Oh, Zax and his Number.
It's history now.
Always wanted a Number, Zax did. To possess, make his own. Mind you, when this one arrived, didn't strike you he was a Number. Didn't have any of their nasty little ways, not so you'd notice, anyway. God knows how he got here--God, or Zax. One day he wasn't here, next day he was.
He didn't look like a Number, for a start. Dark hair. Taller than Zax, chunkier. Beautiful face. Now that was as regular and chiselled as any Number's, only it didn't strike you that way, was the hair, see? His eyes were deep deep blue. He had a smile that twisted his mouth into an expression of real sweetness; made you go soft inside, it did.
Not that he was interested in any of us. Always came across like he didn't quite know what the fuck was going on--a dazed, what the hell am I doing here among these funny people, kind of look. He was gentle though, courteous enough. Tried to help. Of course, there was only one thing mattered to him in life. He was crazy about Zax. Just crazy. Followed him round like a dog. That was only to be expected. Everyone went through that stage over Zax--oh yeah, me too. And I'm not into self-analysis, so that story's staying untold.
What wasn't to be expected was that Zax was the same over him. He never said--not to us, anyway--but he loved him, that funny sweet muddled reject from a Centre test tube. Now that did take everyone by surprise. Here's this Number from nowhere and for the first time in his life there's Zax loving something human, something that loved him back. Not in a sickly kind of way, that wasn't Zax's style. But you could tell. The tone of voice when he spoke to him. I'd swear, his eyes turned soft when he so much as looked at him. Zax, with soft eyes! Christ.
Now, whatever you and the rest of the world may think about Mr Wonderful Zax, I can tell you the truth. Was with him seven years. Watched his every move. And even Zax's closest pals and biggest fans--I'm one--wouldn't try and sell you the line that Zax was nice and good and sweet as a saint. Because Zax was, brace yourself, a bastard; the only thing ever mattered to Zax was Zax.
Whatever he wanted he got, and fuck whatever anyone else might think about it. He was cold and he was arrogant and--yeh, a bastard.
Why did we all love him so then?
Ah, there's a question.
Maybe because he was the brightest star this bleak firmament's seen or ever will see.
Maybe because he was beautiful and he made us live life to the full.
Maybe because you felt warm to be around him and privileged to have his trust.
Maybe because whatever else he was he was honest, and he had more damned courage than anyone I ever met.
Hard to convince, I see. Then maybe these pages will answer the question for you.
Zax and his Number are gone now.
History, as I say.
And legend. The legend of the Names.
Eddie gave me this. He traded it for a calculator I found in my old Centresuit pocket, though god knows what use that'll be to him.
Strange, to see my own marks on a page again. No-one writes much here. Sumaes scribbles tallies on cigarette paper sometimes; who owes whom how many. Eddie marks down notes for musical scores. Simple stuff, though--any Number n.5 up could do the same. Zax can write: true to style he uses an antique quill pen. In fact his script is more ordered than mine by far, since just like any other Number I'd never have dreamed of writing anything by hand if I didn't have to: much easier to input a terminal and get a printout.
That's another strange thing. Won't forget the shock of realising there were no computers here. I must have known that Names don't rely on computer technology, but actually to be faced with the reality of living with it...that's what was so--shocking. Eddie's synth and lightpen are the most sophisticated equipment they've got. Not that, now, I care. Miss Bruce perhaps--seemed he had the most soul in the entire Centre sometimes. But no, I don't miss that life. Never. Okay, so I used to sit in a cubicle and have a computer-programmed laser shape my hair--now Zax does it with blunt scissors and impatient fingers and I watch his frowning intent face in the mirror as he makes rough snips at it and think how lucky I am to be here.
Not that it isn't all still strange.
And Zax the strangest of all.
But--the most familiar.
Sounds illogical. ZN. Doesn't compute. So Bruce would say. But that's how it is. Sometimes I feel as if I've been here all my life and the Centre just a dream; others, this seems the dream, but one I'll never wake from.
