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No one cries for the decadent rich… because…  they’re decadent!



Eric Del Carlo


            It was the vicious scorch of summertime, and summer had begun in late October.  It worsened its way into November, sweat-beaded measure by perspiration-bedewed increment.  So naturally when Bremer held his gala, he did so on the beach in the full blast of day; and he frosted that beach with such an unrestrained amount of energy that cities choking on the other side of the globe would be dimming their lights.

            I was arriving by land, sure it would be the least traveled means.  One day Bremer is not going to summon me to one of these great decadent jubilees, and it will be a test, my test:  will he crash the party or stay obediently away?  Which will be the correct course?

            But I was one of Bremer's knights, an overlooked piece sometimes.  Capable of befuddling movements.  Up two, over one.  Now where did he go?  How did he get here?  Bremer deployed me, and I was content to play on his side.

            The orb rolled and sloshed atop its cushioning inertia-pad, speeding me through dismal territories toward the coastline.  Old road signs littered the way, and I could almost wish we were moving slower, so I could read the quaint names.  It was jungle and damp, overrun and seething beyond the purple spinning curves of the orb's windows.

            Bremer had a reason for throwing this party.  He owned the beach--owned a great convex arc of this continental shore--and onto his beach had washed recently one of the Objects.

            This wasn't entirely rare.  On the Second of November a good many of these Objects had simultaneously washed up on our world.  On plains, on roads, on ice shelves, on mesas, on the marble slabs of piazzas.  In people's driveways, at the bottoms of lakes, deep in redwood forests, at the blackened bases of volcanos and at the edges of limestone cliffs.  They made quite a number.  Too many for all the governments and their agencies to claim and collect all at once.

            Everyone had seen the pictures.  They couldn't be repressed.  The Objects weren't startling, considered strictly as the space they occupied and the color that light waves made of their surfaces when they struck.  They were...Objects.  But their inexplicable otherworldly origins were of much interest in these retinae-searing, flesh-blistering, riot-inducing days.

            And so the possibility of examining one of these extraterrestrial or extradimensional artifacts, while at the same time attending another of Bremer's renowned gatherings, was enough to bring blood to my eyes.

            I was whirled and pitched within the pillowed comforts of my shell, purple light spilling across my hands as the orb curved this way and that.  There was a tiny blotch of damp at the direct center of my back, despite the contained conditioned environment.  I wore white, powder blue, black.  Sleek clothing, tall boots, anti-fashionable.  I wouldn't be like Bremer's other guests.  I never am.

            Arrival was calculated to the minute.  The orb bumped up over a last wrinkle of land, scattering olive-colored reptilian things; then Bremer's security troops were meeting me, processing me.  Admittance.  They were antiquely leather-clad, those personnel, like warrior-police from another century.  They were dead of expression, efficient, armed with truncheons.

            I was extricated from the orb and found myself standing at the verge of the sugary sweep of the sand.  The whiteness met lush green waters, wavelets foaming as they slapped the beach.  There were many people between me and the water, much activity, the happy festering of the gala already under way.  More participants were arriving, though.  Boats bobbed in the sky.  Craft were being met by Bremer's waterborne security forces.  I had been right.  Almost no one had traveled overland.

            The air was autumn's last days in New York City.  A wind that should be blowing along those venerable stone canyons was instead pouring over this single segment of shoreline.  It was chilling, truly.  It was the sort of cool that would eventually seep into one's bones.  And it was all occurring beneath the vast roar of the sun in that scalding mirror of a sky.

            Bremer came out of the consorting guests to greet me personally, doing so with so much warmth that I think it's genuine every time.

            "Francis, Francis."  Pumping my hand with his two.  "Wonderful that you're here."

            "It's my pleasure."

            "I hope it will be.  Look at you.  You're a jewel."

            Bremer was a man who looked his age, which was fairly preposterous.  Not that his age--high in the sixties--was absurd; but his wealth could have easily bought him the fully convincing exterior of a sixteen-year-old.  A convincing interior too.  A whole new installation of hardy rejection-proof organs.  He probably had those.  But his face was a map of droops and crinkles, his hair whiter than this sand, his body thinned.  He looked like everyone used to look at his age--and now no longer has to.  Either you can afford the slicing, or you don't live long enough to feel the years' assaults.

