Barker came down carying a half-filled squareface bottle. He saw Hawks, grunted, hefted the bottle and said, “I hate the stuff. It tastes lousy, it makes me gag, it stinks, and it burns my mouth. But they keep putting it in your hands, and they keep saying ‘Drink up!’ to each other, and ‘What’s the matter, Charlie, falling a little behind, there? Freshen up that little drinkee for you?’ Until you feel like a queer of some kind, and a bore for the times you say you don’t want another one, positively. And they fill their folklore with it, until you wouldn’t dream you were having a good time unless you’d swilled enough of the stuff to poison yourself all the next day. And they talk gentleman talk about it — ages and flavors and brands and blends as if it wasn’t all ethanol in one concentration or another. Have you ever heard two Martini drinkers in a bar, Hawks? Have you ever heard two shamans swapping magic?” He dropped into an easy chair and laughed. “Neither have I. I synthesize my heritage. I look at two drunks in a saloon, and I extrapolate toward dignity. I suppose that’s sacrilege.”
He put a cigarette into his mouth, lit the end, and said through the smoke, “But it’s the best I can do, Hawks. My father’s dead, and I once thought there was something good in shucking off my other kin. I wish I could remember what that was. I have a place in me that needs the pain.”
Hawks went back to the settee and sat down. He put his hands on his knees and watched Barker.
“And talk,” Barker said. “You’re not fit company for them if you don’t say ‘Eyther’ and ‘nyther’ and ‘tomahto.’ If you’ve got a Dad, you’re out. They only permit gentlemen with fathers into their society. And, yeah, I know they licked me on that. I wanted to belong — oh, God, Hawks, how much I wanted to belong — and I learned all the passwords. What did it get me? Claire’s right, you know — what did it get me? Don’t look at me like that. I know what Claire is. You know I know it. I told you the first minute I met you. But did you ever stop to think it’s all worth it to me? Every time she makes a pass at another man, I know she’s comparing. She’s out on the open market, shopping. And being shopped for. I don’t have any collar around her neck. She’s not tame. I’m not a habit to her. I’m nOt something she’s tied to by any law. And every time she winds up coming back to me, you know what that proves? It proves I’m still the toughest man in the pack. Because she wouldn’t stay if I wasn’t. Don’t kid yourself — I don’t know what you think about you and her, but don’t kid yourself.”
Hawks looked at Barker curiously, but Barker was no longer watching him.
“If she could see me, Hawks — if she could see me in that place!” Barker’s face was aglow. “She wouldn’t be playing footsie with you and Connington tonight — no, not if she could see what I do up there How I dodge, and duck, and twist, and inch, and spring, and wait for the — the—”
“Yeah. Easy. Slack off. Back away. It bites.” Barker coughed out bitterly, “What’re you doing here, anyway, Hawks? Why aren’t you marching down that road again with your ass stiff and your nose in the air? You think it’s going to do you any good, you sitting around here? What’re you waiting for? For me to tell you sure, a little sleep and a little gin and I’m fine, just fine, Doctor, and what time do you want me back tomorrow? Or do you want me to crack wide open, so you can really move in on Claire? What’ve you been doing while I was asleep? Playing stickyfingers with her? Or did Connington weasel you out of the chance?” He looked around. “I guess he must have.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Hawks said.
“What you wanted me here for. Why you came straight to me and asked me to come. I was wondering whether you hoped I could make you go back again.”
Barker raised the bottle to his mouth and peered at Hawks over it as he drank. When he lowered it, he said, “What’s it like, being you? Everything that happens has to be twisted around to suit you. Nothing is ever the way it looks, to you.”
“That’s true of everyone. No one sees the world that others see. What do you want me to do: be made of brass? Hollow, and more enduring than flesh? Is that what you want a man to be?” Hawks leaned forward, tight creases slashing down across his hollow cheeks. “Something that will still be the same when all the stars have burned out and the universe has gone cold? That will still be here when everything that ever lived is dead? Is that your idea of a respectable man?”
