Signs & Portents





Chapter 17

What the Vintners Buy


Like many another rational introvert, Morton Wilson had always considered himself as sort of out of step socially, but this was changing. He found himself blossoming under the favorable attention he was receiving in his new job. He had never honestly imagined achieving recognition in his chosen field, solar radiation, but recognition had literally sought him out in what he had thought to be an obscure job, taken only because of a difficult job market. When he had first taken the job, he had supposed it to be a dead end sort of thing, His only area of uncertainty had been exactly when it would be quietly phased out and the marvelous paychecks would stop arriving. To his surprise, and finally relieved gratification, he discovered that both funds and people were gravitating to this gesture, if such it was, while other areas of research in the sciences went lean or were totally starved out. It was a changing world.

He was on his way home from attending a late evening barbecue at the suburban ranch of a colleague. He had enjoyed the gathering, but it had been abruptly rained out, and he had joined the race for shelter, and amid the laughter and hot coffee, had suddenly realized that he was truly happy for the first time in his life that he could recall. On this sublime pinnacle, he meditated, as he guided his hand painted classic microbus through the rain on the highway home. He wiped at the fog on the windshield and wished his windshield wipers were working better. Gradually, the sensation that the road looked unfamiliar began to nag at him.

Could he have taken a wrong turn in the rain? As he drove on, the rain began to lift, revealing that this dark stretch of highway was completely deserted except for his own vehicle. Dismay wrenched at him when the interior of the bus was suddenly flooded with red light and a flash of amber revealed itself in the rearview mirror. A cop? Well, he had not been speeding, vintage microbuses were incapable of it, but assorted probabilities crossed his mind. Could it be the tail lights were out again? He quickly maneuvered the bus onto the shoulder of the road.

Everything was quiet when he shut off his motor. He looked back, but saw no patrol car. What the hell had happened? He must have driven past some sort of unusually vivid illuminated signal light, he decided. Well, now that he was stopped, he could take a minute to check those tail lights.

As he reached the back of the bus, a vision of wonder came gliding silently and serenely over him. His mind recoiled, "Oh, no," it pleaded, "not that!!" But "that" continued to be true, an enormous disk flashing amber and red, then green and blue, somehow awash in white on a silvery metallic body, drifted down in front of the bus.

Morton debated trying a quick getaway down the road in the opposite direction, but found his feet frozen to the ground and his knees too unsteady. I am a scientist, his inner dialogue insisted sternly. If this is what it is, this is what it is. The memory of a laugh he had had with some friends about this very subject rose up to haunt him, the joke had concerned "Our Lady of Space." What a thing to remember, and at a time like this, his inner mentality scolded, unnerved at the prospect of being overheard telepathically. "Our Lady of Space" had just appeared in the opening that had quietly seamed open in the hemispheric shape. All was dark and pregnant with mystery behind her. But she, herself, shown radiant in the white glow from the hull, dressed in a shimmering float of iridescent material caught very simply in some sort of intricate pleating over both shoulders. A gold rope wound around a slender and curvaceous waist, caught the cascade of pleats briefly, leaving the rest swirling around her. Her sandals appeared to be intricately woven of the same gold cord.

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She was a complete fantasy figure, rather like a fairy grown full size and alive. Morton took all this in, congratulating himself on the detail he was memorizing in what seemed interminable seconds. Time had slowed, or perhaps stopped altogether from Morton's point of view. Of course, it couldn't be true, his mind reassured him, flying saucers and visitors and things like that were only a fad dreamed up by the mass mind. But now, it was happening to him. Something was happening, he sternly corrected himself, "it" took on a grotesque implication.

A redeeming theory angled through his mind. Was there some chance he had landed in the middle of the making of a low budget science fiction movie? It was an appealing solution, but in his heart, he knew it was not true.

When the vision spoke, his ability to endure additional novelty snapped. His ears were unable to break down the sounds into meaningful words, so he heard only gibberish. But something in his brain screamed "English!" It was the final assault on reason that she spoke English. His mind closed down. His mouth opened and he attempted to voice a protest, but giggled loudly and ludicrously instead.

