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Plumage from Pegasus
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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

C. J. Cutlyffe Heintz-Ketzep

Author of "The Magazine Chums Meet the Distributor of Doom," "The Magazine Chums and the Case of the Disappearing Readers," "The Magazine Chums and the Great Paper Shortage," "The Magazine Chums Apply for an Arts Council Grant," &c, &c

Chapter 1

The Spinning of the Web

Into the cozy dim-lit reading room of the discreet gentlemen's club on Street and Smith Street, a room whose walnut-paneled walls had oft echoed to both the excited battle cries of the Magazine Chums and their contented post-adventure snores, a panting figure burst. Rushing past an elderly manservant--Phillips, the club's quiet and tactful majordomo--and nearly causing the aged butler to drop a tray of Sapphire Gin and Quinine Water cocktails, the immoderately gasping visitor came to a stop at a herd of high-backed leather chairs clustered around a broad table like rhinos at a waterhole on the Rider Haggard estates. The polished tabletop was nearly obscured by dozens of plump magazines featuring gaily colored covers: Railroad Stories, The Happy Magazine, Black Mask, Weird Tales, St. Nicholas, Blue Book, O, and many others.

Pausing but a second to catch his breath, the flushed and stocky runner soon burst into speech. "Lord Pringle, Lord Pringle! I have alarming news! We must assemble all the Chums!"

The sober, handsome chap thus wildly addressed looked up calmly from his study. Deliberately folding the Parisian newspaper he had been perusing so as to mark the exact point in that day's feuilleton where he had left off reading, Lord Pringle favored the messenger with a look of intense authority mixed with jollity and keen-wittedness.

"Come now, young Ashley," Lord Pringle admonished in a bantering tone, "no news of whatever degree of urgency can justify bad manners. Apologize first to old Phillips, then grab one of those delicious drinks he's compiled, sit yourself down, refresh your throat, and then finally recount your tale in good form."

Young Ashley did as he had been bade by the leader of the Magazine Chums--a group of which Ashley himself was not the lowliest member--and when his breathing had finally reestablished an even modulation and the hectic color had partially drained from his cheeks, he commenced to report on certain late-breaking developments in the very sphere of interests which the Magazine Chums inhabited.

"Despite my numerous professional deadlines, I permitted myself to take a small break this morning," Ashley reluctantly confessed, "in between annotating the entire works of Max Brand and re-reading the last twenty years of the Strand, and prior to working up a bibliography of Ayn Rand. Picking up a stray copy of that cheap trade journal, Publishers Weekly, which I had inadvertently walked away with during my last trip to the library, I carelessly flicked through its tawdry pages. Imagine my horror when I came across this!"

With dramatic timing, Ashley whipped the magazine in question out of his coat pocket and displayed the offending article to Lord Pringle. Pringle took the magazine calmly, with a small smile, and began to read. But his easy demeanor gradually dwindled, until he too evinced some of Ashley's obvious horror. When he had finished perusing the dread text, Lord Pringle stood decisively and said, "Ashley, your instincts were sound. The Chums must be assembled in their entirety to deal with this new menace. You summon those who employ one of Mr. Alexander Graham Bell's contraptions in their residences, while I dispatch Morse-o-grams to the others!"

By early evening, all the Magazine Chums who could be reached and who could arrange swift transportation to the club sat in congregation around the supper table, as Phillips served squab and bangers, with bumpers of bubbly. A stalwart group of men (and a select scattering of brave damsels), the Magazine Chums boasted a wide range of intelligent and sympathetic faces. Besides Ashley and Pringle, these noble souls were present:

Sir Francis Robinson, who in Khartoum had once endured through six hours of hot auction action despite having been wounded at the outset with a rusty staple.

Little Dicky Lupoff, the suave-voiced darling of those with Marconi-receivers.

Dame Lucy Sussex, heir to a large Australian sheep-dip fortune.

Devil-may-care solo aviatrix Elly Datlow, rumored to have romanced many of the crowned heads of Europe, including the infamous Count Guccione.

Hirsute Gordy van Gelder, whose mature wit and piercing gaze failed to betray his odd origins: an orphan, he had been raised by stuffed Esquimaux in a diorama at the Museum of Natural History.

Lady Ruth Berman, whose formal gardens at Castle Harmsworth replicated every flower mentioned in both the Shakespearean and Spenserian canons.

Quiet Victor Berch, who had once killed an armed assailant using only his pocket watch.

Wry Johnny Clute, joshingly addressed by his friends as "Mister Sesquipedalian."

Richie Bleiler, who had emerged from the literal shadow cast by his famous father only after he had finally convinced his progenitor to fold up the bumbershoot the old man eccentrically kept open indoors and out, through fair weather and foul.

