Glor stared morosely into the embers of the dying fire, watching their twinkle slowly dim to the gray of ash. For the tenth time, she shifted position on the old chair and grumbled to herself,
“It’s not fair! It’s just not fair. The Nobles sit around all stinking day doing nothing but gab, gab, gab, and they
get to go to the Frolic. We work ourselves half-to-death feeding those twarkling parasites, and get nothing but a backache and an empty purse. It’s just not fair.”
Her thoughts had been going around the circular path of that particular grump for several hours. Actually, it was boredom, and the frustration of an active mind with little to occupy it, that kept her complaining. Had she more money or was she better looking, marriage and children might have filled her days, and loving, her nights. That joy, though, was not in her foreseeable future, and was the real problem that kept her in an eternally foul mood.
Her little outburst brought her thoughts back to Pa, stretched out on the bedding shelf in the only other room the little hovel boasted, snoring since dark. He’d tried to explain the way of things, parroting the justifications he had been given.
“Let me see if I have it straight,” she said, in response. “The nobles are necessary, because they protect us against those who would come here and take over, right?”
“Right!” Her father beamed, probably happy that she finally seemed to understand.
“And what would these other nobles do when they took over that’s any different from the band of parasites we have now?”
Her father scratched his head at that and his smile faded. His satisfaction, as usual, was short lived. “Well—” he began, but she would have none of that.
“The answer to that is: nothing, Pa. Not one single damn thing. We would simply have a new tax collector taking most of what we manage to raise. As far as I’m concerned, what we have is bunches of bullies, fighting it out among themselves to see who gets to take our crops and money. Right?” She punched his arm, saying, “You know I’m right. Admit it!”
Her father scowled, probably wishing his wife had not been killed by a runaway load beast when Glor was just a tot. He’d done his best to raise her properly, she gave him that, but the work was endless and hard, and left little time for him to take the place of her mother. In truth, she was probably more intelligent than he, because he hadn’t been able to win one of their arguments several years. Though in fairness, that might just be that she was more stubborn than he.
But he was going on, obviously, trying to project strength and assurance.
“No, Glor, not right,” he said, firmly. “What about the soldiers who protect us from robbers and highwaymen? Without their protection, there would be no law, and no one to keep anyone from coming in here at night to slit our throats and take over our land.”
She sneered, and her voice dripped sarcasm, as she said, “Soldiers protect us? Like the soldier who raped Zema last Threeday? Or the one who was annoyed that he might have to walk around a cart, and stampeded the load beast that killed poor Mum?” She leaned forward to poke him in the chest with a finger, mocking him with, “Maybe you’re talking about the soldiers who suck up our food; the ones who sit around doing nothing but waiting the chance to fight against a bunch just like them, who want to take their place as takers.” She sat up and pounded on the table, winding herself up to do battle. “Maybe, just maybe, you might have a point…if they did a little protecting!”
Pa chewed on his lip, wishing, she was certain, that he hadn’t been suckered into this argument by the mistake of a chance remark. Still, there was little else to do when the only light was the dying glow of the cooking fire but sleep or talk.
“How about study?” he asked, mildly. The Nobles can read and write—at least some of them. How about that?”
Glor thought on that as she returned to work, oiling some harness straps. Neither she nor her father ever sat idle as long as they were awake. There was too much that needed doing, and too little time to do it. She started to speak, then thought better of it and lapsed into silence for a time, to her father’s obvious pleasure. Finally, she sighed, blowing out her breath through puffed cheeks.
“I don’t know about that, Pa. I’d like to be able to read, and see for myself what good reading can do. I’ve heard there are books that tell you the best way to do things. It might be nice to see if there’s one that tells about a better way to grow skallo, or how to figure when it’s going to rain.” But thinking about that possibility, brought frustration.
“Zalt’s sake, Pa, why do we even talk about it? What good do books and study do for us? Do those fluff-heads read us anything useful from a book? No! Those who can read just sit around in their book-rooms all day reading. They never use what they learn, they just…read! Big help that is!” Frustration was in full cry, as she dropped the harness into her lap and pounded both hands on the table, endangering their only work space. “Do we get to learn how to read for ourselves? Do we get to use
the books? No again!” It was impossible to suppress the tone of mockery from her voice as she said, “ ‘Too hard for commoners to learn,’ they say. Load beast droppings, I say.”
Bringing herself back to the present, Glor stood and stretched, then moved to the uncovered doorway of the hut. There she stopped, looking up into the blaze of stars, unimpressed with the beauty she found there. She spread her arms in an impassioned plea.
“Why do you permit this to happen?” she demanded. “Can’t I have a break even once?” It was the same cry she had uttered each night since the announcement of the frolic.
In answer to her plea there was silence from the skies, broken only by the thrumming of a mating kluire pair. Behind her, however, in the center of the room, the air began to shimmer.
She became aware that something was amiss when a soft but growing glow began to cast her shadow on the path in front of the hut. She whirled in time to see a circle of light solidify nearly a foot from the floor. Hard light it was, and bright; difficult to look at with her night adjusted eyes; a fuzzy opening into somewhere else. She squatted, trying to make some sense out of the faint shadows that showed there.
As the transport circle matched indices with her local continuum, the image seen through the circle abruptly snapped into focus, bringing her upright, half-turned and poised for flight. It was a strange sight indeed, but before she could even begin to understand it, a figure appeared, blocking most of the light.
The circle of the gateway was too small and too low to the ground for that being to step through directly, and too high to crawl through. After a few seconds of indecision, he—because it appeared to be a male—finally thrust his head through the opening and began an inspection of the deeply shadowed hut. Unfortunately, his own body blocked most of the light, and his eyes were so blinded by the brightness of his own origin that his eyes swept over her without pause. Finally, giving up the attempt, he braced his hands on the ground in front of her and began to clamber his way into her home.
Too stunned to feel fear, she stood just outside the doorway of the hut, allowing the option of fleeing, if necessary. Still, there was Pa to think of. Edging a bit to one side, she reached out for the splitting ax. This was probably not the best time for a show of bravery, but leaving the creature alone with an unsuspecting Pa wasn’t an option. Calling out a warning might make sense, but there was something about the stranger that made him seem less than threatening, in spite of his impossible form of arrival. Magic was involved, obviously, but the kind, bad or good, wasn’t obvious, though the clumsy way it had come through the opening argued in favor of waiting before making any decisions. A sensible creature would have thrust one leg through the opening, and then squat-walked its way through. Still, it would pay to be wary, so she retained a firm grip on the handle of the ax.
