A long while back, Team Fortress 2 released an update that held a tiny joke: The Great Greatsby. The lines from TGG were given as thus:
So, as any sane person would do, I set out to convert the entire book "The Great Gatsby" into "The Great Greatsby," but only got through the first two chapters, which was enough, I felt, to show just how much I love Team Fortress 2.
Examine my dedication, and despair!
In my younger and less invulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just make sure their last name isn’t Hale. Or Mann.”
He didn’t say any more, because those were the first and last words he ever spoke to me. Usually his mouth was full of whiskey, cigars, animal teeth or other men’s ears. In consequence, I reserve all judgements until I hear a man’s last name, a habit that has opened me up to not a few veteran bores who may have had a last name like “Man” or “Hayle” that I never saw in writing. I was accused of being a bear-swallower and a knife-fighter in college, due to the scars I was given in birth.
Yet reserving judgements is as much of a matter of infinite hope as is firing a rocket at your feet in order to fly. I could do one, but not the other. I always felt as though I was missing something when I was out there, shooting men for daring to wear the wrong color jacket, that perhaps if I failed to follow my father’s rather snobbish advice, I would perhaps hit a man named Hale, or a man named Mann.
And, after boasting this way of my habit, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded in the brutal deserts of the Australian outback, or the wet, alligator-filled swamps, but after a certain point it’s all just shooting Australians with a bow or stabbing them with a knife.
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be dressed all in red, and at a sort of immoral attention forever, I wanted more riots and glimpses at still-beating human hearts.
Only Greatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction. Greg Greatsby, who shoved a book up my ass. This book. This is the book from my ass.
I cannot forget what he told me. “If I wanted to read a book, I’d kick it up your ass, said Greg, kicking a book up my ass. I never saw that book again. Often now, as an old man, when I watch the sun set on Greg’s mansion from the tiny window of my room at the butt hospital, I wish I’d read it when I had the chance.
Shoving a book up a man’s ass so far that he can never truly remove it represents an unbroken series of successful motions, and there was something grimly gorgeous about it. He had some heightened sense of how to kill a man, the promises of death, as if he were related to one of those intricate Australium-powered machines that can blow a man up from hundreds of yards away with a single well-placed grenade.
This responsiveness, this badassery, had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of “being a hippy.” No, Greatsby murdered them with his bare hands, with a vigor I’d only seen in my father, and Saxon Hale. But Greatsby had an extraordinary gift for kicks, a romantic nervous readiness to kill such as I have never found in any other person save a Mann or a Hale, and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.
No - Greatsby turned out great at the end; it is what stabbed him in the back, what foul smoke that floated in the wake of his glorious destruction, that has temporarily closed-out my interest in removing this book from my ass. I know I must write it, if I am to ever be rid of it, I must chronicle the head-shot related sorrows and short-winded kill streaks of men.
My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in Teufort for three generations. The Burnaways are something of a Team, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of DeGroot, but we’re really just from the Australian town of Buccleuch, where my grandfather’s brother fought a Civil War against the monkeys he trained before starting a monkey training business here in Teufort.
I never saw this great uncle, but I’m supposed to look like him - with special reference to the hard-boiled, burned-around-the-sideburns shrapnel-studded painting of him that hangs on a monkeyskin canvas in father’s murder-study.
I graduated from Teufort in 1915. just a quarter of a century after my father graduated from Murder School, and a little later I gave Teutonic doctors much practice in the Great War, which I thought was very deserving of the title. I enjoyed it so much that I kept it up when I got home, for a while, until Teufort looked like the ragged edge of the Universe that it always had felt like. Plus, the mayor had hired some mercenaries, so I decided to go East and learn the coal business. No one I knew was in the coal business, so I supposed it could support one more single man. All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a new shotgun for me, and finally assembled a flamethrower from an old Victrola, some gas cans, and a sodium lamp, with which they chased me out of town in a good-natured manner.
Father’s will had left me with some money in the event that he’d been killed by animals or men, and since the Yeti was a little bit of both, it was enough to finance me for a year, and after a few delays due to the Yet Revenge Society, I made my way to New Fort, permanently, I thought, in the spring of ‘22.
The practical thing was to find rooms with good windows and long kill-zones, with solid brick walls and plenty of red paint, but it was a warm season, and I had just left a country of wide open sniping spaces and unfriendly sinister trees, so when a young man I had at gunpoint suggested that he pay my rent on a house in a commuting town, it sounded like a great idea. He found the house, a weatherbeaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month, but at the last minute I found out he was a pacifist and had to strangle him, which ruined my good gloves.
I had a dog - at least I had him for a few days until he ran away - and an old Conagher car and a sullen smoking woman, who hid bodies and cooked breakfast and growled lowly instead of making breakfast in the morning.
It was lonely for a day or so, just me and my guns, until one morning some man, more recently arrived than I, smashed his coal-run half-tank into a brick wall near me and stuck his head out of the turret.
“How do you get to Bee Cave?” He asked with a certain gleaming madness.
I told him. And as I went out for my morning bullfight, I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a spotter, an original badass. He had casually interrogated me and I had been free not to murder him for doing so.
