Into the Mystic

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When Lex returned from his motorcycle lessons, he could not bring himself to sit down; in part because his ass was a bit sore from all that riding, but mainly because he felt so exhilarated. He had traveled on faster transports, to be sure, but never with the wind whipping his long hair behind and all that power beneath, rough and wild and barely controlled. He could still feel the rhythmic thrum of the highway in his very bones. He grinned like a child who has just discovered the joy of misbehaving.

Gloria took off her helmet and stowed it in the closet. Lex saw how tired she looked, and dialed his elation down a notch. "Are you all right?" he inquired.

"Fine," she replied, waving her hand as if dismissing the whole matter. "I just spent the last few hours teaching an unlicensed driver from another planet to operate an 1100 cc motorcycle on a limited-access highway with a minimum requirement of 1200 cc, and at speeds well above the posted limit. And not only did we not get killed, we didn't even get pulled over by the police. I think I used up all the good karma I've been saving for my retirement."

"This was your idea," he reminded her.

"I know," she sighed, flopping into a chair. "I suppose we could have stayed close to home, where the cops all know me and would be more susceptible to sweet talk, but it was important to give you a chance to feel what my baby can do at full throttle. You can't get that in Sunday afternoon tourist traffic in Mystic. You'd have made better time jogging."

"I still feel badly about riding off with your 'baby,' as you call it." Lex said, crouching by her side.

"Oh please." she smiled at him and stroked his hair, still warm and sweat-damp from the hours they'd spent under the August sun. "It's not really my baby. It's just a thing and things can be replaced."

"It means a lot to you. I can tell."

"I'd be lying if I denied it," she conceded. "I spent a lot of hours restoring her. I'll find another bike in need of my help, and that'll become my new baby. Rebuilding the tavern will take time anyway, and I'll need a project or two to keep me busy. The devil finds work for idle hands, as some dead white guy used to say."

"I still wish I could repay you somehow."

"Say that one more time and I'll slap you silly," Gloria growled with mock ferocity. "I give it freely, with no expectation of recompense."

"You begin to sound like me," Lex teased.

"I suppose so. You thirsty? Want a beer?" She started to rise from the chair.

"Gods, no!" he laughed, then stood. "Rest easy and I shall fetch one for you though." He went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of Sam Adams. She took a swig and rubbed the cold bottle against her forehead.

The door to Tully's room opened and Zoot came out, carrying a cardboard box. Hannah and Nate followed close behind, each carrying an armload of bags. Tully wheeled after them.

"Looo-cee! We're home!" Zoot called cheerfully.

"Hey guys," Gloria answered. "Been shopping?"

"Nope," Zoot deadpanned. "Been shopping!"

"What did you get?" Gloria asked.

"A piston engine!" Zoot, Tully, Nate, and Hannah all answered in unison, then cracked up.

"I had to ask," Gloria groaned, then joined them. "It's a Monty Python thing," she explained to Lex. "It defies logic."

"Take that, Logic, I defy thee!" Nate swung his bags like a flail.

"Come on, Cyrano de Booger-ack," Hannah chided her brother. "Let's take these things upstairs." They scampered off. Zoot went into the kitchen and returned empty handed.

"How did the lessons go?" Tully asked.

"He's a natural," Gloria reported. "You should have seen him. Lex would've fit right in with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in that awful movie you forced me to watch."

"Don't you badmouth Easy Rider in my presence, little girl," Tully warned. "You made me sit through Joy Luck Club. I reckon we're even."

"Am I going to have to separate you two?" Zoot perched on the arm of Tully's chair, and looked at him fondly. He met her eyes, cocked his head to the side and smiled. Gloria looked from one to the other.

"You slept with Zoot!" she exclaimed.

"Crochet it on a sampler, why doncha?" Zoot glared in faux exasperation. Tully just beamed broadly.

"Congratulations," Lex offered. "How was it?"

Gloria punched him on the arm. "Like you don't know firsthand," she said.

