By evening, the Helian camp had ceased to resemble what it actually was, a hastily built outpost on a planet far from home. It had all the comforts of home itself. Pennants with striped, checkered and particolored patterns flapped in the light breezes above Rollo’s spacious pavilion. At the entrance, Rollo Ransom had planted a Helian flag, which showed the silhouette of a gold boar’s head embossed on a purple field.
The interior of the tent had been partitioned into many rooms by rich tapestries. Every room had been filled with exotic treasures, except for the kitchen, which nonetheless appeared to be the most treasured room in Rollo Ransom’s planetside quarters. Not a den of collectibles, but a setting for passionate labor, its cache of ovens and stoves sizzled, smoked and steamed beneath the busy hands of Hava Goodyear and Peter Potzanpanz, whose expressions of intense concentration raised expectations for a memorable meal.
Zanzie tried recalling whether an overzealous approach to the preparation and consumption of food was characteristic of all Helians or just a few obsessed individuals. It was clearly a matter of importance to Rollo Ransom, who greeted his guests with a gay, infatuated air and a solemn request that they all remove their shoes.
It was a little known fact that Gibble Gasser suffered from a gnarled and hairy hammertoe and he preferred to keep it that way. He objected at first to removing his shoes, but Zanzie reminded him that, for the time being at least, they had agreed to be diplomatists.
Rollo Ransom had put on a lighter version of his earlier, Cossack-like dress, exchanging leather and suede for linens and silks. He had abandoned the cloak made from the pelts of small animals, a wise choice considering the afternoon heat, the vegetarian ethic of his guests and the ardent pull he felt in his heart the moment he clapped eyes on Maya.
“Majestic lady! You will do me the honor of sitting beside me tonight!”
Maya would have preferred standing on her head in a Colloidian bog of quicklime, but she managed to smile and offer her hand.
Although they had spent the afternoon bathing and grooming, the Vernians tactfully agreed to a ritual washing of their hands and feet. In this they were joined by the Helians and assisted by Hildemar, who poured water scented with cypress and blue cedar into their basins and distributed purple towels that had been trimmed with gold ribbon and stamped with the Helian boar’s head. When the foot washing was done, Hildemar sprinkled their faces with holy water—at least, that was what she called it, although to the Vernians it felt like scum and reeked of gin—after which she misted their bodies with bergamot, sandalwood and myrrh until the dinner guests were so engulfed in a high fog of balsamic fumes and vapors, they could have floated away on it.
Hildemar’s next task was to place a crown of ivy on everyone’s head. The King of the Hairy Beans started fidgeting with his wreath immediately while complaining of barbaric customs and grievous blows to his dignity. It was difficult for his companions to decide which ordeal was more deserving of their sympathy, his indignation or the fact that he really did look stupid, but Rollo Ransom laughed heartily and assured the Hairy Bean that as the evening progressed he would be glad of the wreath. Its leaves, he explained, were a mix of herbs genetically modified to soothe the little headaches brought on by wine.
As if on cue, Hava Goodyear appeared with a wheeled cart of drinks. The guests were given a choice between smoked ale and mulled wine mixed with honey. The Vernians, who are famously fond of sweets, chose the wine. With drinks in hand, they were all herded outside the tent to engage in modest contests of skill, which could best be described as resembling our own games of horseshoes and croquet. The physical exertion and competitive play put everyone, even the King of the Hairy Beans, into a festive mood.
Festive or not, they were all famished when the games were done and quite distracted by the tantalizing smells wafting from the kitchen. Before they could eat, however, one more duty had to be discharged, the offering of prayers and salutations to the Helian god. His name was Grog. The ceremony, which was conducted by Rollo and Hildemar and coolly but respectfully watched by the Vernians, called for chanting in the crude Helian tongue and the tossing of incense and herbs onto an altar of fire.
At last they were taken in to supper.
The guests fell speechless when they saw the setting for their meal. They had not expected such luxury. The walls had been draped with panels of gold silk. Copper-ensconced torches cast a rich russet glow over the room. The table where they would dine had been strewn from end to end with hundreds of miniature white roses and set with silver decanters, gem-encrusted goblets and crystal candlesticks that sparkled beneath a blaze of vanilla-scented tapers.
