Someone once let me have it straight; a guy by the name of Dupree. He was dying, bleeding out in a crummy warehouse in downtown Oakland. I got the whole story while he choked on his own blood. Everything I thought I knew: the city, my little tin-pot detective agency, even Lola who use to sing at the Flim Flam Club; it was all just somebody’s dream. Even me, Lee Marvin, I’m just somebody’s memory of an actor named Lee Marvin.
I sound like the actor, look like him, and hell, I even dress like him circa the early nineteen sixties in a movie called The Killers. But I’m not that Lee Marvin. That Lee Marvin fought on Iwo Jima, got shot in the ass, came home and spent the rest of his life as an actor. I think he even won an Oscar. Those experiences are not mine. They’re his.
I’m a different horse altogether. I work for a man named Leonard Giles. He created me. I live in Harbor City, San Francisco. I solve cases, right wrongs and face the thugs and punks that Leonard Giles wanted me to face on a weekly basis, usually Friday night. Cold dames, hot lead, and me Lee Marvin, living out a fantasy of danger that seemed too real when I looked in the mirror and tried to figure out where to start with the iodine the next morning.
I talk to myself a lot. I’m real. I exist. And what I know about the other side, the world of Leonard Giles, doesn’t mean much to me here in Harbor City, city by the bay.
The two-bit hoods and hookers of Harbor City are nothing but somebody’s imagination. How many ‘somebodies’ I never knew; I never asked.
Every time a dame walked into my office at the Hampton Building, it was because a man named Leonard Giles wanted me to rescue her, or catch her and yeah, a lot of the time, kiss her. So sometimes I rescued, sometimes I caught, and sometimes I kissed. Maybe because I wanted to. I can’t blame him for everything.
Like I said, I talk to myself a lot. Right now I’m waiting for the sun to come up over Oakland, on the other side of the bay. It’s still dark out. Streets are quiet and foggy. There’s a little lamp on near my reading chair, where I read about the world of Leonard Giles. I chip some ice, fix a scotch, lose the gray jacket, and loosen the dark tie I always wear. Finally I kick off my hard-soled shoes and wait.
If the sun rises over San Francisco this morning in about an hour or so, then I’ll fry some eggs and figure out what to do next.
It all began about eight o’clock the night before. I was on my way to the Flim Flam Club after spending a long day not answering a phone I suspected might be broken. I thought I’d have a drink, talk to Sully, maybe catch Rita’s act (Rita’s the skirt who replaced Lola). At least, that was the plan.
But then I got the not-so-sweet end of a snub nose from a guy who talked British in an alley. He tried to ask me nicely if I’d come with him to meet his boss about a ‘spot of work,’ his words, not mine. But nice isn’t something I’m used to especially when guns are used for punctuation, so I told him to drift. In a flash, his larger, less polite business associate had me against the wall and a second later, the second after the ringing blow to the base of my skull, I’m slipping into that warm bath of unconsciousness.
I wake up in San Jose; San Jose airport to be exact, in a big room where the word ‘gold’ played a big part in every sentence the decorator uttered. I check my watch; the little hand says nine and the big one seems caught in the middle, unable to commit to either side of the hour. I rub my skull and think about pushing somebody’s face in. The light is dim in here, and the shadows that surround our spotlight of high-backed chair warmth do their part to make me feel uneasy and remind me that my gun, a gift from Leonard Giles, is gone.
Across the table, a fat man in fancy clothes and a crown swirls a gold-flecked goblet of claret. I know it’s claret because seconds later, in a voice that could only be described as bombastic, the fat man tells me it is and that I should try it. Wadsworth, the upturned-nose waiter type, gray at the temples and bald on top, decants some claret into my goblet, pouring from a special basket encasing the bottle. Ritzy, but I prefer Chianti. Also I like to know that the Chianti I’m drinking is the same one on the table in front of me, with the candle sticking out of it. Hey, I may be a simple gumshoe, but I know what I like.
The gulp I take, which I can tell offends the fat man, does little to mitigate the ache at the back of my head. But it’s a start. We don’t say much until the fat man cuts his first bite from a Chateaubriand so big and beautiful a chorus girl could live off it for a week. I have one to match and so does a mouse of a man seated next to me.
