Ching Witch!: 10 Classics SF Novelettes
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by Ross Rocklynne
Category: Science Fiction Nebula Award(R) Nominee
Description: "Unusual and Unexpected!" That's how Ray Bradbury hails the science fiction of Nebula Award nominee Ross Rocklynne. Headed by "Ching Witch!", his 1972 Nebula nominee novelette, this first-ever collection of Rocklynne's work presents him in a wide variety of styles and themes. You will find stylistically and philosophically dazzling stories like "Ching Witch," "Find the Face," and "The Sound of Space." You will also find two very different philosophic puzzle stories, one light-hearted, the other deeply-affecting, "Jackdaw" and "Quietus." You will certainly find two stories that in a dramatic science fiction setting embody some of the thought-provoking ideas the author imbibed from the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, "They Fly So High" and "Fulfillment." Finally, you will also discover the ever-playful Rocklynne in a more humorous vein in the puckish "The Good Egg," the sardonic "The Diversifal," and the romantic farce, "The Voice." This is a "don't miss" drawn from the cream of digest and pulp science fiction, including Astounding (now Analog), Amazing, Galaxy, Planet, and Thrilling Wonder Stories.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: May 2005
12 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [299 KB]
Reading time: 195-273 min.
FIND THE FACE
MY NAME is R. Jennings, and I'm the man you're looking for. I'm captain, owner, and coffee programmer of a star-crackin' ship, the Astrid. On top of this, I'm a horse-breeder. Yes, I agree with you, sir: this is quite a spread of land. One hundred thousand acres of the finest on Cuspid, at the very edge of the galaxy, on the "mystic edge of forever," as someone before me called it.
Strange events occur out here amongst the Rim Worlds, sir, if you would care to believe me.
Ah, the drinks. Put them down there, my lad, the tall one for our visitor.
Yes, we may as well relax right here on the veranda, sir, and enjoy the sunsets. We'll leave to wait a bit after the second dusk before my boys can cull out the distance runners and quarter horses you're interested in, but in the meantime let me entertain you with a story.
It's a strange story, I promise. No science. No sanity. Maybe a little bit of enlightenment--but what else could one expect from the "mystic edge of forever"? So sit back, sir, and have no qualms whatever about the horses. You'll buy them, for who could resist those green beauties? And you'll make a fortune racing them around the tracks of Earth.
In point of fact, my story starts with horses. Thirty-one years ago, I owned a stable myself. Ran some quarter horses at Ruidosa for the love of it and did well, but the real money and the real thrill was in my distance runners. And of all the thoroughbreds I ran, most of all I loved my three-year-old Green Lace. You know the old horseman's saying, "A lean horse for a long race"? Green Lace was lean, a faerie queen, and she was green. A breathtaking beauty to behold when she stretched out. And a winner. I lost her and my whole stable in a fire.
That's a sad beginning to my story, isn't it? Sadder still, who sired Green Lace? I would have started another stable with her line alone, if I could. But Green Laces sire came from another planet, so the story went, from the far planet Cuspid.
But where the hell was Cuspid? Nobody knew. No one cared. Cuspid was not its real name.
I drifted into the Astro-Marine Service. Saved my money. Take a look at me thirty years later, at the age of seventy, as I was last year: goateed, trim gray hair clipped neatly, gray mustache, chest out--the works. A blue and gold space uniform as I pace the decks of my ship, the Astrid. I've got it made!
Except no Cuspid. * * * *
"Captain Jennings," said the woman who chartered my ship that day in Earth-June and Cygnus-January, "you may think it strange that a woman, alone except for an entourage of secretaries, and her own personal doctor, should take a ship out into the clouds of the galaxy. But I do have a purpose. A strange one, I do hope you can manage not to reveal your doubt of my sanity, when you hear my story."
I am a gentleman, make no mistake about that. I bowed from the hips, with a gracious smile and a sweep of my white-gloved hand.
"Dear lady, I could not help but note the gentility of bearing. What is sanity against beauty? Let us be insane together."
She seated herself.
"A proper answer," she smiled. "Your attitude intrigues me. Let us hope it will hold up under the forces that will be brought to bear against it.
"Come then, let us be insane together. What would you say if you saw a face in the sky? The galactic sky, as big as twice your sky here on Cygnus?"
"You saw such a face?"
"Yes, I did see such a face. In this sector of the galaxy, sir, close, I am told, to the Rim. Ten years ago I saw such a face. It was the face of my dead husband. Shall I go on?"