“A feast for the eyes,” said their host. “Is it not?” Everyone blinked and nodded dumbly while Rollo seated himself at the head of the table after waving Maya into the chair directly to his left. “Sight, hearing, smell, taste! And touch,” he added with a glint in his eye and a broad gesture that caused his beefy hand to brush up against Maya’s shoulder.
Maya smiled, but everyone, even Rollo, could see she was not amused.
He swept his hand back over the table. “Granted, this is a most distinguished occasion, but I don’t mind telling you that back home, our daily supper is often just as rich.”
“The occasion may be distinguished,” Zanzie said sternly. “But by what, we do not yet know.” He chose to sit at the other end of the table to keep Rollo at a distance but in sight at all times.
“Back home,” Rollo said amiably while everyone else took a place somewhere in between, “dinner guests are expected to bring their own napkins. I have no idea why, I presume it is one of those ancient customs from the mists of time that has lost its wherefore and why. But you are stranded and considering the critical nature of your circumstances, I mean the rank stupidity of your actions, we take no offense at having to supply napkins for you all.”
The King of the Hairy Beans sputtered, “Rank stupidity! Rank stupidity!”
Zanzie raised his napkin into the air. “Look, do you see, old Bean? These napkins are exquisite.”
They were soft and sheer, tinged gold with purple trim.
“Back home,” said Rollo, “at a feast such as this, we would be served by children. Tonight, however, until the rest of my crew arrives, we have only the cooks to do our bidding. This is a tremendous honor, to be served by our chefs. I‘m sure you will agree that culinary achievements rate very high in the final analysis of a civilization.”
Summoned by the quick, explosive clap of his hands, Hava Goodyear and Peter Potzanpanz entered with trolleys and silver trays and began serving the most stupendous meal the Odd Body Vanity Squad had ever seen.
Appetizers first. For the Helians, there was black pudding with tongue, smoked pig’s tongue and tongue roll with truffles. There was headcheese served on crystal plates and beef consommé ladled into fine porcelain bowls. Oyster stew, kidneys with fried onions, cucumbers stuffed with marrow fat. Salted smoked herring, venison pate, jellied eel and sloontach, which is a delicacy derived from the muscle found in the pelvic bone of a tach, a tiny bird native to Hel.
In actuality, the oysters in the oyster stew were oosterichs, mollusks not found on Earth, and the kidneys had come not from a calf or a lamb, but from a mooster, a fleshy, three-legged beast from Hel that is difficult to explain. While many of the foods enjoyed at this meal, such as pigs, onions and eels, are recognizable to us, many others, such as sloontach and the kidneys of a mooster, are strange. The purpose here, however, is not to acquaint you with the flora and fauna of Hel and so, for the sake of convenience, the alien dishes shall be known as the things they most closely resemble on Earth.
“Ox palate,” Rollo announced, as the dish was set before him. “Do you see? Cut into strips, soaked in lemon juice, dipped in beer batter and fried. Ah, see here! Puff pastry coated with a puree of chicken livers, mixed with finely chopped truffles and baked.”
The Vernians looked away.
“And mussels! What a pity, my friends, that you eat no meat, for these exquisite little beastlings were bred in the mussel beds of the famed cove of Argoolia on the planet Tulle. You cannot imagine how expensive they are or how difficult to procure, but we Helians believe that the unveiling of a new dish is more exciting and even more beneficial to one’s culture than the discovery of a new star.”
“We, on the other hand,” said Brother, “look to the stars for revelation.”
“Indeed.” Rollo slurped a mussel into his mouth. “You are Brother, are you not?’
“Then you are smart and you should agree that the destiny of a nation is not revealed in the stars, but in how and what it eats.”
Brother replied, “To the extent that Helians eat like pigs, I agree.”
“Master Rollo,” Zanzie said before their host could react. “The green-corn soup is superb.”