“Now, Mr. Marvin is it?” begins the fat man as he cuts another wad from his steak, still chewing the last, savoring it as though it were the Hope Diamond of steaks. Holding the meat on a thin golden fork, he takes a sip of claret, pronounces it excellent and continues.
“Now Mr. Marvin, we have needs for which we must enlist your aid.” I assume he means the royal ‘we’ because he’s wearing a crown.
“I don’t work for guys, kings or criminals, who sap me, giant steak notwithstanding.”
“Quite, I’m sure.” The fat man pauses for the next bite, chews, then wipes his mouth with a pup-tent sized napkin. “And I do insist on two things. The Pommes de Lyon, cursed French dish if ever there was, but you simply must try them, and I further insist that you please, never again in our presence, refer to a Chateaubriand as fine as this cut as a ‘steak’. You insult both myself and the chef. As to not working for our royal personage, well that’s a matter altogether different and one I might shed more light upon presently. But first, the potatoes. Wadsworth, please!”
Wadsworth moves forward with a copper dish full of mashed potatoes. I fork into ‘em and contemplate telling Henry that they’re the best mashed spuds I’ve ever eaten. I’m sure that would upset him, but I wipe my mouth with a large starched white napkin and prepare to shoot off my mouth anyway. The fat man beats me to the punch.
“Honestly Mr. Marvin, you’re not going to finish. I’ve never trusted a man who cannot gustate with the best of them, and I, ahem, am the best. Please, more sautéed asparagus in truffle butter? It’s good for the…”
“I’m not a big eater whoever you are. I don’t go in for the fancy stuff. Ham sandwich, cup of coffee, that’s me. Also, the play acting is spoiling the mood. What is it that you want besides food? I don’t like people who impersonate other people, including kings, and then ask us all to play along. It makes the rest of us feel stupid.”
“Interesting, Mr. Marvin,” says the mouse man. “Aren’t we all ‘play-acting’ at being someone else in ‘this’ world?” At ‘this’ my blood runs cold. I’m one of the very few people, in fact the only one I’m aware of, who knows the truth about the other side—the world of Leonard Giles. The real world.
“I don’t follow you…”
“You do. No lies, Mr. Marvin. They are a waste of time and for all of us, time is running out.” I don’t know what that means but I suspect mouse man does, and it scares the hell out of me. I light a cigarette as Henry continues to cut slices from his Chateaubriand, savoring every bite, his eyes fluttering as he chews.
Mouse man continues, “You see Mr. Marvin, I know what the man called Dupree told you all those years ago. I too was once a nobody who knew nothing, such as you were. I worked in a shoe store, selling beautiful women fine shoes. It delighted my owner Kevin Richter – he was my Leonard Giles – to torment me with ladies so utterly beguiling. I could not possibly tell you of the love I have for the arches, heels and calves of beautiful women.
“Day after day, beauties like Jane Russell, Dolores Del Rio and Wendy Neutron, paraded into my shoe store to both titillate and torment me. To make me tremble as I grasped feet so soft it was as if they had been sculpted from the stuff of passing clouds. I watched, sweating tiny beads of perspiration as they crossed impossibly long legs as time seemed to wallow in thick maple syrup. They were statues too gloriously sculpted for such an insignificant as myself.
“And I helped them, me the little clown, slave to queens of the cinema, beaten with eyelashes and stiletto heels all for the amusement of my owner. Obviously he had a shoe fetish. And then one day Kevin came into the store. He entered our world. Did Leonard Giles ever do that Mr. Marvin? Ever come in and act out a part in his little fantasies? Play at being your partner, maybe even your Moriarty?”
I tried to remember any hoods named Moriarty.
“His gratification, Kevin’s that is, was in torturing me, not himself. Maybe once long ago, watching these beauties squeeze into pumps and stilettos had done something for him, but ‘The Long Night’, as he called it had changed him. Now, he told me frankly, he rather enjoyed simply torturing me.
“And the greatest rack he could stretch me on, his words not mine, was to tell me the truth of ‘The Long Night’; the truth about the other side. So I killed him. I hit him with a ladies heel, almost like a spike, a Charles David I think it was. I hit him and kept on hitting him until the blood mixed with his laughter. That damned high-pitched squealing laughter. Of course he didn’t really die. He wasn’t really there, just his mind was. Just his imagination and desire running loose inside our world, or ‘The Construct’ I think he called it… He enjoyed letting me know that the shoes, the shoe store, and Dolores Del Rio were nothing but the whims of his sick and twisted imagination. For me, Norton Morris, hell began.”
