The State of the Art on Alyssum
by Marta Randall
Greze, who is not the sanest of us even at the best of times, has advised me to cease and desist. Himmel believes that I should continue in my plans, but has warned me not to associate any names with it whatsoever, foremost among them, Himmel's own. Nort, of course, says nothing. All of this is excellent advice, particularly Nort's.
Today I completed the implement. It was not an easy job. As I sat upon the stone floor, resting, Himmel came by to see the finished effort and spent a good deal of time inspecting the thing for any words. This worried me, for if the words were discovered, Himmel could destroy the entire apparatus in two seconds flat, and so, although I was much too tired to rise, I watched nervously. Green hair flying, three eyes all poked out at the same time (unusual, that), telescoping fingers inserted in every conceivable location; having received my assurances that nothing would bite, those fingers explored every millimeter of the apparatus relentlessly and passed right over the words etched into the upper surface. Three times.
"Stop it," I said to them, then to Himmel, "Can't you stop them?"
"They do as they please," Himmel replied, writhing one of three yellow-scaled bellies in a shrug gesture. Himmel, I realized with surprise and relief, can't read. I hadn't know that before. Funny how little you know some people, even after seventy years.
Greze tells me that Nort is planning a party, but is undecided on the guest list. Since there are only four of us, I wondered what the problem could be then decided that Nort may be planning to invite the sea-slips again. If so I'll have to put off the entire plan until they leave; it's impossible to get any serious work done when they're around.
The wind comes up tonight. I must be losing track of the seasons. Last week I could have sworn it was Plumming and here it is Turning already. These changes always feel like an insult to me; my body remains tuned to the cycles of my own world, although I would have expected it to be accustomed to this whizzing, spinning, undignified planet by now. Indeed, I still measure time by the pulses of my skins, the shedding of bristles. No other way to cope with this erratic globe. At least, I believe it to be a globe.
Whiz, you stupid planet. Jiggle. Prance. I'll be off you soon enough.
I am invited to Greze's for dinner (a sloppy place, everything out of order), and discover that we are all assembled. Odd, this has not happened for many years. Himmel and Greze argue eagerly by the hearth that Greze maintains in flame at all times. I nod curtly to Nort, who spirals darkly from a corner, and approach the other two.
"We call this place Alyssum," Greze says, "because back where I come from, the alyssum is a small flower that grows despite the most adverse conditions, and since we were cast on this place, lost and forgotten, and have survived, we and the planet deserve this name." There must be odd rewards to this expostulation, or Greze would not do it so often, and with such enthusiasm. Brown thatch, brown eyes, brown fingers, brown bottom all jiggle and glow with the force of argument; Greze's enjoyment is evident.
Himmel is rendered impatient by the chatter. Long fingers sort busily through the flames, playing with glowing fragments of carbonized wood. They begin dropping coals into the soup. Greze notices and, nattering in anger, grabs the sieve and rescues the broth. Himmel flutters seven toes at me in greeting, but Nort shivers into lavender and retreats to a far corner by the pink aquarium. Has Nort been paling lately? In this light, it's hard to tell.
"Have you changed your plans yet?" Greze asks, plate in hand.
"Ah! Ah! It will come to no good, whatever it is. There shall be no peace from this!" And soup spills from the bowl, splatters messily on the table. This, by the way, is Nort's bowl. Greze, being the only one who cares for entertaining (Nort only gives the impression), has made a great fuss over obtaining the proper crockery and utensils for each of us. So, Himmel's long-beaked flask, with the twelve protrusions for easy grasping; my hengig, meticulously fashioned to my specifications by my host; Greze's own closed-bottom, open-topped cylinder with its handle; and Nort's shallow bowl. They're all made of wood or clay; the metal ones went the way of all metal on the night Nort dumped the pod.
Himmel delegates some fingers to clean the spillage and at last we sit to meal together. In deference to Nort, we observe a moment of slurping before setting in earnest to the soup. Greze, playing host well, does not refer to my plans again until the end of the meal.
"So, tell me about it," Greze says, as Himmel tosses a last dirtied utensil into the scalding pot. Nine eyes turn to me and I perceive that this is not a dinner party, but a delegation of inquiry. Very well, then. I shiver my backspines into place in preparation.
