The Infinite Matrix

Stories Columns Archive FAQ Home


by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Tuesday after Mess, I went down past the draw and watched them killing the poor. The sun was real hot, and there wasn't much to see, so I walked back up among the trees.

Jock sat under a sweetgum playing with his parts. That's what he does when there's nothing else to do. He'll sit there and watch while Scat does her tae fondue.

"Why don't you do something like that," Jock says, not looking up at all. "You'd be pretty good, Suze."

"Get naked, jump around a lot."

"It's a healthy thing to do."

"I got all the health I can handle right now. You can overdo that."

I sat back against my own tree, well away from Jock. Wished I had my own canteen. Not about to drink from his.

"I hear they might start doing two lines. Might have to double up."

"Who said that?"

"Campo says he heard it. Says it came from Major Mac."

"No way," Jock said. "I don't think they'll do that."

"Why not?"

"We can't handle what we got."

"Well, I guess that's the point, right? Something doesn't do it, you do something else."

Jock didn't answer. Scat did a really fine double-pelvic twist. I took hydraulics, and I know a person can't do that. Which doesn't bother Jock. Jock doesn't care if Scat's real, if she's really there or not. Isn't like he's going to grab her or something, he's grabbing what he's got.

"This is a bad idea, Suze. It's going to piss all the guys off. We got more than we can do, Major knows that. Shit, why do they all have to come through here?"

"I guess because they're poor. Where else they going to go?"

If Jock had an answer, he didn't share it with me. Didn't miss a beat, didn't take his eyes off Scat.

"Keep doing that, you're going to lose it, pal. Won't know what's real and what's not."

"A man's not hallucinating, Suze, it's because he's not trying. He's not giving everything he's got…"

I don't guess I got any business talking reality to Jock. Everybody here's only partially intact. You can't kill folks without getting some gross disorder of the head. You can for a while, but it'll get you after that. Even if it's out of the kindness of your heart, and you're doing what's right.

After supper, after dark, I stood on the porch and listened to the line, listened to the sound, listened to the moan, to the groan, to the sorrowful lament, to the mutter and the mumble as the line shuffled by.

Cap'n Nock came up and stood beside me, Nock and Sister Bob.

"Always sounds like the bear of the world just snuffin' an' huffin' along," Nock said. "God wound him up, and now he's running down."

"I never heard of no bear of the world," I said. "You drinking something, sir, pass it around."

"Nock's poetic by nature," Sister Bob said. "He'll turn pain into something pretty every time."

I didn't see a reason to comment on that. After a while, Nock and Sister Bob were gone, which was no loss to me.

I stood there looking at the dark. No one was watching, no one around, but Scat was still out there, doing her thing, down beneath the trees. Scat, or a zillion lightnin' bugs off on spree. After a while, I went on in and went to bed. Laid there and listened. Might've gone to sleep, or maybe thought I did.

Jock and his shift come out at first light, starting off for work. No one was happy, cause of what the Major had said. The rumors were right this time: They'd start another line next week. Wasn't enough crew now, Jock was right about that. It'd be more work for every shift, wear every man out, like they wasn't wore now.

"There's no use killing folks if they're going to drop dead before they get through the line," said Major Mac. "Where's the sense in that?"

I was in the kitchen and heard him say it clear. The men didn't like it, and Sergeant Jim had to cool 'em down quick. They give him dark looks, but no one talks back to Sergeant Jim.

The Major's limo pisses everybody off. Isn't like we got this outstanding unit pride going, okay? Kind of stuff we do, you don't care much about a shoulder patch or a song. There isn't going to be no medals to win.

Anyway, Major Mac says the limo will help us keep an eye on things, help us watch the lines, keep the company fit.

Uhuh, that's what the guys want to do, all right, they get a minute off, go lay some fuckin' track.

First day he got the thing moving, it made this godawful sound—shrieks, rattles and abrasions of every sort. It quivered and it shook, it hacked and it racked and it farted kerosene. Even the people in the lines looked up with their sad and empty eyes, as this harsh irritation rumbled by. Hardly anything'll make 'em do that.

Doubling the line didn't really help at all. It was like Jock said—there were just too many, and they kept coming in. I woke in the night, I could hear the faint rustle, hear the faraway hum, hear the sigh, hear the sadness on the wind.

Somewhere past four, I walked outside and saw lightning crackle in the east. I hoped it wouldn't rain. Rain put a strain on everybody when it did.

And, just like before, I caught a blink of something whirly, something naked in the trees. Scat, doing carnal gyrations with no one anywhere to see.

Scat, and the thunder rolling in, and the weary, restless march of the poor… Cap'n Nock could make a poem out of that. What it does to me, is make me want to be 'bout anywhere but here.

I'm not anyway surprised when Sergeant Jim drops by the kitchen and says I'm working with the Major for a while. Says it's temporary duty with the company motor pool.

What Jim knows and I know too, is Major wants to get me in that limo of his. Like, he's going by the numbers, and now he's down to me.

"I'd shower an' change I was you," says Sergeant Jim. "Major's not partial to sweat and fried foods."

