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The tintinabula was very ching that night, just before old Earth blew.
The dance appropriately enough was the ching-maya.
Captain Ratch Chug pin-wheeled, somewhere up there in the misty blue-green of the dance-globe. He threw his hip up in the crawfish modification of the dance which he himself had invented just last week in Rangoon, right in the middle of the war. To his own distaste, he heard his purr-engine wind up when the bundle of groomed pink flesh hanging onto his fingertips glowed her delight.
"You are ching," she squealed rather noisily into his pointy ear, "ching," but this was merely part of the dance and may not have been admiration at all. There is no question but that the slitted glitter of his eyes was a fascination to her, though, no less than the fabulous whiskery waxed mustache he wore in defiance of all the customs. "How ching," she hooted dreamily, free-falling against him from five feet up at the convulsive reechoing conclusion of the tintinabular construction. She would give him thirty seconds of her life lying here, and during this time he could say pretty much what he pleased.
"How's 'bout going off this planet with me?" was what Chug said, the air around him warbling and humming the last notes of that ching wappo.
"How far off this planet with you?" she pouted, calculating, using the final echoes of uranium-borrowed music to ride the question in. "Just how far would you say, old man of space? How far?" That was ten seconds right there!
"Ten light years, no less."
Chug was startled. Something had started screaming at him, inside him.
"To Zephyrus!" he cried.
Then he caught himself. He crooned, enticing, "Voyage with me to the god of the south!"
His runty thick brown fingers, curved of claw, tightened around her naked pink shoulders so that her eyes smiled and her pouty sweet lips writhed.
"What's the tear drops for, man of space? What are they, tears for me, 'cause you know I ain't going with you? You got the face of a crazy. This dance is over. You used your thirty. I go find another man."
"You ain't got time to find another man," he moaned, letting the tears squeeze out. "They pulled that lever! The war's gonna be over! Earth's gonna blow! I'm getting off!
"You got to go with me, young pink thing. I ain't no human, you know, one-fifth of me ain't, and there ain't nobody like me on Earth, and that's the reason I know! Coming with me? How's about it, you gonna keep that pink skin? You won't regret it. I'm nice, you'll like me, and there ain't no time for me to find another squud. Give up!"
But no approach would work. She slid away still pink, and he watched her float in the reduced field toward a group of watching couples, who smiled at what seemed a familiar scene. Chug pulled his shiny black and green 2nd Repellor Corps uniform jacket down around his trim hips, and kicked himself smartly by habit toward the floating bar.
Lights glinted in racing rippling patterns off glasses and goblets as the bar whirled around him in an improvised dance-step which enticed the numb Captain Ratch Chug into an allemande left. He stopped that, and ordered two drinks. The tomatoed bartender paid him, but Chug left the cards hanging, and drank fast. Then he began to cry in earnest, his thin pocked brown face worked, and his teeth began chattering; and his nose twitched as the ends of his whiskery mustache vibrated. He left the great room, and went toward the spaceport about three miles up.
"I'm gonna be dancing and watching Earth in the mirror when she blows," vowed Chug, staring at his swollen eyes and vexed lips. "When the first alphas and gammas hit, I'm gonna be doing a Hopi rain jig. Or the Lambeth Walk. Maybe the Bunny Hop! That's what I think of you, ol' Earth. So give me another drink."
He had reduced his speed to just below a light. His fast track from Earth was a dotted line as the ship sewed itself in and out of space. Earthlight soon would catch up with him. He drank the drinks the tomatoed equipment dutifully prepared. Wowie, he thought, dreaming. That ching-maya was a wappo! But how about the Irish Lilt? Particularly when you got a tomato knows how to manufacture good Irish whipskey—let's try again, ol' man of space, Irich whiskey. About that time, he saw old Earth blow. Captain Ratch Chug, late of the late 2nd Repellor Corps, saw it blow in the pick-up mirror. He cried horribly, in spite of the fact he didn't give a damn. Also, he didn't dance. And he told the tomato to quit making those stupid drinks. And he turned off the mirror, thinking of the young pink thing.
She wasn't very pink.
Captain Ratch Chug made a correction in his flight to Zephyrus, setting his effective speed at one and one-half times the speed of light, this being commensurate with his fuel supply.
Chug would arrive on Zephyrus how many years before the wave-front of fractured light arrived from Earth? Interesting question.
Just before he went into his long sleep, Chug lay weeping alcoholically on his pallet. Suddenly he shouted at the winding tubes of freezing gel advancing toward him, "What the hell! There's other planets, and other women to play with! And that's what I'm gonna be doing a good long time before I break the news to them Zephrans. I tell you, this is a sad business. I feel like hell!"
Zephyrus was named after the gentle and lovable god of the south wind, because it was the only human-populated planet south of the ecliptic plane.
Earth was on the outs with Zephyrus—had been for one hundred and three years. No Earth ship climbing the thready beams of space had pulled itself to Zephyrus in all that time. Furthermore, Earth had disrupted its communicator systems, making it a radio-hole in the sky so far as Zephyrus was concerned, and had departed with all its high-speed ships and the secrets of manufacturing same. Zephyrus was isolated!
