intruding. You play on that first impression, explain about the tin ear, ask them diffidently if they'd mind choosing their own favorites instead of leaving you in this awkward position. It would be a real favor to you, an off-planet tourist who just wandered into the area, drifted in by accident one might say, not really familiar with this sort of place, no. You add a little stammer for effect, then you offer to buy the guy a beer.

He relaxes and declines, asks where you're from, why don't you bring your own drink over and sit a while. The girls'll take forever picking their songs, women are like that. You know. He winks as he says it. You'd wondered if he was a fag, from that shiny piece of hardware around his neck, but now you guess not.

So you agree, looking serious and man-to-man, then excuse yourself to fetch the half-finished beer from its lonely spot at the bar. When you return, the girls are slow-dancing to a song that sounds vaguely familiar. You recall hearing it a few years ago, when it was a big hit. Now it's just nostalgia, like everything else in your life. Nothing new under the sun.

The man finishes his drink and rises to get another, offering to buy you a refill. No, no, you protest, it's not right, after all, I'm intruding on your evening, and you so kind to take in a lonely stranger for a few moments of all-too-rare camaraderie. Not at all, he replies, after all, we're a friendly port. Don't believe the rumors you hear out there, my pleasure. You protest again, observing the forms, and before you know it he's back with two cold ones.

He continues to talk, and you continue to listen as though you're paying attention, but you're really focused on the girls and their movements. You have a fair amount of practice looking like you're paying attention when you're not.

They slow-dance together as though they've had a lot of practice doing it that way. You wonder if they come in a pair, a matched set, there's something you haven't done in a while. The girls are strikingly similar, blonde, full-chested, with long lean legs and vacant eyes. Just your type.

You notice they're wearing similar jewelry around their necks, similar to the guy that is, and there's a certain family resemblance. Maybe sisters and brother. That could be a problem. You try to find a delicate way of broaching the subject, not wanting to offend local custom. He might take offense if you hit on a family member, always best to be cautious.

But you don't have to worry, he's already taking care of it. Dragging your thoughts away from the women, you hear him say something about tits and ass, nothing new under the sun, only tits and ass. Just a couple of friends, easy on the eye, that's about the size of it. He's ogling them himself now, so you relax.

The girls come back, flushed and giggling. Pretty, pretty, you say to yourself. Pretty, pretty, and they snuggle up to you like kittens on a rainy night. You buy another round, and he takes off to empty his bladder.

One of the girls asks if you want to go into the back room with her. The other one asks, too. Then they both grin, and giggle into the air around your face. You laugh shyly, nervously twisting the cheap wedding band you picked up at another port last week. You look bashful, stunned at your good fortune. It's all new to you now, isn't it?

I've just, you say, I always wondered, small town back home, everybody knows everybody, never even thought to ask anyone, just wouldn't do, right? And what about me looking silly you add, wouldn't laugh at me or anything would you? No, they say, wouldn't laugh, no. Lots of fun, you should try it, let's go, let's go. You let them urge for a few moments, then you put the worried look on your face, so they'll ask what's the matter.

My wife, you say, my wife will maybe, twenty-eight years and I never, she's always been, and me too you assure them, but the girls promise no one will ever know. Ever. You can trust us, they say, wide-eyed with eyelashes fluttering. Honesty. It's a good trick, you've used it before yourself.

You trade the worried look on your face for slit-eyed deep thought, rube from the country faced with perils of the big city. Clothes don't make the man, they know that already, you wear them like you've never worn anything so good before. Easy mark.

You draw a deep breath, expel your worries in one quick run-on sentence, saying with a sheepish smile - You're not, you know, I mean you seem like nice girls, I couldn't afford, you're not a couple of those --

No no, they both giggle at the thought, no need, plenty of money of our own, but you seem like such a nice guy, let's go, let's go.

What about the man you say, he won't like it, don't want to offend. Oh, they laugh, our friend won't mind, he's used to us taking off suddenly.

Easy pickings. Just like you figured.