The Vernians could not deny the fine quality of their meal or the extreme pleasure they were taking in it. They had been served a happy selection of meatless hors d’oeuvres: bamboo shoots and algae soaked in vinegar, melons and salads, pickled berries, a joyous variety of olives, which Vernians love almost as much as sweets, little cakes of semolina mixed with pistachio nuts and a cold jelly made from dried beans.
They also noted with pleasure that the piped-in music was the folk music of their planet, a soothing blend of harps and chimes, flutes and small percussion instruments.
After Sister commented favorably on the music, Rollo sighed. “Ah, but in the days of the ancients, the entertainment was large. If this were then instead of now, we would have dancers and acrobats. We would have poets and musicians performing obscene little one-act plays. There would be gladiators and dwarves roaming about and, on really grand occasions, wild beasts. Those were the days!” he said with a wistful sigh and a sweeping glance at all the Vernians, who looked more relieved at the loss than nostalgic.
The conversation drifted from times past to the current endeavor of the known world to solidify a federation of planets. This was a fairly new development, for the great Age of Discovery had peaked not so very long ago and certain territorial wars had only just concluded.
The first course ended with a lively debate over tariffs and trade and the need for a universal language, which most traders, diplomats and ambassadors believed should be the language of Verne. Rollo did not agree, as he did not wish to give the Vernians yet another claim to supremacy, but he conceded that everyone in the galaxy should at the very least be using the same names for stars, planets and constellations.
When he revealed the location of the planet they were sitting on, and the Helian name for it, Gafooey, the Odd Body Vanity Squad at last knew exactly where they were. On Verne, the planet was known as Blue, although a fringe group of eccentric but gifted astronomers insisted on referring to it as the Land of Buckles and Kites. No one knew why.
Hava Goodyear and Peter Potzanpanz began serving the second course. For Rollo and Hildemar, this consisted of wild game—pheasant, turkey, rabbit and hare—all roasted on spits and served with a garnish of cabbage and pickled pork, except for the pheasant, which came with apples and cream. Their third course consisted of whole salmon and trout, pot-roasted pike, fricassee of turtle, fish pies and tuna tartare. They ate every dish set before them with expressions of deep-sunk satisfaction and no indication at any time that they had eaten their fill.
With a furious glance at the svelte Hildemar, Moonchild whispered to Sister, “How does she eat like that and keep her figure, I’d like to know!”
“Good question,” said Sister. “But here’s a better one. Why does Hildemar keep staring at you?”
“The moment you were introduced, she looked you up and down and inside out and now she keeps glancing over here as if you were almost as interesting as the garbage she’s eating.”
“Oh really, Moonchild, you must learn to start paying attention. I don’t know. Maybe she’s accustomed to being the most beautiful creature in the room and she dislikes the competition.”
Moonchild ventured no opinion, having been chided yet again for not being more observant, brilliant or grave.
While averting their eyes and curbing their sense of smell in an effort to ignore the gluttony and consumption of flesh at the Helian end of the table, the Vernians sopped their own platters clean with bread. An obese Vernian is as difficult to find as Rollo’s Tullian mussels, but the Odd Body Vanity Squad made quick and shameless work of their sumptuous meal: spicy noodles, gingerbread molasses pancakes, pumpkin ravioli with puree of artichoke hearts, glazed turnips and sun-dried cranberry tarts.
“Save room for dessert!” Rollo said gaily as he nipped into what he claimed were his two favorite side dishes: fritters of beef brain and beef marrow on toast.
Hava Goodyear appeared to be a cheerful little fellow who not only enjoyed a good party, but also saw no reason why the party should ever end. The Vernians became rather fond of him rather quickly. His chief concern, which occasionally assumed all the commotion of a genuine crisis, was the marriage of each course and dish to the appropriate wine.
