The Cosmic Wheel
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by J. D. Crayne
Category: Science Fiction/Mainstream
Description: Sci-Fi Larry Niven Hails as "Dark" And "Funny!" Mars, the church, media and world crisis come together in a heady mix that will remind some readers of James Morrow and others of Frederik Pohl. Not since Dr. Strangelove has there been such a wildly cynical science fictional look at the world we live in! From an April Fool joke gone wrong, to an imitation alien bilking the rich, The Cosmic Wheel turns through a near future filled with sex, blasphemy, and a satiric look at life in the mid-21st Century. Michael Brandise, Public Relations Director for NASA searches for the meaning of it all, with a few rolls in the hay along the way. Fastidious Maryanne Thinready is looking for a way to break off a love affair gone sour, while her husband finds comfort in the arms of a woman with unique ideas about the Hereafter. The irreverent Pope Glorious the First, the closest thing to an anti-Pope the modern world has seen, wonders where he went wrong. Pint-sized Childe Osbourne, entertainment's biggest star since that little girl with the golden curls, enjoys big graveyards and big women, often at the same time. In the midst of the mayhem, Jason Christopher Woodman rockets into space, while newspaper editor Carl Fawcett and roving reporter Nilla Bristol record it all with a jaundiced eye and hopes for a better future. No wonder multiple award-winning science fiction author Larry Niven says, "Reading The Cosmic Wheel was something like watching a Ping Pong game played by thousands of players around a table the size of a world. Dark humor. Funny stuff, The Cosmic Wheel." Cover: Elspeth Fahey
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [184 KB]
Reading time: 157-220 min.
There was a shrill scream from somewhere overhead. Conversation came to a sudden stop. The people in the suite looked around, startled, and then rushed to the windows; throwing them open to the brisk spring air. They were in time to see a body, half-lit by the hotel floodlights, flash by in the darkness, hit an awning three floors below, and bounce several times. There was dead silence as heads peered out of the windows.
"I think that was Camille Carmichael again," someone remarked after a while.
"Should we do something?" someone else asked.
"Naw, the hotel security people will take care of it."
There was general nodding and agreement; the windows slammed shut; and everyone decided that it was time for another drink.
Carl Fawcett looked around the room and wondered if there is anything more depressing than a party that goes on too long. The hotel suite was a litter of empty beer cans, dirty glasses, snack food sacks, and other debris. The last of the ice had melted into tepid puddles in cardboard tubs, and all of the Scotch was gone. A yellow-brown pall of cigarette smoke hung in the air, some tobacco and some happy grass.
The noise level was fairly low, since it was nearly two in the morning and most of the conventioneers had staggered off to their rooms. The diehards that were left had broken up into groups that were arguing, telling jokes, or having Serious Discussions about the attempted suicide, depending on how drunk they were. Little by little the conversations turned back to stuff that was really important, especially when you were drunk. One cluster of bleary-eyed news folk sat down on the floor and started trading April Fool stories.
The Sports Editor from Bakersfield, a sad looking man with sandy hair and a blue shirt, was sloshing a drink around and insisting, "Ah hell, run the one about the guy in Tasmania who discovered a subterranean race of albinos!" He tossed down the last of his warm vodka and grimaced, pulling his lips back wolfishly against his teeth.
"That lacks finesse, James, my boy," said Juanita, the City Editor of a large Cincinnati newspaper. "And some nerd in West Buffalo Crotch is gonna believe it. Hell, there are wackos who still think that there are people living under Mt. Shasta. Haven't you ever heard of Shaver? Of course not, you're too damned young!" She belched gently while the other six in the group threw in more ideas.
"How about the discovery of a 400-year-old man who doesn't eat anything but kumquats?"
"And have every health food store in the country get rich offa kumquats? You dumb ass!"
"Maybe he doesn't eat at all; just drinks camel piss."
"Blegh. That's the most disgusting thing I've ever heard."
"Oh, come on! You wrote that Mental Health column for three years and I still remember the one about the guy with the lemon Jell-O! Talk about disgusting!"