            "It's a grand mix,"  Bremer said, smiling, accentuating dozens of etch-lines on his features.  He was gesturing behind, at the stirring crowd.

            "Yes.  It seems like."  I didn't need to look.  Once, two years back, I had attended one of Bremer's functions where the guests were an African politico, a paraplegic professional sport player still on the active roster, four mechanical men, and a vague relative of the last martyred United States president.  And I still accomplished my duty.

            "You'll enjoy yourself?"  Bremer radiated cordiality.  His blue eyes sparkled amidst their crow's-feet.

            "If it'll please you, yes."

            "Wonderful, Francis.  Wonderful."

            He sauntered off, his gait slightly labored.  I always expect him to have youthed himself between one of these galas and the next.  But he just keeps up his slow consistent aging.  I am probably as wrong about his intention to undergo a slicing as I am about the genuineness of his warmth toward me.  But my invitations keep arriving, several a year, and I never disappoint him.  He knows what I do at his gatherings.  His approval is tacit, but it's there in those recurring summons.  Come, Francis.  Come among my carefully collaged guests.  Do your work.  It pleases me.

            There were roughly a hundred twenty attendees on the half mile of chilled shore.  There were no canopies, no pavilions, no sheltering umbrellas.  But as I stepped farther onto the sand, the fierce overhead glare abruptly dissipated.  I looked up.  The sky was the color of apple wine.  The sun was a bright smudge.  I could stare directly at it.

            Bremer was a creature of impossible affluence.  He commanded powers that could topple nations--and very likely had.  This apocalyptic Indian summer meant nothing to him.  He could beam a prism-shield over this naked beachfront property if it suited him.  Cost and effort didn't enter into it.

            I wasn't looking for familiar faces, but they were there nonetheless.  I brushed past the outer boundary of the gathering, and the organism reacted, sending cells to investigate the intrusion and, if necessary, neutralize it.

            "I could set my watch by you,"  said Grace Scope.  She was long-limbed, wrapped in streamers, which were much nearer to the acceptable fashions than anything I wore.

            I didn't understand the idiom she'd just used.  I gave her a smile, put my lips to the corner of her finely drawn mouth.

            "You always manage to get here just when things have reached their first plateau, then start their first fall-off,"  Grace Scope went on.  Her hair was dark and bursting out in all directions.

            "Our host's affairs always have a biologic rhythm to them,"  I said.  "You know that."

            "I know you always arrive when a fresh infusion is needed."  It wasn't droll, like she wanted; it came out accusatory.

            "Now, I'm not the only one just coming in."  The other guests were coming ashore through the slapping green sea, down through the distortion layer overhead.

            "These are spear carriers, chorus girls.  Just numbers."

            "Give them a chance.  Our host never invites anybody without a purpose."

            "And sometimes their purpose is to be a dud,"  Grace Scope pronounced.  A crackle of disintegrity erupted along her cheek, soft red energy disrupting the bounds of her face for just an instant.  She had plugged something powerful, something beyond the normal party drug.

            "I don't know what a dud is,"  I said and moved past her, black boot heels impressing white sand.

            A whole brigade of servers was tending the scene, of course.  They wore modest livery, well shy of Louis XIV.  I knew I need only want a drink, an hors d'oeuvre, and it would be delivered to me forthwith.  But I didn't actually want anything, so I had to tug a crisp embroidered sleeve before I could have a cocktail in hand.


            I looked and saw someone I absolutely didn't recognize, but the expression on the taut handsome face said that this person certainly knew me.  It's a not uncommon experience, and I had already completed the deduction when the man--sporting stalagmites of blond hair, eyes ablaze with adolescent lust--said,  "It's Worthington!"

            So it was.  He was encroaching on Bremer's age.  Or at least on that same field of upper middle age.  He looked like a teenaged rioter on the news--stripped to the waist, every muscle ripe and defined, brimming with random energy, restless, aggressive.

            "You look marvelous,"  I said.

            "I feel fantastic!"  He gleamed his whole pristine teeth at me.  "I could eat a pig, snout to tail.  I could drink a fountain of brandy.  I could plug any drug you care to name.  I could fuck anything with a heartbeat!"  His petite pink nipples were stiff as bronze in the chill.

            "You can do all that here."

            Worthington's grin intensified.  "I could take you,"  he said, voice suddenly hoarse with reckless appetite.