"She did all the hard work." Tully admitted.

"There was a fair amount of heavy lifting involved," Zoot agreed. "First I had to –"

"Spare me the clinical details," Gloria interjected archly. "I'm really happy for you. For both of you, of course."

"Not just a little bit more for me?" Tully prompted.

"I am more happy for you," Lex offered.

"Thanks, man." Tully replied.

"Men!" Zoot snorted.

"Well, this probably calls for a celebration of some kind," Gloria observed, getting to her feet. "What does everyone want for dinner?"

"Oh no," Zoot said, waggling a finger at her friend. "You're not slaving over a hot stove tonight. Dinner is my lookout."

"You?" Gloria scoffed. "You ruin macaroni and cheese!"

"That burnt stuff is good for the digestion," Zoot countered. "You two go shower because" she sniffed Gloria's head "frankly, my dear, you need it. I'll handle everything."

"What are you going to make?" Tully asked.

"My world famous gourmet… call to the pizza place, of course. Now you two go get cleaned up. Then get dirty and clean up again. Speed Racer and I will take care of things down here."

Lex and Gloria showered friskily together, then took turns massaging each other with a fatigue-soothing salve from Lex's bag. Lex went first, and Gloria fairly purred under his firm and loving touch. Then he lay down, and she ministered unto him. A certain amount of playful groping ensued, but nothing requiring a second shower. They dressed in fresh clothes and came back downstairs.

The others were grouped around the table, playing a game called Boggle. Hannah offered to teach Lex the game, but he declined, explaining that while Ganta and English might sound alike, the variances in spelling would put him at a significant disadvantage. Instead, he and Gloria pulled up a chair and watched, rooting everyone on without playing favorites.

Eventually, the doorbell rang and Nate and Zoot went to answer it. He took the boxes as she paid the driver, then set them down on the table, pushing the Boggle set to the side.

"Pizza three days in a row,” Hannah groaned, eyeing the boxes with disdain.

"Whoa, man, deja food," Nate riposted cheerfully.

"We're all going to get fat," Hannah complained. "This can't be good for our cholesterol."

"What twelve year old worries about cholesterol?" Nate castigated his kid sister. "Sometimes you suck all the fun out of life, you know that? Let's eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow it's probably back to Mrs. Lefcourt's veggie burgers. Hey, Lex, do they have pizza in Novagrove?"

"Not as such. Perhaps I can remedy that." Lex got plates from the kitchen. "I do not think delivery will be feasible though. Especially to the outer colony worlds."

"You'd have to start small, Lex," Tully advised. "Then you can franchise. I can see it now." He punctuated his words with hand gestures over the table. "Machallo's Pizzeria: A Song in Every Bite."

"That's terrible," Gloria observed. "Besides, it would be such a waste of his talents. Can you picture him shoving pies into an oven or stuck behind a counter taking orders?"

"Maybe he could make the deliveries on his new motorcycle," Nate suggested.

"Lex, what are you going to do with the cycle when you get home?" Hannah asked. "I can't imagine there are many gas stations there."

"I will take it to the Mechanicians Guild. They can convert it to run on something else: goose fat perhaps, or even mana. But I will leave it up to them. They are very clever when it comes to contraptions."

"Will it still be loud?" Nate asked. "What's the fun of a quiet motorcycle?"

"Don't let them eliminate the vibration," Gloria added. Lex looked at her quizzically. "That's half the fun," she said with a mischievous wink.

"More than half," Zoot chimed in.

"Why?" Nate wanted to know.

"You wouldn't understand," Zoot said, ruffling his hair. "It's a girl thing."

Nate looked at her without comprehension, shrugged, and reached for another slice.

"Save some room, Beefy," Hannah warned. "Remember that we've got dessert."

"Oh?" Gloria looked at her sister. "What is it?"

"A piston engine," Zoot answered. "Weren't you paying attention?"

