Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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Break a Leg

by Margaret Karmazin




"Starburst Touring Company travels the galaxy to share their multiple and profuse talents and provide the best in entertainment," boasted its loquacious agent, Louie Sparkle. "Our director of theatrical productions is the award winning Miles Dyre; our leading dramatic actress is Belynne Raine and lead comedy actress is Jolene Rouse. Of course many more actors complete the troupe, you have only to check the database."

Jolene Rouse stood by, politely listening to her boss. She had mixed feelings about whether her he would get this gig or not. On the one hand, she was well aware that things were slowing down and worried about obtaining other work should their company fold, but at same time, she was bored with her life. Yes, traveling to other worlds to perform would be classified as high adventure in most people's minds, but the fact was that even that became tiresome after a while. It wasn't as if the actors had time to explore the planets they went to; it was more like get off the ship, slave away for a few weeks, then get back on the ship and come home.

What did she really want in life? Sometimes, she thought she might want a husband. Maybe a friendly, cozy, quiet life was what she craved but the more she thought about it, she wasn't sure. Anyway, things didn't seem to point that way for her. She was gone from Earth for long periods and when she was home and managed to find a romantic partner, he always dumped her after a couple of weeks. Men, at least the ones she ran into, appeared to want high earning and crisply professional partners – not a silly little comedic actor in a tired, going-nowhere theatre troupe.

Oh, she wished she were not so timid and unassuming. It was a curse.

The pale green person on Louie's screen consulted her schedule and said, "All right. How is your July 16? We can book them for two of our weeks, almost three of yours. You say you have drummers? We would want the drummers. Oh, and definitely those Voodoo dancers."

"Consider it done," said Louie. Afterwards, he said to Jolene, "Our company is seriously in trouble if we have to schedule embarrassingly unimportant planets like Wazi III."

"Maybe it's time to retire?" ventured Jolene.

Louie's face turned dangerously magenta. "Not till I'm a box of ashes! Absolutely not till then. All my actors and dancers and singers, my deliciously temperamental artistes – you all are my children, my family! I'll die in the saddle!"

"Whatever you say, boss," said Jolene.

Two months later, Starburst finished up what sparse gigs they had and boarded their third class cruiser, Hollywood, for Wazi III. As always, Belynne Raine had a personal crisis, this time believing she suffered from a skin eating disorder that would turn out to be insect bites. Wearing dark wrap around glasses and a red beret, she boarded Hollywood, refusing to speak to anyone. Jolene was quietly sobbing after her latest boyfriend had left, and Miles, sullen and probably drunk, was heard to say that no one appreciated his work and that as soon as this stint was over, he was going to Alpha Centauri AB Prime where he claimed he'd been offered a position as Court Playwright. The Voodoo Dancers were sullen about something vaguely political and no one wanted to listen to their convoluted explanation.

"Retirement might no be a bad idea after all," muttered Louie as he and the others carried their luggage to their various onboard quarters.

The ship's captain performed his fancy work and they zoomed off at impulse and then into FTL for the journey to Wazi III.


*****



Jolene and the crew disembarked at their destination, dragging their luggage and longing for a shower. Onboard Hollywood, water was limited.

"Holy crap, it's England," said Miles after they'd trooped through numerous airlocks and decontamination chambers and into the Wazi air. "Will you look at that? The fine mist, the gray sky and I believe I see a blooming flower garden over there under that little dome. Already I'm chilled to the bone. Louie, what the hell were you thinking? Why don't we ever get semi-tropical planets?"

Louie, struggling with his luggage, said, "We're lucky to have the work, trust me."

"I think it's refreshing," said Jolene. She was descended from British stock on her mother's side and possessed the sort of coloring for which a misty gray climate was ideal.

A tall male Wazi approached. "Welcome to our world, Artists! I am Todel, your guide and assistant during your visit. Whatever you need, I will intensely attempt to provide."

His English was amazing, Jolene thought, even that he spoke it at all. Most people would just use hand translators.

He led them to their rooms in a vast hotel, shops and restaurant complex, like all the buildings, walkways and roadways on Wazi III, under heavy glass domes.

"Why is everything covered when the outside air is breathable?" Jolene asked Todel.

"Wazi III is not our original home," he said. "The air here is breathable for most humanoids, yes, but the outside weather is very unpredictable and destructive. When large storms come, everyone and everything could be swept away. The rain is also too acidic for crops. No one would live long unless under cover." He smiled, showing wide pinkish teeth.