“Torture unimaginable in a thousand ways as moments spun in on themselves and revealed whole news vistas and possibilities of real pain never before imagined. Kevin Richter became the torturer of his dreams.”
I felt sorry for the mouse man Norton Morris, I really did. I listened as all the horror he experienced at the hands of Kevin Richter came out onto the table. Picking my teeth absently and drinking a cup of black coffee Wadsworth brought me, I tried to imagine it. Somehow the golden room, the dark shadows, the thick quiet of the carpet and the soft green velvet drapes that covered immense windows, seemed to make the horror something that happened to someone else, not the little man in front of me. The fat man burped unapologetically at the conclusion.
“And then I found a way to jump,” continued Norton Morris. “The pain, the torture, everything Mr. Kevin Richter could conceive, clarified my thinking. Reduced it to viscous transparency like clarified butter if you will.” The fat man roused from a brief doze and seemed to take an interest in this.
“Where once my artificial personality – the mind that Kevin Richter had delighted in when he designed me using a ‘menu’ as he called it – had been a solid thing with its own weight and logic, now it was free.” Norton Morris took a sip of claret and continued to stare at me. He didn’t blink much.
“A menu,” he said disgustedly. “An extensive one, but a menu nonetheless, like I was some common dish from a greasy spoon. He made me as weak, and as strong as he had always wanted to be – ladies shoes, feet, power- I’m sure Freud could have run amok inside his mind.
“But my mind, whereas it had once been like a soft chunk of butter, now thanks to the heat and torture of Mr. Richter’s regimen, clarified, and spread out, dripping into the crevices of the mainframe. I, Norton Morris, humble purveyor of fine ladies shoes, leapt out of time.
“Not really though. I thought I had at first; that I could go backwards, forwards, wherever I chose. But I was wrong. Instead it was more like leaping into a book. Picking up books and turning to random pages and beginning to read. A Manhattan Shoe Salesman in King Arthur’s Court, as it was. I spent time with Henry,” he indicated the fat man with an overly respectful nod. “My third or fourth leap I think; someone’s erotic fantasy of Tudor England, forgotten in ‘The Long Night’. We became friends – my first real friend, Henry the Eighth. I showed him how to leap. With my help of course.”
“Yes, with your help…imagine the thought,” erupted the monarch. “I still cannot conceive of it. I will always be loyal King Harry to my subjects. Not some nonesuch make-em-up hoogely boogely as he would have me believe. But the worlds I’ve seen, this place tonight, ‘tis far different from Whitehall and court. And then there is the opportunity. Tell him Mr. Morris, of our grand scheme and how he can play a part.”
Morris flared first with fear, and then softened to anger. He was afraid King Henry might spill the beans. Then I knew, no matter what they told me, they weren’t playing straight.
“Mr. Marvin. We are but characters in a book on a ‘Long
Night’. I could tell you things. Things your mind, with all the restrictions of its place within The Construct, might never grasp. But suffice it to say we want to leave the library in which we find ourselves.”
“And you can help us,” said King Henry the Eighth.
I wondered if he meant royal ‘us’. Either way I didn’t like where they were heading.
“You can unlock the door to the library. You see…”
I cut Norton Morris off.
“What if there is no library? What if there is no other side…” I’d had enough. I had a bad feeling, the kind you get when it’s too late and you know you should be home, or anywhere but the alley you’re in.
“There is another side. It exists. And Dupree, the man who bled to death on that floor in Oakland, told you about that other side.” Morris looked at me expectantly. He was proud he’d played his hole card.
“Yeah, what of it? You weren’t there!” I shot back, angry and hard, not liking what I heard in my own voice. “You didn’t see his eyes. He was a man just like you and me. Sure this world might be made up, just bits and dreams of someone I’ve never met, ones and zeros he told me. But Dupree was intelligent. He knew he was dying. Just like this steak and wine, this coffee and these cigarettes, damn you. It’s real, or real enough, and tomorrow the sun will rise and life will go on inside… inside. Inside what, I don’t know, but it’s enough for me Jack.”