The creature stood, peering into the dark and brushing the dirt from its hands. In the glaring light streaming from the transport circle he appeared to be a strangely dressed and rather runty little man. He gave a surprised jerk when he recognized her particular pool of shadow as being a person, then controlled himself and nodded a hello, rather than attacking. That was reassuring.
Before she could do more than note that his bodily proportions appeared to be a bit wrong, he spoke, his accent strange, his voice a bit on the pompous side, as he said, “Greetings, good woman. Your wish was heard by the great powers of the universe, and, because you are a deserving person, they have ordered me here to help you.”
He squared his shoulders and indicated himself with a wave of his hand, adding, “I am your Fairy Godfather, and I have been sent to grant your wish.” With that, he bent his body forward at the waist for a moment, in a gesture she had never seen before.
She stood just outside the doorway, studying him, unmoving, until he began to fidget. “I said—”
“I heard what you said. Who the hell are you?” She pointed at the transport locus. “And what is that…that…thing?
The man looked uncomfortable. “I’m your, uhh, Fairy Godfather?”
That rated only a snort of disgust.
“Look, you are Glor, aren’t you?”
In the unknowing bliss of sleep, her father snored on, uncaring, while she tried unsuccessfully to make sense of what was happening. She continued to stare at the man, thinking.
Finally, in a totally exasperated voice, he said, “Look, Lady, don’t you believe in Fairy Godfathers?”
She leaned to one side and placed the ax against the building, then moved into the doorway, to lean a shoulder against the frame, crossing her arms.
“Listen, whoever you are; I believe… At least I used to. It’s just that there seem to be a few things wrong with both you and your story.” She looked him up and down, frowning. “First of all,” she said, thoughtfully, “I think it’s supposed to be a Fairy Godmother, not a Fairy Godfather. I—”
The man bristled, placing angry hands on his hips in exasperation, cutting her off. “Give me a break,” he said, before snorting in disgust. “Not you, too. Listen, damn it, I’ll have you know there are laws against sexual discrimination.” She seemed to have struck on a sensitive subject.
He went on, rather testily. “I got this job on my merits, and I work hard at it, too. I’d just like to see somebody object to that…okay?” He humphed for emphasis, then continued, calming a trifle. “Okay… So, what else is wrong with me?”
His words were clear, but their meaning eluded her. She frowned, eyes drawn to the harshly lit view through the locus of the transporter for a moment. Unable to make any more sense out of that than his words, she forced her attention back to the visitor.
“Well, for a second thing, your accent is damn strange.” She sniffed, pointedly, adding, “You also smell funny, and your nose looks like it’s about to fall off.”
The man put a hand to his nose and pushed it against his face. Unfortunately, when he released it again, it began to separate from his skin with a tiny tearing sound.
With a muttered exclamation, he ripped the offending object from his face and threw it to the ground, grinding it into the dirt of the floor with his heel. He regained control of his temper, and sighing, began to strip away his eyebrows, followed by his mane of shaggy hair. He mumbled unintelligible curses under his breath as he threw them through the opening he had entered through.
When he was finished, he was as strange a being as could be imagined. His face was a bland, flat thing, with only a small bump where a normal being might have the overhanging snout her people used for keeping rain out of the breathing apparatus. His eyebrows, too, were skimpy, appeared to be fixed in place, and would be of little use in a dust storm. She snorted, while the little creature conveyed the impression of a petulant unhappiness.
Apparently remembering where he was, and what he was in the process of doing, that being suddenly straightened and returned his attention to her. He was obviously trying to look menacing, though, without too much success.
“In truth, woman, I am Donald, demon assistant to the High Overlord of the Underworlds—a death demon, sent here to negotiate a contract for your soul.”
She leaned forward, interested. This was turning out to be fun.
“Come on, who are you really?” she asked with a smile. “A demon would be a hell of a lot more dangerous looking than you are.” She gestured her lack of belief in his direction.
In response, he threw back his shoulders and inflated his chest for what he probably hoped would be an impressive roar, but stopped in response to her grin.
He deflated. “You win. My name really is Donald, and I’m from an organization that travels around the universes doing good works.” He shrugged deprecatingly. “At least we hope to. You and your people are the first.”
“Good works? What do you mean, good works?” For the present, she pushed aside the problem of where he came from, and how he managed to arrive at her hut.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Good works. Just what I said. We…that is my employers, recently managed to co-sponsor a bill through the major houses, authorizing…” He halted, then corrected his statement to, “No, not authorizing, mandating
that no less than one percent of the general budget be earmarked for projects of social benefit to other peoples.” He gestured at her. “That’s you.”
He was very sincere, but he also made very little sense, so she requested clarification.
“You, Glor,” he explained. “Your people. Your world.” He spread his arms. “All of it.” Once again he made that bent waist gesture, before saying, “We’re starting with you.”
She repeated her request for enlightenment. “Huh?”
In response, he took her arm and led her to the fireplace, then guided her to a seat on the old roof beam she used as a rest when cooking, frowning as he noted the noises drifting in from the other side of the partition.
“Who?” he asked, casting worried looks in the direction of the noise.
“It’s only Pa,” she replied, reassuring him with, “He’d sleep through an ass-ripper of a storm without budging none, would that one.”
She cocked her head to one side.
“Talk to me little man. Tell me what you mean.” With a start, she realized that strange as he might be, she thought of him as just that: a man. It was as startling, in its own way, as the fact of his even being there.
He winced, then nodded. “Okay, Glor, let me see if I can simplify it a bit for you.
“The people I work for have managed to get a law passed that forces our…umm…nobles to spend part of the taxes they collect on projects that help people who deserve and need to be helped.” He leaned forward. “I’ve been studying your people for some time, and living here on your world is a pretty grim business. Things are pretty bad now, and not likely to get any better until some things are changed.” He reached out a hand to touch her arm. “You need help, Glor, and so do your people.”
What he said made no sense, and she told him so, with, “Nobles give up gold? Are they crazy?”
He shook his head. “Don’t try to understand it. We have a different system from yours, and it works for us. For now, can you just accept that? We really would like to help.”