            "Maybe later."  I took a swallow from my glass.  "This is your true self."

            I moved on.

            There was a good deal of motion, bodies in flow.  People tramped back and forth across the sand.  Voices were raised.  Laughter was crowed.

            "We saw a dolphin coming in!  A dolphin!"

            "Darling, trust me.  You simply couldn't have."

            I had started my circulating.  Eye contact games.  I made greetings when I had to, to acquaintances made at other events.  I was more interested in the strangers.  You, dark lady, you're not in your original form, but you've still got the youthful vitality, the real stuff, not the noxious imitation pumping in Worthington's veins.  And you, golden goddess, you're younger than anyone suspects but so very ancient in your mishandled heart.

            Male, female, pigment variations, a variety of outer wrappings.  Bremer's cast of characters.

            I was surveying the terrain as well.  The affair was proficiently staged.  This beach was a good choice.  But it hadn't been chosen, I reminded myself.  Not by Bremer, anyway.  Some exotic intelligence, some cosmic dissemination factor, some unearthly purposeless power--one of those--had determined the site of this particular festivity.  It was time I saw the artifact responsible.

            I had studied the eddies, the currents.  I knew where it had to be.  The movements of the people reflected the motion of the sea.

            "I'm a novelist."

            I halted, blinked.  I was being accosted.  "You're a what?"

            "A novelist."  The boy's silver hair sprayed about in the false autumnal wind.  The ribbons of his clothing snapped about his fleshy body.  "I will write a novel where every sentence is constructed with a deliberately unstable substructure.  The nouns will tremble.  The verbs will rock precariously.  The adjectives and adverbs will positively wallow, threatening to go under at any second.  Halfway through the reader will be absolutely incapable of going any further, so nervous he or she will be, so on edge, waiting for the ultimate implosion.  No one will ever be able to finish reading this novel."

            "You're a what?"  I asked again, then I was around him; but I would remember this one.

            I went with the socializing currents awhile.  When I was tired of being borne along, I struck out across the flowing, taking a direct course of my own choosing.  The gala's latest arrivals had bumped the total attendance up to something more like a hundred fifty.  Some of these were clustering ahead of me now, getting their first looks, making a ring of shoulders and emitting the sort of awestruck noises they felt they should be making.  This was the party's centerpiece, after all.  They had to show Bremer they appreciated it.

            Bremer's affairs, however, are often based on an expectation/disappointment principle.

            I let my cocktail drop to the sand.  When I glanced back, there was a flash of liveried movement and the glass was gone.  I edged up, I jostled, I pried my way into the circle.

            Expectation and disappointment.  It makes a sweet blend.  But I knew Bremer's method.  I was prepared.  I even already knew what I was going to be looking at.  I'd seen the pictures.

            The Object was slightly asymmetrical, but it most resembled an ovoid.  It was about the size of a child's coffin.  Its texture was that of gooseflesh--though I didn't immediately put a hand to it.  Its color was bland, something not white or yellow or orange or lime, but perhaps an anemic mix of all those shades.  It lay there atop the snowy whiteness of the sand, and it did nothing, and it was remarkable only because nothing like it existed on our world and because its arrival--like the arrivals of all the other Objects--was absolutely inexplicable.  This had washed up on Earth from some very other place.

            The expectation was to feel its alienness, to flutter with its vibrations, to taste its aura; and to be dismayed, provoked, aroused by its strangeness.  The disappointment was that the Object emanated nothing.

            I finally did touch it, as many others in the enclosing ring had done and who were now moving off, having seen to their curiosity and having paid homage to the host's spectacle.  I felt the Object's texture.  I felt how dense its surface was.  Certainly governmental labs across the planet were studying whichever Objects they had managed to confiscate since the Second of November.  I wondered what they had discovered.  How did these unevenly oval items stand up to the full angry onslaught of scientific scrutiny?  What combination of elements went into their material?  Had anyone broken one open yet and peeked inside--if indeed there even was an inside?

            These Objects had withstood--literally--incalculable journeys to the Earth.  Puncturing one was not going to be an easy chore.

            I removed my hand from its coarse temperatureless surface; and even knowing all that I knew about Bremer's procedures--and, more, knowing what I could have expected from a firsthand examination of this Object--I backed away from the beached shape with a vague nausea of disappointment.  I had wanted to be the one to feel the ethereal tingles, to scent the true mystic nature of the thing.  I had wanted to perceive what no one else could, since my perceptions are so exceptional.  I wanted to be shocked, dazzled, stabbed through the heart by the Object's radiant inner presence.

