by Joseph F. Pumilia and Steven Utley
Got to snap out of it, Erb snuffles to himself as he eases his gray, tubular body from the gelatin trough. You have obligations, hatchlings to support.
The room has begun to glow with the light of dawn. Erb pushes the tub of slime back into its cavity and undulates to the cleansing area, where the remains of his meal are wiped from his body by hot jets of sand. Then, with a burbling sigh, because he really cannot help himself, he rotates an eye toward the infernal machine across the room.
He hates the sight of it. Although its knob-tipped levers are dusty from disuse, it continues to dominate his life. He wants to turn his back on it forever, give up all it represents, but he cannot. He has been married to it for too long.
Well, he thinks. Let’s get down to work.
Instead of getting down to work, however, he occupies himself with the trivial rituals to which he has always turned whenever the creative fluids refuse to flow. He straightens the clutter on his dais. He sharpens his stylus on the grind stone. He smooths the surface of the small clay notepads and the larger slabs used in the pulltyper. He reweaves the reed cushion on which he rests his broad underside when he does use the machine.
Today, nothing works, not even wearing the funny leaf hat made for him long ago by a trough-mate. Now brown and crumbling at the edges, the little hat has seen him through many a mental block by some amalgam of autosuggestion and inspiration.
Erb rubs his cephalus with a tentacle and stares past his dais at the mud brick wall — as blank, alas, as his mind.
How can this happen to me? he wonders. He has the ideas for his next story worked out in his mind, a whole alien society, the setting, the plot, the characters — bilaterally symmetrical bipeds with hair under their breathing orifices I — it’s all there, all the makings of another fifteen- or twenty-slab epic, worked out to the smallest detail. And he can’t put a bit of it down on clay.
His past reliability, his reputation as one of the most prolific claywrights in the business, mock him now. Twenty slabs? Nothing to it. How often has he pulltyped ten in a single day? Stories of all kinds, too, southers, anti-socials, ballooners, trepidation, mutual attraction, flagrant desire, intercontinuum — none of that bubble-brained goo such as one finds in the ceramics with full-color glazing, either, but real tentacle-mottling stuff.
He reaches into the crumpled box of Ploog & Spawn and rolls a leaf. As he is fumbling for the flints, the sono-opticon vibrates, activated by a ray of sunlight reflected or relayed from another sono-opticon. Erb holds the receiver to his tympanum and with a free tentacle taps the key that vibrates the sending apparatus.
Without salutation, Raf demands, “Where is it?”
Erb isn’t surprised that it is Raf and doesn’t need the flutter in Raf’s signal to tell him that the Redactor of Thrilling Sources of Amazement is upset. Raf has been calling once a day for the past quarter-month to warn of the approaching deadline.
“I’m up against the ceiling,” Raf sibilates. “I can’t send the next Sources to the molds with twenty blank slabs! Where are they? You’re not holding out for another advance, are you? I hope not, because, if you are —“
“Oh, no, no, no,” Erb ululates hastily, but at the same time he files this idea away in his mind. Despite the present block, the worst of his career, he does have a large, loyal following among readers of the clays, particularly of the intercontinua, and some few maintain that he alone has kept Thrilling Sources and other clays going for the past several years. Everyone knows that the clays are in trouble, losing ground to the strobes and the electrostereoscopes, but Erb’s seal on a carton wrapper is still good for an extra ten thousand sales. Next time, then, perhaps he will demand a bigger advance. But the problem right now is to get started on this project, to get the first few words on clay, and Raf isn’t making it any easier.
“Don’t worry,” Erb says, “it’s almost done, so to speak.”
“So to speak!”
“I have it composed. All that really remains to be done is to run it through the pulltyper.”
“You’ll love it, Raf. It’ll have the readers hanging out all over themselves. It’s a tale of intrigue, adventure, betrayal, romance, honor regained. It’ll be the greatest thing I’ve ever done, perhaps the greatest work of intercontinuum action in the history of the clays.”
“So you keep saying. But do I have the slabs on my dais? I do not. If it weren’t for your being one of our most popular claywrights, I’d tell you to get dessicated. Maybe you’re playing me for a fewt. Or maybe you just haven’t got it in you any more. Maybe you’ve burned yourself out. It’s happened to others, you know.
Erb struggles to control his anger. “You’ll have it in an eighth-month.”
“No more promises! I need it now!”
“Four days, then. It’ll be on your dais in four days. And it’ll be worth the wait,” and Erb slams down the receiver before Raf can respond.
Ungifted sloon! he thinks savagely. What is Raf? A mere packager of others’ artistry, who has never created anything of his own, a — a bricklayer so conscious of his own lack of talent that he must humiliate and degrade anyone in whom it is present.
But — the fear gnaws at Erb’s soft parts — what if Raf is right?
At last Erb finds a flint and ignites a leaf. He solemnly inhales the methane-and-carbon-monoxide-enriched smoke, exhales, regards the pulltyper through blue haze. Is he burnt out? Is he a used-up hack who can no longer produce even facile filler, never mind the authentic stomach-distending article?
He extinguishes the leaf, slithers to the infernal machine, wraps a tentacle around the reload lever. A fresh slab, still wet from its tray, slides into position. He stares at it and sighs.
This calls for a drink, he tells himself, eyeing the half-empty jar of hydrogen dioxide on a nearby shelf. Then he tells himself, No. I will do this one without chemical help. Maybe it won’t be the greatest story of all time, but I’ll come to it with clear ganglia.
He reaches up and begins pulling the knobs. The sharp points of the keys punch out the opening words. He pauses to study them critically. He shrugs.
It was the best of times —
So it doesn’t have the feel of a great work. So it isn’t going to be the masterpiece he bragged to Raf about.
— it was the worst of times —
But his ideas will make up for its flaws, and ideas, crazy ideas (where do I get them? he asks himself) are what sell intercontinua to the yeast-gobbling crowd. Just get on with it, give them what they want, action, adventure, romance, go, and the levers are pulled, the sharp points descend.
— it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness —
Anyhow, he tells himself, it’s a living.
Copyright © 2004 by Joseph F. Pumilia and Steven Utley