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The Metaphor Kid
THE BLACKJACK KID SNARLED, “HERE’S LEAD IN YOUR GUTS, LAWMAN!” AND FILLED HIS HAND WITH TWO POUNDS OF COLT PEACEMAKER. BUT THE MARSHAL SLAPPED LEATHER WITH A GREASED-LIGHTNING SPEED OF HIS OWN. HIS HOG-LEG SPAT FLAME AN INSTANT BEFORE THE OUTLAW’S. THE KID’S SHOT WAS WILD, BUT THE MARSHAL’S WAS STRAIGHT AND TRUE. BLACKJACK FOLDED UP LIKE A SALOON DANCER’S FAN AND TOOK HIS LAST BITE FROM THE DRY ALKALI DUST OF CIMARRON CITY’S MAIN STREET.
“Way to go, Sackett! That’s how to hack it!”
I hit the carriage return key, saw that I had come to the bottom of the page, and snap-rolled it out of the typewriter. All around me the screaming of the Sackett Boosters and the rest of the seventy thousand fans seemed to ripple and flow like surf, to echo in rebounding waves off the great plastoid dome overhead. But it didn’t bother me, didn’t affect my concentration. And neither did being on national TriDim in front of a New-Sport audience estimated to be fifty million or so for the Prose Bowl East Coast semifinals. There was too much at stake for me to care how many people watched Rex Sackett, The Metaphor Kid, go head-to-head against the Kansas City Flash.
High on the southern rim of the Ultradome, facing me, one of the huge electronic scoreboards blazed with numerals and prose printout. I glanced up at it as I slid a clean sheet of paper into my machine, checking the score for the first time since the start of the fourth quarter.
SACKETT 7590, GARBOWITZ 7441.
A 150-word lead now, twenty more than I’d had when the period began. And only 410 left to go in the Face-Off. Time was running out on the Flash, and he had to know it as well as I did. I gave his printout a quick scan to see how he was holding up.
ARABELLA REMEMBERED THE FIRST TIME THE DOCTOR HAD KISSED HER. OH, THE ECSTASY OF HIS LIPS ON HERS! THE THRILL OF HIS STRONG ARMS ENCIRCLING HER! PASSION HAD WELLED IN GREAT FLAMELIKE LEAPS, AND WITHIN HER BREAST THE RHYTHM OF HER PULSE HAD SEEMED AS LOUD AND RAPID AS A DRUMROLL. BE STILL, MY HEART! SHE RECALLED THINKING. BE STILL, LEST YOU BETRAY HOW MUCH I ADORE AND DESIRE HIM!
“Flash, Flash—dash and thrash! Thrash, thrash— thrash that trash!”
But he wasn’t thrashing it, not any more. His quality level was still good, and across the Line he was still sitting hunched sideways over his typewriter in the characteristic Garbowitz pose, his thick fingers bludgeoning the keys, smoke from his premature Victory Cigar half-obscuring his shaggy head; but he was losing speed, winding down like an old chronometer. All through the first half and most of the third quarter, his pulp had raced out across the board with the blinding speed that had given him his nickname; now it came stuttering out, with two- or three-second pauses between sentences and longer gaps between paragraphs.
I had already begun refiring my own prose, even as I scanned the Flash’s printout, and the detached, non-creative part of my mind thought: I’m going to beat him, no doubt about it now. I’m going to beat him, I’m going to win.
It wasn’t a new thought, a sudden realization. I had known all along that was how it would turn out—a feeling of inevitability, of fate walking on my side of the street. I’d known it even after Ollie Garbowitz won the coin toss and selected MEDICAL ROMANCE, a much easier plot topic than the alternate choice, BLAZING WESTERN ACTION; even after he got off to his usual smoking start and used strings of adjectives to build up a 150-word lead near the end of the first quarter; even after his lead reached 225 words at the opening of the second period, when I pulled an already tender hamstring as I rushed out to the Line after Fueling up and was forced to take a twenty-second injury penalty.
If anything, I had been more confident than ever when the second half began. And that was when the tide had begun to turn in my favor. I’d made up the deficit midway through the third two-thousand-word block, on bursts of speed and one scampering thirty-two-line metaphor that had the crowd on its feet. My resurgence had unnerved the Flash, caused his concentration to waver; just after I drew even, the Head Editor had unfurled two costly penalty flags on him, the pink-and-brown one for Improper Syntax and the green-and-black one for Unacceptable Phrasing. After that there was no way I was about to falter or look back again.