She leaned back, crossing her arms. Suspicion, mixed with sarcasm, was strong in her voice, deliberately, as she said, “You help just…just to help? And you think I’ll believe that?” She took a breath and leaned close him, displaying her fangs, threateningly, as she added, “Now, without the crap, what do you get out of it and what do you want from me?” She snorted, hard. Obviously, he thought her a fool.
He drew back, then straightened and stuck out his chin, ignoring her anger, in a display of courage she would not have credited him with, as he said, “We don’t want anything, Glor. We help because it’s the right thing to do…that’s all.”
“Crazy people then,” she muttered. “Nobody does such a thing without a reason.”
“Maybe crazy, Glor, but still, we do want to help. That’s why I’m here; we’re going to start with you.”
“With… You’re going to start with me? How?” There was still heavy doubt in her voice, but interest that she was unable to suppress, too.
He smiled. “By granting your wish. By sending you to the Frolic to meet and marry the prince.”
“What?” She nearly fell from the beam, and the snoring stopped for a moment, nearly waking the unwakable Pa, so great had been her shock. Her voice was a hissing whisper as she said, “Marry the prince? Are you crazy?” She then answered her own question, musing, “Of course, crazy. We already know that.” Staring at Donald for a long moment without understanding, she shook her head, then asked, “But why would I want to marry the prince? And more to the point, why would he want to marry a nobody like me?” She indicated her form with a disgusted wave of the hand.
The little man nodded, and muttered a comment that sounded like: “Liposuction,” before taking a deep breath and continuing, in a tone of forced heartiness.
“Now, Glor, don’t sell yourself short. True, you’re not a beauty, but a lot of that is probably because its so hard to see you through the layers of dirt on your skin and hair. Clean, you’d be almost…well…passable.”
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, in response to her glare.
She turned away as he continued, contrite.
“Please let me finish. It’s not my plan to simply dress you up and send you to the Frolic. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
She allowed the hard line of her back to relax a bit. She was not nearly as insulted as she led him to believe, given that she had no illusions as to her beauty. Though she was a bit miffed that he had not at least given her, attractive. Passable was so…so nothing. Better to be thought of as ugly than passable.
It occurred that she was arguing, not with a neighbor or a passing traveler, but with a being from some other world, so she swung back to face him.
“Okay, Donald What-Ever, talk. Flatter me some more.”
He grunted. “I deserved that, I suppose. I’m sorry if it…” He made a shrug of the hands, then repeated, “Sorry.”
She waved him to go on. No matter his appearance, he was, obviously, a wizard of significant power, something to keep in mind. The light radiating from his magic circle, brightening the room almost to daylight levels, demonstrated that. And given that he might have both the magic and the inclination to use it on her behalf, taking offence because he thought her unattractive would be stupid—especially given that he was right. He was, after all, offering to send her to the frolic.
Leaning back, with his hands interlaced over his knee, he continued.
“Okay, let me see if I can make it simple.” He looked at nothing for a few seconds, then said, “Before you can charm a prince, Glor, you have to know how to act like a princess. You not only have to look the part, but have to act it too. That’s part of what we intend to do for you.”
She shook her head, rejecting his words. “In the three days remaining before the Frolic? You are crazy if you think you could make a princess out of me in that time.”
He smiled at that and held up a hand to forestall her comment that she already knew about his madness. “Maybe I am,” he said, “but let me show you something that might help to convince you. Lean forward, if you will, and bend your head down a bit.”
Puzzled, she complied. He motioned her to bend further and reached a hand up to touch her hair, as though smoothing it. Too late, she noticed that he had taken something from his pocket; something flat that gleamed in his hand. Her world went suddenly dark, and with a sigh, she crumpled onto his lap.
The fuzzer bird that lived in the roof thatch was sounding off when Glor finally woke, nearly fifteen minutes after the true dawn. She rolled out of the bedding, to stand and stretch, scratching at an insect bite. Yawning, and tossing kindling onto the fire bed to heat and dry out, she went out into the chill of the morning, for water to place over the fire to heat, before beginning any of the morning chores.
Tiredly, she began to haul the water bucket’s rope over the pulley, rope coiling by her ankles as the bucket slowly rose. The thought occurred that if she were to tie the spare bucket to the other end of the rope, she could have an empty bucket going down to the water as the full one came up. That would save a fair amount of both time and work.
That thought set her to wondering how difficult it would be to rig a pump, or better yet, a windmill to handle the task. It would be nice to have water without effort.
It was with a warm creative feeling that she began to contemplate the changes she would be making to improve the place; like better waterproofing the roof, and—
The rope slid through her nerveless fingers, the pulley screeching its complaint till the bucket splashed noisily into the water. Only the stopper knot tied at the end of the rope prevented it from following the bucket into the water. Stiffly, she moved to look into the well, searching for her image, and fearful of what she would see.
It had not been a dream! Frozen, her mind racing in circles, she stared down at her broken reflection in the water below.
With the final clearing of the water she was reassured. It was Glor who stood there, not the stranger she was afraid she might find. Only Glor; dumpy, dirty Glor.
With a sudden frown, she began to haul on the bucket rope once more. Dumpy she was stuck with, dirty was another story. That she could do something about. For the first time in her life, she found the idea of being dirty repulsive.
Without soap there wasn’t too much she could do, other than removing the superficial dirt. But it was a start. Soap would have to wait till she accumulated some animal fat. There would be a great deal of changes before then, though. A great deal.
“You’re wet, Glor. It’s not raining, so why come you’re wet?” Pa gave her a puzzled look as he shoveled the gruel past his facial hair.
She tried to act casual, not an easy thing to do this morning. “Just sluicing off some of the worst of the dirt, Pa.”
He shook his head, not looking up as he continued with his steady feeding, talking around the gruel. “Waste of time, girl, you’ll be all shit again by night.”
He happened to be right. That fact had never troubled her before, and she began wondering if perhaps the knowledge she had been magically given would be more of a curse than a blessing. This day, she was glad to see her pa leave for the fields, so she could be alone with her thoughts as she worked.
That night, when the locus formed, she was ready. The instant it stabilized she was diving through the opening. She hit the hard tile floor in a roll, smoothly coming to her feet, to confront Donald and one other person, their mouths open in shock.
“I thought I might visit you this time,” she said, casually, and a bit smugly.
