Episode 29, Homage to Luxenben

33.  PARTING COMPANY

 

Once I was aware of Project Seedfaith’s mission, I realized my journal might contribute to it by revealing an impression of Luxenben from a visitor’s viewpoint.  Obviously it could not substitute for the authoritative Red Book but, I felt, it could supplement that document in two, hopefully useful, ways.

When the Red Book was written, many of the societal constructs that now adorn the planet were but a gleam in the Founder’s eye.  By providing my first-hand impression of at least of few of these, I could give readers at least a glimpse of their fully developed state.

I hoped my journal would also offer a more casual, fresh, accessible approach to this planet’s cultural heritage.  It would, of course, have to masquerade as a fictional account—the merest hint of its origin on another planet would doom Seedfaith from the start—nevertheless, fiction or no, it could lend support to Seedfaith’s cause by theorizing how Cartism might lead to a utopian society on Earth.

In effect, my decision to utilize my journal in this manner amounted to a second judicial sentence similar in hardship to the first and distinguished from it only because it was self-imposed and no literal house arrest was involved.

As the reader may recall, I made my first entries at the very beginning of my space adventure and, in fits and starts, continued them ever since purely for my own personal satisfaction.  Some entries contained merely a day-to-day record of my activities whereas others dealt with Luxenben’s way of doing things, with which I was forever enthralled.  Needless to add, I had made no attempt to organize these random observations so, when I began to picture them in the hands of an Earthling reader, I realized a great deal of work would be required to put them into some semblance of order.  Between the revision and Pilkinson’s insistence on my spending much time in Product Development, I was hard put to get things done in the two months that remained before takeoff.

I wanted my revision to set forth Luxenben’s virtues in plain, straightforward, black and white terms.  But each sweet leaf torn off of Luxenben’s cultural artichoke revealed one even more tender beneath it that also had to be taken up.  In other words, exposing the full extent of this planet’s greatness was a virtually impossible task.  I would have to be satisfied with mashing ad hoc bits of Luxenbenalia between the covers of my notebook as best I could and let it go at that.

My difficulty with the personal items in my journal was just the opposite—that is to say, how to edit out as many as possible without altogether destroying the sense of narrative that I hoped would make the work more palatable to the average reader.  In this endeavor, too, I was less successful than I had hoped.  Time was at a premium and more extraneous material was left intact than I originally intended.

I heard nothing from Neuman during this period.  He was, I assumed, understandably preoccupied with important matters of his own.  I was, however, able to keep up with the boy’s affairs indirectly from Samuels’ occasional visits and learned thereby that things were going well for my young friend and his family.  As for himself, Samuels declared that he was getting along famously; burdened by neither responsibilities nor personal problems, the durable rabbi was the free spirit of our Earthling troika.  Every passing day brought with it, he said, fresh discovery of Luxenben’s worth along with poignant reminders that each encounter with such and such an individual, place, or situation might well be his last.  So heightened was his awareness of these impressions that he had begun keeping a list of “last times” so that he might have something to remind him of these wonderfully pleasant days after they had slipped irretrievably away.  It was amazing, he confided, how much keener one’s senses were and how much sharper one’s recollections, when time was running out.  His situation, he commented drily, had all the advantages of dying without its nasty after­effects.

“You hope none of its aftereffects,” I warned him.  “Going to Earth and dying aren’t necessarily unrelated.”

“I know, I know.  You told me a million times already.”

“Nothing says you have to go,” I said, reverting to my accustomed nagging.  “Last times don’t have to be ‘last times.’  One person could go to Earth and manage.  Who says it has to be two?  Metzingham would send twenty people if he could afford to.  It’s not his funeral.”

“How many times do I have to tell you?  Earth needs me.  Luxenben doesn’t.”

“How do you know?  If you’d stay here, I’m sure you’d find something useful to do.”

“Like what, for example?”

“Like opening a good Jewish delicatessen.  You know as well as I do they need one.  How many times have you ordered a corned beef sandwich and found it lathered in mayonnaise?”

Samuels laughed.  “That’ll be someone else’s worry.  For me, I’ll find all the delicatessens I need on Earth, thank you.”

“If you like ‘hot’ pastrami on cesium bagel.”

“Look, Duvidul, enough’s enough.  It’s going to be two, not because Metzingham says so, but because I say so.  It’s been decided.”  The good rabbi patted his stomach proudly.  “Don’t forget.  Sancho Panza here.”

 

Three weeks before Seedfaith’s launch I decided that the bulk of my handwritten journal was in good enough shape to send over to Research for computer entry with a note that I was purposely withholding its final chapter because I wished to document as many last minute happenings as possible before laying down my pen.  I promised to bring over the last pages in time for them to complete their transcription, print the books in-house, and ship them off to the Space Center for loading onto the spaceship.

