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Fiction

Schwartz Between the Galaxies

This much is reality: Schwartz sits comfortably cocooned—passive, suspended—in a first-class passenger rack aboard a Japan Air Lines rocket, nine kilometers above the Coral Sea. And this much is fantasy: the same Schwartz has passage on a shining starship gliding silkily through the interstellar depths, en route at nine times the velocity of light from Betelgeuse IX to Rigel XXI, or maybe from Andromeda to the Lesser Magellanic.

There are no starships. Probably there never will be any. Here we are, a dozen decades after the flight of Apollo 11, and no human being goes anywhere except back and forth across the face of the little O, the Earth, for the planets are barren and the stars are beyond reach. That little O is too small for Schwartz. Too often it glazes for him; it turns to a nugget of dead porcelain; and lately he has formed the habit, when the world glazes, of taking refuge aboard that interstellar ship. So what JAL Flight 411 holds is merely his physical self, his shell, occupying a costly private cubicle on a slender 200-passenger vessel which, leaving Buenos Aires shortly after breakfast, has sliced westward along the Tropic of Capricorn for a couple of hours and will soon be landing at Papua’s Torres Skyport. But his consciousness, his anima, the essential Schwartzness of him, soars between the galaxies.

What a starship it is! How marvelous its myriad passengers! Down its crowded corridors swarms a vast gaudy heterogeny of galactic creatures, natives of the worlds of Capella, Arcturus, Altair, Canopus, Polaris, Antares, beings both intelligent and articulate, methane-breathing or nitrogen-breathing or argon-breathing, spiny-skinned or skinless, many-armed or many-headed or altogether incorporeal, each a product of a distinct and distinctly unique and alien cultural heritage. Among these varied folk moves Schwartz, that superstar of anthropologists, that true heir to Kroeber and Morgan and Malinowski and Mead, delightedly devouring their delicious diversity. Whereas aboard this prosaic rocket, this planet-locked stratosphere needle, one cannot tell the Canadians from the Portuguese, the Portuguese from the Romanians, the Romanians from the Irish, unless they open their mouths, and sometimes not always then.

In his reveries he confers with creatures from the Fomalhaut system about digital circumcision; he tapes the melodies of the Achernarnian eye-flute; he learns of the sneeze-magic of Acrux, the sleep-ecstasies of Aldebaran, the asteroid-sculptors of Thuban. Then a smiling JAL stewardess parts the curtain of his cubicle and peers in at him, jolting him from one reality to another. She is blue-eyed, frizzy-haired, straight-nosed, thin-lipped, bronze-skinned, a genetic mishmash, your standard twenty-first-century-model mongrel human, perhaps Melanesian-Swedish-Turkish-Bolivian, perhaps Polish-Berber-Tatar-Welsh. Cheap intercontinental transit has done its deadly work: All Earth is a crucible, all the gene pools have melted into one indistinguishable fluid. Schwartz wonders about the recessivity of those blue eyes and arrives at no satisfactory solution. She is beautiful, at any rate. Her name is Dawn—O sweet neutral nonculture-bound cognomen!—and they have played at a flirtation, he and she, Dawn and Schwartz, at occasional moments of this short flight. Twinkling, she says softly, “We’re getting ready for our landing, Dr. Schwartz. Are your restrictors in polarity?”

“I never unfastened them.”

“Good.” The blue eyes, warm, interested, meet his. “I have a layover in Papua tonight,” she says.

“That’s nice.”

“Let’s have a drink while we’re waiting for them to unload the baggage,” she suggests with cheerful bluntness. “All right?”

“I suppose,” he says casually. “Why not?” Her availability bores him: Somehow, he enjoys the obsolete pleasures of the chase. Once, such easiness in a woman like this would have excited him, but no longer. Schwartz is forty years old, tall, square-shouldered, sturdy, a showcase for the peasant genes of his rugged Irish mother. His close-cropped black hair is flecked with gray; many women find that interesting. One rarely sees gray hair now. He dresses simply but well, in sandals and Socratic tunic. Predictably, his physical attractiveness, both within his domestic sixness and without, has increased with his professional success. He is confident, sure of his powers, and he radiates an infectious assurance. This month alone, eighty million people have heard his lectures.

She picks up the faint weariness in his voice. “You don’t sound eager. Not interested?”

“Hardly that.”

“What’s wrong, then? Feeling sub, Professor?”

Schwartz shrugs. “Dreadfully sub. Body like dry bone. Mind like dead ashes.” He smiles, full force depriving his words of all their weight.

She registers mock anguish. “That sounds bad,” she says. “That sounds awful!”

“I’m only quoting Chuang Tzu. Pay no attention to me. Actually, I feel fine, just a little stale.”

“Too many skyports?”