I remember that first morning. Waking up, in a rough and tumble bed, touching--touching--another body heavy with sleep. The--panic. Had to get out, go back, ease into my nice little sterile cell and listen for the daily radpads, forget the crazy night.
Then he woke.
Was like a light switching on in my brain. Filled me with warmth and sweetness and I knew then for sure he and I would never be apart again.
Wonder if they missed me at the Centre. Well, of course they would have done--quotas dropped, by one. Simple as that.
I belong with Zax. But the others? Meriel is quite friendly but I know I'm often awkward with them, don't know what to say to them. They seem to have accepted me, in a way. Just another acquisition of Zax's, one he likes to have around. My guess is that most of them don't know, or have forgotten, where I came from. If I want to join in whatever they're doing, packing up to move on, setting up a new stage and so on, that's okay. Or I can look on, and do nothing--they don't seem to resent that, either. They are much more--vivid than Numbers, full of emotion; they laugh together, quarrel, share, fuck. They are all fiercely loyal to Zax--and also, a little afraid of him.
That's understandable. Zax is--not quite human.
Bob's different from the rest. He's courteous enough, and helpful. Intelligent, sensitive. But he's somehow--wary--of me in a way the others aren't. They don't notice I'm around most of the time. Bob does. Bob remembers where I came from, all right. I'm not sure why that should unsettle him. He's more familiar with Numbers than the others are, so you'd imagine he'd be quite happy around Zax's tamed one. I'll have to find out why it is one day. Maybe he just doesn't like me--though that seems unlikely: I'm ruefully aware that my uncertainty and anxiety not to displease gives me an outward personality as bland and dull as TVP.
Another marvel. Zax has books. Real books, the paper and binding kind. He has whole shelves full of them. They have strange titles--Malleus Maleficarum is one--and strange subjects. Necromancy, reincarnation, sexuality. Zax never reads them. I thought perhaps he couldn't read and offered to teach him. He just laughed, and, head thrown back, declaimed the first act of Macbeth at me until I stopped him the most direct way possible. Point taken.
Zax is clever. He has depths of perception and intelligence and sheer bloody ability I've never met before in anybody. Not that you see it very often. Zax is strange. Most of the time he's silent, shuttered; and you think he might be bored, or resting. I've been with him, what? six months now and I've learnt that that isn't so. His mind's always busy--plotting, designing, whether the next and newest trick, or untold mysteries he doesn't recount to anyone. Not even me.
We're moving on tomorrow. From what I've gleaned from the others' chatter, at one time they didn't use to travel around from place to place so much. They grumble about it, having to pack up all the equipment so often. Meriel says that at one time they stayed put and gave shows to the same audience night in, night out, month after month. That seemed unlikely to me at first, but now I realise that even now, at least .33 of any audience is made up of the same group we played to at the last spot, Zax's hard-core fans who straggle along with the show and set down where we do. Enclosed here as I am with them, it took me some time to appreciate just how strong Zax's cult is. He's like part of me--was from before I met him--and it took a while before I could see him through anyone else's eyes. He's their hero, their god, their lover, better than human; mysterious, compelling. They love the tricks he stages, but more than that they love him, or at least, what they conceive him to be. Zax encourages that; he wants their souls. So cool about so many things, something about this drives him to rapaciousness. Sometimes I think it's more than an obsession of his; that he's--waiting for something. Armouring himself and his band of devotees; building towards some unimaginable climax as he stands there on stage, facing them and their cheers, arms thrown high--and then he comes backstage and the ecstasy and the energy's fading and he's just Zax, stripping off his clothes and kissing my mouth before he drinks water from the tap and sluices off the sweat and I think I imagined it all.
We're a long way from the Centre here. Maps are in short supply and so I have been keeping one since Sotness. Time passes so quickly. I don't think about the Centre as much as I did. Food isn't scarce here though some of it seems odd to my taste. The others scavenge if not enough comes in at the Door. Lately the locals seem to bring more metals, old equipment (very primitive) etc., than food. That always pleases Zax: he stores it to fiddle with in odd moments and makes up the others' food from somewhere.