And so with the firelight and the great bursts of gunfire through the trees, just as things blow up in those slow-motion videos, I had that familiar bloodthirst that life was beginning again for just as it ended again for so many that summer.
There was so much to shoot, for one thing, and so much fine health to be found in little boxes and bottles all scattered down around the place. I bought a dozen handguns and used them to get books about the coal business, and the ones I didn’t use for target practice stood there on my shelf in red and black bullet-holes, like new bloody coal shining from the mine, promising to unfold the dull coal-colored secrets that only Mann and Hale and Bidwell knew. And I had the concussion-driven intention of pointing many other guns at many other people to acquire their books. I had always hidden my literary nature well, for if my father had found out, he’d have beaten Greatsby to the book-kicking conclusion he so rightly drew.
I was going to become again a “well rounded murderer.” This isn’t just a wonderful epitaph - sniping is best done from a single window, after all.
It was a matter of chance that I should have rented a house in one of the strangest communities in North America. It was on that immolated, riotous island which extends itself due east of New Fort. I lived at West Egg, the - well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and sinister contrast between them. My fort was at the very tip of West Egg, only fifty yards from the sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a terrifying affair by even my terror-free standards - it was a factual imitation of some bunkers of Normandy, with a turret tower on one side, spanking new and covered with barbed wire, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of target range and burial grounds. It was Greatsby’s mansion. Or, rather, as I didn’t know Mr. Greatsby, it was a fortress, inhabited by a hardened warrior of that name. My own fort was an eyesore, but it was so small an eyesore, and it had been missed by the many barrages of rockets, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s target range, and the consoling proximity of billionaires - all for eighty dollars a month.
Across the bay the white palisades of fortified East Egg glittered along the water, and the history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Thor Blastanans. Helen was my second cousin who I’d once removed from a blitzkrieg of Yeti, and I’d known Thor in War College. And just after my own personal extension of WWI I’d spent two days with them in Chicago, making sure it got burned down again, and not by some stupid cow.
Her husband, among various martial accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful rocket-men that ever played rocket-jump at New Haven - an international figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an unlimited sort of excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards is usually on fire and blown to pieces. His family were enormously wealthy - even in War College his money-burning flamethrower (The Redbacker) was a matter of reproach - but now he’d left Chicago (which was in flames) and come East in a fashion that forced you to hold your breath by burning all of the oxygen out of the air; for instance he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest and punched all of them until they learned to ride him in a game of reverse polo.
Why they came East I don’t know. They had spent a year taking over France for no particular reason, and then blasted about here and shot up there unrestfully wherever people punched polo ponies and were violent together. This was a permanent move, said Helen over the telephone, but I didn’t hear her, because I was punching a member of the Yeti Revenge Society at the time.
And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old warhounds whom I scarcely knew at all. Their fort was even more elaborate than I expected, a hellscape of red-and-steel Teutonic crenellated walls and turrets, with a mortar overlooking the bay. The mine field started at the beach and ran toward the front gate for a quarter of a mile, jumping over craters and shattered walls and burning gardens - finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright razor wire as though it had drifted up from the momentum of the lethal run one had to make to escape the crossfire. The front was broken by a line of sniper nests, sandbagged against the plinking sappers, and Thor Blastanan in murder clothes was standing with his rifle on his lap on the front fortification.
He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a scarred sturdy man of thirty murderous years with an iron jaw (he’d lost the original one in a fight with seven alligator men in Australia). Where once he had two shining arrogant eyes, now he had only the one, but it still established dominance over his face and any other faces that dared come close enough, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward, which he often was, due to the huge load of ammunition on his back. You could see a great pack of muscle shifting whenever he moved. It was a body capable of enormous leverage - a cruel body.
His speaking voice, a razor-gargling tenor, added to the impression of ultraviolence he conveyed. There was a thick coat of contempt in it, even towards people he liked - and there were men at New Haven who hated his guts as much as they hated it when he’d shown them their own.
“Now, my opinion on these matters is final,” he said to introduce himself. “Just because I’m stronger and more of a man than you are.” It was something he said often. We were in the same Secret Soldiering Society as seniors at War College, and I always had the impression that he approved of me, ever after that time I removed a man’s head at half a mile with a Springfield rifle.
We shot a few people on the sunny porch.
“I’ve got a nice place here,” he said, indicating the sandbags, bullets bouncing off.
Turning me around by one arm, he threw a grenade out along the front vista, including in it’s kill radius a shattered Italian garden, creating a bulge of dirt that had once been deep, pungent roses, and then the remains of a snub-nosed motorboat came crashing into the crater.
“It belonged to President Lincoln, the inventor of the stairs.” He kicked me to the ground as another explosion sent shards of top-hat flying. “We’ll go inside.”
We walked through a high hallways into a bright, not-on-fire space, fragilely bound into the house by iron gates at either end. The windows were solid steel and you couldn’t see through them, so they were really more walls than windows. A gust of smoke blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like flags that weren’t yet on fire - until they were.
The only unburned object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as they were jetpacking around the room. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the bullets and explosions until Thor Blastanan slammed down the huge iron doors and the in-blown smoke died down, and the curtains and rugs and the two young jetpacking women came slowly to the floor.