Why was this? Simple. Make up all the fancy political and socio-economic reasons you want to, it all boils down to the prime fact that Earth people, every man, woman, and child of them, were mean, sneaky, commercial, undernourished and puny, and pleasure-loving. Not fun-loving—pleasure-loving. The Zephrans were noble, generous, tall, godly, and worshipful of the Mother Planet. Naturally they were an affront to the worthless, degraded Earthlings, so the Earthlings snubbed them out of practical existence. This was not a kind thing to do, but that was old Earth for you.
The sight of an Earth ship coming to the Zephran skies woke up the whole planet. It was as if every person on that planet bloomed, turning his petals toward the vast surprise. Not that they were flower-people, don't get me wrong; they were as human as you or I—or as human as we used to be; (but that's another story.)
"Hail Zephrans," said Chug weakly as the last remnants of the preserving gel slid away. "I bring you greetings from the home planet. As the solely constituted representative of Earth —" But he hadn't meant to say that. He was still drunk, his alcoholic state having been preserved intact by the process. He arose staggering.
A pleasant voice now said: "We hear you, Earthman. We'll get your ship docked in—oh, say an hour; so why not lie down again and sleep it off?"
Chug felt his back arching.
He felt curling sensations in his fingernails.
"Look," he said. "Whoever you—"
"You're drunk, son," interrupted the pleasant voice. "But that's all right. That's just between you and me. And we aren't going to tell anybody, are we? Of course not, old chap, old buddy."
"Whyn't you talk English!" Chug spat. "You got a hell of a accent." He weaved under the bright lights in his cabin filled with a ghastly surprise. First, there was that arching of his spine, and the feeling of claws on the ends of his fingers. He'd overcome that! He had, had! But now it was back, the first time somebody caught him at a disadvantage. Second, here was this supposedly worshipful Zephran, who wasn't worshipful at all, but was blowing a distinct north wind.
"You ain't no Zephran!"
"But also I ain't no Earthling," the other said. "Please listen, my dear man. I'm entrusted with the task of bringing your ship in. It is not my purpose to spoil your little game."
"WHAT GAME? What the hell game you talking about?" There it was again—and Chug almost wept—the feeling of long eye-teeth, of lips drawn back; damn damn damn.
"Oh my." The other sighed and rolled his eyes; it was a gesture that had to be there. "Look, son. Do it my way. Get yourself sobered up and cleaned up. Look smart! Back straight! Shoes shined! Hup!"
"Oh-h-h-h-h," groaned Chug, sagging to a seat droop-shouldered.
"Be not alarmed, dear boy. Zephran society is eagerly awaiting you. My, what a treasure you will be to the worshipful elders and teeming teenagers of Zephyrus who even now are assembling to welcome you!
The blankness following this gave ample indication that communication had been cut off.
One hundred top-ranking Zephrans variously stood or sat in the great auditorium of the floating winged palace of the mayor of the city of Matchley. Chug, having been transported in style from his ship on, naturally, a winged green horse, stood facing them. Thin television screens, also equipped with wings, dipped and dived by the hundreds through the air and each screen was packed with intent teenage faces.
Captain Ratch Chug, late of the 2nd Repellor Corps, was a triumph! He looked splendid. Where else in the universe could you find anybody wearing a uniform these days, and particularly a uniform edged and pinked in gold and red, and with moppish epaulets that as they swung seemed to beat out a martial air? Nowhere but on someone from Earth, because that was the only place anybody had wars.
Chug was striking a pose. Something was humming away inside him, the product of a vast, anticipatory content. He stood gracefully with one polished boot stiffly ahead of the other one. He twirled and twirled his dandy whiskery waxed mustache. His eyes glittered and appraised and swept the murmuring crowds of notables, as well as the clouds of bewinged thin television screens bursting with the excited faces of worshiping Zephran teenagers. He felt fine for now, having overcome for the moment his terrible grief over the blow-up of Mother Earth, and he was determined to bask in the glowing worship these Zephrans radiated.
He already had been asked some questions, all about Earth.
"Wars? Wars? Nope, ain't no more wars on Earth," Chug answered truthfully.
"This is splendid," he was told.
(Everybody on the planet was listening to this conversation, except that it was the gort season, and therefore a hundred thousand Zephrans were out hunting gorts. These gorts—however, that is not a part of this story.)
"What can you tell us in general terms about the possible future relations of Earth and Zephyrus?"
"The relations will be the very best," Chug assured them. Ya damn betcha: No Earth. "Is it perhaps true that you, acting for Earth, will return to us the secret of faster-than-light ships?"
A question to flutter the heart. Avowed Chug, crossing a finger, "I aim to give it to ya!"
"Is it perhaps true that our ships will then be allowed in Earth's skies?"
"Better not make it for a couple Zephran years!" Chug said, hastily computing. "And approach kinda slow in case there's some kind of—er—flare-up!"
"Then our age-old offense against the Mother World has been forgiven?"
"Ain't nobody holding a thing against ya!"
