Verse 8: WELCOME TO THE MACHINE
After Gloria left, Lex excused himself so he could finally say his overdue morning prayers, but after that the children took turns vying for his attention. Nate played songs on what Hannah identified as a "desktop computer," most of which Lex found lacking in both melodic and lyrical content. He did identify a handful he deemed worthy, and Nate set about "burning them" so Lex could listen to them at his leisure, although there really was no need… not that he’d ever tell Nate that. Lex had, in fact, been incredibly modest about his ability to learn new music. Like any Licensed Minstrel, he had a phonographic memory. Once he heard a song, it was his… whether he wanted it or not. Still, repetition couldn’t hurt.
While they reviewed songs, Hannah busied herself with a related project. Declaring that what Lex needed was publicity, she appointed herself his "PR" person, whatever that was. She produced what she explained was digital camera and took several pictures of Lex, with and without his mandojo. Then she hooked it up to her "laptop" (although it no more sat in her lap than the desktop had been on a desk) and started designing a flyer announcing his upcoming performance. Warlock tried to help her, in his own way, by lying across the keyboard and looking up at her with big vacant eyes. Hannah gave him a raisin and he lost interest in the computer, proceeding to importune her for more.
After a while, she showed her handiwork to Lex. The flyer prominently featured his smiling face and bore the text:
Live at Gilda's!
Main and Water Streets
Friday & Saturday
August 1-2 at 9 pm!
Lex proclaimed her efforts worthy, but made her remove some of the exclamation points which he considered oversell. Once he'd approved the final draft, Hannah said, "When Marcy gets here, we'll take the disk to Kinko's and make a few hundred copies and plaster them all over downtown Mystic."
Lex did not tell the youngsters that his Djawan Anak VI could do all that they had just labored so diligently to accomplish in a fraction of the time. He had purchased the mid-priced spellengine soon after he made Licensed Minstrel, primarily as a professional aid, although he had fallen victim to the salesmen's enthusiasm and added a few extras that he didn't strictly need, but somehow felt his life would be poorer without. He'd particularly liked the armguard model, which – with its simple, shiny metallic surface stretching from wrist to elbow – did double duty a fashion accessory.
He refrained for two reasons. First, Gloria had said "No magic." Though the admonition had been directed at Nate, clearly he was the real target. Would using the spellengine constitute magic? It was a fine point Lex did not care to argue. Second, Lex did not wish to be a spoilsport. The children were having far too much fun showing off.
Besides, he wanted these people to like him. As a professional entertainer, Lex wanted everyone to like him, but Nate, Hannah, and particularly Gloria were special cases. He was not precisely certain why. Lex always went out of his way to be attentive to attractive woman, if only to keep in practice, and Gloria was a highly attractive – nay, captivating woman. Yet he had met many who equaled her in beauty and more than a few who surpassed it. There was something more, something intangible, but undeniably present. What some call alchemy and others call precognition. It was like they had known each other, and well, before they ever met.
Eventually, Gloria re-appeared. She wore wheat-colored slacks and a sleeveless black blouse, and the dark circles under her eyes were largely gone thanks to a combination of rest and make-up. She glanced at Hannah's design for the flyers, added some food and fresh water to two bowls on the kitchen floor, and informed the kids that she would try to be home before midnight. She took her jacket and helmet from the closet, and then took out another helmet, which she handed to Lex.
"Try this on," she said. He tried to comply, but the fit was too tight. "I was afraid of that," said as he handed it back to her. "Luckily, only children are required to wear helmets in Connecticut. Good thing we're not in Massachusetts. I'll try not to get into an accident."
"Always a good idea," Lex agreed, without the slightest idea of the meaning of her lesson.
"Kids," she called at the front door, "stay out of trouble, and I'll see you later. Come on Lex," she grinned. "Let's ride!"
They exited the house, thankfully via a door opposite the glass wall that overlooked the sea, and emerged into a yard sheltered by several stately old elms. She led him to her motorcycle, parked on a paved stretch of ground.
"You have two choices," she said. "You can either ride on the seat behind me, or you can get comfy in the sidecar again. So are you built for comfort or speed?" The dare in her question was plain as milk.
"Speed," he grinned back.
"That's what we like to hear." She got on and turned a key. "All aboard." She indicated the seat behind her, so he gingerly straddled the noisy thing, plunking his buttocks down behind hers. There was room for two on the seat, with some to spare, and he tried to leave a gap between them.
"You'll have to get closer," she told him. "Guess they don't have motorcycles where you come from." She rotated one handlebar and the engine roared.
"Not as such," he answered, raising his voice.
"Put your arms around my waist." He did, but with the difference in their heights, his arms crossed her torso slightly higher, just under her breasts. She did not make an issue of it, but her voice grew a little huskier as she continued her instructions. "Now, hold on tight but not too tight," she called, then took her helmet from the center of the handlebars and slipped it on. "I'll try to take it easy for your first time."
Once she exited the residential district and arrived at a wider thoroughfare, where metal vehicles went whizzing by every few seconds, she announced she was going to "kick it up a notch." She waited for a gap, then charged forward.
Lex considered himself a walker, rarely availing himself of public or commercial transport even over long distances. Carriages and palanquins were widely available, but he was so rarely in a hurry to get anywhere that he almost never used them. For a second he felt like he was back in the vortex again as the hot summer air met him full in the face. He was taken aback, not by the speed, but by the sheer number of vehicles on the road, which were loud (though not as loud as the motorcycle), gleamed dully, and routinely passed each other with less than an arm-length’s clearance between.