"Okay, how's this--Saddam Hussein was really a bull dyke in drag!"
"No can do. The Enquirer is running that as a lead next week."
Fawcett, Managing Editor for the Los Angeles Tribune, turned his attention back to the Political Analyst, who had backed him into a corner and was explaining how he and a friend once went out in the rain to measure their penises in Trafalgar Square.
"An' it's the damndest thing. They've got these damned big plaques up with yards and inches and feet on 'em. You wanna settle a bet, all you gotta do is go out and look. So, there it was, rainin' as usual an' ... me an' Frank took our ... me an' Frank took out our..." His eyes rolled up and he sank down sideways with a foolish grin on his face.
Carl watched owlishly through his glasses while his companion passed out quietly on the couch, and then he ambled over to join the April Fool discussion. He knew them all, but then he knew most of the people at the convention. They were all newsmen and women of one sort or another, and most of them had come up through columns, foreign assignments, and human interest trivia. They'd grown older, fatter, and a lot more cynical together.
"Hey, here's old Carl!" One of them waved. "Carl will come up with a good one! We got this great idea, Carl!"
"Yeah," James cut in, "We're all gonna run the same April Fool's gag. Make it nationwide! How about that?"
Carl wasn't quite drunk, but it was late and he was very tired, which was almost as good as booze. He considered the idea, sticking out his lower lip and half-lowering his lids. "Gimme a minute," he said, musing. "Okay, how's this? A terrorist kidnaps the International Space Station; holds it for ransom."
Everyone groaned except Juanita, who nodded gravely. "You got something there. It's dumb, it's raw, but--you got something."
"Scabies?" asked James, and laughed raucously.
"I don't care for the space station though," Juanita said, running her left-hand fingers through her mop of fluorescent red hair. "Make it something bigger, grander!"
"The moon?" Carl asked, lifting his brows. "Mars? Saturn?"
"Hey, I like it!" James roared, spreading his arms wide and dumping the dregs in his glass over a Society Editor from Santa Fe. "Terrorist Steals Saturn! Jewel of Solar System Imperiled!"
Carl and the others stared into the space defined by his hands, seeing it in 96 pt Bodoni, Century Garnet, and other typefaces, depending on their states of sobriety.
"Yeah," someone breathed, awed by the image. "But don't make it a terrorist. I'm bloody sick of terrorists. Terrorist kills Six, Terrorist Hacks Ten, Terrorist Blows up Plane. Please, not another terrorist. Besides, that guy in Buffalo Crotch would believe it."
"I agree," Carl said, nodding wisely. "How about mad scientists from Bulgaria?"
There was another round of groans.
"Person or Persons Unknown," muttered a short, stout, Crime Editor from Atlanta, staring into the remains of her gin and tonic.
Carl grinned at her "Cynthia, you sweet little armful of gore, robbery, and rape, you've got it! Nobody knows who did it."
"I thought it was always the butler who did it," James said blearily, while a friend kept him from setting fire to the rug with his lighter.
"This plot doesn't have a butler. Anybody got a piece of paper?" Juanita looked around menacingly and all of the others patted their pockets self-consciously, like cub reporters assigned to their first society dinner. No one had any paper, but all of the pocket computers came out. Carl, author of the idea, was elected scribe.
"Dateline..." he began, "where does this happen? We've got to have a good dateline for it. Afghanistan?"
A chorus of groans went up. "That's Al Qaeda all over again. So's Indonesia, Pakistan, India..."
"Yeah, good!" James said. "Flaky things always used to happen in Romania. Dracula and all. That'll crack 'em up over at the Times!"
Carl pecked away at the mini-keyboard for a few moments while everyone else looked on in boozy silence. The sight of a half-dozen silent news hounds sitting on the floor in a circle was like a magnet and by the time he was done the other people in the room had gravitated toward them and were standing around, looking down into the circle like ghosts at a sťance.