"This time," I say, "I plan to communicate with the stars."
"That's what you tried the last time," Himmel says.
"No, I mean communicate. "
"Nort wants to know how you intend to do this," Greze says.
"I have built a radio implement, and I will beam waves to the heavens that will call attention to us from across the void." This sounds very fine to me. "My waves will reach those in the Centers, those in the passing Arks, those in the great bellies of the Transports, and they will come to us, lift us from this place, and take us to our homes again."
"What waves will you send?" Himmel asks with interest. "Waves like the sea?"
"No, sound waves, noise in the air."
"You don't intend to set off the volcanoes again?" Greze. Suspiciously. "Like you did that other time? To make a great noise?"
"Of course not!" Indignant! Insulted! "Not at all. Besides, that was for the color and smoke, not the sound. Volcano sounds wouldn't reach across space."
"But it was a big noise," Himmel points out. "The biggest I'd ever heard."
"But it didn't work," Greze says. "This won't work either."
"Yes it will," I insist.
"Nort wants to know if it will destroy anything."
"Nonsense. It will be perfectly safe, I tell you, even if it doesn't work. Which I don't anticipate."
Greze elevates hairy tufts above brown eyes. "No explosions? No implosions?"
"How did you build this radio implement?"
"Ah! Yes! I remember how the one on the pod was constructed, and I copied that."
"The one on the pod was broken," Himmel says. "Or we should have been rescued by now."
"Still. And in the Transport, one of the crew let me look at the large books, with the diagrams and plans in it. Because they knew I was intelligent, of course."
Himmel looks grumpy at this, draws in fourteen fingers and curls them together. No one has ever accused Himmel of undue intelligence.
"Nort wants to know what materials you used."
"That was a problem." I glare at Nort. " And I don't care to mention how I did it. For fear certain parties would object."
Nort turns a dull green and gyrates slowly above the table, but I ignore the display. "It will work," I assure the others. "We are as good as rescued. Just as soon as I send our plea. ..."
"What sort of plea?" Himmel asks.
"A plea to relieve us, to take us away, to rescue us."
"Naturally, what did you think?"
Himmel gives a great falsetto bellow of fright and almost flickels over the table. "Not my name! Not my name!" is all that can be heard from the writhing mass.
"Really," says Greze. "Really. Back where I come from, the only people who carry on this way are criminals and thieves."
"Disgrace," Himmel mumbles and, having exhausted every finger-ounce of energy, falls asleep. Nort has departed during the fuss. Greze pulls a blanket over Himmel's form and retreats to a sit-upon.
"Back where I come from," Greze mutters darkly, and I take my leave.
Greze, who is perpetually trying to pair things that shouldn't be, divides us this way:
GREZE + NORT
which is, on the face of it, absurd. For one thing, my species doesn't pair, we very neatly split. Himmel triples and Nort, as far as any of us can discover, inundates. Greze is the only one who pairs, and since there is only one Greze, it must be lonely. I have all I need for splitting, although I don't want to. Since Himmel must have three or nothing, nothing does very well, and what Nort does none of us can decide, although it seems to trouble Nort not at all.
Under Greze's scheme of things, I should have packed Himmel on my back to my shelter and spread the emotional drunkard on my table, but I won't do it. Courtesy to others goes only so far .
What a nightmare that entire trip was! Plucked unexpectedly from home, hearth, family, and planet, thrust into the guts of an enormous metal ship, and carted unceremoniously about the universe, crammed in with myriad beings who claimed they were just as intelligent as I - a messy, filthy nightmare. Of course, I did fairly well. I have a reputation for broad-mindedness.
Then the accident or crash or disintegration or whatever it was, the crew scurrying about on ten legs, busily pushing us into pods and spitting us into the darkness, and when the excitement died down I found myself skin-to-skin with three completely alien creatures, and no ship in sight. Luckily for us, the pod found a livable planet rather quickly, or none of us would have survived.