Had I given the matter a moment’s thought, I would have taken precautions to ensure that copies of my journal would not be pilfered while it was being transcribed, but the possibility never crossed my mind.  It should have.  I knew that Research employed a number of Semi volunteers in its facilities and there was no reason for its publications department to be an exception.  What actually happened was that a looseleaf copy was lifted by an inquisitive, light-fingered clerk, handed over to a confederate with access to the document center, and the copies that ensued therewith circulated freely among the zoo’s occupants.  The consequences were not long in coming.

Matty, the dear old bird, apparently could not be the bearer of bad news without doing something to soften the blow.  “What in the world were you thinking of?” she asked as she set down the chocolate cake she had brought.  “Sitting high and mighty at your writing table looking down on the rest of us.  Scribbling down your snide little private jokes at our expense.”

“Come on, Matty. You know me better than that.  I didn’t mean to snipe at anyone.”

“No?  Well that’s the way it comes through.  Everybody’s mad at you,” Matty scolded.  “Just now Fitzroy stopped me in the hall.  Wanted to make sure I told you to take a hard look in the mirror yourself.  When it comes to ugly, he said, a big glob of white flesh with four wriggling limbs sticking out was about the grossest conglomeration of living cells he could imagine.”

“And I take it that’s the way the others feel too?” I asked.

“The more polite faction, anyway.  Poor Milford seemed more hurt than angry.  Hard to tell though; you know how he keeps everything inside.”

“Anything I can do to make amends?”

“Not that I know of other than staying out of sight for a while.  They’re talking about commissioning a real journalist to keep up with what’s going on in the compound.  They say your stuff is pure fiction.”

“Well, that’s consistent with the way it’s going to be positioned on Earth.”

“I’m not saying they’re right or wrong.  I’m just telling you the way it is.  The hanging types are especially up in arms which, in their case, is pretty bad ‘cause they’re mostly arms anyway.  One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t go under one of their trees for a while if I were you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised.

Despite the fact she found a number of references to herself “overdrawn,” and a few she considered downright insulting, Matty had reconciled herself to my portrait of her.  She could understand, she said, the natural tendency of authors to overemphasize the exotic.  When I reached for my pen to autograph her copy of my work, she quickly substituted one of her own pens filled with waterproof ink.  She might carry the book in her billfold from time to time and didn’t want to end up with a black tongue.  Then book in beak, she gave me a solid, matronly peck on the cheek before she hurried off to another of her chores.

Shortly thereafter Eddie dropped by to let me know his own reaction to my journal.  As the reader probably would have guessed, he was a good deal less understanding.  “Why make such a big deal out of my eating habits?  And it gets kinda old being called a ‘little beast’ every other page.  You make me sound like some kind of freak.  Anything’s okay so long as it moves the merchandise, is that it?” he accused.

“But you are always eating,” I said.

“And Fitzroy defecates every other step; I didn’t see that anywhere.  And how about old One Hole farting every time he opens his mouth?”  Eddie argued slamming his copy of the offending book against a table leg.  “We all have our differences.  Why in the hell lean on mine?”

I tried to reassure him that the reader would surely be left with impression that his wit was every bit as sharp as his bite but, only half-convinced, Eddie complained he hadn’t seen that in black and white anywhere.  However, when I promised him to include that particular phrase in my final pages, he was mollified somewhat and went so far as to thank me for formally acknow­ledging his help in cracking the Neuman case.  Whether he was upset over my mention of his cannibalism, he never said.  In any case, he left in reason­ably good spirits with my book (he too had wanted an auto­graph, for all that) in one hand, and, in the other, half of the chocolate cake Matilda had given me.  The L.B. stuffed his cavernous mouth with huge chunks of cake as he trundled off, leaving a deposit of crumbs so thick that, with one pass of a roller, the path could have been paved chocolate for the first fifty yards.

 

With the launch only ten days off, a ceremonial dinner was held at the Explorers’ Club—a rustic looking building in an out-of-the-way corner of Ventureland.  After the event, most of the guests dispersed, having been well fortified with food, drink, and speechmaking.  A number of the attendees, however, were reluctant to see the evening come to an end and, after acquiring a brandy at the still-open bar, retired to an antechamber adjoining the dining hall.  Matty suggested we join them.   The animosity toward me, she said reassuringly, had largely dissipated and, in any case, was no longer overt.  With Neuman and Samuels adding their insistence, I too sauntered across the hall, glass in hand.