“But…I… You can’t possibly…uhh…” He sputtered that way until she stopped him.
“I can, and I did, and I want to use your bathroom.” She crossed her arms, daring him to even try to send her back.
He began to slump in defeat, then stiffened, eyes wide. “How do you know about a bathroom?”
She shook her head, saying, “I don’t know. That’s one of the first questions I want answered.”
He thought that over for a time, then silently pointed to a door at one end of the room. Apparently, he’d decided to use the time she spent in the bathroom to pull himself together.
The facilities available in the little room were astounding. She flushed the toilet several times, laughing as the water swirled its way out of the bowl, only to be replaced with more. The sink, with its bar of soap, was another wonder to be enthusiastically sampled, while the mirror gave her a first-ever clear look at herself. That was a mixed blessing.
She emerged from the bathroom, toweling her hair.
I’m afraid I made a bit of a mess in there. I’m clean, now, and I wiped off the sink, but…” She shrugged. “You’re out of paper towels, and the bathroom’s in need of a mopping…sorry.”
“It’s okay, Glor. They’ll clean it in the morning.”
Apparently, he had recovered his composure. He indicated his companion, trying to act as though things were once again under his control.
“Glor, I want you to meet Amy. She’s agreed to help me with this part of the project.”
The person in question was a tiny creature, only half her own height. Delicate in facial feature, and slim of body, her small but definite breasts proclaimed her female. Although she had nothing to judge their people’s standard of beauty, the female was pleasing, in the way an animal is attractive: for smooth flow of line, and for grace of movement.
Glor touched her forehead in greeting. “My pleasure, Lady,” she said, formally. She had no real idea of the proper form of address, but when in doubt, treating the stranger as a noble was a safe course of action. Amy smiled timidly in return, but said nothing.
She turned to Donald, remembering the reason, other than a chance to explore and use the facilities available, for which she’d dived into the locus. Advancing on him menacingly, she growled, “Now, tell me what you did to me last night, how you did it, and, more importantly, why.” She finished her speech standing only inches from him, overpowering him with her bulk.
“Now, Glor,” he said, defensively, “there’s no reason for you to be angry.” He backed away and gestured to a table in one corner of the room, saying, “Come, sit here, and I’ll explain.” He hurriedly scuttled to the table, pulling out a chair for her, while Amy watched, looking from one to the other, alternating concern with mild amusement.
She motioned Amy to precede her to the table, to better know where everyone was, and prevent a repeat performance of what had been done the night before. As the woman walked to the table she appeared almost to flow, rather than simply walk. Every movement she made pleased the eye, making her acutely aware that next to that woman, her own movements were akin to the bumbling gait of a drunken Stult.
As she walked the few feet to the chair that Donald was smilingly urging her toward, she studied the room and its furnishings. Although she had never been there before, she had the uncanny feeling that she knew the function of each of the devices arrayed there, even to knowing many of the names and operating procedures. It was a strange feeling.
Then, they were seated, and it was that awkward time in a conversation when everyone was waiting for someone else to speak. Donald gave in and spoke first, his words proving true to his nature, much to her disgust.
“So, Glor, how was your day?”
In response she pointed a finger at him, poking him lightly on the nose to be sure of getting his attention.
“Listen, you, I want to know what you did to me while I was asleep, and why I know so much about this place.” Had he placed some sort of mind-worm in her head—a thing that now gave her knowledge and assistance, but which would eventually take over both her mind and body, as in the horror tale of the Two Brothers? For them, forbidden knowledge had proved a double edged sword, claiming both their bodies and their souls in the end. No one did anything for nothing, so the question that needed answering was if the price for what had been given would be too high to pay.
Donald looked at her speculatively for a time, chewing on his lip. Finally, he ventured, “Tell me, Glor, what’s a quark?” He waited, studying her, his expression carefully neutral.
“A quark?” She shook her head. “I’m not sure. It’s some sort of sub-atomic particle, I think. I—” Her mouth snapped shut with an audible clack of her teeth, then dropped open again, as both her response, and the vista of new knowledge that the question had invoked made itself apparent. Apparently, she knew an enormous amount now that she had not known when she woke on the morning before she met Donald. How much she knew might take years to learn, as the knowledge was only there when she thought about a particular item or problem. Much of the data she now possessed she would never have the chance to use, or even know she knew, as the triggering stimulus that would cause her to think about the subject would never come.
Donald reacted to the expression of shock on her face. He bit his lip, and his eyes narrowed, as he asked, “And my mother’s name?”
“Susan.” She was unable to keep her eyes from opening wide.
Donald grunted, throwing up his arms, only to return them to the table with a thud. “So much for that theory,” he said sounding disgusted. “You were only supposed to get certain information, and even that, only with great effort. It looks like you got nearly everything, though, including my entire life.” He blew out his breath in a long sigh. “Congratulations, Glor. You now seem to have the education I spent eight difficult years in college to get, all in one single night.” He stared at her for a moment, nodding slowly. “In fact, you probably know almost everything I do.”
She nodded agreement. It was true. And that meant she was the best-educated resident of her planet, for all the good it did her. She motioned for him to go on.
With an obvious effort, he brought himself back to the subject at hand. “It’s something really new, this transfer stuff. The idea was that certain knowledge could be transferred from one brain to another by overlapping the minds. I don’t understand how it works, it’s not my field of study, but the idea is that an electronic analog of my mind can be superimposed on yours. It was hoped that most of everything I thought while that condition was maintained would be retained in your mind. That’s the way it operated with the development units. I don’t know why, but it seems to have transferred data to you with a vengeance.” He frowned. “It never worked that way between two humans, so I would guess there must be differences between our two species that we didn’t anticipate.”
She had to agree. “And what had you planned for tonight?” she asked. “More of the same?”
He shook his head, raising a hand to indicate Amy, who had been silent all through the previous exchange. Apparently, she couldn’t speak Glor’s language. In fact, reaching into his memories, she was sure of it.
He continued. “Not more knowledge, Glor, more skills. Amy is a professional dancer, and a good friend. She agreed to try an experiment in transferring her skills. With a little luck, she’ll teach you how to move more gracefully.”
