With the growing development of trade and cultural relations between the two planets, the Fizbians on Earth were an ever-increasing number. But they were not the only readers of "Helpfully Yours." Reprinted in the parent paper, it was read with edification and pleasure all over Fizbus. Everyone wanted to learn more about the ancient and other-worldly Terran culture.
The handbook, A Brief Introduction to Terrestrial Manners and Mores, owed much of its content to "Helpfully Yours." A grateful, almost fulsome, introductory note had said so. But the column truly deserved all the praise that had been lavished upon it by the handbook. How well she had studied the thoughtful letters that filled it and the excellent and well-reasoned advice--erring, if it erred at all, on the side of overtolerance--that had been given in return. Of course, on Earth, spiritual adjustment apparently was more important than the physical; you could tell that from the questions that were asked. A number of the letters had been reprinted in an appendix to the manual.
New York Dear Senbot Drosmig: When in contact with Terrestrial culture, I find myself constantly overawed and weighed down by the knowledge of my own inadequacy. I cannot seem to appreciate the local art forms as disseminated by the juke box, the comic strip, the tabloid.
How can I help myself toward a greater understanding?
Hopefully yours, Gnurmis Plitt * * * * *
Dear Mr. Plitt: Remember, Orkv was not excavated in a week. It took the Terrestrials many centuries to develop their exquisite and esoteric art forms. How can you expect to comprehend them in a few short years? Expose yourself to their art. Work, study, meditate.
Understanding will come, I promise you.
Helpfully yours, Senbot Drosmig * * * * *
Paris Dear Senbot Drosmig: To think that I am enjoying the benefits of Terra while my wife and little ones are forced to remain on Fizbus makes my heart ache. Surely it is not fair that I should have so much and they so little. Imagine the inestimable advantage to the fledgling of even a short contact with Terrestrial culture!
Why cannot my loved ones come to join me so that we can share all these wonderful spiritual experiences and be enriched by them together?
Poignantly yours, Tpooly N'Ox * * * * *
Dear Mr. N'Ox: After all, it has been only five years since Fizbian spaceships first came into contact with Terra. In keeping with our usual colonial policy--so inappropriate and anachronistic when applied to a well-developed civilization like Terra's--at first only males are allowed to go to the new world until it is made certain over a period of years that the planet is safe for mothers and future mothers of Fizbus.
But Stet Zarnon himself, the celebrated and capable editor of the Terran edition of The Fizbus Times, has taken up your cause, and I promise you that eventually your loved ones will be able to join you.
Meanwhile, work, study, meditate.
Helpfully yours, Senbot Drosmig * * * * *
Ottawa Dear Senbot Drosmig: Having just completed a two-year tour of duty on Earth as part of a diplomatic mission, I am regretfully leaving this fair planet. What books, what objects of art, what, in short, souvenirs shall I take back to Fizbus which will give our people some small idea of Earth's rich cultural heritage and, at the same time, serve as useful and appropriate gifts for my friends and relatives back Home?
Inquiringly yours, Solgus Zagroot * * * * *
Dear Mr. Zagroot: Take back nothing but your memories. They will be your best souvenirs.
Out of context, any other mementos might convey little, if anything, of the true beauty and advanced spirituality of Terrestrial culture, and you might cheapen them were you to use them crassly as souvenirs. Furthermore, it is possible that you, in your ignorance, might unwittingly select some items that give a distorted and false idea of our extrafizbian friends.
The Fizbian-Earth Cultural Commission, sponsored by The Fizbian Times, in conjunction with the consulate, is preparing a vast program of cultural interchange. Leave it to them to do the great work, for you can be sure they will do it well.
And be sure to tell your fellow-laborers in the diplomatic vineyards that it is wiser not to send unapproved Terran souvenirs back Home. They might cause a fatal misunderstanding between the two worlds. Tell them to spend their time on Earth in working, studying and meditating, rather than shopping.
Helpfully yours, Senbot Drosmig * * * * *
And now she--Tarb Morfatch--herself was going to be the guiding spirit that brought enlightenment and uplift to countless thousands on Terra and millions on Fizbus. Her name wouldn't appear on the columns, but the reward of having helped should be enough. Besides, Drosmig was due to retire soon. If she proved herself competent, she would take over the column entirely and get the byline. Grupe had promised faithfully.
But what, she wondered, had put Drosmig "out of commission"?
The taxi drew up before a building with a vulgar number of floors showing above ground.
"Ah--before we--er--meet the others," Stet suggested, twitching his crest, "I was wondering whether you would care to--er--have dinner with me tonight?"
This roused Tarb from her speculations. "Oh, I'd love to!" A date with the boss right away!
Stet fumbled in his garments for appropriate tokens with which to pay the driver. "You--you're not engaged or anything back Home, Miss Morfatch?"
"Why, no," she said. "It so happens that I'm not."
"Splendid!" He made an abortive gesture with his leg, then let her get out of the taxi by herself. "It makes the natives stare," he explained abashedly.
