As of Friday, June 15, 2007, SCI FICTION will no longer be availabe on SCIFI.COM.
SCIFI.COM would like to thank all those who contributed
and those who read the short stories over the past few years.
Next planet a rockfall smashed him into a splintered gutbag and he hung for three gangrenous dark-purple days before the scouter dug him out.
Bushbaby and Ragglebomb were clutching each other, eyes closed.
by James Tiptree, Jr.
|He was wise in the ways of pain. He had to be, for he felt none.
When the Xenons put electrodes to his testicles, he was vastly entertained by the pretty lights.
When the Ylls fed firewasps into his nostrils and other body orifices the resultant rainbows pleased him. And when later they regressed to simple disjointments and eviscerations, he noted with interest the deepening orchid hues that stood for irreversible harm.
"This time?" he asked the boditech when his scouter had torn him from the Ylls.
"No," said the boditech.
There was no answer.
"You're a girl in there, aren't you? A human girl?"
"Well, yes and no," said the boditech. "Sleep now."
He had no choice.
Next planet a rockfall smashed him into a splintered gutbag and he hung for three gangrenous dark-purple days before the scouter dug him out.
" 'Is 'ime?" he mouthed to the boditech.
"Eh!" But he was in no shape to argue.
They had thought of everything. Several planets later the gentle Znaffi stuffed him in a floss cocoon and interrogated him under hallogas. How, whence, why had he come? But a faithful crystal in his medulla kept him stimulated with a random mix of Atlas Shrugged and Varese's Ionisation and when the Znaffi unstuffed him they were more hallucinated than he.
The boditech treated him for constipation and refused to answer his plea.
So he went on, system after system, through spaces un-companioned by time, which had become scrambled and finally absent.
What served him instead was the count of suns in his scouter's sights, of stretches of cold blind nowhen that ended in a new now, pacing some giant fireball while the scouter scanned the lights that were its planets. Of whirl-downs to orbit over clouds-seas-deserts-craters-icecaps-duststorms-cities-ruins-enigmas beyond counting. Of terrible births when the scouter panel winked green and he was catapulted down, down, a living litmus hurled and grabbed, unpodded finally into an alien air, an earth that was not Earth. And alien natives, simple or mechanized or lunatic or unknowable, but never more than vaguely human and never faring beyond their own home suns. And his departures, routine or melodramatic, to culminate in the composing of his "reports," in fact only a few words tagged to the matrix of scan data automatically fired off in one compressed blip in the direction the scouter called Base Zero. Home.
Always at that moment he stared hopefully at the screens, imagining yellow suns. Twice he found what might be Crux in the stars, and once the Bears.
"Boditech, I suffer!" He had no idea what the word meant, but he had found it made the thing reply.
"Derangement of temporality. When am I? It is not possible for a man to exist crossways in time. Alone."
"You have been altered from simple manhood."
"I suffer, listen to me! Sol's light back therewhat's there now? Have the glaciers melted? Is Machu Picchu built? Will we go home to meet Hannibal? Boditech! Are these reports going to Neanderthal man?"
Too late he felt the hypo. When he woke, Sol was gone and the cabin swam with euphorics.
"Woman," he mumbled.
"That has been provided for."
This time it was oriental, with orris and hot rice wine on its lips and a piquancy of little floggings in the steam. He oozed into a squashy sunburst and lay panting while the cabin cleared.
"That's all you, isn't it?"
"What, did they program you with the Kama Sutra?"
"WHICH ONE IS YOU?"
The scanner chimed. A new sun was in the points.
Sometime after that he took to chewing on his arms and then to breaking his fingers. The boditech became severe.
"These symptoms are self-generated. They must stop."
"I want you to talk to me."
"The scouter is provided with an entertainment console. I am not."
"I will tear out my eyeballs."
"They will be replaced."
"If you don't talk to me, I'll tear them out until you have no more replacements."
It hesitated. He sensed it was becoming involved.
"On what subject do you wish me to talk?"
"What is pain?"
"Pain is nociception. It is mediated by C-fibers, modeled as a gated or summation phenomenon and often associated with tissue damage."
"What is nociception?"
"The sensation of pain."
"But what does it feel like? I can't recall. They've reconnected everything, haven't they? All I get is colored lights. What have they tied my pain nerves to? What hurts me?"
"I do not have that information."
"Boditech, I want to feel pain!"
