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Wonderbird

Wonderbird


Wonderbird by Algis Budrys and Harlan Ellison

    Time and again the fire had burned down in the fireplace-bowl, and the night had come too close. The cave had flickered dully with the dying light of the fire, and they had shivered.
    Skilton had cuffed the younglings out into the edge of the dark, to glean the fallen dead arms of the trees, to bring the fire to life again. But the younglings were awkward, and slow, and fearful of the waiting night. And the fuel was scanty, the darkness was close, and death with it. As emcee of the tribe, Skilton had been forced to use ruthlessness to spur them outward.
    We should never have come into this place, Skilton thought. We should have stayed in the valleys of our birth, where the trees are many and the death is thin.
    His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by an answering, inquiring thought from Lahr, one of the lesser members of the tribe.
    But, emcee, why have we come to this place?
    Skilton’s massive head turned on my hairy neck, and he stared deeply into the wide, double-pupiled eyes of Lahr. It is the Time of the Prophecy, he answered almost angrily. They were supposed to know that. Things were different in the tribe today. Before, there were many strytemin, who would ask him intelligent questions, such as Why does a hulfee cross the forest track? or Who was that she-tribe-member I sensed you with the past darkening?
    But now many of the old ones had had the death thicken in them, and they had gone away. The younglings were impudent, and their religion was a small thing to them.
    But how do you know this is the Time of Prophecy? Lahr insisted. He scratched his long muzzle with his right second paw.
    Skilton rose up in wrath, and towered over the smaller triber. Fool! he thought violently. Don’t you remember the words: “Never worry and never fear, your boy Alfie Gunsel’s here! I’ll be back when the moons climb behind the clouds!” This is that Time. This is the Time when the five moons have gone to counsel behind the swirlers, and the Performances will begin anew. The Lams will play the Palace once more!
    His thoughts had risen in violence as he had gone on, and now the words reverberated in the heads of the tribe. Skilton and his religion! They believed, of course, but, ah, well…
    He didn’t have to go this far: drag them from their burrows and send them halfway across the Palace to this spot of desolation on the edge of the silver-sanded plain and the Great Mountain.
    But…they were trapped here by the dark, and it was too late for second thoughts. They would have to wait out Skilton’s time and madness, till he realized the old religion was hoax, and there was no Time of the Prophecy.
    Up above them, just past the peak of the Great Mountain, fire split the sky.
    The darkness shuddered, and Skilton leaped to his feet, staring.
    Above the mountain, a shiny bird was glowing. Golden, thundering, flickering, shuddering, the Wonderbird beat its way downward on its blazoned wings. And Skilton saw the dark turn into light, the death retreat before the beat of heated wings, and then the younglings were huddled behind him as he lifted his thoughts in prayer. In a moment the rest of the tribe had murmured We believe, we believe! in their minds, and were joining him in the singing chords of the Tophatt ritual.
    June; the tune I croon to spoon—
    A loon too gooney in the Moon
    Light—
    you.
    Is only lonely in this homely
    Phoney though baloney may be
    Bright—
    Blue
    mood.

    They huddled on their triple-jointed knees a few moments more, letting the harmony tingle away in their minds, then Skilton was up and running. Again, the younglings were huddled behind him as he ran away from the cave, and the needless fire, toward the rocking Wonderbird.

