It was that time of day that should be inviolate, one of the rare moments in life when everything is going perfectly. I leaned back in the armchair and turned on the room-sized stereo – woofers the size of locomotives, tweeters that vibrated the teeth in your head – and J.S. Bach’s toccata and fugue saturated the air with beauty.
In my hand was a glass of just-poured three-hundred year old treasured bourbon, chilled with million year old ice brought from one of the outer planets. How perfect! I smiled benignly and raised the glass to my lips.
Like a throbbing toothache, or a mosquito’s distant whine, something penetrated paradise. A tinkle-tinkle that clashed with mighty Bach. A felt a snarl twist my lips as I touched the volume control and the great organ throbbed unhappily into silence. The front doorbell could be clearly hard again.
I punched an angry thumb at the button and the viewscreen came to life. A smiling, sundarkened face leered out at me; broken teeth – and was that a straw hanging limply from his lips?
“You in there, Jimmy? Can’t see nothing…”
A wispy white beard, a battered cap, an accent horribly familiar: I felt the hairs stirring on the back of his neck.
“You…you…!” I gurgled hoarsely.
“Guess you can see me allrighty! I’m your long-lost cousin Elmo come all the way from Bit O’ Heaven.”
It was like waking from a nightmare – and discovering the terrible dream had been true. A name I thought I would never hear again. The planet of my birth that I had fled so many years ago. Unwelcome memories flooded my brain while my teeth grated together with a grinding screech.
“Go away…” I muttered through the gnashing.
“Yep – a long way to come. Though I can’t see you I can tell yore glad to see me…” The imbecilic smile, the bobbing stalk of straw.
Glad! Elmo was as welcome as a plague of boils, a poison chalice, a raging tsunami… Why hadn’t I installed door mounted guns… I thumbed the volume control viciously, which only amplified his hoarse breathing, the straw-chomping lips. I hit the weapons detector which flashed green. If only he had been armed, a reason to destroy…
“Let me in Jimmy, I got some great news for you.”
There was a sound now along with his voice – a high-pitched squeal I thought that I would never hear again…Trance-like I rose, stumbled to the front door, unlocked it…
“Why Little Jimmy – you shore growed…”
A siren-like squeal drowned out his words as a small black body shot between my legs, quills rattling, heading straight for the kitchen.
“A porcuswine!” I gurgled.
“Shore is. Name’s Pinky. Brought her along to remind you of the good old days!”
I was reminded all right! Dull, depressing, stupid, stifling, claustrophobic – yes indeed I did have memories of Bit O’ Heaven! A loud crashing and even louder squealing came from the kitchen and I staggered in that direction.
Destruction! Pinky had overturned the garbage can and was rooting in it happily as she pushed it crashing around the kitchen. Elmo stumbled by me holding out a leather leash.
“Come on Pinky, be a good lil’ swine!”
Pinky had other ideas. She drove the bin around the kitchen, crashing into the walls, knocking over the table, squealing like a siren with Elmo in hot pursuit. He eventually cornered her, dragged her out by the hind leg, wrassled her to a fall – at full scream – and finally got the leash on her.
Garbage covered the floor, mixed with broken crockery. As I looked down, horrified, I saw that I was still holding my brimming glass. I drained it and my coughing joined the angry squeals.
“Shore nice to see you, Jim. Mighty fine place you got here…”
I stumbled from the room – aiming for the bourbon bottle.
Elmo and companion followed me with grunting companionship. I poured myself a drink with shaking hand, so shocked by this encounter that I actually filled a glass for him. He glugged it down and smacked his lips – then held out his empty glass. I sealed the bottle. That single drink probably cost more than he earned in a year from his porcuswinery. I sipped at my own while his bucolic voice washed over me with stunning boredom.
“…seems there has been a kind of interplanetary secession out our way, futures in porcuswine shares is drying up…”
With good reason I muttered to myself – and drank deep.
“… then Lil’ Abner diGriz, yore forty-eight cousin on yore papa’s side, said he saw you on the TV, he did. We was all talking and Abercrombie diGriz, been to a big school, cousin on your mama’s side, he looked it up somehow on the computer and said you was in great shape, a millionaire somehow…”
Somehow I would like to throttle Abercrombie slowly and painfully to death.
“…so we all kind of chipped in and rented this old spacer, loaded her with porcuswine and here we are. Broke but happy, you betcha! We knew once we got here that you would take care of yore own kin!”
I drank deep, thought wildly.
“Yes, ahh…some merit in what you say. Porcuswine ranching, fine future. On a suitable planet. Not here of course, this planet Moolaplenty, being a holiday world. I would hazard a guess that farming isn’t even allowed here. But a little research, another agrarian planet, write a check…”
“Might I interrupt for a moment – and ask just what is going on here?”