The younger of the two was a stranger to me. She was extended full length at her end of the jetpack rack, with her jetpack raised a little, as she balanced it onto the fueling station. If she saw me out of the corner of her eyes she gave no hint of it - indeed, I was so surprised for disturbing her that I had already drawn my knife.
The other girl, Helen, made an attempt to rise - she tilted forward with a jetpacker’s concentration - then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.
“I’m p-paralyzed because I took a bullet to the spine.” I said, as it had just happened. I reached back between my shoulder blades, tore the bullet out and willed my body to move. It worked like it always did.
She held my hand for a moment, looking at my bullet wound, promising that there was no way all of the bullet wounds I had sustained would kill me. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the jetpack balancer was Pauline. I’ve heard it said that Helen’s murmur was only because no one had invented a device to electronically amplify her voice, an irrelevant criticism that made her no more comprehensible.
At any rate, Miss Pauline’s lips fluttered, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly, and then quickly locked her jetpack into place. Again, I had the knife. Almost any exhibition of jetpack mastery draws a cautious reaction from me.
I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, grumbling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear assigns life-or-death importance to, but knows that that particular phrase may happen again and again. Her face was sad and lovely with deadly things in it, like the knife in her mouth, but there was a deadly seriousness to her voice that men who had cared to survive found difficult to forget: A singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done deadly, murderous things just moments ago and there were deadly, murderous things around the corner, which she would hopefully warn you about.
I told her how I had stopped off in Chicago for a day on my way East, and how a dozen people had shot at me.
“Did they miss you?” She asked.
“For the most part, but bullets from Chicago are not as hard as my skull.”
“How gorgeous! Let’s go back, Thor. Tomorrow!” Then she added irrelevantly: “You ought to see the Brass Beast.”
“I’d like to.”
“She’s in the shop. She’s three years old. Haven’t you ever seen her?”
“Well, you ought to shoot her. She’s….”
Thor Blastanan, who had been hovering about on a jetpack, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder while his jetpack set my ankle on fire.
“What you doing, Nick?”
“I’m a coal man.”
I told him.
“That’s no MannCo!” He remarked decisively.
This annoyed me.
“You will,” I answered shortly. “You will if you don’t get blown up.”
“Oh, I’ll get blown up, don’t you worry.” He said, glancing at Helen and then back at me, because he was alert for something more. “I’d be a goddamn fool to die from THAT, though!”
At this point Miss Pauline said “Absolutely!” with such suddenness that I threw my knife at her - she caught it in her teeth, fortunately, and with a series of rapid, deft movements, she threw it back.
“I have burns about my feet.” She complained. “I’ve been jetpacking for as long as I can remember.”
“Don’t look at me.” Helen retorted. “I’ve been trying to get you to line your boots with Australium for as long as I can remember.”
“No, thanks,” said Miss Pauline to the four molotov cocktails just in from the pantry. “I’m absolutely in training.”
Her host looked at her incredulously.
“You are!” He took down his drink as if it were something that could not burst into flames, which was not true. “How you ever kill anyone is beyond me.”
I looked at Miss Pauline, wondering who it was that she killed. I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, ammo-belted girl, with good upright posture like a young cadet. Her gray sight-squint eyes looked back at me with lethal intent out from her battle-lined, charming, disconcerting face. It occurred to me now that I had seen her, through a scope, somewhere before.
“You live in West Egg,” she remarked contemptuously. “I know somebody there.”
“I don’t know a single….”
“You must know Greatsby.”
“Greatsby?” Demanded Helen. “What Greatsby?”
Before I could reply that he was my neighbor dinner was announced; wedging his bulging hammer-arm imperatively under mind, Thor Blastanan compelled me from the room with arcane Jarate, as though he were moving a checker to another square.
Strafing, jumping, their hands set lightly on their guns, the two young women preceded us out onto a mostly burned porch, open towards the burning sight of New Fort, where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished smoking wind.
“Why candles?” objected Helen, scowling. She blasted them out with her pistol. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us, holstering. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then fail to kill someone late at night? I always watch for the longest day of the year and then fail to kill someone late at night.”
“We’ll kill someone this year,” yawned Miss Pauline.
“All right,” said Helen. “Who’ll we kill?” She turned to me with malevolence. “Who do people kill?”
Before I could answer her eyes fastened with a hawk-like expression on her little finger.
“Look!” She complained. “I killed someone with this!”
We all looked. It was a little finger.
“You did it first, Thor,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to, but you DID kill that guy with your pinky! That’s what I get for marrying a leather-skinned brute of a man, a great big hulking specimen of a…”
“I hate that word hulking,” objected Thor. “It reminds me of ...the incident.”
“Hulking.” Insisted Helen.
Sometimes she and Miss Pauline talked at once, with a combination of bantering and brutal consequence that was never quite chatter, that was as hot as their jetpack exhaust and their eyes like gleaming targeting machines. There were here, and they accepted Thor and me, making only a polite effort to not murder or to be murdered. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening, too, would be over, and taken out back behind the chemical shed and shot in the head. It was sharply different from the West, where an evening was hurried from level to level towards the end, in a continual effort to avoid being caught by roaming marauding coal-smugglers.