His questioner, an elderly and most handsome man who was in the position of mayor of the welcoming city of Matchley, said apologetically, "If you will speak more slowly. The refinements of the mother tongue have been lost to us."
While he talked, while he equivocated, the contented purring in Chug stopped. In fact, his purr-engine had been running down for some time. Because there was someone in this room who made his fur—what the hell!—who made his skin crawl. He knew who it was: the non-Zephran who had brought his ship in and who had made unkind remarks that no Zephran would make to a worshiped Earthling. Where was he, who was he?
In that crowd of worshiping faces, Chug had no idea.
If he could just find somebody who wasn't worshiping him.
Just then a small warm hand slipped into Chug's hand. Startled at first, he looked down into the peachiest face he had ever seen; peachy and creamy and plump all the way down to its pink toes. "Why, hullo!" said Chug, showing his delight at this intrusion by instantly clicking around facing her, and giving her all the attention he had given the officials crowding the room. "I am delighted!" he said for emphasis. It never failed! Here he was, crowding forty, and a bachelor, and this eighteen-year-old knew what he was: she knew!
"Hi hi," she said. "Ips!"
"Ips!" said Chug.
"Rightly. What we want to know, we, the teeming teenagers of our worshiping planet, what we want to know is, what does it on Earth?"
"Yah. Flickly. What's the WORD?"
"The word," said Chug. "Hah! The WORD!?? Ah." Out of his intuition, he desperately selected the answer. "Ching—that's the word!"
"Ching!" she screamed on sudden tip-toe, then clapping her hand over her mouth. "Halla- hoo! I'm sorry!" she said to the assembled officials who nonetheless watched her and listened to her with what seemed a supreme indulgence. She raised her voice again, however, and she had one of those healthy, tingly, musical female voices that could knock over fences.
"Hah, all witches," she shouted. "Ching's the WORD! That's what does it!"
The bewinged television screens flipped and sailed and a myriad thin screams sounded.
Chug realized she must be getting her message across to all the teenagers on the planet; (except those who might be out hunting gorts).
"This is miraculous," she said, still snuggling her warm hand in his. "You've come all the way from Earth to give us the WORD. Already ching is the big thing. I myself am already a ching-witch, if you follow. My name is Alise."
"And my name is Humpty Dumpty."
"Break a leg," she acknowledged. "By any chance, Sir Chug, would you happen to know, uh, just one Earth dance?"
"Just one? I ain't no peanut-vender, girl! Watch this!" Chug's legs moved in entrechat and cabriole, his feet and knees jiggered, and his arms were all over, finally clapping his hips. "See that? Up in the air and down on the ground, all in one breath." She became very faint at this. Her eyes crossed. Chug took the opportunity to try to settle a nagging fear. He turned smartly to his host, the mayor of Matchley.
"As you can see, sir," he began, "I ain't up on the pecking order in this situation. Here are you gentlemen, and here's this very ching young lady, really a credit to the teeming teenagers of Zephyrus—"
"There is really no difficulty, here," he was assured. "Our teenagers are alert, kind, and intelligent, and outnumber us. Ips!"
"Ips," said Chug, and was fascinated by the chorus of "ips" that ran around the room. Moreover, the mayor of Matchley's feet were tapping, and his eyes were bright and glistening as if in anticipation, or some other emotion Chug failed to recognize. Chug's own feet were tingling. His fingers were feeling a little snappy. Zephyrus, what a place. "Mr. Mayor," he hummed, "you people were ching before I ever got here. And I'm glad of that, I'm glad of that."
"He's glad of that, he's glad of that," hummed Alise, by this time standing very close and examining his chest medals.
"And I want to thank you, yes, all of you, indeed I do, before I demonstrate, before I do, a few of the more popular dance numbers they used to have—well, that they got on Earth. But in particular I would like to thank the wappo gentleman who brought my ship to dock."
"Wappo," mused Alise warmly. "Wappo!" Her index finger shot up into the air.
"And I would like to thank him personal," amended Chug, tapping his foot unconsciously to some hot music suddenly coming from somewhere!
Chug's host nodded somewhat dubiously, and spoke to an aide; who moved a few steps to another aide, who then spoke to his aide, who disappeared through a door. A minute later another aide hurried back into the room, and spoke hurriedly to the mayor, who then began to turn very red. The elements of the small comic opera did not escape Chug.
What the hell! he thought, astonished. They run questions around in circles. Nobody knows nothing. "Your pardon, sir," he said out loud while he felt his fingers snapping uncontrollably in his head, "it don't matter right now, not when we got to show this here young miss some of the vital folk dances of old Earth. But—"
"You see," the mayor of Matchley said, wiping his face, "nobody seems to know who was on the landing board at that hour. Now on a civilized planet like Earth, tomatoed equipment would have brought your craft in, but here on Zephyrus we still work— sometimes as much as an hour a day. It's possible that some records have been kept, and that the man or woman who brought you in—"
"A man!" said Chug. "A man's voice!"
Excerpted from Again, Dangerous Visions by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 2000 The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 16, 2012
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