Chapter 89 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

The harsh winter cold bit at Jim's earlobes as he walked through the streets of the City. However, it was warm and pleasant inside the Saturn Cafe.

Once Jim was admitted, he went straight to the back table where The Four always preferred to sit. Although they hadn't been frequenting the Cafe as much as they used to, they'd all managed to get together tonight for a few games of Icehouse.

Jim greeted them, then went around behind their table and leaned against the carpeted wall, to watch them play. This game was well underway; Umberto had already used up all of his small pyramids.

A waitress approached and Jim ordered a beaker of C-tea. Neon light gleamed off of her halo-like headpiece as she walked away.

Peter and Paul each played several of their small pyramids, followed by a brief flurry of activity by Dave and Bert.

Jim watched the game with detached interest. His mind was on other things. He listened to the music of the synthesist and pondered the plot of a short story he was trying to write.

In the Pit, the synthesist created musical sounds that swam through the room and drifted up to the ceiling. He was attempting to create musical images. He would form an image in his mind, then create music to represent it. He thought of misty dew drops, dripping from tropical leaves in the rain forest, then played random, staccato, flute-like tones on his keyboard. He thought of horseshoe crabs, crawling across a hot, sandy beach, and played a slow, deep-throated melody, ambling along under the rainy dew drops. He thought of nebulas, gradually shifting over the eons from purple to red to yellow, changing slowly before a backdrop of a million stars in the dark, black sky, and played a shimmering, acoustical harmony, rolling along to the slow beat of the crabs, as they crawled across the beach.

Jim became dimly aware that someone was standing near him, off to the right. He looked, and found it was true. She was an attractive looking woman, wearing a black dress and a white scarf. As Jim turned his head to look at her, she turned her head away, looking instead at the Icehouse table.

Jim returned his gaze to the Icehouse game in progress, but before long, he could tell from his peripheral vision that she was looking at him again. He looked back, and she looked away. They repeated this sequence several times. Each time he looked at her, she looked away. When he again looked away, she turned back to look at him.

Then they both looked at each other at the same time.

"Are you looking at me?" Jim suddenly asked.

"No!" said the woman, and laughed. They both looked back at the Icehouse table.

"Who do you think will win?" asked Jim.

After a short pause, the woman said "The fat guy."

Jim snickered. "Bert? Not this time. Dave's got it sewn up."

Synthesizer tones cascaded over the crowd in the Cafe. Waves crashed against the beach. The horseshoe crabs continued their lumbering crawl. Dave came out the winner, though he only iced his opponents by a narrow margin. "That wasn't such a great game," Jim said to the woman. "Usually these guys make them more interesting." He took a sip of his C-tea, then looked back at her. "Care for a game?" he said.

"I don't have a set," she said.

"Neither do I," said Jim, "We'll use a house set."

Jim led the woman over to an empty table, and they sat down. He slid open a concealed drawer under the table top and began removing his Icehouse pieces. Then the woman understood, and located her own drawer. "Actually, I'm a terrible player," she confided.

"So am I," said Jim. "It takes years of practice to get good."

They began to play. The woman was indeed quite unskilled, and Jim relaxed his own stance a bit in order to even things up. He still won easily, and by the end of the game she was laughing at her mistakes.

The waitress stopped by, asking if Jim wanted a refill. He agreed, and asked the woman if she too wanted a drink. She declined.

A tall man in a dark green suit entered the Cafe. He stood in the doorway with a disoriented expression on his face, as if looking for someone. Then his expression changed, and he walked briskly towards Jim and the woman. As he drew near, the woman turned, and seeing him, smiled broadly.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, kissing the woman on the cheek.

"It's OK," she said, standing up. "Bye," she said to Jim, "It was nice meeting you."

"Bye," said Jim, vacantly, as he watched the couple stroll away.

"Who was that?" Jim heard the man ask.

"Oh, just this guy I met while waiting for you." The woman's voice faded away into the background noise of the Cafe. The horseshoe crabs were gone. Instead, seagulls now drifted on the gentle ocean breeze. Jim sipped his C-tea until it was gone, then went out into the night.

The harsh winter cold bit at Jim's earlobes as he walked through the streets of the City.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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