"Okay," Carl said finally. "Dateline Bucharest. Scientists reported today that the planet Saturn suddenly changed orbit on Saturday and was last reported rolling off across the galaxy in the direction of Ursa Minor. Authorities are at a loss to account for this phenomenon, although Russian researchers claim there is a link between the orbital perturbations..."
"Jeezus, I can't even say that sober!" one of the onlookers muttered.
"Ah ... orbital perturbations and the disruption of solar flares resulting from the latest Palestinian nuclear experiments. U. S. scientists deny any connection with the events and suggest that external forces, unknown on Earth, are responsible for this incredible event."
There was a round of applause; Carl got to his feet; bowed graciously; and handed the PDA back to its owner. The article was carefully copied onto more hand-helds and a couple of laptops. It would be a grand April Fool joke.
* * * *
Far up above the newspaper people, in the big penthouse suite of the aging Bonaventure Hotel, another party was going on. The party-goers in this suite were showing a little wear and tear too, but more of them were still on their feet and coherent, because they were mostly public figures and used to late hours.
Their party had been interrupted briefly when an aging starlet announced loudly that she had nothing to live for and dived out off the west parapet, but since she landed on an awning, and since this was her third suicide in six months, no one took it very seriously, merely commenting that she was going to ruin her health if she kept it up.
At least one of the guests was ready to leave, but she was in that slightly dazed state that comes from too many people and too much small talk. For the moment, any comfortable place to sit down would do instead. She turned slowly, leaning on her two stainless steel canes, looking for a place to sit.
She spotted an unoccupied couch; lumbered over to it and sat down gingerly, listening to it creak. When it proved to be up to her weight, she relaxed with a sigh of relief. Judge Bernice Wharhol stood up as little as possible. At her weight of nearly 800 pounds, sitting down was the kindest thing that she could do for her feet, knees, and hip joints. Her heart had given out long ago. Now a small stainless steel mechanism, powered by a minute battery, purred inside her chest and flushed her blood back and forth, back and forth.
She watched the party in silence, almost unaware of the metal webbing that girded her chest, and the small exciter motor that helped her blubbery ribcage expand and contract with each breath. Watching people move across the room was almost hypnotic; like watching the ebb and flow of the some strange tidal sea. The men's dark suits looked like tangles of seaweed, caught in little eddies of bright chiffons and silks the women wore. Her own dark gray velvet might be some sort of slate cliff by the seaside, and for a moment her thoughts went back to an astrology reading that she had gotten, when she was only a child, that said her ruling sign was a massive rocky shore. Apparently she had grown into it.
When someone sat down next to her and the surface of the couch moved, it fit all in like a miniature wave and she didn't turn to look until she heard the voice.
It was a mellow, piping, sort of voice, one that might have come from a seabird on some fantasy shore, or Shakespeare's Puck. "Do you mind if I sit on your lee side, out of the gale?"
Bernice turned her head and looked down, a half-smile coming to her lips. The dark-haired little man sitting next to her was hardly taller than an eight year old child, and was dressed neatly in an outfit that looked like it came out of some Victorian children's book. He was holding a plastic cup of red punch and he grinned up at her, winking one bright blue eye.
"How appropriate," Bernice said. "I was just thinking how much this crowd looked like some sort of wave pattern, moving back and forth, eddying around, and all that. I don't think we've met, but of course I've seen your shows. You're Childe Osbourne, aren't you?"
"I am indeed. And you, dear lady, are Supreme Court Justice Bernice Wharhol. I would know you anywhere." He bowed from the waist, one small hand over his heart, little stocking-covered legs hanging only part way down the front of the couch. He looked critically around the room. "You're right; it does look a bit like the seaside. Poor old Camille, in that white dress she had on she might have been a bit of stray Styrofoam blown off of the side of a wharf."
Bernice sighed. "I really wish that she'd find another attention-getter. It's gotten rather boring, actually." She lifted the watch that she wore pinned in the cream lace at her breast. "It's past two o'clock in the morning. I believe I can leave now, without any particular guilt."
