Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Exo-Skeleton Town" by Jeffrey Ford (Part 2 of 4)

Exo-Skeleton Town
by Jeffrey Ford

[Continued from Part 1]

I would have rather sat on the bowl backwards for a year than take that space flight. It seemed endless, but I spent my time reading books about ancient movies and dreaming what I would do with all my gold after I scored my load. My ace in the hole was that I had a great movie to trade. This was a real one too. It had been handed down over generations on my father's side. To tell the truth, I stole it from him the day I left for the spaceport. It was a little low budget job called Night of the Living Dead. My old man would dust it off for holidays and we'd watch it. Who knew what the hell was going on in the film? It was in black and white, but supposedly, from what I had read, it was a cult classic in its time. I remember once, as a kid of about ten, my old man leaned over to me where I lay on the floor one Christmas watching it with the rest of the relatives. He said to me, "You know what the deeper implications are here?" pointing to the monitor. I shook my head. "The director is trying to say that the dead will eat you." My old man was as profound as a stone. All I saw was a bunch of stiffs marching around. For years I thought it was a parade. If I were to see that movie today, it would probably still get me in the holiday spirit. Anyway, it wasn't as early as I would have liked, but I thought the whole anti-Hollywood, independent movie scene, a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, might be ready to explode on the bug planet.

I still remember the day when we landed at the little spaceport next to Exo-Skeleton Town, and I looked out the window at a village of one-story concrete bunkers in the dark lit by streetlights. It was like a nightmare. Putting on the Cotten was the only thing that saved me from crying. Climbing into those skins is a painful experience at first. There's a moment when you have to die and then be revived by the suit's biosystem. The one thing nobody told me about was how it itches when you first get in. I thought it would drive me wild. Then another guy who had been to the bug planet before stepped into a smart little Nick Adams getup and warned me, "Whatever you do, don't think about the itching. It can seriously drive you insane." I was in agony when I stepped through the airlock and into the slow, heavy world of insects.

It cost me a fortune but I managed to arrange a meeting with Stootladdle only a few days after my arrival. He was a sight to behold. Hairy, too many arms. His eyes were round as saucers and a thousand mirrors each. I became momentarily dizzy trying to watch each and every me he was seeing all at once. The voice that came through the translator was high and thin and full of annoyance.

"Joseph Cotten," he said. "I've seen you in a few things."

"Shadow of a Doubt?" I asked.

"Never heard of it," said the flea.

Now, as I gaze through the pale orange haze into the mirror behind Spid's smoke bar, I realize all that was a long time ago. Five, ten years may have passed since I came to the bug planet. The smoke has a way of paralyzing time, blotting out its illusion of progress, so that yesterday might as well be today and vice versa. Whatever this stuff is that Spid burns to make the smoke, it looks like big handfuls of antennae. The mind spins with a logic as sure as a spider web. Real memories intrude now and then as do self-admonitions for a wasted life, but the smoke's other feature is that it lets you not give a shit about anything but taking in more smoke.

The smoke has turned my brain to cotton, so that now I am cotton(en) inside and out. Yes, the Cotten went rotten a long time ago. So now I give old Spid, that affable arachnid, the crystal chip Gable dropped, and he says, "The usual, Joe?" I nod and bare my exhaust pipe. He fits the tube to my opening and I set the vacuum on intake by touching my left pinky finger to my right earlobe. The nano-machinery does its thing and sucks a bolus toke of the orange mist. With the smoke, you never exhale.

It wasn't long after I arrived that I got hooked on the smoke and ended up selling my movie for a ridiculously low price in order to get high one night. An elegantly thin cricket gave me ten crystal chips for it, and I spent the next three days dozing and smoking at Spid's. When my credit ran out, and a few hours passed, I came to and began to panic. That was how I became Stootladdle's flunky.

"How do you feel about living?" he asked me when the Beetle Squad brought me to his office. I had been caught on the street trying to score a turd without the proper papers. Even in my orange haze, I was surprised they hadn't plugged me.

"Tomorrow is another day," I said to him.

"I'm going to slap you around and you're going to like it," he said. Then he did, all those arms working me over at once. The blows were like a stinging swarm of locust and the nano-technology, true to its guarantee, registered every one. When I was thoroughly dazed, he gave a little jump in the air and kicked me right in the nuts, or where they would have been if the suit makers had bothered to render them. I fell forward and he caught me with his mandibles by the neck.

"I've got a spot for you in my private collection right between Omar Sharif and Annette Funicello," he said.

I promised I'd do anything he wanted if he let me live. He loosened his grip and I stood, rubbing my throat. He laughed loud and long, the sound of teeth scraping concrete, and he put two of his arms around me.

