"Nearly thought I wouldn't make it," she observed, shaking herself in a flurry of wet pink feathers. The rest of the staff ducked, most of them too late. "Umbrella didn't do much good," she continued, closing it. It left a little puddle on the rug. "My wings got soaked right away." She tossed her wet crest out of her eyes. "Golly, but it's good to fly again. Haven't done it for months, but it seems like years." Her eye caught Miss Snow's. "You don't know what you're missing!"
"Tarb," Stet thundered, "you've been drinking coffee! Griblo!" But the cameraman had nimbly sought sanctuary in the dark-room.
"You'd better go home, Tarb." When Stet's eye tufts met across his nose, he was downright ugly, she realized. "Griblo can give me the dope and I'll write up the story myself. I can fill it out with canned copy. And you and I will discuss this situation in the morning."
"Won't go home when there's work to be done. Duty calls me." Giving a brief and quite recognizable imitation of a Terrestrial trumpet, Tarb stalked down the corridor to her office.
Drosmig looked up from his perch, to which he was still miraculously clinging at that hour. "So it got you, too?... Sorry ... nice girl."
"It hasn't got me," Tarb replied, picking up a letter marked Urgent. "I've got it." She scanned the letter, then made hastily for Stet's office.
He sat drumming on his desk with the antique stainless steel spatula he used as a paperknife.
"Read this!" she demanded, thrusting the letter into his face. "Read this, you traitor--sacrificing our whole civilization to what's most expedient for you! Hypocrite! Cad!"
"Tarb, listen to me! I'm--"
"Read it!" She slapped the letter down in front of him. "Read it and see what you've done to us! Sure, we Fizbians keep to ourselves and so the only people who know anything about us are the ones who want to sell us brushes, while the people who want to help us don't know a damn thing about us and--"
"Oh, all right! I'll read it if you'll only keep quiet!" He turned the letter right-side up.
Johannesburg Dear Senbot Drosmig: I represent the Dzoglian Publishing Company, Inc., of which I know you have heard, since your paper has seen fit to give our books some of the most unjust reviews on record. However, be that as it may, I have opened an office on Earth with the laudable purpose of effecting an interchange of respective literatures, to see which Terrestrial books might most profitably be translated into Fizbian, and which of the authors on our own list might have potential appeal for the Earth reader.
Dealing with authors is, of course, a nerve-racking business and I soon found myself in dire need of mental treatment. What was my horror to find that this primitive, although charming, planet had no neurotones, no psychoscopes, not even any cerebrophones--in fact, no psychiatric machines at all! The very knowledge of this brought me several degrees closer to a breakdown.
Perhaps I should have consulted you at this juncture, but I admit I was a bit of a snob. "What sort of advice can a mere journalist give me," I thought, "that I could not give myself?" So, more for amusement than anything else, I determined to consult a native practitioner. "After all," I said to myself, "a good laugh is a step forward on the road to recovery."
Accordingly, I went to see this native fellow. They work entirely without machines, I understand, using something like witchcraft. At the same time, I thought I might pick up some material for a jolly little book on primitive customs which I could get some unknown writer to throw together inexpensively. Strong human interest items like that always have great reader-appeal.
The native chap--doctor, he calls himself--was most cordial, which he should have been at the price I was paying him. One thing I must say about these natives--backward they may be, but they have a very shrewd commercial sense. You can't even imagine the trouble I had getting those authors to sign even remotely reasonable contracts ... which in part accounts for my mental disturbance, I suppose.
Well, anyway, I handed the native a privacy waiver carefully filled out in Terran. He took it, smiled and said, "We'll discuss this afterward. My contact lenses have disappeared; I suppose one of my patients has stolen them again. Can't see a thing without them."
So we sat down and had a bit of a chat. He seemed remarkably intelligent for a native; never interrupted me once.
"You are definitely in great trouble," he told me when I'd finished. "You need to be psycho-analyzed."
"Good, good," I said. "I see I've come to the right shop."
"Now just lie down and make yourself comfortable."
"Lie down?" I repeated, puzzled. I have an excellent command of Terran, but every now and then an idiom will throw me. "I tell the truth, sir, and when I am required by force of circumstances to lie, I lie up."
"No," he said, "not that kind of lying. You know, the kind you do at night when you go to sleep."
"Oh, I get you," I said idiomatically. Without further ado, I flung off my ulster and flew up to a thingummy hanging from the ceiling--chandelier, I believe, is the native term--flipped upside down, and hung from it by my toes. Wasn't the Presidential Perch, by any means, but it wasn't bad at all. "What do I do next?" I inquired affably.
"My dear fellow," the chap said, whipping out a notebook from the recesses of his costume, "how long have you had this delusion that you are a bird--or is it a bat?"
"Sir," I said as haughtily as my position permitted, "I am neither a bird nor a bat. I am a Fizbian. Surely you have heard of Fizbians?"
