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Strange Travelers

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Strange Travelers

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Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Orb Books, 2001
Tor, 2000

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Book Type: Collection
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Gene Wolfe is producing the most significant body of short fiction of any living writer in the SF genre. It has been ten years since the last major Wolfe collection, so Strange Travelers contains a whole decade of achievement. Some of these stories were award nominees, some were controversial, but each is unique and beautifully written.

Table of Contents



Sitting on the hood and thrumming the strings of his chevycap, Aldo watched the sun rise over the black semi in the slow lane. The question, Aldo told himself, wasn't when Mar' would come back. The question was, was there any particular weather that would be better for looking for a new song? Winter would be good. Folks sang more then. They'd feel sorry, too, and let you set in their cars to hear you, like they maybe wouldn't now. Rain would be good, too. Rain made you feel blue, and it was feeling blue that brought the best songs.

It wasn't that he made his songs up, not really. That was what people figured, and was why he could when they couldn't. Thinking made the songchopper go off and leave you to work out whatever was troubling you, like anybody would. What you did (this was the best) was scooch up on the hood and lean back with your back up against the windshield so the songchopper, the little sun-color chopper that nobody ever saw, could see you weren't doing nothing and fly up behind and throw down a song to your ear. A new song.

This way, Aldo thought, scooching up on flaking steel still cold with night. He leaned back, eyes half closed.

"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller sun, yeller sun, bring her back,
Make her to lie in my Cadillac."

He spaced out the final notes of the refrain, trying to make them sound as lost and lonely as he had felt since Ma'am pined, but only half succeeding. It was a good song, but not a new song; he had done it almost a year ago, when Mar' had been gone only half a day.

The airman was coming down the lane with his little putt-putting motor and his tire gauge. "How do," Aldo called. The airman and the other choppermen wouldn't hardly ever tell you their names.

"Howdy, Aldo," the airman answered. "How's your tires?" This airman always said that.

"Might have a look at the left front," Aldo replied; today he added, "I'd 'predate it. Goin' to be gone a li'l."

Stooping to check the left rear of the Ryder in front of Aldo's Caddy, the airman glanced up in some surprise. "You takin' off, Aldo?"

He shook his head. "Just walkin' on down a ways, airman. Maybe you and me could walk along together awhile?"

The airman straightened up. "I go slow. Got to, to check the ones that look soft."

Aldo nodded, and his fingers found the strings of his chevycap.

"Airman, airman, stop at every wheel,
Slow down, airman, let me get my meal,
Chowchopper's hummin', chopper wind's a-blowin',
Got to grab my supper, 'fore you get a-goin'.
"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller sun, yeller sun, bring Mar' back,
Make her a bed in my Cadillac."

"You certainly can play that thing," the airman said, and Aldo grinned.

"Fast-lane gals, come kick at the moon,
Rattle your spoons, dance to my tunes!
Fast-lane gals are the best for a fling,
Don't want no ring, don't mind a thing!"

His fingers tap-tappity-tapped the chevycap, as well as strumming the strings, so that it seemed for a moment he had three arms at least.

"I can't wait for you to go," the airman said, smiling, "but maybe you could catch up to me." He stooped to put his gauge on Aldo's right front.

"I'll go now," Aldo told him. "Soon's you do." He had not known that, not certain sure, until he said it; but it was true: he was ready.

"She is a mite soft." The airman put his hose on the valve, and the putt-putting of his little motor slowed and deepened.

"You think that gasman might come any time soon?"

The airman shook his head.

"I wouldn't want to miss if he did, that's all."

The airman straightened up again. "If you freewayers didn't run your engines so you could listen to your radios, you'd always have plenty of gas."

"I don't," Aldo said truthfully.

"Well, a lot do. Sometimes I can hear them switchin' off as I go down the lane."

"Sure. But we got to run--" He had said we. He counted the days since Ma'am had driven out of the jam. Thirty-three. Maybe thirty-four.

"Come along if you're comin'," the airman told him.

It was slow work, and there was no way Aldo could make it go faster, nothing he could do beyond cheering the way with a song. Sometimes he sang without playing; more often he played without singing, listening to the silver notes lose themselves in the hot morning sunlight. These were good strings, these new ones he had untwisted from the hood-release cable of the empty Toyota.

"How far you been this way, Aldo?" the airman wanted to know.

"Down to the Junction." It was a lie. He had been to within sight of the Junction, that was all.

The slatternly woman whose tires the airman was checking said, "I been past the Junction, just about to the Spaghetti Bowl."

Aldo stopped strumming. "I never heard tell. What's that?"

"I won't tell you," the woman said. "What do I need for you to call me a liar? You born in the jam?"

Aldo shook his head.

"Yes, you was!"

