Return to Pleasure Island.
by Cory Doctorow.
George twiddled his thumbs in his booth and watched how the brown, clayey knuckles danced overtop of one another. Not as supple as they had once been, his thumbs -- no longer the texture of wet clay on a potter's wheel; more like clay after it had been worked to exhausted crackling and brittleness. He reached into the swirling vortex of the cotton-candy machine with his strong right hand and caught the stainless-steel sweep-arm. The engines whined and he felt them strain against his strong right arm, like a live thing struggling to escape a trap.
Still strong, he thought, still strong, and he released the sweep-arm to go back to spinning sugar into floss.
A pack of boys sauntered down the midway, laughing and calling, bouncing high on sugar and g-stresses. One of them peeled off from the group and ran to his booth, still laughing at some cruelty. He put his palms on George's counter and pushed against it, using them to lever his little body in a high-speed pogo.
"Hey, mister," he said, "how about some three-color swirl, with sprinkles?"
George smiled and knocked the rack of paper cones with his strong right elbow, jostled it so one cone spun high in the air, and he caught it in his quick left hand. "Coming _riiiiiight_ up," he sang, and flipped the cone into the floss-machine. He spun a beehive of pink, then layered it with stripes of blue and green. He reached for the nipple that dispensed the sprinkles, but before he turned its spigot, he said, "Are you sure you don't want a dip, too? Fudge?
The boy bounced even higher, so that he was nearly vaulting the counter. "All three! All three!" he said.
George expertly spiraled the floss through the dips, then applied a thick crust of sprinkles. "Open your mouth, kid!" he shouted, with realistic glee.
The boy opened his mouth wide, so that the twinkling lights of the midway reflected off his back molars and the pool of saliva on his tongue. George's quick, clever left hand dipped a long-handled spoon into the hot fudge, then flipped the sticky gob on a high arc that terminated perfectly in the boy's open mouth. The boy swallowed and laughed gooely. George handed over the dripping confection in his strong right hand, and the boy plunged his face into it. When he whirled and ran to rejoin his friends, George saw that his ears were already getting longer, and his delighted laugh had sounded a little like a bray. A job well done, he thought, and watched the rain spatter the spongy rubber cobbles of the midway.
George was supposed to go off-shift at midnight. He always showed up promptly at noon, but he rarely left as punctually. The soft one who had the midnight-to-six shift was lazy and late, and generally staggered in at twelve thirty, grumbling about his tiredness. George knew how to deal with the soft ones, though -- his father had brought him up surrounded by them, so that he spoke without his father's thick accent, so that he never inadvertently crushed their soft hands when he shook with them, so that he smiled good-naturedly and gave up a realistic facsimile of sympathy when they griped their perennial gripes.
His father! How wise the old man had been, and how proud, and how _stupid_.
George shucked his uniform backstage and tossed it into a laundry hamper, noting with dismay how brown the insides were, how much of himself had eroded away during his shift. He looked at his clever left thumb and his strong right thumb, and tasted their good, earthy tastes, and then put them away. He dressed himself in the earth-coloured dungarees and workshirt that his own father had stolen from a laundry line when he left the ancestral home of George's people for the society of the soft ones.
He boarded a Cast Member tram that ran through the ultidors underneath Pleasure Island's midway, and stared aimlessly at nothing as the soft ones on the tram gabbled away, as the tram sped away to the Cast housing, and then it was just him and the conductor, all the way to the end of the line, to the cottage he shared with his two brothers, Bill and Joe. The conductor wished him a good night when he debarked, and he shambled home.
Bill was already home, napping in the pile of blankets that all three brothers shared in the back room of the cottage. Joe wasn't home yet, even though his shift finished earlier than theirs. He never came straight home; instead, he wandered backstage, watching the midway through the peepholes. Joe's Lead had spoken to George about it, and George had spoken to Joe, but you couldn't tell Joe anything. George thought of how proud his father had been, having three sons -- three! George, the son of his strong right thumb, and Bill, the son of his clever left thumb, and Joe. Joe, the son of his tongue, an old man's folly, that left him wordless for the remainder of his days. He hadn't needed words, though: his cracked and rheumy eyes had shone with pride every time they lit on Joe, and the boy could do no wrong by him.
George busied himself with supper for his brothers. In the little wooded area behind the cottage, he found good, clean earth with juicy roots in it. In the freezer, he had a jar of elephant-dung sauce, spiced with the wrung-out sweat of the big top acrobats' leotards, which, even after reheating, still carried the tang of vitality. Preparing a good meal for his kind meant a balance of earthy things and living things, things to keep the hands supple and things to make them strong, and so he brought in a chicken from the brothers' henhouse and covered it in the sloppy green-brown sauce, feathers and all. Bill, being the clever one, woke when the smell of the sauce bubbling in the microwave reached him, and he wandered into the kitchen.