"I would be delighted to guide you out of this or any other anchorage," Childe Osbourne said, "if I could find a way to the door without being stepped on."
The jurist pursed her lips and looked across the room. "I did want to pay my respects to our hostess before I escaped, but she seems to be thoroughly taken up with Pope Glorious, and I don't think that I can take another dose of him. An incredible man. Did you meet him?"
"Briefly. I made my way through the receiving line and then beat a hasty retreat. He's a bizarre character, to say the least. I can't say that the New Schism has done the Church much good. On the one hand there is that fine old traditionalist, John Paul XXIX, sulking in Lucerne and still yammering about birth control and Original Sin. On the other, there is Glorious the First, self-confessed sodomite, and part-time devil's advocate. I hate to sound cynical, but it makes me wonder what sort of future religion has in this world."
Bernice shrugged her massive shoulders. "Religion says you aren't supposed to find any relief in this world anyway, so what does it matter? There's a horde of non-Christian religions out there, and if that fails, you've always got atheism, agnosticism, or some other -ism around to fall back on. Does it really offend you that much?"
"I don't know," Childe Osbourne said, after sipping at his cup of punch. "I think that's what's bothering me. I have the feeling that I ought to care more than I do. Not that I've ever been what you'd call a religious man, but I still kind of feel that there ought to be some sort of standards. I'll get a few jokes out of Glorious, to haul out for the video audience or the next fund raiser, but there's something about it that I really don't like. Maybe I'm just too tired." He shook his head briskly, and smiled up at her. "When I finally had enough of Glorious, I pushed Brother Brandise in to take my place. He's the most conservative man that I know. I suspect their conversation would make a great comedy routine, but I thought I'd better escape while I had the chance."
"Brother Brandise? You mean Michael Brandise, of the Space Administration?"
"Yep. The people who work with him call him Brother Brandise because he spent a year in a seminary and because he's so damned conservative."
Bernice chuckled. "I know him fairly well. I didn't know about the nickname, though. He gave evidence in a rather long trial about security compliance, some four or five years ago, and we got to know one another. I didn't even know he was here. That's the unfortunate part about big receptions like this. You miss everyone that you'd like to see."
Childe Osbourne climbed up to stand on the couch and looked across the room. "He's over there by the buffet table, talking to Jacob Thinready, the science fiction writer." He slid down onto the seat again, like a little kid.
Bernice peered through the crowd and caught a glimpse of a thin man with mousy brown hair and big ears. "Poor Michael. He looks like someone just kneed him in the crotch and he's too polite to mention it."
Osbourne laughed, a tinkling treble sound. "That's Michael, all right. He's really a decent guy, but when he walks into a room you can practically see his cowl and sandals." He reached over delicately and put his empty plastic punch cup down in the middle of a bowl of tulips sitting on the end table.
"I'd like to talk to him," Bernice said, "but not tonight. I think I'll give up on polite farewells. Our dear hostess will have to settle for flowers and insincere thank-you notes." She put a hand on each of her canes, which looked a little bit like thin trashcans with centipede feet, and levered herself to her feet. "I have a driver and car here, and have to drive out to Santa Monica. Can I drop you somewhere?"
Childe Osbourne hopped down off the couch, swept off the velvet cap that he was wearing, and bowed in front of her, with the same theatrical gesture that he'd been using for video audiences for the past forty years.
"Most gracious of you! Many thanks, but I have my own limo and chauffeur. I don't like having to pull some bell captain's coattails and ask him to get me a cab. I'd be honored to escort you out, however. Your majestic presence will lend me some dignity for a change."
Bernice chuckled and moved toward the door, helped by the pair of guide canes that turned obediently along with her.
Childe Osbourne walked along behind as the canes glided over the floor on either side of her. His outfit was wrong for the occasion, he decided critically. A brocade robe, slippers with turned up toes, and a big turban would be more in character. He really needed a big silver turban and a vast ostrich plume fan, to do Her Justice justice. They moved through the throng like a tanker accompanied by some small tender and vanished silently into the cool night air.