"But why shouldn't they?" she asked, wondering whether to laugh or not. "How could they help but stare? We are different." He must be joking. She ventured a smile.
He smiled back, but made no reply.
The pavement was hard under her thinly covered soles. Now that walking looked as if it would present a problem, the ban on wing use loomed more threateningly. She had, of course, walked before--on wet days when her wings were waterlogged or in high winds or when she had surface business. However, the sidewalks on Fizbus were soft and resilient. Now she understood why the Terrestrials wore such crippling foot armor, but that didn't make her feel any better about it.
A box-shaped machine took the two Fizbians up to the twentieth story in twice the time it would have taken them to fly the same distance. Tarb supposed that the offices were in an attic instead of a basement because exchange difficulties forced the Times to such economy. She wondered ruefully whether her own expense account would also suffer.
But it was no time to worry about such sordid matters; most important right now was making a favorable impression on her co-workers. She did want them to like her.
Taking out her compact, she carefully polished her eyeballs. The man at the controls of the machine practically performed a ritual entrechat.
"Don't do that!" Stet ordered in a harsh whisper.
"But why not?" she asked, unable to restrain a trace of belligerence from her voice. He hadn't been very polite himself. "The handbook said respectable Terran women make up in public. Why shouldn't I?"
He sighed. "It'll take time for you to catch on, I suppose. There's a lot the handbook doesn't--can't--cover. You'll find the setup here rather different from on Fizbus," he went on as he kicked open the door neatly lettered THE FIZBUS TIMES in both Fizbian and Terran. "We've found it expedient to follow the local newspaper practice. For instance--" he indicated a small green-feathered man seated at a desk just beyond the railing that bisected the room horizontally--"we have a Copy Editor."
"What does he do?" she asked, confused.
"He copies news from the other papers, of course."
"And what are you doing tonight, Miss Morfatch?" the Copy Editor asked, springing up from his desk to execute the three ritual entrechats with somewhat more verve than was absolutely necessary.
"Having dinner with me," Stet said quickly.
"Pulling rank, eh, old bird? Well, we'll see whether position or sterling worth will win out in the end."
As the rest of the staff crowded around Tarb, leaping and booing as appreciatively as any girl could want, she managed to snatch a rapid look around. The place wasn't really so very much different from a Fizbian newsroom, once she got over the oddity of going across, not up and down, with the desks--queerly shaped but undeniably desks--arranged side by side instead of one over the other. There were chairs and stools, no perches, but that was to be expected in a wingless society. And it was noisy. Even though the little machines had stopped clattering when she came in, a distant roaring continued, as if, concealed somewhere close by, larger, more sinister machines continued their work. A peculiar smell hung in the air--not unpleasant, exactly, but strange.
She sniffed inquiringly.
"Ink," Stet said.
"Oh, some stuff the boys in the back shop use. The feature writers," he went on quickly, before she could ask what the "back shop" was, "have private offices where they can perch in comfort."
He led the way down a corridor, opening doors. "Our drama editor." He indicated a middle-aged man with faded blue feathers, who hung head downward from his perch. "On the lobster-trick last night writing a review, so he's catching fifty-one twinkles now."
"Enchanted, Miss Morfatch," the critic said, opening one bright eye. "By a curious chance, it so happens that tonight I have two tickets to--"
"Tonight she's going out with me."
"Well, I can get tickets to any play, any night. And you haven't laughed unless you've seen a Terrestrial drama. Just say the word, chick."
Stet got Tarb out of the office and slammed the door shut. "Over here is the office of our food editor," he said, breathing hard, "whom you'll be expected to give a claw to now and then, since your jobs overlap. Can't introduce you to him right now, though, because he's in the hospital with ptomaine poisoning. And this is the office you'll share with Drosmig."
Stet opened the door.
Underneath the perch, Senbot Drosmig, dean of Fizbian journalists, lay on the rug in a sodden stupor, letters to the editor scattered thickly over his shriveled person. The whole room reeked unmistakably of caffeine.
Tarb shrank back and twined both feet around Stet's. This time he did not repulse her. "But how can a--an educated, cultured man like Senbot Drosmig sink to such depths?"
"It's hard for anyone with even the slightest inclination toward the stuff to resist it here," Stet replied somberly. "I can't deny it; the sale of caffeine is absolutely unrestricted on Earth. Coffee shops all over the place. Coffee served freely at even the best homes. And not only coffee ... caffeine is insiduously present in other of their popular beverages."
Her eyes bulged sideways. "But how can a so-called civilized people be so depraved?"
"Caffeine doesn't seem to affect them the way it does us. Their nervous systems are so very uncomplicated, one almost envies them."
Drosmig stirred restlessly under his blanket of correspondence. "Go back ... Fizbus," he muttered. "Warn you ... 'fore ... too late ... like me."
Tarb's rose-pink feathers stood on end. She looked apprehensively at Stet.