He nods. “Too much of a sameness wherever I go.” He thinks of a star-bright, top-deck bubble dome where three boneless Spicans do a twining dance of propitiation to while away the slow hours of nine-light travel. “I’ll be all right,” he tells her. “It’s a date.”

Her hybrid face flows with relief and anticipation. “See you in Papua,” she tells him, and winks, and moves jauntily down the aisle.

Papua. By cocktail time Schwartz will be in Port Moresby. Tonight he lectures at the University of Papua; yesterday it was Montevideo; the day after tomorrow it will be Bangkok. He is making the grand academic circuit. This is his year: He is very big, suddenly, in anthropological circles, since the publication of The Mask Beneath the Skin. From continent to continent he flashes, sharing his wisdom, Monday in Montreal, Tuesday Veracruz, Wednesday Montevideo, Thursday—Thursday? He crossed the international date line this morning, and he does not remember whether he has entered Thursday or Tuesday, though yesterday was surely Wednesday. Schwartz is certain only that this is July and the year is 2083, and there are moments when he is not even sure of that.

The JAL rocket enters the final phase of its landward plunge. Papua waits, sleek, vitrescent. The world has a glassy sheen again. He lets his spirit drift happily back to the gleaming starship making its swift way across the whirling constellations.

***

He found himself in the starship’s busy lower-deck lounge, having a drink with his traveling companion, Pitkin, the Yale economist. Why Pitkin, that coarse, florid little man? With all of real and imaginary humanity to choose from, why had his unconscious elected to make him share this fantasy with such a boor?

“Look,” Pitkin said, winking and leering. “There’s your girlfriend.”

The entry-iris had opened and the Antarean not-male had come in.

“Quit it,” Schwartz snapped. “You know there’s no such thing going on.”

“Haven’t you been chasing her for days?”

“She’s not a ‘her,’” Schwartz said.

Pitkin guffawed. “Such precision! Such scholarship! She’s not a her, he says!” He gave Schwartz a broad nudge. “To you she’s a she, friend, and don’t try to kid me.”

Schwartz had to admit there was some justice to Pitkin’s vulgar innuendos. He did find the Antarean—a slim, yellow-eyed, ebony-skinned upright humanoid, sinuous and glossy, with tapering elongated limbs and a seal’s fluid grace—powerfully attractive. Nor could he help thinking of the Antarean as feminine. That attitude was hopelessly culture-bound and species-bound, he knew; in fact the alien had cautioned him that terrestrial sexual distinctions were irrelevant in the Antares system, that if Schwartz insisted on thinking of “her” in genders, “she” could be considered only the negative of male, with no implication of biological femaleness.

He said patiently, “I’ve told you. The Antarean’s neither male nor female as we understand those concepts. If we happen to perceive the Antarean as feminine, that’s the result of our own cultural conditioning. If you want to believe that my interest in this being is sexual, go ahead, but I assure you that it’s purely professional.”

“Sure. You’re only studying her.”

“In a sense I am. And she’s studying me. On her native world she has the status-frame of ‘watcher-of-life,’ which seems to translate into the Antarean equivalent of an anthropologist.”

“How lovely for you both. She’s your first alien and you’re her first Jew.”

“Stop calling her her,” Schwartz hissed.

“But you’ve been doing it!”

Schwartz closed his eyes. “My grandmother told me never to get mixed up with economists. Their thinking is muddy and their breath is bad, she said. She also warned me against Yale men. Perverts of the intellect, she called them. So here I am cooped up on an interstellar ship with five hundred alien creatures and one fellow human, and he has to be an economist from Yale.”

“Next trip travel with your grandmother instead.”

“Go away,” Schwartz said. “Stop lousing up my fantasies. Go peddle your dismal science somewhere else. You see those Delta Aurigans over there? Climb into their bottle and tell them all about the Gross Global Product.” Schwartz smiled at the Antarean, who had purchased a drink, something that glittered an iridescent blue, and was approaching them. “Go on,” Schwartz murmured.

“Don’t worry,” Pitkin said. “I wouldn’t want to crowd you.” He vanished into the motley crowd.

The Antarean said, “The Capellans are dancing, Schwartz.”

“I’d like to see that. Too damned noisy in here anyway.” Schwartz stared into the alien’s vertical-slitted citreous eyes. Cat’s eyes, he thought. Panther’s eyes. The Antarean’s gaze was focused, as usual, on Schwartz’s mouth: other worlds, other customs. He felt a strange, unsettling tremor of desire. Desire for what, though? It was a sensation of pure need, nonspecific, certainly nonsexual. “I think I’ll take a look. Will you come with me?”

***

The Papua rocket has landed. Schwartz, leaning across the narrow table in the skyport’s lounge, says to the stewardess in a low, intense tone, “My life was in crisis. All my values were becoming meaningless. I was discovering that my chosen profession was empty, foolish, as useless as—playing chess.”

