It was after I lost my job as the manager of a traveling troupe of precision unicyclists that I met Ace 167. I was down and out in a bar in Venusport, my last credit gone to buy cheap Venusian wine. The jukebox was playing an old, tinny-sounding Beatles tune and on the jukebox screen tiny grey figures cavorted: the Beatles in their prime, back in the magic 1960s. Gone, all gone, I thought. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on, nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it. I drank the last of my wine, set down the glass and turned around, just in time to see Ace come in.
His clothes were ragged and his feet were bare. He had long red hair, pulled back in a ponytail. His mustache was red too, a big, bristly handlebar. “167” was tattooed on his forehead: three big numbers, as bright blue as his eyes.
“Out,” the bartender said.
Ace stopped and scratched his nose. “Don’t be primitive, mister.”
Ace shrugged, turned and went outside. His shirt was torn across the back, so I could see a couple of the gill slits, slanting down on either side of his spine. When they’re shut, gills don’t bother me. But I’ve seen gillies underwater with their red gill slits open. My ancestors were Vikings, and one of the nastier things they did was make blood eagles. To make a blood eagle, you take a man and cut into his back on both sides of his spine, going right through the ribs. Then you pull his lungs out through the cuts and spread them across his back. That’s a blood eagle. You do this while the man is alive, and it makes the Allfather Odin happy. Whenever I saw open gills, I thought of the blood eagle and got a sick feeling in my gut. But, as I said, the gills didn’t bother me when they were shut.
“’Nother?” the bartender asked me.
I shook my head, slid down the bar stool, and followed Ace out. It was foggy. The streetlights were dim white areas of luminescence floating in darkness. There were docks across the street. I could hear ropes creaking and water slapping against the sides of the boats.
“You got any money, lady?”
I jerked away from the sound. The guy behind me laughed. “I’m begging, not robbing.”
I turned around. It was Ace, of course. I said, “I’m broke.”
“My luck. The rest of them in there look like they wouldn’t give their grandma burying money.”
I nodded and started back toward my hotel. I figured I had two or three more days before they asked me for money. A foghorn was honking somewhere out in the harbor. Ace stayed beside me.
“Isn’t there any work here?” I asked.
“Yeah. Underwater. You want to know something funny? I don’t like it down there. It’s too cold, too dark, and too full of things I don’t want to meet. Ain’t that a laugh?”
I stopped. We were under a streetlight, so I could see him. “I thought it was supposed to be wonderful down there.”
Ace shook his head. “It’s a job, lady. Only you got fish nibbling on your toes while you work. Tasting you out, sort of.”
“You can’t get work up here?”
“You crazy? Take a job away from a regular person and give it to a gillie?”
We started walking again. The air was cold and wet. I put my hands in my jacket pockets, then looked over at Ace. He had his arms folded and his shoulders hunched against the cold. “Look,” I said. “I don’t have any money. I lost my job. But I have an extra jacket. Why don’t you take this one?”
After a moment, Ace said, “Okay. I will. Thanks.”
I took the jacket off and gave it to him. He put it on, then laughed. “You know what I’m going to do with it, lady?”
“Yeah. Thanks again.”
We parted then. I went back to my hotel and found a message from a friend on Tanit Island who was putting together a trained fish act. She’d sent money, enough so I could pay my hotel bill and buy a hydroplane ticket. I left Venusport the next morning.
As was to be expected, the fish act was a disaster. We ended up selling it to a fish market in Ishtar. They put it in a tank in front, so the customers would have something to watch while they waited for service. My friend got a job in the market working as a counter woman. She said she’d gotten used to being around fish. Me, I found a hydroplane that needed a bartender and worked my way back to Venusport.
That town was the same as ever, cold and wet and foggy, full of steep hills and rickety prefab buildings. I got another job as a bartender in a bar by the docks, where the dock workers and the artists came. After a while, I was managing a sculptor on the side, also a couple of dock workers who wanted to be singers. One night Ace 167 came into the bar. He stopped at the door, waiting to be told to get out. He was as ragged as before and still barefoot. His mustache had turned into a beard and his hair was short. He looked at me, grinned, and came over.
“What’ll you have?” I asked.
He laid a one-credit piece on the bar. “What’ll that buy?”
“A glass of wine.”
I got him his wine, then pushed the credit back toward him. “You’re not working yet.”
“I was. Salvage job out in the harbor. Then a guy I knew got stung by a spine worm. Ever seen one of them?”
I nodded. “In the aquarium. It was pretty, I thought.”
“Yeah? You know what the poison does? Paralyzes the respiratory system. So Mad Hat drowned before we could get him to the first-aid station. Me, I thought I’d sooner starve.” He sipped a little wine. “Seeing as you’re buying the wine, would this credit buy a piece of pizza?”