As though comprehending his difficulty, the lady fixed him with a dignified but patient look. She spoke again, it was oddly lilted, strangely accented English, but this time he heard.

"I am Tisifoni," she said "T'siff'o'nee of the Eumenides."

"It means kindness." she smiled patiently at him, her manner friendly and casual, "Come!"

Morton walked to the ship, vaguely surprised that his initial diffidence had vanished. He had the feeling now that he had come home somehow, and everything was at last clear and complete.

Aboard the saucer, Morton's mind finished its recovery from its first shock, and he accepted where he was and the whole situation calmly. He was a very fortunate man again. He greeted the discovery that the ship was inhabited by not one, but three ladies with only pleased surprise.

Their names were difficult to pronounce, but of course, that would naturally be, as they came from a far away civilization in the Hyades. The first was Tisifoni, the second Alecto, and the third was M'Garee, but they were all Eumenides, which he knew meant kindness. Since their names were such a mouthful, he named them Tizi, Alec, and Gari, for greater ease, and he presumed that they must be sisters. Or who knew what strange, inexplicable in earthly terms, relationships existed out among the stars? They had come, they explained, to help the human race at this terrible turning point in the planet Earth's history, when the Earthlings stood on the brink of destruction. They brought the wisdom of a far more advanced civilization. Their enlightenment was, of course, obvious. Certainly beings who could build a ship like theirs were eons ahead of Earth's civilization. They had selected Morton because he was open minded, yet trained in sciences, and would therefore be responsive to their message.

Morton learned they were able to communicate not only in English, which they had learned from broadcasts, and also in all other human languages, but telepathically as well. Their own language, however, was composed of musical tones. It reminded Morton of the rapid electronic tone communication of computers. When he mentioned this example of machine language, however, they assured him that computers were mere toys that the Hyadeans had abandoned eons ago. All of their science, they explained, was based on a wonderful machine which would be called in English, the "Septuasyllabic lyre." In good time, it would be his duty to learn this instrument in order to transmit the knowledge of it to the world.

Morton pondered this. It was impossible to comprehend how this might be, but it seemed an enchantingly plausible. But this was not the only enchantment Morton found. He was not immune to the charms of these vibrantly beautiful females. It seemed to him absolutely incredible that ones so young and innocently flirtatious were the bearers of such a vast and superior technology, but he accepted it. Soon, in fact, he was in love, his only problem being choosing between the three. The ship had now retreated to the rings of Uranus where the ladies explained that the Hyadeans had maintained


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a listening post for the last few centuries. Morton was content to remain in orbit around their listening satellite, in fact, he considered it a duty to learn all that he could about this advanced civilization from the stars. But all was not as it should be, Morton realized, during a brief interval of insecurity. For awhile now, he thought he detected that the girls were becoming somewhat evasive, and their communications were mainly just small talk, interspersed with occasional flirtatious episodes.

He fervently hoped that their attitude was not because of his failure at his first effort at the lyre when the girls had shown it to him. It was a startling sight, a vast collection of crystalline columns, somehow joined into a whole, but in such a crazy extra-dimensional way, that it hurt the eyes to look at it.

Alec had run her hands deftly among its controls and a melodic music of an eerie alien beauty had emerged. But Morton had felt his teeth set on edge and he suspected the presence of both ultrasonic and subsonic vibrations. That one was in the presence of an artifact of a vastly superior culture, there was absolutely no doubt.

"Now, you!" Alec had beckoned him to try his own hand at the awesome device.

He hesitated, realizing that it might be dangerous for an ignorant person to play around with such an advanced instrument, but when all three of the girls joined in, laughing and teasing him to try it, he gave in. Cautiously, aware of the enormity of the responsibility placed on him, he placed himself in front of the lyre. But when he gingerly extended his hands as he had seen Alec do, the instrument exploded with such a cacophony of noise and ear and nerve shattering vibrations, he feared he had blundered and done something vastly destructive. He nearly blacked out when the full impact of the lyre's vibrations took him over.