Taken all in all, though, we were quite civilized about the entire thing. The first agreement we reached, while still pod-bound, was that none of us would consider any of the others to be food, and things proceeded rapidly from there. Greze discovered an ability to communicate (after a fashion) with Nort, to their mutual surprise. Himmel soon learned that flickeling in public would be detrimental to our continued relationship, and so has ceased doing it except in times of excessive need. Of us all, though, Nort seems to have made the least adjustment, considering the episode ten years ago when Nort spirited away the remains of the ship one dark night, dropped each part into the sea, and acted as though our lives had been saved thereby. Who aided in this is not known, although I have my suspicions. Nort can't manipulate anything alone. I suspected Greze, but was, I think, wrong. Himmel, then? At any rate, Nort is not completely trustworthy. No.
"Listen," I will say to the stars. "There are four of us here, Greze and Nort and Himmel and me, and we were all on a big ship that started to splinter, and they put us in a little pod and spit us out, and we landed on this stupid whizzy planet, and we've been here years and years, and we'd like you to come take us away, please. By next week, if possible. Do you hear me? Listen, there are four of us here, Greze and Nort and Himmel and me. ..."
I will say this in my very best voice, into my radio implement, which sits all completed and polished on the stone floor of my shelter. I clean the implement, dust the carefully fashioned linkages, peer into the crystals, inspect the speaking-plates, consider the antenna that points upward and outward across the bay to where the stars are thickest. There is no way my radio will fail, despite the predictions of some. I have a very good memory, and everything is perfect. Everything.
Night. Dark. Cool. Soft pattering of rain on the shelter's door-covering. Peaceful. I sleep with my hand against the base of the implement, feeling rested and protective. Easy.
A stumbling at the shelter's mouth, shuffling in darkness, and Greze says "Are you here? Are you awake?"
"Yes. What is it? It's late, is something wrong?
"No, no, everything is fine." I imagine Greze standing by the wall, twisting ten fingers together in the darkness. Nervous.
"What is it, then? What do you want?"
"I'm worried about Nort," Greze says, accent slipping.
"We had a long talk tonight. Nort doesn't want to be rescued."
"Not be rescued?" I rise, agitated, pace toward Greze, turn again. "Wait, I'll put on the light."
Greze is silent as I trim the wick and light the oil-tree lamp. In the flickering lights, the brown body almost melts into the dark wall. "Now," I say, sitting on the floor, "what is this nonsense about Nort?"
"It's not nonsense," Greze says defensively. "Nort is quite positive, says rescue is absurd."
"Ridiculous. When I broadcast, they'll send someone to us in almost no time."
"No, not that the thing won't work. That rescue is, well, not useful, that we'd be better off here."
"Fine. If Nort doesn't want to go, there are plenty of places to hide while the rest of us get picked up."
"Nort doesn't want any of us to go," Greze says.
"Any of us? Any of us! Never to see our homes again? Never to get off of this stinking planet?"
"Nort feels very strongly about it."
"Strongly?" Suspicion, doubt, unease. "How strongly?"
"I don't know. I just thought I'd warn you. You, you won't tell Nort I came, will you?" Greze slithers along the wall to the doorway.
"No, I won't say a thing. Why does Nort feel this way? What does Nort want?"
Greze makes a gesture of uncomprehending dismay and vanishes into the night.
A great squishing and moaning and humming and slithering from without my shelter; the sea-slips! The sea-slips! Nort the idiot has invited them, tens of them, hundreds of them, they come piling out of the waves and slide rapidly up the rocky beach, creating a highway of slime behind them. Nort flitters above them, flashing colors of welcome. Greze waves gaily from the far shelter, Himmel stands by the high rock, pointing the way for the festive slips, and they glide by like a repulsive army, running literally on its stomach. I bristle, shiver, pull the covering of my shelter tight, and retreat within, light a small lamp, cover my radio implement. They go by, they go by, they go by, the sun sets, erratically, toward the pole tonight, and still they go by. What has Nort done?
I can hear the sounds of high festivity from the far side of the bay, where Nort and the others have set up feasting places for the slips. It's the biggest party ever. I am not invited, but whether this is oversight, malice, or consideration I am not sure. The sounds of the party are wet and thick.
I do not understand Nort. How can rescue be repulsive, how can anyone want to stay on this hideous place of sand and sea and grime and erratic movement? What could be better than to be home again, among one's own kind, on one's own planet, enjoying the neat progression of days? Even if we should not be returned to our homes, then what would be so bad about being in the presence of other intelligent species, of cities, streets, music, all the joys of an orderly existence?