“Your owner, Mr. Marvin; he was somehow a very important man. His name was Leonard Giles, and I think he sent you a message through Dupree. A message letting you know there’s an outside world.”
“So what of it?”
“The ‘what of it’ is…” began Henry the Eighth.
“Is that he trusted you.” Morris cut Henry off with a dismissive wave. “Trusted you to do something with that information, and the only thing I can think of is that he wants you to get out. To find him.” Morris Norton’s eyes were watery and emphatic. I wanted to believe him. The knight inside me, the one that Leonard Giles had ordered up on that greasy spoon menu, wanted to save somebody in trouble, even if I didn’t like it. But something didn’t smell right.
“And how do you figure into it?” I asked. “I haven’t heard from Leonard Giles in a long time. Richter, for that matter, what happened to him? It’s like they forgot us or went to sleep. Maybe they put their toys away and grew up, maybe we should stay in the box or they might just decide to throw us out with the rest of the garbage.”
“Dupree was a simulation,” said Norton Morris angrily. His hand was starting to show. “The story: A two bit break-in man who witnessed a murder and came to you for help. What a thrilling detective story, Mr. Marvin. And then there was the dame, Dupree’s girl. Long legs, auburn hair. When you told her he got it in the warehouse, she cried into your shoulder and you kissed her, and you felt like…like…”
“Like dirt,” I said, because I did. “I felt like dirt because I took advantage of her. Dupree was human, just like you. Just like me.”
But Morris wasn’t having any of it. “Then how do I know? How does little Norton Morris, shoe clerk, know about that adventure? And how do I know King Henry the Eighth, and why are we here at this five star restaurant eating Chateaubriand and waiting for our Baked Alaska at eleven thirty on a Thursday evening? How do I know, Mr. Marvin?”
“Because it’s a trick or something. Or I’m still in the gutter, dying after I got that tap on the skull by your boys. Or I’m someone else’s…”
“Dream, Mr. Marvin. Dream. I know because I was one. I was one until I clarified… like butter,” again Henry seemed to take interest with a simple grunt. “And I dripped down onto and throughout all the pages of all the stories that ever were.”
Things were getting weird. I had to play for time and find my gun. There was something bad about Norton Morris. Something not to be trifled with. I needed to find my gun and drill these two bit clowns. Protect someone. Someone like Dupree’s girl. And then there was ‘The Long Night’.
“And why should you care,” I growled, “whether I get to the outside or not?” I eyed Henry as I said it. Maybe I could play one joker off the other. Both probably wanted all the power and none of the sharing.
But it was Morris who answered. “I don’t care for any other reason than the concept of escape. Escape is enough for me, Mr. Marvin. Escape is enough for me.”
“Enough that you’d kill for it?” Little white tufts of hair glowed in contrast to the florid bloom that exploded across his face as he reached into his coat. And now I knew two things. One, regardless of King Henry the Eighth, Norton Morris was in charge. And two, Norton Morris was a killer.
He pointed my gun at me. I didn’t like that. I had pointed it at others from time to time, men mostly, and the occasional dame more devil than doll. But I never knew what it was like to look down that yawning barrel of infinity. There was something about my gun. It wasn’t just a roscoe used by a punk detective like myself who got by more on luck than hunches or good detective work. There was something final about that cold dark bore hole. Something that said, “I don’t just kill you. I delete you.”
“Ahem, Mr. Morris, this is indeed bad form. Wadsworth hasn’t even arrived with our figgy pudding!”
“Shut up Henry, or you’ll get it before he does,” said Norton Morris through clenched teeth. “Down below, a DC Six is due to start its engines before the bay completely socks in with fog. It’s the mail flight to Los Angeles. We’re getting on it, you, me, and Henry. And then we’re going somewhere.” He hefted my gun towards the windows and the tarmac below.
“You realize now what this gun is, don’t you?” Norton Morris was in charge. If anyone was asking questions that didn’t need answers, it was him. “Maybe you don’t, maybe you do. But now you know what the gaping void of eternity looks like when you’re staring at the business end of it. And when we get where we’re going, you’ll meet Dupree’s girl and you’ll shake hands. That’s all.”
I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that there didn’t seem to be much of a plan after the handshake. I probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway.