Once the leftovers and plates were cleared, Zoot went to the freezer and returned with the same cardboard box she had brought home earlier. Before opening it, she dispatched Nate to get the "you-know-what's" from "you-know-where". Nate dashed off and was back in a trice. Zoot stood up.

"Lex, we have a quaint Earth custom going back to Ancient Egypt called the Going Away Party. Back then, the guest of honor had his brain pulled out through his nose before being wrapped in a bunch of smelly bandages. Over the years, we've refined that practice. Today, we just make you look really stupid. Nate? If you would do the honors please?"

Nate produced a shiny pointy gold paper hat and put it on Lex's head. An elastic cord stretched to fit under the Minstrel's chin. "Your crown, m'lord," Nate intoned. Hannah pulled out her camera and took a picture.

"That is so you," Gloria commented.

"In addition," Zoot resumed her speech, "among the worshippers of Kali, it was the custom to burn the departee on a pyre of fragrant wood, and to practice suttee, a barbaric and sexist act which forced the man's mate to share in the ritual. We are, of course, far more enlightened than that, but it is still fitting that the honoree's loved one share, to some extent, in his fate. Hannah?"

Before Gloria could react, she found herself wearing a conical hat twin to the one Lex sported at a particularly rakish angle. Hannah took another picture. Nate laughed so hard he had to hold his sides. Tully let out a guffaw that filled the room. Gloria and Lex exchanged looks, then joined in the laughter.

"Hey!" Zoot broke through the merriment. "This is a solemn occasion here!" That pronouncement sparked even more mirth. Tully started coughing and pounding the table with his fist.

"And…" Zoot continued, waiting until the room calmed down. "And among people of the Jewish faith, when a young male passed the rite of manhood, he has to appear before the entire congregation wearing a funny hat." She produced a third party hat and put it on a mortified Tully, then kissed him smack dab on the mouth.

More hilarity ensued.

"Finally," she added, "among the Tree people of Borneo, when one member of the tribe was embarrassed all the other Tree people partook of the same humiliation in a show of solidarity." With that, she, Nate, and Hannah all donned their own cardboard chapeaux, then produced noisemakers and blew a series of tantaras.

"Now can we have dessert?" Nate asked.

"Indeed we can." Zoot opened the box, revealing an ice cream cake in the shape of a rocket ship with the words BON VOYAGE LEX written on it. The six of them made short work of the confection. Once it was gone, Hannah stood and requested everyone's attention.

"Many years ago, NASA launched the deep-space probe Voyager, intended to tell any space-faring race it encountered something about ourselves. It had a metal plaque showing our solar system and what the inhabitants of the third planet look like. On this festive occasion, the four of us deem it fitting that you take gifts that will tell your fellow Novagrovians about the people of Earth. Uncle Tully, why don't you start?"

"Hannah tells me that you can read the data on CDs using your armband contraption, so I give you some of the best examples of Earth music." He produced a stack of plastic cases. "While I still believe the best came from the relatively small window of time between 1962 and 1972, I decided to take a broader view for purposes of giving you a representative sample. First, the Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. Mathematical precision meets melodic brilliance. Next, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The 'Ode to Joy' will blow you away. Next, the ragtime piano of Scott Joplin, the first great American composer to my way of thinking. John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Listen to it with the lights out. Finally, from my own favorite era, a couple of acknowledged masterworks: Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and the Beatles' immortal Sgt. Pepper. Play those for your minstrel buddies to show 'em what we Earthlings can do."

He pushed the stack over to Lex, who thanked him quietly. Nate stood next, and lifted a bag onto the table. Warlock stuck his head out, looked around, and ambled over to sniff the CDs. "I got stuck with literature," Nate began. "But I decided to take the term loosely because most of the so-called classics are really boring and I didn't want the people of Novagrove to think of us as a bunch of dweebs." He reached into the bag and took out a heavy thick volume. "Like this, for example. It's the complete works of William Shakespeare, who everyone thinks is so great but I just don't get it. I mean, take Romeo & Juliet. It's about these teenagers who fall in love and get married but end up killing themselves because their folks are enemies. How whack is that? Why didn't they just sneak off to the local park to get their freak on or wait until they were old enough to get their own place? That's beyond lame."