I still get very unsettled by jealousy. Zax has been sleeping on and off with any or all of the members of his troupe for so long that it's a way of life to him, one that didn't change just because I came along. Being so new to it all I'm all out of synch in my attitudes and find it, sometimes, hard to bear. Of course Zax knows that: he laughed at me, but gently, and closed his hand over mine. "It's a gift," he said to me. "You can keep tied." He let his hand spring open. "Or you can fly free. Sex isn't love." Do I understand that? Well, I try. Sex is easy come by on impulse, easy discarded in this world. I can't fit in that way, not yet. In fact, I don't think Zax does it on impulse, either. Zax never does anything on impulse; he has a reason for everything he does, every way he turns, whether it's apparent at the time or not.
Having a prurient interest in all matters sexual, Zax of course wants to know how sex was at the Centre. I think it turns him on hearing about it though god knows why; it was nothing. A few minutes in a sperm booth having a hot time with the Extram machine. Was it pleasurable, he wants to know. Well, I can hardly remember. Held up beside the warm loving sweetness of Zax holding you close, the movements of some cool inhuman tube seem a pale and pitiful memory. Why it fascinates Zax so much is quite beyond me.
A week since the last--and first--time I wrote in this. Zax saw it and asked if I was writing a book to stand alongside his, and how had I learned so much of his craft so soon? He was teasing of course. I thought he might ask to read it, but he said, "Only if you want me to," and gave me one of his sudden, sweet smiles, the ones that melt me inside. He's smaller than I am. Times like that I want to seize him and overpower him and ravish him and love him till we both die of joy--
No-one else sees that side of Zax, the tender tease, the soft smiles: he's very abrupt, very cool with people.
There was an upset this week.
Someone broke in to the props and stole the girls' costumes. Zax was angry. No pretty tricks with doves and coloured lights that night; storms rocked the auditorium. Even I couldn't repress a shiver, watching him let go. Mouth set grim with rage, and eyes lit with magnificent black temper; he held dramatic sway over a thousand spell-bound people. He was the one who shivered afterwards, on and on into the night even as I held him.
Zax frightens himself, sometimes. Mostly he revels in this--power of his, uses it as cold-bloodedly as any other skill. But, just sometimes, I think it gets out of hand and he's frightened he won't be able to control it, that it'll take him over. Then it calms down and all it is is free cigarettes from the air again and he forgets it ever got out of hand and he's stable again.
But that night he was like a scared animal quivering in my arms.
The audience knew, why he was angry with them. Bob, who has an aptitude for a spot of melodrama and is well-suited to a life in the theatre, announced in weighted tones of gloom prior to the show just why the girls wouldn't be wearing their usual costumes--the implication being, you see, that this area, this location, this very audience had been a bad one for us, a bad aura for their beloved deity. When Zax came off stage after his performance--which was easily 20 minutes shorter than usual--he stripped off his cloak and threw it to the floor: I stayed in case he wanted to talk, but he didn't say anything, just stared into the mirror with broody concentration. It's best to leave Zax alone sometimes; so I wandered to the wings, to watch the rest of the show.
Of course Zax's mood had spread: it always does. They take their emotional cues from him like electrons zipping from byte to byte. The dance would have looked dowdy even without the thrown-together costumes Bettine, Meriel and Bob had hastily patched up from scraps when the loss of the others was discovered.
Then it happened.
Someone in the audience shouted something rude, to the effect that Bettine's costume was hardly adequate to cover all of Bettine. (It's true she is plump. She says it's her glands.) It was more viciously put than that, and the effect was devastating. Because suddenly we became what we are: tawdry faded monkeys parading tat and pap to the sordid. All the magic that makes a glamorous spectacle of us fled. The music stopped as Eddie froze. The dance stopped. Bettine, I thought, would cry.
Then Zax was there.