The girls were still laughing, seemingly unaffected, when the sounds and eerie physical vibrations began to recede. But Morton had been shaken and mildly nauseous for a long time afterwards. The lyre had been quietly put away while he was recovering, but the three assured him he would learn more of it later. He had to admit to a small anxiety over the prospect.

Diffidently, he decided the time had come to broach the subject of Hyadean mores to Tizi. But she misunderstood his cautiously worded attempt and made no sensible answer. He again reflected that confusion and misunderstandings seemed to crop up more and more often in his communications with the girls. He was either not communicating well at all, oróthe small paranoid thought crept inócould it be that the girls were deliberately becoming selectively deaf?

The morbid and insidious sense of timelessness which pervaded the ship was disorienting to him. Maybe he should explain that to the Hyadeans? He had long been aware of it, and believed that the effect must somehow be associated with the starship drive. He attempted to come up with a reasonable theory as to why this should be so, but his wits would not rally to him. The timeless floating feeling made it difficult to even recall if he had not previously attempted this same action. But he must figure out just what sort of linguistic problem he was up against. There seemed to be things that he just could not express to the aliens.

In fact, now that he reflected on it, often as not, even the simplest concepts seemed unclear to the trio. Always, he had to begin with very elementary ideas, and somehow was never able to proceed to more complex ones. If this timeless sensation was natural to them, perhaps their very perception of time duration was quite (or subtly?) different from his own? But how to bridge the gap? The idea came to him in a flash, in spite of the timeless floating.

"Tizi," he queried, "how old are you?"

Tizi have him a long green eyed look, but just as Morton was concluding he again had a failed communication, she tittered, and answered.

"Old? Old? In earth years, about 10,000 years."

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This revelation startled Morton profoundly. His heart beat rapidly creating momentarily a feeling of time as he knew time. My God, he thought, immortality! He should have guessed it. But why did a race of immortals use a timeless starship drive, some demon of suspicion and curiosity demanded within him. It didn't hang together somehow. Fatigue swept over him as he tried to absorb this new revelation.

Although he had no conception of how much time had passed since he had boarded the ship, he certainly had no memory of sleeping during the whole time. And it could have been days for all he knew. Yes, that was part of the trouble, he concluded. He desperately needed sleep. He had been in the central chamber of the ship since he had boarded it, so had no idea what the other compartments might contain in the way of sleeping arrangements. From time to time, the girls had slipped away behind doors that opened, but also closed just as promptly behind them.

He decided the best thing to do was to get some sleep before going on with things, but he would have to communicate his need to the trio first. Gari was now present in the central chamber, so he declared his problem to her. Even as he was delivering this message and pondering the sleep aspect of space travel, another, urgent now, call of nature asserted itself. He fervently hoped that the bedroom he would be taken to would be equipped with a bathroom as well.

Gradually, be became aware that Gari was looking at him in what appeared to be shocked dismay. Had he again inadvertently said something out of place? Something that she could have misunderstood?

She voiced a shrill trilling cry in her own language and her two sisters appeared promptly. There was a brief debate in the alien tongue, after which all three stared at him with distressed expressions.

"But, Morton," said Alec, "that is what is wrong with you Earthlings. The sleep sickness. It is all of your troubles."

Morton's befuddled brain had to struggle with the idea, but he understood the main implication. These aliens did not sleep and apparently they expected him to abstain likewise. In fact, sleep appeared to be the root of all evil from their point of view. Regrettably, he was to the stage of almost falling asleep on his feet, and his other need was becoming paramount. Words to argue about the situation just would not come.

"Is there a bathroom?" he finally blurted out desperately, bracing himself to learn that this too was a proscribed function.

However, Gari made a reassuring trill and beckoned him to follow with a motion of her head. He was guided to a strange compartment and when the door closed unobtrusively behind him leaving him alone, he devoted concerted effort to determining the use of the fixtures. These were very strange and different from their kind on Earth, but fervently hoping he was correct in his analysis, he relieved himself.

The fixtures promptly withdrew into the walls when he finished, sending considerable adrenalin through him, but when the girls entered the now empty compartment within minutes and made no comment, he concluded everything must have gone rightly.