ARABELLA WAITED QUIETLY FOR THE END TO COME. SHE KNEW SHE HAD LOST THE DOCTOR TO VOLUPTUOUS LILLIAN, KNEW THAT HORST WOULD MARRY JANET AND THAT EDWARD AND LUCAS WOULD SOON GO AWAY TO STUDY MEDICINE AT THE SORBONNE. THERE WAS STILL HAROLD, OF COURSE--BUT HE WAS IN LOVE WITH BARBARA, AND MARILYN WOULD SEE TO HIS NEEDS IN ANY CASE. UNLESS PHILIP AND RICHARD HAD MARILYN’S MOTHER COMMITTED TO THE SANITARIUM AGAIN, WHERE YOUNG DOCTOR ASHCRAFT COULD RESUME TREATMENT FOR HER ALCOHOLISM.
“Don’t crash, Flash! Thrash that trash!”
THE MARSHAL BOLSTERED HIS SMOKING PISTOL, MOSEYED OVER TO WHERE THE BLACKJACK KID LAY SPRAWLED AND TURNED HIM OVER WITH THE TOE OF ONE BOOT. THE KID WOULD NEVER ROB ANOTHER STAGECOACH, NEVER CHEAT ANOTHER MAN AT CARDS, NEVER VIOLATE ANOTHER INDIAN SQUAW. HE HAD LIVED BY THE SIX-SHOOTER AND NOW HE HAD DIED BY THE SIX-SHOOTER. IT WAS ONLY FIT AND PROPER, THE MARSHAL THOUGHT AS HE SHIFTED HIS QUID OF TOBACCO FROM ONE LEAN TANNED CHEEK TO THE OTHER. AFTER ALL, THAT WAS THE CODE OF THE WEST.
“Sackett! Sackett! Sackett!”
The Boosters were all standing now, cheering thunderously, filling the Ultradome with the booming sound of my name. Emotion climbed inside me, closed my throat for a couple of seconds. Because I knew Sally would be leading those cheers—sweet wonderful Sally—and that Mom and Dad, and Mort Morgandahl, would be yelling the loudest of all.
I had a sharp mental image of Sally in her red-and-white sweater with the big S on the front. Then one of Mort, with his big wide grin and his shrewd agent’s eyes. And of Mom, her rosy cheeks glistening and her hair flashing silver in the lights; and Dad, his stoic Informational technician’s face and tough wiry body hiding the biggest heart in the world. They were the four people I cared most about—the four people who were most responsible for my being here today. Without them there just wouldn’t have been a pulpeteer known as The Metaphor Kid.
SACKETT 7845, GARBOWITZ 7697.
A hundred and fifty-five words left now, that was all. Just a hundred and fifty-five and all the months in the Junior Creative League and then in the pro Historical Adventure League, all the grueling hours of practice and fitness conditioning, all the visions of fame and wealth and glory would come true. Just a hundred and fifty-five words and I’d have reached the plateau that every prosemaker dreams of reaching from the time he walks out on a field for his first face-off.
The Prose Bowl.
The Prose Bowl!
THEN CARRIE ADAMS, THE LOVELY SCHOOLMARM, WAS IN THE MARSHAL’S ARMS AND GAZING UP AT HIM WITH WOR-SHIPING EYES.
My pipe had gone out and I typed the last six words of that sentence with my left hand, while I snaked my right hand out, caught up my laserflame lighter, and relit the tobacco. The fans had seen me do that before; it was a trick I had mastered over the years, not to show off but to save time in pressure situations, when I needed the good hot smoke from Virginia burley in my lungs. But this time the maneuver brought them out of their seats, clapping wildly, and kept them standing along with the Boosters as I resumed my two-handed attack on the keyboard.
“OH, RINGO,” SHE WHISPERED, “I WAS SO AFRAID YOU’D BE THE ONE WHO WAS KILLED! I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN YOU WERE MORE OF A MAN THAN THE KID. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME FOR THE WAY I ACTED LAST NIGHT, THE THINGS I SAID?”
Carriage return, tab key.
“Sackett! Sackett! Sackett!”
