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Authors: Jack L. Chalker

Dancers in the Afterglow

BOOK: Dancers in the Afterglow
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DANCERS IN THE AFTERGLOW

Jack L. Chalker

Copyright © 1978 by Jack L. Chalker

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 78-62323

ISBN 0-345-27564

This book is for all those people who will read it and still wonder where those stories come from.

 

Portamento

 

THE END OF THE WORLD HAPPENED OUT OF SIGHT AND
out of mind.

Umi-jada! Umi-jada! Wamma, wamma bing bang!

The dancers form in a semblance of a line, and step in and out, to and fro, to the music of an exotic steel band.

Jami-bobba, jami-bobba, rama zama ding dong!

Overhead, a light-year or so from the planet Ondine where the dancers ignorantly revel, worried commanders examine war-board screens in great battle cruisers.

Umi-jada! Umi-jada! Wamma, wamma bing bang!

The man looks at the ersatz chorus line with longing and some wry amusement, leaning back on his bar stool, sipping Ondinian ale.

Jami-bobba, jami-bobba, rama rama ring rang!

"Dagger's
completely out, sir," a young officer reports to the admiral aboard the flagship. The commander is about thirty years older than his chronological age, and reaches for a stomach pill, gulps it down with some water.

"We can't hold the line without her," the old man manages to utter in a voice hoarse and strained. The aide looks uncomfortable. He knows this, too.

"Then we're going to lose Ondine," he responds, voice quivering.

Zippi-doo-a, zippi-doo-a, ringa ranga rung rung!
In the bar on Ondine, the man orders another dark brown ale and feels his loneliness more acutely here, in the midst of a crowded nightclub, than alone in his hotel room. He wishes wistfully that he'd had a childhood, that he'd learned to dance.

Zippi-doo-a, zippi-doo-a, ringa ranga rung rung!
Aboard the battle cruiser, the admiral discovers that he is out of stomach pills, even though they were a hundred to the bottle. Angrily, he throws the empty bottle at the wall, then stares in frustration at the computer projections of friendly and enemy forces and sees the tremendous bulge in the front. He knows his needs. He needs at least eight, possibly nine cruiser-class vessels to punch that bulge in space back in. Failing that, he needs to get roaring drunk.

Both needs are impossible to fulfill in his present position.

Umi-bobba, umi-bobba, wingi wangi wong wong!
The man in the Ondine bar looks at the girl in the line. She is radiant, alive, lost in the music and the togetherness of the dance. Not attractive, not at all: stringy black hair, jaw overlarge, badly overweight in all the wrong places. But there was a fire in her, an energy, a life-force when she joined in the dance. He downs his ale and wishes longingly to feel that in himself, but inside there is only a hollow emptiness.
Umi-jada! Umi-jada! Wamma wamma bing bang!
The admiral sighs. Without the firepower of the
Dagger
the bulge is enlarging, starting to curve in. It seems so tiny on the great electronic map board, a matter of mere centimeters. Actually, it was less than that when set just against the size of the front, let alone the size of the galaxy. Just a speck among the four-thousand-plus human worlds linked in the defensive unit called the Combine.

Yes, he notes, the sadness welling up in him, the bulge starts to loop, starts around that tiny little dot there, that one little flyspeck no bigger than a pinhead. That world, where people were still dancing in joyful ignorance.

Jami-bobba, jami-bobba, rama zama dong dong!
He'd met her only a few hours earlier, looking forlorn and alone on the beach facing the ocean. Her name was—let's see, what was it, now? Azu—Azure Pontine. An interesting name. Kind of a pretty name, really. He'd started up a mild conversation about the sea birds, and she'd responded. That didn't happen often, not to him. She flirted, he made a pass, and they started touring the clubs and carny attractions up and down the beach. It'd been fun. More fun than doing it alone, the way he was used to doing it. And then they'd been passing this joint and she'd heard the bong dance, and that's how it stood.

Umi jama! Umi jammal Wamma wamma bing bang!
The admiral orders more stomach pills and bawls out a few aides for minor nothings with a fury that surprises even him. They don't mind; they understand. They are feeling the same way themselves, and this has happened to them before. That's why they're on the flagship.

The admiral, they know, is putting off the inevitable as long as possible.

Jami-bobba, jami-bobba, rama rama ring rang!
The man is unsure of his own feelings, and he doesn't like that. He'd always prided himself on his self-control, but the older he got the less able he was to control anything. He was becoming a creature of emotion, dark emotion, and it was eating him alive. He knows this, admits this, but feels trapped. He knows intellectually that he seized upon this girl because she was someone, another human being, someone who was with him despite a total lack of understanding of him, or even a care about him. That, too, was all right; nobody ever cared, nobody ever understood.
He
cared—cared so much that he tortured himself constantly, desperately wishing that he could be a part of them, a part of humanity, and not a thing apart, knowing that something inside of
him
created the wrongness, unable to know what it was or do anything about it

Lights flicker, the happy line of dancers kicks and reels to the beat of the combo, their shadows flickering against the studded tapestry backdrop of the dance floor; shadows that move and flow as a single organism, joined, linked together visually as in the rhythm of the dance, while the man's shadow does not touch the dance floor, although it reaches for it.

Zippi-doo-a, zippi-doo-a, ringa ranga rung rung!

The admiral pushes back his white hair, which seems greasy and thick to his touch. He realizes for the first time that he is sweating, that he is feeling every ache he ever felt in his life, including aches not so much of the body as of the soul.