"Now, Joseph," he said, "I have a little job for you to do."

"Anything," I said.

Stootladdle waved away the Beetle Squad, and I was left alone with him in his office. He sat down at his desk and triple motioned for me to take the chair across from him.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

I looked into his eyes and saw myself nodding ad infinitum.

"Yes," he said. "Very well. Have you ever heard of a film called The Rain Does Things Like That?"

"Will it go badly for me if I haven't?" I asked.

He laughed. "It will go badly for you no matter what," he said.

"No," I admitted.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I saw this movie once, years and years ago, very early on in our trade relationship with your planet."

"How is it?" I asked.

"It's the butterfly's dust," he said.

"If it's that good, how come I never heard of it?" I asked.

"The actors were unknown, but I tell you there is a young woman in it named Gloriette Moss, who is nothing less than startling. It's a love story. Poignant," said Stootladdle, scratching his hairy stomach.

"I'll have to catch it some time," I said.

"No, Joseph," he said, "you're going to catch it now. The only copy of the film on the planet resides out in the luminous veldt with the widow of Ambassador Lancaster. His widow, who still lives out there on the estate, is none other than Gloriette Moss. I've tried to buy the movie from her for my collection, but she refuses to sell. It was her husband's favorite film because she starred in it. Sentimental value, as you earthlings say. I want that movie."

"Why don't you just send out the Beetle Squad and take it?" I asked.

"Too delicate a situation," he said. "She has ties to Earth's military. How would it look if we started roughing up an ex-ambassador's wife? It could interrupt our thriving trade."

"If you send me back to Earth, I'll tell them to make her give you the film," I said.

"Ready for another beating, I see," he said. "No, I want you to go out there and get it for me. I don't care how you get it short of stealing it, but I want it. You can not harm her. She must willingly give it to you and then you will give it to me and I will let you live."

"How am I going to do that?" I asked.

"Your charm, Joseph. Remember how you were in The Third Man, bumbling yet sincere, but altogether charming?" he said.

I nodded.

"Succeed or suffer a slow, painful death."

"I think I hear zither music," I said.

Stootladdle put his slackey (like an ancient rickshaw conveyance) and driver, an ill-tempered termite, at my disposal for the trip out of town. Once beyond the dim glow of the streetlights of Exo-town, things got really dark. Our only guide was the ragged moon all jumbled and bashed. The driver kept complaining about the pests, miniscule mammals with gossamer wings, bats the size of Earth mosquitos, that traveled in clouds and stung viciously. He at least had a few extra appendages at his disposal with which to keep them away. I was frightened of him, frightened of the dark and my grim future, but the thing that scared me more than anything was the thought of going without the smoke for more than a day. The mayor had assured me that Gloriette Moss was a smoke fiend herself and had her own setup, keeping a huge supply on hand of whatever that stuff is that one burns to make it. I prayed he wasn't playing with me on this score. He said that the reason she never went back to Earth was because she was hooked.

After a jostling, potholed, nightmare of a journey, we came in sight of the luminous veldt—an immense pasture of long wind-blown grass that glowed against the dark with the resilient yellow-green of cat's eyes. The light from it eased my fear and its slow ocean movement was very relaxing. In the face of its beauty, I almost forgot my predicament. The driver turned onto a path that cut through the grass, and we traveled for another mile or so with me in a kind of stupor.

"Out, earthworm," he said, and I came suddenly to my senses.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"This is it," he said. "Get out."

"Where is the Lancaster estate?" I asked.

"Look," he said, and pointed out with three of his arms that we were at a crossroad of paths. The grass was high over our heads.

"Take that path. Up there a way, you'll see an Earth house. I can't take you any farther. If the lady sees me, she'll know you have come because of Stootladdle."

"Thanks," I said as I got down from the slackey.

"May maggots infest your nostrils," he said. Then he turned the hitch around and was gone.

There I was, Cotten, three light-years from Earth, on a bug planet of perpetual night. The stars were brilliant above me, but I did not look up for fear of the loneliness and recrimination I might feel at seeing the sun, a blinking dot in the distance. I thought of my parents, thinking of me, wondering what had become of me, and I saw my old man, shaking his head and saying, "That jerk-off took my movie."

[Continue to Part 3]

"Exo-Skeleton Town" is © 2001 by Jeffrey Ford and is reprinted here by permission of the author. The story was originally published in the premiere issue of Black Gate magazine, Spring 2001, and will be included in anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and forthcoming from Night Shade Books in November.


  1. Just two weeks ago I read this story for the first time. It blew me away and continues to do so.

  2. Hi, Jack,

    Good to hear that Jeff's story affected you so. And I'm pleased as well to have included your story, "What You Are About To See," in the Alien Contact anthology.

    - marty