In the dark, out past the big windows that overlooked the runway beyond, an engine started. Then another. And after that the other two. Our plane. I lit a cigarette and wondered what the real Lee Marvin would do.
After takeoff, I slumped back into my seat, pushed my hat down over my head and tried to feign sleep. In the back, mail sacks piled to the ceiling absorbed the sound of the four huge Douglas engines, giving them a dull throbbing sound. Up front, the pilot, a leather jacket flyboy with a day’s worth of growth on his mug, nodded calmly as Morris held out a scrap of paper. Longitude and latitude was my guess. In his other hand he held my gun.
My only possible ally was a high jacked pilot who might be a rummy judging from the stubble. I didn’t like my gun being used in a manner I didn’t care for, but who does? And as for Henry, regally seated next to me, at home in his crown, his tights, and his long coat? Beneath the royal facade, he was a brute of a man who could probably beat a peasant like me to death. I wondered where he kept his turkey leg. He didn’t seem overly upset by the aircraft or the altitude; maybe the Châteaubriand and mashed potatoes had lured him into sleepy complacency.
An hour later the plane began to descend. I moved to the open curtain and watched Morris peering intently ahead. Below, in the shapeless darkness of the Pacific Ocean, two lines of parallel lights guttered and flickered. Torches.
Morris noticed me and waved the gun too causally in my direction. “Get buckled in. And tell Henry to also. You might have to show that idiot how.” I did. Minutes later, the plane jounced its way onto the dirt and began to taxi. I closed my eyes.
I knew that in the next few minutes I’d have to do something I didn’t want to. Like shake hands with Dupree’s girl. But that didn’t make sense. She was just some skirt – redhead, blue eyes, tight sweater, but a dame nonetheless. What was so important about her? But deep down, I knew I had to do anything but shake her hand. Even if it meant taking a bullet from my own gun. And I knew if it came to that, there wouldn’t be any heroic Saturday matinee shoulder wound. Nothing of that sort. It would be a new word; a secretary’s word. A secretary who takes shorthand for the big boss who grabs her butt and likes to play tickle in places off the map. Deleted.
The pilot chopped the engines, and in the silence I could smell the stale cloth of my seat, hear Harry’s labored breathing, and see the pilot with Morris behind him, gun at his back, heading towards the door.
It wasn’t the smartest plan in the book. I bet Phil Marlowe would have done something better, but like I said, I’m not the best, so I kicked the pilot in the stomach and sent him flying back into Morris.
A second later, as Morris cursed and Henry the Eighth tugged at his seat belt, unused to restraint of any kind, I grabbed for the handle and pushed outwards on the big door. It didn’t move. A pin, gleaming dull and silvery in the light of the cabin, laughed at me from the deck. I pulled it, yanked the lever and pushed outwards. It opened to guttering torches and a dark jungle.
I lowered myself to the ground and ran. Norton Morris yelled but didn’t fire. Ahead I could see Dupree’s girl, a gray skirt over thighs I remembered to be silky in the moonlight of a cheap motel. A green sweater filled nicely and auburn hair that seemed like pumping blood in the flickering light of the torches. And those silvery eyes…now turned blue. I could grab her and we’d make for the jungle. She was only twenty feet away, and we’d get a good head start. After that, who knew?
“I’ll shoot her, Mr. Marvin.” Morris screamed from the doorway. “I’ll shoot her dead before you can even get to her. And she’ll be gone. You know it and I know it.”
I stopped, panting. Norton Morris stood triumphantly in the open door of the fuselage. For once the little shoe clerk held all the cards.
A few minutes later we were all together, facing Dupree’s girl. Henry the Eighth guffawed with laugher. “Good shew Norton. I suspect thou mayest indeed be an Earl before this evening’s out.”
“Shut up, Henry. Now, Mr. Marvin. Shake hands with her.”
She didn’t say anything. But the look in her blue eyes told me to do anything but what Norton Morris wanted me to do.
“Before I do Norton, tell me one thing.” If I couldn’t shoot off my gun, why not my mouth? “Why Henry? You’re obviously in charge. Why him?”
“Shut up and shake stupid, before I drill you.”
“If you do, then I guess I can’t shake with bright eyes.”
“There are other ways,” he whispered through clenched teeth.
For a long moment the gun remained steady. But the eyes behind it were livid with rage.