Move more gracefully? An interesting thought. She swiveled to study the woman more closely. The knowledge that she might get a great deal more than some trivial lessons in how to walk gracefully was a powerful inducement to attempt the experiment. There were things about Amy that she wanted very much to know, such as how she did such interesting things with her hair.
Without taking her eyes from the woman, who was starting to redden under her steady gaze, she asked: “Will it hurt?”
At the edge of her vision Donald was fidgeting in his seat.
“No…but…ahh…well there is something you may not like.”
She turned to face him. “And?”
He bit his lip, then forced himself to sit up straighter. “Well, the idea is that she’ll move your body around the room, as she would, normally, and thus show you how to be more graceful. The trick is that you have to surrender control.”
“What? You want me to let her take over both my mind and body, and make me like a…” She searched for the term. “…a zombie? You have to be kidding!” In spite of her revulsion at the idea, though, she added: “Does it work?”
He looked down at the hatlike device that had been lying on the table when she arrived. “Not reliably so far, but this is the latest unit, and they assure me that the bugs are all worked out.”
“So it could kill me, or turn my mind to jelly,” she said, flatly. She turned to face Amy once more, asking, “What about her. Could it harm her too?”
He hesitated before answering. “They tell me no, but they also told me I would have to work hard at putting even a small amount of knowledge into your head.” He spread his hands. “It appears to be safe. After all, it’s basically the same unit I used last night. It worked then.” He shrugged, adding, “But who can know for sure?”
“Basically the same.” she said with a snort. Still, she was curious, and was forced to add, “How does she feel about the danger?” She indicated Amy with a jerk of her head, and saw by the look on Donald’s face that he had neglected to explain the possibility of a hazard for her. That brought a flush of anger, and she took his upper arm in a tight grip, pulling his face close to hers.
“Tell her, you little twerp” she snarled, “before I rip your arm off. I’m willing to try it, because I have a great deal to gain, but you tell her about the risks or I won’t do it.”
Bowing to her superior logic, Donald reluctantly nodded in agreement. At first, she was worried that he might simply discuss the weather, and report that they had discussed the dangers fully. She needn’t have worried, as she could now understand his language quite well. She might be clumsy in speaking it, but understanding was a much simpler matter. One swift kick to Donald’s leg, when he attempted to minimize the possibility of danger, served to inform him of her new ability, and keep him mostly honest.
Glor lay on a couch, the little transfer device cap carefully arranged on her head. On a matching couch, Amy lay, pale and fearful, with her eyes tightly closed; chewing on her lip, a transfer unit gleaming among her curls. She had to admire the woman. Amy was frightened, but insisted on going through with the experiment. She claimed it was because she had given her word, and because she truly wanted to help Glor. That was the same concept Donald advanced the previous night—helping others without thought of gain. Apparently, his people actually thought that way. She would have to think about that.
But now wasn’t the time. Donald was sitting at the operator’s console, studying the readouts, fiddling endlessly with the controls, and she wished he would hurry. Waiting made her want to rip the damn cap from her head. Finally, though, he was satisfied.
“Okay, ladies,” he said, with false heartiness in his voice. “I’ve got everything tracking properly now, I think. I’m going to switch to automatic and activate the program.” There was a quiet click as he fingered the enter key, initiating the command sequence that turned control of the operation over to the transfer unit itself. She held her breath and concentrated, but felt nothing. Deliberately, then, she relaxed and closed her eyes, as she as been told to do, but still, nothing happened.
An endless time later she felt a thought that was not her own—a questioning feeling, different in some unexplainable way from her own thoughts. It strengthened, and the words of another’s thoughts began to combine with her own. Tentatively, she gave a mental “hello,” to her visitor, only to frighten her off. Amy was a timid thing, Glor learned. Unsure of relationships, and the social graces, badly hurt at a young age, she spent her life immersed in her art. It was her way to both hide from the world, and at the same time gain its approval.
For nearly an hour they lay there, each on her own couch, both in one mind. Slowly, they were getting to know each other, almost becoming one person; a being with multiple views and life experiences. In the end, surprisingly, she liked Amy very much. For all of her alien viewpoints, she was honest, loyal, and had a strength that Glor could not match. She had recovered from a tragedy that would probably have destroyed Glor, had she been the one to have had to face it. In many ways, Amy had lived a much more difficult life than she. For them both, it was a learning experience.
Finally: (Are you ready Glor?)
[As ready as I ever will be, Sister Mine.]
There followed a period of true magic. At first, there was only a random twitching of her extremities, as Amy attempted to learn how to operate Glor’s muscles. That proved ineffective, as she would have had to learn to move the way a baby does; by endless trial and error, and would have taken nearly as long as a newborn simply to learn to turn over. After a short time of fruitless experimentation, however, Amy found the trick of using what has been called muscle-memory; the reflex actions, trained into Glor’s mind and body by twenty years of simply living; the same reflexes Glor herself used as she went about her daily tasks. After that it went quickly.
Her body began twisting into a series of strange positions, bringing confusion, until she realized the Amy was stretching her muscles, limbering up, and finding the limits of what she had to work with. The vastly different way the woman was using her body was fascinating. When Glor wanted to take something from the table she reached out for it with her hand, a thing she had always thought made sense. When Amy did the same thing, though, she often reached out first with her arm, then her forearm, and finally her hand, a flowing movement that give the impression that the arm was nearly boneless. Each movement of Amy’s (and now Glor’s) body was a part of an endless, ongoing dance, the result of many years of a conscious effort on her part to be graceful.
Finished with the warming up, Amy astonished her by doing things with her body that she would have thought flatly impossible. She informed Glor that she was pleased, finding in her someone in very good condition, and far more limber and agile than Amy had anticipated. She had none of the dancer’s hard won flexibility, though, so a split was out of the question (though Amy came close enough to draw a surprised gasp from Glor). Instead she had strength and fine motor control which Amy now used in ways truly amazing. What Amy had first taken for fat was a layer of solid muscle, a result of years of hard physical labor.
“Music,” her voice said, doing Amy’s bidding. Donald complied, activating a music cube that had been readied, in the event the experiment was successful.
In the end, two hours later, it was a nearly exhausted but gloriously happy Glor who was dancing, while Amy observed with approval.
It was nearly dawn when Glor, tired but happy, crawled back through the locus and into her bedding. Before she left the lab, with only a few words, she paid Amy back for the skills she had been taught this night.
