Larry Niven

The Man-Kzin Wars 03


Larry Niven

Chapter I

A lucky few of us know the good days before they're gone.

I remember my eighties. My job kept me in shape, and gave me enough variety to keep my mind occupied. My love life was imperfect but interesting. Modern medicine makes the old fairy tales look insipid; I almost never worried about my health.

Those were the good days, and I knew them. I could remember worse.

I can remember when my memory was better too. That's what this file is for. I keep it updated for that reason, and also to maintain my sense of purpose.

The Monobloc had been a singles bar since the 2320’s.

In the `30s I'd been a regular. I'd found Charlotte there. We held our wedding reception at the Monobloc, then dropped out for twenty-eight years. My first marriage, hers too, both in our forties. After the children grew up and moved away, after Charlotte left me too, I came back.

The place was much changed.

I remembered a couple of hundred bottles in the hologram bar display. Now the display was twice as large and seemed more realistic—better equipment, maybe—but only a score of bottles in the middle were liquors. The rest were flavored or carbonated water, high-energy drinks, electrolytes, a thousand kinds of tea; food to match, raw vegetables and fruits kept fresh by high-tech means, arrayed with low-cholesterol dips; bran in every conceivable form short of injections.

The Monobloc had swallowed its neighbors. It was bigger, with curtained alcoves, and a small gym upstairs for working out or for dating.

Herbert and Tina Schroeder still owned the place. Their marriage had been open in the '30s. They'd aged since. So had their clientele. Some of us had married or drifted away or died of alcoholism; but word of mouth and the Velvet Net had maintained a continuous tradition. Twenty-eight years later they looked better than ever… wrinkled, of course, but lean and muscular, both ready for the Gray Olympics. Tina let me know before I could ask: she and Herb were lockstepped now.

To me it was like coming home.

For the next twelve years the Monobloc was an intermittent part of my life.

I would find a lady, or she would find me, and we'd drop out. Or we'd visit the Monobloc and sometimes trade partners; and one evening we'd go together and leave separately. I was not evading marriage. Every woman I found worth knowing, ultimately seemed to want to know someone else.

I was nearly bald even then. Thick white hair covered my arms and legs and torso, as if my head hairs had migrated. Twelve years of running construction robots had turned me burly. From time to time some muscular lady would look me over and claim me. I had no trouble finding company.

But company never stayed. Had I become dull? The notion struck me as funny.

I had settled myself alone at a table for two, early on a Thursday evening in 2375. The Monobloc was half empty. The earlies were all keeping one eye on the door when Anton Brillov came in.

Anton was shorter than me, and much narrower, with a face like an axe. I hadn't see him in thirteen years. Still, I'd mentioned the Monobloc once or twice; he must have remembered.

I semaphored my arms. Anton squinted, then came over, exaggeratedly cautious until he saw who it was.

'Jack Strather!'

'Hi, Anton. So you decided to try the place?'

'Yah.' He sat. 'You look good.' He looked a moment longer and said, 'Relaxed. Placid. How's Charlotte?'

'Left me after I retired. Just under a year after. There was too much of me around and I… maybe I was too placid? Anyway. How are you?'


Twitchy. Anton looked twitchy. I was amused. 'Still with the Holy Office?'

'Only citizens call it that, Jack.'

'I'm a citizen. Still gives me a kick. How's your chemistry?'

Anton knew what I meant and didn't pretend otherwise. 'I'm okay. I'm down.'

'Kid, you're looking over both shoulders at once.'

Anton managed a credible laugh. 'I'm not the kid any more. I'm a weekly.'

The ARM had made me a weekly at forty-eight. They couldn't turn me loose at the end of the day anymore, because my body chemistry couldn't shift fast enough. So they kept me in the ARM building Monday through Thursday, and gave me all of Thursday afternoon to shed the schitz madness. Twenty years of that and I was even less flexible, so they retired me.

I said, 'You do have to remember. When you're in the ARM building, you're a paranoid schizophrenic. You have to be able to file that when you're outside.'

'Hah. How can anyone—'

'You get used to the schitz. After I quit, the difference was amazing. No fears, no tension, no ambition.'

'No Charlotte?'

'Well… I turned boring. And what are you doing here?'

Anton looked around him. 'Much the same thing you are, I guess. Jack, am I the youngest one here?'

'Maybe.' I looked around, double-checking. A woman was distracting me, though I could see only her back and a flash of a laughing profile. Her back was slender and strong, and a thick white braid ran down her spine, centered, two and a half feet of clean, thick white hair. She was in animated conversation with a blond companion of Anton's age plus a few.

But they were at a table for two: they weren't inviting company. I forced my attention back. 'We're gray singles, Anton. The young ones tend to get the message quick. We're slower than we used to be. We date. You want to order?'

Alcohol wasn't popular here. Anton must have noticed, but he ordered guava juice and vodka and drank as if he needed it. This looked worse than Thursday jitters. I let him half finish, then said, 'Assuming you can tell me —'

'I don't know anything.'

'I know the feeling. What should you know?'

A tension eased behind Anton's eyes. 'There was a message from the Angel's Pencil.'

'Pencil… oh.' My mental reflexes had slowed down. The Angel's Pencil had departed twenty years ago for… was it Epsilon Eridani? 'Come on, kid, it'll be in the boob cubes before you have quite finished speaking. Anything from deep space is public property.'

'Hah! No. It's restricted. I haven't seen it myself. Only a reference, and it must be

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