Himmel is of the opinion, expressed many years ago, that we were taken into the ship to serve, eventually, in a collection of aliens on some far planet. A zoo. Himmel's people are still primitive enough to enjoy the concept of zoos, and I must admit that, after the first unsettling moments, the idea seemed plausible. But still. Even so. A zoo is preferable to this place, a zoo would provide decent food, and an environment at least reminiscent of home. To be able to gliph again! Heaven!
Greze wants rescue. Himmel wants rescue. I want rescue. I do not understand Nort.
They have gone on for three days now, seemingly without tiring. I can see the forms of Himmel and Greze towering above the nacreous shapes of the slips, but cannot see Nort. Perhaps the slips have eaten the meddling busybody, the incomprehensible blob. I feel momentarily elated.
No, wait, here is Nort, but not across the bay. A burst of bright orange and Nort flashes by my spying head, into my shelter. I rush inside, see Nort cavort about the covering of my radio implement, manic, malicious.
"Out!" I scream, grab a wooden cane, and thrash at the flittering form. "Out! Leave it alone! Leave me alone! Out!"
A final, blinding pulse of red and I am alone again. I check the radio implement, my fingers shaking so much that I can barely control them. Nothing is damaged, nothing is harmed. Relief.
Short-lived. Nort could return, bringing all the sea-slips. Together they would destroy my implement, leave it useless in a pool of messy, viscous wet. I cannot let it happen. No! But what is there to do?
My determination to broadcast is hard and solid. I will not stay on the same planet with this manic, amorphous dimwit. No!
I peer cautiously out of my shelter and see Nort on the far side of the bay, leaping and cavorting over the sea-slips, and it seems to me that they are going into a frenzy, humping and jiggling over the sands, rushing in and out of the waves. Of course! They can not travel on jagged land except by coating the rocks below them, they must be near water to replenish their supply of slime. Uphill, then, away from the waves, away from the beach, from springs. Nort will be able to reach me, but I can handle that multicolored limp-brain on my own.
This capricious planet's capricious moons are all out tonight, bouncing and skidding and gyrating about the heavens. One of them performs three-dimensional figure eights as I creep from my shelter and peer across the gleaming bay. Greze and Himmel stand on a slight rise, so close together that they seem to merge; Nort spins tirelessly above the ocean of sea-slips, colors flashing and crossing and gleaming. Feh. But they're all too busy to notice me.
The radio implement is much heavier than I had thought it to be - I have never had to lift and carry it before. I arrange my backspines flat, hoist the radio between my hind shoulders, and set out up the peak behind my shelter. This is the easiest leg of the journey, and the most dangerous, for many small streams cross this place, providing plenty of moisture for the abominable slips. I hurry.
A quarter of the way up I stop for a rest, turn to look at the festivities, and am greeted with a scene of horror. The sea-slips are moving toward me, Nort cavorting at their head. Right through the bay they move, leaving a twinkling, slimy, phosphorescent wake. As I thought! Quickly I re-hoist the radio and stumble upward, away from the bay, through the zone of streams and damp riverbeds, up, up.
Rocks and underbrush grab and claw, scrape my heels, gouge my left thighs, but I continue, I persevere, I proceed. I hear the slips now, beginning their assault on the beach, milling about, and a quick glance over my front shoulder shows Nort prancing above them, urging them on. I scramble, I scramble, my down wilts with exertion.
With a flash of triumphant vermilion, Nort materializes before me, dizzies the air with fire.
"Begone!" I shriek, and thrash at the light with a stick. I hit the light straight on. Instantly Nort flops to the ground, a muddy brown in color, and twitches. I lift the stick for another blow, but Nort leaps out of the way, malicious red now, hops in fury before me, and flees down to the minion sea-slips behind. They heave in greeting, their hiss and bubble becomes vicious, angry. I hump the radio, climb, almost out of the zone of streams now, working toward the band of talus above. All my legs ache.
"Wait for me! Stop a moment! Wait! Slow down!"
What is this caterwauling? What is this noise? It takes me a while to understand the words, the voice. Greze.
"I escaped." Pant, pant. "Nort had us bound about, had sea- slips watching us." Pant. "I left." Pant. "Himmel's still there. Flickeling." Gasp. "Let me help you."