Donald had been reaching for the cut off switch that would restore Amy to her own body when Glor decided to tell her privately what she had already decided to tell her before leaving for home.
[Before I leave, Sister, I have to tell you that you and Donald are two of the most foolish people I have ever met.]
(Foolish? Us? But why?)
She mentally stamped a foot. [Because, you idiot, you love him, but you say and do nothing about it, because you’re so damned sure he could never care for someone as plain and uneducated as you.]
Amy gave the impression of a frown. (Are you telling me that…that he cares for me as more than just as a friend?) There was dawning wonder in her words.
[Of course he does. How could you not see? Even if I hadn’t shared his memories, I could see it in the way he looks at you. Anyone but you could. He adores you, but like you, he stupidly says and does nothing, because he thinks someone as wonderful and talented as you could never care for someone so prosaic and dull. Are all of your people too foolish to speak out when they care for someone? I don’t understand how your race survives.]
Her question went unanswered. Amy was too busy glowing with happiness to pay any attention, and the mental cut-off was made before she could turn her attention back to their conversation. Amy said nothing about what had passed between them to either her orDonald, but later, when she looked back at the lab through the locus, the way Amy was studying Donald said that his bachelor days were numbered. Glor envied her happiness.
On her return home she bore two things in addition to the soap pilfered from his bathroom. The first was a tiny ear-piece music player that had an alarm clock function, a thing she would need this morning if she hoped to be up and functioning on time. The second was a pre-cooked breakfast of fowl egg and meat, one that heated itself when the lid was removed. She sampled one before the transfer back home and the exotic textures and flavors were amazing. Transferred to one of their own plates, her father unhappily ate it, with the complaint that it wasn’t a proper breakfast without tul’st gruel.
If he had known that she fell back into bed when he left for the fields, he would have been even more upset.
To Glor’s disappointment, Amy was not in the room when she emerged the next night. She had hoped to learn what had gone on between the two of them after she left for home the night before. Instead, there was an entire committee waiting to greet her. Some of those gathered there were viewing her through small boxy devices she recognized as cameras. Most stared with unconcealed interest, some few with hostility; none with friendship in their eyes.
A florid face man turned to Donald when she emerged, asking, “Does she understand anything we say?”
“She speaks English quite well,” was Donald’s only comment. He seemed more subdued than usual, and acted as though the man was nobility, come to inspect the land. The word “politician,” came unbidden into her head.
The man nodded in response to Donald’s remark.
“A commendable job on your part, teaching her so quickly.” The fact that she had learned the language in less than two days seemed not to have impressed him at all.
He turned to face her, his voice hearty, but as sincere as that of the tax man welcoming you to his office.
“Well, well, you must be the one they call Glor.” She repressed the snort of disgust that wanted to come. But before she could respond, the man, oozing practiced charm, continued, with, “I want to tell you how very pleased we are to be able to extend the hand of friendship and assistance to the less fortunate worlds, like your own.”
He stepped forward and extended his own hand to her, waiting, she realized for a handshake; a custom not in existence on her own world.
She took the proffered hand, noting with disgust that all trace of the callus of honest work was absent. She also noted that he smelled of flowers and leaned away from her as he took her hand, as though she herself smelled less then sweet—though in fairness, she probably did. She noticed too that he surreptitiously wiped his hand on the leg of his pants when he stepped away from her. He might be from another world, but his type was all too common on her own, usually trying to sell her something.
Also, true to type, he wasn’t finished talking. In fact, he blathered on for nearly five minutes, saying little that couldn’t be condensed down to: “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.”
In the end, satisfied that he had discharged his obligation and milked the situation for all it was worth, he gathered up the majority of the people in the room and headed toward the exit, saying “Well I’m sure you all have lots of work to do, so we won’t stand in your way.”
That was the most interesting thing he had said since she’d arrived.
Donald shrugged. “That was the director. He—”
Glor cut him off. She had no desire to learn more about the man, and even less to learn about Earth’s current politics. “Forget him, what about me?” she demanded. “The Frolic starts late tomorrow afternoon.” She had a better idea now, of how to act, but appearance was her major concern, and what she would be wearing another area of worry. The only clothing of quality she owned was Ma’s wedding dress, and that was many sizes too small.
“Don’t worry, Glor. That’s what we have scheduled for tonight.” He pointed at the table, not bothering to introduce the two men who had remained in the room. “I want you to look at some pictures.”
Puzzled, she walked to the table, finding it littered with hundreds of photos of the women of her planet.
“What’s this?” She gestured at the photographs, whose purpose was unknown. “I don’t understand.”
He joined her at the table, saying, “I want you to pick out the pictures of women the men of your world would find desirable.” He held his hands, palm up. “We can’t really judge what your standards of beauty are, you see. Our opinions are colored by our own ideas and customs.”
That made sense, so she nodded approval and turned to the table, taking a seat and beginning to sort the attractive women into one small pile, while discarding the rest. Behind her she heard one of the men comment, “Exactly what I picked. Didn’t I tell you?”
She finished, and turned in her seat to face the men. “Now what?”
“Now, Dr. Simpson and Dr. Critten do their work, and make you beautiful,” he said, by way of introduction. He was speaking English for the benefit of the others.
“Dr. Simpson?” she said, eyebrows rising. “What kind of a doctor?” She was afraid she knew.
Dr. Simpson smoothly joined the conversation. He had obviously had long practice in reassuring nervous patients. “A doctor of beauty, madam. I take people who, through no fault of their own, are less than perfect, and make a few tiny changes here and there to bring them to the perfection they deserve.” He bowed slightly.
“You’re going to cut my face, right?” Her voice was flat, and her tone was meant to tell him, “Don’t try to bullshit me.”
The doctor smiled in return and changed the subject. “Let’s forget the how for now. Instead, let’s look at the results.”
He led her to a chair, set in one corner of the room. There was little doubt to its purpose, but to her surprise, he didn’t ask her to sit in it. Instead, he swiveled a suspended screen to face her and stepped to a keyboard, located on a nearby table. A moment more, and he had a color likeness of her face staring at them from the screen.
With a pointing device of some kind in his hand, he stepped to the monitor, and proceeded to redesign her face.
“We might begin with a narrowing of the bridge of the…umm…nose here.” The picture changed. “Perhaps a sculpting of the chin, here.” There were more changes. “And I favor a bit of added cheek lift, here.”