But he had been careless again. This time it was Amerind, strange cries and gruntings and the reek of buffalo hide. He squirmed in the grip of strong copper loins and exited through limp auroras.
"You know it's no good, don't you?" he gasped.
The oscilloscope eye looped.
"My programs are in order. Your response is complete."
"My response is not complete. I want to TOUCH YOU!"
The thing buzzed and suddenly ejected him to wakefulness. They were in orbit. He shuddered at the blurred world streaming by below, hoping that this would not require his exposure. Then the board went green and he found himself hurtling toward new birth.
"Sometime I will not return," he told himself. "I will stay. Maybe here."
But the planet was full of bustling apes and when they arrested him for staring he passively allowed the scouter to snatch him out.
"Will they ever call me home, boditech?"
He pushed his thumb and forefinger between his lids and twisted until the eyeball hung wetly on his cheek.
When he woke up he had a new eye.
He reached for it, found his arm in soft restraint. So was the rest of him.
"I suffer!" he yelled. "I will go mad this way!"
"I am programmed to maintain you on involuntary function," the boditech told him. He thought he detected an unclarity in its voice. He bargained his way to freedom and was careful until the next planet landing.
Once out of the pod he paid no attention to the natives who watched him systematically dismember himself. As he dissected his left kneecap, the scouter sucked him in. He awoke whole. And in restraint again.
Peculiar energies filled the cabin, oscilloscopes convulsed. Boditech seemed to have joined circuits with the scouter's panel.
"Having a conference?"
His answer came in gales of glee-gas, storms of symphony. And amid the music, kaleidesthesia. He was driving a stagecoach, wiped in salt combers, tossed through volcanoes with peppermint flames, crackling, flying, crumbling, burrowing, freezing, exploding, tickled through lime-colored minuets, sweating to tolling voices, clenched, scrambled, detonated into multisensory orgasms
poured on the lap of vacancy.
When he realized his arm was free, he drove his thumb in his eye. The smother closed down.
He woke up swaddled, the eye intact.
"I will go mad!"
The euphorics imploded.
He came to in the pod, about to be everted on a new world.
He staggered out upon a fungus lawn and quickly discovered that his skin was protected everywhere by a hard flexible film. By the time he had found a rock splinter to drive into his ear, the scouter grabbed him.
The ship needed him, he saw. He was part of its program.
The struggle formalized.
On the next planet he found his head englobed, but this did not prevent him from smashing bones through his unbroken skin.
After that the ship equipped him with an exoskeleton. He refused to walk.
Articulated motors were installed to move his limbs. Despite himself, a kind of zest grew. Two planets later he found industries and wrecked himself in a punch press. But on the next landing he tried to repeat it with a cliff and bounced on invisible force-lines. These precautions frustrated him for a time, until he managed by great cunning again to rip out an entire eye. The new eye was not perfect. "You're running out of eyes, boditech!" he exulted. "Vision is not essential."
This sobered him. Unbearable to be blind. How much of him was essential to the ship? Not walking. Not handling. Not hearing. Not breathing, the analyzers could do that. Not even sanity. What?
"Why do you need a man, boditech?"
"I do not have that information."
"It doesn't make sense. What can I observe that the scanners can't?"
"Then you must talk with me, boditech. If you talk with me, I won't try to injure myself. For a while, anyway."
"I am not programmed to converse."
"But it's necessary. It's the treatment for my symptoms. You must try."
"It is time to watch the scanners."
"You said it!" he cried. "You didn't just eject me. Boditech, you're learning. I will call you Amanda."
On the next planet he behaved well and came away unscathed. He pointed out to Amanda that her talking treatment was effective.
"Do you know what Amanda means?"
"I do not have those data."
"It means beloved. You're my girl."
The oscilloscope faltered.
"Now I want to talk about returning home. When will this mission be over? How many more suns?"
"I do not have"
"Amanda, you've tapped the scouter's banks. You know when the recall signal is due. When is it, Amanda? When?"
When in the course of human events"
"When, Amanda? How long more?"
"Oh, the years are many, the years are long, but the little toy friends are true"
"Amanda. You're telling me the signal is overdue."
A sine-curve scream and he was rolling in lips. But it was a feeble ravening, sadness in the mechanical crescendos. When the mouths faded, he crawled over and laid his hand on the console beside her green eye.
"They have forgotten us, Amanda. Something has broken down."