"Where was your original home?"

"Wazi IV," he said. "People still live on it but it is not so nice now."

"What happened?"

"The same thing, I believe, as I read happened on your Earth before the final culture war. When people pretended not to notice the climate changes."

Jolene's room was last and Todel was silent as they approached her door. She stole glances at him. Besides being tall - though for a Wazi, he was average - he was nicely proportioned.

This was her first time seeing this species except in photos and holos and likewise, the first time Todel had ever seen an Earther in person. "Your skin is pale orange-pink," he said. "But some of the other artists are brown and two are golden. We Wazis are all the same color."

"Not true" Jolene said. "You are a soft mint green while some people I saw downstairs were chartreuse. And one guy was grass green."

"I don't know all those colors you mention," said Todel, but he looked pleased.

The Wazis' main interest seemed to be the Voodoo Dancers, which people on planets outside of Earth liked to imagine represented an indigenous cultural group. In reality, the dancers were a motley crew of two men from Brooklyn, a woman from Pennsylvania, twins from Ohio and five Canadians, and a very tall third gender Italian named Radica. They were a mix of Earth races and made themselves up to look terrifying. Radica wore white, a crown of bones and played "high priestess." Their act was intense, madly rhythmic, and sexual in a somewhat threatening way. They managed to steal the show, even if Miles was putting on one of his light-show musicals.

"Do they even want a play at all?" he asked sarcastically as some of the cast ate breakfast in the hotel bar the morning after their first performance. Or did we all come this way so Radica can dominate everything? Seriously, I am taking that job on AB Prime, I've had it."

"For some reason," said Belynne who had recovered from her insect bites and managed to order something resembling a martini, "everyone seem to revere overblown dancing over serious theater, but there you are. Nice ass on that waiter over there."

"I repeat, we're lucky to be here at all," said Louie, who looked rather ill and exhausted.

Jolene glanced about. She never failed to feel overwhelmed on a new and unfamiliar planet. She admired the Wazis' hair, at least on some of them. Very thick, sable brown and like fur, running down the backs of their necks. Their eyes, slightly larger than those of humans, were slanted and velvety dark. She wondered if their blood was red, did they cry, how long did they sleep, how long did they live, what did they eat, did they have sex very often and did they do it like humans? She wondered about all those things.

The following afternoon, the troupe put on their musical again, this one concerning the coming of age of the daughter of a deposed royal family. Jolene, of course, played the princess even though the part was not very amusing and Belynne the angry queen. The cast was not large and Mile had to both direct and play the drunken king. The Wazi audience, not given to Earther clapping, softly stomped feet in appreciation. But that evening when the Voodoo dancers did their act, the stomping could have brought down the roof.

Then suddenly, the large auditorium became a scene of catastrophe. Wazis in every row and tier started to keel over and before anyone could respond, a few were unconscious. Major pandemonium broke out. The theater owner jumped to the stage and with sweat forming dark green rivulets down the sides of his neck, yelled for silence.

"Medical help is on the way, please sit down, do not panic or people will be trampled!" He was not speaking English, of course, but one of the two main Wazi tongues, Bizoli. A stagehand translated for whomever was near. The stagehand did not seem personally afraid, though as it turned out, he should have. By nightfall, what there was of it with Wazi III's four shining moons, he would be on the floor dead.

Belynne fainted, managing to do it artfully, into one of the squishy backstage chairs and Miles chugged from a flask. But Jolene was oddly calm. She wished that Todel was around to question and suddenly he appeared from nowhere.

"This is very unfortunate," he said, as he watched the tumult in the audience. By now more people were out cold or even dead. None of the humans seemed to be affected as of yet.

"You are all to remain here," said Todel. "In a short while, they will decide where to take you."

Belynne, having recovered from her swoon, stood up. "Oh, I simply must get to the hotel! I'm feeling very faint and I need to lie down."

Todel said, "So sorry, but no."

Louie stepped forward, his forehead covered in sweat "Listen, Todel – that's your name, right? Maybe whatever it is, humans don't get it, so why can't we go to the hotel right now?"

Todel remained firm. "I am so sorry, but you must remain here until the theater is cleared and possibly longer." Was that sweat beginning to form on the sides of Todel's neck too?

Jolene walked over and stood beside him, her head only coming to slightly below his shoulder. He gave off a strange odor that reminded her of walnuts.