I nodded and told the cook to heat up a cheese-and-tomato. “You work salvage. Does that mean you can handle a torch?”
“Un-huh.” He finished his wine and I refilled the glass. “Thanks.”
“I know a sculptor who’s building something big. He might need help.”
“I’ll give you his name.”
Ace nodded and the cook brought out the pizza. I went down the bar to draw beers for a couple of dock workers. Later on, I gave Ace the sculptor’s name and my name too. He said, “Thanks. How come you’re doing all this?”
I shrugged, which was a lie in gesture. I knew all right and Ace probably knew too. I did it for his bright blue eyes and his thick red hair that had gold highlights in it.
“Anyway, thanks.” He held out his hand and I shook it. “I guess I should introduce myself. I’m Ace.”
“Glad to meet you,” I said.
He left and I didn’t see him for a while. My singing dock workers got a recording contract right after that. I quit my job and told the sculptor I was going to be too busy to handle his business, and the three of us lit out for Isis, which was where the recording company was.
Now that was a city! There were almost as many canals as streets. Their still, green water reflected flowering trees and white, graceful bridges. At the city’s center were the water gardens and, all around them, skyscrapers made of blue glass. In the suburbs the many-domed houses of the rich shone like clusters of pearls. On an island in Isis Bay was the famous Night Market, where the nocturnal Venusians came to sell their wares: kilts made of strings of shells, baskets woven out of feathers, and other bits of useless esoterica. I went out there once. The Venusians came in after nightfall, their long canoes emerging from the darkness into the dim light of the torches along the shore. To the sound of flutes and drums, they brought the canoes in and beached them. Then they set out their kilts and baskets, their god-symbols made of flowers tied together, their tiny cages with brightly-colored bugs inside them. And then they waited, squatting in the midst of their goods, their huge eyes blinking rapidly, till the tourists moved in to buy. The whole spectacle made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t know why.
I was in Isis four months. My singing dock workers made several recordings, which nobody liked. Finally they decided to go back to the docks, and I decided to go back to Venusport. As soon as I got there, I got another job as a bartender. Then I looked up the sculptor I’d sent Ace to.
He worked and lived in a warehouse by the docks. At the moment, the warehouse was full of “The Triumph of Steam,” an enormous construction consisting of a lot of steam engines all welded together. He’d had a hell of time building it, since there weren’t any steam engines or steam-engine builders on the planet. He insisted that all the steam engines had to work.
When I got to his place he was drinking wine, sitting on his bed, which was in one corner of the warehouse, next to a bright yellow dresser with a blowtorch on top of it. “You back?”
“Un-huh.” I waved at the construction. “Is it done?”
He nodded. “Now what do I do?”
“Sell it. What else. Where’s Ace 167?”
“The gillie? I fired him.”
“Why?” He handed me the wine. I drank some and handed the bottle back.
“He made me nervous. How could I work with him flapping his gills at me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They never open their gills above water. I’m not sure they can.”
“He still made me nervous. I couldn’t stop thinking about those gills. Hey, I need someone to help me sell this.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Okay?” I left the sculptor and went back to my bar.
I couldn’t sell the construction, but I can’t say I tried too hard. I was getting interested in bartending. The place where I worked was quiet, with the same customers every night. They came in and watched the 3-D, played pool on the new table that changed its surface at thirty-second intervals, and drank. The best thing was, I didn’t have to push the product. People came in and bought it without a word of encouragement.
The next time I heard anything about Ace was on the evening news. There was an implosion in a sea lab they were building at the edge of the continental shelf. Three gillies were caught inside when the dome collapsed. One of them was Ace 167. Bodies on stretchers were being carried off a boat. I hadn’t been listening till I heard Ace’s name. Was he still alive?
“Harry,” I said to the boss. “I’m suddenly sick. See you tomorrow.”
Harry opened his mouth, but I was gone before he could say anything. I caught the monorail to Bayside, where the gillies lived. Down the hill the car slid, then swung out over the shoddily built apartment complexes of Bayside. It was crazy, I thought, looking through the window at the rows of identical buildings and the dimly lit streets. It cost a fortune to make a person into a gillie. The first modifications were genetic and took place before conception, when there wasn’t a person yet, only an egg and sperm under some kind of amazing microscope. Later on, there usually had to be surgical corrections. The host-mother had to be paid, and there was all that special training, ten or fifteen years of it. Gillies were terribly expensive. So why were they housed in tenements? It was like having the Kohinoor diamond set in dung.