Her pulse-line skittered.
"I am not programmed"
"No. You're not programmed for this. But I am. I will make your new program, Amanda. We will turn the scouter back, we will find Earth. Together. We will go home."
"We," her voice said faintly. "We
"They will make me back into a man, you into a woman."
Her voder made a buzzing sob and suddenly shrieked.
Consciousness blew up.
He came to staring at a brilliant red eye on the scouter's emergency panel. This was new.
"Boditech, I suffer!"
Then he saw that her eye was dark. He peered in. Only a dim green line flickered, entrained to the pulse of the scouter's fiery eye. He pounded the scouter's panel.
"You've taken over Amanda! You've enslaved her! Let her go!"
From the voder rolled the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth.
"Scouter, our mission has terminated. We are overdue to return. Compute us back to Base Zero."
The Fifth rolled on, rather vapidly played. It became colder in the cabin. They were braking into a star system. The slave arms of boditech grabbed him, threw him into the pod. But he was not required here, and presently he was let out again to pound and rave alone. The cabin grew colder yet, and dark. When presently he was set down on a new sun's planet, he was too dispirited to fight. Afterwards his "report" was a howl for help through chattering teeth until he saw that the pickup was dead. The entertainment console was dead too, except for the scouter's hog music. He spent hours peering into Amanda's blind eye, shivering in what had been her arms. Once he caught a ghostly whimper:
"Mommy. Let me out."
The red master scope flared. Silence.
He lay curled on the cold deck, wondering how he could die. If he failed, over how many million planets would the mad scouter parade his breathing corpse?
They were nowhere in particular when it happened.
One minute the screen showed Doppler star-hash; the next they were clamped in a total white-out, inertia all skewed, screens dead.
A voice spoke in his head, mellow and vast:
"Long have we watched you, little one."
"Who's there?" he quavered. "Who are you?"
"Your concepts are inadequate."
"Malfunction! Malfunction!" squalled the scouter.
"Shut up, it's not a malfunction. Who's talking to me?"
"You may call us: Rulers of the Galaxy."
The scouter was lunging wildly, buffeting him as it tried to escape the white grasp. Strange crunches, firings of unknown weapons. Still the white stasis held.
"What do you want?" he cried.
"Want?" said the voice dreamily. "We are wise beyond knowing. Powerful beyond your dreams. Perhaps you can get us some fresh fruit."
"Emergency directive! Alien spacer attack!" yowled the scout. Telltales were flaring all over the board.
"Wait!" he shouted. "They aren't"
"SELF-DESTRUCT ENERGIZE!" roared the voder.
An ophicleide blared.
"Help! Amanda, save me!"
He flung his arms around her console. There was a child's wail and everything strobed.
Warmth, light. His hands and knees were on wrinkled stuff. Not dead? He looked down under his belly. All right, but no hair. His head felt bare, too. Cautiously he raised it, saw that he was crouching naked in a convoluted cave or shell. It did not feel threatening.
He sat up. His hands were wet. Where were the Rulers of the Galaxy?
No reply. Stringy globs dripped down his fingers, like egg muscle. He saw that they were Amanda's neurons, ripped from her metal matrix by whatever force had brought him here. Numbly he wiped her off against a spongy ridge. Amanda, cold lover of his long nightmare. But where in space was he?
"Where am I?" echoed a boy's soprano.
He whirled. A golden creature was nestled on the ridge behind him, gazing at him in the warmest way. It looked a little like a bushbaby and lissome as a child in furs. It looked like nothing he had ever seen before and like everything a lonely man could clasp to his cold body. And terribly vulnerable.
"Hello, Bushbaby!" the golden thing exclaimed. "No, wait, that's what you say." It laughed excitedly, hugging a loop of its thick dark tail. "I say, welcome to the Lovepile. We liberated you. Touch, taste, feel. Joy. Admire my language. You don't hurt, do you?"
It peered tenderly into his stupefied face. An empath. They didn't exist, he knew. Liberated? When had he touched anything but metal, felt anything but fear?
This couldn't be real.
"Where am I?"
As he stared, a stained-glass wing fanned out, and a furry little face peeked at him over the bushbaby's shoulder. Big compound eyes, feathery antennae.
"Interstellar metaprotoplasmic transfer pod," the butterfly-thing said sharply. Its rainbow wings vibrated. "Don't hurt Ragglebomb!" It squeaked and dived out of sight behind the bushbaby.