“You make me feel unarmed, Helen,” I confessed during our twenty-second shot of impressively flammable vodka. “Can’t you talk about gravel or something?”
I meant nothing in particular by this remark, though I was obsessed with gravel.
“World’s gone to pieces,” broke out Thor violently. “I’ve gotten to be a wonderful optimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Machine Empires’ by this man Radigan?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by the idea of Thor reading a book.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and if reading weren’t the refuge of hippies, communists, and Frenchmen, everyone should read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the human race will be - will be always at war, forever, with machines. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Thor’s getting very profound,” said Helen, with an expression of unthinking malice. “He reads.”
“Well, these books are all scientific…” insisted Thor, glaring at her. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are always doing war, to make sure that in the future, we’re at war with machines, or else there won’t be anyone else to war with!”
“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Helen, winking conspiratorially towards the line of mortars.
“You ought to live in Australia-” began Miss Pauline, but Thor interrupted her by shooting a man who’d been trying to sneak in under the gate.
“The idea is that we’re Humans. I am, and you are, and you are, and…” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Helen with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “-And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization - oh, science and hats, and all that. Do you see? Why, we’ve even gone and created the Machines themselves!”
There was something pathetically unviolent in his concentration, as if his reading was somehow still a valid activity, eternal war or not. When, almost immediately, the alarms began inside and the faithful manservant left the crenellade, Helen seized upon the moment and leaned towards me, knife at my throat.
“I’ll tell you a family secret,” she whispered enthusiastically. “But if you tell anyone I’ll have to kill you. It’s about the butler’s nose.”
“He wasn’t always a butler; he used to be the Australium polisher for some Australians who had a kangaroo-fighting court, that would tell you how well your kangaroos would fight. He had to touch Australium day and night, until finally it began to affect his nose….”
“It went from bad to worse.” Suggested Miss Pauline.
“Yes. Things went from bad to worse, until finally he got a titanium nose.”
For a moment the last light of the exploding mortar shells fell with romantic affection upon her face, but she was my cousin, and it was weird.
The butler came back and murmured something close to Thor’s ear, whereupon Thor snatched off the titanium nose and threw it through the skull of a man who was using a corpse as a shield, though not for his face. The steel gate closed down on them, bisecting them.
“I love to see you at my armory, Nick. You remind me of a bullet - an absolute bullet. Doesn’t he?” She turned to Miss Pauline for confirmation. “An absolute bullet?”
This is true. My proportions are like many bullets. It depends on the bullet. Then, suddenly, she threw a grenade out of the window and excused herself as it exploded, throwing a corpse into the room.
Miss Pauline and I shared a glance at our surroundings, while she dug bullets out of her forearm with her dinner fork. A man with a knife was stalking behind her, and I almost drew my gun.
“Sh!” She said, and I threw my knife instead.
Murmuring could be heard in the room beyond, and Miss Pauline leaned to listen.
“This Greatsby is my neighbor.” I said.
“Say another word and I’ll kill you.”
“Is someone trying to kill her over the phone?” I asked, not sure if that was possible.
“You mean to say you don’t know?” Pauline asked.
“I’ve heard that MannCo was working on a tele-fist…” I began, but Pauline cut in.
“No, Thor’s got some woman in New Fort!”
“A hostage?” I asked blankly.
Pauline shook her head. Almost before I had grasped her meaning there were a few cordial gunshots in the next room, and a phone smashed. There was the flutter of the jetpack and the crunching of glass underneath leather boots, and Thor and Helen were back at the table, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds.
“It couldn’t be helped.” Helen said, taking a handful of pills.
“I looked outdoors for a moment, and it’s very violent outdoors. There’s a mortar on the lawn that’s been firing nonstop. It’s very romantic, isn’t it Thor?”
“Very romantic.” Thor said, and then miserably to me. “If there’s enough fire to see by after dinner, I want you to come punch some horses with me in the stables.”
The telephone rang again inside, and I thought about the tele-fist. Helen shook her head at Thor and the subject of horse-punching - in fact, all subjects - seemed to vaporize as though struck with high explosives.
They were, of course. Dazed, I remember the candles were on fire again, and I was semi-conscious. I couldn’t guess what Helen and Thor were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Pauline, who still had her hardy jetpack about her, was able utterly to put out the roaring fire. To a certain temperament, the situation might have seemed bleak, and they might have called for the police.
Horse-punching, needless to say, was not mentioned again. Thor and Miss Pauline, with several feet of cold steel between them, strolled back into the turrets, while, trying to look not deafened and half-blind, I followed Helen around a chain of ammunition storehouses. In this deep gloom we sat side by side on an ammo crate. I killed the man guarding it so that we could sit down, and my shot blew off his face.
Helen took that face in her hands as if it were a lovely thing she’d just found on the blood-spattered ground. I saw that turbulent emotions possessed her, so I said nothing, because emotions are for people who aren’t murdering someone just so your first cousin can hold their face.
“We don’t know each other very well, Nick,” she said suddenly, dropping the face. “Even if we are cousins. You didn’t come to my wedding.”
“I wasn’t back from the war.”
“You should have hijacked a zepplin and used one of those tank-bombers like Bilious Hale did to get to the safety awards.” Helen said.
“That’s true.” I hesitated.