"Is there somewhere we can lie down maybe?" she asked timidly.

All the long Wazi night, medical crews came and went, removing the sick and the apparently dead. Many of the workers themselves succumbed to the nightmare disease, whatever it was.

"No one knows what it is," Todel told them several hours later. He was looking quite peaked himself by now. It was impossible for a Wazi to turn green since he already was, but he did look ashen.

Please, don't die on us, Jolene pleaded in her mind. What would we do? But she said nothing, not wanting to make things worse for Todel and at one point, when he began shivering, she helped him to lie on the floor on some kind of padding she found, covered him with her jacket and held his hand until he passed out.

The disease was voracious. None of the humans had ever seen anything like it.

"What is this, the freakin' Bubonic Plague?" cried Louie, whose face was an alarming purple. Unfortunately, those would be his last words. He suddenly clutched at his barrel chest and sank to the floor.

Miles checked the manager's pulse in several places while the other actors gathered around. "It is a very sad thing," he said, "to die on a planet so far from home. I can't think of anything more lonely."

People cried silently. Someone covered Louie with whatever he could find. Jolene gently touched his face. "Goodbye, Boss," she said softly.

The actors were scared, spent, ravenous and dirty when morning dawned after a seemingly endless night and two Wazi police clattered backstage. Tall, lanky and hunched over from fatigue they looked as bad as the actors.

Jolene shook Todel and he struggled to stand up. "I hate to bother you," she said, "but we need you to translate." He seemed to be better.

"We are sorry but you people, you are under quarantine," announced one of the cops. "We do not know if your ship may have brought this terrible plague. Over two thousand people in this city are dead and another fifteen thousand very ill. You will be detained together until we determine if you are responsible."

"But what if we are?" blurted Jolene. "What will happen to us? Will we be put to death?"

"We went through all the airlocks and other precautions when disembarking," said Miles with exasperation. "And there were ten other ships coming in at the same time!"

"Nine of our own and one Lokaar. We trade with them all the time. We live on their world. It was probably yours."

"We do not put people to death," said the other cop, seeing Jolene's eyes wide with terror, "but if you are responsible, we will notify the known galaxy and you will be banned from visiting various locations. Until we understand more, you may not return to your own planet. It is too early yet to know what the situation is, though it seems that humans are not affected. But carriers you may well be."

"You will line up and follow us out now," they ordered.

"One of us has died," said Belynne, flipping a long finger toward Louie's body.

"Interesting," said one cop to the other. "So the humans can get it."

"I believe it was cardiac arrest," said Miles sharply. "I know that when I see it."

"We will decide for ourselves," stated the first cop. "Now line up."

They removed the stagehand's body and that of poor Louie.

During the night, the wind howled outside the domes and sound like it would tear the world apart. The troupe huddled together in terror that the building would collapse. At dawn, Todel arrived, seemingly recovered. "I have survived," he told Jolene, "I passed a physical exam. I have excellent antibodies. In fact, they are using them to help with vaccine development."

"I am happy for your antibodies," Jolene said. "What was that racket last night? I thought we were all going to die!"

"I told you about the winds," said Todel. "Nothing would survive out there. But we are under very thick protective domes. They do not break." He paused. "The doctors are arriving shortly to examine all of you." He looked at her rather tenderly. "Nothing they do will harm you."

"Do you have a wife?" Jolene blurted without thinking.

"What is a wife?"

This temporarily baffled her, but she recovered. "I have met only five other sentient species outside of my own and in all of them, they have long term mates."

"You mean like our weedal birds?"

"I don't know anything about weedal birds."

"They are…" he stopped to consider…"they are an animal that mates with the same…partner for all of its life. If one of them dies, the other grows sad and sick and eventually dies too."

"Well," she said, "things aren't always that bad, but the mates I know about stay together until one dies or perhaps they divorce and find another mate."

"Divorce?"

"Yes, they decide they don't want to be mates any longer. For various reasons."

Todel considered this. "I don't see the reason for people doing this - having one mate. "

Jolene felt herself getting riled up and embarrassed for doing so. Surely, whatever Todel thought about this was none of her business.

"I am affiliated," he added.

"Affiliated?"

"They affiliate you when you are twenty years of age. My group of affiliation or Saah contains forty members, half of them female and half male. We mate among ourselves."

"What? You mean that you mate with twenty females?"