The far end of the long, narrow anteroom was furnished with a number of high-backed wing chairs grouped around a large masonry fireplace and, although I could see only their backs, it was clear that they were all occupied.  Out of the pleasant babble of voices emanating from the area, I could discern those of Pilkinson and Mulhouse—staying on, no doubt, to demonstrate their fraternity with the Semi community upon whose cooperation they still depended for the success of their project.  Matty was there and so was Eddie—identification in their case based upon my spotting, respectively, a protruding beak highlighted by the fire and a rounded rump of fur bulging beyond a floor cushion on the hearth.  The little beast was curled up fast asleep, engaged, I had no doubt, in the Herculean task of digesting the repast at which, he proudly confessed to me after, he had outdone himself as befitted the occasion.

I found a place on the floor and, once my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, discovered Fitzroy and Milford serving as footstools for our two Luxan hosts.  Sensing that I was taken aback by what appeared to be their shameless servility, they assured me that there was nothing quite so comfortable as the glow of the fire on one’s front and the gentle, warm pressure of a pair of stocking feet on one’s back.

After a while, conversation died down and we contented ourselves with watching the open fire with its succession of dancing sparks that seemed hardly to touch upon their stage of logs.  Above their merry performance rose a dentilled brick proscenium and, extending in front of it, two massive andirons provided brass runways for occasional sparks to parade in front of their audience.  Backstage, glazed firebrick scenery (with cubist overtones) created something of a surrealist setting, while underneath an iron grate hinted at an orchestra pit below.

Although I could have remained in a trancelike, brandy-assisted state indefinitely, the same could not be said of Neuman.  The same sparks from the fire dance that had lulled me half to sleep served, in his case, to touch off a charge of explosive energy.

“What kind of Hasidim are these?” he yelled at Samuels.  “On your feet, chaverim!”

Astonishingly, the boy was obeyed and before you knew it, the chairs were pushed aside and, on the open stone floor, a circle of dancers formed with each of their arms extended over their neighbors’ shoulder if one was available or, if not, whatever protrusion could be gotten ahold of.

“You get into the circle too,” Neuman demanded of me.

“No, thank you.  I’ll watch; you dance!”

“Come on, Duvidul, it won’t hurt you to join the human race,” Samuels enjoined.

“It’s too late.  I already resigned.”

“So that means you can’t dance?” demanded the rabbi grabbing my arm.  “Have a little fun for once in your life.”

“I’m not a fun-loving guy.”

“Ach!  I would never have known.  How did you keep it a secret for so long?” asked Neuman.

“But you can still be something besides a kvetsh,” Samuels added helpfully.

“My sciatica,” I complained.

“Fuck your sciatica,” growled Neuman as he grabbed my other arm and together with Samuels pulled me into the circle.

Neuman and Samuels then joined voices in what may not have been musically the best horeh ever sung, but surely one of its more outlandish interpretations.  Contributing, if that is the word, to the cacophonic reverberations throughout that narrow, hard-surfaced room, came the heavy shuffling of feet and grating of claw, the staccato beat of hand-clapping intermixed with even noisier head clonking and, rising above the bedlam, the raucous chorus of mixed (the adjective was never more applicable) voices.  If the quality of the group’s imitation of Neuman’s Hebrew phrasing left it barely intel­ligible, it nevertheless managed to convey a sense of its Middle-Eastern origin thanks, in part, to Matty’s rapid mastery (and then deliberate overuse) of the Hebrew “ch” sound—her long throat being ideally suited to the syllable which emerged from her beak with enough strength to rattle dishes.  Eddie, by contrast, finding that sound impossible, concentrated on unexpectedly loud elaborations of the Arabic cracked ‘tarkib’ notes which he ground together in never-before-heard wails that would have given Allah, himself, a headache.  The rest of us, falling somewhere between these extremes, provided enough fullness to bridge between them and deliver what seemed, at least at the time, to be an acceptable accompaniment to Eddie’s thumping on that pair of multi-talented erstwhile footstools-turned-bongo-drums.  I say ‘talented’ for they proved wonderfully adaptable to rapid adjustments in timbre by turbulent inhaling or exhaling in keeping with the demands of the music.

In one of his sweeps around the room, Neuman raised his arm and flicked off the light switch leaving the darkened chamber lit only by the flames.  Now the firelight theater encompassed the entire room and one more corps of dancers took the stage.  Impatient with our ponderous, two-dimensional revolutions, the impresario of the fireplace sent shadows skittering across walls and ceiling in wild, three-dimensional gyrations fit for a demonic bacchanalia.  This intoxicating swirl of sound and shadow somehow persuaded my curmudgeonly back to relax, and I was able to move about the floor with what I judged to be consummate grace.