“How awful,” Dawn whispers gently.

“You can see why. You go all over the world, you see a thousand skyports a year. Everything the same everywhere. The same clothes, the same slang, the same magazines, the same styles of architecture and décor.”

“Yes.”

“International homogeneity. Worldwide uniformity. Can you understand what it’s like to be an anthropologist in a world where there are no primitives left, Dawn? Here we sit on the island of Papua—you know, headhunters, animism, body-paint, the drums at sunset, the bone through the nose—and look at the Papuans in their business robes all around us. Listen to them exchanging stock-market tips, talking baseball, recommending restaurants in Paris and barbers in Johannesburg. It’s no different anywhere else. In a single century we’ve transformed the planet into one huge sophisticated plastic western industrial state. The TV relay satellites, the two-hour intercontinental rockets, the breakdown of religious exclusivism and genetic taboo have mongrelized every culture, don’t you see? You visit the Zuni and they have plastic African masks on the wall. You visit the Bushmen and they have Japanese-made Hopi-motif ashtrays. It’s all just so much interior decoration, and underneath the carefully selected primitive motifs there’s the same universal pseudo-American sensibility, whether you’re in the Kalahari or the Amazon rain forest. Do you comprehend what’s happened, Dawn?”

“It’s such a terrible loss,” she says sadly. She is trying very hard to be sympathetic, but he senses she is waiting for him to finish his sermon and invite her to share his hotel room. He will invite her, but there is no stopping him once he has launched into his one great theme.

“Cultural diversity is gone from the world,” he says. “Religion is dead; true poetry is dead; inventiveness is dead; individuality is dead. Poetry. Listen to this.” In a high monotone he chants:

 

In beauty I walk

With beauty before me I walk

With beauty behind me I walk

With beauty above me I walk

With beauty above and about me I walk

It is finished in beauty

It is finished in beauty

 

He has begun to perspire heavily. His chanting has created an odd sphere of silence in his immediate vicinity; heads are turning, eyes are squinting. “Navaho,” he says. “The Night Way, a nine-day chant, a vision, a spell. Where are the Navaho now? Go to Arizona and they’ll chant for you, yes, for a price, but they don’t know what the words mean, and chances are the singers are only one-fourth Navaho, or one-eighth, or maybe just Hopi hired to dress in Navaho costumes, because the real Navaho, if any are left, are off in Mexico City hired to be Aztecs. So much is gone. Listen.” He chants again, more piercingly even than before:

 

The animal runs, it passes, it dies. And it is the great cold.

It is the great cold of the night, it is the dark.

The bird flies, it passes, it dies. And it is—

 

“JAL FLIGHT 411 BAGGAGE IS NOW UNLOADING ON CONCOURSE FOUR,” a mighty mechanical voice cries.

 

—the great cold.

It is the great cold of the night, it is the dark.

 

“JAL FLIGHT 411 BAGGAGE…”

 

The fish flees, it passes, it dies. And—

 

“People are staring,” Dawn says uncomfortably.

 

“—ON CONCOURSE FOUR.”

 

“Let them stare. Do them some good. That’s a Pygmy chant, from Gabon, in equatorial Africa. Pygmies? There are no more Pygmies. Everybody’s two meters tall. And what do we sing? Listen. Listen.” He gestures fiercely at the cloud of tiny golden loudspeakers floating near the ceiling. A mush of music comes from them: the current popular favorite. Savagely he mouths words: “Star  . . . far  . . . here  . . . near. Playing in every skyport right now, all over the world.” She smiles thinly. Her hand reaches toward his, covers it, presses against the knuckles. He is dizzy. The crowd, the eyes, the music, the drink. The plastic. Everything shines. Porcelain. Porcelain. The planet vitrifies. “Tom?” she asks uneasily. “Is anything the matter?” He laughs, blinks, coughs, shivers. He hears her calling for help, and then he feels his soul swooping outward, toward the galactic blackness.

***

With the Antarean not-male beside him, Schwartz peered through the viewport, staring in awe and fascination at the seductive vision of the Capellans coiling and recoiling outside the ship. Not all the passengers on this voyage had cozy staterooms like his. The Capellans were too big to come on board, and in any case they preferred never to let themselves be enclosed inside metal walls. They traveled just alongside the starship, basking like slippery whales in the piquant radiations of space. So long as they kept within twenty meters of the hull they would be inside the effective field of the Rabinowitz Drive, which swept ship and contents and associated fellow travellers toward Rigel, or the Lesser Magellanic, or was it one of the Pleiades toward which they were bound at a cool nine lights?