God knows how. I was in the wings, I'd left him in the dressing-room, and I'd swear he didn't pass.
But he was there, onstage, blazing dark fire.
I felt dizzy. For a moment I was passing out, things spinning; but gradually it righted. Zax was still there.
Absolute silence; the audience hushed with dread.
His eyes were centred on the man who had jettisoned the comment. I knew he was going to kill him, and he wouldn't even need to touch him: just the force of his eyes and the turn of his will would be enough.
I swear the temperature dropped. And dropped. My teeth began to chatter.
And then just as suddenly as it came it was over. Zax turned on his heel and flew off the stage.
He cannoned into me and dragged me with him into his room. We just lay together, panting, his heart thudding against mine. That was that. Bob and the others must have cleared the auditorium. We didn't give a show the next day, just took it easy, Zax existing on nerves, love and nicotine. The costumes were returned, anonymously. The third night the audience was bigger than I'd ever seen it and Zax was stunning. The reverence they gave him at the end of his act was close to worship.
It struck me then that if Zax chose he could organise a huge revolt of Names against the oppression of Numbers.
Okay, Zax can be dangerous. But--I need him to stay the same. A night-shadowed hero onstage, reining the supernatural to his whim; but in the dressing-room, the small paint-streaked being who wrestles with me time and again and loses, laughing and furious.
Zax is small. I can get one hand around both his wrists. His ribs stick out. It's only onstage the swirling cloak, the way he arches his back, lend him such grandeur, presence. I can't help but think that any of his devotees wouldn't recognise him without it, they'd be looking for something bigger.
Anyway, getting back to the day after the trouble. I amused myself teaching Zax the theory of computing, how much he took in I don't know though I kept it very simple, absolute primary stuff, such as the on/off principle, number bases other than ten and so on. Binary code seemed to interest him, but on the whole I think he was just content to let me talk no matter what while he let himself get calm again.
On the way to get something for him I met Bettine. I felt awkward, didn't know what to say to her. I think the worst thing that can happen to a performer is to be mocked. She wanted to go in to see Zax, to thank him for standing up for her, I suppose. It surprised me to think she should assume my recommendation would be pertinent to whether or not Zax would see her. Zax is his own self and decides for himself whom he sees, or not. We have an unusual relationship the exact nature of which even I don't have clear in my mind, so why should they? But certainly despite our closeness Zax is entirely independent. It simply isn't in his nature to consult.
Bettine knocked and went in. When she began to cry, the low note in Zax's voice changed to something different. I left, having no wish to be listening at doors during what was coming.
I went to see Meriel. She was crying too, sitting on the floor of her room. Much to my surprise, when I went in she jumped up and ran into my arms.
I was saying that Zax is small, but he is very definitely man-sized. Meriel is not even woman-sized, she has the proportions almost of a doll-like child. It felt strange to hold her, delicate as glass and light-boned as a bird, her tears against my chest.
She was upset because her dress was gone. She wears a pretty pink dress with a short net skirt, such as they used to wear for the ballet in pre-Fall times, and the loss of it was unbearable. Names are fiercely acquisitive, I suppose because they have so little: their costumes, being essential to their way of making a living, are of vital importance to them. I did my best to cheer her up, saying that Zax would never let her starve, costume or not, and also that I was sure after Zax's performance yesterday the thieves would be forced either through fear of Zax or by their own contemporaries to make amends (which as already noted proved true) but nothing I said seemed to make any difference, and gradually I began to realise that the sort of comfort she wanted was physical, like Bettine with Zax.
I was stunned and afraid and awkward all at once. For one moment, when she first touched me, I--but then, the feeling was pushed aside by fear, and I just couldn't. It sounds pathetic coming from a male of my age living in this society, but it struck me then that I had no idea of what, exactly, to do.
Oh, I know how it's done in theory, but--
Ridiculous, isn't it.