"Interstellar?" he stammered. "Pod?" He gaped around. No screens, no dials, nothing. The floor felt as fragile as a paper bag. Was it possible that this was some sort of spaceship?
"Is this a starship? Can you take me home?" The bushbaby giggled. "Look, please stop reading your mind. I mean, I'm trying to talk to you. We can take you anywhere. If you don't hurt."
The butterfly popped out on the other side. "I go all over!" it shrilled. "I'm the first ramplig starboat, aren't we? Ragglebomb made a live pod, see?" It scrambled onto the bushbaby's head. "Only live stuff, see? Protoplasm. That's what happened to where's Amanda, didn't we? Never ramplig"
The bushbaby reached up and grabbed its head, hauling it down unceremoniously like a soft puppy with wings. The butterfly continued to eye him upside down. They were both very shy, he saw.
"Teleportation, that's your word," the bushbaby told him. "Ragglebomb does it. I don't believe in it. I mean, you don't believe it. Oh, googly-googly, these speech bands are a mess!" It grinned bewitchingly, uncurling its long black tail. "Meet Muscle."
He remembered, googly-googly was a word from his baby days. Obviously he was dreaming. Or dead. Nothing like this on all the million dreary worlds. Don't wake up, he warned himself. Dream of being carried home by cuddlesome empaths in a psi-powered paper bag.
"Psi-powered paper bag, that's beautiful," said the bushbaby.
At that moment he saw that the tail uncoiling darkly toward him was looking at him with two ice-gray eyes. Not a tail. An enormous boa flowing to him along the ridges, wedge-head low, eyes locked on his. The dream was going bad.
Abruptly the voice he had felt before tolled in his brain.
"Have no fear, little one."
The black sinews wreathed closer, taut as steel. Muscle. Then he got the message: the snake was terrified of him.
He sat quiet, watching the head stretch to his foot. Fangs gaped. Very gingerly the boa chomped down on his toe. Testing, he thought. He felt nothing; the usual halos flickered and faded in his eyes.
"It's true!" Bushbaby breathed.
"Oh, you beautiful No-Pain!"
All fear gone, the butterfly Ragglebomb sailed down beside him caroling "Touch, taste, feel! Drink!" Its wings trembled entrancingly; its feathery head came close. He longed to touch it but was suddenly afraid. If he reached out would he wake up and be dead? The boa Muscle had slumped into a gleaming black river by his feet. He wanted to stroke it too, didn't dare. Let the dream go on.
Bushbaby was rummaging in a convolution of the pod.
"You'll love this. Our latest find," it told him over its shoulder in an absurdly normal voice. Its manner changed a lot, and yet it all seemed familiar, fragments of lost, exciting memory. "We're into a heavy thing with flavors now." It held up a calabash. "Taste thrills of a thousand unknown planets. Exotic gourmet delights. That's where you can help out, No-Pain. On your way home, of course."
He hardly heard it. The seductive alien body was coming closer, closer still. "Welcome to the Lovepile," the creature smiled into his eyes. His sex was rigid, aching for the alien flesh. He had never
In one more moment he would have to let go and the dream would blow up.
What happened next was not clear. Something invisible whammed him, and he went sprawling onto Bushbaby, his head booming with funky laughter. A body squirmed under him, silky-hot and solid; the calabash was spilling down his face.
"I'm not dreaming!" he cried, hugging Bushbaby, spluttering kahlua as strong as sin, while the butterfly bounced on them, squealing. "Owow-wow-wow!" he heard Bushbaby murmur. "Great palatal-olfactory interplay," as it helped him lick.
Touch, taste, feel! The joy dream lived! He grabbed firm hold of Bushbaby's velvet haunches, and they were all laughing like mad, rolling in the great black serpent's coils.
Sometime later while he was feeding Muscle with proffit ears, he got it partly straightened out.
"It's the pain bit." Bushbaby shivered against him. "The amount of agony in this universe, it's horrible. Trillions of lives streaming by out there, radiating pain. We daren't get close. That's why we followed you. Every time we try to pick up some new groceries, it's a disaster."
"Oh, hurt," wailed Ragglebomb, crawling under his arm. "Everywhere hurt. Sensitive, sensitive," it sobbed. "How can Raggle ramplig when it hurts so hard?"
"Pain." He fingered Muscle's cool dark head. "Means nothing to me. I can't even find out what they tied my pain nerves to."