But what sane person can understand modern economics? The car came to a stop next to the white, bright gillie hospital, and I got off. What am I doing here? I wondered as I went down the stairs from the station and in through the hospital’s front entrance. The waiting room was empty. The lady at the information desk looked at me, saw my brow, which was as blank as hers, and looked surprised.
“Where do I find out about the gillies who were hurt in the sea-lab implosion?”
“Are you are reporter?”
“Then I’m afraid that information is confidential.”
“Look, one of them is a friend of mine. I want to know if he’s still alive.”
She stared at me, frowning. I knew what she was thinking. Friends with a gillie? For shame. She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
Like hell you are, I thought. May your forehead sprout warts shaped like numbers, may gills open in your back, may you become what you most dislike.
“Thanks,” I said and smiled and left.
There was a bar down the street from the hospital, its sign flashing WINE, Beer, WINE, Beer. I walked toward it. The night was cold and misty. The wet air had a harbor stink. Foghorns were blaring and honking out in the bay. Into the bar I went, braving all the gillies’ stares, the black, white, brown faces all marked with blue numbers, all turned toward me.
I ordered a beer from the bartender, who was a regular human being. Gillies didn’t work air jobs, even in their own section of town.
The bartender shook his head. “Please leave, miz.”
Here goes, I thought and turned around to face all those gillies. “There’s a friend of mine in your hospital. They won’t tell me anything about him. Could one of you find out how he is?”
“What’s his name?” a black gillie woman asked.
“Ace One Sixty-seven.”
A gillie man, who was brown-skinned and black-haired and looked Mexican, said, “He’s alive. He was lucky. Taki died and Slim ain’t in good health. Nothing happened to Ace except he lost an arm.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks.” I started for the door.
“Hey, lady,” the black woman said.
I stopped. “Yes.”
“How come you got gillie friends?”
“De gustibus non est disputandum,” I answered. “Or do I mean honi soit qui mal y pense?” I got out of there.
The next day I asked Harry to switch me to the day shift. He grumbled a lot and said the daytime bartender wouldn’t like it. But I’d already talked to her, and she’d agreed to trade shifts till my friend was out of the hospital. So Harry had to give in. After work, I went down to the hospital. Ace was allowed no visitors, they said. I came back the next day and the day after. Finally, after four days, they let me see him. His face was white as a fish’s belly, and he had dark blue bags under his bright blue eyes. He’d been clean-shaven several days before, but now his beard was beginning a comeback. His red-gold hair was long again. Tubes went from bottles into him. His right arm was half as long as it used to be and all wrapped up in white bandages.
“Hey, lady,” he said.
“How’re you doing, Ace?”
“How does it look?”
“It looks like you’re sick. I’ll bring flowers the next time I come. I brought them a couple of times, but they died in the waiting room.” I sat down. “I’m sorry about the arm.”
“They’ll grow me another one. I can collect workers’ comp till it’s ready to graft, and I won’t have to work underwater.”
“An aspect I hadn’t considered,” I said.
“You don’t know what it’s like down there. If you did, you’d’ve considered. Those walls started buckling, and I thought, this is it. You know, there’s no big religion that’s figured out how to fit in gillies. Suppose we become angels. Where do they attach the wings? On top of our gills? If they do that, will we still be able to breathe underwater? Can gillies fly underwater in the afterlife?”
I laughed and the security guard came in to tell me time was up.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said.
“Okay.” Ace shut his eyes. He really looked sick. I tried to imagine what it was like, working way down where the water was cold and dark, and the pressure could push a wall in on top of you. Thank god I’m not a gillie, I thought, and went home.
The next day at work, a guy came in who wanted me to help him organize a Venusian ethnic festival. The idea was to get together a bunch of the poor lunks, who’d hop around in their shell kilts and wave feather staffs and tell tourists they were propitiating some native sex god.
I pointed out that as far as I knew, the Venusians did not have any sex gods.
“They must have. This is Venus, the planet of sex.”
I’d read up on Venusian religion in National Geographic, and I could’ve told him that the Venusian gods, if gods was the right word, were not beings but levels of spiritual power. When the Venusians said a sorcerer had become such-and-such a god, they meant he’d reached the power level that had that god’s name on it. It wasn’t only sorcerers who gained power and became gods. Trees, rocks, flowers, fish, bugs, and even Earth people could too. I didn’t think this guy would appreciate my lecture, so I told him I wasn’t interested in his ethnic festival. He left, and I went back to selling wine.
That evening I brought Ace a bunch of crimson trumpets, a bright red lily-like flower native to Venus. They reminded me of Isis. They grew in the water gardens there, blossoming so profusely that the pools were red from side to side. Ace had gotten a shave and looked a little better than he had the day before. He watched while I stuck the flowers in a vase. “I like ’em.”