    Skilton’s switch-antennae rose and quivered as he homed in on the Wonderbird. He thought a spark at the younglings, for they had always believed in him. The older tribers he left to their own resources—they would find the Wonderbird in time.
    Hurry! This is the Time we have waited to witness!
    And the younglings spurred themselves, their eight triple-jointed legs spinning beneath them as they strove to keep up with the old emcee. Somehow, he had drawn a reserve of sudden energy for the task, and was even outloping them. They left the rest of the tribe behind quickly.
    They covered the moss-ground rapidly, moved toward the silver-sanded plain. Long, loping strides, and the Wonderbird came closer.
    Skilton brought them to a halt at the edge of the silver-sanded plain. He looked back, far up the slope of the foothills and he saw the moving dots of the rest of the tribe. He would not wait for them—let them arrive in their own time. He had been true to the Lams, and he would be their first greeter. He would become their aide…and all the long years of belief would be paid back in full measure.
    Yet, he did not venture onto the silver-sanded plain.
    There was no sense being foolhardy about this.
    The Time! Yes; but perhaps not as they had been told in the Prophecy. Perhaps it might be different, the Prophecy and its meaning garbled by time. He must deal with caution.
    Was he not emcee of the tribe?
    The Wonderbird lay there, its many-colored flesh flickering. Blue, red, gold, amber, back to gold, and flowing, always flowing. Then…
    Sput! Peeeee-op!
    Little bunches of many-colored brightness erupted from the Wonderbird’s skin.
    It continued for a few minutes, and suddenly the skin of the Wonderbird sucked inward and a round hole appeared. A black hole, from which a long thing extended, that went down to the silver sands.
    Then a—a—thing? leaped out of the Wonderbird, ran down the long extended thing, and stood on the silver sands, with its paws on its hips, staring at the Wonderbird.
    “Goddam, stinkin’, miserable electrical system!” the thing exploded. The words were in the air.
    Skilton’s antennae spun aloft. In the air? Not in the head, like the tribe’s thoughts, but on the air, like the screams of the ignorant hulfee they cut and ate? In the air? Yes, by Kan-Tor! In the air. This thing was not of their world, not of the Telling of the Prophecy, this was not even of the dreams that stole warmly in the night. This was…strange. He could thought-pluck no word that meant more. Strange. Gleez-Son!
    The thing was ripping a vine from a hole in the skin of the Wonderbird. Skilton tuned in on the thing’s mind, and there were thoughts! In addition to the sounds in the air, there were thoughts. How strange.
    He knew at once the vine was a “master electrical connection to the power banks of the skin displays” and the hole was a “repair cubby” but he could not decide what they were for. But they had to be for something, since he remembered the prime Lewus rule: Always build to your point. Never miss a step. Never do anything meaningless, and then hit ‘em with the boffola!
    The thing closed a piece of skin over the skin, and the popping, erupting, noisy clash of exploding colors ceased.
    “That oughtta fix the goddam thing,” the thing said, looking with an odd expression at the skin. He radiated momentary contentment.
    What? thought the secondary youngling, a calf-pup named Culonah.
    Silence. Impertinence! Skilton tossed back instantly, scathingly. This is a blessed Lam! Never doubt them, never question them, never let your thoughts rise in objection, for they are all powerful and may strike you. Death will thicken in your tongue, if you do not heed what I say!
    But—Skilton…
    Silence, youngling! Do you want me to give you the Bird?
    The Wonderbird?
    THE Bird, fool!
    The youngling retreated, cringing.
    Skilton’s words were brave, and trusting of the Lams. Yet his thoughts could not help but be colored with doubt. He fought to submerge these unworthy feelings—the younglings must never doubt for an instant. If they did, the Performances would never come again. He was not quite certain what the Performances were—but they boasted a golden age for everyone on The Palace. He must deep-thrust his unworthy feelings, both for himself, for the younglings, and for the doubting, corroded-minded older tribers loping down the foothills toward them.
    He looked back at the Wonderbird, as a blast of thought and sound struck him.
    The thing was leaning through the skin of the Wonderbird, at the top of the reaching thing that stretched to the sand. He was calling—words still in the air…
    “Marge! Yo, Marge! Come on out; we got us an audience, Awreddy!”
    He turned and looked back over his shoulder at Skilton and the calf-pups. Skilton knew it was his head, knew it was his shoulder, simply enough. The thing thought.
    Then why the words in the air?
    Another thing came from the Wonderbird. It was a she; the first thing identified it as a she. She stopped at the top of the reaching thing (her thoughts called it a ramp) and looked at the flickering, color-changing skin.
    She looked at the odd squiggles that formed the shapes:
    MARGE AND ANDY PETERBOB!
    COMEDIANS EXTRAORDINAIRE!
    and in smaller squiggles…
    HAVE TUX, TRAVEL
    She opened her mouth wide (yawn, the first thing thought it). She scratched with one of her two paws at the space under her left arm. “Fix it?” she asked.
    “What the hell’s it look like?” he answered.
    “Cute, cute. Alla time with the wide-eyed, wise answers.” Her face grew annoyed—her thoughts grew annoyed. “Where’s the marks?”
    The first thing pointed toward Skilton and the calf-pups on the edge of the plain.
    “There they be, me sweet young pretty. There they be.”
    She let her eyes follow his hand. Her eyes grew larger.
    “Them? Them things? That’s what we’re gonna play to?”
    He shrugged. “We got any better?”
    “You use the civilcometer? Check, if there’s any culture?”
    He nodded. “Not a trace of a city. If there’s life here, that’s it.”
    She let her tongue lick her lower lip. “You sure this is the planet?”