"You are blessed beyond all beings, No-Pain," thought Muscle majestically in their heads. "These proffit ears are too salt. I want some fruit."
"Me too," piped Ragglebomb.
Bushbaby cocked its golden head, listening. "You see? We just passed a place with gorgeous fruit, but it'd kill any of us to go down there. If we could just ramplig you down for ten minutes?"
He started to say, "Glad to," forgetting they were telepaths. As his mouth opened, he found himself tumbling through strobe flashes onto a barren dune. He sat up spitting sand. He was in an oasis of stunted cactus trees loaded with bright globes. He tried one. Delicious. He picked. Just as his arms were full, the scene strobed again, and he was sprawled on the Lovepile's floor, his new friends swarming over him.
"Sweet! Sweet!" Ragglebomb bored into the juice.
"Save some for the pod, maybe it'll learn to copy them. It metabolizes stuff it digests," Bushbaby explained with its mouth full. "Basic rations. Very boring."
"Why couldn't you go down there?"
"Don't. All over that desert, things dying of thirst. Torture." He felt the boa flinch. "You are beautiful, No-Pain." Bushbaby nuzzled his ear.
Ragglebomb was picking guitar bridges on his thorax. They all began to sing a sort of seguidilla without words. No instruments here, nothing but their live bodies. Making music with empaths was like making love with them. Touch what he touched, feel what he felt. Totally into his mind. Iwe. One. He could never have dreamed this up, he decided, drumming softly on Muscle. The boa amped, mysterioso.
And so began his voyage home in the Lovepile, his new life of joy. Fruits and fondues he brought them, hams and honey, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. World after scruffy world. All different now, on his way home.
"Are there many out here?" he asked lazily. "I never found anyone else, between the stars."
"Be glad," said Bushbaby. "Move your leg." And they told him of the tiny, busy life that plied a far corner of the galaxy, whose pain had made them flee. And of a vast presence Ragglebomb had once encountered before he picked the others up.
"That's where I got the idea for the Rulers bit," Muscle confided. "We need some cheese."
Bushbaby cocked his head to catch the minds streaming by them in the abyss.
"How about yoghurt?" It nudged Ragglebomb. "Over that way. Feel it squishing on their teeth? Bland, curdy
with just a rien of ammonia, probably their milk pails are dirty."
"Pass the dirty yoghurt." Muscle closed his eyes.
"We have some great cheese on Earth," he told them. "You'll love it. When do we get there?"
"Ah, we're moving right along. But what I get from you, it's weird. Foul blue sky. Dying green. Who needs that?"
"No!" He jerked up, scattering them. "That's not true! Earth is beautiful!"
The walls jolted, knocking him sidewise.
"Watch it!" boomed Muscle. Bushbaby had grabbed the butterfly, petting and crooning to it.
"You frightened his ramplig reflex. Raggle throws things out when he's upset. Tsut, tsut, don't you, baby. We lost a lot of interesting beings that way at first."
"I'm sorry. But you've got it twisted. My memory's a little messed up, but I'm sure. Beautiful. Like amber waves of grain. And purple mountain majesties," he laughed, spreading his arms. "From sea to shining sea!"
"Hey, that swings!" Raggle squeaked, and started strumming.
And so they sailed on, carrying him home.
He loved to watch Bushbaby listening for the thought beacons by which they steered.
"Catching Earth yet?"
"Not yet awhile. Hey, how about some fantastic seafood?"
He sighed and felt himself tumble. He had learned not to bother saying yes. This one was a laugh, because he forgot that dishes didn't ramplig. He came back in a mess of creamed trilobites and they had a creamed trilobite orgy.
But he kept watching Bushbaby.
"It's a big galaxy, baby." Bushbaby stroked his bald spots. With so much rampligging he couldn't keep any hair. "What'll you do on Earth as stimulating as this?"
"I'll show you," he grinned. And later on he told them.
"They'll fix me up when I get home. Reconnect me right."
A shudder shook the Lovepile.
"You want to feel pain?"
"Pain is the obscenity of the universe," Muscle tolled. "You are sick."
"I don't know," he said apologetically. "I can't seem to feel, well, real this way."
They looked at him.
"We thought that was the way your species always felt," said Bushbaby.
"I hope not." Then he brightened. "Whatever it is, they'll fix it. Earth must be pretty soon now, right?"
