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eBook by Robert Silverberg
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: In a world where humanity has colonized the solar system and begun to explore more of the local galaxy, a vast audience follows real-life stories presented by wealthy media mogul, Duncan Chalk. Chalk feeds on the pained emotions of others. He plays cruelly with his staff, but gorges on the mass emotions generated from the dramas he orchestrates. Chalk pairs Minner Burris, an emotionally-withdrawn space explorer who was captured and freakishly surgically altered by aliens and Lona Kelvin, a suicidal 17-year-old girl who donated eggs for a fertility experiment that produced a hundred babies none of whom she has been allowed to adopt or even see. Chalk promises to solve their personal problems in return for a joint performance tour. As Burris and Kelvin grow close, they find that their mutual weaknesses somehow strengthen them. But, will that connection be enough to overcome the tricky machinations of Duncan Chalk? And will the mystery behind Minner's transformation take them beyond their weakened humanity? An early exploration of media exploitation and a deep look at freakshow entertainment on a mass cale, THORNS shines as one of the earliest of Silverberg's mature masterworks. Now with a new introduction by the author.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1967
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2012
THE SONG THE NEURONS SANG
* * * *
"Pain is instructive," Duncan Chalk wheezed.
On crystal rungs he ascended the east wall of his office. Far on high was the burnished desk, title inlaid communicator box from which he controlled his empire. It would have been nothing for Chalk to sail up the wall on the staff of a gravitron. Yet each morning he imposed this climb on himself.
A variety of hangers-on accompanied him. Leontes d'Amore, of the mobile chimpanzee lips; Bart Aoudad; Tom Nikolaides, notable for shoulders. And others. Yet Chalk, learning the lesson of pain once more, was the focus of the group.
Flesh rippled and billowed on him. Within that great bulk were the white underpinnings of bone, yearning for release. Six hundred pounds of meat comprised Duncan Chalk. The vast leathery heart pumped desperately, flooding the massive limbs with life. Chalk climbed. The route zigged and backswitched up forty feet of wall to the throne at the top. Along the way blotches of thermoluminescent fungus glowed eagerly, yellow asters tipped with red, sending forth pulsations of warmth and brightness.
Outside it was winter. Thin strands of new snow coiled in the streets. The leaden sky was just beginning to respond to the morning ionization poured into it by the great pylons of day. Chalk grunted. Chalk climbed.
Aoudad said, "The idiot will be here in eleven minutes, sir. He'll perform.'*
"Bores me now," Chalk said. "I'll see him anyway."
"We could try torturing him," suggested the sly d'Amore in a feathery voice. "Perhaps then his gift of numbers would shine more brightly."
Chalk spat. Leontes d'Amore shrank back as though a Stream of acid had come at him. The climb continued. Pale fleshy hands reached out to grasp gleaming rods. Muscles snarled and throbbed beneath the slabs of fat. Chalk flowed up the wall, barely pausing to rest.
The inner messages of pain dizzied and delighted him. Ordinarily he preferred to take his suffering the vicarious way, but this was morning, and the wall was his challenge. Up. Up. Toward the seat of power. He climbed, rung by rung by rung, heart protesting, intestines shifting position inside the sheath of meat, loins quivering, the very bones of him flexing and sagging with their burden.
About him the bright-eyed jackals waited. What if he fell? It would take ten of them to lift him to the walkway again. What if the spasming heart ran away in wild fibrillation? What if his eyes glazed as they watched?
Would they rejoice as his power bled away into the air?
Would they know glee as his grip slipped and his iron grasp over their lives weakened?
Of course. Of course. Chalk's thin lips curved in a cool smile. He had the lips of a slender man, the lips of a bedouin burned down to bone by the sun. Why were his lips not thick and liquid?
The sixteenth rung loomed. Chalk seized it. Sweat boiled from his pores. He hovered a moment, painstakingly shifting his weight from the ball of the left foot to the heel of the right. There was no reward and less delight in being a foot of Duncan Chalk. For an instant nearly incalculable stresses were exerted across Chalk's right ankle. Then he eased forward, bringing his hand down across the last rung in a savage chopping motion, and his throne opened gladly to him.