            Probably every other guest here had the same secret expectation.  Bremer, you're a goddamned genius!

            The decadence of these jubilees is acclaimed.  They're extravagant, amoral, Romanistic, orgiastic.  They're for sensualists and perverts, or anybody who wants to be one for a time.  The mix of this one was, as Bremer himself had proclaimed, impressive.  I had been to much smaller functions and ones that were geometrically larger.  But I could see and sense the art that had gone into this one.  Per Bremer's command, I would enjoy myself.

            I flowed away from the place where the Object lay.  Examples of thematic decadence were erupting here and there; but the flashes of bare skin, the early heedless overplugged behavior of amateur druggers, the tiny bursts of violent merriment--all these were rehearsals.  The veterans of Bremer's galas knew what to expect, but they--we--knew also to expect adversity, frustration, fiasco.  These opulent entertainments never fail to disappoint.

            In amongst shifting silhouettes, waggling heads, the maladroit movements of humans walking on sand, I saw a delicate teardrop-shaped face.  The hair was the red of berries.  Eyes beneath fine brows moved along a sliding arc, across the crowd, not restless but never pausing.  Then her roving gaze did pause, and I crossed the meters of beach, passing through intervening bodies like we were alone.  She watched me coming, making a smile of her translucent lips.

            "You're dressed very unusually,"  she said.  Her voice was strong, though not loud, sharing none of her features' delicacy.

            "I now make a statement, witty and well-timed, about the debauched state of current fashions."

            "That was witty.  Well-timed."  Her streamers were of muted colors.  They didn't hang about her in quite the way they did most others.  Her body beneath was luxurious, not gaudy.  Moderate breasts of perfect shape, supple limbs.

            "Thank you,"  I said.

            "I'm Dani Kurtz."

            "Francis Yount."

            I was inflamed, and I hid the magnitude of my reaction.  I let her see instead the plainer version of my interest, my excitement.

            She had a thought, and within the space of a few eye blinks we both had drinks in hand.  They were great ruby concoctions, in twisted complicated glasses, with pale waxy dots adrift on their surfaces.  She held hers aloft, without unnecessary flourish, and we drank a silent salute.

            "What did you think of the party's main attraction?"  I asked.

            "There's an attraction?"

            "Isn't there always?"

            "Why must there be?"

            "Shall we go on communicating strictly in questions?"

            "Would you like that?"  That translucent smile again.  Dani's makeup was mercurial, seeming to change the properties of her flesh.  Here a blood vessel appeared, like a line on an anatomy chart; there a cheekbone shone through.

            "The Object,"  I said, smiling as well.  "You saw it?"

            "Yes.  Did you touch it?"

            "I did."

            "I...was too timid to do it."

            I waited until her eyes, rimmed in liquid silver, rose from the ruby mysteries of her glass.  Then I saw that it was okay to laugh.  I laughed, a soft purr of a chuckle.  "I don't think there was any need to be nervous."

            "What did it feel like?"  Dani's strong voice dropped, became slightly breathy.

            I told her.

            "Did you--did you feel anything?  Like a hum inside.  A ticking, maybe?"

            I shook my head.  "It was as dense as compacted obsidian."  Behind me, to the left, someone let out a shriek of what sounded like genuine terror.

            She appeared to brood on that.  I wondered if she was regretting not laying a hand on the strange ovoid.  There was still time.  It wasn't going anywhere.

            Dani Kurtz initiated further conversation; I found myself engaged in routine party dialogue.  Somehow it seemed so strange coming from her.  It was unnervingly banal.  Safe topics, minimal challenges.  Politics on various continents.  Violence as art.  The benefits of famine.  The sorry state of the sorry world.

            I had no reason to expect better from her.  I had every reason to expect better.  Where the Object had radiated nothing that my perceptions could receive, this woman was broadcasting sumptuous pulses of that raw human energy I find more pleasing than any other.  She was vibrantly alive.  In her mind must float images of untold splendor; in her heart was sorrow that must be molten in its heat; in her soul was writ the equations that could put us up over the threshold.

            She was superior.  Vastly so.  It was possible she didn't know it.

