“You know what we need?” says Slick. It’s getting on toward dawn, and you’re going to have to get inside sooner or later, but right now the four of you are still riding the high from a really good night. The job you pulled at your new favorite casino is going to be the start of a great racket.
“Food,” Boxcars immediately suggests.
“Fireworks!” says Deuce.
You inspect the cuffs of your suit. “A better tailor?” you say.
“Dames,” Slick says.
Boxcars grins. “Hey, yeah, let’s pick up some ladies! Or whatever it is you’re into, little guy,” he adds. Deuce beams back. He doesn’t even object to the height comment.
Slick actually slings an arm around your shoulders. “How ‘bout it, Droog? Meet some classy broads, show ‘em our city, knowwhatImean-”
“Great idea,” you say, “you knock yourself out.”
“Aw, come on,” Slick groans, “you still got a stick up your thorax?”
“I’ll put a stick in your thorax if you don’t drop it,” you tell him, but you can’t muster much rancor. It’s been a really good night.
You are the DESOLATE DESERTER, and you have a situation on your hands.
A situation known in general as the genetic imperative, and in this specific case as the SCURRILOUS STRAGGLER.
At first it made little sense to you. Why should you, or any other carapace, have a sex drive, or any kind of reproductive system? You were created in ectobiological tubes, and Derse could make more of you in the same way. You couldn’t see the purpose of a superfluous- and largely ineffective- method of breeding.
And then you were exiled to a post-apocalyptic multicolored wasteland, thousands of years and millions of miles away from the cloning labs, and the purpose was very clear. And apparently, what you thought was a secondary system was designed to go into overdrive in just this situation.
Which brings you neatly back to SS, who always has to take things several steps farther than anyone else, and whose advances you are getting very tired of fending off.
It makes sense, you remind yourself. The drive to breed leads you- that’s a general you, as a species, it doesn’t seem to have kicked in for the specific you yet- to seek out others, band together, find safe places to settle. It’s a survival mechanism. You remind yourself of this while you distract SS for the hundredth time- you’re not sure it’s even biologically feasible, and you don’t particularly want to try finding out- and while you strain your eyes scanning the horizon for signs of an oasis or anything to build with in this godsforsaken desert, because this is SS’s other sudden mania.
Anybody else might just be concerned with starting a brood. SS wants to start a city.
You take up for a while with a Prospitian, a gangly, strange person who fancies himself some kind of detective. You don’t think you have a Type- your gray ladies don’t count, as they are almost certainly not real- but if you did, he definitely wouldn’t be it. That might be why it works.
He’s an excellent drinking partner, and an interesting conversationalist when you can get him to talk. He’s also useless in a fight, has an appalling sweet tooth and no sense of style whatsoever, and makes the second-worst coffee you have ever tasted. Being around him is strangely relaxing. Inside his tiny apartment in the still-growing city, you don’t bother so much with maintaining the image you present, and you allow him to affect you secure in the certainty that nothing too fundamental will change. He learns to brew coffee that doesn’t taste like the burnt underside of a shoe. You develop a taste for Swedish Fish.
You find him aesthetically fascinating, and vice versa, enough so for the two of you to determine that apart from color Prospitians and Dersites have no significant physical differences. He speculates that you would be biologically compatible, at least in the abstract, but it’s mostly a theoretical observation and you never get around to testing it. Neither of you really minds.
It doesn’t last, of course. Your conflict of interests in other areas gets strange and tense to navigate, for him if not for you. So you drift apart, gradually and- with a few exceptions- without strife, and when you hear a rumor years later that he’s shacked up with a doppelganger dame from some alternate universe, you aren’t surprised in the least.
You are the DRACONIAN DIGNITARY and you are, just this moment, surprised to realize that you have been perpetuating a lie. Not that lying is itself a problem- you’re an agent of Derse, it may actually be in the job description.
But it’s mildly disconcerting to discover that the person you’ve been lying to is yourself.
You suppose the reason you didn’t catch it before is that it’s almost true. You are an extremely busy person. Your own duties would be enough to go on. On top of that there’s covering for Jack, which is practically a full-time job itself these days, as well as doing all the administration and paperwork he isn’t doing while he sneaks around conspiring. You handle it all efficiently, of course, with the cool demeanor that is rapidly becoming your trademark, but everyone on Derse can tell that your schedule is full. Personal pleasure is a luxury for which you simply do not have time.
And that, you think, over a contemplative cigarette, is the part that isn’t strictly true. You do make time for your own small indulgences. Cigarette breaks, for example. Coffee, gray ladies, a good record. The occasional pause to beat someone next to senseless with a pike handle. And certainly other people find time for sex. If you wanted to do likewise, you’re sure you could manage.
But you haven’t. Which leads you to the conclusion that what you don’t have is not time but interest. It’s a surprisingly simple conclusion, and once you’ve thought it, it seems perfectly obvious.
You wonder why you felt the need to tell yourself otherwise.
“Aw, forget it, boss,” Boxcars says, “Deuce can be the wingman. I’m in.”
Slick unslings his arm. “Hell yes,” he declares. “Knew you were a sensible man. Deuce, you coming or what?”
Deuce shoots you an upwards look. “I’ll stay with you if you want,” he offers.
You very nearly crack a smile. “Go,” you say. “Someone has to keep those two idiots in line.”
“Hey, wait up!” Deuce calls, half-running to keep up with them.
“I heard that,” Slick shouts back at you as they depart. You consider firing back a retort, but you think you’ll let him have his last word this time. Anyway, it’s undignified to shout.
You light a cigarette as you walk back to the hideout. It’ll be nice to have it to yourself for the day. The streets are deserted- anyone with sense has headed inside to sleep through the worst of the day’s heat- and somewhere outside the city, the sun’s starting to nudge the horizon.
Tomorrow, you think, you’ll go see about that tailor.