So you follow them out the back door of the bar, and down a small alleyway that's littered with the memory of a thousand other encounters. Your hand's on the belt again, slowly undoing the buckle, just to be ready. The room looks like any other room, just a bed with a nightstand, and a cheap clock that once glowed in the dark. The only light's a small lamp covered by a red scarf. Locally made, cheap looking; no imports here, nothing to distract, but it casts a nice glow. Sexy. You like that, sexy. They'll look better in red. As for you, it doesn't matter what you look like, does it?

They ask you to take off your pants and you demur, saying there's plenty of time for that later. So they take off their blouses, still giggling, and it begins to irritate you, the giggling, and you're pleased about the annoyance because if they'll just keep it up, you can goad that feeling into real anger. Makes it simpler, having something to focus on.

You step through the motions, slack-jawed and admiring, looking slightly star-struck in a country-ass way, and they think you're even cuter. Edge toward the window to lock it, see that it's already been painted shut half a dozen times or more. Good, only one way out. No need for much air at this point anyway. Later, when you go back to the bar, you'll have plenty of time to breath.

You're just reaching for the belt when the girls grab your hands and pull them behind you, still giggling, and one of them holds your hands there while the other undoes your pants for you. You realize vaguely that with the pants down around your ankles, you can't really move very fast, but they're both laughing now, running their hands up and down your body, and before you know it you're laughing too, and it's all the better because it will take more time this way. You've got plenty of time, even if they don't.

So you let them pull off the rest of your clothes and fling them in a corner, and you mark where they went with your eyes, because as soon as you're done with the preliminaries, you plan to go retrieve them and really get down to business. Which is what they do once you hit the bed, get down to business that is, one on each side of you for good measure, and you feeling like a hot piece of meat between two slices of toast. It's pretty good this way, you ought to do it more often. You relax, letting them do the work, and pretty soon it's over, and you still laying there between them like an overturned beetle.

They clean you up with a washcloth and start giggling, ready to do it all over again, only they seem a little anxious now, like they're watching the clock. So you glance at it yourself and say, holy cow look at the time, gotta go, gotta go, thanks a lot, be back tomorrow, buy you dinner or something.

Liar.

And they seem to know you're lying, because they stop giggling and press you down even harder into the bed, looking toward the door. You struggle a little, just part of the game, but then you decide you've got to get up now, and you begin making your excuses again, trying to leave, explaining you'll be late, asking them to get off. Only they're not listening.

You've done this before, but never with the clothes so far away, and this time you're stuck between them without your belt, and the two girls are a whole lot stronger than they looked.

So they hold you down, giggling, as a form detaches itself from the shadows by the door. He's a lot bigger than you remember, the fellow from the table, and he doesn't seem interested in playing. You offer him the girls but he doesn't even bother glancing at them; he's only interested in you. They back off a little so he can check you out, and you feel your manhood shrivel into nothingness under his gaze.

You lay there for a while with them all staring at you, feeling like a goldfish in a bowl of brand-new water, and then you decide to make a break for it. You're a man of action, after all, though without the belt or the stuff in your pockets there's not much action to be had. Besides, the girls are doing a pretty good job of holding down your arms, and he's slowly taking off his clothes.

You close your eyes once you've had a glimpse of what's underneath. You never were very good at facing reality.

When they're done playing with you, they let you vomit into the wastebasket, then they load you into a truck and bring you to a cargo freighter. You're pretty out of it by then, it doesn't occur to you that you might make a run for it. They figured on that, they figured on everything well before you walked into the bar. They've already got your ID, it's no problem to 'net your ship and ask it to send your effects over to a rooming house on the better side of town. That's probably where they live, when they're not slumming with strangers like you.

They dump you on a floor that reeks of old wounds, and the captain comes in to negotiate. It's quick, they've all been through the drill. Credits change hands, doors slam, and it's a good thing you're already blissfully unconscious at take off. No frills for the animals here, no separate cabins with real water for the showers and cool clean sheets on the bed. Just a bucket now and then, when they remember. You lose track of the time, and it's always night these days.