While Hava Goodyear seemed to exist in a perpetual state of social gusto and high glee, Peter Potzanpanz looked permanently afflicted by a condition of boredom and disgust. Hava Goodyear’s silly eyes and red bulbous nose suggested a sommelier with a weakness for sampling his own goods. But the lean, thin-skinned body of Peter Potzanpanz suggested an inhospitable chef who took no pleasure in what little he ate. Even while serving, he was never without a stinker dangling from his lips, a sacrilege the dinner guests were willing to overlook out of respect for his culinary expertise and tact. He had, after all, remembered the Vernian fondness for eating hot roasted beets right out of the foil.
They took a break between dinner and dessert. They pushed their chairs away from the table, crossed their legs and refreshed their palates with mineral water from Tulle and almond milk served over chipped ice in crystal sherbet dishes. Zanzie considered this a perfect opportunity to start gathering information pertinent to the retrieval of their very precious Stone.
“Master Rollo,” he said casually, “as you indicated earlier, we were incompetent enough to land on this planet by mistake. Your presence, however, appears to have a purpose.”
Rollo Ransom cracked a smile that did not warm the heart. “I have a successful business, Master Vance.”
“Please, call me Zanzie.”
“And your business is?”
“Marvelous Meats. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.”
Brother gasped, “Oh!” Moonchild could not conceal the shudder that passed through her body. Maya gave Rollo a damning sidelong glance that, had he seen it, might have caused a deep shudder of his own.
“I know this offends you,” Rollo said. “It is why we did not serve the most favored of Helian dishes here tonight. The true delectables.”
No one knew what to say to that, but when an explanation for Rollo’s presence on the planet occurred to Maya, she turned to him and asked slowly, coldly, “Can it be, sir, is it possible, that you are here because you want to harvest the Lebreya Tar Prunes? For their meat?”
“The Lebreya what? Oh, you mean the dinosaurs. Di-no-saur. But of course,” said Rollo. “Look at the size of them!”
The King of the Hairy Beans grunted. “They are reptiles. And I never heard it said that the flesh of a reptile was something sweet.”
Rollo grunted back. “I don’t know that, do I? Not until I’ve tried it. We believe that everything ought to be tried at least once.”
“And we,” said Brother, “believe that meat is murder.”
“Ah yes.” Rollo looked up, then down, left and then right in a supercilious show of boredom. “The Vernian tradition of respect for all living things. What a joke.”
The Hairy Bean sprang out of his chair. “A joke, a joke? What do you mean, sir?”
“I mean that, unlike half the galaxy, I do not stand in awe of Vernian values and virtue.”
“The loss is yours, I am sure!”
“Sit down, old Bean,” said Zanzie. “Let him speak.”
With half-closed but watchful eyes, Rollo waited for the King of the Hairy Beans to sit before he spoke again. “I mean, sir, that your claim to respect all living beings sounds hollow to me. It is false. It is false because you do not respect, or even acknowledge, the one being that matters most because He is the One Being who dictates what we should or should not respect. The Supreme Being. Almighty Grog.”
For a long time nobody spoke. It is not true that all Vernians are atheists, but by now the Odd Body Vanity Squad had consumed a vast amount of rich food and excellent wine. Their bodies felt heavy and their brains felt slow. Nobody felt up to explaining things.
Brother tried. “Master Rollo, you don’t understand—“
“I know all I need to know.”
“Yes,” Brother said gently. “You think you do. And perhaps that is the problem.”
“I don’t have a problem,” said Rollo. “Grog takes care of me. But look at you, the Odd Body Vanity Squad. Tsk tsk. I know that half your mission is to travel about in search of a mirror that will not break. Have you ever bothered to ask yourselves: why do these mirrors break?”
“We do wonder,” said Brother. “But not overmuch.”
“Shall I tell you?” asked Rollo. He leaned forward and for further emphasis, tapped at the air with a spoon. “Because the one who seeks her reflection in vain has forfeited her soul. She is damned. It is obvious to us why your queen’s face shatters glass every time she looks into a mirror. She has no god.”
“That is not something we would know,” said Maya, squaring her shoulders and challenging Rollo with her solemn brown eyes. “Queen Selene’s faith, or lack of it, is not something she would share. On Verne, the spiritual belief of each individual is a private matter.”