He was maddeningly Buddha-like. "If one is so inclined and, but that is highly unlikely. I have not known anyone who wishes to mate with all of the females in his Saah. Many of them are too much my good sisters for me to desire copulation with them. I might need a lot of wine in order to do such a thing." At this, he gave a Wazi laugh, which sounded like he was being strangled.

She grabbed his arm. "So wait, you're saying that for the rest of your life, you're only allowed to mate with people in this group but that you don't want to with many of them? You are never allowed to with anyone outside of this group?"

He stopped and looked down at her, the expression in his large chocolate eyes unfathomable. He looked around as if to see if anyone were listening. "There are those who break the rules," he whispered, "but let me say that when a female has offspring, the DNA had better match that of someone in her Saah."

"What if it doesn't?"

He tilted his head in a manner Wazis had – a combination of oh dear and watch out. "Social ostracism, possibly even legal repercussions."

"So," said Jolene, "let me get this straight. You can get away with mating outside your Saah as long as the female does not become pregnant."

"I suppose so," said Todel, "but I don't think many people do that."

"One more thing," said Jolene, her mind racing down interesting paths. "Did you evolve from primates like we did?"

"More of a marsupial. There was alien intervention. We know that now, though we have not fully identified the ancient race who did it. Why do you ask?"

"Just curious," she said. She had to admit to herself that she was having interesting thoughts about Todel.

The medics arrived to haul Jolene and her fellow performers away to a detention center. Their ship's crew were brought to ground and sequestered in a separate chamber there. Everyone had to go without bathing or cleaning teeth while the guards took one person at a time from the large chamber to be examined. Every five hours, two Wazi guards brought in food, mostly fruit. A strange Wazi arrived, dressed all in red and wearing a tall pointed hat. He had painted or tattooed his face with cryptic designs and carried a long stick topped with some kind of fuzz, possibly feathers. Todel, who had been dozing off along with several of the humans, snapped awake.

"This is Gadlen the Kadia," he said, after calling for the room's attention, "here to determine your true motives for coming to Wazi."

"What?" said Radica, standing up in protest. "I've had about enough. Didn't want to come to this stupid planet in the first place but oh, Louie, God rest his soul, insisted! And now look where we are! In prison, that's where!"

"Please," said Jolene, tugging at her arm. "Just let them explain."

Radica sat down but muttered, "When I get home, if we ever do get home, I am doing everything in my power to ban this planet from ever seeing any entertainers, traders or whatever again! This is an outrage!"

"I agree," said Belynne. "How we are being treated is surely some kind of serious violation of interplanetary law!"

Todel stepped forward. "In fact, we are breaking no law. In the case of infection, we are within our rights to protect our populace."

The being in red raised his fuzzy headed staff. In a hypnotizing drone he chanted for some time. The entertainers quieted down, even Belynne and Radica, and began to feel sleepy. Sinking to the floor, they swayed back and forth and did not stop swaying as the voice droned on and on. Jolene forgot where she was, even about Todel who, though still standing, shut his own eyes and tilted his head back.

Sometime later, no one knew the exact time, they all snapped awake. Gadlen the Kadia was gathering his things and heading to the door where the guards let him out. "What the hell was that?" barked Radica, now fully awake.

"You have passed this exam," said Todel. The Kadia has seen that none of you purposefully brought the plague here. If your ship did bring the disease it was unknown to any of you. This is a good beginning."

"What was that, a mind rape?" shouted Radica.

Jolene took her arm and tried to soothe her. "Let's stay calm," she said, "they have to find out these things and we did well, so it's all good."

"For God's sake, Radica," said Miles wearily, "just leave it, okay? The last thing we need is you pissing them off."

Radica shot him a series of hand signals that probably cursed his soul for eternity.

Todel caught Jolene sitting and staring. "What are you doing?" he asked her. "You look strange."

"Please don't get near me," she snapped at him. "You won't let us bathe and I smell terrible."

"I don't smell anything," he said. "They might let you go out a couple at a time today to clean yourselves. There are facilities in this building."

"We don't have clean clothes."

"I will get you things," he said. He dropped to his haunches beside her, his long legs forming a sort of pedestal for the rest of him. "What were you thinking about? I am curious."

"I am thinking," she said, "that when this is all over, I'm going to be different."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"All of my life, I've been this funny, sweet little girl and I'm tired of it. From now on, I am going to be a strong woman and people will finally take me seriously."

"I don't know what that means."