The captain dumps you off as part of his regular freight run, to some handler who makes sure you’re too malnourished to care, and he sells your ass to the slave pits, where things work a little differently from the mainland. No pretty sheets here, not even cheap red cloth over a lamp by the bed. No lamp. No bed. Just the mines, day in and day out, and the glare of a sun that never fully goes down.

You manage to work your way up to overseer, but that's not going to get you out, so after being stuck in that position for a while you cleverly decide to escape. They catch you, of course. They always do. There's no thought of execution here, in fact they're looking for a few good men like you. Men who will always believe they have the advantage. Men who always think they know better than anyone else. Men who are willing to do anything.

You spend a few years in the re-education camp, where you brown-nose the guards and try to stay out of trouble. Once, just once, you try to escape again, only to discover that there are punishments that beat death hands-down. A few more of those for good measure, and you learn to play by the rules. All you really want, at that point, is to get out of there. You're a model prisoner by now. In fact, you're such a model that they take you into the pit hospital one day and make a few adjustments.

Not much of your old self left by the time they get through.

Once you realize what they've done, you try to work up the energy to be angry, really angry, cat-spitting clawing-at-the-walls angry. You're searching for that same anger that used to stand you in such good stead, but it doesn't feel familiar any more. You have no anger left, just a dull, blind acceptance of wherever and whatever comes. They've done a good job, they always do. You didn't think you were the first, did you?

When they're sure you're too beaten down to have any mind of your own left, they send you out with a monitoring collar around your neck. It's a promotion of sorts, you understand that by now. There are plenty of jobs for someone like you, if you just know where and how to look. Not that anyone trusts you yet; there's the collar, after all, and you realize that there's no privacy in this new world you inhabit. You'll be partnered everywhere, by someone more experienced, with the extra brawn to get the job done. You can't do it by yourself anymore, you know that, but maybe someday you can graduate to being the lead partner yourself. Then you'll get to be the one who chooses method and madness.

So you do a pretty good job, knowing it beats sweating it out on the rocks. You always liked to travel, after all. After a few years you hit a planet that feels familiar, but you're in different circumstances these days, and you sashay down to the assigned meeting place with a different spring to your step. You barely remember being here before, and there's not much to remind you of it now. Not that anything would look familiar at this stage of the game anyway. The buildings change hands, the signs change names, only the tourists stay the same. But there's nothing really new under the sun, not where making a living's concerned.

So you wind up here, in a seedy bar that stirs vague memories of a time when you were still in control, and it worries you, the memory, because the collar around your neck seems to tighten when you think about the old days. You can't breath very well with it that tight, I know. Stop thinking about who you were, think about who you are instead. Just relax, focus on the present. Think about how pretty you are now, how much fun it is to watch the men's eyes follow you when you dance. Think about the important role you're filling in the economy, about how you're taking psychopaths and sociopaths off the street, making the world safe for society. Think of all the little perks, and how much fun this can be, if you just keep the right attitude. Attitude's a valuable thing in this job, a lot more valuable than old memories.

So set the bad thoughts aside and relax. Have a drink, it's okay. I know how it is. Just keep your eye on the important things, and you'll do fine. Don't let yourself be distracted. What's important is that you're here, not there, squeaking out your protests under a blazing sun as you chip away at rocks that seem to grow out of nowhere. What's important is that we've all got a job to do, and you've finally found yours, so don't fuck it up now. What’s important is meeting me on time, and doing what I say, and maybe you'll get to have a little fun later, when I'm done with him myself. Yeah, that fellow sitting over there in a corner, nursing his drink, looking at you in the mirror. The one with the bulge in his pocket, trying to act nonchalant. Don't look, just sit here and be cute. Your hair looks good, by the way.

And if you play your cards right, maybe someday they'll take you back into that medical ward and change you back. Then you can be on the giving end again, instead of just sitting here in the receiving line. You can always hope.

I know. I've been there.

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