"Morton," announced Gari solemnly, "You must fight this problem of the sleeping."

Her sisters made affirmative noises in support of this declaration and Morton's mind reeled. Could this be some mistake on the part of Hyadeans who supposed that not sleeping themselves, humans likewise did not need to sleep? Morton hesitated to argue with advanced technology from the stars. But sleep was, after all, a long established Earth tradition, and even though his memory was not functioning in its best form, he believed that there were sound biological reasons.

He tried to express this to the aliens. "Ah, Tizi, it is possible that you Eumenians do not need to sleep, but, ah, I think that all humans do because of the way they are, ah, constructed."

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"It is true, Morton," continued Tizi, "many thousands of years ago, your race made this mistake. The result is the mind division, the creation of the dark mindóhow do you say?óthe "subconscious," the mind that does not know the light. In all humans there is now that mind. But it is sleep that makes this bad kind of mind."

"Well, ah, on Earth, you see even animals sleep."

"Yes," insisted Tizi, "it is all right for animal to sleep. But that is why all humans are now in big trouble. Intelligent mind must be all one, not divided."

Her sisters nodded sagely and all three regarded him with wide expectant eyes. Could it be true, he wondered, wildly. The whole concept sounded plausible, damned if it didn't. But the trouble was that considerable evolution had made sleep a necessity for humans and he opened his mouth to explain this to the girls. They had, however, picked up his thought telepathically and responded before he could speak.

"Not true, Morton," one sister said, "All learned in early childhood, a habit. It can be overcome."

"But perhaps with great difficulty," another added.

"The Lyre can help, Morton," it was Tizi speaking again, "You must try to overcome it. You must try very hard for the future of all humans."

Morton, still not fully convinced, watched as Gari and Alecto brought the Lyre out of its concealment and into the compartment.

"At first, it will be very hard," Tizi told him, "but later it will be easier. And finally, all over. One mind."

Morton shuddered slightly at the prospect of dealing with the Lyre again, his first brush with it had not exactly inspired confidence, but why not, he thought. Here was a technology unknown eons ahead of man's. His own encounter with it was a grand opportunity not afforded to other earthlings as yet. As the representative of his race, the least he could do was cooperate. He submitted to having his wrists bound by thin fragile appearing cords that the girls withdrew from the instrument. He was, in effect, hooked up to the machine, a function he had not supposed it was capable of, and he apprehensively awaited some strange sensation or vibration. The girls smiled at him and withdrew from the room.

Left alone, he awaited his fate, but nothing happened. Eventually, he experimented with moving his arms and again nothing happened. Curiosity finally prompted him to investigate the cords around his wrists, and he found them seemingly of one piece and quite strong, although he hesitated to exert his full strength, least he break something. The girls had given him no instructions, so he presumed that the correct thing to do was simply wait.

How long he was alone with the machine was impossible for him to estimate as usual in the ship's ambience, but ultimately, solitude and boredom took its toll and he began to doze off. Immediately, all the bells and hounds of hell erupted from the Lyre and for the second time, his nervous system vibrated long after the machine sounds had faded. He now understood how the Lyre was going to help him overcome the sleep problem and was not too happy about it. But he remained alert for quite sometime before again losing control.

After uncounted episodes of clamor and debilitating nerve wrenching sensations from the machine just as he started to doze in spite of himself, he became alarmed at being left alone. He began to call out for help in a loud voice. But none of the girls appeared. Much later, unable to control his tendency to fall asleep which caused the episodes of the machine's violent behavior to become ever more frequent, he became aware of the presence of one or other of the girls speaking to him gently and reassuringly. Once, he was positive she told him the ultimate answer to all mysteries, but afterwards, he could not remember and cried out desperately when the machine shrilled and shrieked and vibrated him awake again. One of his worst problems, he realized in a waking moment of lucidity, was the soft even white glow in the compartment which made it difficult to tell it his eyes were open or shut.

And much as Wine has play'd the Infidel,
And robb'd me of my Robe of Honourówell
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell.


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
as rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald

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