            Why was she here?

            "---weather variations crossing such a broad range that to make prophetic assertions prematurely, if a prophecy can be premature---"

            Between the words, under them, behind them, I felt her radiance.  I wasn't fooled.  Somehow she was another rung up the evolutionary ladder, that much nearer to what we were supposed to be as a species.  Or so it seemed to me.  To my acute perceptions she blazed on that frigid beach.  Perhaps she was purposely dulling her responses as well, as I was, so as not to tip things too drastically out of balance.

            "Did you meet the novelist?"  I asked.

            "There's a novelist here?  That's truly charming."

            Finally we broke off, by mutual consent.  But it was understood that we would meet again, here, at some later time.  The gathering was fairly teeming by now, fully stocked.  I tried to set myself into the proper mode, shaking free of the spell Dani Kurtz possibly had no clue she was weaving.

            I went to work.

            Speaking in measured maudlin tones was a short regal swarthy man, who identified himself as the last living underground muezzin in Disputed Area #5, which was a fragment of a land that had once borne the name of a nation.  He had an attentive audience; I was among them, feeding his ego the most readily, asking the fawning questions, paying the ingratiating compliments.  Subtly steering.  As he held forth, a small rent appeared on his surface.  I laid hold of the edges of that rent, and I peeled it wider.  His center slowly came exposed.  Proud/self-pitying.  Broad-minded/bigoted.  Courageous/cowardly.  Faithful/heretical.  It was a performance of some mild beauty, and he played all the parts, unable to stop himself, even after he realized he was hurtling headlong toward disaster.  His audience laughed cruelly.  I slipped away.

            The sun was lowering, but the prism continued to shield our portion of the shore.  Stunning deadly colors fused with the green ocean waters.  I very suddenly had a headache.  I pinched my temple.  A server appeared with a globule of blue gelatin.  I put it to my tongue; it vanished; my headache vanished.

            I used twenty minutes falling in love with a flame-haired female, halting with bone-jarring suddenness on the brink when I discovered she was on her fourth slicing.  Her creamy impeccable face went as still and hard as pearl, lit by the dancing tongues of blue and yellow fire atop her head.

            Onward.  The socializing currents were growing chaotic.  Rapids.  White water.

            I glimpsed Bremer.  He was smiling his amiability, chuckling his joviality, as crisp and cheery as when I'd arrived.  His guests, on the main, weren't faring quite as well.  Hours had passed by now.  The casualties were beginning to accumulate.

            Thirty silver pieces and a pound of flesh.  Transactions were being made everywhere.  Entertainments had been arranged, distractions beyond the primary inertness of the Object.  Tumblers tumbled; holo pyrotechnics erupted; music came and went in finely delineated slivers and shivers.  I actually liked the mechanical acrobats and watched awhile.  All was chillier now than when I'd arrived, an old winter climate, air one felt in the lungs, stinging slightly.  I withstood it without trouble.  My apparel wasn't fashionable, but it was insulated.

            I found the young novelist.  Tiny dots of rusty red, which might well be blood, flecked his clothing strips.  He looked a bit dazed.  Not overplugged; rather, overwhelmed.  This wasn't the literary cocktail party circuit, if such a thing still exists anymore.  He had gone off the map of whatever territory was familiar to him.  This environment must feel unsafe.  It was unsafe.

            "Your novel,"  I said, quite suddenly pinning him where he couldn't get away.  "Tell me about it again."

            " will...will not be---"  Whatever he had said to me earlier about his great, as yet uncrafted composition, he had doubtlessly repeated many times over the course of this gala.  But the steam had run out.  The drive was dead.  Before, he had been clever.  His work--regardless of its incorporeality--was subversive, bold, striking.  But he could no longer sell it.

            "Tell me,"  I insisted.

            "Unstable structure.  It.  Won't.  Nouns.  Collapse.  Reader.  Implode."

            I pressed further, relentlessly, until he flailed at me, weeping.  I knocked him onto the sand.

            The sun's plunging angle now lit the semitransparent prism-shield ablaze.  It was as though the broad canopy above us were abruptly solid.  I felt that if I flung a sea shell skyward, it would ricochet back.  The effect lasted about five minutes.