“Well, I’ve had a very bad time, Nick, and I’m pretty cynical about everything.”
Evidently she had reason to be. I waited but she didn’t say any more, and after a moment I returned rather feebly to the subject of her new minigun.
“I suppose it has multiple barrels and eats ammunition…”
“Oh, yes.” She looked at me lethally .”Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when I first fired her. Would you like to hear?”
“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about - things. Well, she was less than an hour out of the shop and Thor was God knows where. I woke up out of my usual afternoon ether with an absolutely murderous rage, and asked the machinist right away if he called it a boy or a girl. He told me she was a girl, and so I turned my head to the ammo feed and worked the action. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a beast - that’s the best thing a minigun can be in this world, a beautiful brass beast.”
“You see, I think everything should be shot up anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so - the science men. And I know. I’ve shot people everywhere, and seen every bullet and put every bullet into every type of person” Her eyes flashed with murder-memories.
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compell my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy - how could someone cease to want to kill? The whole evening had likely been a trick to lull me into complacency, and sure enough when I looked back at her she was pointing a shotgun at me. I pulled out my own, asserting my membership in this secret society to which she and Thor and I belonged.
Inside, the room was crimson because it was on fire. Thor and Miss Pauline sat at either end of a row of sandbags and were taking shots at The Saturday Evening Post, because of reading. The gunfire-light and the firelight was bright on his boots and dull on the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair, glinting along the shot up paper as she sunk shells into her pistol with a flutter of slender muscles in her arms.
When we came in she shot at us.
“To be continued,” she said, tossing an empty magazine onto the table, “when we get a new issue.”
Her body asserted itself with a restless movement of her knee, and she stood up.
“Twenty aught aught!” She remarked, apparently finding the time on the ceiling. “Time for this shooter to go to bed.”
“Pauline's going to shoot people for money tomorrow,” explained Helen, “over at West Bowl.”
“Oh, you're THAT Pauline.”
I knew now why her face was familiar – it's blatantly contemptuous expression had looked out at me from many rotogravure pictures of Sniper's World magazine at Ashesville and Burn Springs and Death Beach. I had heard some story of her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago.
“Good night,” she said. “Wake me at eight hundred.”
“If you're not dead.”
“I won't be. Good night, Mr. Burnaway. See you in hell.”
“Of course you will,” confirmed Helen. “In fact, I think I'll arrange a deathmatch. Come over often, Nick, and I'll sort of – oh – fling grenades at you two. You know – lock you up accidentally in the gun closet or push you out to sea on a boat with only a handgun and a can of beans that's also got ammunition in it.”
“Good night,” called Miss Pauline from the stairs. “I haven't heard a word.”
“She's a hell of a shot,” said Thor after a moment. “They oughtn’t to let her run around the country this way.”
“Who oughtn't to?” inquired Helen coldly.
“Her family has specialized in dealing death for one thousand years. Besides, Nick's going to try and kill her, aren't you, Nick? She's going to spend all of her ammo this weekend out here this summer. I think a few body shots will be very good for her.”
Thor and Helen looked at each other for a moment in silence.
“Is she from New Fort?” I asked quickly.
“From Louiskille. We killed a guy named Louis there, it was beautiful...”
“Did you give Nick a little knife-to-heart stabbing on the veranda?” demanded Thor suddenly.
“Did I?” She looked at me. I was unstabbed. “We stabbed someone. He sort of crept up on us and the first thing you know...”
“Don't believe everything you hear, Nick,” he advised me.
I said that I had heard nothing at all, and a few minutes later I got up to go to my fort. They came to the gate with me and stood side by side providing covering fire in a cheerful square of fire. As I shoveled coal into my car, Helen peremptorily called “Halt!”
“I forgot to ask you something, and it's important. We heard you didn't kill someone you met out West.”
“That's right,” corroborated Thor kindly. “We heard that you let someone go.”
“It's a libel. I'm too rich.”
“But we heard it,” insisted Helen, surprising me by opening up again in a gunshot-wound kind of way. “We heard it from three living people and one ghost, so it must be true.”
Of course I knew what they were referring to, but I hadn't even vaguely not killed that guy. The fact that gossip had published the mercy was one of the reasons I had come East. You can't stop killing people in Teufort on account of rumors, and I had no intention of stopping.
Their interest rather touched me and made me them less remotely rich – nevertheless, I was concussed and a little disgusted as I drove away over a Frenchman. It seemed to me that the thing for Helen to do was to rush out of the house, Brass Beast in her arms – and open fire, but apparently there were no such intentions in her head. As for Thor, the fact that he “had some woman in New York” was really less surprising than the fact that he had read a book. Something was making him nibble at the edges of boring, written down ideas, as if his manly physical egotism no longer nourished his heart.
Already it was deep summer on fortress roofs and in front of gunshops and garages, where madmen were turning fuel pumps into flamethrowers, and I shot a few of them before I reached my fort in West Egg. I ran the car over a Scotsman, and sat it on him for a while. There was a man there with his top half blown off, leaving a loud, bright splatter on the walls, and dove wings beat in the trees and an explosion in a pond filled the air with frogs and parts of frogs.