“A man should fight, Hawks,” Barker said, his eyes distant. “A man should show he is never afraid to die. He should go into the midst of his enemies, singing his death song, and he should kill or be killed; he must never be afraid to die; he must never be afraid to meet the tests of his manhood. A man who turns his back — who lurks at the edge of the battle, and pushes others in to face his enemies—” Barker looked suddenly and obviously at Hawks. “That’s not a man. That’s some kind of crawling, wriggling thing.”
Hawks got up, flexing his hands uncertainly, his arms awkward, his face lost in the shadows above the lamp’s level. His calves pressed back against the leather of the settee, thudding it lightly against the wall. “Is that what you wanted me here for? So no one could say you wouldn’t clasp the snake to your bosom?” He bent his head forward, peering down at Barker. “Is that it, warrior?” he asked inquisitively. “One more initiation rite? You’ve never been afraid to take your enemies in and give them shelter, have you? A truly. brave man wouldn’t hesitate to lodge assassins in his house, and offer them food and drink, would he? Let Connington the back-stabber come into your house. Let Hawks the murderer do his worst. Let Claire egg you on from one suicidal thing to the next, ripping off a leg here, a piece of flesh another time. What do you care? You’re Barker, the Mimbreflo warrior. Is that it? — But now you won’t fight. Suddenly, you don’t want to go back into the formation. Death was too impersonal for you. It didn’t care how brave you were, or what preparatory rites you’d passed though. That was what you said, wasn’t it? You were outraged, Barker. You still are. What is Death, to think nothing of a full-fledged Mimbreno warrior?
“Are you a warrior?” he demanded. “Explain that part of it to me. What have you ever done to any of us? When have you ever lifted a finger to defend yourself? You see what we’re about, but you do nothing. You’re afraid to be thought a man who wouldn’t fight, but what do you fight? The only thing you’ve ever done to me is threatened to pick up your marbles and go home. No — sports cars and skislopes, boats and airplanes: that’s the kind of thing you strive against. Things and places where you control the situation — where you can say, as you die, that you know the quality of the man you have killed. Things and places where the fatal move can always be traced to the carelessness or miscalculation of Barker, the killer, who was finally succeeded in overcoming his peer, Barker the warrior. Even in the war, did you fight hand-to-hand, on open ground? You were only an assassin like the rest of us, striking from the dark, and if you were caught, it was your own fault. What worthy enemy, besides yourseIf, have you ever met?
“I think you are afraid, Barker — afraid that no one else who killed you would understand what a warrior you are. How can you trust strangers to know you for what you are? But a warrior is never afraid. Even within himself. Is that what explains it, do you think, Barker? Is that the trap you’re caught in? In the far reaches of your mind, do you suppose it’s all been reasoned out, and kept safe — that you must live among your enemies, to prove your bravery, but dare not meet them in combat for fear of dying unknown? Do you suppose that’s why a stranger has only to threaten you in order to become drawn into your life? And why you will let him nibble and rasp you to death, slowly, but will never turn and face him, and acknowledge that you are in a fight for your life? Because if you only let yourself be whittled at, the process may take years, and anything might happen to interrupt it, but if you fight, then it will be over immediately, and you might have lost, and died unsung?” Hawks looked quizzically at Barker. “I wonder,” he said in a bemused voice, “I wonder whether that might not explain it.”
Barker came quietly upward out of his chair. “Who are you to tell me these things, Hawks?” he said, calmly studying him. He reached behind his back without moving his eyes and set the bottle down on the small table beside the chair.
Hawks rubbed his palms over the cloth of his jacket. “Think about what happened to you today. You had thought the formation was something like an elaborate ski-slope, hadn’t you, Barker? Just another dangerous, inexorable place, like many places men have been before.