"Ahem," Gloria interrupted.

"Oh yeah. sorry." Nate apologized. "Anyway, here are some other books that don't, y'know, suck. First we have Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and the sequel Through the Looking Glass. Awesome. These are the complete works to date of J. K. Rowling. You'll probably find the magic hinkey, but the stories are cool. Dune, my all-time favorite. I've worn out two copies already. I gotta believe you'll get a kick out of the whole Galactic Empire thing. Okay, these two go together." He produced another book and a thick CD case. "The complete musical version of Les Miserables. I've seen the show twice and it was so good it made me want to read the book, which was better than I expected. There you go. Read and enjoy." Nate sat down.

"I am certain that I shall, Nate. Thank you very much."

"My turn," Zoot chirped. "I get to be the voice of lunacy for a change. I firmly believe that the best way to understand a culture is to examine what it finds funny, so here goes." She brought out her own bag. "To start out with, here's your own personal copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, naturally." She waved it tauntingly under Nate's nose. "Think of me whenever you watch it. Next, an oldie but a goodie." She produced a set of false teeth, wound a key on the side, and placed it on the table. The teeth hopped and chattered, startling Warlock who jumped into Hannah's lap. "This is a squirting plastic flower. You fill this bulb with water, pin the flower to your shirt, slip the tube down your sleeve and, when someone tries to smell it, you squeeze the bulb and squirt them right in the kisser. Here's some fake plastic vomit, which has dozens of uses. Last, but not least, a whoopee cushion. In my humble opinion, who ever invented this shoulda won the Nobel Prize. I hope these help you get through whatever rough patches lie on the road ahead."

She walked over and gave Lex a big wet kiss. Lex returned it with ardor.

"I get to go last because this was my idea," Hannah said.

"It was not!" Nate protested. "I said we should give Lex a party!"

"Well, it was my idea to give him presents that would remind him of Earth," Hannah retorted.

"Stop bickering, both of you," Gloria scolded automatically.

"I still don't know why I got stuck with literature instead of just getting him a Game Boy like I wanted," Nate complained.

"Nate!" Gloria warned. He fell silent. "Go on, hon," she prompted her sister.

"As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted," Hannah said, sticking her tongue out at her brother who did the same to her, "I get to give you examples of our science and technology. This is a program called Encarta, an encyclopedia full of articles and pictures about Earth history, science, and culture. This is a Rubik's Cube. It's a puzzle. You scramble it and then twist and turn until each face is the original solid color. Finally, I want to give you three books. This is A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. He's brilliant. This is called How It Works. It explains the scientific principles behind many of our technological achievements. Last, this is my favorite book: Contact by Carl Sagan. I think it's very appropriate under the circumstances. Tell your people that we'd really like to meet more of them someday."

"And make them promise not to mutilate our cattle," Nate added.

"That too," Hannah agreed. "That's it – our gifts to you and the inhabitants of Novagrove." She kissed Lex's cheek and returned to her seat. Everyone applauded and Lex felt choked with emotion. He mumbled his thanks.

"Speech!" Tully urged, and the rest took up the chorus. "Speech! Speech!" Lex demurred but the rest, including Gloria, insisted. After a decent interval, he got to his feet.

"Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…" he began.

"Bullshit!" Tully coughed into his fist, which touched off another round of laughter.

"I thank all of you, not only for your gifts, but for the generosity of your spirits. In the short time I have been here, you have shown me friendship and fellowship, love and tenderness, to an extent I could not have anticipated. I was a stranger but you took me to your hearts. If I live to be ten thousand, not a day will go by that I do not think fondly on my time here among the bravest, kindest, most passionate people it has ever been my privilege to meet. And I wish to leave some small tokens of my appreciation behind with you." He bent, picked up his purse, and opened the flap. "I did not have time to shop before I came here, obviously, so I will have to find suitable presents from among my souvenirs."