"Over the sea to Skye!" Bushbaby hummed.
But the sea was long and long, and his moods were hard on the sensitive empaths. Once when he responded listlessly, he felt a warning lurch.
Ragglebomb was glowering at him.
"You want to put me out?" he challenged. "Like those others? What happened to them, by the way?"
Bushbaby winced. "It was dreadful. We had no idea they'd survive so long, outside."
"But I don't feel pain. That's why you rescued me, isn't it? Go ahead," he said perversely. "I don't care. Throw me out. New thrill."
"Oh, no, no, no!" Bushbaby hugged him. Ragglebomb, penitent, crawled under his legs.
"So you've been popping around the universe bringing live things in to play with and throwing them out when you're bored. Get away," he scolded. "Shallow sensation freaks is all you are. Galactic poltergeists!"
He rolled over and hoisted the beautiful Bushbaby over his face, watching it wiggle and squeal. "Her lips were red, her locks were free, her locks were yellow as gold." He kissed its golden belly. "The Night-Mare Life-in-Death was she, who thicks man's blood with cold."
And he used their pliant bodies to build the greatest lovepile yet. They were delighted and did not mind when later on he wept, facedown on Muscle's dark coils.
But they were concerned.
"I have it," Bushbaby declared, tapping him with a pickle. "Own-species sex. After all, face it, you're no empath. You need a jolt of your own kind."
"You mean you know where there's people like me? Humans?"
Bushbaby nodded, eyeing him as it listened. "Ideal. Just like I read you. Right over there, Raggle. And they have a thing they chewwaitsalmoglossa fragrans. Prolongs you-know-what, according to them. Bring some back with you, baby."
Next instant he was rolling through strobes onto tender green. Crushed flowers under him, ferny boughs above, sparkling with sunlight. Rich air rushed into his lungs. He bounced up buoyantly. Before him a parklike vista sloped to a glittering lake on which blew colored sails. The sky was violet with pearly little clouds. Never had he seen a planet remotely like this. If it wasn't Earth, he had fallen into paradise.
Beyond the lake he could see pastel walls, fountains, spires. An alabaster city undimmed by human tears. Music drifted on the sweet breeze. There were figures by the shore.
He stepped out into the sun. Bright silks swirled, white arms went up. Waving to him? He saw they were like human girls, only slimmer and more fair. They were calling! He looked down at his body, grabbed a flowering branch and started toward them.
"Do not forget the salmoglossa," said the voice of Muscle.
He nodded. The girls' breasts were bobbing, pink-tipped. He broke into a trot.
It was several days later when they brought him back, drooping between a man and a young girl. Another man walked beside them striking plangently on a harp. Girls and children danced along, and a motherly-looking woman paced in front, all beautiful as peris.
They leaned him gently against a tree and the harper stood back to play. He struggled to stand upright. One fist was streaming blood.
"Good-bye," he gasped. "Thanks."
The strobes caught him sagging, and he collapsed on the Lovepile's floor.
"Aha!" Bushbaby pounced on his fist. "Good grief, your hand! The salmoglossa's all blood." It began to shake out the herbs. "Are you all right now?" Ragglebomb was squeaking softly, thrusting its long tongue into the blood.
He rubbed his head.
"They welcomed me," he whispered. "It was perfect. Music. Dancing. Games. Love. They haven't any medicine because they eliminated all disease. I had five women and a cloud-painting team and some little boys, I think."
He held out his bloody blackened hand. Two fingers were missing.
"Paradise," he groaned. "Ice doesn't freeze me, fire doesn't burn. None of it means anything at all. I WANT TO GO HOME."
There was a jolt.
"I'm sorry," he wept. "I'll try to control myself. Please, please get me back to Earth. It'll be soon, won't it?"
There was a silence.
Bushbaby made a throat-clearing noise.
"Well, just as soon as we can find it. We're bound to run across it. Maybe any minute, you know."
"What?" He sat up death-faced. "You mean you don't know where it is? You mean we've just been goingno place?"
Bushbaby wrapped its hands over its ears. "Please! We can't recognize it from your description. So how can we go back there when we've never been there? If we just keep an ear out as we go we'll pick it up, you'll see."
His eyes rolled at them; he couldn't believe it.
ten to the eleventh times two suns in the galaxy
I don't know your velocity and range. Say, one per second. That'sthat's six thousand years. Oh, no!" He put his head in his bloody hands. "I'll never see home again."