"Yes, yes, of course. They come from another country or planet or something. Frankly, politics is a bit outside my sphere. All I'm interested in is people--and Fizbians are people, aren't they?"
"Yes, certainly. If anything, it's you who.... Yes, they are people."
"Well, tell me then, Mr. Liznig, when was it you first started thinking you were a bat or a bird?"
I tried to control myself. "I am neither a bird nor a bat! I am a Fizbian! I have wings! See?" I fluttered them.
He peered at me. "I wish I could," he said regretfully. "Without my glasses, though, I'm as blind as a bat--or a bird."
Well, the long and the short of it is that the natives are planning to certify me as insane and incarcerate me, pending the doctor's decision as to whether my delusion is that I am a bird or a bat. They are using my privacy waiver as commitment papers.
Save me, Senbot Drosmig, for I feel that if I have to wait for the doctor's glasses to be delivered, I shall indeed go mad.
Distractedly yours, Tgos Liznig "I'll handle this myself," Stet said crisply. "I'll tell the consul to advise the Terran State Department that this man should be deported as an undesirable alien. That'll solve the problem neatly. We can't have this contaminating the pure stream of Terrestrial literature with--"
"But aren't you going to explain to them that he's perfectly sane?" Tarb gasped.
"No need to bother. He'll be grateful enough to get off the planet. Besides, how do I know he is perfectly sane?"
"Stet Zarnon, you're perfectly horrid!"
"And you, Tarb Morfatch, are disgustingly drunk. Now you go right home and sleep it off. I know I was too harsh with you--my fault for letting you go out alone with Griblo in the first place when you've been here only a few months. Might have known those Terran journalists would lead you astray. Nice fellows, but irresponsible." He flicked out his tongue. "There, I've apologized. Now will you go home?"
"Home!" Tarb shrieked. "Home when there's work to be done and--"
"--and you're not going to be the one to do it. Tarb," he said, attempting to seize her foot, which she pulled away, "I was going to tell you tomorrow, but you might as well know tonight. I've taken you off the column for good. I have a better job for you."
She looked at him. "A better job? Are you being sarcastic? What as?"
"As my wife." He got up and came over to her. She stood still, almost stunned. "That solves the whole problem tidily. An office is no place for you, darling--you're really a simple home-girl at heart. Newspaper work is too strenuous for you; it upsets you and makes you nervous and irritable. I want you to stay home and take care of our house and hatch our eggs--unostentatiously, of course."
"Why, you--" she spluttered.
He put his foot over her mouth. "Don't give me your answer now. You're in no condition to think. Tell me tomorrow."
It rained all night and continued on into the morning. Tarb's head ached, but she had to make an appearance at the office. First she vizzed an acquaintance she had made the day before; then she took her umbrella and set forth.
As she kicked open the door to the newsroom, all sound ceased. Voices stopped abruptly. Typewriters halted in mid-click. Even the roar of the presses downstairs suddenly seemed to mute. Every head turned to look at Tarb.
Humph, she thought, removing her plastic oversocks, so suppose I was a little oblique yesterday. They needn't stare at me. They never stare at Drosmig. Just because I'm a woman, I suppose! The gate crashed loudly behind her.
"Oh, Miss Morfatch," Miss Snow called. "Mr. Zarnon said he wanted to see you as soon as you came in. It's urgent." And she giggled.
"Really?" Tarb said. "Well, he'll just have to wait until I've wrung out my wings." Sooner or later, she would have to face Stet, but she wanted to put it off as long as possible.
She opened the door to her office and halted in amazement. For, seated on a stool behind the desk, haggard but vertical, was Senbot Drosmig, busily reading letters and blue-penciling comments on them with his feet.
"Good morning, my dear," he said, giving her a wan smile. "Surprised to see me functioning again, eh?"
"Well--yes." She opened her dripping umbrella mechanically and stood it in a corner. "How--"
"I realized last night that all that happened to you was my fault. You were my responsibility and I failed you."
"Oh, don't be melodramatic, Senbot. I wasn't your responsibility and you didn't fail me. Not that I'm not glad to see you up and doing again, but--"
"But I did fail you!" the aged journalist insisted. "And, in the same way, I failed my people. I shouldn't have given in. I should have fought Zarnon as you, my dear, tried to do. But it isn't too late!" The fire of the crusader lit up in his watery old eyes. "I can still fight him and his sacred crows--his Earthlings! If I have to, I can go over his head to Grupe. Grupe may not understand Stet's moral failings, but he certainly will comprehend his commercial ones. Grupe owns stock in other Fizbian enterprises besides the Times. Autofax, for example."
"Oh, Senbot!" Tarb wailed. "The whole thing's such an awful mess!"
"I don't think it'll be necessary to threaten that far," he comforted her. "Stet is no fool. He knows which side of his breadnut is peeled."