"You don't have to give us anything," Gloria said.

"But I wish to, and so I shall. Ah, the very thing!" He withdrew a four-span long pole of carved wood from the recesses of the pouch. "Tully, this is a walking stick made of draffa wood. It was crafted by the Hyliti, a race of scholars and seekers, and is thousands of years old. I hope it will be useful as you get back upon your feet, and that it accompanies you down many roads."

He handed it to Tully, who caressed it with a halting touch and a look of profound wonder.

"Lex, you've already given me so much, I… Thank you, son. I will always treasure it." Tully trailed off and reached for his handkerchief. Lex dug once more into his bag and came up with a thick metal wrist band.

"Nate, this is a toy from my youth, not unlike your videogames. It operates on thought alone. Press this square and in your mind you will become a ship captain who has to fight off pirates and monsters as he sails from island to island seeking clues to a fabulous treasure. Press the square once more to, as you say, save and exit. I have not played it for many years, but I could never bring myself to throw it away. It will speak the language of the user, and the power source should work for over a Novagrovian century. I recommend getting comfortable before you use it, and do not forget to stop from time to time and eat or answer nature's call."

"This is too cool!" Nate whispered as he slipped it onto his wrist. "Thanks, Lex!" He looked like he wanted to start playing immediately. "Does it come with a strategy guide? You know, in case I get stuck?"

"You will have to manage on your own, Nate, but I believe you can win the game without a guide. Zoot, I wish I had something that would ease your concern over disease and pregnancy during sex, but I am not a woman and do not carry such things. Instead, I want to give you this." He handed her a ring with a bright red stone in the middle of a circle of diamond chips.

"It's beautiful, Lex," she slipped it on her right middle finger and looked at it.

"It is more than just for show," he smiled. "Touch someone with it."

Zoot offered her hand to Tully, who clasped it in his much larger paw. He shivered, laughed and pulled it back. "I felt like I was being tickled all over!" he exclaimed.

"A magical joy buzzer," Zoot howled. "That's too much!"

"Hannah." Lex continued, "Gloria told me of your ambition to travel to other planets. Until you can do that, I hope this will suffice." He handed her a band of cloth with a wide curved crystalline inset. "I was given this when I entertained travelers to the Forest Moon on a cruise ship. You wear it with the crystal covering your eyes." He placed it around her head and she gasped in amazement. "It is a depiction of my native star system, with its color-changing sun and twelve planets and all their moons. If you turn your head, you can get the full panoramic effect."

Hannah did so and gasped again. "Beautiful," she breathed. She reached out a hand as if to touch something in the near distance. "Oh Lex, this is wonderful!"

"And last, for you Gloria." He handed her a box with which she was already quite familiar.

"Your first aid kit? I couldn't possibly –"

"Yes, you could and you must. Consider it part of your medical education."

"It's too valuable!"

"It is just a thing, and things can be replaced, as a very wise and beautiful woman once told me," he reminded her. "A paltry gesture under the circumstances, but I give with all my heart."

Everyone contemplated their presents in silence as Lex retook his seat. "Do we have to give them back if Hannah's brilliant scheme doesn't work?" Nate asked. Zoot touched the back of his neck with her ringed hand and he squealed.

They spent the remaining time reviewing the plan, exchanging idle talk and keeping one eye on the clock. All too soon it was time to go. Gloria warned her siblings not to follow this time and assigned Tully and Zoot responsibility for making sure the youngsters stayed put. Lex bid everyone farewell, and they wished him luck and godspeed.

It took eight dry runs before he mastered the tricky maneuver that should send him through the portal at a speed high enough to overcome the chaos wind, at least in theory.

Gloria jumped up and down, clapping her hands. "That was great!" she cried.

"It was acceptable," he agreed cautiously, "but I can coax a little more from the machine. In any event, I should try another time."