He turned to her, saying, “Those are just the rough details of what we plan, but what do you think?”
She was rooted in place. It was her looking out from the screen, but it also wasn’t her. It was the Glor who might have been, had her genetic heritage been only a trifle different.
The doctor had little trouble leading her to a seat in the chair. She hardly noticed when he touched her with the medical stunner.
When she woke, her face hurt nearly everywhere. She was still in the chair, adjusted back now to form the most comfortable bed she had ever lain in. The two doctors were gone, but Donald was sitting nearby, waiting and reading a magazine.
She rested for a moment, nearly afraid to move, afraid of what she would find when she looked in the mirror. Something had been done. That was made obvious by pain that caused her to blow out her breath in reaction. But that was bearable. What, and how much had been done was another story, one of far more importance.
Hesitantly, she touched her face. Her skin was numb and tingly where she touched it, but it felt the same as it always did, except for a soft slickness that she assumed was the result of a protective lotion. One of the problems with her rapid education was that it was spotty. She could know no more about what had been done to her than Donald and Amy knew before the memory transfer. Less, if the fact that the information transfer wasn’t total was taken into account.
Donald had apparently seen her movement out of the corner of his eye, and he now lay the magazine aside.
“Finally with us again, I see.”
She thought she could detect an un-Donald-like heartiness in his voice. It was, she feared, the forced enthusiasm of the hospital visitor who wishes to avoid giving the patient bad news.
Frowning, she struggled to a sitting position, then stood, still a bit unsteady. “Stifle it, Donald. I have to use the bathroom.”
She actually did have to use that facility, but they both knew the real reason she was in such a hurry was to look in the mirror.
She stood for a long time, both hands on the sink, face inches from the glass. Each time she started to move away, her gaze was drawn back to the mirror, where a familiar stranger looked back to her. It was the woman on the monitor and more. The hook in her nose was gone, as were the puffy bags under her eyes. They had lightly touched her everywhere, and yet, at the same time, try as she might, she could find no trace of a scar or telltale line to indicate that surgery had taken place. Only the deep ache of her abused tissue, complaining about what had been done, proved that she had not always looked as she did now. Even that was fading and would soon be only a memory.
She walked from that bathroom a different person than she had been when she entered. Even her walk was changed—deliberately. Her carriage and movements now reflected more of Amy than Glor, with even the set of her head projecting femininity and assurance. Later perhaps, she would revert to Glor, but for now, it was Princess Glor.
Donald gave her an amused smile, as he said, “Well, Your Majesty, are you ready for the royal dressmaker to enter and minister your needs?”
“What?” He had shocked her out of her happy trance. “What time is it? Better yet, what day is it?” She felt well rested, so she had been unconscious for some time. Given the state of her healing it might have been several days.
He went to the cupboard. “Bacon and eggs okay?” He could have suggested serving a slice of her own leg and she would have nodded an okay, at that point, so lost in wonder was she.
At her nod, he began to prepare breakfast, reassuring her with, “Relax, Glor, it’s only a little past dawn at your home. There are ways of doing that,” He gestured at her face, “… without opening you up with a knife. He bustled about, heating two breakfasts and setting the little table. Once again, she found, she had the necessary knowledge in her mind, but had not thought about it until his words triggered the memory.
She put that aside with a shake of her head.
“What did you mean by your comment about the dressmaker?” she asked, distractedly, admiring her reflection on the glass surface of the monitor, smoothing her hair into something more appropriate to her face.
He placed the dishes on the table, interrupting her.
“Eat, Glor,” he suggested, “before it gets cold. There’s a lot to do before the Frolic.” She sat at the table and looked up at him questioningly, waiting for the answer to her question.
“Well,” he began, as he took a seat himself, “… there’s your dress to fit, makeup and hairdresser appointments… It’s quite a lineup.” He motioned at the fork, lying untouched in front of her. “Get started, so we can get it all finished in time.”
She picked up the fork, then stopped. “Wait. What happens when my Pa wakes up and finds me missing?”
Donald smiled around his eggs. “He doesn’t. We went in last night and stunned him. He’ll sleep like a baby until tomorrow morning. By then, you’ll be back.” His lips thinned with distaste. “I took care of the livestock too.”
She sat back in her chair and thought it over, smiling at his discomfort. This promised to be an interesting day.
It’s beautiful, Donald, but how can I wear a shoe made of glass? The first time I take a step, the thing will break.”
The morning had indeed been interesting, as she enjoyed the exotic pampering and primping usually reserved for the female inhabitants of a high-tech society. She had her hair cut and styled, her nails buffed and polished until they gleamed like fine jewels, and best of all, a make-up artist did magic things to further enhance her new face. There was even an early visit by a dentist, to whiten and clean her teeth. That worthy frowned at the condition of her mouth, and had insisted on repairing two of her teeth and capping a third. He topped it off with a stern lecture on oral hygiene, and the gift of her first toothbrush. All in all, it was a morning to remember.
The dress, made of fabric finer than she had believed possible, hwas a wonder to cap all of the other wonders of this day. But now it was time to leave, and Donald had presented her with a pair of glass slippers.
“Try them on, Glor,” was all he said, holding them out to her.
Reluctantly, she accepted the shoes. Curious, she flexed one. It bent easily. “Oh, plastic,” she said, as she slipped them on her feet.
Donald gave her a ruefully smile. “My idea, I’m afraid. It’s kind of traditional in this situation.”
About to ask, the story of Cinderella came to her mind, and she reached out a hand to touch his cheek. “You’re sweet, Donald. Foolishly romantic, and lots of other things, but sweet. Thank you.” She took a deep breath, bubbling over with excitement. “Now, let’s do it! Open the hatch.”
Donald went to the console and began to activate the equipment for the portal. “We have a location pinpointed behind one of the food stands. It’s shielded from direct view, so you can come and go easily. I was even able to get it a bit closer to the ground, so it won’t be so hard to get through. I’ll reactivate the portal tonight, and keep the lights out here so it doesn’t show. If you have difficulty finding it in the dark, just call out.”
She balked. “But why?” she asked. “Why do I have to run off like that?” The necessary memory came, and she nodded her understanding. “Oh, I see, to make me a woman of mystery, and break the shock of my humble upbringing gradually.” She shrugged. “Okay, we’ll try it your way.”