    He pulled a sheaf of odd, thin skin from a hole in his own skin, and unfolded it. He ran a finger down a column, said to her “The record says a show-ship came by here in ‘27…gave three hundred consecutive performances. Carted off a whole shipful of raw sogoth fiber. They called the place The Palace. Must be…only planet on these co-ords.”
    She gave him a rueful look as he folded the skin away into his own baggy hide.
    “I ain’t doing my act for them shaggy lap-dogs!”
    “Aw, Marge, for Chrissakes, we done our act before worse than this. Them three-eyed slugs on Deepassa…or them little spike-balls on Garrity’s Hell…or them…”
    She cut him off with a wave of her hand, sharp and final. “No!”
    “Aw, Marge, for Chrissakes, you gotta at least test ‘em. You gotta see if maybe they ain’t intelligent.”
    She screwed her face up horribly. “Take a look at the damned things…you can see they ain’t nothin’ but eight-legged mutts!”
    At this point, Skilton felt things had advanced poorly enough. He sensed the rest of the tribe loping in behind them. Now was the moment for him to make his appeal to his gods, to the Lams who had come at last.
    All the years of waiting and believing, of suffering the abuse of those who were unfaithful, were about to reach fruition. He would be the chosen of these great god Lams.
    He let words float on the air.
    The bellow welled up in his throat, coursed through his amplifier-baffle vocal cords, and erupted in the dusk.
    “Bah-roooooooooooooo!”
    The she-thing leaped off the top of the ramp, came back down trembling, her eyes even larger.
    “Ta hell with you,” she squawked oddly, “that goddam thing wants me for supper. Uh-uh. Goo’ bye!”
    The first thing was turned toward Skilton, also. His eyes were as large as the she’s. His mouth fluttered. But his thoughts said they must stay.
    “But, look, Marge honey, you gotta…don’t let a little moan like that bother ya…uh…we’re out this far, honey, we gotta bring somethin’ back…pay the costs, you know…”
    She started to say something, then her thoughts said: What’s the use? I’m gettin’ the hell outta here!
    “Honey…it’s been a real slack season, we gotta…
    She reached inside the Wonderbird’s skin, pulled out a weird square thing, and threw it at the man-thing. It hit him on the head.
    “Goddamn it, Marge, why’d ya toss that thing at me? You know it’s part of the last borrow from that libraryship! It ain’t ours! Aw, come on, Marge! We gotta…
    “We don’t gotta do nothin’! And if you don’t wanna get left standin’ right there with egg on ya kisser, ya better haul-ass in here and help me blast! I wanna go!”
    She stared at him hard for a moment, casting strange looks every few seconds at Skilton and the group of younglings. As she did, the rest of the tribe appeared out of the foothills and fell hushed behind the emcee.
    “Yaarghhh!” she bellowed, till it made Skilton’s antennae twitch. Then she bolted inside the Wonderbird, waving her arms in the air.
    The man-thing cursed, and looked over his shoulder. When he saw the group on the moss-edge of the sanded plain had grown, his mouth flapped oddly and he stumbled clankingly up the ramp.
    His thoughts flowed and boiled in his head, the words rolled and burned in the air.
    Then he got into the Wonderbird, and they heard the sound of sounds on sounds, and the skin fastened tight to the rest of the skin.
    They watched as the flickering colors dimmed, and the beating noises burst from the back of the Wonderbird. They let the primary lids slide over their eyes as the fire ripped from the Wonderbird. And then they watched terrified as it swept into the air, and left.
    It blossomed and flickered and ticked and colored its way back over the Great Mountain, up toward the swirlers, and out of sight.
    Skilton watched it with mixed feelings.
    It was going, and with it was going the entire core of his beliefs. His religion, his thoughts, his very being had been sundered by the dusk’s happenings.
    The Lams were not gods. They had not come again to do the Performances. They would not play The Palace again.
    This was the end.
    He kept the thoughts below scanning-level, so the tribe might not know what he thought. He felt their unease, and they waited for his explanation. How could he tell them the truth; that there was no Performance, and that all the years of waiting for the Time of the Prophecy were in vain. How could he tell them he had been deceived? How? How?
    He began to summon the thoughts from their lower-level home, when he stopped, and forced them back down, keeping the surface of his mind clear and untroubled.
    He saw the square thing on the silver-sanded plain, fallen where the man-thing had let it fall; fallen where the she had thrown it. Perhaps in that square thing there might be a clue to help him. A sign, a symbol, an omen to reinstate his belief in the Lams once more.
    Skilton? The thoughts swam toward him from the awed tribe.
    Skilton, tell us, oh worthy and far-seeing emcee, what does all this mean? Was this the Performance?
    He could only answer: Come.
    And they followed him…
    Followed him off the moss-ground, away from the Great Mountain, onto the silver-sanded plain, and toward the square thing. There they stopped and looked and thought.
    After a great long while, they asked Skilton, and he told them, and they knew it was true, for they could see the square thing.
    After a great while, they knew.
    There was another thing. This was not the end. There would be a new beginning.
    A new way of life…a new era.
    When they got back to the borne of their births, they would discard the old Tophatt rituals, and the Jomillrjowks, and the new life would flower for them—and this time there would be no doubting, for they had all seen the Wonderbird.
    Skilton lowered his massive head and clamped the square thing in his toothless mouth. He trotted back toward the foothills and the Great Mountain.
    The younglings followed quickly, and the tribe followed them, and there were no laggards, for they were all trying to reason out the meaning of the squiggles on the new Truth.
    The squiggles that declared the new religion. The squiggles that said:
    The Complete Works of the
    Marquis de Sade
    ILLUSTRATED
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