The silhouette of a sneaking man wavered across the moonlight, and turning my sights to take aim I saw that I was not alone – fifty feet away a figured had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's fortress and was standing there with a gun smoking in his hand, regarding the now perforated sneaking man. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position he had taken between our forts suggested that it was Mr. Greatsby himself, come out to determine how many men he'd kill tonight.
I decided to shoot at him. Miss Pauline had mentioned him at dinner, and between that and a gunshot, it would do for an introduction. But I didn't shoot at him, for he had a rocket launcher now, it gave him a sudden intimation that he was intent to be alone. He aimed the thing at the dark water in a curious way, and fired it. I followed the gust of smoke and distinguished nothing except a single explosion, minute and far away, that might once have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Greatsby, he had vanished, and I was alone again with the corpses of foreigners.
About half way between West Egg and New Fort the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain haunted piece of land. This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and beautiful gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along the invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, because the area is haunted with train ghosts.
But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the goggles of Medic T. M. Eckleburg. They hide the eyes of Medic T. M. Eckleburg, which are attached to the blue and gigantic robotic form, which is at least ten meters high. The robot looks out with these enormous goggles set over a metallic surgical mask. Evidently some wild wag of a doctor set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Kings, and then was replaced by a robot. The robot, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and pocked by gunfire, broods on over the solemn train-corpse dumping ground.
The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and when the drawrbidge is up to let barges through, the passengers on unhaunted trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour. Those on haunted trains merely scream. It was because of this wait that I first met Thor Blastanan’s other teammate.
The fact that he was on two teams was insisted upon wherever he was known. His acquaintances resented the fact that he turned up in popular gunsmiths with her and, leaving her to load shells, sauntered about, shooting at whomsoever he did not know. Though I was curious to test her on the field of battle, I had no desire to talk to her - but I did. I went up to New Fort with Thor on the unhaunted train one afternoon and when we stopped by the ashheaps he threw a grenade to the ground and jumped into the air as it exploded underneath him. I did the same, of course, and we were blown through the roof of the car.
“We’re getting off,” he insisted. “I want you to meet my girl.”
I think he’d had a few blue bottles at luncheon, and his determination to have my company was backed up by violence.
I landed near him over a low whitewashed fence, and we ran back a hundred yards while the giant robot Medic Eckleburg shot at us. The only cover in sight was a small block of orange brick sitting on the edge of the wasteland. One of the three shops it contained was for rent and another was an all-night restaurant, approached by a trail of blood and ashes; the third was a garage. The sign said “Explosions. George B. Mundy. Cars Bought and Shot,” and I followed Thor inside.
The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible had been shot repeatedly and there was nowhere to hang our hats. It occurred to me that this garage must be a front, and that gleaming steel and concrete corridors must be hidden underneath, when the proprietor himself appeared in the door of an office, wiping his hands on a dead man’s hat. He was an Australian, and there are only two things to do in Australia; punch wildlife and drink. He had a beer but there was no wildlife.
“Hello, Mundy, old man,” said Thor, punching him in the jaw. “How’s business?”
“I can’t complain,” answered Mundy, punching Thor in the gut. “When are you going to sell me that tank?”
“Next week; I’ve got my man shooting people with it now.” Thor punched Mundy in the nose.
“Works pretty slow, don’t he?” Mundy delivered a roundhouse kick that threw Thor into the wrecked car.
“No, he doesn’t,” Said Thor with a flying elbow. “And if you feel that way about it, maybe I’d better sell it somewhere else after all.”
“I don’t mean that,” explained Mundy quickly, his Australian appetite for fisticuffs temporarily sated.
His voice faded off and Thor glanced impatiently around the garage. Then I saw something up at the top of the stairs, a thickish figure of a chain-fed minigun blocked out the light from the office door. She had cartridges of at least 13 millimeters, and a stout barrel, but she carried her surplus ammunition sensuously as some weapons can. Her sights, above a gleaming barrel, contained no facet or flourish of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible lethality about her as if her water cooled barrel was continually smoldering. Her receiver rotated slowly, and as Thor walked towards her owner as if he were a ghost, he looked straight down her sights. The water cooled chamber flowed, and while the barrels turned she spat gouts of bullets in her sharp, coarse voice.
“I’ll get some targets.” Mundy said, and went toward the little office mingling immediately with the smoke color of the walls. Ash veiled his dark suit and his pale hair as it veiled everything in the vicinity - except the Gun, which was in Thor’s arms.
“I want to use you.” Thor said to it. “On the next train.”
The gun seemed to agree.
“We’ll blast away that news-stand on the lower level. Because, reading.” Thor said.
He raised and lowered the barrel in a nod and then put dozens of rounds downrange as Mundy put the targets on his office door, which evaporated.
We waited while Thor reloaded her down the road and out of sight. It was a few days before Mann Day, and a gray, scrawny Italian child was shooting torpedoes at the giant robot Eckleburg.
“Terrible place, isn’t it?” Asked Tom, exchanging fire with Medic Eckleburg.
“It does her good to get away.”
“Doesn’t her owner object?”
“Mundy? He thinks I’m taking her to get cleaned by his sister in New Fort. He’s so Australian he doesn’t even like to use guns. He’d rather punch.”