He looks around the command bridge and wants to cry, not just for the defeat, not just for the souls on a planet named Ondine, soon to be lost no matter what he does, but for them—these incredible men and women who feel as frustrated, as tired, as angry, and as sick as he, yet perform their own duties as experts.
They
didn't have young, dedicated officers to take it out on. Perhaps they had friends, even relatives, down there. Certainly most of them had visited the beautiful world at one time or another. A perfect shore-leave place.

Who do they take their feelings out on? he wonders idly, feeling suddenly foolish and ashamed. He knows they understand, but that makes it worse, not better. They have nobody to take it out on.

They didn't have his responsibility, either.

Zippi-doo-a, zipp-doo-a, ringa ranga rung rung!

The man takes out a sinkweed and lights it, inhaling deeply. He knows that interaction with the ale will make him high as a kite, but it's all he has. Why was she alone on the beach? he wonders idly. Why did she pick him? Probably because I look safe, he decides. He always looked safe: fat, tall, balding, a trace of a goatee that didn't work on his oily, pitted face. A shy, halting manner; they
knew
he understood. Everybody's big brother.

He hates the dance line. He studies their faces, wonders which one would make a pass at her, take her away from him. The flickering lights seem to mist in front of him, forming an intangible, transparent barrier.
They
are on the other side of the barrier, with her.

Umi-bobba! Umi-bobba! Wingi wangi wong wong!

The circle is closing, forming a larger bulge on the screen.

"Messenger's
hit!" comes a call from the ensign. She looks up at the admiral, expectant but with hollow eyes.

He tries to force water to his cracked lips, but feels only bile. Finally, he manages a soft, almost inaudible croak.

"Withdraw and regroup," comes the broken whisper, the deadly ghost of words they cannot prevent or exorcise.

"Aye, sir," comes the slurred reply.

The bridge is silent for a long period, but the order has already been sent, received, and by the flickering of cheap little lights, acknowledged.

Finally the old man, for now he is just that, not an admiral commanding a battle, looks up through tears.

"How many people on Ondine?" he asks. There are no tears left in his eyes, but they pour out of his voice.

"Not many, sir," comes a consoling reply. "Almost unpopulated, really. After all, it was designed as a resort, not a mother planet."

"How many?"
he demands in a tone that would have cut cold steel.

The ensign stiffens. "Sixteen million, give or take," she replies crisply, like she was giving the number of tomatoes on Farm Number 34.

"Sixteen million," the old man repeats in wonder. "Only sixteen million?" He stiffens, his face contorted with rage.
"Only
sixteen million?" he roars. "ONLY SIXTEEN MILLION!" He is screaming now.

The bridge seems impossibly large, the people in it mere specks, like the tiny little lights on the war board, like the tiny little dot that is Ondine. The anguish is a living thing, bouncing from wall to wall, corner to corner.

The ship is pulling out, pulling back, but not the people aboard her. Their bodies are going, for certain, but their minds are fixed on Ondine.

Umi-jada! Umi-jadal Wang bong BONG!
The dance is over now. The dancers release each other's hands and struggle to their places. The girl moves toward him, toward the stool next to his, where her boilermaker demands attention now. She is laughing, smiling, and almost flopping onto the stool, she leans back and spins once around.

"Wheeee!" she breathes, chest heaving, and he laughs at her exuberance, as if that laugh for one precious moment makes him a part of it. He lurches slightly, almost falls off his stool, catches himself.

She laughs again—it's a pleasant laugh; she has a soft and sexy voice that doesn't go with her looks at all. She'd be the greatest sex symbol on Ondine if she were on the radio.

"You're tight!" she accuses playfully, then downs her double whiskey and reaches for the ale. "Got a sink-weed?"

He chuckles, gets one, lights it and hands it to her. "You're flying pretty high yourself," he responds lightly. "And that thing with a boilermaker ain't gonna help any."

She inhales deeply, then chugs some more of the ale. He watches almost admiringly; the three he's had have bloated him.

"Aaah! This is Ondine!" she responds. "Anything goes on Ondine! That's what it's here for!" She finishes the last of the ale. He lights another sinkweed for himself.

Suddenly her head darts up. That playfulness is still in her voice and manner and in her crooked smile. She reaches over, grabs his arm.

"C'mon! Let's go visit the ocean again!"

She almost pulls him off the stool, and they are running now, out the wide doors of the club, out into the twilight.

The ocean's roar is just across the brick lane inexplicably called a "boardwalk." The lights of the joints and tourist traps seem remote once they reach the beach, now shrouded in dusk, the noise of the clubs, the rides, the attractions, the people all mixing in a wild crescendo with the crashing of the surf and the final call of sea birds warning of the approaching dark.

They are flying, sailing along in a chemically induced elation enhanced by the setting sun and the cooler evening air.

Now they are running, running through the surf, which reaches out gently for them, touches them, splashes them. It feels tingly and they laugh, she still running ungainly, dragging him by the hand she clenches tightly.

Finally she stumbles, and he can't stop, falling on top of her.

She giggles, reaches over to him, pulls him to her. They kiss. They embrace. It's a long, long time, or no time at all.

Finally she relaxes, and so does he, and they lie there on the beach, wet and full of sand, looking out at the darkening horizon.

"The sun's set," he notes for no particular reason except there is nothing else to say.

"But there's an afterglow," she responds. "It's beautiful against the clouds."

He looks hard, watching the deep magenta glow reflecting against Ondine's ever-present cloud cover and the roaring sea, so different in the lighter gravity than seas he'd known, like sheets rippling, twisting the afterglow reflection into a million strange and fiery shapes.

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