            Worthington.  He was eating.  He was sitting--as if he'd simply spilled there, bonelessly--and devouring great gluttonous handfuls of party food, everything the servers were able to conjure up.  One of their liveried coats was draped across one of his fantastically corded shoulders, but he was still naked to the waist otherwise.  His skin was slightly blue now.

            The berserk vitality that had gripped Worthington earlier was still present, as energy, its form changed from aggression to need.  Come out of recovery too soon after your slicing and it can happen.

            His fingers were sticky.  His mouth was a stained maw.

            "Take me now,"  I said, after a moment of watching him feed.

            His eyes, wide with the great terrible hunger, snapped up toward me.  The silent servers continued to deliver him his sustenance.  He grabbed at the foods, keeping me in sight, jamming his mouth, swallowing furiously.  I took a step closer.  Somehow the speed of his eating increased.

            I swooped down on him, seizing his vertical blond hair, cramming my lips onto his, smearing our mouths together.  I tasted what he was tasting, a haphazard paste of rich flavors.  I delved him deeply.  He thrashed about, but his movements were sluggish, his strength dulled.  I pressed; he toppled, falling back onto the white sand.  He made muffled cries.  His fists batted my shoulders.

            I broke the contact.  He gasped for breath.  I reached between his legs, grasping, not gently.  "Take me.  Take me.  Do it, motherfucker!"  But he was as limp as a child.  He rolled urgently onto his side, heaving, vomiting.

            Wiping my mouth on my sleeve.  Standing.  I made a drink appear and rinsed with it.

            The gala shook with manic energy.  The orgiastic aspects had taken over.  In some instances Bremer's leather-clad security personnel had intervened.  I couldn't see Bremer himself anywhere now.

            But I was looking for another...looking...crossing the sands, peeking past shoulders, faces, undulating bodies.

            I found Grace Scope at the dark irregular crescent that incoming waves were leaving on Bremer's beach.  She was gazing up, enraptured, at the great black machine that bobbed on the air twenty meters over the water.  It was shaped rather like an old jet engine housing, and it wasn't entirely silent.

            At Grace's feet botanical ice patterns had formed on the wet sand, leaf-shapes.  The waves rolling in were partially slush, rattling with frozen slivers.  It was almost inhumanly cold in this single spot.

            Her face crackled freely with soft red grains of light.  Those features had lost a great deal of their integrity.  Still, I could see the eyes following the black machine overhead, enthralled.

            I knew her from previous galas.  Bremer uses recurring players.  She knew me, what I did.  She was, in some ways, quite like me.  We both live for these events.  I have known her for some years, but I have no idea what she does between gatherings.  Probably nothing.  I do nothing.  Nothing that matters a damn at all.

            Her face continued in its amorphous activity.  If she noticed me, she didn't care that I was there.

            I put a thought into my mind, and before another icy wavelet could clatter up onto the beach, the plug had been placed in my hand.  It was a small dark thing, heavy, with a corkscrewing tail.

            Grace gave no resistance as I lifted her arm aside and smacked the plug into her rib cage.  I didn't wait to see what happened, but it was already happening as I was turning away.  The distortion swallowed her head, red motes running rampant, eating their way down her long neck, spilling onto her shoulders.

            I staggered up the sand, not seeing where I was going.  I felt both drained and exhilarated.  I was at extremes.  My perceptions are an unfair advantage, like X-ray vision for a card player.  There is nothing supernatural about me, but I see what I see and see it how I see it, and that's that, and how can I not do what I do?  Their vulnerabilities are so naked, so tempting.  They're asking for what's coming.

            And then.  And then...there are those precious few that are the antitheses.  They are so unlike all the rest--of them? of us?--that a sweet golden hope for our species comes over me, and I can see what we may become.  Given the chance.  Given the time.  Given just the right tumble of circumstances.

            It is a quality or a peculiarity or some ineffable drive not only to live, but to live to our better potentials.  That's what I've perceived, now and again, here and there, on a handful of occasions throughout my entire life.

            I raised my head.  I blinked.  Dani Kurtz was again before me, smiling at me.  She appeared untouched by the surrounding mayhem.

            What had she seen of what I'd done?  Suddenly I was abashed; and the feeling was so alien, I could have burst into giddy laughter.  Or fallen weeping.  I was at extremes.