This woman's name was Ruth. She was Mrs. Ruth Coronado--the richest woman in this universe. She was sixty-seven years old, and she was my future wife. From the moment she stepped into my astro-marine office, our relationship was assured, the cement was set. She didn't know it at the time; I did. For there was no difficulty meeting her glance for glance, of looking deeply through her eyes into the unmeasured core of her. I adored Mrs. Ruth Coronado, simply, and forever.
Like countless women before her, she had enjoyed the luxuries of her husband's wealth without incurring any of the hazards. John Coronado, tycoon extraordinary, owner of countless worlds, industrialist, exporter and importer the length and breadth of the Galaxy, died one day of a heart attack.
"I was with him the day he died," she told me, smiling with her head up, her voice lilting, mellow. "It was, Captain Jennings, a bad moment for me. We had been married twenty years, you see, while his disease was not unusual among men of his forcefulness and energy, it seemed cruel that he should die at a time when for the first time in many years he was not actively conducting his business affairs. For many months, he had left his industrial and financial empire in the hands of trusted subordinates. He himself, with me, was on a search."
"A search," I said, half-question, half-statement; for had I myself not been on a search, a search that, indeed, had begun just thirty years ago, just about the time that John Coronado was courting Ruth?
Memory, however, was carrying me back ten years, to the wreck of a star flyer.
"He was on a search for the remains of a ship and the bodies that might be inside?" I asked. "And it was in this sector of the galaxy, in Cygnus the Swan?"
"In Cygnus the Swan, yes," she said coolly. "Somewhere along its axis, close to the Rim. You are telling me you know something of this event?"
"The wreck of the Star Maid," I said. "Some flotsam was found. No bodies. Members of your husband's family. His mother, his sister, her husband and two children."
"Exactly. And his brother, and of course the crew. As a spacefaring man perhaps you would remember such an event."
She passed her hand lightly, across her forehead, as if to remove an errant strand of rich grayed hair. Actually, she was attempting to hide a weariness that showed in the pale shadowed blue of her eyes, in the sudden droop of her shoulders. She sighed deeply, but without sound. Then her head came up again, and the permanent smile of Ruth played again about her lips.
"Forgive me," she said. "I am tired. It is obvious to you, of course, that I have searched too long. Nonetheless, I shall go on."
She now produced a photograph from a briefcase. It was one of the hard-to-produce cubagraphs. Looked at straight on, the face was a seven-eighths profile. Looked at from any other angle, one saw it as though it were a living face.
"This was the face I saw from the observation strip of the spaceship we were flying," she said simply. "My husband had just died, as I knew he would. The moment was one of terrible sadness for me. I wandered away from the deathbed as in a dream, and as in a dream, I found myself amidships bodiless, almost, and saw my husband's face carved into the clouds of stars.
"The face was as you see it this cubagraph. My heart stopped when first I saw it. But then, in my sadness, I simply assumed that this was the way things were--the way they should be. John, who owned so much of the galaxy, who, indeed, loved all of Creation as few men ever have revered anything, now belonged to God. God had buried his soul out here, on the mystic edge of forever.
"As I watched entranced, hypnotized if you will, the ship was moving on, and my husband's face naturally disappeared as the angle of my vision slowly changed.
"Then I came to.
"I knew I had seen no such face."
She smiled sadly. "That is, I knew it then. Later, I saw the truth. The Face actually had been there. That was when my search started."
"And the object of your search?" I asked.
"To find the Face," she said. "Then to find a world under it where I could live out my remaining years.
"It was my way of being with my husband for Eternity." * * * *
At seventy, I was and am wise enough not to inject common sense where none is asked for. Hola! Did we not both know that no such Face existed? Therefore we went about the task of sealing our bargain.
On the next morning of that cold Cygnus-January, I went through the micro-files of the Farer's Astrogation Library. In the past ten years, a Mrs. Ruth Coronado chartered three spaceboats, which crept up and down the axis of Cygnus the Swan, a matter of some forty million lightyears. The files also gave me the present address of a commanding officer. I called on him.
"She's skeeting you, Jennings," this man told me. "It's her way of getting her kicks out of life. Look up her record. She was on the stage before she married John Coronado. Now she's back on stage again, and a fine-looking women she always will be with that everlastin' smile. Which is all right, but don't let her package you."
"In any case, we spent a year on the job. I was happy to take her money. That's it."