She glanced at him and then around at the others. "Just trust me, Todel, I am going to be different. Of course it's hard for a dirty, stinky person to be serious. I need a shower!"

Todel laughed. "I will see what I can do," he said.

She was finding Todel more and more attractive, which was ridiculous since there was no future in it. She had never heard of a human and Wazi having a romantic relationship, though that did not mean it had never happened.

The guards opened the door and an official announced that the quarantine was over. "Your ship has been found innocent," they said. "It appears that one of our own traders brought in a cage of reptiles from Verdeen, apparently to sell as exotic pets. This is where the disease originated though now it has mutated. The reptiles have been killed and radiated and a vaccine is in progress. It also appears from our testing that humans are immune. Your manager, Mr. Sparkle, expired from a problem with his heart. We are sorry if we have inconvenienced you and hope that you will finish your tour."

"What will happen to his body?" Miles demanded.

"The body has been cremated, we are sorry."

Well, thought Jolene, dear Louie did die in the saddle.

After showers and much tooth brushing, the actors met up in the hotel bar. Todel, nicely dressed in a long purple tunic over soft black pants, showed up with an attractive Wazi female.

Approaching Jolene, he said, "I present one of my Saah partners, Lomina. May we speak with you in private, please?"

The three of them move to a corner table where Jolene's feet could not reach the floor since the chairs had been built for the taller Wazis.

"We are inviting you to be a guest in our Saah," said Todel. "You do not have to formally commit your allegiance but may try it out and see if you enjoy it. While you do this, we will find you work somewhere. An English teacher would be useful for business workers and diplomats, even for the police."

"What?" said Jolene.

"Todel is shy," said Lomina. "He is attracted to you. I am sure that others in the Saah would also find you appealing. You are so small, you would be very exotic."

For a long moment, Jolene's mouth hung open. Then she said, "You mean to say that I would be expected to…um, do things with others?"

"It is, after all, a Saah," said Lomina. "We are pledged to each other. If you are a guest in the group, you follow the same rules we all do."

Jolene's immediate urge was to abruptly stand up and seek the safety of her fellow humans, but knowing how important diplomacy is when on another worlds, she restrained herself. As politely as she could manage, she formulated her response. "I appreciate your invitation. It is an honor to be asked and I will always be grateful. But most of us Earthers choose to be with one mate at a time and your arrangement, while it works well for you, probably wouldn't for me. I respect your traditions, but I need to do things of that nature my own way."

A look of sincere disappointment passed over Todel's beautiful face and even a bit over Lomina's. They stood up and, one at a time, held out their hands for a gentle Earther handshake. "It has been nice knowing you," said Todel and Lomina smiled. "If you ever return to Wazi III, please look for us."


*****



No one in the universe had ever been as happy to get home as Jolene and the rest of Starburst Touring Company, which never toured again. Miles took his job offer on Alpha Centari AB Prime and Belynne married her fourth husband, an eighty-six-old Chinese shipping magnate. The other actors scattered with only Radica and the Voodoo Dancers remaining.

And that was when Jolene finally understood what she wanted to do and it wouldn't involve any more wimpy acting.

She invited Radica and the Voodoo Dancers over for a shrimp dinner and liberally poured the wine. "Okay, people," she said, while the others went hard at their food, "what if the Voodoo Dancers took off on their own? No actors and no silly plays. Just you guys and the drummers. I'll be your manager and get the gigs. We'll travel the world and see how we do and maybe add other dancing and drumming acts and if things go well, we can try other worlds if we want to. After all, it's you that the people, no matter where they are, really want to see."

Radica was uncharacteristically quiet for some time before she answered. "I always liked you, peanut. You're a funny little thing but you don't go for any bull." She looked around at her troupe, most of them happily plastered. "What d'ya say, Voodoos?"

They said yes, the ones still conscious, and the deal was struck.

Louie would be so proud, Jolene thought. Her mind teemed with ideas, new costumes, new moves and the vast universe.



THE END


2018 Margaret Karmazin

Bio: Margaret's credits include stories published in literary and speculative fiction magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Confrontation, Mobius, Another Realm and Pennsylvania Review. Margaret's stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine and Licking River Review were nominated for Pushcart awards and another story, "The Manly Thing," was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award, and Margaret has stories in several anthologies, including Pieces of Eight (Autism Acceptance), Daughters of Icarus, Still Going Strong and others, and a collection of short stories, RISK.

Website: Claire Fitzpatrick

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