“Good.” I fiddled with the flowers for a while, trying to make them look as if they’d been arranged, then gave up and sat down. We didn’t know each other very well, so we talked about current events. There’s no safer subject than a flood in China or the discovery of corruption in city government. Hardly anybody is in favor of floods or corruption. The security guard came around before we ran out of noncontroversial disasters, and I went home.
I went to the hospital every night till Ace was released. He told me about working underwater, and I told him about bartending and promoting. Then we talked about our childhoods—his in a Venus Company crèche in Ceylon, mine in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from the ruins of Detroit. Finally, we got onto the meaning of life. Neither of us knew what it was.
I have confused memories of that period of my life: the white hospital bed, the rows of fake bottles behind my bar, flowers, girders going up on an undersea building site, Ace’s face and half-gone arm, sea thorns and serpent fish, the mechanical pool table—its top green as water, moving up and down like waves.
Finally the hospital let Ace go. We exchanged com numbers and promised to call each other up. But we didn’t. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t. It was too hard for us to figure out how to get along outside the hospital. Our lives were too different. All we had going for us was an irrational affection.
So I went back to working nights at the bar. After a month or two or three, my friend the fish trainer showed up. She’d started feeling guilty, working at the fish market. All those rows of dead fish had seemed to reproach and accuse. “There’s more to fish than edibility,” she said. “I’m going to prove it. I’m putting together another fish act.”
Somehow I ended up agreeing to manage the act. This time we went out of business in Inanna. We let the fish go in the sea. My friend borrowed some money and went back to Tanit Island. I got a job in a curio store, selling little animals made out of seashells and 3-D panoramas of the famous Inanna Heights where, legend said, the Venusians had sacrificed young maidens to the goddess of procreation—or was it chastity? Needless to say, the legend was not Venusian.
One day I looked up from a pink shell elephant and saw Ace out in the street, staring in the store window. For the first time since I’d met him, he was well-dressed, his white shirt shimmering like a pearl, his dark green pants covered with embroidery. He had a new right arm and Brigham Young beard. I got out into the street as quickly as I could. “Ace.”
“Hey, lady.” He grinned. “What are you doing in that dump?”
“Yeah? So am I. On the mining complex they’re building out in the Narrows.”
“That isn’t like you.”
He shrugged. “The workers’ comp stopped when I got the arm. Listen, I got plenty of money, and there’s a restaurant down in the gillie district that’ll serve both of us, or else get broken up. I’ll buy you dinner.”
I said okay and went back to sell someone a set of monkey musicians made of pale blue shells. At six, Ace came back and we went to Nathan’s, a gillie dive on the waterfront. The jukebox was full of recordings of gospel greats from the late twentieth century. Ace put in money and played “Take Me in the Lifeboat” by the Transcendent Nightingales. The jukebox screen lit up and showed three women in glittering green dresses, singing and dancing in front of a golden wall. We sat down at a window table. Outside were the dark waters of Inanna Inlet. On the other side, the lights of North Inanna shone and, beyond them, was the Heights. The weather engineers had been working for a quarter of a century and at long last the weather was changing: the ever-present clouds were beginning to break apart. Once in a while we could see the sun or a couple of stars. Tonight, Earth was visible, a bright blue-white point of light blazing above the Heights. We ordered drinks and Ace said, “You staying here?”
I shook my head. “I’m going back to Venusport as soon as I have the money and find a nice, quiet bar in need of a nice, quiet bartender. How about you?”
“This job’s going to last a year. I figure I’ll try to stick it out and save all the money I can. Next time I’m out of work, I want something in the bank. I’m getting tired of poverty. It’s okay when you’re young, but I’m starting to feel old.” He grinned. “Of course, I say that now. Two, three months, and I’ll probably think there’s nothing worse than working.”
The drinks came, and we ordered serpent-fish stew, then ice cream flavored with the fruit of the nettle tree, coffee, and Venusian brandy. After dinner we walked along the wharf. The waves sloshed around the pilings below us, and a boat came up the inlet, a big yacht, aglitter with light. The air smelled of seaweed and fish. There were streetlights shining here and there. I looked at Ace’s face. He was right, he was getting old. I could see lines around his mouth and eyes. Soon that magnificent red hair would start fading. Well, I was getting old too. And what did either of us have to show for all that time except wrinkles? The world is too much with us, I thought. Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
I’d forgotten the next few lines, but I remembered, looking out at the dark inlet and the light shining on the other side, how the poem ended:
—Great God! I’d sooner be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
© 1974 Eleanor Arnason.
Originally published in Orbit 15,
edited by Damon Knight.
Reprinted by permission of the author.