“But there were no rules to explain what had killed you, when you died. You had gone beyond the charts. You couldn’t say to yourself, as you died, that you had misinterpreted the rules, or failed to obey them, or tried to overcome them. There were no rules. No one had found them out yet. You died ignorant of what killed you. And there had been no crowd to applaud your skill or mourn your fate. A giant hand reached down and plucked you from the board — for what reason, no one knows. Suddenly, you knew that where you were was not a ski-slope at all, and all your skills were nothing. You saw, as clearly as anyone could ever see it, the undisguised face of the unknown universe. Men have put masks on it, Barker, and disarmed parts of it, and thought to themselves that they knew all of it. But they only know the parts they know. A man hurtling down a ski-slope has not learned the workings of gravity and friction. He has only learned how to deal with them in that particular situation, for all that he soars above them and lands safely. For all that the crowd sighs to watch a man overcome things that once killed men without mercy. All your jumping skill will not help you if you fall from an airplane without a parachute. All your past soaring and safe landing will not temper gravity then. The universe has resources of death which we have barely begun to pick at. And you found that out.
“Death is in the nature of the universe, Barker. Death is only the operation of a mechanism. All the universe has been running down from the moment of its creation. Did you expect a machine to care what it acted upon? Death is like sunlight or a falling star; they don’t care where they fall. Death cannot see the pennants on a lance, or the wreath of glory in a dying man’s hand. Flags and flowers are the inventions of life. When a man dies, he falls into enemy hands — an ignorant enemy, who doesn’t merely spit on banners but who doesn’t even know what banners are. No ordinary man could stand to find that out. You found it out today. You sat in the laboratory and were speechless at the injustice of it. You’d never thought that justice was only another human invention. And yet a few hours’ sleep and a little gin have helped you. The shock has worn down. All human shocks wear off — except the critical one. You’re not helpless now, like Rogan and the others are. Somehow, the creation inside your brain still lurches on. Why is that? How is it that dying didn’t topple your foundations, if they are what you thought they were?
“Do you know why you’re still sane, Barker? I think I do. I think it’s because you have Claire, and Connington, and myself. I think it was because you had us to run to. It isn’t really Death that tests your worth for you; it’s the menace of dying. Not Death, but murderers. So long as you have us about you, your vital parts are safe.”
Barker was moving toward him, his hands half-raised.
Hawks said, “It’s no use, Barker. You can’t do anything to me. If you were to kill me, you would have proved you were afraid to deal with me.”
“That’s not true,” Barker said, high-voiced. “A warrior kills his enemies.”
Hawks watched Barker’s eyes. “You’re not a warrior, Al,” he said regretfully. “Not the kind of warrior you think you want to be. You’re a man, that’s all. You want to be a worthy man — a man who satisfies his own standards, a man whose stature is his own. That’s all. That’s enough.”
Barker’s arms began to tremble. His head tilted to one side, and he looked at Hawks crookedly, his eyes blinking. “You’re so smart!” he panted. “You know so damned much! You know more about me than I do. How is that, Hawks — who touched your brow with a golden wand?”
“I’m a man, too, Al.”
“Yes?” Barker’s arms sank down to his sides. “Yes? Well, I don’t like you any better for it. Get out of here, man, while you still can.” He whirled and crossed the room with short, quick, jerking steps. He flung open the door. “Leave me to my old, familiar assassins!”
Hawks looked at him and said nothing. His expression was troubled. Then he set himself into motion and walked forward. He stopped in the doorway and stood face to face with Barker.
“I have to have you,” he said. “I need your report in the morning, and I need you to send up there into that thing, again.”
“Get out, Hawks,” Barker answered.
“I told you,” Hawks said, and stepped out into the darkness.
Barker slapped the door shut. He turned away toward the corridor leading into the other wing of the house, his neck taut and his mouth opening in a shout. It came almost inaudibly through the glass between himself and Hawks: “Claire? Claire!”