“And why is this? Are you all so ashamed of your faith?”
“Certainly not. We are so fond of our faith that we would not have it interfered with. Or judged. Or misinterpreted. Or used as a weapon against any other individual. Master Rollo, we discovered long ago that when the faithful stopped proclaiming their holy scripture to be the one literal truth, and that when nations stopped behaving as if their god was on their side, peace came to our planet. And so we keep our faith to ourselves.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I say you are damned.”
It was fortunate that Hava Goodyear should barge in on this fit of rising tempers with dessert. “Hoo-la! Hoo-lo!”
Rollo Ransom clapped his hands at the sight and roared with laughter. “Oh yes, sing, little Hava, sing!”
“At midnight last, I had a dream
Of sweetmeats, confections and cream!
By one o’clock, I had mastered the arts
Of marmalade, mousse and tarts!”
“Bravo! And what have you brought us tonight?”
“Candied angelica, curried pecans!” With one hand Hava Goodyear danced the trolley around the table while merrily waving the other at the air. “Madeira cakes and madeleines, meringues and crème brulee!”
Peter Potzanpanz trudged behind him with another trolley and another stinker hanging from his lips.
“What a treat, what a bite, what a chew!” Hava rang out, placing dishes on the table with joy. “Figs, dates and huckleberry pie!”
“And a very fine port,” said Rollo. “And whiskey. And brandy distilled from the husks of grapes.”
“What a swig, what a gulp, what a snort!”
“Come, my friends.” Their host started pouring. “Let us drink. Let us fill our cups and drink to the faith of our fathers. Let us recall the days when righteous warriors drank wine from the skulls of their enemies, or the skulls of their parents, depending on the occasion.”
Brother cried, “Oh!”
With a taunting sneer, Rollo added, “If such men were here tonight, the bravest of the brave would be awarded the legs of the largest animal just eaten.”
Gibble Gasser, who had said very little so far, chose that moment to object to the unceasing pollution of his food. As Peter Potzanpanz placed a dish of stewed pears in front of him, Gibble snatched the stinker from Peter’s mouth and stabbed it into the fruit.
“That’s enough, you greasy twig! Out, out, foul weed! You wrecked my dinner! You will not hurt my dessert!”
His companions were mortified. And yet they understood that nothing, but nothing, should stand between a Vernian and his enjoyment of sweets.
Peter Potzanpanz stood gawking at the ruined pears. Rollo looked annoyed. Hildemar’s eyes began to burn. Hava Goodyear burst into song.
“When I served a king, not a peasant,
There was more than beans to digest!
It was seemly when everyone present
Went home to a civilized rest.
The sinner forgot
What the saint will not–
That there’s nothing more righteous or pleasant
Than the bond between host and guest!”
Hava’s little song shamed everyone into a lengthy spell of silence and reflection.
The music of flutes and chimes played on in the background like the murmur of a midsummer brook. It reminded the Vernians of home and how much they wished to be there.
Their toes began to feel cold. They felt acutely aware of their bare ankles and heels. They felt suddenly, fearfully aware that they had left their shoes at the door and that they were seated at the table of a stranger with the soles of their feet exposed.
They also remembered that the achievement of a peaceful federation of planets, an ideal to which they were committed, began with the perfection of hospitality, the mastery of good relations between a host and his guests.
It was torture for him, but Gibble Gasser rose up from his chair. He turned stiffly to Peter Potzanpanz, who had retreated into a sulk behind his trolley of teacakes, fresh fruit and selection of aged cheeses.
“Master Peter,” Gibble said in as deferential a tone as any of his companions had ever heard him use. “It was unforgivable what I just did. I’m sorry. If you must smoke, please do so. Do not suffer on my account.”
Peter Potzanpanz shrugged his bony shoulders and glanced away. “That’s all right. No problem. I didn’t know it was upsetting you.”
“You are, of course, a genius. And little Hava, too.”
In silence and with dignity, Peter and Hava finished putting out the dessert trays, then rattled away with their empty carts back to the kitchen to make coffee.