Chalk sank into the waiting seat and felt it minister to him. In the depths of the fabric the micropile hands stirred and squeezed, soothing him. Ghostly ropes of spongy wire slid into his clothes to sponge the perspiration from the valleys and mounds of his flesh. Hidden needles glided through epithelium, squirting beneficial fluids. The thunder of the overtaxed heart subsided to a steady murmur. Muscles that had been bunched and knotted with exertion went slack. Chalk smiled. The day had begun; all was well.
Leontes d'Amore said, "It amazes me, sir, how easily you make that climb."
"You think I'm too fat to move?"
"The fascination of what's difficult," said Chalk. "It spins the world on its bearings."
"I'll bring the idiot," d'Amore said.
"The idiot-savant," Chalk corrected him. "I have no interest in idiots."
"Of course. The idiot-savant. Of course."
D'Amore slipped away through an irising slot in the rear wall. Chalk leaned back, folding his arms over the seamless expanse of chest and belly. He looked out across the great gulf of the room. It was high and deep, an open space of large extent through which glowworms floated. Chalk had an old fondness for luminous organisms. Let there be light, be light, be light; if he had had the time, he might have arranged to glow himself.
Far below on the floor of the room, where Chalk had been at the commencement of the daily climb, figures moved in busy patterns, doing Chalk's work. Beyond the walls of the room were other offices, honeycombing the octagonal building whose core this was. Chalk had built a superb organization. In a large and indifferent universe he had carved out a sizable private pocket, for the world still took its pleasure in gain. If the deliciously morbid thrills of mulling over details of mass murders, war casualties, air accidents, and the like were largely things of the past, Chalk was well able to provide stronger, more extreme, and more direct substitutes. He worked hard, even now, to bring pleasure to many, pain to a few, pleasure and pain at once to himself.
He was uniquely designed by the accident of genes for his task: a pain-responsive, pain-fed eater of emotion, depending on his intake of raw anguish as others did on their intake of bread and meat. He was the ultimate representative of his audience's tastes and so was perfectly able to supply that vast audience's inner needs. But though his capacity had dwindled with the years, he still was not satiated. Now he picked his way through the emotional feasts he staged, a fresh gobbet here, a bloody pudding of senses there, saving his own appetite for the more grotesque permutations of cruelty, searching always for the new, and terribly old, sensations.
Turning to Aoudad, he said, "I don't think the idiot-savant will be worth much. Are you still watching over the starman Burris?"
"Daily, sir." Aoudad was a crisp man with dead gray eyes and a trustworthy look. His ears were nearly pointed. "I keep watch over Burris."
"And you, Nick? The girl?"
"She's dull," said Nikolaides. "But I watch her."
"Burris and the girl..." Chalk mused. "The sum of two grudges. We need a new project. Perhaps... perhaps..."
D'Amore reappeared, sliding from the opposite wall atop a jutting shelf. The idiot-savant stood placidly beside him. Chalk leaned forward, doubling fold of belly over fold of belly. He feigned interest.
"This is David Melangio,'' D'Amore said.
Melangio was forty years old, but his high forehead was unfurrowed and his eyes were as trusting as a child's. He looked pale and moist, like something out of the earth. D'Amore had dressed him stylishly in a glittering robe shot through with iron threads, but the effect was grotesque on him; the grace and dignity of the expensive garment were lost, and it served only to highlight Melangio's blank, boyish innocence.
Innocence was not a commodity the public would pay any great price to buy. That was Chalk's business: supplying the public with what it demanded. Yet innocence coupled with something else might fill the current need.
Chalk played with the computer node at his left hand and said, "Good morning, David. How do you feel today?"
"It snowed last night. I like the snow."
"The snow will be gone soon. Machines are melting it."
"I wish I could play in the snow." Wistfully.
"You'd chill your bones," said Chalk. "David, what day was February 15, 2002?"
"April 20, 1968?"
"How do you know?"
"It has to be like that," said Melangio simply.
"The thirteenth President of the United States?"
"What does the President do?"
"He lives in the White House."
"Yes, I know," said Chalk mildly, "but what are his duties?"
"To live in the White House. Sometimes they let him out."
"What day of the week was November 20, 1891?"
"In the year 1811, in which months did the fifth day fall on a Monday?"
"When will February 29 next fall on a Saturday?"
Melangio giggled. "That's too easy. We only get a February 29 once every four years, so--"
"All right. Explain Leap Year to me," said Chalk.
"Don't you know why it happens, David?"