Matty, apparently, thought otherwise.  “Step lightly,” she croaked good-naturedly.

“Easy for you to say,” I replied, puffing along drunkenly, unperturbed by her admonition.  Nothing, I decided, was going to stop me from surrendering to the moment.  From somewhere came a remembrance of steps once mastered and songs once sung.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Neuman silhouetted before the flames and I recalled the last time I had seen him dancing by a fire.  That incident was followed by an event of life-altering proportions.  An ominous sense of déjà vu crossed my mind but it was swept aside in the pyramiding din.

 

At the dinner I had learned that, subject to the mission’s success (in their terms, of course) the company was planning to open a display devoted to the Seedfaith Project in the Spacesonian, and it occurred to me that my original handwritten journal might fittingly be included in the exhibit.  Therefore once Research has no further use for my manuscript and returns it to me, I plan to give it to Pilkinson, who can then decide whether or not my contribution to the project merits this modest recognition. Naturally I would be gratified if they agreed, but I am under no illusions. The company will do whatever it damn pleases as it always has.

And that really is all I have to say, or, at least have time to say.  I realize this is a rather abrupt end to my work, but, abrupt or not, I have very little choice in the matter.  Research has already complained both about the length of my manuscript and the delay in getting these last pages over to them.

  Hopefully the reader has no complaints of his own to add to those from Research.  Surely he would not want me to do more than give an honest account of the interwoven paths that his fellow human beings have taken on this planet.   Idle speculation as to future events in the lives of Neuman, the rabbi, or myself, for that matter, would be meaningless.  My guesses would be no better than the reader’s.  Besides, in the scheme of things, our stories are of minor importance.  As I have said all along, the primary purpose of my work was to give the reader an acquaintance with Luxan ideology and this I have done to the best of my ability.  If the impression I have conveyed is in any respect lacking, the fault lies in my poor powers of reportage and not in any failing of the utopian Planet/State of Luxenben.

 

EPILOGUE

by Phillip Mulhouse, Product Development

 

Were a reader to rely exclusively on Stelzer’s work, he would have every reason to conclude that Research was prepared to stake the success of the Seedfaith Project entirely upon the performance of Mr. Neuman—an inexperienced young man who evidenced signs of instability from his first days on Luxenben and who confirmed our fears by succumbing to a mental breakdown midway through his training period.

Rest assured, we were not that heedless.  From the very start, Captain Mueller was fully aware of Mr. Neuman’s limitations when he approved the man’s application for employment.  At the time they were not a major concern because Mueller also planned to bring on board a seasoned business executive by the name of Hedgewick whose skills would buttress Neuman’s weaknesses.  Whereas neither man satisfied our criteria individually, it was believed that, as a team, they would do well enough—Neuman’s hopefully infectious religious fervor balanced by Hedgewick’s mature judgment and organizing skills.

As it turned out, Hedgewick missed his pickup altogether thanks to a traffic tie-up on one of Earth’s abominable highways.  This led to his place being usurped in comic opera fashion by one David Stelzer, a totally unknown person, masquerading as Hedgewick.  Thus it seemed for a time that we were put in a position of being entirely reliant upon the unpredictable Mr. Neuman.  Needless to add, this was such an unsatisfactory situation, on so important a project, that we dared not overlook it.

So it was that very early on in our planning for the Seedfaith Project, we took a hard look at Mr. Stelzer as a possible participant in the project.  Then when Mr. Neuman suffered his nervous breakdown, his companion was thrust front and center in our planning; Neuman was simply too fragile a personality for us to depend upon.  Obviously our erstwhile stowaway possessed neither Neuman’s religious zeal nor his youth, but we discovered that he could at least speak coherently and write intelligibly—skills that his younger colleague had thus far not seen fit to acquire.  Stelzer’s excellent marks in orientation gave us further confidence in his innate ability.  Moreover the man had been a responsible member of society on Earth and presumably once relocated back there would execute our policies in a business-like fashion.  In short, whereas Mr. Stelzer did not come close to fitting our predetermined conception of a perfect missionary, he became our preferred candidate for heading the company’s mission to Planet Earth.

This contemplated switch of horses midstream, as it were, was beset with difficulties.  To begin with, our laws prohibit the forcible repatriation of Semis back to their native habitat.  Even were it legal to do so, a reluctant, half-hearted missionary would, for the purposes of our experiment, be worse than none at all.  In short, we could not simply draft Stelzer into the project; he had to be induced to volunteer.