He watched the Capellans moving beyond the shadow of the ship in tracks of shining white. Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, they coiled and swam, and every track was a flash of golden fire. “They have a dangerous beauty,” Schwartz whispered. “Do you hear them calling? I do.”

“What do they say?”

“They say, ‘Come to me, come to me, come to me!’

“Go to them, then,” said the Antarean simply. “Step through the hatch.”

“And perish?”

“And enter into your next transition. Poor Schwartz! Do you love your present body so?”

“My present body isn’t so bad. Do you think I’m likely to get another one some day?”

“No?”

“No,” Schwartz said. “This one is all I get. Isn’t it that way with you?”

“At the Time of Openings I receive my next housing. That will be fifty years from now. What you see is the fifth form I have been given to wear.”

“Will the next be as beautiful as this?”

“All forms are beautiful,” the Antarean said. “You find me attractive?”

“Of course.”

A slitted wink. A bobbing nod toward the viewport. “As attractive as those?”

Schwartz laughed. “Yes. In a different way.”

Coquettishly the Antarean said, “If I were out there, you would walk through the hatch into space?”

“I might. If they gave me a spacesuit and taught me how to use it.”

“But not otherwise? Suppose I were out there right now. I could live in space five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I am there and I say, ‘Come to me, Schwartz, come to me!’ What do you do?”

“I don’t think I’m all that much self-destructive.”

“To die for love, though! To make a transition for the sake of beauty.”

“No. Sorry.”

The Antarean pointed toward the undulating Capellans. “If they asked you, you would go.”

“They are asking me,” he said.

“And you refuse the invitation?”

“So far. So far.”

The Antarean laughed an Antarean laugh, a thick silvery snort. “Our voyage will last many weeks more. One of these days, I think, you will go to them.”

***

“You were unconscious at least five minutes,” Dawn says. “You gave everyone a scare. Are you sure you ought to go through with tonight’s lecture?”

Nodding, Schwartz says, “I’ll be all right. I’m a little tired, is all. Too many time zones this week.” They stand on the terrace of his hotel room. Night is coming on, already, here in late afternoon: It is midwinter in the Southern Hemisphere, though the fragrance of tropic blossoms perfumes the air. The first few stars have appeared. He has never really known which star is which. That bright one, he thinks, could be Rigel, and that one Sirius, and perhaps this is Deneb over there. And this? Can this be red Antares, in the heart of the Scorpion, or is it only Mars? Because of his collapse at the skyport, he has been able to beg off the customary faculty reception and the formal dinner; pleading the need for rest, he has arranged to have a simple snack at his hotel room, a deux. In two hours they will come for him and take him to the University to speak. Dawn watches him closely. Perhaps she is worried about his health, perhaps she is only waiting for him to make his move toward her. There’s time for all that later, he figures. He would rather talk now. Warming up for the audience he seizes his earlier thread:

“For a long time I didn’t understand what had taken place. I grew up insular, cut off from reality, a New York boy, bright mind and a library card. I read all the anthropological classics, Patterns of Culture and Coming of Age in Samoa and Life of a South African Tribe and the rest, and I dreamed of field trips, collecting myths and grammars and folkways and artefacts and all that, until when I was twenty-five I finally got out into the field and started to discover I had gone into a dead science. We have only one worldwide culture now, with local variants but no basic divergences—there’s nothing primitive left on Earth, and there are no other planets. Not inhabited ones. I can’t go to Mars or Venus or Saturn and study the natives. What natives? And we can’t reach the stars. All I have to work with is Earth. I was thirty years old when the whole thing clicked together for me and I knew I had wasted my life.”

She says, “But surely there was something for you to study on Earth.”

“One culture, rootless and homogeneous. That’s work for a sociologist, not for me. I’m a romantic, I’m an exotic, I want strangeness, difference. Look, we can never have any real perspective on our own time and lives. The sociologists try to attain it, but all they get is a mound of raw indigestible data. Insight comes later—two, five, ten generations later. But one way we’ve always been able to learn about ourselves is by studying alien cultures, studying them completely, and defining ourselves by measuring what they are that we aren’t. The cultures have to be isolated, though. The anthropologist himself corrupts that isolation in the Heisenberg sense when he comes around with his camera and scanners and starts asking questions, but we can compensate more or less, for the inevitable damage a lone observer causes. We can’t compensate when our whole culture collides with another and absorbs and obliterates it. Which we technological-mechanical people now have done everywhere. One day I woke up and saw there were no alien cultures left. Hah! Crushing revelation! Schwartz’s occupation is gone!”

“What did you do?”