“There now, how nice,” said Rollo. “I, too, should apologize. I have not been the most modest of hosts. But you see, I don’t often entertain godless vegetarians.”
Maya said, “We are not godless. We have many gods and many faiths. And one universal commandment, which we all strive to obey: do nothing to any other you would not want done to yourself.”
Hildemar, who had been lofty and silent thus far, tartly asked, “And how do you answer a child when he asks: Mommy, where do we go when we die?”
“I don’t know,” said Maya. “I have no idea what parents say. That is the point. I don’t ask and they don’t tell, if they would rather not. I do know that Vernian children are exposed to all the spiritual traditions of our history, with the understanding that when they are old enough, and if they feel the need, they can choose but one.”
Rollo took a long drink of whiskey and set his goblet down with a loud thunk. “You say you have many gods. But Grog is not one of them.”
“No. He is not,” said Maya. “Your missionaries have met with small success on Verne.”
“Ha! So you see,” said the King of the Hairy Beans, “we are not so very stupid after all!”
The meaning in Rollo’s eyes shifted from scold to threat. “The belching sponges of Oxonia are not half as stupid as you. The blind cooties of Troon are more astute. Or have you forgotten how easy it was for me to take the Philosopher’s Stone?”
“The Stone!” cried Soot Bear “You have it! Where is it? You must give it back!”
Rollo answered, “Of course I must. If I do not, you are doomed.”
“Not doomed,” Brother replied calmly. “Without the Stone, we merely find ourselves in a situation we did not anticipate.”
“Fools! It is folly,” said Rollo, “to be so completely dependent on one device!”
“Master Rollo,” said Zanzie, “the hazelnut torte is superb.”
Everyone turned to Zanzie, baffled by his seeming lack of concern until they remembered their manners. They remembered the abundance that was still before them and meekly but gladly tucked in to dessert.
“It’s true,” Zanzie continued. “We have only the Stone. But that is the point, you see. The other half of our mission, as you have already guessed, although I don’t know how, is to test its potential.”
Rollo asked, “Without any other system to back you up?”
“Call it a matter of faith.”
“I have a starship,” Rollo announced. “The Rapture.”
Zanzie raised one brow. “Did you say Raptor?”
“Is it a Helian starship?”
“Partly. It is a product of Oscilliocorps Industries.”
“Then you have the advantage of us. We have no crew of two hundred. Or fleet of Corsair RAM-fighters.”
“Just so,” Rollo nodded, although his ship was an earlier model and not so well equipped.
“We have no tactical high-energy laser systems. No electromagnetic warheads or megablastic T-bombs.”
“And no desire to exploit this planet.”
“Our desire,” said Soot Bear, “is to get off this planet. As soon as possible.”
“And for that,” said Rollo, “you need the Stone. For everything you need the Stone. You can’t do one damn thing without it. Your data, your sole means of communication, your transport and defense reside in a single gadget. Is this wise? Granted, the Philosopher’s Stone is potentially the most powerful weapon available to civilized beings, but it took one act of theft to place you at a serious disadvantage. Look at you now, reduced to living in the wild, on your wits alone, like the Youth Rangers of your planet. Am I right?”
Zanzie fortified himself with a sip of brandy before answering. “You are half right, Master Rollo. We are stranded, yes, but we have not lost our bearings. We still know who and what we are. We have not lost our sense of direction and priorities, our sense of what is important and what is true. If we must live like Youth Rangers, in the wild, on the strength of our wits, we can at least experience the excitement of sleeping in the open air and relying on our instincts to get us through the night. We are not fearful of the possibility that one day for the sake of economy and convenience, we may choose to base our technology on this one artificial device. It is after all, technology, which we decided long ago, for the sake of our souls, we should remember how to live without.”
“Your souls?” Something like a growl escaped from the back of Rollo’s throat. “What souls? Your souls are lost.”
“I know you think so,” said Zanzie, “But in truth, we are very careful with our souls. For us, there is nothing good to be gained from our technological wizardry if it deprives us of our wonder at walking barefoot in the grass. Where would be the marvel in our ability to process information if the words ‘curling up with a good book’ lost their meaning?”
