I got a sand-ship off them, and it wasn’t easy.
If they exiled you to the desert, they reckoned they’d put up for you a nice little palace with every mod. con., and there you’d sit, vrek by vrek, staring up at the glassy ceiling, or down the vacuum drift or something, till boredom got the better of you, you selected a tasteful high window, and jumped out of it. I won’t say they definitely encouraged you to suicide and get everything over with quickly (and so back into PD in civilized fashion), but the idea that survival might be wrested from the situation, purpose even, was clearly indigestible to them.
What did I want a sand-ship for? To be mobile, to move about in? Well, yes. But—I reasoned—it would save them a bird-plane trip for me going from the dome, and it would also save them time, energy, and building materials. A sand-ship came ready-fitted, of necessity, with all life-support systems—oxygen pump, provision dispenser, water mixer, freezer storage, heat and cooler units, stabilizers (essential since about two-thirds of the desert is earthquake zone), defense mechanisms, even service and maintenance robots. And there must be surplus ships. How often did they run? And even when they did, they mostly ran passengerless, citizens who traveled preferring planes and sky-boats, which, they felt, kept them at a safer distance from the agoraphobic waste. Think, I kept saying, of the bother it would save the Committee if they just gave me a sand-ship. And, at last, they reluctantly responded.
Of course, I was acting on impulse merely. I’d been in a sand-ship before, twice, and seen what they had to offer, but their mobility did head my list of favorables. I had some mad notion of fizzing along the desert by day and night, the Outcast, a dangerous hazard to authorized traffic, shouting embittered songs at the sun and stars. My future seemed bleak, so I had clothed it in colorful hysteria; that way it was almost tolerable.
By the end of the fourth unit, I had to be out of the city. I hadn’t seen any “friends” since the party, nor Danor since our parting at dawn, when I had woken from the dream and wildly chittered my intentions in her ears. I was terrified she’d start trying to dissuade me—maybe succeed—but she only nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I think you’re right. Yes, yes. Go and tell them, ooma.” The last embrace was hurtful, and better undescribed. I wanted no one to see me off. So, from the moment I left home, I was entirely isolated, already exiled, though, what with the cheering crowd, and the Committee Hall and Limbo swirling with Q-Rs, I scarcely felt it. Then came the last journey across Four BEE to the dome lock.
I was female again by then, which, hormone-wise, no doubt made everything much worse. But I’d had to opt for a sex change—Hergal probably vibrated with glee when he heard. This was the final body I’d ever be allowed until my “natural death,” all of a rorl perhaps away. I was predominantly female, and I didn’t dare risk that fact catching up with me out alone in the wild when I could no longer alter things. Besides, I’d had a generous portion of masculinity, and should have sated that side for some while. I didn’t feel comfortable, though, being a girl again when really, under ordinary circumstances, I wasn’t ready to be. I kept forgetting my physiognomy was different, which was embarrassing enough, and, seeing myself in mirrors, was startled and demoralized, despite the beauty I’d ordered in Limbo as my right.
And I was very beautiful. It was the most beautiful body I’d ever designed. I was going to have to live with it, literally, and watch it, too, decaying. It was, therefore, the sort of loveliness which is not perfect, but draws its charm from a measure of imbalance, which can accommodate flaws and make little of them, for a while at least. A slim, agile body for traversing harsh regions, excellent muscle tone, long legs, long fingers, breasts not too large—able to resist the sag that would come with vreks of gravity. Good bone structure in a face light and versatile, to hold that smooth flesh taut to the bitter (how bitter?) end. Oh, yes, I’d thought of everything, hadn’t I? For, reading in the History Tower, I had learned fully of the myth of Old Age and the roads whereby it traveled.
My skin was tawny-tan to complement and survive the lashes of the sun, my hair one shade fairer than my skin, straight and bright as a tan flame. The poet’s eyes I kept, the large blue opals with their shadowy rims. At least I could recognize their glances in the ambushing mirrors of the city I was leaving forever.
The bird-plane was anonymous. Two Q-Rs rode with me, innocuous guards.
I had never felt much for Four BEE beyond a kind of contemptuous familiarity. Now it didn’t look dear to me, or precious, yet so known and so secure. Never again will I ride on Peridot Waterway, never again watch the tragic dragon spray its green fire before Jade Tower, never again wander the movi-rails beneath the artificial stars, or drink snow-in-gold at Blue Sky, or lie with some lover in the plastic-cloud floaters, or…
The poet’s eyes were weeping down my girl-stranger’s face, and with my unknown tawny slender hands I made obscure crushing gestures, as if it were my emotion I tried to crush.
At the lock, somehow, there was no crowd. Obviously secrecy and intrigue had been perpetrated to mislead the populace.
The sand-ship stood waiting there. I stared at it with icy fear, as if it threatened me, this thing which was to be my home.
Every scrap of my belligerence and my defiance had gone. The dream was insubstantial as smoke. I wanted to beg them to let me stay, but I knew they never would, so somehow kept my mouth shut.
They escorted me into the ship, my two Q-Rs. The robots were already busy here and there; the automatic motors were humming to be off. I didn’t have to drive or navigate myself, of course. It would do everything itself, to my specifications. It wasn’t a big ship, but pretty big for me. The Q-Rs showed me the monitor beam they’d put in, the thing I could use to signal the city for extra supplies or medical help. It would relay through a computer, naturally, and be very efficient, and that meant that, even in this way, I couldn’t communicate with another human being. While I was myself, I would never hear a real human voice again. And, though I might see the bird-planes pass over, or distant sister ships go gliding by along the horizon of the dunes, never again would I see a real human face.
“All right,” I said to the Q-Rs. “I understand where everything is.” I hadn’t had to pay for anything; I wouldn’t ever have to pay from here on. One advantage of exile. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and glared my escort out. “Now, get off my ship.”
They went immediately, and once the doors had shut, I flipped the switch for automatic drive.
The window-spaces were covered, but shortly there came the bang of the dome locks, closing behind me for the ultimate time.
I sat very still and very stiff upon the velvet seat, feeling the unseen desert clasp me round.
Alone at last.