In addition to those assembled here this fateful night, the Magazine Chums numbered further scores, all of them Titans in their own right, without a trace of brummagem or bloviation in their wise and forthright speech. Those unable to attend this gathering were scattered far and wide across the globe, in such exotic locales as the United States of America (Texas, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island), the Canadian Provinces, and Lapland, pursuing the researches that had made them rich and famous.

When the last sip of postprandial claret had been savored, Lord Pringle stood and silently regarded his troops. Then he began his solemn oration.

"Ladies and gentlemen, despite our multifarious interests we are united on one front. And that front can be summarized in a single glorious word: magazines! Reviews or journals, pulps or slicks, annuals or weeklies, these frail, colorful, exotic vessels of enlightenment are the star around which we all orbit--some of us closer to the primary than others, but all reliant on the stellar warmth and light. From their humble beginnings among the papyri of Egypt"--here Lord Pringle nodded to Berch--"which ancient tradition our own Victor has discovered to include such early titles as Thrilling Crocodile Tales and Astounding Stories of Metempsychosis, down to the highly developed organs we enjoy today, magazines have drawn us all joyfully together. Our pleasure and wonderment at the myriad manifestations of the periodical printed word have filled untold hours of our lives. In some sense, we have all dedicated our very beings to the continuation and improvement of magazines.

"And now I must tell you that the actual existence and future of magazines as we know them is at dire risk!"

From the Magazine Chums issued a collective gasp of startlement. Lord Pringle capitalized on their undivided attention by displaying the revelatory article. "Brother Ashley has discovered that an evil technocratic genius intends to render all our beloved magazines obsolete within a few years. You see him depicted here, a bloated plutocrat who bills himself as the Baron of Numedia. Employing hordes of ill-washed and unmannerly underlings whom he calls 'software and hardware engineers,' he has unleashed on the unsuspecting globe a creature dubbed 'the worldwide web.' He claims that this Frankenstein's monster of his will soon devour all current magazines, rendering their printed forms exiguous."

* * *

Lord Pringle paused, and surveyed the puzzled expressions worn by his comrades. Reluctant to confess their ignorance of the exact nature of this new menace, they were saved by young Ashley's polite cough.

"I've been boning up all afternoon on this new phenomenon, in my spare moments while I was handling the affairs of several dozen literary estates of which I am the humble executor. The 'web' referred to by the notorious Baron is not a physical one, but rather a conceptually subtle lattice of interconnected home televisors and remote Babbage devices known as 'servitors,' which latter machines both hold 'content' and distribute it to the individual 'users,' in both pictorial and alphabetical forms. What the Baron proposes is that all conventionally printed and disseminated magazines shall now 'migrate' to his 'web,' existing only as intangible coded swarms of atomies until displayed on a personal televisor."

Silence reigned as the shocked Chums sought to grasp the full implications of this horrid news. After some minutes, they all burst out in a flurry of questions.

"What of back issues?" "Users be dashed! What will become of good old-fashioned readers?" "No inks! How can there be no inks?" "Can one 'fold down' the corner of a page? I think not!" "Will we still have editors?" "Who will pay good money for such an insubstantial abomination?"

Lord Pringle raised his arms in a quelling gesture. "Decorum, Brothers and Sisters, decorum!" His plea succeeded in restoring quiet to the room, but the sense of shock still lingered. Lord Pringle knew he must rally the broken spirits of his followers, and summoned every iota of rhetoric persuasion he possessed.

"I confess I do not have the answers to your questions. Discovering all the implications of this menacing Moloch must be one of our first priorities. But even without all the facts, I can affirm at the outset that we have never faced a greater challenge than--if I may coin a fantastical term--these 'daedulus-zines.' They have the potential to toss our familiar periodicals onto the dustbin of history. Already Brother Ashley has collated some disturbing statistics regarding the otherwise-unexplained falling circulation of such stalwarts as McClure's and Scribner's.

"How can we meet this crisis? Only by striving to produce the best d----d magazines possible! We handmaidens to the Muse of periodicals must gird our loins for war! All of us who are editors, publishers and writers--whom the Baron would dare to re-label 'content providers'!--must strive for new heights of creativity! We must rethink all our assumptions, jolt ourselves out of any stale ruts, and aspire to empyrean standards! No longer can we plow the same old familiar ground. We must reconstitute ourselves and our products for a new century! Only thus can we insure the survival of magazines as we know and love them!"

A chorus of loud huzzahs--interspersed with shouts of "Down with the degenerate d-zines!"--greeted Lord Pringle's speech. He allowed himself to bask for a moment in the warmth of his comrades' approbation, the thrilling sense of their dedication. But he knew that in reality they faced a dreadful uphill battle, one that would tax every fiber of their beings, with no guarantee of ultimate victory.

Next installment: "The Baron's Secret Weapon: Free Erotica!"

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