“Hah!” Rollo scoffed. “We have no need for actual books. We implant their chips into our brains.”
“We can do that. If we choose. We tried it once, long ago. But we decided then and there that just because we could do something, it didn’t always mean we should. We discovered how much we cherish the experience of walking home with a book we have just purchased, like a child with a stray kitten bundled to his breast. We could not forfeit the joy of waiting until dinner was done and then escaping to a quiet corner, to unwrap the book and take time out for weighing it in our hands, flipping through the pages, smelling the things it is made of and wondering what it contains.”
Rollo snorted. “Stop or I’ll bust out crying.”
“By the way,” Zanzie added, “the plum cake is a triumph.”
“Fine. Fine!” Rollo stood up. “I’m sick of this and I’m sick of you. Self-righteous ninnies.”
“Ninnies!” cried the King of the Hairy Beans.
“My duty to the federation code was discharged when I invited you to dinner, but I cheated my Helian blood in what I did not serve. I’m sick of you all, you with your superior airs and smug philosophies and insane notions about the murder of meat.”
“Master Rollo,” said Sister. “It’s not insane to ask why some animals are called pets and others are called dinner.”
“I should have served the true delectables of Hel! Sheep’s head! Ha! Scorched in fire to remove the hairs and then boiled!”
“Oh!” cried Brother.
“And sow’s udders! I should have stuffed them down your throats!”
“Deep-fried lungs and ostrich feet!”
Hildemar stood up and left the room.
Rollo shouted, “I will do whatever I wish, however I choose, and no sanctimonious twits from Verne can stop me!”
“If the reptiles of Gafooey turn out to be edible, I’ll build a restaurant, right here where we sit!”
“You couldn’t, you can’t!”
“I can and I shall! We’ll have safaris for the adventurous tourists who want to hunt and kill their own supper! We’ll have dinosaur ribs and rack of dinosaur, dinosaur chops and stew! Dinosaur kidneys, gizzards and brains!”
“You will not!”
By now everyone was standing, tearing the ivy wreaths from their heads and throwing them down on the table, where the white roses had shriveled up into little brown knots. Gibble Gasser and Soot Bear prepared for a speedy exit by stuffing their pockets with biscuits, cheese and fruit.
Everybody talked all at once and nobody had anything nice to say. Only Zanzie remained calm. He was sensing danger, but to whom and from what, he did not know. He sensed significance in the fact that Hildemar had left the room.
“We could have a Cookery School for the serious foodies! A bed and breakfast with a focus on locally grown ingredients and quaint Gafooey traditions.”
“You imbecile! There are no traditions here!”
“There is only nature!”
“And a spa! Have you seen the swamps around here? We’ll have the best mud baths in the galaxy! We’ll have to import the bird shit, of course. Have you noticed, this planet has no birds? But it’s all the rage now for facials. We’ll advertise the waters! We’ll put up cabanas, we’ll offer massages and Inner Harmony consultations!”
“You,” said the Hairy Bean, palpitant with rage, “give lessons on inner harmony?”
Oblivious to the turmoil around him, Hava Goodyear tripped merrily into the room.
“What a jolt, what a brew! What a fine thing, too!
Don’t put out the light–we’ll be up all night!”
He was pushing a cart loaded with bone china cups and saucers, gold-plated spoons, exquisitely wrapped chocolates and steaming urns of coffee. The dinner guests fell silent as he danced his way around the table with a song.
“In the sun or the shade, however it’s made,
There’s a rule that can’t be broke!
Whether berry or a bean, if it’s got caffeine,
Truer word were never spoke–
Be it black or a blend, every meal must end
With kick-ass coffee and a smoke!”
When it finally occurred to the little clown that the party had ended, he came to an abrupt halt.
“Hava,” said Rollo. “Not now. Our guests are leaving. All but one.”
Hava’s party-face fell, but before he could object, and before the dinner guests could wonder which one of them would be detained, a truss-bolt shot into the room.