D'Amore said, "He can give you any date over nine thousand years, sir, starting from the year 1. But he can't explain anything. Try him on weather reports."
Chalk's thin lips quirked. "Tell me about August 14, 2031, David."
The high, piping voice responded: "Cool temperatures in the morning, rising to a hundred and three along the eastern seaboard by two in the afternoon when the overload coils cut in. At seven p.m. the temperature was down to eighty-two, where it remained past midnight. Then it started to rain."
"Where were you that day?" Chalk asked.
"At home with my brother and my sister and my mother and my father."
"Were you happy that day?"
"Did anyone hurt you that day?" Chalk said.
Melangio nodded. "My brother kicked me here, in my shin. My sister pulled my hair. My mother made me eat chemifix for breakfast. Afterward I went out to play. A boy threw a rock at my dog. Then--"
The voice was free of emotion. Melangio repeated his boyhood agonies as blandly as though he were giving the date of the third Tuesday in September, 1794. Yet beneath the glassy surface of prolonged childishness lay real pain. Chalk sensed it. He let Melangio drone on, occasionally prompting him with a guiding question.
Chalk's eyelids slipped together. It was easier to throw forth the receptors that way, to reach out and drain the substratum of sorrow that had its existence beneath David Melangio's trick brain. Old tiny griefs flowed like arcing currents across the room: a dead goldfish, a shouting father, a naked girl turning with heaving rosy-tipped breasts to utter words that killed. Everything was there, everything was accessible: the raw, maimed soul of David Melangio, forty years old, a human island well walled off from the stormy sea about him.
At length the recitation subsided. Chalk had had enough nourishment for now; he wearied of pushing Melangio's buttons. He tapered off by returning to the idiot-savant's strange powers of recall.
"David, catch these numbers: 96748759."
"And these: 32807887."
Melangio waited. Chalk said, "Now, David."
Numbers gushed in a smooth stream. "9674875932807887333141187698."
"David, how much is seven times twelve?"
A pause. "Sixty-four?"
"No. Take nine from sixteen."
"If you can memorize the whole calendar upside down and backward, why can't you do arithmetic?"
Melangio smiled pleasantly. He said nothing.
"David, do you ever wonder why you are as you are?"
"As what?" Melangio asked.
Chalk was satisfied. The only pleasures to be extracted from David Melangio were low-level ones. Chalk had had his mild jolt of pleasure for the morning, and the faceless public would find a flicker of amusement in Melangio's freakish abilities to reel off dates, numbers, weather reports. But no one would draw real nourishment from David Melangio.
"Thank you, David," Chalk said in easy dismissal.
D'Amore looked ruffled. His prodigy had failed to awe the big man, and d'Amore's continued prosperity depended on making frequent impacts here. Those who did not generally did not long remain in Chalk's service. The shelf in the wall retracted, taking d'Amore and Melangio away.
Chalk contemplated the gleaming rings imprisoned in ridges of fat on his short, thick fingers. He sat back then, closing his eyes. The image came to him of his body made up of concentric inner cores, like an onion, only with each discrete layer insulated from its neighbors by a sheet of quicksilver. The separate strata of Duncan Chalk slipping and sliding across one another, well lubricated, moving slowly as the quicksilver yielded to pressures and squirted down dark channels....
To Bart Aoudad he said, "We must investigate the starman a little further."
Aoudad nodded. "I'll monitor the tracers, sir."
To Tom Nikolaides Chalk said, "And the girl. The dreary little girl. We'll try an experiment Synergy. Catalysis. Bring them together. Who knows? We might generate some pain. Some human feeling. Nick, we can learn lessons from pain. It teaches us that we're alive."
"This Melangio," Aoudad pointed out. "He doesn't seem to feel his pain. He registers it, he engraves it on his brain. But he doesn't feel it."
"Exactly," said Chalk. "My entire point. He can't feel anything, only record and replay. The pain's there, enough of it. But he can't reach it."
"What if we liberated it for him?" suggested Aoudad. He smiled, not pleasantly.
"Too late. He'd, burn up in an instant if he could ever really reach that pain now. No, leave him to his calendars, Bart. Let's not destroy him. He'll do his trick, and everyone will applaud, and then we'll drop him back into his puddle. The starman, though--that's something else again."
"And the girl," Nikolaides reminded him.
"Yes. The starman and the girl. It should be interesting. We should learn a great deal."