Thereafter, Project Seedfaith proceeded on a two-track basis.  Since Stelzer’s eventual participation could not be assumed, in house we would officially continue to promote Neuman as our missionary-to-be and, as best we were able, prepare him for his presumed duties ahead.  At the same time we would surreptitiously pursue Stelzer’s training and recruitment.  I stress the word “surreptitiously” for we deemed it essential that neither company employees nor Stelzer himself have any notion of our intentions.  In the first instance, suspicion that Neuman was being understudied would have immediately called the entire Seedfaith operation into question, devastated Neuman’s morale, and sabotaged his training regimen.  Just as critically, Stelzer had to be kept in the dark lest he feel coerced into an undertaking contrary to his wishes.

Training Mr. Stelzer for the job turned out to be the least of our problems.  At first we utilized Ms. Matilda to guide Mr. Stelzer down constructive avenues.  But once he had observed for himself how well our system worked, Mr. Stelzer, simply out of intellectual curiosity, took it upon himself to become familiar with the practical aspects of our system.  What he lacked was a good understanding of its theoretical underpinnings and this we addressed by suggesting to the Enforcement Agency that Mr. Stelzer’s sentence serve a dual purpose—that is to say, he be required to translate the Red Book into a form accessible to the average Semi reader.  SVI has no apologies to make in this regard.  After all, the undertaking was legitimate in its own right; Earth notwithstanding, we actually did need a monophonic version of the Red Book right here in Semiland.  Thus, with a little help from his friends, as it were, the man’s education in the workings of our society became as well rounded as we could hope.

(As a footnote to these events, I might add that in recognition of her good offices, Ms. Matilda has been promoted to Semiland’s official social directress.)

Leading Stelzer to the water trough was one thing; getting him to drink from it was another.  Time and time again Stelzer let it be known that, having stumbled upon a rational society, he had no intention of letting it slip from his grasp.  He genuinely loved our planet and had every intention of making it his permanent home.  The question then became how were we to induce him to voluntarily leave a situation that was entirely to his liking.

Normally one would expect that Stelzer’s personal ties with loved ones back home would overcome such considerations, however strongly felt, but I gathered that his family life on Earth was not a particularly happy one and he felt no strong compulsion to renew it.  More generally, I was given to understand that the man was chronically prone to some sort of vague impatience that di­rected itself, sooner or later, against both himself and most everyone with whom he asso­ci­ated—a disabil­ity that left him, he once admitted to Mulhouse, too in­dif­ferent to make friends and too de­moralized to make ene­mies.  His personal and financial troubles on Earth may have contributed to his ennui, but I suspect that he would have ar­rived here a pretty cold fish from whatever circumstances and from whichever corner of the uni­verse he had been flung.

Against Stelzer’s reluctance to leave Luxenben, there were, fortunately for us, factors acting in the opposite direction.  One chink in Stelzer’s emotional armor was his genuine fondness for Neuman, whom he regarded, it seems, as an adopted son.  These feelings may well have been complicated when Neuman fell in love with one of our Luxan girls and she returned his affections.  We in Research were fairly certain that when Stelzer learned of our plans for Neuman, he could not fail to contrast the boy’s perilous dispatch to Earth with his potential here for a long and happy marriage.  And, indeed, Stelzer’s strenuous objection to our plans confirmed our assumption that he was badly shaken by his fears for Neuman’s safety.

Moreover, we could be confident that we had an ally whose strong, hectoring voice would join forces with Stelzer’s conscience.  After the Seedfaith Project was made public, Rabbi Samuels was free to admonish Stelzer to do his duty and we had no doubt he would vigorously do so out of his own affection for Neuman.

There was yet another dimension to Stelzer’s decision-making that was in our favor.  This related to a personal matter that I am not at liberty to disclose and mention only in passing to demonstrate that our judgment in this matter was not as far off the mark as might first appear to those detractors who had not our knowledge of the overall situation.

Matters hung in abeyance for weeks on end without our knowing whether Stelzer would volunteer or not, and I confess that we in Research spent any number of anxious days while waiting for the countervailing influences to play out in Stelzer’s mind.  In some ways time was on our side, but in others it was not.  We noted with some dismay that, with each passing day, the man seemed to grow more and more comfortable with his situation here and, we feared,  less and less inclined to leave.  More ominously, we learned that Stelzer had made inquiries regarding his teaching assignment next term.