The most distinctive feature about traveling in this world, he decided, was the stench. The vehicles belched gas like an Ork at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Gloria passed one behemoth of a multi-wheeled machine that looked like a house on wheels spewing foul black smoke into the sky from its chimney. The road was lined with many white two- and three-story houses and a few places of business. Mostly, however, there were trees – oak, maple, and poplar – but the forest aromas could not mask the stink of the vehicles. And, underneath it all, a telltale salt tang reminding him how close he was to the ocean.
The sounds, sights, and smells, rich as they were, could not take his mind off other sensations. He was acutely aware of the vibration beneath his seat and of Gloria's proximity. On one curve, he leaned closer to her and caught a whiff of her scent, a tantalizingly blend of citrus and hibiscus and sweet basil, and then it was gone.
Gloria weaved confidently through the throng with calculated abandon, and minutes later they pulled into the lot where they'd met. She parked next to a boxy vehicle that bore a small sign saying Handicapped Veteran under some letters and numbers, and turned off the ignition. Removing her helmet, she shook her hair free. The scent returned, stronger now.
"So," she asked. "Was that fun or what?"
Lex felt his body still vibrating and he had a slight headache from the fumes. He also felt tightness in his groin, which he hoped was not too obvious. His legs were cramped, and he was certain he had swallowed an insect somewhere along the way.
"Wonderful," he replied. "You should charge people for the experience."
Getting off the motorcycle somewhat unsteadily, Lex adjusted the strap on his purse. He made to check his mandojo and was startled to find he was not carrying it. Momentary panic receded in the face of memory. He had simply left it at Gloria's house. He remembered exactly where: in the corner where the dining area shared a wall with the kitchen. It would be safe there. And yet he still felt uneasy. What bothered him most was that its absence did not bother him more.
Gloria inserted a key in a metal door, but before she opened it, she stopped. "Watch what you say," she warned. "Follow my lead. If you hear something you don't understand, try to ignore it. Or make a mental note and I'll do my best to explain later. Most of all, no magic. Got it?" He nodded. She turned the key and opened the door.
As soon as he entered, Lex felt better. If there was one kind of building in which he felt completely in his element, this was it. The décor was unfamiliar, but there was the same comfortable cluttered feel to the premises common to every drinking establishment he’d ever been in.
A tall swarthy man with short black hair stood behind the bar. "Morning boss," he saluted Gloria, although his gaze locked at once on Lex and he raised an eyebrow.
"Morning, Michael." Gloria made the introductions. "Lex, this is Michael St. John, my chief day bartender and assistant manager. Michael, this is Lex Machallo. He's this weekend's entertainer."
"Glad to know you, Lex" Michael waved.
"And I you," Lex countered, waving back in what he hoped was proper protocol. Michael reached across the bar, offering his hand. Lex hesitated for a second; after all, clasping the hand of what could be an evil wizard, a powerful adversary, or vengeful assassin was a chancy proposition at best, and the custom was reserved mainly for friends. But when in Zan do as the Zannari do, he told himself, and extended his own, assuming that the man would complete the welcome to local custom. Michael grasped just his hand, palm to palm, and shook it with a firm, testing grip and Lex pressed back with commensurate pressure, without pulling him in for a hug or any other frill. The masculine ritual completed, they released simultaneously.
"Hey, babe," came a gravelly voice. "Who's the tall drink of water?"
Lex turned to locate the source of the question. He saw what he first took to be a hybrid of man and machine, but quickly realized that the newcomer was seated in a relative of the wheeled chair which he'd seen earlier in the Robinette living room. This chair had a bright yellow metallic frame, with black leather seat and back. The man had a massive chest and thick arms protruded from a brightly colored short-sleeve shirt of garish floral design. Reddish-blond hair and beard framed his square face, and a wide smile beamed underneath a pair of tinted spectacles.
"Tully, this is Lex," Gloria said. "Lex, this is Uncle Tully."
The chair hummed and rolled forward, its back and seat shifting upwards. By the time he reached Lex's side, the man was in a semi-upright position. He, too, offered a hand in welcome.
"Pleased ta meetcha," Tully said. "Bet you heard about my famous chowda, and came for a taste, right?"
"Indeed," Lex replied with mock seriousness. "Tully's chow-dah is known throughout the land. I have traveled many a league for the opportunity to enjoy a plate."
"Bowl," Gloria hissed.
"Well, then, have a seat, young fella, and I'll be back in just half a mo'." He moved a lever on the chair's right arm, and headed through a doorway behind the bar.
"Chowda's soup with clams and potatoes," Gloria told him in a low voice.
"Exactly," she said. "I've got some phone calls to make, but I'll join you as soon as I can." She smiled at him and walked away
Minutes later, Tully returned with a tray. On it was a large bowl of steaming soup, a packet bearing the label "oyster crackers," a spoon and a napkin, all of which he set before Lex. He showed no indication of leaving, clearly waiting to catch Lex's reaction.
Lex took a spoonful, blew on it, then tried the soup. It was buttery smooth, savory, and had large chunks of chewy clam meat. It reminded Lex of his mother's cooking so intensely that he almost felt homesick. "It is truly a fine example of the art of chowder making," he told Tully.
Tully's smile, if possible, grew even broader. "Best chowda in Connecticut. I'll put it up against the stuff they serve in the Pah-ker House up in Bahston any day of the week."
Lex nodded, made a mental note, and took another spoonful. It really was excellent.
"So," Tully continued conversationally, "I hear you're from another planet. Howdya you like Earth so far?"