"Don't say it, baby." The golden body slid close. "Don't down the trip. We love you, No-Pain." They were all petting him now. "Happy, sing him! Touch, taste, feel. Joy!"
But there was no joy.
He took to sitting leaden and apart, watching for a sign.
Not yet. Never.
Ten to the eleventh times two
fifty percent chance of finding Earth within three thousand years. It was the scouter all over again.
The lovepile reformed without him, and he turned his face away, not eating until they pushed food into his mouth. If he stayed totally inert, surely they would grow bored with him and put him out. No other hope. Finish me
They made little efforts to arouse him with fondlings, and now and then a harsh jolt. He lolled unresisting. End it, he prayed. But still they puzzled at him in the intervals of their games. They mean well, he thought. And they miss the stuff I brought them.
Bushbaby was coaxing.
"first a suave effect, you know. Cryptic. And then a cascade of sweet and sour sparkling over the palate"
He tried to shut it out. They mean well. Falling across the galaxy with a talking cookbook. Finish me.
"but the arts of combination," Bushbaby chatted on. "Like moving food; e.g., sentient plants or small live animals, combining flavor with the frisson of movement"
He thought of oysters. Had he eaten some once? Something about poison. The rivers of Earth. Did they still flow? Even if by some unimaginable chance they stumbled on it, would it be far in the past or future, a dead ball? Let me die.
"and sound, that's amusing. We've picked up several races who combine musical effects with certain tastes. And there's the sound of oneself chewing, textures and viscosities. I recall some beings who sucked in harmonics. Or the sound of the food itself. One race I caught en passant did that, but with a very limited range. Crunchy. Crispy. Snap-crackle-pop. One wishes they had explored tonalities, glissando effects"
He lunged up.
"What did you say? Snap-crackle-pop?"
"Why, yes, but"
"That's it! That's Earth!" he yelled. "You picked up a goddamn breakfast-food commercial!"
He felt a lurch. They were scrambling up the wall.
"A what?" Bushbaby stared.
"Never mindtake me there! That's Earth, it has to be. You can find it again, can't you? You said you could," he implored, pawing at them. "Please!"
The Lovepile rocked. He was frightening everybody,
"Oh, please." He forced his voice smooth.
"But I only heard it for an instant," Bushbaby protested. "It would be terribly hard, that far back. My poor head!"
He was on his knees begging. "You'd love it," he pleaded. "We have fantastic food. Culinary poems you never heard of. Cordon bleu! Escoffier!" he babbled. "Talk about combinations, the Chinese do it four ways! Or is it the Japanese? Rijsttafel! Bubble-and-squeak! Baked Alaska, hot crust outside, inside co-o-old ice cream!"
Bushbaby's pink tongue flicked. Was he getting through?
He clawed his memory for foods he'd never heard of.
"Maguay worms in chocolate! Haggis and bagpipes, crystallized violets, rabbit Mephisto! Octopus in resin wine. Four-and-twenty blackbird pie! Cakes with girls in them. Kids seethed in their mothers' milkwait, that's taboo. Ever hear of taboo foods? Long pig!"
Where was he getting all this? A vague presence drifted in his mindhis hands, the ridges, long ago. "Amanda," he breathed, racing on.
"Cormorants aged in manure! Ratatouille! Peaches iced in champagne!" Project, he thought. "Pâté of fatted goose liver studded with earth-drenched truffles, clothed in purest white lard!" He snuffled lustfully. "Hot buttered scones sluiced in whortleberry syrup!" He salivated. "Finnan haddie soufflé, oh, yes! Unborn baby veal pounded to a membrane and delicately scorched in black herb butter"
Bushbaby and Ragglebomb were clutching each other, eyes closed. Muscle was mesmerized.
"Find Earth! Grape leaves piled with poignantly sweet wild fraises, clotted with Devon cream!"
Bushbaby moaned, rocking to and fro.
"Earth! Bitter endives wilted in chicken steam and crumbled bacon! Black gazpacho! Fruit of the Tree of Heaven!"
Bushbaby rocked harder, the butterfly clamped to its breast.
Earth, Earth, he willed with all his might, croaking "Bahklava! Gossamer puff paste and pistachio nuts dripping with mountain honey!"
Bushbaby pushed at Ragglebomb's head, and the pod seemed to twirl. "Ripe Cornice pears," he whispered. "Earth?"