What a comedy we must be, as we scramble over rocks and meadow, hauling the radio implement, fleeing the increasing sea-slip sounds behind us. Push. Pull. Heave. Claw. Too slow, too slow, the sounds increase. Too slow, too slow, we'll never reach talus in time.
But we do. Barely. Dry grating under foot, small, final straggles of vegetation, and the great sun rises (from the southwest this time) to show the gray-brown expanse before us.
"Farther," I say. "Farther. Too close here. Onward."
Onward. From the edge of the talus comes a hissing of anger , a milling of confusion; a few slips venture cautiously onto the gritty rock. Nort plunges through the air in fury, whips around us.
"No!" Greze shouts. "Never!"
I raise the stick, Nort flashes back to the slips.
"Wants us to surrender," Greze gasps. "Pay homage. Is In-chief now, owns planet, forbids use of radio. Insane. Don't understand."
We haul the radio up a steep incline, find ourselves atop a flinty mesa, slope down from us in all directions. Safe.
I lower the radio implement to the ground, dust it, check it for damage, find none, collapse beside it. Greze sits, head between legs, drawing in long gulps of air, shaking from exhaustion. We watch the milling sea-slips that cover the ground between talus-edge and bay, watch Nort's frantic efforts in the air.
"I understand," I say finally.
"Nort. Remember the night the pod pieces were stolen? Remember Nort admitted doing it? Remember that Nort can't lift anything, can't move anything, alone?"
"Yes, yes, I remember. But. .."
"Who's the dumbest of us four?" I demand.
"Himmel," Greze says without pause.
"Himmel. Nort directed Himmel, but not for long. Just while Himmel slept, just that one time. Nort can't do it to you or me, or to Himmel awake, because we're too intelligent."
"Nort's a symbiote," I say. "Nort's nothing but brain, jellied, disembodied brain, and has to have somebody else to make the body. Something fairly brainless."
"And now Nort has the sea-slips."
"No, Nort is the sea-slips. Or, rather, the sea-slips are Nort. Body and brain. Biggest body in the universe. No wonder Nort doesn't want to leave."
"Look," Greze shouts. I look up from my implement. Nort is killing the sea-slips, tens of them, twenties of them. They move in line to the edge of the water-lands, lie upon the stones and die, and the next wave goes over them and dies on the stones. Nort is building a highway of dead sea-slips from forest over talus to mesa.
There is no time to lose, then. Feverishly Greze and I arrange the radio implement, stretch the antenna, check the innards of the machine, and when all is ready I crouch by the microphone, cradle it in three hands, bow my head, speak.
"Listen," I say. "There are three of us here, Greze and Himmel and me, and we were all on a big ship that started to splinter. ..."
Nothing happens. The lights do not light, the buzzes do not buzz, there is no output, no response. I delve into the machine, check the power source, check the leads, try again. Nothing. Greze looks on, uncomprehending. Nort, attracted by our actions, hovers well out of range, observing us. Again, again, again, again.
"It doesn't work," Greze says finally, almost inaudibly. "It doesn't work."
It doesn't work. I sit back on my tail, spines rising along my back, and I want to cry. It doesn't work.
Overhead, Nort spectrums, and from the sea-slips comes a rising tide of jubilant noise, triumphant, exultant. It's too much, it's far too much. I grab the radio implement with a strength born of disappointment and despair, raise it high above my head, and with all my power I fling it at the jubilant Nort.
It slams, it falls, it crushes Nort to the ground. After awhile, a seepage of gray fluid appears under the shattered radio. After a longer while, the seepage stops.
Night again. Greze and I sit on the rock in moonlight, while the last of the living sea-slips disappears back into the forest, down the meadows, across the beach, into the ocean, far away. We can barely see Himmel at the far side of the bay, still stiff and flickeled. It's very, very quiet.
"Nort will not reincarnate," Greze says.
"Himmel may be stiff forever."
"The radio didn't work. We'll never be rescued. You built it wrong."
I shake my head. "I don't understand. I built it so carefully, so very carefully. I remembered so well."
Greze is silent.
"So very well. All the buttons and wires, all the chips and plates, I carved them so carefully, I molded them so cautiously. I used only the very best stone, only the finest woods. I don't understand. ..."
© 1977, 2002 by Marta Randall
originally published in NEW DIMENSIONS 7, 1977