Authors: Allen Steele
“Jules.” Rain was sitting beside me, yet her voice sounded as if it was being transmitted from some planet many parsecs away. “Jules, snap out of it. You'reâ¦”
The long, loud toll of a gong, and once again everything went quiet as all eyes turned toward the runway. A door opened at the side of the amphitheater, and two dozen
, wearing armor that vaguely resembled that of ancient Romans, entered the room. Carrying staffs from which dangled ribbonlike flags, they marched in perfect cadence until, two at a time, they took up positions on either side of the runway. Raising their staffs to shoulder height, they unfurled their flags, then stood at stiff attention.
“All rise for the
!” Jas commanded.
At a loss for what else to do, we stood up from our seats, gazed toward the door. The Great Hall had gone silent, yet from two seats to my left, I heard Morgan's quiet voice. “The
,” he whispered to no one in particular. “Spiritual leader of the Talus. Sort of a holy man, if you could call him that. He'sâ¦”
He abruptly went quiet as the gong sounded once more, and then the
entered the room.
I don't know what I was expectingâthe Pope, maybe, or perhaps the Dalai Lamaâbut that wasn't what I saw. What came through the door was something that looked like a bloated and incredibly ancient bullfrog. Swaddled in heavy robes of crimson and gold whose train dragged behind him, he lurched forward on thick, bipedal legs, his shoulders bowed by the weight of years. Rubbery jowls fell from either side of a broad, thick-lipped mouth, and sparse white hair hung limp from a flat, slightly ridged skull. Two deep-set eyesâone half-closed and slightly askewâgazed straight ahead in what appeared to be an expression of senile boredom.
slowly approached the throne, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. So this was the High Hoodoo of the Talus. If he'd been a bit smaller, I could have stuck him in a terrarium and fed him houseflies. Almost as if to confirm my impression, his mouth lolled open, and a long tongue spilled out for a moment before disappearing again, leaving behind a moist tendril that drooled from his lips.
Feeling an uncontrollable urge to crack up, I quickly raised a hand to my mouth. Yet I was too late to keep from laughing out loud. In the silence of the Great Hall, it sounded like someone busting a gut during a funeralâ¦which made it even more ridiculous.
Rain grabbed my arm. “Shut up!” she snapped, no longer trying to be quiet. “You're going toâ¦!”
But the damage was done. The
had heard me. Stopping just short of his throne, he slowly turned to regard me with a walleyed stare that was both wise and moronic at the same time. And, indeed, everyone else in the Great Hall seemed to be watching me as well. My crewmates, Jas and Fah, the
honor guard, the hundreds of extraterrestrials gathered around usâ¦all had turned to see what was going on with the impetuous young human who'd brayed in the presence of the holiest of holies.
“Sorryâ¦I'm so sorry.” I gazed back at the
, trying to show the proper respect yet still incapable of hiding my grin. “My apologies, your worshipâ¦your highnessâ¦your frogginess, or whateverâ¦”
Ignoring Rain, I stepped forward, approaching the dais with my hands outstretched. “No, reallyâ¦I mean it. I'm just some poor goof from Earthâ¦hell, two weeks ago, I was a stowawayâ¦and now, here I am, face-to-face with the greatestâ¦um, toad, I guessâ¦in the entire galaxy.”
Ted tried to grab my arm and pull me back, but I was on a roll. Slipping free of his grasp, I continued walking toward the
. “So I'm absolutely, completely, totally overwhelmed,” I babbled, making my way up a short flight of steps to the dais. “This is a real honor, yourâ¦um, whatever they call you back in the pondâ¦and I just want to say that me and my friends are happy to be here, and thanks for all the paperweights, andâ¦”
By then, I'd reached the top of the dais. The
was only a few feet away; his one good eye peered at me with what seemed to be amusement, as his mouth stretched open to allow his tongue to loll forward again.
“Well,” I finished, “I promise I won't eat your legs.”
I was about to wrap my arms around him in what I meant to be a brotherly hug when, all of a sudden, the small airborne balls I'd seen earlier swooped down upon me. They circled me like the electrons of an enormous atom, preventing me from getting any closer to the
. Annoyed by their interruption, I raised my hands to swat them away.
One of them touched the back of my left hand, and that was it. I was out like a light.
The morning afterâ¦
the frog-god is amusedâ¦
truth and consequencesâ¦
an act of atonement.
Exactly how long I was out of commission, I couldn't know. What I did know for certain is that, when I woke up on the sofa in the library, it was with the worst hangover of my life. Which isn't saying much, because I've never been a heavy drinker. If this was what Ash had to deal with every time he went on a bender, though, it was enough to make me vow then and there never to get smashed again.
Butâ¦I hadn't been drunk. The last thing I recalled was raving at the
; then little glowing balls swarmed in upon me. Up until that point, my behavior had been erratic, to say the least, but I could've sworn in good faith that neither grain nor grape had passed my lips. And if not, then why did my brain hurt so much and my eyes feel as if they'd been rubbed with sandpaper?
Rolling over on the sofa, I looked up to find Rain gazing down at me. The expression on her face wasn't pleasant; she'd changed out of her
, but I didn't need its patterns to tell me that her mood was black.
