posted 2020-03-22 20:30:49
And Kieth Alban stood by the door, scanning the bar. Déjà vu, déjà vu.
Everything was underlit. Bars were as a rule always dark but this dark was too dark. This bar looked like it was going for a *mood*. Kieth hated moods.
There was a live band blaring horrible live three-chord noise. The place was thick with people – far too many people for a Thursday night – dancing, bumping into her, making her want to cut into them with the blade she'd brought in case IBM Jones turned out to be just another freak. Like that last guy Brenda had sent to her. The one who had kept blowing his nose into his hand and wiping it on his jeans. The one with a little bag of diodes and an equally diode-sized hard-on he had pulled out of his pants in the alley behind the donut place. When Kieth broke his fingers he'd made a noise suggesting he'd liked it.
And when she had taken the diodes and turned to walk away, through his tears he had called after her: "My name is John, call me, I love you." Kieth shuddered.
The bar smelled like ozone, not the cloying smoke she'd been led to expect. Do neon lights make ozone?
With the ozone a feeling of dread, of instability, of something being wrong. She felt like she was being ripped apart, pieces of her flying everywhere. Or maybe she was just one of the pieces, free after being torn from the original, and this feeling was some sort of phantom memory, like a ghost limb, an echo of connection. But connection to what, she didn't know. And it only gets less specific from this point, she thought, realizing she had thought this thought before, the last time she was here, the same thoughts but a different life, less specific from here on in, clinging to a face she recognizes but can't remember, hazy vague, vazy hague –
Traveling in line with her déjà vu as though forced, led to see and recognize what she saw, Kieth squinted. In the light of this *mood* everyone looked like they might fit Brenda's sketchy description of IBM Jones. Vaguer, vaguer –
Presently the déjà vu faded. Kieth stood there frozen, wondering what to do now that her free will was back. So she listened to the band, got jostled by the crowd, wished she were somewhere else. She searched the walls for a pay phone. She wanted to call Brenda and tell her, "This is enough. Your fun's over. I quit." But she didn't.
Instead she stood quietly, patiently, and searched. And eventually, between the band's sets, she found IBM Jones sitting at a corner table, not far from one of the lights. This was likely why she hadn't seen him sooner: she'd figured IBM Jones would be in the dark, mooding with all the other moody people in this dank stink hole.
He was wearing a thin blue jacket and torn jeans – but not fashionably torn; these rags looked like they were the only things he owned, patched and repatched with any available cloth. He was balding, and what hair he had was short and looked like he had cut it himself, with a straightedge razor and without a mirror.
He sat nursing a beer, drinking it as though drinking to forget.
Kieth walked up to him. "'The Tower In The Sands,'" she said.
IBM Jones, who, ever since she had walked into the bar, had been staring in her direction without seeing her, blinked twice and said, "Huh?"
Kieth frowned. "Are you IBM Jones?" she said.
"Yeah." Eyebrows barely raised. "What?"
"'The Tower In The Sands,'" she said again, goddamn subterfuge.
Jones blinked. Blinked twice.
"Do you have a vacuum tube?" Kieth finally said.
"A vacuum tube. For me. Do you have one."
"Oh, the uh ..." He shook his head, wiped a hand down one cheek. "Yeah. Sorry. You're Keith Alban."
"Ki-eth," she said. "Not Keith."
"Oh, sorry, I was expecting a, uh," Jones said. "Yeah, 'Tower In The Sands,' right ..."
He reached under the table and fumbled around inside a worn green cloth backpack. He brought the tube up, held it in his right hand, lost control of his fingers, dropped it. A tinkling sound as it hit the floor, began rolling toward the wall. "Shit!" He stomped his foot down at the tinkling. A soft crunching sound. "Ah. Shit. I guess I kinda blew it."
Kieth balled her hands into fists. The back of Kieth's left hand had been freshly cut, and now her fist-clenching was stretching the skin making the blood flow even faster, trickle down her knuckles, drip onto the floor. Had the glass cut her? Had she been cutting herself? Was she hallucinating again? Drip, drip. These days everything seemed like a hallucination.
"Sorry," Jones said again. "Here, look at it this way. Maybe it's fate. Karma. You're being punished for something you did in another life, by having me snap your tube." He smiled. Kieth did not. She wanted to gouge out his eyes.
A shrug. "Fine." A yawn. He finished his beer and started making suck sounds with his lips around the bottle. "Are you gonna sit down, or are you just gonna stand there and stare at me."
Kieth stood and stared and clenched and trembled.
Jones noticed her bloody hand. "You're bleeding, you know."
Kieth realized she was about to enter into some sort of *relationship* with this guy called IBM Jones. "I know." But she didn't want a *relationship*. She hated *relationship*s. *Relationship*s of all kinds.
"Cut yourself?" IBM Jones said. Drip, drip.
*Relationship*s never brought anything good. Too much emotion and senselessness, then lots of pain, and when it was over, sweet, sweet obliteration. Kieth felt drunk. It must have been the ozone. The feeling of forced action returned, this time not cloaked in déjà vu. So she sat and said what she was supposed to say.
"Two things, okay?" Kieth said. "Religion and science: two ways to get *truth*" – she emphasized this last word with a grandiose hand motion – "like: 'beer and whiskey: two ways to get drunk.' The point is: religion took us as far as it could, but that wasn't far enough, so we turned to science. Science took us as far as *it* could, but even that wasn't far enough. It seemed to point back to religion, saying 'Here, you take over.' And so it cycles around and around like that forever. So we, as individuals, or as a species, we have to break the cycle; we have to advance to the next step."
Kieth stared at him. His mouth was open. He blinked twice, desperately trying to focus.
"And do you know what the next step is?"
"No." He licked his lips, blinked some more, too drunk to comprehend what she was talking about and yet sober enough to wonder why she was talking about it. Goddamn *relationship*s.
"Madness." Kieth grinned. It was a big grin with straight teeth. "Buy me a beer."
The invocation was over. Thus IBM Jones bought her a beer.