The whole crowd seemed to be screaming the word now, caught up in the excitement of these last few seconds. Seventy thousand people chanting in unison that way, chanting your name, is an awesome thing; it sent little thrills through me, made me pause again to savor the moment. And to glance once more at the great numerals that seemed to hang burning from the stadium dome.
SACKETT 7908, GARBOWITZ 7724.
And then, all at once, the collective voice of the throng shifted and rose into a shrieking, deafening cheer; the burst of applause that followed was like a thunderclap. It took me a second to realize what had happened: The Flash had left his typewriter and was walking toward the Line—a seldom-seen gesture of capitulation and defeat. He stopped there and stood waiting for me to end it, waiting with his head held high and the last words he would write this season forming a fiery background above the blur of color and faces beyond.
YES, ARABELLA THOUGHT, THE END HAS COME. AND SO HAS THE TIME FOR THE DROWNING OF SORROWS. A DRINK SEEMS TO BE IN ORDER-SEVERAL DRINKS, IN FACT, ALONE IN A DARK ROOM. AT A TIME LIKE THIS, WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO EXCEPT TO GET QUIETLY FUELED?
A few fans were already trying to run out onto the field; the security Servos went after them, blowing their ultrasonic directional whistles and brandishing tranq weapons. But I scarcely noticed. My eyes were back on my typewriter and my mind was intent again on only one thing: punching out those last few words that would bring me to victory.
“YOU’RE FORGIVEN, MISS CARRIE,” THE MARSHAL DRAWLED. HE LOOKED AROUND AT THE OTHER TOWNSFOLK WHO HAD COME OUT TO GATHER NEARBY, SAW RELIEF INSTEAD OF FEAR IN THEIR FACES, ACCEPTANCE INSTEAD OF HOSTILITY. “AND SO’S THE REST OF CIMARRON CITY,” HE SAID. “A GRUDGE IS A MIGHTY HEAVY THING. I RECKON MY GUN AND MY BADGE ARE MORE’N ENOUGH FOR ONE MAN TO CARRY.”
Another glance at the Scoreboard.
Word count at 7972.
“The Prose Bowl for Sackett! The Prose Bowl for Sackett! The Prose Bowl for Sackett!”
AND WITH THAT, THE MARSHAL TOOK CARRIE’S HAND AND TOGETHER THEY WALKED THROUGH THE TOWN HE HAD FOUGHT AND TAMED, THE TOWN HE WOULD CALL HOME AT LAST.
There was bedlam in the Ultradome as I typed the words THE END and the Head Editor declared the Face-Off officially ended with a wave of his star-spangled Prose Bowl flag. People were pouring out of the stands, milling about everywhere; the security Servos were on the turf in force, more than two hundred of them forming a protective ring around the centerfield area. Everyone seemed to be screaming at the top of his voice, and the Sackett and Garbowitz bands were playing at full volume; the voice of the P. A. announcer was all but drowned out by the din as he gave the final score: The Metaphor Kid 8000, the Kansas City Flash 7758.
Half the TriDim cameras mounted on the dome rafters seemed to be panning the confusion of bodies, but the other half were homed in on me, I knew, for a series of post-game closeups. When I stood from my machine, lifting my arms in the traditional victory salute, I could feel myself smiling so hard and so wide that my jaw muscles ached. I had never been happier or more proud than I was right at this moment.
Then I saw the Flash coming toward me, and I lowered my arms and limped over to meet him, favoring my injured leg. We clasped hands, touched forearms and elbows to let the TriDim fans know there hadn’t been any grudge element in the match. Garbowitz was still standing tall and proud, but you could see how tired he was and how much losing the Face-Off had affected him; in his eyes there was sadness and the pain of defeat. And something else, too, something that I’d seen in the eyes of a lot of old pros like the Flash—and not just when they’d lost, either. It was almost a sense of personal tragedy, or maybe a bitter emptiness, or maybe some-thing else altogether; I just couldn’t quite define it or understand it. Maybe it had something to do with advancing age or how many face-offs you’d been in and how many years you played in the Bigs. I hope it never happened to me, whatever it was. But I didn’t think it would. I couldn’t imagine myself being empty or torn up inside by some sort of affliction.
“You wrote a hell of a game today, kid,” the Flash said when he released my hand. “The way you were cranking in the second half, there isn’t a pulpeteer in the business who could have matched you.”
“I guess it just all came together for me at the right time,” I said. “I thought I was done for when I pulled my hamstring.”