“Ummâ¦hey there,” I muttered. “What happened?”
“I don't know. You tell me.” Despite her anger, her voice was gentle, genuinely concerned. She reached over to a side table, picked up a glass of water. “Here. Drink this.”
I managed to sit up enough to take the glass from her without spilling it. Even that, though, was sufficient to make my skull feel as if it was ready to explode. But my mouth tasted like a sandbox, and a drink of water was worth the pain. “Thanks,” I gasped once I'd quenched my thirst. “Whereâ¦I mean, how did I get back here?”
“We carried you. Hold on a sec.” Rain was wearing her headset; she tapped its lobe and murmured something I didn't quite catch. “Everyone's in bed,” she continued, “but the skipper said he wanted to be awakened as soon as you came to.”
“So you've been up with me all night?” She nodded, and I glanced at my watch. A quarter to seven, by the ship's clock. “Thanks. I appreciate itâ¦and the lift back, too.”
“Yeah, wellâ¦” Rain pushed my legs aside so that she could take a seat at the other end of the sofa. “You're lucky we were able to get you out of there. The
â¦Fah in particularâ¦wanted to take you into custody for what you did back there. Fortunately, Morgan interceded on your behalf, and, wellâ¦”
“Wait a minute.” Holding up a hand, I struggled with my memory. Lots of holes there that needed to be filled. “What
I do back there?”
She stared at me. “You mean you don't remember?” I started to shake my head; it was too painful to do so, but she got the idea. “God, Julesâ¦”
“I'm in trouble, aren't I?”
in trouble,” Ted said. “You're just the guy who got us there.”
I hadn't heard the door of his room open and shut; when I looked up at the gallery, though, I saw the captain heading for the stairs, with Emily behind him. Like Rain, they were back in their own clothes. Realizing that I was still wearing my
, I suddenly wanted to get out of it; the robe felt filthy, as if I'd done something embarrassing while wearing it. Which apparently was the case.
“Next time I give you an order,” Ted went on as he came down the stairs, “you damn well better listen to me.” He nodded toward the table where the food the
had brought us still lay. “And that includes skipping a free meal.”
Ouch. So they figured it out. But stillâ¦“I don't understand. Are you telling me it's something I ate?”
He and Emily stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looked at each other. “All right,” Emily said, walking over to pick up the plate of spice cakes I'd sampled, “we already know you had some of these. What I don't know is how many?”
It took me a second to refresh my memory. “Two, I thinkâ¦no, three.”
“Three? You're sure about that? Not four or five?” I forced myself to nod again, and she sighed. “Three. Wow. They must be loaded to do that to someone.”
“Loaded with what? I don'tâ¦”
“Marijuana. The same stuff we brought with us.” Emily held up one of the cakes. “Jas tells us they're called
. A delicacy, intended as dessert. They're usually made with a native herb found on their own world, but it's only in recent years that the
have learned that cannabis is a fine substitute. Apparently they decided that we'd like to find out how they cook with it.”
“But ifâ¦” I was confused. “Look, if they knew that these things would have that kind of effect on us, then why did theyâ¦?”
“That's just it. They didn't know.” She dropped the
back on the plate, brushed her hands clean against her trousers. “Cannabis is no more potent to them than coffee is to us, which is why they enjoy it so much. But with humans, particularly in large concentrationsâ¦”
“It's not entirely your fault.” Ted settled into a nearby armchair. “You didn't know what you were getting into. And I should've realized what was going on when you started behaving oddly even before we walked into the reception.”
“It wasn't just those things.” With my head beginning to clear, my recollection of the night was starting to come back to me. “I was just feeling a little goofy going into the hall. But when I touched the paperweightâ¦the
, I meanâ¦”
“Oh, crap.” He closed his eyes. “That just made it worse, didn't it?” “Uh-huh. You could say that.” The longer I was awake, the more I was able to rememberâ¦and none of it was good. “Did I really tell theâ¦what do they call him, the
?â¦that I wanted to eat his legs?”
“Not exactly, but close enough.” A wan smile from Rain. “At least you lucked out in one wayâ¦you didn't switch on your translator. The only ones besides ourselves who understood what you were saying were Jas and Fah. So it could've been worse.”
“Sorry, but you're not off the hook.” Ted shook his head. “None of us are. Among the Talus, the
is revered as a spiritual leader. Almost a prophet. You don't approach someone like that without much bowing and scrapingâ¦and you were ready to dance an Irish jig with him.”
“Actually, I think I just wanted to give him a nice, big hugâ¦not that it makes much difference.” I paused. “Those globes, the ones that swooped down on meâ¦”
, or so Jas tells us.” Emily yawned. “Automatic sentries, intended to keep everyone in line. Nonlethal, fortunately, or you wouldn't be here. In fact, it's lucky you got out of there at all. The
honor guard were ready to tote you off to whatever they call a prison before Morgan stepped in.”
“That's what Rain said, yeah.” I winced with more than physical pain. “I'm so sorry. I can'tâ¦I mean, hell, I don't believe Iâ¦”
“But you did,” Morgan said. “And now we're going to pay for it.”