"I'm not partial to him," I said, "we'll get along fine."

The Major's not repulsive in a physical sense. He's a man, with no outstanding features of any sort—which, by the way, is the outstanding feature of the majors I've happened to meet.

"Here we go, Private First Class Suze," says Major Mac, grinning like a dumb little kid. And, in a rattle, in a quiver, in a spasm and a jerk, that's exactly what we did.

The rails weren't perfect, of course. The men had seen to that. We clattered and swayed, and bounced from side to side. There was only the one narrow seat, and I could've been with child, we was stuffed any closer than that.

"No one wants the armed forces around till you need 'em," said Major Mac. "Things get rough, they start whining for us. You know why that is, PFC?"

"No, sir," I said, 'cause that's what they like you to say.

"Because they know we'll do it right, that's why. They know when war, chaos or some other unpleasantry hits the fan, isn't anyone else who'll come to the fore, hit the trenches, get the job done.

"That's the way it's always been in the service. You do what you're told, and you don't expect a thing in return."

"Yes, sir. I guess that's so."

"I know it is, Suze," and I got little nudge, and I didn't like that, and I didn't like we'd moved along to 'Suze.'

We were some ways from camp, now, past the stand of trees. Instead of heading straight uphill where you could watch the Work going on, the limo veered off and started down again. The tracks didn't get real close to where the Major could 'help us keep an eye on things, keep the company fit.' Jock says the Major hadn't been over there yet, and isn't likely to.

"What I am saying, PFC Suze, is I have done without reward or distraction for some time now. And I feel it's time, as I believe the men say, to get a little just for me."

"A little what, sir?"

"This sort of work puts a damper on romance. On the other hand, duty of a sordid nature can bring forth emotions we don't usually understand."

"I'm not doing it with you, Major. You can forget about that."

"I could transfer you to hard duty real quick."

"Something more foul and disgusting than this."

"There's that." He turned and gave that look men do, when you'll maybe feel bad, and start slipping off your pants.

We clattered and we groaned, and we wheezed and we moaned, then the limo started down again.

"If you're not attracted to me, perhaps there's something else we might do."

"If you'll slow down, I'm out of here, sir."

"I'm saying, if we can't achieve carnal bliss in a personal sense, I'd be pleased to observe your love, Suze."

That about did it. "You want to watch? Is that what you're proposing to me?"

"That's crudely put."

"Shit, I'll say."

That's when I jumped. Hit the hill running and fucked up my foot, and headed for the trees.

"It's goddamn lonely at the top," said Major Mac above the din and the clack and the rattle of the rails. "You people of the enlisted persuasion think it's easy, but it's not…"

It didn't rain like I figured, but the dark got sticky, oppressive and hot. Wouldn't surprise me a bit if half he folks in the line didn't make it through the night.

Cap'n Nock and Sister Bob came out after supper. Sister, smelling like onions, Nock just smelling like everybody did who worked at the Grounds.

"What I'm thinking," Nock said, "is Mother God did washing all day, getting those angel robes white as they can be. I think she got beat, is what, left the iron on and went off and forgot."

"I swear," said Sister Bob, "someone ought to take that down."

Someone didn't. Jock came out, wiping soup on his sleeve.

"Wouldn't do it with him, I'm pleased to hear that. Don't suppose you got any feeling for me."

"I don't, no, Jock. Nothing against you, just nothing much for you, is all. You don't keep yourself clean, though I can't hardly blame you for that. You got this self-abuse thing. That bothers me some. And there's Scat."

"Scat's run down."

"Scat is not a natural creature, Jock. Running down is what she's bound to do."

He didn't say a thing for a while, and that was fine with me. Talking with other folks is pleasant at times, but being silent with 'em's better still.

"It doesn't seem fair," Jock said. "She was dancin' good, and then she sorta quit. Wouldn't do anything at all."

"It's happening a lot, you maybe noticed that. Same thing out there with the poor."

"She wasn't the same as them, Scat was something else."

"You're not listening, Jock. That's your plain old everyday analogy's, what it is. The folks out there got nothing left to eat. Isn't going to get any more. Not anywhere, an' not ever again. World runs down, nothing else to do but get in line."

"Still isn't fair," Jock said.

"No, it isn't. What it is is your ennui, your angst. Your common, ordinary death of the soul. Something like this, languor's going to set in quick, and there you go."

"Well, shit." He looked off in the dark, sneaking up on truth as best he could, "you get down to languor and stuff, isn't any use going on at all."

Looks like God could start another bear, I thought, but what'd be the point in that?

— For Rick and Peggy


Neal Barrett, Jr. has written more than fifty nifty novels, and his short stories are almost beyond counting. His most recent short story collection, Perpetuity Blues, was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for 2001; his work has been nominated twice for the >Hugo and once for the Nebula Award.

Neal's wit is deadpan, surreal, and erudite. The more you know, the more jokes you'll get. He gives equal weight to the bizarre and to the mundane, and leaves it up to the observer to figure out which is which. Kind of like reality, isn't it?

home | stories | columns | archive | faq | talk