“Don’t be modest, kid. You knew all along you could beat me; I could tell just by looking at you. You’re good, damn good—better than I was at your age.” That odd something flickered in his eyes again, seemed to make him wince. “For your sake I hope—”
“You hope what, Flash?”
“Never mind. And don’t call me Flash,” he said. “My name is Ollie. Kansas City Flash is a name the media gave me, just like they made you The Metaphor Kid. They paste those damn names on us like labels, but we don’t have to do it to ourselves.”
“Okay, Ollie. Sorry.”
“Forget it. Well, here’s luck in the Prose Bowl.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll do the best I can.”
“Sure you will. Scuff him, whoever you play.”
“If he doesn’t scuff me first.”
The Flash nodded and moved away in a stiff gait to where his Servos were waiting with containers of Fuel. My own Servos had gathered nearby, I realized, and they were shouting, “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” I went over and embraced each of them, because I wouldn’t see them again after today; I’d be assigned a new team of Servos in the Prose Bowl. And one pressed one of my own Fuel containers, already open and invit-ing, into my hand.
I took a three-ounce victory shot and it worked its magic right away; I could feel myself loosening up inside, the knots of tension every pro suffers in major competition starting to unravel. Three more ounces soothed me out nicely—added a different glow to the glow of triumph, softened the shrieks of the fans and the brassy tempo of the band music. I was all set now for the first of the post-game interviews, the on-field spot with one of the TriDim announcers.
But there wasn’t going to be an on-field interview, it turned out. One of the Assistant Line Editors, a burly red-haired man named Huxtable, came running over with word that the spot had been canceled for security reasons because of the unruly crowd; they wanted me off the field and into my designated locker room, and the rest of the playing area completely cleared, as soon as possible. Ever since half a dozen prosemakers had been mauled in crowd flareups in the tough and vicious Quality Lit League three years ago, and Fantasy Fats McGee had been killed by a flying Fuel container after losing a quarterfinal match that same year, the League Editors and the rest of the officials were safety-conscious. Some said they didn’t care half as much about the well-being of the pulpeteers as they did about their own reputations and the money they were making, but I didn’t believe that myself.
A phalanx of security Servos, their tranq weapons drawn and ready, began to escort me toward the east-side tunnel. Huxtable walked along at my side. We were halfway to the tunnel, in the middle of the slow-moving wedge, when he leaned over close and spoke in confidential tones.
“Can we get together later today, Sackett?”
“There’s something I want to talk over with you—something very important.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t have time to go into it here,” Huxtable said. “It has to do with you going to the Prose Bowl and it’s a little complicated. But it could mean a lot of money for you.”
“Some sort of endorsement?”
“Investment might be a better word. How about if I meet you for a few minutes in the Fuel lounge at your Complex? Say nineteen hundred hours, before the West Coast semifinal comes on TriDim?”
I hesitated. “Well, I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to miss any of the Face-Off. . .”
“You won’t. Fifteen minutes is all it’ll take.”
“Does it have to be tonight?”
“Afraid so. This can’t wait.”
I didn’t know Huxtable very well, or much about him except that he’d been a pulpeteer himself in the semipros and for one mediocre season in the Soft-Core Porn League before becoming an Assistant Editor (a position that was little more than that of a Servo). But he seemed friendly enough, and a prosemaker can’t afford to pass up any decent opportunity to invest in his future, even when he’s at or near the top like I was now; the compe-tition in all the leagues is fierce and the average pro career is less than ten years. Besides, Sally and I were planning to get married right after the season ended— and we both wanted kids, now that the birth restrictions had been modified.
“Okay, then,” I said to Huxtable. “Nineteen-hundred hours in the Fuel lounge at my Complex.”
“Good kid. Nice scuffing today, by the way.”
He dropped back and left me to wonder just what sort of investment deal he had in mind. Something to do with Luna Colony, probably, I thought. That was where all the smart money was these days.
But then I stopped thinking about Huxtable, about investments, because we had reached the tunnel and the fans there began showering us—showering me—with flowers and chanting my name again. I raised my Fuel container to them, to show my appreciation, and then took a small swallow. More flowers rained down in approval. Today those flowers were carnations, red and white, the Sackett colors; but next week they would be roses. Red and white roses.
Next week—in the Prose Bowl.
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