Great. Just the person I needed to make the morning complete. None of us had noticed Morgan coming down the stairs, but there he was, wrapping a dressing robe around himself. “Someone make coffee,” he growled, less a request than an order. When no one hopped to it, he stared at Rain until she reluctantly rose from the sofa and wandered off to the kitchen. Morgan watched her go, then turned to me. “A fine mess you've put us in. Now I'm going to have to salvage what's left ofâ¦”
“With all due respect, Mr. Goldstein, it's not entirely Jules's fault.” Ted folded his arms together. “If the
hadn't brought us a dessert made with cannabis, he wouldn't have been tempted to eat it.” He darted a glance in my direction. “Perhaps he should've listened to me, but stillâ¦”
“Captain Harker, please don't tell me how to run my business.” Morgan plainly wasn't in a mood to listen. “What happened last night was inexcusable. Worse than inexcusableâ¦it was a disaster. It's only fortunate that I have some pull with these people, or otherwise the lot of us could have been imprisoned on charges of heresy.”
“Lookâ¦” I stopped myself and tried again. “I'm sorry for what I did. I was out of line, and I apologize for that. But since my translator wasn't on, no one except Jas and Fah knew what I was saying. And if that's the case, so far as the Talus is concerned, all I did was make a fool out of myself.” I shrugged. “Big deal.”
Morgan scowled at me. “Do you seriously believe that's all you did?” he asked, then shook his head in dismay. “Yes, of course you doâ¦you're that dumb.”
“Now, that's uncalled forâ¦” Emily began.
Morgan ignored her. “The
isn't just a spiritual leader. Among his own people, he's considered to be a deity incarnateâ¦or rather
, because he's the sole surviving member.”
“He is?” I blinked. “Howâ¦?”
“Before the destruction of their homeworld, the
made sure that the
wouldn't perish along with the rest of them.” He held up a hand before any of us could ask the obvious question. “It's a long story, and I'm not sure I understand all the details. What little I know, I got yesterday from Fah, as small talk during our negotiations. Suffice it to say, though, that the
single-handedly managed to preserve that which the
valued the mostâ¦their religion. Since then,
has been embraced by most of the Talus, with the
himself revered as its prophet.”
“Like Jesus, you mean,” Emily said. “Or Mohammed.”
“More like Buddha, I think, but you get the general idea.” Morgan looked at me again. “So when you pulled that stunt last night, the Talus didn't need to understand what you were babblingâ¦they were offended all the same.”
“Then we'll offer a formal apology,” Ted replied. “I think some of us did so last night, but it can't hurt to do so again.”
Morgan sighed in exasperation. “Yes, we can do thatâ¦but I'm not sure how much it will help. One of the main objectives of this mission was to convince the Talus that humankind is mature enough to join them. If they believe we're just a bunch of heathensâ¦”
He was interrupted by a bedroom door slamming shut. Everyone looked up to see Ash shuffling across the gallery, heading for the stairs. He seemed to be barely awake, and I assumed that he was hungover again, but before Morgan could continue his harangue, Ash cleared his throat.
“Doesn't matter,” he said. “The fix was in from the beginning.”
“Pardon?” Emily turned toward him as he walked downstairs. “What do you mean by that?”
“I don't think it was an accident that Jules got stoned.” For once, Ash appeared to be clear of eye and lucid of tongue; as he came closer, I noticed that the reek of bearshine that normally surrounded him was absent. “Nor was it a coincidence that
were delivered here just before the reception. In fact, we were all supposed to eat them.”
“Of course we were.” Morgan gave him a patronizing smirk. “It's common courtesy of the
to feed one's guests before a formal event, so that they won't be hungry later on. You're not telling me anything I don't already know.”
“Morgan”âAsh stared straight at himâ“shut up.”
This came not as an insult, but as a direct command. Morgan started to say something, then abruptly went silent. Almost as if Ash had said something to him that only Morgan could hear. I recalled a comment Ash had made the day before, when he'd said Morgan wouldn't fire him because he belonged to the Order of the Eye:
we've got too much on him
. I didn't know what he'd meant by thatâ¦apparently Morgan did, because heâ¦well, he shut up.
“Thereâ¦that's better.” As the rest of us glanced warily at one another, Ash went on. “As I was sayingâ¦maybe it's
custom to send food to guests, but I doubt they were ignorant of the fact that marijuana has a strong effect upon us. Particularly when ingested in large quantitiesâ¦more potent that way. After all, Morgan shipped quite a few pounds to them long before we came here. A sample, so to speak. So they've had plenty of time to study it.”
“Wellâ¦yeah, that's true.” Ted rubbed his chin. “But that doesn't necessarily mean they deliberately tried toâ¦um, dose us.” He paused. “Besides, didn't you tell us that you couldn't read their minds?”
“I can't understand what they're thinking, noâ¦but I
sense their emotions. So I can tell you that, just as I figured out that Jules was stoned before the rest of you did, I also picked up that Fah was particularly satisfied by his behavior. Jas was appalled, to be sure, but the
was more amused than insultedâ¦”