Money, who needs it? But I needed Ruth, as I came to call her very shortly. Two Cygnus-mornings later my ship, the elegant, the incomparable, the beauteous Astrid, lifted from her berth-home on her fire-wings. Our speed instantly was beyond that of light. My crew of five wove a twining dance of faultless precision as they tended their ship. We clove space and swooped into our, rendezvous with the far end of the Swan's axis, we speared the powdery clouds of mystic space inspiring beyond compare.
In my spacious mirrored and vented control room I showed Mrs. Ruth Coronado how we would operate. I personally programmed the ship's macrosticklers: John Coronado's face was fed into them by bits, his face becoming the guiding soul of this ship.
"What the ship sees from moment to moment will be fed into the macrosticklers as well; should the ship see what you hope to find, you'll know it: the alarm bells will shake you out of sleep."
This woman who was to be my, wife, and knew it not, smiled her, gentle smile.
"You are brave and kind to share my insanity, Captain," she said. "Why is it that you do so?"
"Perhaps because I am on a search myself," I answered, with a shrug that waved my fine gold epaulettes. I told her about my lost planet Cuspid and its wild green horses. "That has been my, search," I said. I looked down into her face, the smooth face of an older woman who has spent many years in space. Her eyes were lost in their pale blue shadowy hollows. I said, "But we all must have a search, must we not? It gives us our reason for walking across the street."
She touched my hand lightly to show she heard, but she was thinking deeply. Finally, she came back, letting the indentations at the corners of her lips again receive her smile.
"Perhaps I too have heard of the horse planet," she said. "Was it not in the early days of the Panic when nobody thought Earth would survive, that animals of every description were shipped across the galaxy and dumped on any world that might sustain them?"
I nodded. "Few of those breeds survived. The horses of Cuspid adapted." The old pain returned to me, and she must have seen it in my face, for the memory of the death by fire of my incomparable Green Lace was still with me. She clasped my hand and held onto it as we left the control room.
"My strange Captain Jennings," she murmured. "You search for horses in the sky, and I search for a Great Star Face. Perhaps on the Rim anything can happen."
"Anything!" I told her, falling in with her mood. "Why, Ruth, out here creation is still at work. Perhaps you cannot really comprehend how close to the edge of the galaxy at this moment. Mysterious forces that we do not understand are shaping the lives of stars! Hydrogen clouds blow willy-nilly at speeds well-nigh impossible, and what are the forces that blow them? We do not know."
She smiled indulgently. "I comprehend little of space, though you could by this time call me a star-woman."
"Did you know," I pursued, "that more than once a beast with clawed legs of fire has been seen in these skies, moving like a comet would move across Earth's spaces?"
"This is a true story?"
"A true story," I proclaimed. "And there are other strangenesses out here. What did you once call it? The mystic edge of forever? Exactly! Now think about this, dear lady." And there I let the subject lapse, albeit with enough of a glint in my eye to leave her in more than a little doubt as to the authenticity of my tale.
But it was authentic. I myself had seen such a beast!
You do not believe me? Huk-kah! Very well. Let us stay with the reality of green horses forty million light-years from Earth, and I shall get on with my tale at once. * * * *
The Cygnus-days passed. They were wonderful days. My love and I dined by candle-light. We walked the spacious decks, the planking awash with the fantastic flickering rainbows brought into being by our faster-than-light plunge through the Swan. Suns puffed toward us like explosions. And once we saw the Beast!
"There he goes!" I cried, and she pressed to me endeavoring to sight along my pointed finger, and when I got over my excitement she was looking up at me in wonder, white starlight turned to blue in her eyes.
"You really believe there was a Beast," she said.
"Yes, yes!" I cried, still searching the changing skies. "It was there! I saw it!"
"You easily fool yourself, my strange captain. You fool yourself, for me, into believing there is a Face--You fool yourself into seeing a Beast."
At this I was ruffled.
Ruth did not know the tradition.
When you say you see the Beast, no one differs. You must say, "Tell me about the Beast? Is it like the one I saw? Did it have seven legs or four?" And then you describe it and everyone whispers excitedly, and a few others of those listening offer corroborating stories.
After all! One is traveling so fast!
Indeed, fast is not even a word that suffices, it is an Earth-word for Earth-spaces, suitable only for describing the bicycle race down the block. Could the word fast describe our speeds as the Astrid gobbled dimensions and ruptured Space? What might one not see in such conditions? Surely--at the least--a Beast!
Mrs. Ruth Coronado in the rainbow light was troubled.
"I did not mean to offend you, my dear captain," she said. "Perhaps there is a Beast--too."
We stopped in the observation strip, and there we were part of the massive sky.