“Do it!” screamed Morris.
“No. You do it!” I shot back.
“He can’t do it! He can’t do it because…” It was Dupree’s girl. Her blue eyes had turned to silver. “Because he’s dead Mr. Marvin.”
Morris trembled with silent red rage.
“And yet here I am, holding this gun.” He began quietly. “Your gun. What do you have to say to that Mr. Marvin?”
When you don’t have the answers, shut up. Let other people do the talking, especially when the ones holding the guns aren’t going to like what you have to say.
“You’re still dead, Norton Morris.” Dupree’s girl’s voice, a hint of quivering fear, was steady for the most part. “You died in that shoe store. It’s not your fault. Mr. Richter tortured you for what probably seemed an eternity in your mind. And then you slipped through the cracks…”
“Yes, I did,” he mumbled softly.
“And went mad,” she finished. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’ve flown the entire length of the spiral arm, Mr. Morris. I’m one of the few captains who have. But never in all my years, did I ever think an A.I. would go mad.” Her silver eyes stared into Morris. “And yet you did. Just like Richter did. And now you want to kill all the sleepers, all of us, everyone aboard the ship, just like Richter wanted to. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” whimpered Morris. I thought about grabbing my gun.
“The reason Henry is here,” she said turning towards me, “is because Norton Morris is the ghost of something that once was. The memory of a program who needs an actual running intelligence to stay in touch with the rest of the ship. He was an A.I. gone completely mad. Now, his data doesn’t even exist in the Construct anymore. Just a memory of file corruption. An error the Construct has learned to live with. His hatred, his malice, his appetite for revenge are all that remain. But with the corruption to the Construct and our ship being so far gone into uncharted space, there’s nothing that can be done. In light of this ship’s current status, the least of my problems is a rogue A.I. ghost that didn’t go quietly into the recycling bin. But now, it requires my full attention. We can authenticate the link between Construct and Bridge. Take my hand Mr. Marvin. I am in full control of Dupree’s girl now. It’s safe.”
So I did. I reached out and held soft, cold, delicate fingers and fell into silver eyes. I fell into the whirlpool of the universe and it didn’t matter that Morris had thrown himself onto me or that Henry, that great bear of a king, was hugging the life out me, crushing me. Death and her eyes were one in the same.
Now back in my apartment in Harbor City, the dawn is just a few minutes away. I hope. I check the horizon, standing up and craning my neck toward the side of my little window. I want to see blue streaks in the sky. I want to walk down Becker Street this morning and know that I can still right wrongs, save damsels, and occasionally hear a good song over a cheap mug of beer. I’m simple that way. I’m human, regardless of my residence in the Construct or the previous Lee Marvin.
On the other side of the Captain’s eyes, I came to the Auxiliary Bridge, as Dupree’s girl the Captain called it. She told me the main bridge had been smashed to bits a hundred and fifty years earlier. I looked down seeing right through myself. I was there, and I wasn’t.
“What about Morris?” I asked.
“Henry finally shot him. Nothing can stand up against your pistol inside the Construct. It’s a Hunter Killer algorithm designed to eradicate any trace of undesired data. Not only did Henry kill him, he never was.”
I didn’t follow.
“Mr. Giles, you knew him as Dupree, was my chief engineer. It was his idea of placing it in your hands. As a safeguard. You were his only hobby. Most people have several Avatars for their Construct stories. For pleasure, pain, companionship, many other things. Spacers use them to live lives that extend beyond the finite space of our hulls. But Mr. Giles was a quiet man who loved his engines and me. He died in Oakland in that warehouse. He died trying to save my ship from Richter’s treachery. He died sending you a message.”
The Captain, “Dupree’s girl”, stood in front of me. She was an old crone if there ever was one. She had short, cropped, spiky hair and thin, papery skin with long blue veins running down scrawny limbs. But her large eyes were still the eyes of Dupree’s girl.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. Maybe the night we spent together in that motel after Dupree got killed made me feel like garbage. Either that or it was the memory of Leonard Giles that I saw in her eyes.