 

On “L-minus-one,”—that is to say, the day before the launch—Dr. Metzingham graciously commandeered the company’s business jet to fly our friends to the Space Center as a token of our appreciation for their contribution to the project.  Unaccountably, Stelzer preferred to make his own travel arrangements so only Samuels, Neuman, Rosanne, their newborn infant, and me took advantage of his courtesy.  As a further demonstration of his sulkiness, Stelzer, I understand, refused to dine with the group at the base hotel and instead relied on room service for his meals.  And rather than taking the chauffeured car Metz had arranged to drive them to the launchpad, he took the van provided for the work crew.  Obviously, the man wanted as little contact with his fellow humans as possible as the countdown of hours bore relentlessly towards the climactic liftoff.

 

I must remark on a satisfying sidelight here.  The driver of the work crew van happened to be none other than our old friend, Conrad.  It seems that after analyzing the election returns, the Religious Synod concluded that although Surge’s strong arm tactics may have gained them votes in the short run, it had cost them adherents in the long run particularly among the younger set whom they aspired to quite as much as had Hampton.  As a result, Surge was disbanded and Conrad handed his discharge notice.  I’ve heard that he smiles less these days.

 

When the car arrived, I was already at the launch site mingling with the ship’s complement of officers and a number of invited guests.  Just as I had strolled over to greet Samuels and the Neumans, I heard a scattering of applause accompanied by a succession of hands pointing skyward.  Looking up in the indicated direction, I had no trouble identifying the source of this attention.  There, clearly visible against the white clouds, was Ms. Matilda bravely battling forward despite the encumbrance of strong headwinds and a trailing banner large enough for its “Bon Voyage” message to be read from the ground.  We waved to the dear old bird who subtly dipped her left wing to signal that she had noticed our salutations.  After painfully pulling forward another hundred yards or so, she executed a wide turn around the tower and, with evident relief, repeated her flyby downwind.

Slapping Neuman and the rabbi on the back, I congratulated them on the occasion, demanding to know how many other launches they knew of that had been afforded equal celebrity.

A groyser yiches, Samuels agreed.

(The rabbi’s comment confirmed my suspicion that, despite his recent attempts at speech therapy, he was unconsciously lapsing more and more into his native Yiddish the closer launch time approached.  As further evidence of Samuels’ backtracking, I had learned a few days before that he was taking back to Earth Neuman’s stash of stolen Judaic literature.  When I took this last chance to question the rabbi about the books, Samuels’ curt reply was that ‘they belonged there.’  That had to settle the matter, for by now we had reached the ship and were immediately swept into, and separated by, the ongoing convivialities.)

Keeping an eye on Stelzer, I noticed that a photographer, in order to set up a group picture, had insistently pulled him over to the elevator cage where Neuman and Rosanne were talking to Captain Mueller.  Mueller, who was normally publicity shy, not only submitted to the shoot, but then uncharacteristically took the photographer in tow for another photo session elsewhere.  I suspected he was trying to afford a few minutes privacy for the threesome and, had I been as gentlemanly, I too should have moved away.  I must admit, however, that curiosity led me to remain close enough to catch most of their conversation.

Rosanne held up the baby for Stelzer’s inspection, rattling off the several qualities with which it was uniquely endowed.  Perhaps suspecting that Stelzer remained insufficiently impressed, she forced the child into his arms for closer inspection—a burden that he passed on to the father as soon as he could do so without seeming too unappreciative.  Undaunted by his reserve, Rosanne assured him that, had there been such a title as “godfather” on Luxenben, he would definitely have been nominated and that, in any case, the babies were both given the middle-name, “David” after him.  Stelzer allowed that having gone to so much trouble breaking the name in, he was pleased to see good use made of it by so promising-looking youngsters.

Rosanne smiled—rather self-consciously, I thought—and then fell uncharacteristically quiet, forcing her, one supposes, to fill the gap in their conversation with her embrace of Stelzer.  There was, I observed, no question as to its heartfelt warmth.   Anne then slipped a locket from around her neck, opened it for his inspection of its miniature pictures—presumably of her and her sister—and then hung the locket about his neck.   Another kiss on the cheeks and they fell back.

Rosanne’s retreat left Stelzer and Neuman standing face to face.  Concentrating on the boy for the first time in some weeks, I was shocked to see how fatherhood had altered him.  The hair beneath his yarmulke was short, his earlocks gone, his face clean shaven, and his demeanor uncharacteristically sedate.  Even his posture, I noticed, had succumbed to the vigors of marriage—his characteristic slouch replaced by, one might say, (I smiled to myself) the athletic stance of an astronaut.  His first act was to return the baby to its mother and then wrap his arms around his friend.