I faced her, took her hand, stood looking down at it, at the tracery of blue veins under the translucent skin. It was the hand of an older woman who had lived graciously.
I said, "Perhaps you know how I feel about you, Ruth."
"Yes," she said. "Perhaps we are too old for this, however."
"No," I said. "We are young. You and I have lived as star-people for enough years for it to count. Why else our vitality? For we are vital, Ruth. And you are vital to me, necessary to my life. I want to marry you."
A shadow darkened under her eyes. Her hand squeezed mine convulsively, not in some answering emotion, but in pain. "Captain," she whispered against my jacket. "You must remember. We are looking for my husband's galactic face!" * * * *
I was seventy! My love was not of great heat, let us admit, but oh! the flame was steady. The weeks of our search passed. We were enclosed in curling waves of star clouds, we were whipped and hastened on in our fantasy of speed by great writhing rubbery sheets of white flame. Ruth and I talked endlessly. We knew each other's lives. We walked arm in arm, hand in hand, fingers intertwined, along the lush decks of my princess ship the Astrid. Once we landed on a world I did not know, but the people, of direct Earth descent, were kindly.
Here Mrs. Ruth Coronado, with a touch of apology on my arm, told me she would need a day to take care of some business affairs.
She must send some messages to Earth along the Leaper, and she must wait for replies.
She would not tell me what these messages were.
She entered the Farer's Communication Building, which was sponsored by Galactic Control, just as it sponsored other communication centers on thousands of other worlds.
The money she would spend to ride a single message down the photon-roads and to receive a reply via the same Leaper system was nothing to her, but it would be a considerable amount, even though this system was subsidized.
At the end of the day, one of her secretaries who stayed with her called me aboard the Astrid, informing me that Mrs. Ruth Coronado would be waiting.
She emerged from the offices of the communication center with a preoccupied frown.
"I will need another day," she told me.
I held my peace, for could I, even lightly, suggest that she hold no secrets from me, when I myself was guilty of a certain duplicity?
You will understand the depth of my entanglement in this fantasy we both lived when I explain to you that I began to wait for the Astrid to find the Face! that I began to wait for the alarm bells to ring!
And the waiting was loathsome. A cubagraph of John Coronado, you see, somehow had become the soul of my ship. John Coronado had taken from me the captaincy of my ship. John Coronado was my ship, I a helpless pawn of his galactic whim.
More! In my mind, try though I would to erase it, John Coronado became my rival. I ground my teeth at the mere thought of my ship the Astrid, my bloodhound of space, tracking down that improbable, sneering, challenging, hateful Face--only to have my love lost to me.
Therefore, I shut off the alarm system.
There would be no bells to tell Mrs. Ruth Coronado that her impossible search was over.
Instead, I tuned the alarm system to a small receiver snapped to my wrist.
Nervously, I, fool that I was, waited for it to ring. * * * *
At the end of Ruth's second mysterious day at the Farer's Communication Building, I met her, and she was smiling a secret smile. Her face, lined though it might be, was the radiant face of an inwardly beautiful woman.
She took my hands in hers. Her shadowed blue eyes were full of a suppressed excitement.
"Captain Jennings," she said, "your search, at least, is over. I have the coordinates of the planet Cuspid!"
I studied, the space-graph the communications people had made for her.
Cuspid's true name was Terrano IV. It twined about the two units of a double-star system in an endless progression of figure eights--or, if you wish to sustain yourself in the magic of the Rim, you may think of it as performing an endless series of infinity signs.
I looked up from the graph. "Thank you," I said. My eyes asked the question.
She said, "Cuspid is a code name. There were many such habitable planets given code names during the Panic, for fear that the warriors of Earth would destroy them also. Somewhere in my husband's extensive business files the tidbit of information was waiting. Many messages were necessary, to many worlds. Finally, the answer came.
"Now your search ends."
"Yes," I said, once more studying the chart which would lead me to the planet of my dreams. At the terminus of Cygnus the Swan it was, not far. I laid the paper aside. Impulsively I took Ruth's hand in a gesture she was accustomed to.
"Ruth," I said, pleading. "Do not refuse me now. This is the sign you and I have been waiting for. Go there with me. To Terrano IV. Marry me, Ruth. Will you?"
She drew back, looking at me through a film of tears, blindly shaking her head. "Your search is over," she whispered, "but what about my search? Find the Face for me, Captain Jennings, find the Face!"
I could say nothing. I had no defense. Ruth turned away with head bowed so that a curl of silver gray hair fell across her eyes, and she returned alone to her cabin.
Find the face.