It struck Brother squarely in the chest. Although it resembled an arrow, it did not pierce his flesh but fractured into a dozen flexible cords that lashed around his body and roped him like a steer, with his feet pinned together and his arms strapped to his sides. The supple cords continued to coil around him until he was wrapped from head to toe like a mummy and all that could be seen of him were his nose and stupefied eyes.
Before anyone could react beyond expressions of astonishment and terror, Hildemar entered the room. She carried a silver longbow, notched with an arrow, a fleet and deadly bolt aimed at Maya’s heart. Rollo’s goddess of the hunt stood tall and ready, her bright eyes burning up her prey, her limbs braced by muscles so taut and sculpted that she seemed entirely made of stone, cold white marble. Cold hands, cold heart.
The Odd Body Vanity Squad stood speechless beneath her aim and fateful glare.
Rollo said, “I’ve got the Stone. And now I have its keeper. It has been a most pleasant evening, my friends. Good night.”
Moonchild and Sister looked near to weeping. Gibble Gasser and the Hairy Bean looked fit to burst. Maya stared without fear at Hildemar. Zanzie, with Soot Bear clinging to his legs, stared harshly at their host.
His words, however, remained civil. “Master Rollo. It has been ages since we’ve dined so well. Please convey our good wishes to the cooks.”
His companions looked irate at first and then resigned. They took no pleasure in retreat but there had been times in the past, many times, when Zanzie’s instincts and choices had proved to be right.
Hildemar lowered her bow and moved away from the door so they could pass. Zanzie waited until everyone had gone out. Before leaving, he turned to Rollo and said, “Brother will need his shoes. Please don’t forget them.”
With a wicked smile, Rollo spoke the Vernian words of parting. “Good will and go well.”
Zanzie nearly choked on the customary reply. “Seek peace and pursue it.”
The Odd Body Vanity Squad found their shoes stacked outside the tent. They put them on in silence and straggled into the forest back to their camp. Only Soot Bear walked at Zanzie’s side because only Soot Bear had absolute faith in Zanzie’s belief that a confrontation with the Helians that night would have ended badly.
Even so, he worried. “But what about Brother, Zanzie?”
“He’ll be all right. They won’t hurt him. They need him. He’s the only one who truly understands the Stone. And somehow, Rollo knows it.”
Just then, the Sea-Wolves came rocketing through the forest in search of meat. They ignored the retreating Vernians and with the mad-brained mentality of a mob, moved as one body through the night. Hundreds and hundreds more of the little critters would die before dawn.
Soot Bear closed his eyes and covered his ears at the thought of so much death. “Oh, how horrible! What’s to become of this place, Zanzie, what? With Rollo Ransom here and those fiends from Hel, what hope is there for the future of this planet?”
Zanzie stopped. “The future?” He tilted his head and listened. In the distance he heard the Sea-Wolves feasting on another critter-rich corner of the forest. He heard Moonchild and Sister walking together just ahead, fretting and wondering what would become of them all. He heard his own heart beating, beating fast, which it often did when all his senses primed themselves because something wonderful was about to be revealed.
And then he heard the labored breathing of a hurt but still living thing.
Zanzie looked down at his feet and because Vernians can see fairly well in the dark, he spied one of the little critters tangled up in the fronds of a fern, a miserable, shivering ball of tiny legs and tail. It seemed to know that Zanzie was there and it seemed alarmed, but every attempt to stagger to its feet ended in collapse and a sorrowful squeak.
Zanzie picked it up. At first it gave a mighty struggle inside the palm of the giant’s hand, but after a moment or two, its limbs went slack.
“Is he dead?” asked Soot Bear.
“No. Just hurt.”
“He’s gone all quiet, Zanzie, because he knows that in your hand he is safe.”
The little critter was not beautiful. It looked something like a small rat. It was furry and whiskered and only several inches long.
“The future of this planet,” said Zanzibar Vance. “I wonder. I do wonder,” he said again.
He stroked the little critter’s head and carried it back to camp with him, like a child with a stray kitten bundled to his breast.
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