Bob, or Eddie, would laugh themselves sick if they knew. So, too, might Meriel. All those thoughts withered me beyond any point of recall and I let her go. Her wide, wet, disappointed eyes followed me to the door.
"I'll send Bob to you," I blurted out, and fled.
I sat alone in a disused prop-room counting the minutes until I could be sure Zax had finished with Bettine. Then I went back.
He was naked, rumpled, and drowsy, curled up amid tumbled covers and smoking a cigarette. When he saw me he smiled, and held out an arm: at least he smelt clean.
"All shagged out," he explained with a little, wry smile as he drew me close into his comforting warmth; but this time I couldn't share the joke. Stupid of me, I know.
He knew something was wrong and just lay with me gently, blowing smoke over my head. He knew why, too; but not the whole of it. His bare warm skin was pressed to mine in a contact undemanding, just friendly; but it was fiercely arousing to me and suddenly I remembered Meriel touching me again and my confused sparks of desire and panic as I held her, not daring more, and meanwhile Zax shagging himself out between Bettine's plump white thighs--
"All right, it's all right. I know." His voice soothed; it seemed to be in my mind, the words unspoken aloud, and suddenly we were one as we are sometimes when making love, the steady flame of both our souls merging together and shining as one, and I felt how strong we were, unshakeable anywhere, impregnable; and all at once that resentment, that jealousy fled because I could see as Zax saw, that sex is both a kind of love and a part of love but that no sexual act either of us could perform with another for whatever reason could ever hurt, or change, or lessen, what we have.
"You want me?" he said softly, into my ear, making me jump; knowing himself forgiven, offering himself. I forestalled the hand lazily stroking down my belly because it was making it hard to think, and told him about Meriel.
"You should try it," he said seriously.
I confessed then about not knowing where to start.
He was amused by that. "Meriel would have shown you."
That hadn't occurred to me. Magicians have, it seems, more powerful logic circuits than a mere Number (failed). I bit the lobe of his ear in silent appreciation and voiced my other misgiving.
"She's so small...."
"And you're so big," murmured a low voice, very close; perhaps in backlash from the events of the day before he was not in a serious mood that day.
This time I did not discourage the hand, and discovered, with pleasure, that his own tiredness seemed to have gone.
"I thought you were all shagged out."
"Magicians recharge very quickly."
He was not, as I say, in a serious mood.
Strange things occur.
We have come to a location, Ancipital, very close to the Centre. The Theatre was a permanent setting here in the past. For some reason there is some dark mystery about the place, presumably the reason that forced the decision of making the show a travelling one. Something unpleasant happened here; you'd have to be brave to ask what.
It is tied up, I think, with the mysterious Ina who used to be Zax's assistant. According to Sim, a compulsive gossip who tells stories slanted to everyone's disadvantage, Ina was treated very badly by Zax. From other bits and pieces I've gleaned it sounds as if that might be true up to a point--at least that Ina was treated badly compared with her expectations of what she expected Zax to be to her. If she was trying to own him body and soul and construed her failure to do so as "bad treatment" then it's hard to feel much sympathy. On the other hand, I can quite believe that Zax was--careless in the way he treated her. Zax is not unkind. But he is not--kind.
That sounds hard. You see, Zax is certainly unusual; he is probably unique. He's quite aware that he's special, and he has his eyes firmly set on his own destiny; nobody else's must get in the way. All decisions he makes are perfectly unrelated to sentiment, and he could be, I imagine, ruthless in the serving of his own self-interest. Everyone understands that about him, and it's their choice: to go along with it, or get out.
Well now, it's different for me. In some odd way I'm part of him, I don't understand it myself. But in any case, it is different, and my guess is that what I have with Zax is what Ina wanted, she wanted to be the one. Quite impossible of course. I can't feel too sorry for Ina. Zax may not be what she wanted him to be, but he never pretends to be otherwise: he has no hypocrisy whatever. It just isn't in Zax's nature to imply false promises; and if Ina dreamed up anything more then she has only herself to blame for being disappointed.
But that's not all.
-- THE END --