“For years I was in an absolute funk. I taught, I studied, I went through the motions, knowing it was all meaningless. All I was doing was looking at records of vanished cultures left by earlier observers and trying to cudgel new meanings. Secondary sources, stale findings: I was an evaluator of dry bones, not a gatherer of evidence. Paleontology. Dinosaurs are interesting, but what do they tell you about the contemporary world and the meaning of its patterns? Dry bones, Dawn, dry bones. Despair. And then a clue. I had this Nigerian student, this Ibo—well, basically an Ibo, but she’s got some Israeli in her and I think Chinese—and we grew very close, she was as close to me as anybody in my own sixness, and I told her my troubles. I’m going to give it all up, I said, because it isn’t what I expected it to be. She laughed at me and said, ‘What right do you have to be upset because the world doesn’t live up to your expectations? Reshape your life, Tom; you can’t reshape the world.’ I said, ‘But how?’ And she said, ‘Look inward, find the primitive in yourself, see what made you what you are, what made today’s culture what it is, see how these alien streams have flowed together. Nothing’s been lost here, only merged.’ Which made me think. Which gave me a new way of looking at things. Which sent me on an inward quest. It took me three years to grasp the patterns, to come to an understanding of what our planet has become, and only after I accepted the planet—”

It seems to him that he has been talking forever. Talking. Talking. But he can no longer hear his own voice. There is only a distant buzz.

“After I accepted—”

A distant buzz.

“What was I saying?” he asks.

“After you accepted the planet—”

“After I accepted the planet,” he says, “that I could begin—” Buzz. Buzz. “That I could begin to accept myself.”

***

He was drawn toward the Spicans too, not so much for themselves—they were oblique, elliptical characters, self-contained and self-satisfied, hard to approach—as for the apparently psychedelic drug they took in some sacramental way before the beginning of each of their interminable ritual dances. Each time he had watched them take the drug, they had seemingly made a point of extending it toward him, as if inviting him, as if tempting him, before popping it into their mouths. He felt baited; he felt pulled.

There were three Spicans on board, slender creatures two and a half meters long, with flexible cylindrical bodies and small stubby limbs. Their skins were reptilian, dry and smooth, deep green with yellow bands, but their eyes were weirdly human, large liquid-brown eyes, sad Levantine eyes, the eyes of unfortunate medieval travelers transformed by enchantment into serpents. Schwartz had spoken with them several times. They understood English well enough—all galactic races did; Schwartz imagined it would become the interstellar lingua franca as it had on Earth—but the construction of their vocal organs was such that they had no way of speaking it, and they relied instead on small translating machines hung around their necks that converted their soft whispered hisses into amber words pulsing across a screen.

Cautiously, the third or fourth time he spoke with them, he expressed polite interest in their drug. They told him it enabled them to make contact with the central forces of the universe. He replied that there were such drugs on Earth, too, and that he used them frequently, that they gave him great insight into the workings of the cosmos. They showed some curiosity, perhaps even intense curiosity: Reading their eyes was difficult and the tone of their voices gave no clues. He took his elegant leather-bound drug case from his pouch and showed them what he had: learitonin, psilocerebrin, siddharthin, and acid-57. He described the effects of each and suggested an exchange, any of his for an equivalent dose of the shriveled orange fungoid they nibbled. They conferred. Yes, they said, we will do this. But not now. Not until the proper moment. Schwartz knew better than to ask them when that would be. He thanked them and put his drugs away.

Pitkin, who had watched the interchange from the far side of the lounge, came striding fiercely toward him as the Spicans glided off. “What are you up to now?” he demanded.

“How about minding your own business?” Schwartz said amiably.

“You’re trading pills with those snakes, aren’t you?”

“Let’s call it field research.”

“Research? Research? What are you going to do, trip on that orange stuff of theirs?”

“I might,” Schwartz said.

“How do you know what its effects on the human metabolism might be? You could end up blind or paralyzed or crazy or—”

“—or illuminated,” Schwartz said. “Those are the risks one takes in the field. The early anthropologists who unhesitatingly sampled peyote and yage and ololiuqui accepted those risks, and—”

“But those were drugs that humans were using. You have no way of telling how—oh, what’s the use, Schwartz? Research, he calls it. Research.” Pitkin sneered. “Junkie!”

Schwartz matched him sneer for sneer. “Economist!”

***

The house is a decent one tonight, close to three thousand, every seat in the University’s great horseshoe-shaped auditorium taken, and a video relay besides, beaming his lecture to all Papua and half of Indonesia. Schwartz stands on the dais like a demigod under a brilliant no-glare spotlight. Despite his earlier weariness, he is in good form now, gestures broad and forceful, eyes commanding, voice deep and resonant, words flowing freely. “Only one planet,” he says, “one small and crowded planet, on which all cultures converge to a drab and depressing sameness. How sad that is! How tiny we make ourselves, when we make ourselves to resemble one another!” He flings his arms upward. “Look to the stars, the unattainable stars! Imagine, if you can, the millions of worlds that orbit those blazing suns beyond the night’s darkness! Speculate with me on other peoples, other ways, other gods. Beings of every imaginable form, alien in appearance but not grotesque, not hideous, for all life is beautiful—beings that breathe gases strange to us, beings of immense size, beings of many limbs or of none, beings to whom death is a divine culmination of existence, beings who never die, beings who bring forth their young a thousand at a time, beings who do not reproduce—all the infinite possibilities of the infinite universe!