To make conversation, I suppose, Stelzer mentioned that, as painful as it must have been for her, Matilda actually vouchsafed a smile on her flyby, to which Neuman replied that it was his impression she was merely “sucking wind.”  Then suddenly fearful that their last exchange would be remembered as having been disputa­tious, they immediately concurred that, smile or no, hers had been a noble effort and, on the strength of that agreement, rushed their good-byes lest some new awkwardness arise.

The two men were then left with only a scattering of stepping-stone words on which to effectuate their separation.

“Well, take care of yourself,” Stelzer mumbled.

“Yeah, you too.  Stay out of trouble, will ya?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“See ya,” Neuman concluded improbably before taking a step back and putting his arm over his wife’s shoulder.

As the rising elevator took Stelzer and Samuels to the tower’s platform, I noticed that Rosanne kept one head bowed but allowed the other, dry eyed, to follow their ascent—her hair lovely in the late morning sun.  Neuman seemed to be staring straight ahead at, I guessed, nothing in particular.  (Matty, who was still in the air at the time, later told me that, viewed from above, the head that she had once described as a wild “negative eclipse,” now, more fittingly, struck her as a neatly framed white badge of courage.)

Given the two Semis later difficulties, it is not surprising that accusations have arisen from a few chronically disgruntled ex-Surges of manipulation on our part.  Of course it is regrettable that they are no longer with us on Luxenben, but the plain fact is that the men acted on their own free will throughout this episode, and we withheld no information from them that was not vitally important to the company’s commercial interest.  They knew the rules going in and, I must say, it is to their credit that they never complained about them regardless of the consequences.  One has to keep things in balance.  Riding on our decisions was, on the one hand, the fate of two middle-aged Semis, the remainder of whose lives could never have been completely content in any case, and, on the other hand, the financial security of thousands of loyal SVI employees.  Neither I nor my colleagues in Research have any apologies to make in this regard.

Now to respond to the more serious charge—inspired, we have come to learn, by one of our envious competitors—that had Stelzer and Samuels been more strongly supported, they could have succeeded in converting large groups, entire cities, even countries to the faith.  All that was needed, according to these Monday-morning quarterbacks, were but a few sparks from Luxenben’s enlightenment to crank Earthlings’ mentality into working order.  The fact is that for Earth to have had even a chance for that level of recovery any number of factors would have had to come to a favorable and nearly simultaneous alignment—a virtually impossible set of circumstances.  In any case, Seedfaith’s barebones budget allocated for its first phase left no room for an escalation of its original guidelines.  These well-thought out economies left ample funding for Seedfaith’s second phase in which scores of trained Earthlings will descend upon the planet, anchor themselves to the hospitable sites our two pioneers prepared, and then fan out across their assigned territories to achieve a significant penetration of Earth’s religious environment.  And, if this is as successful as we hope, subsequent progress will bring the entire planet to its senses and our previous decisions amply justified.

If one has any doubts as to the validity of our approach, he need only look to the government’s own disinterested analysis.  Not only has it given its approval of the Seedfaith project every step of the way, it has backed its moral support with a multi-million advance of its Saved Planet Award and promised a second tranche of the same amount upon the successful execution of its second phase.  As a result, the company’s future looks brighter than ever.  Of that there can be no question.

 

METZINGHAM’S RESPONSE

 

SPACE VENTURES, INC.

Research Park

Capital City, Planet/State Of Luxenben

 

Date: 21 March, 20xx

 

To: Norbert Pilkinson, Operations Manager, Project Seedfaith

From: Alfred Metzingham, Vice President, Research

Subject: Addendum to the Stelzer Papers

 

Dear Nor,

Thank you for sending me Stelzer’s manuscript along with your cordial cover letter.  In that you were so intimately involved in the first faltering steps of the overall Seedfaith Project, I can well understand the mixed feelings with which it has left you.  I’m confident, though, that the future of the project will give you good reason to replace any lingering doubts with Seedfaith’s ongoing successes as they unfold.  Take pride in having spearheaded the campaign, my friends.  You well deserve it.

With respect to Stelzer’s manuscript, I quite agree with your recommendation that it be included in the exhibit along with, I might add, other related mementos that speak to the Semi’s participation.  In addition we will amplify the text display in accordance with your thoughtful suggestions.

The reason for my delay in getting back to you is that, for the past three weeks, the team devoted to solving the mystery of David’s and Eli’s disappearance seemed to be making some sort of fitful, if inconclusive, progress.  I thought it best, therefore, to hold off answering you as long as a resolution of the matter seemed near at hand.  Just how near at hand it was, I did not learn until yesterday when our investigation was brought to an abrupt halt.  Let me explain.