"I was three," Aldo explained. "I was ridin' with Ma'am."

"Who's that?"

Aldo looked up-lane in the direction of his Caddy. There were cars, trucks, and station wagons as far as he could see, but not one he recognized. He and the airman had come farther than he thought--that was easy to do. "Ma'am's my ma," he said. "Everybody 'round where we live, they called herMa'am. She drove out 'bout this time last month. Little more, now."

"I'm sorry to hear," the slatternly woman said.

The airman straightened up, hooking the nozzle of his air hose to the side of the handcart that held the air tank and the putt-putting motor. "You get a body bag for her, Aldo?"

"Yes, sir, Airman," Aldo said truthfully.

"Give her to the deathchopper for sanitary disposal?"

"Yes, sir," Aldo lied; he had put her in the trunk, which was what most people did--laid them in the trunk, or in the back of the black semi in the slow lane. The black semi had been empty once; it was nearly a quarter full of body bags now, and there were two or three who weren't in bags and lent the black semi a scent putrid yet almost sweet, a smell that became an overpowering stench when the big doors in back opened for somebody else.

Rapidly, as if she sensed the need for a change of topic, the slatternly woman said, "My son, he's born right here in our Tornado, an' he's 'bout as tall as you."

"There's lots taller than me," Aldo conceded. He pointed to a crack in the concrete. "You see that? That's grass, that green stuff there."

"Sure, I know."

Aldo nodded. "You would, course. Well, so would I, an' I do. I remember a whole lane that was all over grass, an' soft. I remember runnin' on it with some kind of a animal that was white an' brown."

"A dog?" the slatternly woman hazarded.

"I don't know. Might of been."

The woman nodded to herself. "What you doin' down this way? Takin' off?"

Aldo shook his head.

"They don't like it if you do. That airman, he'll tell."

The airman, who had moved beyond the slatternly woman's Tornado by this time, looked back at them. "That's what you think. I don't give a shit, Aldo. You're a nice boy, an' if you want to risk it, you do it. I won't tell anybody."

"I'm not," Aldo repeated.

"Usually," the woman said, "when somebody like you comes by, they're lookin' for somebody."

Aldo shook his head.

"Lookin' for a gal, most often." When Aldo said nothing, the slatternly woman added, "Don't people I don't know come by often, but when they do an' it's somebody 'bout your age, Aldo, they're lookin' for a gal."

"I'm not," he told her, "but I'll take one if you got one. Where she be?"

The slatternly woman laughed. "Not so long back I'd of said me, Aldo. What is it? What you lookin' for?"

Aldo hesitated. He was by nature candid, yet he hated to expose himself to mockery. "You goin' to laugh?"

"Not if it's not no joke."

"I'm lookin' for a song."

"Uh-huh." The slatternly woman chewed her lip. "You lose one? How you lose a song?"

"Forget, I guess. But I didn't." Also leaned against the side of her gray Tornado and ran his fingers over the strings of his chevycap. "I can remember every song that ever I heard. Ma'am used to say some's good at one thing an' some at another. Only I've seen some that wasn't good for nothin'."

The slatternly woman nodded her agreement.

"Me, I got somethin' I'm good at." The chevycap trilled happy laughter. "I'm good at this. I want a new song, though. I'm tired of the old ones."

"You the one that the chopper's lookin' for?"

Aldo froze. "Don't think so. The chowchopper?"

The slatternly woman laughed again. "Chowchopper don't look for nobody. We look for it."

"Used to look for Ma'am," Aldo declared, "'cause she'd help. Tell who was sick, an' not to give to them that'd lined up twice. But don't look for me, now Ma'am's drove out."

"This was 'nother," the slatternly woman explained. "I never hardly seen it before. Not to talk to, anyhow. Yeller, it was, got Number Three an' TV on the side, all blue."

Aldo opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He had imagined a small chopper, so tiny that nobody could see it, but yellow as the sun. Songs had to come from somewhere, and it seemed to him that his own came from a place outside himself, brought to him by this songchopper. Then too, Mar'd gone off lookin' for a chopper that was-

"They was lookin' for somebody," the slatternly woman repeated. "Can you play that thing? Let's hear you."

Aldo nodded. "What kind you like?"

The slatternly woman hesitated, and something sly crept into her expression. "You're not lookin' for a gal, you said."

"For a song. A new one. I told you."

"But you know lots?"

"More'n most."

"You'll play whatever kind I want?"

Aldo considered. "If you'll tell me 'bout the songchopper after."

Her eyes widened. "How you know they want to know 'bout songs an' stuff? I guess you been talkin' to folks."

"I mean the yeller chopper with the blue on. Song just sort of slipped out. What kind you want?"

"One '...

Copyright © 2000 by Gene Wolfe


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