“Perhaps on each of those worlds it is as it has become here. One intelligent species, one culture, the eternal convergence. But the many worlds together offer a vast spectrum of variety. And now, share this vision with me! I see a ship voyaging from star to star, a spaceliner of the future, and aboard that ship is a sampling of many species, many cultures, a random scoop out of the galaxy’s fantastic diversity. That ship is like a little cosmos, a small world, enclosed, sealed. How exciting to be aboard it, to encounter in that little compass such richness of cultural variation! Now our own world was once like that starship, a little cosmos, bearing with it all the thousands of Earthborn cultures. Hopi and Eskimo and Aztec and Kwakiutl and Arapesh and Orokolo and all the rest. In the course of our voyage we have come to resemble one another too much, and it has impoverished the lives of all of us, because—” He falters suddenly. He feels faint, and grasps the sides of the lectern. “Because—” The spotlight, he thinks. In my eyes. Not supposed to glare like that, but it’s blinding. Got to have them move it. “In the course—the course of our voyage—” What’s happening? Breaking into a sweat, now. Pain in my chest. My heart? Wait, slow up, catch your breath. That light in my eyes—

***

“Tell me,” Schwartz said earnestly, “what it’s like to know you’ll have ten successive bodies and live more than a thousand years.”

“First tell me,” said the Antarean, “what it’s like to know you’ll live ninety years or less and perish forever.”

***

Somehow he continues. The pain in his chest grows more intense, he cannot focus his eyes; he believes he will lose consciousness at any moment and may even have lost it already at least once, and yet he continues. Clinging to the lectern, he outlines the program he developed in The Mask Beneath the Skin. A rebirth of tribalism without a revival of ugly nationalism. The quest for a renewed sense of kinship with the past. A sharp reduction in nonessential travel, especially tourism. Heavy taxation of exported artefacts, including films and video shows. An attempt to create independent cultural units on Earth once again while maintaining present levels of economic and political interdependence. Relinquishment of materialistic technological-industrial values. New searches for fundamental meanings. An ethnic revival, before it is too late, among those cultures of mankind that have only recently shed their traditional folkways. (He repeats and embellishes this point particularly, for the benefit of the Papuans before him, the great-grandchildren of cannibals.)

The discomfort and confusion come and go as he unreels his themes. He builds and builds, crying out passionately for an end to the homogenization of Earth, and gradually the physical symptoms leave him, all but a faint vertigo. But a different malaise seizes him as he nears his peroration. His voice becomes, to him, a far-off quacking, meaningless and foolish. He has said all this a thousand times, always to great ovations, but who listens? Who listens? Everything seems hollow tonight, mechanical, absurd. An ethnic revival? Shall these people before him revert to their loincloths and their pig roasts? His starship is a fantasy; his dream of a diverse Earth is mere silliness. What is, will be. And yet he pushes on toward his conclusion. He takes his audience back to that starship, he creates a horde of fanciful beings for them. He completes the metaphor by sketching the structures of half a dozen vanished “primitive” cultures of Earth, he chants the chants of the Navaho, the Gabon Pygmies, the Ashanti, the Mundugumor. It is over. Cascades of applause engulf him. He holds his place until members of the sponsoring committee come to him and help him down: They have perceived his distress. “It’s nothing,” he gasps. “The lights—too bright—” Dawn is at his side. She hands him a drink, something cool. Two of the sponsors begin to speak of a reception for him in the Green Room. “Fine,” Schwartz says. “Glad to.” Dawn murmurs a protest. He shakes her off. “My obligation,” he tells her. “Meet community leaders. Faculty people. I’m feeling better now. Honestly.” Swaying, trembling, he lets them lead him away.

***

“A Jew,” the Antarean said. “You call yourself a Jew, but what is this exactly? A clan, a sept, a moiety, a tribe, a nation, what? Can you explain?”

“You understand what a religion is?”

“Of course.”

“Judaism—Jewishness—it’s one of Earth’s major religions.”

“You are therefore a priest?”

“Not at all. I don’t even practice Judaism. But my ancestors did, and therefore I consider myself Jewish, even though—”

“It is an hereditary religion, then,” the Antarean said, “that does not require its members to observe its rites?”

“In a sense,” said Schwartz desperately. “More an hereditary cultural subgroup, actually, evolving out of a common religious outlook no longer relevant.”

