“Nightbeat” by Neal Barrett Jr.

The wakechimes touched me with the sound of cinnamon. I stretched, turned over, and watched the clockroach play time games against the wall.  It marked the spidery minutes in fine script and left crystal duntracks behind.

It was half-past blue, and a lemon moon spilled color into the room. Its light burnished Bethellen’s hair to silver and brushed her flesh with coffee shadow.

She stirred once, and I slid quietly away, padded to the shower cage and let cool spicewater bring me awake. There were cocoacubes where Bethellen had left them, but I passed them by and trotted back to the nightroom. My Copsuit sprang from its hollow with a dew-fresh scent, and I let it take me in.

I would have liked to look at myself. A small vanity, but mine own. I take pride in the uniform. It’s a Copsuit in the classical cut—basic whipcord in umber and vermilion, sepia pullover, and fringe-leather vest. The jackboots, gloves and chainbelt are traditional indigo. The Marshal’s Star of David is cadmium-gold, and the Peacemaker by my side is finest quartz and ivory.

Set. Ready to go, and a last look at Bethellen. She had turned in her sleep to catch the moonwaves. Citron limbs bared to an ocher sea. By morning, I’d taste lemon on her lips.

Outside, the prowlbug hummed to electric life. The moon was high now and a second had joined it—a small saffron tagalong. Lime shadows colored the streetways. The dashglow winked me into service, and I switched the roadlighs and moved along.

The street ribboned over soft hills furred with bonebrake, and through dark groves of churnmoss. Raven blossoms hung from high branches nearly to the ground. I swung the prowlbug into Bluewing, whispered through Speaklow, and coasted down the steep circle to Singhill.

There were people all about. If I listened, I could feel the sound of their sleeping. From Tellbridge I watched the lonelights far away. Not everyone slumbered, then, but all were snug in their homeshells till the day. None would stir before Amberlight polished the world. For that is how it is—the day belongs to us, but not the night.

I have often stopped the prowlbug and dimmed the lights and watched the darklife. In moments, the night fills with chitter-hums and thrashes. A beetlebear stops to sniff the air, pins me with frosty muzzle and razor eyes. For a while there is pink carnage in her heart; then she scutters by clanging husky armor. Jac-Jacs and Grievers wing the dark hollows. A Bloodgroper scatters his kill. There is much to darklife, and few have seen it as it is.

A quarter till yellow. The dashglow hemorrhages, coughs up a number. The prowlbug jerks into motion, whines up the speedscale. Sirens whoopa-whoopa-whoopa through the night, and I switch on the traditional lilac, plum and scarlet flashers overhead.

There are no strollers to pause and wonder. No other bugs abroad to give me way. Still, there are customs to keep alive, bonds with the past.

. . .

The address was nearby. Prowlbug skittered up the snakepath around Henbake. Pressed me tight against the driveseat. Pink lights to port. A homeshell high on Stagperch, minutes away.

Around a corner, and green sparkeyes clustered ahead—nightmates and shadlings hunkered in the streetway. The prowlbug whoopa-ed a warning, and they scattered like windleaves.

They were waiting for me, portal open. A big man with worry lines scribbled on paper features. His handstrobe stitched my path with lightcraters to shoo stray nightlings. The woman was small and pretty. Hands like frightened birds. I moved through them up turnstairs past buffwalls to the boy’s room.

I’d been there before, but they didn’t remember. No-face in a uniform.

. . .

A child in Dreamspasm is not a pretty sight. I punched his record on the bedscreen, scanned it quickly. Twelve and a half. Fifth Dream. Two-year sequence. No complications. I gripped one bony arm and plunged Blue-Seven in his veins. The spasms slowed to a quiver. I touched him, wiped foamspittle from his cheeks. His skin was cold, frogdank. Waterblue eyes looked up at nothing. The small mouth sucked air.

“He’s all right,” I said. The man and the woman huddled behind. “Take him in in the morning. Don’t think he did internal damage, but it won’t hurt to check.”

I laid a vial beside the bed.  “One if he wakes. I don’t think he will.”

“Thank you,” said the man. “We’re grateful.” The woman nodded his words.

“No problem.” I stopped in the hall and faced them again. “You know he could Secondary.”

They looked startled, as if they didn’t.

“If he does, stay with him.”

They frowned questions, and I shook my head. “Punch in if you like, but there’s nothing I can do. He can’t have Seven again. And a strong Secondary’s a good sign.” I sent them a Copgrin. “He’s old enough. You could be out of the woods.”

They gave each other smiles and said things I didn’t hear. The prowlbug was turning all my buttons red and shrieking in the night. I bounded down turnstairs and tore out the portal. No time for strobes and such. If nightlings got underfoot, they’d get a jackboot for their trouble.

The prowlbug scattered gravel, skit-tailed into the streetway. It was wound up and highwhining and I held on and let it have its way. Stagperch faded, and the snakepath dizzied by in black patches. I prayed against sleepy megapedes bunked in on the road ahead. A tin medal for Bethellen. Early insurance.