"I'm sure you'll do a wonderful job," she exclaimed, impulsively giving a ritual entrechat. "And I wish I could stay and help you, but...."
"I know, my dear."
"You do?" She was puzzled. "But how did the news get around so quickly?"
He shrugged. "The Terrestrial grapevine is almost as efficient as the Fizbian. Didn't you notice any change in the--ah--atmosphere when you came in?"
"Oh, was that the reason?" Tarb laughed merrily. "Somehow it never occurred to me that they could have heard so soon."
"But the morning editions have been out for hours."
The door to the office was flung open. Stet stormed in, bristling with a most unloverlike rage.
"Miss Morfatch--" he waved a crumpled copy of the Terrestrial Tribune at her--"when I give an order, I expect to be obeyed! Didn't Miss Snow tell you to report directly to my office the instant you came in? Although that's a question I don't have to ask; I know Miss Snow, at least, is someone I can trust."
"I was coming to see you, Stet," Tarb said soothingly. "Right away."
"Oh, you were, were you? And have you seen this?" Stet fairly threw the paper at her. Smack in the middle of the front page was a picture of herself in full flight over the airfield bar. Not a very good picture, but what could you expect with Terrestrial equipment? When the autofax came, perhaps she would be done justice.
FIZBIAN NEWSHEN GIVES EARTH A FLUTTER.
"Though No Mammal, I Pack a Lot of Uplift," Says Beautiful Fizbian Gal Reporter "I feel that you Terrans and we Fizbians can get along much better," lovely Tarb Morfatch, Fizbus Times feature writer, told her fellow-reporters yesterday at the Moonfield Restaurant, "if we learn to understand each other's differences as well as appreciate our similarities.
"With commerce between the two planets expanding as rapidly as it has been," Miss Morfatch went on, "it becomes increasingly important that we make sure there is no clash of mores between us. Where adaptation is impossible, we must both adjust. 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do' is an outmoded concept in the complex interstellar civilization of today. The Romans must learn to accept us as we are, and vice versa.
"Forgive me if I've offended you by my frankness," she said, sticking out her tongue in the charming gesture of apology that is acquiring such a vogue on Earth, Belinda Romney and many other socialites having enthusiastically adopted it, "but you've violated our privacy so many times, I feel I'm entitled to hurt your feelings just a teeny-weeny bit...."
"Those Terran journalists," Tarb said admiringly. "Never miss a trick, do they? Am I in all the other papers too, Stet? Same cheesecake?"
"You've made an ovulating circus out of us--that's what you've done!"
"Nonsense. Good strong human interest stuff; it'll make us lovable as chicks all over the planet. Gee--" she read on--"did I say all that while I was caffeinated? I ought to turn out some pretty terrific copy sober."
"And to think you, the woman I had asked to make my wife, did this to me."
"Oh, that's all right, Stet," Tarb said without looking up from the paper. "I wasn't going to accept you, anyway."
"Good for you, Tarb," Drosmig approved.
"You're going back to Fizbus on the next liner--do you hear me?" Stet raged.
She smiled sunnily. "Oh, but I'm not, Stet. I'm going to stay right here on Earth. I like it. You might say the spiritual aura got me."
He snorted. "How can you possibly stay? You don't have an independent income and this is an expensive planet. Besides, I won't let you stay on Earth. I have considerable influence, you know!"
"Poor Stet." She smiled at him again. "I'm afraid the Fizbian press--the Fizbian consul even--are pretty small pullets beside the Solar Press Syndicate. You see, I came in this morning only to resign."
He stared at her.
"Yesterday," she informed him, "I was offered another position--as feature writer for the SP. I hadn't decided whether or not to accept when I reported back last evening, but you made up my mind for me, so I called them this morning and took the job. My work will be to explain Fizbians to Terrans and Terrans to Fizbians--as I wanted to do for the Times, Stet, only you wouldn't let me."
"It's no use saying anything to you about loyalty, I suppose?"
"None whatsoever," she said. "I owe the Times no loyalty and I'm doing what I do out of loyalty to Fizbus ... plus, of course, a much higher salary."
"I'm glad for you, Tarb," Drosmig said sincerely.
"Be glad for yourself, Senbot, because Stet will have to let you conduct the column your way from now on. Either it'll supplement my work in the Terrestrial papers or he'll look like a fool. And you do hate looking like a fool, don't you, Stet?"
He didn't answer.
"Better give up, Stet." She turned to Drosmig. "Well, good-by, Senbot--or, rather, so long. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again. Good-by, Stet. No hard feelings, I hope?"
He neither moved nor spoke.
"Well ... good-by, then," she said.
The door closed. Stet stared after her. The forgotten umbrella dripped forlornly in the corner.
NARAKAN RIFLES, ABOUT FACE!.
By Jan Smith