About a month ago, our office gave the two Semis official notice of the termination of their duties on Earth.  Nominally, their tour of duty was for two years but there were several contingencies involved that gave us the option of extending their tour should they fail to meet certain goals.  And, in fact, we discovered at the end of the two-year period a number of loose ends that needed fixing and asked David and Eli to tend to them.  To their credit, they tackled these remaining issues in yeoman-like fashion.  This enabled us, upon a later review, to send a congratulatory message advising them they had only to give us a couple of week’s notice as to when and where they wished to be picked up and we would confirm the final arrangements.  Without going into details, we hinted at just how rewarding their welcome would be on their return.

Naturally we expected to hear from them immediately but we did not.  One day, two days, a full week of nothing but stony silence.  Then one of our technicians reminded us that, some time before, David and Eli had concocted an ambitious—not to say, rash—plan to carry their message deep into an area openly hostile to Cartism.  Mind you, just as Stelzer predicted, there was never a time in their over-two-year tour that was unaccompanied by threats of one kind or another, but this proposed venture clearly presented uncustomary risk so we refused to authorize it.  Nevertheless, the technician surmised that once we released them from our authority, David and Eli rashly took it upon themselves to cap their exploits with this last dramatic flourish.   Whereas at first this seemed highly speculative, as the days wore on without any word from our friends, we had no alternative but to give it credence.  It grew increasingly likely that our friends had been victims of some sort of disaster.

It was tragic however one looked at it.  There was the irony of their having survived so many misadventures when exposed to danger only to succumb when presumably freed from it.   Then there was the poignancy of their having fallen just as they were within a hairbreadth of reaching the safety of Luxenben’s shores.  And, of course, there was simply the profound grief of having lost two courageous Semis who took it on themselves to pave the way for Cartism in an unappreciative world.

Given this background I need not tell you our emotional reaction upon receiving the final communication from David that I have attached below.

 

My very best regards,

Al Metzingham

 

*    *    *

 

Dear Dr. Metzingham,

Let me first apologize for the time taken to get this communication into your hands.  But, as will be explained, I had no choice other than to divert the message through several circuitous channels each of which I realized would be time consuming.

We greatly appreciate your notification of our release and offer of transportation back to Luxenben.  Circumstances, however, prevent us from taking advantage of the it.   Your letter forced Eli and me to arrive at a decision on a matter we had been debating for some time: should we return to your wonderful planet or stay rooted on our sadly defective homeland.

The choice would have been the obvious one had it been entirely up to us;  however, our tender companions would not hear of it and their entreaties could not denied.  Our decision was, I might add, made all the easier by your generous salaries and bonuses that allowed us to save enough for a comfortable retirement.  Thus we now enjoy entirely adequate living accommodations on a tranquil, wooded site with a fine view of the ocean.  And there are other amenities as well.  Our attractive, stimulating companions love good food as much as we and take pains to provide it.  In addition they never fail to keep our modest wine cabinet well stocked.  In short, our existence here promises to be as propitious as two middle-aged gentlemen have any reason to hope.

It goes without saying that we could not live peaceably for a minute under our known identities.  We have, therefore, taken every possible precaution in keeping our aliases secret and this, of course, necessitated breaking off all communication with all our former associates.  At the same time, we could not leave you without some notion of our fate and hence  the delivery of this letter that started with a backdoor entry into a somewhat unsavory government and continued through an equally unorthodox network of agents.

Allow me to add a few personal notes.  Please convey our congratulations to Neuman on his recent administrative appointment in the Seedfaith Project.  I’m sure his lovely wife is proud of him.  And say farewell from Eli and me to all our friends in Ventureland.  And be sure to tell Matilda and Eddie I will never forget them.

Yes, good doctor.  Even at this distance I can easily picture your shaking your wise heads in disbelief at our foolhardiness.  What idiots would pitch their tents on the rim of Earth’s seething  dichotomaniac volcano?  Idiots, indeed.  We’d be the last ones to argue with you.  No one knows better than Eli and me that this place can blow to kingdom come any minute taking us and the rest of humanity with it.  But in the two years we have spent fighting the tide, we have caught glimpses of new memes sprouting here and there—proof that, as the company demonstrated in Ventureland, Semis can be taught embrace Cartism.  Whether there are enough of these frail shoots to support Seedfaith Two’s next campaign and deflect Earth’s present course is anybody’s guess, but we’ve decided to bank on it.

No matter what, it is gratifying to know that somewhere in this galaxy of ours there exists a place where civilization resides harmoniously with nature in peace and security.  Indeed, not a day in our lives passes without our paying homage in our hearts to your most felicitous planet.

Respectfully yours, David Stelzer

 

THE END

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Dan Hurwitz
18208 Preston Road, Suite D-9
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