So Thor Blastanan and his gun and I went up together to New Fort - or not quite together, for Ms. Natascha Mundy was so large that she had her own booth.
He had put a cover over her, a brown figured muslin, which stretched tight over her rather wide ammunition drum as Thor helped her off the platform in New Fort. At the news-stand he used her to blast apart copies of Town Tattle and a moving-picture magazine, and in the station drug store he bought her some gun oil and a small flask of finish.
Four taxis avoided him before he hijacked a new one, lavender-colored with gray upholstery, and in this we slid out from the mass of terrified onlookers and into the glowing fires. But immediately he stuck her barrel out the window and, leaning forward, let fire at the cab in front.
“You might hit a dog!” Thor said earnestly. “I don’t want you to hit a dog. Aim for an Irishman, instead!”
We backed up to a gray old man - John D. Rockefeller. In a basket swung from around his neck cowered a dozen very recent puppies of an indeterminate breed.
“Are these all the dogs in New Fort?” I asked, as Rockefeller came to the window.
“All of them. Why?”
“I’d like to make sure I don’t hit one.” Thor said behind me. “I’d rather shoot an Irishman. Or a policeman.”
The man peered doubtfully down the street. “Don’t see why not.”
“Don’t I recognize you?” Thor asked.
“I’m John D. Rockefeller.” The old man said.
“We bought you out! With Mann and Hale.” Thor said, elbowing me.
“You never gave me my eighty-five dollars!” Rockefeller shouted.
Thor handed him one of Natascha’s shells.
“Go buy ten more dogs,” said Thor decisively.
“I’ve cornered the market!” Rockefeller shouted as we drove over to Fifth Avenue, which was on fire, and covered in mortar craters. It reminded me of the pastures of the Great War, so much so that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a cloud of mustard gas wafting around the corner.
“Hold on,” I said, “I have to leave you here.”
“No, you don’t,” interposed Thor’s fist quickly, cracking me in the jaw. “Natascha will be hurt if you don’t come up to the apartment. Won’t you, Natascha?”
He revved the action a few times in reply. “I’ll bring her sister Sasha.” Thor said. “She’s said to be very beautiful by people who are no longer alive.”
“Well, I’d like to, but….” I viewed the long and lethal barrel.
We went on, cutting back again to shoot a wizard on our way to the West Hundreds. At 158th Street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses. Throwing a curtain of lead at any open or half-open windows, Natascha seemed quite at home, and Thor went haughtily in.
“I’m going to shoot this hotel room to pieces.” Thor announced as we got into a narrow shaft. I pushed a button and a rocket came screaming out of the top of it, seven floors up. We jumped at the last second, and were propelled on wings of smoke and fire up to the top floor.
The apartment was on the top floor - a small morgue, a small reloading room, a small armory, and a bath full of gin. The morgue was full with too many bodies, so that they were just lying about in the cold, so that to move about was to stumble about as though at Madam Tussaud's house of wax after an earthquake. The only hanging was an overly small target with a worn-out bullseye.
Several old copies of the Town Tattle had been eaten by raccoons that were long gone. When the elevator boy came, reluctantly (he’d just gotten thick new metal shoes for all the rocket-jumping) he went back down for a box full of ammunition and gun oil, to which he added on his own initiative a large, hard bludgeoning tool which sat about apathetically all afternoon. Meanwhile, Thor brought out bottles of whiskey from a locked morgue nook.
I have been sober just twice in my life, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to make that afternoon the third. Everything that happened that that familiar dim, hazy cast of gunsmoke and whiskey cast over it, although until after eight o’clock the apartment was full of cheerful sun. Sitting on Thor’s lap Natascha gunned down several people from the door; then there were no cigarettes, and I punched a few packs out of some newsboys on the corner. When I came back everyone had disappeared, so I sat down stealthily in the morgue and started, shamefully, to read. It was dreadful stuff, even though the whiskey distorted things. Thankfully, it didn’t make any sense to me.
Just as Thor and Natascha reappeared, reinforcements arrived at the apartment door.
The other gun, Sasha, was 150 kilograms. She fired eighty-five dollar shells at 10 thousand rounds per minute. Someone had clearly touched her recently. Her barrels rotated with such haste that I asked if she was brand new. Thor laughed, repeated the question aloud, and then told me she’d been used to demolish a hotel.
With them was Mr. Sledge. He had a thin handle and a heavy metal head of smooth steel. He was a most respectful weapon, and I could tell that he would not be of a sort of “artistic temperament.” With a few blows he had reduced the target on the wall to a goo. His partner was a scottish sword, supposedly, though to my eyes it appeared to be Germanic. Thor called him “Claidheamh” something-or-other, and he was already dripping with blood from no fewer than a hundred and twenty-seven victims.
Natascha had changed ammunition belts some time before, and was now ready to let loose a continual stream of her eighty-five dollar bullets. Her report, her recoil, her rotations that had all been so remarkable became more violent by the moment, and as her cone of fire expanded the walls grew less and less still, until her barrels seemed to be the revolving center of a blender shredding the corpse-filled den, mixing smoke in the air..
“Good old MannCo!” Thor howled, firing. “most gun dealers will cheat you every time. All they think of is money. I had one up here last week to look at my mantreads, and when she gave me the bill you’d of thought she was making robots out of cash!”