To an untutored eye, Bill and George were indistinguishable. Both of them big, even for their kind -- for their father had been an especially big specimen himself -- whose faces were as expressive as sculptor's clay, whose chisel-shaped teeth were white and hard as rocks. When they were alone together, they went without clothing, as was the custom of their kind, and their bodies bulged with baggy, loose muscle. They needed no clothing, for they lacked the shame of the soft ones, the small thumb between the legs. They had a more civilised way of reproducing.
"Joe hasn't returned yet?" Bill asked his strong brother.
"Not yet," George told his clever brother.
"We eat, then. No sense in waiting for him. He knows the supper hour," Bill said, and since he was the clever one, they ate.
Joe returned as the sun was rising, and burrowed in between his brothers on their nest of blankets. George flung one leg over his smallest brother, and smelled the liquor on his breath in his sleep, and his dreams were tainted with the stink of rotting grapes.
George was the first one awake, preparing the morning meal. A maggoty side of beef, ripe with the vitality of its parasites, and gravel. Joe came for breakfast before Bill, as was his custom. Bill needed the sleep, to rest his cleverness.
"G.o.d-_d.a.m.n_, I am _hungry!_," Joe said loudly, without regard for his sleeping brother.
"You missed dinner," George said.
"I had more important things to do," Joe said. "I was out with an Imagineer!"
George stared hard at him. "What did the Imagineer want? Is there trouble?"
Joe gave a deprecating laugh. "Why do you always think there's trouble? The guy wanted to chat with me -- he likes me, wants to get to know me. His name is Woodrow, he's in charge of a whole operations division, and he was interested in what I thought of some of his plans." He stopped and waited for George to be impressed.
George knew what the pause was for. "That's very good. You must be doing a good job for your Lead to mention you to him."
"That little p.r.i.c.k? He hates my guts. Woodrow's building a special operations unit out of lateral thinkers -- he wants new blood, creativity. He says I have a unique perspective."
"Did you talk to Orville?" Orville was the soft one who'd brought them from their father's shack to the Island, and he was their mentor and advocate inside its Byzantine politics. Bill had confided to George that he suspected Orville was of a different species from the soft ones -- he certainly seemed to know more about George's kind than a soft one had any business knowing.
Joe tore a hunk from the carca.s.s on the rickety kitchen table and stuffed it into his mouth. Around it, he mumbled something that might have been yes and might have been no. It was Joe's favorite stratagem, and it was responsible for the round belly that bulged out beneath his skinny chest.
Joe tore away more than half of the meat and made for the door. "Woodrow wants to meet with me again this morning. Don't wait up for me tonight!" He left the cottage and set off toward the tram-stop.
Bill rolled over on his bedding and said, "I don't like this at all."
George kept quiet. Bill's voice surprised him, but it shouldn't have. Bill was clever enough to lie still and feign sleep so that he could overhear Joe's conversations, where George would have just sat up and started talking.
"Orville should know about this, but I can't tell if it would make him angry. If it made him angry and he punished Joe, it would be our fault for telling him."
"Then we won't tell him," George said.
Bill held up his hand. "But if we don't tell him and he finds out on his own, he may be angry with us."
"Then we should tell him," George said.
"But Joe and this Woodrow may not get along after all, and if that happens, the whole thing will end on its own."
"Then we won't tell him," George said.
"But if they do get along, then they may do something that would make Orville angry," Bill looked expectantly at George.
"Then we should tell him?" George said, uncertainly.
"I don't know," Bill said. "I haven't decided."
George knew that this meant that Bill would have to think on it, and so he left him. He had to catch the tram to make it to his shift, anyway.
The soft one with the six-to-noon shift left as soon as George arrived, without a word. George was used to soft ones not having anything to say to him, and preferred it that way. He was better off than Bill -- soft ones always wanted to talk to Bill, and he hated it, since they never had anything to say that Bill wanted to know. The weather needed no discussion, Bill said. And as for the complaints about the shift's Lead, well, one soft one was just about the same as any other, and Orville had told them that at the end of the day, they worked for him, not for any Lead.
Joe liked talking to the soft ones. Joe liked to talk, period. He told the soft ones lies about their childhood in the shack with their father, and told them about how his brothers tormented, and even talked about the weather. When he got back home, he told his brothers all over again, everything he'd told the soft ones.
George had memorised the SOP manual when they came to the Island, five years before. It clearly said that the floor of the booth would be disinfected every three hours, and the surfaces polished clean, and the pots and machines refilled. The soft one with the six-to-noon shift never did any of these things, which could get him disciplined by their Lead, but George didn't complain. He just wiped and disinfected and re-stocked when he arrived, even though he had to be extra careful with the water, so that he didn't wash any of himself away.
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