“Ah. And the cultural traits of Jewishness that define it and separate you from the majority of humankind are—?”

“Well—” Schwartz hesitated. “There’s a complicated dietary code, a rite of circumcision for newborn males, a rite of passage for male adolescents, a language of scripture, a vernacular language that Jews all around the world more or less understand, and plenty more, including a certain intangible sense of clannishness and certain attitudes, such as a peculiar self-deprecating style of humor—”

“You observe the dietary code? You understand the language of scripture?”

“Not exactly,” Schwartz admitted. “In fact I don’t do anything that’s specifically Jewish except think of myself as a Jew and adopt many of the characteristically Jewish personality modes, which however are not uniquely Jewish any longer—they can be traced among Italians, for example, and to some extent among Greeks. I’m speaking of Italians and Greeks of the late twentieth century, of course. Nowadays—” It was all becoming a terrible muddle. “Nowadays—”

“It would seem,” said the Antarean, “that you are a Jew only because your maternal and paternal gene-givers were Jews, and they—”

“No, not quite. Not my mother, just my father, and he was Jewish only on his father’s side, but even my grandfather never observed the customs, and—”

“I think this has grown too confusing,” said the Antarean. “I withdraw the entire inquiry. Let us speak instead of my own traditions. The Time of Openings, for example, may be understood as—”

***

In the Green Room some eighty or a hundred distinguished Papuans press toward him, offering congratulations. “Absolutely right,” they say. “A global catastrophe.” “Our last chance to save our culture.” Their skins are chocolate-tinted but their faces betray the genetic mishmash that is their ancestry: perhaps they call themselves Arapesh, Mundugumor, Tchambuli, Mafulu, in the way that he calls himself a Jew, but they have been liberally larded with chromosomes contributed by Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, Africans, everything. They dress in International Contemporary. They speak slangy, lively English. Schwartz feels seasick. “You look dazed,” Dawn whispers. He smiles bravely. Body like dry bone. Mind like dead ashes. He is introduced to a tribal chieftain, tall, gray-haired, who looks and speaks like a professor, a lawyer, a banker. What, will these people return to the hills for the ceremony of the yam harvest? Will newborn girl-children be abandoned, cords uncut, skins unwashed, if their fathers do not need more girls? Will boys entering manhood submit to the expensive services of the initiator who scarifies them with the teeth of crocodiles? The crocodiles are gone. The shamans have become stockbrokers.

Suddenly he cannot breathe.

“Get me out of here,” Schwartz mutters hoarsely, choking.

Dawn, with stewardess efficiency, chops a path for him through the mob. The sponsors, concerned, rush to his aid. He is floated swiftly back to the hotel in a glistening little bubble-car. Dawn helps him to bed. Reviving, he reaches for her.

“You don’t have to,” she says. “You’ve had a rough day.”

He persists. He embraces her and takes her, quickly, fiercely, and they move together for a few minutes and it ends and he sinks back, exhausted, stupefied. She gets a cool cloth and pats his forehead and urges him to rest. “Bring me my drugs,” he says. He wants siddharthin, but she misunderstands, probably deliberately, and offers him something blue and bulky, a sleeping pill, and, too weary to object, he takes it. Even so, it seems to be hours before sleep comes.

He dreams he is at the skyport, boarding the rocket for Bangkok, and instantly he is debarking at Bangkok—just like Port Moresby, only more humid—and he delivers his speech to a horde of enthusiastic Thais, while rockets flicker about him carrying him to skyport after skyport, and the Thais blur and become Japanese, who are transformed into Mongols, who become Uighurs, who become Iranians, who become Sudanese, who become Zambians, who become Chileans, and all look alike, all look alike, all look alike.

***

The Spicans hovered above him, weaving, bobbing, swaying like cobras about to strike. But their eyes, warm and liquid, were sympathetic: loving, even. He felt the flow of their compassion. If they had had the sort of musculature that enabled them to smile, they would be smiling tenderly, he knew.

One of the aliens leaned close. The little translating device dangled toward Schwartz like a holy medallion. He narrowed his eyes, concentrating as intently as he could on the amber words flashing quickly across the screen.

“. . . has come. We shall . . .”

“Again, please,” Schwartz said. “I missed some of what you were saying.”

“The moment . . . has come. We shall . . . make the exchange of sacraments now.”

“Sacraments?”

“Drugs.”

“Drugs, yes. Yes. Of course.” Schwartz groped in his pouch. He felt the cool, smooth leather skin of his drug case. Leather? Snakeskin, maybe. Anyway. He drew it forth. “Here,” he said. “Siddharthin, learitonin, psilocerebrin, acid-57. Take your pick.” The Spicans selected three small blue siddharthins. “Very good,” Schwartz said. “The most transcendental of all. And now—”

The longest of the aliens proffered a ball of dried orange fungus the size of Schwartz’s thumbnail.