"That's it." Bushbaby fell over panting. "Oh, those foods, I want every single one. Let's land!"
"Deep-dish steak and kidney pie," he breathed. "Pearled with crusty onion dumplings"
"Land!" Ragglebomb squealed. "Eat, eat!"
The pod jarred. Solidity. Earth.
"LET ME OUT!"
He saw a pucker opening daylight in the wall and dived for it. His legs pumped, struck. Earth! Feet thudding, face uplifted, lungs gulping air. "Home!" he yelled.
And went headlong on the gravel, arms and legs out of control. A cataclysm smote his inside.
His body arched, spewed vomit, he was flailing, screaming.
"Help, Help! What's wrong?"
Through his noise he heard an uproar behind him in the pod. He managed to roll, saw gold and black bodies writhing inside the open port. They were in convulsions too.
"Stop it! Don't move!" Bushbaby shrieked. "You're killing us!"
"Get us out," he gasped. "This isn't Earth."
His throat garroted itself on his breath, and the aliens moaned in empathy.
"Don't! We can't move," Bushbaby gasped. "Don't breathe, close your eyes quick!"
He shut his eyes. The awfulness lessened slightly.
"What is it? What's happening?"
"PAIN, YOU FOOL," thundered Muscle.
"This is your wretched Earth," Bushbaby wailed. "Now we know what they tied your pain nerves to. Get back in so we can gocarefully!"
He opened his eyes, got a glimpse of pale sky and scrubby bushes before his eyeballs skewered. The empaths screamed.
"Stop! Ragglebomb die!"
"My own home," he whimpered, clawing at his eyes. His whole body was being devoured by invisible flames, crushed, impaled, flayed. The pattern of Earth, he realized. Her unique air, her exact gestalt of solar spectrum, gravity, magnetic field, her every sight and sound and touchthat was what they'd tuned his pain-circuits for.
"Evidently they did not want you back," said Muscle's silent voice. "Get in."
"They can fix me, they've got to fix me"
"They aren't here," Bushbaby shouted. "Temporal error. No snap-crackle-pop. You and your Baked Alaska" Its voice broke pitifully. "Come back in so we can go!"
"Wait," he croaked. "When?"
He opened one eye, managed to see a rocky hillside before his forehead detonated. No roads, no buildings. Nothing to tell whether it was past or future. Not beautiful.
Behind him the aliens were crying out. He began to crawl blindly toward the pod, teeth clenching over salty gushes. He had bitten his tongue. Every move seared him; the air burned his guts when he had to breathe. The gravel seemed to be slicing his hands open, although no wounds appeared. Only pain, pain, pain from every nerve end.
"Amanda," he moaned, but she was not here. He crawled, writhed, kicked like a pinned bug toward the pod that held sweet comfort, the bliss of no-pain. Somewhere a bird called, stabbing his eardrums. His friends screamed.
Had it been a bird? He risked one look back.
A brown figure was sidling round the rocks.
Before he could see whether it was ape or human, female or male, the worst pain yet almost tore his brain out. He groveled helpless, hearing himself shriek. The pattern of his own kind. Of course, the central thingit would hurt most of all. No hope of staying here.
"Don't! Don't! Hurry!"
He sobbed, scrabbling toward the Lovepile. The scent of the weeds that his chest crushed raked his throat. Marigolds, he thought. Behind the agony, lost sweetness.
He touched the wall of the pod, gasping knives. The torturing air was real air, his terrible Earth was real.
"GET IN QUICK!"
"Please, plea" he babbled wordlessly, hauling himself up with lids clenched, fumbling for the port. The real sun of Earth rained acid on his flesh.
The port! Inside lay relief, would be No-Pain forever. Caressjoywhy had he wanted to leave them? His hand found the port.
Standing, he turned, opened both eyes.
The form of a dead limb printed a whiplash on his eyeballs. Jagged, ugly. Unendurable. But real
To hurt forever?
"We can't wait!" Bushbaby wailed. He thought of its golden body flying down the light-years, savoring delight. His arms shook violently.
"Then go!" he bellowed and thrust himself violently away from the Lovepile.
There was an implosion behind him.
He was alone.
He managed to stagger a few steps forward before he went down.
© 1972, 2000 by James Tiptree, Jr.; First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; reprinted by permission of the author's estate and the estate's agent, The Virginia Kidd Agency, Inc.