"Senbot can't go back because he's in no shape to take the interstel drive." The young editor was obviously annoyed. "He's old and he's a physical wreck. But that certainly doesn't apply to you, Miss Morfatch." He looked long and hard into her eyes.
"Few years on planet," Drosmig groaned, struggling to his wings, "'ply to anybody."
His feathers, Tarb noticed, were an ugly, darkish brown. She had never seen any one that color before, but she'd heard rumors that too much caffeine could do that to you. At least she hoped it was only the caffeine.
"For your information, he was almost as bad as this when he came!" Stet snapped. "Frankly, that's why he was sent here--to get rid of his unfortunate addiction. Grupe had no idea, when he assigned him to Earth, that there was caffeine on the planet."
The old man gave a sardonic laugh as he clumsily made his way to the perch and gripped it with quivering toes.
"That is, I don't think he knew," Stet said dubiously.
Tarb reached over and picked a letter off the floor. The Fizbian characters were clumsy and ill-made, as if someone had formed them with his feet. Could there be such poverty here that individuals existed who could not afford a scripto? The letter didn't read like any that had ever been printed in the column--at least none that had been picked up in the Fizbus edition: * * * * *
New York Dear Senbot Drosmig: I am a subaltern clerk in the shipping department of the FizbEarth Trading Company, Inc. Although I have held this post for only three months, I have already won the respect and esteem of my superiors through my diligence and good character. My habits are exemplary: I do not gamble, sing, or take caffeine.
Earlier today, while engaged in evening meditation at my modest apartments, I was aroused by a peremptory knock at the door. I flung it open. A native stood there with a small case in his hand.
"Is the house on fire?" I asked, wondering which of my few humble possessions I should rescue first.
"No," he said. "I would like to interest you in some brushes."
"Are the offices of the FizbEarth Trading Company, Inc., on fire?"
"Not to my knowledge," he replied, opening his case. "Now I have here a very nice hairbrush--"
I wanted to give him every chance. "Have you come to tell me of any disaster relative to the FizbEarth Trading Company, to myself, or to anyone or anything else with whom or with which I am connected?"
"Why, no," he said. "I have come to sell you brushes. Now here is a little number I know you'll like. My company developed it with you folks specially in mind. It's--"
"Do you know, sir, that you have wantonly interrupted me in the midst of my meditations, which constitutes an established act of privacy violation?"
"Is that a fact? Now this little item is particularly designed for brushing the wings--"
At that point, I knocked him down and punched him into insensibility with my feet. Then I summoned the police. To my surprise, they arrested me instead of him.
I am writing this letter from jail. I do not like to ask my employers to get me out because, even though I am innocent, you know how a thing like this can leave a smudge on the record.
What shall I do?
Anxiously yours, Fruzmus Bloxx * * * * *
"What should he do?" Tarb asked, handing Stet the paper. "Or is the question academic by now? The letter's five days old."
Stet sighed. "I'll find out whether the consulate has been notified. Native police usually do that, you know. Very thoughtful fellows. If this Bloxx hasn't been bailed out already, I'll see that he is."
"But how will we answer his letter? Advise him to sue for false arrest?"
Stet smiled. "But he has no grounds for false arrest. He is guilty of assault. The native was entirely within his rights in trying to sell him a brush. Now--" he put out a foot--"brace yourself. Privacy violation is not a crime on Terra. It is perfectly legal. In fact, it does not exist as such!"
At that point, everything went maroon.
When Tarb came to, she found herself lying upon Drosmig's desk. A skin-faced native woman was offering her water and clucking.
"Are you all right, Tarb--Miss Morfatch?" Stet demanded anxiously.
"Yes. I--I think so," she murmured, raising herself to a crouch.
"Better ... have died," Drosmig groaned from his perch. "Fate worse ... death ... awaits you."
Tarb tried to smile. "Sorry to have been so much trouble." She stuck out her tongue at both Stet and the native.
The woman drew in her breath.
"Miss Morfatch," Stet reminded Tarb, "sticking out the tongue is not an apology on Terra; it is an insult. Fortunately, Miss Snow happens to be perhaps the only Terran who would not be offended. She has become thoroughly acquainted with us and our odd little customs. She even--" he beamed at the Terran female--"has learned to speak our language."
"Hail to thee, O visitor from the stars," Miss Snow said in Fizbian. "May thy sojourn upon Earth be an incessant delight and may peace and plenty shower their gifts in abundance upon thee."
Tarb put her hand to her aching head. "I'm very glad to meet you," she said, glad she did not have to get up to make the ritual entrechats.
"Miss Snow is my right foot," Stet said, "but I'm going to be noble and let her act as your secretary until you can learn to operate a typewriter."
"Well, you see, there are no scriptos or superscriptos on Earth and we can't import any from Home because the natives--" Miss Snow smiled--"don't have the right kind of power here to run psychic installations. All prosifying has to be done directly on prosifying machines or--" he paused--"by foot."