The locus formed and she moved toward it, then stopped, as curiosity prompted: “I asked you this once before, Don. Let me ask again now. What do you get out of this? What good does it do if I actually marry the prince?”
Donald leaned around the monitor unit of the console and said, “You can act through the prince and bring progress to your people, Glor. Maybe you can start a school, and get your people moving in the right direction. We have to start somewhere.”
She thought about that for a moment, humming tunelessly to herself. Then she started toward the locus once more, only to stop a second time. This time she turned and headed toward the bathroom.
“Now? You have to go now?” Donald was obviously exasperated. “Women!” he complained, as he slapped his palm on the edge of the console.
She emerged immediately, bearing a handful of paper towels. The dress was too confining and the heels of her shoes too high for her to simply squat-walk through the locus. Instead, she would be forced to cross over via the ungainly method of crawling. She looked at him with disgust. “You don’t really expect me to crawl in the dirt over there and ruin my manicure, do you?” With that, she reached through the opening and arranged the towels on the dirt of her world. Then, hiking her dress to protect it further, she passed through the locus and was gone.
The room was dark when she arrived, lit only by the glow of the instrument cluster associated with the transport device. She straightened, and began to dance, humming as she twirled. Finally, she turned to face him.
“Wonderful! It was wonderful!” she said, ecstatically hugging herself. “You should have been there, Donald.”
He closed the locus and turned on the lights, blinding them both for a moment.
“Tell me about it, Glor. Was it fun? Did you dance with the prince?” His voice was that of a little boy, imploring mommy to tell him about her party, and hoping she had brought him a present as well.
“Dance with the prince? Are you kidding? Honey, I danced with everyone. I even put on a performance of solo dancing that knocked their socks off.” She was positively glowing as she continued. “And I talked with everyone, and I ate until I thought my dress would pop.” She caught his hands and whirled him wildly around. “I thought today was amazing, but, Donald, this was the most exciting night of my whole life. And it’s only the start!” Her eyes were shining, and her enthusiasm, infectious.
He stopped their mad whirling and took her by the shoulders. “The prince, Glor; did you nail the prince?”
Her expression hardened and her mouth turned down as she remembered.
“Oh, him. What a yutz he is.” Her face mirrored the disgust in her voice.
“What?” Donald appeared to be in shock.
She shrugged, knocking his hands from her and turning to slouch across the room, her good mood destroyed.
“He’s a yutz, Don, a total jerk, a schmuck, a… Well, I could go on for an hour about that one.”
She took off her slippers, tossing them in the corner.
“My feet are killing me,” she said, looking over at the shoes and shaking her head. “Those things are pretty, but murder on the feet.” She went to the table to slump into a seat, stretching her arms over her head, putting her feet up on one of the other chairs while breathing a sigh.
“But the prince?” Donald was obviously still lost.
She waved a hand at him, saying, “A loser, Don. A total loser. It’s bad enough he turned out to be the dumbest man in the whole damn kingdom, he also has to be the most boring. All he could talk about was his animals and his battles. The man’s head’s been hit one time too many with a practice sword.”
Donald gamely tried to salvage something. “But does he want to marry you? Did we waste all this time?”
She sat up, dropping her legs to the floor. “Marry me? I guess so.” She thought for a moment. “I guess he probably would…if I wanted him. He can’t see past a pretty face, and he isn’t smart enough to know a good or bad deal when he sees it.” She nodded. “I’m pretty sure I could wrap him around my finger, if I could only stand him.” She laughed, adding, “But I’d sooner live exactly as I did before you arrived than live with someone like him. Killing that moron would probably be a great service to the kingdom.” She waved a finger at him. “I’ll tell you something, Don; when the old king dies, and that dummy takes over, we’re all in big trouble.”
“But…but…” As usual, he was sputtering. He sank weakly into the chair at the transport console.
She took pity on him and came to pat his cheek. “Relax, Don. Everything is under control. I am getting married. It’s just not to the prince.”
“But…” He trailed off. Things just weren’t going the way he’d planned. That much was obvious.
For a time, she enjoyed the sight of him at a loss for words, then took pity and eased his misery. “I plan to marry Denillo the Trader. He happens to be one of the richest men in the kingdom, not too bad looking, and a hell of a honker in bed.”
Donald’s eyes were glassy. “You mean you and he…you…I mean…”
She patted his cheek again. “You’re cute, Donald. Did you know that? Of course we went to bed. We’re going to be married, after all, and I wanted to enjoy this Frolic. What good is a Frolic if you don’t…well, frolic?” She smiled in remembrance, then sighed and went on.
“Anyway, Danillo has lots and lots of money, and I have lots and lots of ideas. Between the two of us, knowing what I know now, I plan to take over the kingdom before old Stolman kicks off and leaves his moron son in charge of the place. Getting our whole world on track may take a little longer.
“But—” Donald appeared to be weakening, and his vocabulary wasn’t improving.
“Hey, Donny, relax.” She laughed, smiling down at him. “We both got what we wanted, right? My world will be on the road to progress, and I got my wish to go to the Frolic. I ended up with a good man, and you…well…you did all right too. You got a better woman than you deserve. A nice bonus, right?” She waited, watching him steadily until he gave her a small nod. As she had hoped, he and Amy had finally gotten together. That was good. She smacked him on the shoulder for emphasis as she said, “Why be upset? You’ll probably even get a promotion out of this. It qualifies as a ‘good work,’ right?”
He slumped in his seat. From his expression he was finally becoming aware that things had never been fully in his control.
Leaning down, she reached out a hand to flip the activate-lever for the locus, still focused as it had been.
“I just stopped back for a moment to thank you, and to say goodbye,” she said, gently touching his cheek. She kissed him on the forehead, then walked toward the locus, a black circle in the center of the room. Halfway there she stopped, turning back to face him, saying “You can keep the shoes as a souvenir, Don. Maybe Amy can use them.” About to turn away, she smiled and went to where she had tossed the shoes, picking one to take with her. She held it up to show him. “No, on second thought, I think I’ll take this one with me.” She grinned, as she said, “You can only keep one. It’s more traditional that way.”
She turned serious for a moment, as she added, “I think…with just a little luck, you can look for us to return the visit in about a hundred years or so.” Then, with a grin, she blew him a kiss and was gone.