            "Francis,"  she said in that strong voice.  "Francis, do you plan to stay much longer?  I was thinking---"

            She was a radiant spirit, even now, even making this inevitable finalizing follow-up to our flirtatious encounter of earlier.  We could leave.  Now.  Together.  There was room in my orb for two.  Our whisking off with one another would be as destined and predictable as any pairing of two mutually attracted mammals could be.  There was nothing wearisome about the idea, nothing trite.  I was so drawn to this woman with the teardrop-shaped face and hair the color of berries.

            But I couldn't go.  The defining trait of the inveterate party-goer is that he does not make timely or seemly departures.

            I lurched forward.  I took Dani in my arms, grappling her, though she was offering no resistance.  Our mouths collided, and it was as blunt and mechanical as the contact between me and Worthington.  I clutched her flesh with a near-bruising strength.  She flowed in my grasp, her body as mercurial as her makeup.  There was a rush of air from her when our mouths uncoupled.  A tinkling of laughter followed from her translucent lips.

            Her eyes sparkled.  I could see the bony socket surrounding her left one.  "Is this how it's to be, Francis?"  she asked, amused.

            I could do nothing to her, I knew.  Nothing that would matter now.  What we were engaged in was hardly noteworthy, considering the truly bawdy and depraved scenes playing out around us.  Still, I turned her about and parted her streamers, exposing her smooth haunches.  My fingers roughly explored, preparing, making way.  At last I inserted myself, and she facilitated the act.  I didn't want to do this; I didn't want her to go along with it.  She was superior to me.  This deed was unworthy of her.  Her laughter continued, brighter.  I drove into her harder.  The sunset was at my back.  The light was at the watery horizon, extinguishing.  The shielding layer vanished overhead.  Sweat was freezing in my hair.  I pounded at her body, using my body as a weapon, and she received me with untold patience, taking her pleasures, despite my efforts to make this pleasureless.  Certainly I felt no joy.  There would be no satisfaction for me.  I wrenched myself out of her, boot heels shifting on the white sand, a new stance, a few recalibrated degrees; then I plunged within anew, the point of nether access.  Dani took me.  She trembled about my intrusion, and I did not--could not--defile her.  I was as hopelessly under-evolved as she was singular.

            Control was no longer mine; it never had been, in truth.  She propelled me, and I could only be drawn along.  She commanded my climax, and I surrendered it at her will.

            Had Bremer brought her here specifically for me?  Was she reward, retribution?  I would never know.

            She remained with me awhile, I think.  I had collapsed to the sand, body drawn up, eyes fiercely shut.  I told her to go go go, leave me.  I cursed.  Spittle ran from the corners of my mouth.  She may have gone immediately; she may have spoken to me, prodded me, tried to get me onto my feet.

            I went nowhere.

            When my eyes opened, Dani Kurtz wasn't there.  The sky had become a dome of pink, and the last shred of the sun was about to duck from sight.

            The jubilee around me was concluding in routine uproar.  I felt soiled, foul, diseased.  Pulling myself upright, I determined to dunk myself in the ice-rattling edge of the sea.  My vision revolved whitely.  I turned, and I was facing the Object.

            I pressed palms against my eyes, then blinked repeatedly.  Never again, probably, would I get a chance to examine one of these so personally.  But I'd already seen it, already touched it.  Already been disappointed, as was Bremer's intention.  I made to move past the semi-irregular ovoid.

            The crack I saw hadn't been there before.

            On the horizon, atop the corrupted ocean's surface, that very final particle of sunlight winked out.  I didn't move.  I stood my ground--not valiantly, not recklessly, simply knowing nothing else to do.  The fissure extended itself at both ends.  Subsidiary rifts branched outward across the curving face of the Object.  There was a gummy colorless mucus appearing within those breaks.  A vaguely triangular section among the spreading webbing of cracks now lifted, just a few scant centimeters; but it did lift and did so from within, before dropping stickily back into place.  Then it moved again.  And again.  Rising further each time, the internal fluid dribbling viscously.

            No one else was seeing it.  This party centerpiece had long since lost its allure.  I was very much alone there on the swarming beach.

            I was alone when the matted pink wing pushed free and the triangle of shell tumbled away.  I was the first to see the head fight its way up out of the breach.  I looked into the great shiny gold eye and understood that our opportunity wouldn't come now, that our time was up.  Our replacements had arrived, all over what was right now--this same instant--no longer our world.

            I turned away from the superior unforgiving stare.