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Free fiction

The Mad Hatter

They found his body near a dumpster in the alley behind a club called CBGB. The place closed once but was resurrected a decade later and had continued in the Manhattan Bowery for over a hundred and fifty years. It was a kind of shrine to musicians from all the settled planets. People wondered if the dead man in the alley had been a musician in some previous life. Maybe he'd chosen to die there as a symbolic act—perhaps of love for music or as retribution for music having forgotten him.

 

Between the alcoholism that had killed him and the rats that had been working on him since, the dead man's body was in bad shape. He was identified through DNA records and his daughter, a water miner on the dark side of the moon, came down to claim the body.

 

It shocked the old-timers in the neighborhood to find out that the stories about the old drunk—about his being an astronaut and explorer on the edge of the solar system—might have been true. His name matched a name in the old public space registries, and his age was right to be a Mad Hatter: a deep space explorer back before that kind of travel was safe or even reasonable.

 

Aside from being the first humans to visit the gas giants beyond the asteroid belt, that early group of freelance astronaut was also notable for the absurd doses of radiation and cosmic rays they absorbed. The whole generation had been pretty much wiped out by a variety of exotic bone diseases and cancers. The ones with the more benign growths merely went mad with inoperable brain tumors.

 

Nagesh Shah, the current owner of CBGB, had sometimes left coffee in back of the club for the old man. One night just after New Year's, Nagesh ran into the astronaut's daughter as she was heading back to the moon.

 

"Is it true what they're saying? Was your father really a space cowboy?" he asked.

 

The woman reached into an interior pocket of her bulky jacket and removed a small silver case the size of a prescription pill bottle. She opened the case and poured a pile of glittering crystals into her hand.

 

"In the extraordinary pressure of Neptune's atmosphere, methane crystallizes. It rains diamonds all over the planet. Physicists predicated it. My father proved it."

 

"He was living on leftovers in my alley and he had diamonds in his pocket?"

 

"His ship wasn't built for a flight that close to Neptune. None were back then. He killed his entire crew getting these. Then, he left my mother and me soon after he got back to Earth. Swore that one of the diamonds had flown through the ship's hull and lodged in his skull and gave him visions of God and angels. I think it was just the brain tumor talking."

 

"May I touch one of the stones?" asked Nagesh.

 

The woman handed him the largest of the diamonds. It was the size of Nagesh's thumbnail. He held it up and looked at the clear winter stars through it. The crystal was an exquisite object.

 

As he handed the stone back Nagesh said, "I wanted to go to space when I was a boy."

 

The astronaut's daughter poured the diamonds back into their case and put it in her pocket. "Space is like anywhere else," she said. "It's full of assholes."

 

The two of them shook hands briefly and went their separate ways. It was very cold out and a light snow had begun to fall.

copyright Richard Kadrey 2008

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