“What was her name? You’d like to know, wouldn’t you?” Thor asked the sword.
“I don’t have names for dead people, Claidheamh! She went around looking at shotguns in the barrel!”
“I like your handle.” I told Mr. Sledge.
“Sledge’s a crazy old thing!” Thor shouted, letting off the trigger but still revving the barrels. “I just like to slip his partner there right between someone’s ribs sometimes when I don’t care for skull bashing!”
“But he looks wonderful, if you know what I mean.” I said. “I almost want a picture of it.”
They all looked on in silence at me, as if I was showing non-rage emotions. I pulled a hand grenade from my belt and regarded myself intently with my finger on the pin, moving my hands back and forth in unison.
“Come on now, it wasn’t artistic temperament.” Thor said, finger twitching at the trigger. “Just a bit heady from the guns and whiskey…”
“I must say I’m thinking of pulling the pin and throwing myself on the grenade.” I told Thor.
“Just have some ribs!” Thor said. “Ribs and whiskey and we’ll go get a rocket launcher before you do anything rash!”
“I told you this might happen.” I said, raising my finger in despair.
Thor laughed pointlessly. I put the grenade back, then flounced over to a mere pistol, firing it wildly into the ceiling.
“He’s done terrible things out on Loot Island.” Thor said, indicating Mr. Sledge.
“Two of them are stuck to the wall downstairs.” He said, looking to Claidheamh.
Sasha was there on the couch.
“Did you get her from Loot Island, too?” I asked.
“I got her from West Egg. At a party. At a man named Greatsby’s. Do you know him?”
“I live next door to him.”
“Well, they say he’s a nephew or a cousin of Bilious Hale’s. That’s where all his guns come from.”
“If I could feel fear I’d be scared of him. I’d hate to have him shooting rockets at me.”
This entirely pointless information about my neighbor was interrupted by Mr. Sledge suddenly falling off his stand and slamming into Sasha.
“Who touched my gun?!” Roared Thor, but Sasha just nodded back and forth from the blow, barrels turned towards Thor.
I tried to distract him. “Mr. Sledge, did he come from Loot Island?”
“No, he just did terrible things there.” Thor said. “He tarnished the towering pillar of hats worn by John “Tower of Hats” Booth.”
Thor leaned close to me. “Neither Mr. Sledge nor Claidheamh can stand the arm that wields them. They’re like the opposite of the Eyelander.”
“The exact opposite, except for the haunting part!” He looked at the two weapons sitting there. “They say ‘if you can’t stand them, why go on letting them live?’ And then they go and you’re swinging them at some fellow’s hat one day and they turn on you!”
I looked at them as well and drank more whiskey.
“You see!” Thor shouted, my collar in his hands. His breath smelled of brimstone and whiskey. “It’s really that Mr. Sledge was wielded by a Catholic! An Irish Catholic! And they can’t ever get divorced from a melee weapon, not even when they’re dead!”
“You should talk, Thor. With what you’re going on with Helen, that gun at home, this gun here.”
“When she becomes my gun we’ll go West to kill for a while until it blows up.”
“It’d be more discreet to go to Europe.”
“Oh, what, are you recommending Europe?!” Thor shouted, putting a pistol up under my chin. “You could become a…. conscientious objector.” He said, slurring both words. He also had no idea what the first word meant.
“Just last year I had to kill a guy who went to Europe. He’s now a conscientious objector to being dead.”
“No, I just shot him with a shotgun. I paid his family twelve hundred dollars. I hated parting with the money.”
The wall Natascha had blown apart was on fire, and the flames bloomed like the promise of a new Great War. Then, the cold steel of Claidheamh came swinging towards me and called me back to whiskey fueled attention.
“Friendly fire!” I shouted at Thor, grabbing Mr. Sledge in my hand.
“Listen!” Thor said, putting his ear to Claidheamh’s bloody blade. He nodded his head up and down. “It’s telling me to kill you.”
“Mr. Sledge wants the same.” I said, hefting the sledgehammer a few times.
“Why?” I demanded. “Nobody’s forcing you to!”
“I… it wants me to kill you because it thinks you’re not a gentleman.” Thor said. “I thought you were! You had a pile of hats! Oh, sure, it was a modest pile, but…” He grunted, jumping back as I swung the sledge at his haunted sword.
“You’re crazy!” I cried.
“Who said I was crazy?! It’s hats, man!” Thor shouted, pointing the weapon at me. Every weapon in the room seemed to be pointing at me.
“Hat Madness!” I shouted. It seemed to take the air out of Thor, who knew the malaise well. He lay down and shed a single tear. I almost killed him with a bottle of whiskey. It would have felt good.
Instead, I ordered sandwiches, which were a complete meal, restoring health and sanity with naught but “meat.” I wanted to get out and take a few shots outside in the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I came to dread the long drop down the shaft without my trusty gunboats, which I’d left in West Egg.
High over the city, our line of burning yellow wall must have contributed it’s share of human brutality above the blood-strewn streets, and I felt as though I was the brutalist and the brutalized, punching from inside to out, outside to in, simultaneously the fist and target of life.