Zack scratched his head thoughtfully and placed the last of the disks, and the reader, on the floor next to the foodslot. It had been an eye-openin’ thirteen days. Each day, all day, he had spent lookin’ at the pictures in the small machine-window of the reader, that were purported, by it, to be of places in the known universe: all the myriad planets and their native creatures, with bits of strange knowledge and information from some one million odd cultures and civilizations recited to him out of thin air by a halting, toneless voice. His old concepts of existence and reality had been obliterated, in the face of, what seemed to be, overwhelmin’ evidence to the contrary. He was awestruck by the sheer immensity of the universe, as touted by the teachermachine’s stories, as well as its supposed complexity and endless variety.
Not completely convinced of the truth of anythin’ he had learned, and tried to learn, in the past coupla days (it could still all be some devilish plot aimed at confusin’ him), he was awed, yes; but he remained uncowed. He refused to let even this extraordinary onslaught of brain-bendin’ information break his life-long, hard-bitten resolve. Perhaps his mental flexibility stemmed from his habituation to a nomadic lifestyle — eighteen years spent on the trail. A life of travel and constant change had inured him to the improbable, and had imbued him with a streak of broad-mindedness and tolerance rare amongst even his peers. He had had lots of experience adaptin’ to new situations.
Zack smiled and waved to the, by now, familiar “face” in the wall-window. He had almost come to think of the alien as a friend — that showed just how far he had come from his initial paroxysm of superstitious terror. Of course, havin’ come to believe that the big slugs evidently intended him no harm other than his present confinement, had gone a long way towards alterin’ his feelings.
He’d been pissed-off about Jezebelle’s fate ever since he’d finally understood that she had become food for somebody (orsomething ). After a week or two his anger had become melancholy after he accepted the alien’s accounts of the fact that they had made a mistake, a mistake that he had concluded was, from what he had been told, an honest one.
It had also been made clear to him that the slugs wanted to compensate him for her loss. It all had somethin’ to do with their laws, and some concepts that came across to him as meanin’less sounds or as simple silent gaps in the translator-machine’s narratives. Zack was constantly being asked how much the horse had been “worth”, and whether or not another horse might do just as well, if one could be found for him upon his promised return to the Earth. Zack, well schooled in horse-tradin’, had adroitly refused to be pinned down on a final price, waitin’ for the offers to escalate. He had tried to explain that, after all there had been countless hours of trainin’, and “bonding” (a concept he’d learned from them), involved in the total value of his former mount. His saddle, tack and gear had been located, and he had been promised that, upon his return to Earth, all these would be given back to him.
The alien (“S. Cal Two” was what the machine gave his name as) began today by offering Zack three unbroken horses and a water buffalo as compensation for his loss.
Zack smiled and said no, politely but firmly.
Four horses and immunization against various diseases endemic to his species?
After a moment’s thought, Zack once again declined, politely.
A zebra, the horses, and an orangutan?
Zack once again declined. While he was not a greedy man, he reasoned that, if he waited and drove a hard bargain (after all, he had been kidnapped and nearly frightened to death), he might come out of this somewhat well off. No greenhorn he, Zack had long ago learned that when the other fella seemed impatient, it was smart to start draggin’ his heels a bit. The other guy might start makin’ rash offers, to Zack’s ultimate benefit. ‘Sides, he’d had a lot to learn in the past few weeks, and his brain was still reelin’ from all the new information he’d taken in in such a short span. He needed time to think.
The horses, two Hereford cows and a pound of iron?
Zack’s eyebrows rose involuntarily before he regained his poker-face. Metals? . . .
Having come to a decision, Zack proceeded to, for the first time, vocalize his demands. Squinting at S. Cal, he began firmly: “I don’t want another horse, Jezebelle can never be replaced!”
The slug slumped. “What do you want then?” the machine intoned. “Please, I am responsible for this; I could lose my job, my propagation privileges. There must be something . . .”
“Relax pardner,” Zack said expansively, “I’m sure we kin work out some kinda deal.” He thought about the glorious three-dimensional pictures he’d seen of all those exotic places. Pictures that had set his imagination afire.
Zack scratched his chin and decided to lay his cards on the table. “Ya know,” he drawled, “I’ve always had a hankerin’ to travel . . .”
* * *
Joe Sample was gettin’ old. He peered intently at the harness he’d been fixin’ for the last hour and shook his head. Time was, he thought sadly, when he coudda fixed this here harness, an’ fixed it good, in half that time.
Shorty Dobkins came a-walkin’ up to him, jes’ back from town, sayin’: “Hey Pops, ya’ll got a letter.”
Joe sighed and looked up reluctantly. “None of yer bad jokes now Shorty. Ya know I ain’t got no kin. ‘Sides, anybody knows me know I kin’t read. ‘N doncha be callin’ me ‘Pops’.” He spat fiercely, jes’ missin’ Shorty’s boots.
“Suit’cherself, old man,” Shorty said, brandishin’ an envelope, “It’s all here anyways. Want me to throw it away?”
“What? Gimme that.” He reached up and snatched it away from him, scratchin’ his matted “burnsides” in wonder as he made out his name on the front of it. He could recognize at least that much. “Why, this here’s a telegram you asshole, must be bad news.”
“Well, ain’tcha gonna open it?
“Whatzit say? . . . O.K.,” he held it up to the sun, as though he could see through the envelope and somehow divine its message. He sighed and spat again, frownin’, and handed it back to Shorty. “Go on ‘n have yer fun. Open it ‘n read it to me. Consarned pain in the ass.”
Carefully, Shorty opened the envelope. “Well I’ll be dipped in shit,” he exclaimed.
“Read it to me, goddamit!” Joe growled, startin’ to rile and rise.
As Shorty began to read aloud, Ole Joe’s toothless mouth began to curl open in a gummy smile, the first he’d had in years, for the contents read:
DEAR JOE STOP STRUCK IT RICH IN GOLD STOP SEEN ENOUGH OF THIS WORLD AND THE NEXT STOP BOUGHT LAND AND CATTLE IN COLORADO STOP NEED A GOOD MAN TO HELP OUT STOP GET YOUR BUTT UP HERE TO MANITOU SPRINGS STOP ASK FOR ME AT THE STAGE STOP STOP CASH ENCLOSED CHECK AT TOWN BANK STOP SHOULD BE ENOUGH TO GET YOU HERE STOP BUY ALL THE PLUG TABACCEE YOU CAN LOAD ON A MULE STOP BUY A SPITTOON STOP CHAW ALL YOU CAN ON THE WAY HERE STOP SAVE YOUR SPIT STOP REPEAT SAVE YOUR SPIT STOP WILL EXPLAIN AND EXPECT YOU SOON STOP YOUR FRIEND ZACHARY SEENITALL STONE END