Innocent words spoken in a tone of voice of a temperature approaching absolute zero.
My darling Angelina stood in the kitchen door, holding out a broken teacup. I visualized the kitchen – her kitchen – from her point of view and my blood temperature dropped by ten degrees.
“I can explain my love…”
“You certainly can. You might also introduce me to the person sitting on my couch.”
Elmo may have been a rural idiot but he was no fool. He scrambled to his feet, his battered cap twisting in his hands.
“Name’s Elmo, ma’m, I’m Jimmy’s kin…”
“Indeed…” A single word, two syllables, yet spoken in a manner to strike terror into the heart’s of men. Elmo swayed, almost collapsed, could only gurgle incoherently.
“And I presume that you brought that…creature with you?” The broken teacup pointed at Pinky who was stretched out and burbling gently in her garbage-stuffed sleep.
“That ain’t no critter, Miz diGriz – that’s Pinky. She’s a porcuswine.”
My darling’s nose wrinkled slightly. I realized that many years had passed since her last encounter with these animals. Elmo babbled on.
“From my home planet, you understand, a cross between wild pigs and porcupines. Bred there to defend the first settlers against the terrible native animals. But the porcuswine done licked them all! Defended the settlers, good to eat, great friends.”
“Indeed they are!” I chortled hollowly. “As I recall during our magical engagement on Cliaand, that you were very taken by a piglet porcuswine named Gloriana…”
A single icy glance in my direction shut me up with a snap of my jaw. “That was different. A civilized beast. Unlike this uncouth creature that is responsible for the wholesale destruction of my kitchen?’
“Pinky’s sorry, ma’am. Just hungry. I bet she would apologize iffen she knew how.” He nudged the guilty porker with his toe.
She opened a serene red eye, clambered to her feet and yawned, shook her spines with a rattling rustle. Looked up at Angelina and squealed a tiny squeal.
I waited for the skies to part and a lightning bolt to strike the swinish miscreant dead on the spot.
Angelina discarded the shard of pottery, dropped to her knees.
“What a darling she is! Such lovely eyes!”
I swear Pinky smiled a beguiling smile. As from a great distance I heard my hoarse whisper. “Remember how porcuswine love to be scratched behind their ear-quills…”
Pinky certainly did; she grunted with porcine pleasure. Other than this happy swinish chuckle, silence filled the room. Elmo smiled moronically and nodded. I realized that my mouth was hanging open. I shut it on a slug of bourbon and reached for the bottle.
Swathed in gloom I saw only trouble ahead. All my dreams of swinicide and mass murder vanished with my darling’s newfound amour.
“So Elmo – you must tell me all about your travels with this adorable swinelet.”
“Her name’s Pinky, Miz diGriz.”
“How charming – and of course I’m Angelina to family.” A chill look in my direction informed me that all was still not forgiven. “While we’re chatting Jim will pick up a bit in the kitchen before he brings in the drinks trolley – so we can join him in celebration…”
“Just going, great idea, drinks, munchies, yes!”
I made my escape as Elmo’s nasal drone hurried me on my way.
I shoveled all the crockery – broken and unbroken – into the disposal and ordered a new set from Kitchgoods. I could hear its clunking arrival in the cabinet as I stepped out of the kitchen and hit the nuclear unbinder in the floor. The binding energy that held the molecules together lessened just enough so that the spilled garbage sank out of sight; there was a satisfying crunch as it became one with the floor when the binding energy was restored.
A sherry for Angelina, a medium dry one that she enjoyed. I rooted deep in the drinks closet until I found a bottle of Old Overcoat coal-distilled whiskey – proudly displaying in illiterate lettering, “Aged reely over two hours!” Elmo would love it.
I added a bowl of puffed coconuts and wheeled my chariot of delight into the family room.
“…and that’s how we done ended up here at yore place, Miz Angelina.”
The nasal phonemes died away into blessed silence.
“That is quite an adventure, Elmo. I think you are all so brave. Thank you, Jim.” She smiled as took the glass of sherry.
The room temperature rose to normal. The sun emerged from behind the clouds. All had been forgiven! I poured a tumbler of Old Overcoat for Elmo who glugged it – then gasped as his mucus membranes were destroyed on contact. I sipped happily until the voice I loved spoke the words that sealed my doom.
“We must make plans at once to see that your relatives and friends – and their sweet companions – are well taken care of.”
A shipload of refugee rubes and their companion swine well taken care of…
I could see my bank balance depleting at lightning speed with nothing but zeroes looming on the horizon.
To be continued…
(c) Harry Harrison, 2009
Note: The Stainless Steel Rat Returns will be published by Tor in 2010