He ran the numbers again, then once more. Each time was note-for-note perfect, but he realized that if he went any faster he would lose control and overshoot his mark. Not quite satisfied, he set the cycle on its stand and walked over to her. "I am as ready as I shall ever be," he reported.

Gloria gave him an encouraging hug. "It will work, Lex," she whispered in his ear. "It has to."

A minute later Gloria checked her watch. "Hannah predicted the next opening will occur at 10:43, and that's just about four minutes from now. You'd better take your position." She gave Lex one last squeeze, then pushed him away, waving towards the street.

"Wait for my signal, then hit her for all she's worth." Gloria smiled at him. Lex was not fooled in the least. He knew a brave face when he saw one. He started to say something tender and loving and full of sweet sorrow, but restrained himself. Now was not the time for sentiment. He knew his heart as surely as Gloria knew her own, and words would not change anything. Besides, he reasoned, it is not called a brave face for nothing. It deserved respect, and he honored her display of fortitude.

"I shall do my very best," he told her.

"I'm sure. Now go," she said in a tight, controlled voice. He wheeled around and rode out of the lot.

"Straight and true, my love," she said to his back as he entered the street. She might not have intended Lex to hear. Indeed, she might not have said it out loud at all. Nevertheless, he heard it, and the words filled him with resolve.

Lex waited on Water Street, watching Gloria who stood well out of the expected blast zone but at a location with a clear view of the alley. She was still smiling broadly. Then she waved both arms over her head and Lex took off.

As he turned into the alleyway for the final stretch, a figure in shining blue and gold armor stepped calmly from the gateway. It lifted one gauntleted hand and the motorcycle screeched to a complete stop. Lex was stuck in place as surely as if he had been nailed there. For another minute, both stood stock still until the portal slammed shut and the wind died.

The armored figured removed its helmet, revealing a familiar face that only increased Lex's surprise. "Captain Polglase!" he exclaimed.

"Well met, Minstrel," she said in Seshnei. "I am here to rescue you. I have come to take you home."

Gloria came running up. "Lex?" she called, obviously confused and not a little frightened. "What happened? Who's this woman?"

Lex took a second to recover his bearings. Of all the possible outcomes he had envisioned, this was not one he'd even remotely anticipated. Finally, he found his tongue and his manners. "Oh. Right. Gloria, this is Captain Polglase of the Imperius Dragoons. Captain, may I present Gloria Robinette, of Mystic, Connecticut and the planet Urth." The Captain bowed slightly.

"But what did she say?" Gloria demanded. Lex translated the Captain's words.

"She speaks Ganta?" the Dragoon inquired, then looked Gloria over critically. "You are quite slender for a dwarf."

"I get that a lot," Gloria answered. "Captain, it is an honor to meet you, and we appreciate you coming all this way on what could not have been an easy journey, but you are not very inconspicuous. Can I suggest we continue this reunion somewhere more secluded?"

"If it would make you comfortable, then by all means," Polglase nodded. "Where do you suggest we go?"

"My house," Gloria replied. "That's where all the fashionable alien visitors are going this season. Can you bend in that suit, or are you stuck in that position?"

"My armor is flexible," Polglase responded testily.

"Great." Gloria indicated her automobile. "Captain, you can ride with me. Lex, you take the motorcycle and follow us."

The Captain's armor was indeed flexible, but proved quite heavy. The car developed a pronounced list to starboard. "Seat belt," Gloria said, then regarded her passenger. Polglase looked back at her impassively. "Never mind," Gloria said.

Lex closed the car door behind Polglase and stepped aside so Gloria could maneuver out of the lot. He straddled the motorcycle's seat and watched the tail lights fade. The Minstrel contemplated Captain Polglase's arrival with mixed feelings. On the one hand, having a trained battlemage around was bound to make the trip back to Novagrove much easier. On the other hand, as time passed, he was becoming less and less certain that was the path he wished to take.

He turned the ignition and sped after the women, wondering how those waiting at home would react to their latest houseguest.

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