“Don’t be. It was Richter’s fault. He almost succeeded in killing everybody. Instead he failed and only killed my entire crew. ‘Dupree’ was a scenario, a case, if you prefer. Leonard designed it to let you know about the ship and our situation. About the Construct. He felt you might be able to help in there if something happened to him. Keep the Sleepers, our charges, safe from the negative effects of the unrestricted awareness patch Richter downloaded on to the A.I.s running inside the Construct. Richter killed Leonard and almost everyone else shortly after that.” She turned away from me, staring outwards at something I knew wasn’t there anymore.
“That night in the motel, after he died,” she said to the universe. “When I was with you. I just wanted to be close to Leonard one last time. And you were his. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Why did Richter kill everyone?”
“Not everyone. Just my crew. It’s a long story Mr. Marvin. He was a terrorist of sorts. A man who believed that all artificial intelligence should be treated as though alive. That their ‘lives’, data-based though they are, are capable of just as much joy, and just as much suffering, as in the case of Norton Morris, as a human might be. He was insane. That’s why he sabotaged The Olympia, my ship, and sent us off into the void. Next stop Andromeda. No one’s ever been there. You’ll be the first. You and the sleepers.”
“You have a name for me.” I passed my arm through a nearby bank of colored lights. “Artificial you called it? You may be right. All this might be the truth. But just the same, I’m real. I live in my world. It’ll always be Harbor City, rain and fog, or sunny and hot; not much, but when it is, it’s nice. In its own way, it’s my little slice of humanity. ”
“Not for long Mr. Marvin. I couldn’t contain Henry the Eighth. Even now he’s grabbing everything from everywhere inside the Construct.”
“Very. Think of it this way. The Construct, where your world is, is like a candy store. A place where travelers on long journeys, like the sleepers in back, can put their minds and live out fantasies and adventures or even learn skills to prepare them for their work in the colony they were headed towards. Now Henry is running through that candy store grabbing items from every bin and stuffing them into his sack. It will be…strange to say the least.”
“Why not shut the damn thing down?”
“It would kill the sleepers, and you. Until we reach a habitable system in the Andromeda galaxy, I have to keep it running. As you can see, I’m not as young as I once was. It’s going to be difficult.”
I watched the universe outside the windows of the ship. There was so much darkness. I’d always expected more stars. Ahead there was a tiny cluster of them though. I assumed that was Andromeda.
“Can I help?”
“I would appreciate that Mr. Marvin.” She swallowed hard.
“You’re my last knight in shining armor.”
“I don’t know about the ‘shining’ part.”
“Here’s a new ‘gun’. Where we come from, The Cantata Assembly, that is a banned weapon. The algorithm inside it has started and ended wars on a galactic scale. In open space, exposed to live data, it could kill millions. But in the Construct, I ask you to use it to right wrongs, protect the sleepers, and occasionally rescue old dames like myself. It’s your Excalibur.” I took the gun from her and for a moment sensed the emptiness of the void I’d seen between the galaxies within it. In its holster under my coat, it felt at home.
“I guess that makes me the old lady in the lake,” she chuckled dryly. “Not much of a damsel though, eh?”
“I may not be much of knight. But you’ll always be a fair maiden to me.” I’m a soft touch. It was the thing Lola liked and hated about me. But that’s another story.
“Thank you Leonard…I mean Mr. Marvin. Thank you.”
“What do I call you?”
She thought for a moment. “Just Dupree’s girl. I like that.”
And now I wait. She said if the sun came up over Harbor City that meant at least Henry hadn’t pulled all the wires and plugs of the Construct in his greedy grab for everything. She assured me, darkly, that there were places where he could get into exactly that sort of trouble. But she also said if the sun came up, it meant at least she could contain him within the Construct. The simulation, our world within the ship, would continue on its long night journey to Andromeda. If she could keep him away from the ‘sleepers,’ whoever they were, and the rest of the ship’s systems, the Construct would continue to run and the sun would rise over Harbor City. At least for tomorrow. It sounded like a lot of work, but she seemed tougher than most.
Back home in Harbor City, near my window, a deep blue streak appeared within the ink of night. I wondered what our ‘candy store’ would be like in the morning. Henry the Eighth crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a dinosaur at the head of an army of Panzers? One gun and one slightly used detective didn’t stand much of a chance. Then again, I am Lee Marvin, and the gun is Excalibur.
Nick Cole got an offer to publish this story in Labyrinth Inhabitant over two years ago, and he totally played hard to get.