“It is an equivalent dose. We give it to you.”

“Equivalent to all three of my tablets, or to one?”

“Equivalent. It will give you peace.”

Schwartz smiled. There was a time for asking questions and a time for unhesitating action. He took the fungus and reached for a glass of water.

“Wait!” Pitkin cried, appearing suddenly. “What are you—”

“Too late,” Schwartz said serenely, and swallowed the Spican drug in one joyous gulp.

***

The nightmares go on and on. He circles the Earth like the Flying Dutchman, like the Wandering Jew, skyport to skyport to skyport, an unending voyage from nowhere to nowhere. Obliging committees meet him and convey him to his hotel. Sometimes the committee members are contemporary types, indistinguishable from one another, with standard faces, standard clothing, the all-purpose new-model hybrid unihuman, and sometimes they are consciously ethnic, elaborately decked out in feathers and paint and tribal emblems, but their faces, too, are standard behind the gaudy regalia, their slang is the slang of Uganda and Tierra del Fuego and Nepal, and it seems to Schwartz that these masqueraders are, if anything, less authentic, less honest, than the other sort, who at least are true representatives of their era. So it is hopeless either way. He lashes at his pillow, he groans, he wakens. Instantly Dawn’s arms enfold him. He sobs incoherent phrases into her clavicle and she murmurs soothing sounds against his forehead. He is having some sort of breakdown, he realizes: a new crisis of values, a shattering of the philosophical synthesis that has allowed him to get through the last few years. He is bound to the wheel; he spins, he spins, he spins, traversing the continents, getting nowhere. There is no place to go. No. There is one, just one, a place where he will find peace, where the universe will be as he needs it to be. Go there, Schwartz. Go and stay as long as you can. “Is there anything I can do?” Dawn asks. He shivers and shakes his head. “Take this,” she says, and gives him some sort of pill. Another tranquilizer. All right. All right. The world has turned to porcelain. His skin feels like a plastic coating. Away, away, to the ship. To the ship! “So long,” Schwartz says.

***

Outside the ship the Capellans twist and spin in their ritual dance as, weightless and without mass, they are swept toward the rim of the galaxy at nine times the velocity of light. They move with a grace that is astonishing for creatures of such tremendous bulk. A dazzling light that emanates from the center of the universe strikes their glossy skin and, rebounding, resonates all up and down the spectrum, splintering into brilliant streamers of ultra red, infraviolet, exoyellow. All the cosmos glows and shimmers. A single perfect note of music comes out of the remote distance and, growing closer, swells in an infinite crescendo. Schwartz trembles at the beauty of all he perceives.

Beside him stands the seal-slick Antarean. She—definitely she, no doubt of it, she—plucks at his arm and whispers, “Will you go to them?”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”

“So will I. Wherever you go.”

“Now,” Schwartz says. He reaches for the lever that opens the hatch. He pulls down. The side of the starship swings open.

The Antarean looks deep into his eyes and says blissfully, “I never told you my name. My name is Dawn.”

Together they float through the hatch into space.

The blackness receives them gently. There is no chill, no pressure at the lungs, no discomfort at all. He is surrounded by luminous surges, by throbbing mantles of pure color, as though he has entered the heart of an aurora. He and Dawn swim toward the Capellans, and the huge beings welcome them with deep, glad, booming cries. Dawn joins the dance at once, moving her sinuous limbs with extravagant ease; Schwartz will do the same in a moment, but first he turns to face the starship, hanging in space close by him like a vast coppery needle, and in a voice that could shake universes he calls, “Come, friends! Come, all of you! Come dance with us!” And they come, pouring through the hatch, the Spicans first, then all the rest, the infinite multitude of beings, the travelers from Fomalhaut and Achernar and Acrux and Aldebaran, from Thuban and Arcturus and Altair, from Polaris and Canopus and Sirius and Rigel, hundreds of star-creatures spilling happily out of the vessel, bursting forth, all of them, even Pitkin, poor little Pitkin, everyone joining hands and tentacles and tendrils and whatever, forming a great ring of light across space, everyone locked in a cosmic harmony, everyone dancing. Dancing. Dancing.

© 1974 Agberg, Ltd.
Originally published in Stellar 1,
edited by Judy-Lynn del Rey.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Robert Silverberg

Silverberg, RobertRobert Silverberg—four-time Hugo Award-winner, five-time winner of the Nebula Award, SFWA Grand Master, SF Hall of Fame honoree—is the author of nearly five hundred short stories, nearly one hundred-and-fifty novels, and is the editor of in the neighborhood of one hundred anthologies. Among his most famous works are Lord Valentine’s Castle, Dying Inside, Nightwings, and The World Inside. Learn more at www.majipoor.com.