The dashglow spat data, but I already knew. Bad. Category A and climbing. Name of Lenine Capral and long overdue. First Dream and Fifteen.

. . .

The Rules say punch before you practice. No way with Lenine Capral. No record, no time, no need. The Dream had her in night-talons. Down on the dark bottom, and nothing for it. Lost, lost Lenine.

I drew the Peacemaker, pressed the muzzle between her eyes. Her body arched near double, limbs spread-eagled. I pulled back lids and looked. Milkpools. Silverdeath darting about. The little shiverteeth nibbling away.

I tossed my jacket aside. Grabbed a handful of hair and pinned her neck where I wanted it. Put the muzzle low behind the ear and up. This time, shock jerked a small arm and snapped it like crackwood. But nothing snapped Lenine.

I couldn’t shoot her again. More would burn her skull bone-dry. And nothing in the little glass tubes. Blue Seven was fine for the boy—about as good as mouse pee for Lenine.

Okay. One deep breath and down to dirty fighting. I ripped the sheet away. Stripped her bare. She was slim and fragile, too close to womantime. I spread her wide, and the motherperson made little sounds.

“Out.”

The man understood and moved her.

Dreamspasm is a thing of the mind. But that door’s closed for helpers. The physical road is the only way. Blue Seven. Redwing. And after that: physical stimuli to build mental bridges back home. Countershock for young minds. For Lenine Capral, therapeutic rape. Thumb the Peacemaker to lowbuzz and hope this one’s led a sheltered life.

Hurt her good.

Whisper uglies in her ear.

Slap and touch and tear. No gentle Peacemakers funsies. Only the bad parts. A child’s garden of horrors. Everything Mother said would happen if the bad man gets his hands on you.

Orange.

Red-thirty.

Coming up violet. Cream-colored dawn on the windows.

And finally the sound you want. Lenine the wide-eyed screamer. The violated child awake and fighting. Afraid of real things now. Scared out of Dreamspasm One.

Quickly out and past the hoverfaces. No gushy gratitude here. Mother doesn’t thank the Coprapist.

. . .

Outside, dawnbreeze turns the sweat clammy cold. A medbug has braved the nightlings all the way from Fryhope. Lenine will get proper patching.

The prowlbug has a homepath in mind, as well it might. Only I am not ready for Bethellen and breakfast. Both are out of temper with the night’s affairs. Instead, I brave the prowlbug’s rumblings, move past Slowrush, and wind down to Hollow. The road ends, and prowlbug will duly record that I have violated Safecode and am afoot before the dawn. The nightlings don’t concern me. They’ve fed before Firstlight and bear me no ill. At the stream I hear their thrums and splashings as they cross back over to find hugburrows for the day.

The stream is swift and shallow and no wider than a childstep. It makes pleasant rillsongs and winds beneath the green chumtrees. It has no name. It is simply the stream that divides the world. Dark from light. Night from day.

There is still nightshadow on the other side. The groves are thick and heavy. I watch, wait, and listen to the stream music.

Timebug says half-past violet. While I wait, I polish dunglasses. Put them on. They help me see what is, and temper what isn’t at all.

Wait.

Watch the waterlights.

A blink, a breath and he’s there. As if he’d been there all along.

For a moment my stomach does its tightness. But it’s not so bad for me. They make teetiny headchanges in policemen. Little slicecuts that go with the Copsuit. But there is still a childmind to remember. Dreamspasms in dark nightrooms.

Through the dunglasses I can see bristly no-color. Hear his restless flickersounds. See him move with the shape of frostfur. Hear him breathe hot darkness. Sense his crush-heavy limbs. Only, I cannot see or hear these things at all.

I wonder if he watches, and what he sees of me. I have to look away. And when I look again, he is gone. Nothing has changed in the thickness over there.

. . .

Back to the prowlbug. Ten till Indigo. Amberlight dares the high ridges. Sucks away the darkness.

I imagine him. Thromping and shifting. Dark fengroves away. Safe against the sunstar. All the young darklings purged of manfear. Only fright thoughts now—fading daydemons named Lenine.

What would I say to him if I could? Whatever could be said is what he knows. That the stream divides the world. That there are pinchfew places left to be. That mostly there is nothing left at all. That we have to make do, now, with what there is to share…

 

Neal Barrett, Jr. is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, mystery/suspense, and historical fiction. His story Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus was nominated for both the 1988 Nebula Award for Best Novelette” and the 1989 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Barrett was born in San Antonio, Texas but grew up in Oklahoma City,after his family relocated there when he was 1 year old. In 1997, he was the Toastmaster at the 55th World Science Fiction Convention held in San Antonio. In 2010, he was named Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His 500-page “Best of Neal Barrett, Jr, OTHER SEASONS, has just been released by Subterranean Press.
 

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