An entrancing night.
An extra oxygen pill to be taken, which I was sure I didn’t need, but it was robot’s orders, and a temperature stabilizer installed in my cabin which hummed jauntily to itself. The pill made me lively even though I felt enervated, so I couldn’t sleep. The stabilizer noise didn’t help either, or the robots thudding and bonking about on the roof. They’d managed to stop the water jet, after a couple of hours.
The soup smell was evaporating, but not fast enough for the cleaning machines, which burst from the walls at irregular intervals and sprayed the ship with scented deodorant, and stuffed rags and itty disinfected brooms into every crevice. I began to prefer the smell of soup. At least it was quiet.
Finally I took refuge in the Transparency Tower, which, temperature unstabilized, was now freezing. But it was as far from the din as I could get. I glared out at the desert, wondering where Gray-Eyes was now. Probably licking itself silly getting off the cheesecake, maybe with a few friends in to help, telling them about the ogress in the funny moving house who had chucked our hero (heroine?) in a mincer, from whence it had only escaped by means of its cunning and gallantry. Doubtless it would be back anon with a hungry look, and then I was going to get a stacked plate of something and throw it right in its face.
Frankly, I thought the sand-ship the Committee had so generously given me had gone a bit to seed, for I’m sure others have had occasion to stop provision dispensers now and then, without such dire results. So, if they’d palmed me off with shoddy goods, serve them right that they’d have to send me succour all across the burning waste.
In the end I feel asleep in the chair in the tower, and had some exhausting overoxygenated dreams. In one, the sky was raining robot planes, each of which landed with a shattering bang. In another, a beautiful male emerged from the desert, a male from one of the old tribes, bronze skin and midnight hair, and swooned away at my feet with a piteous cry for water. And I, a calculating gleam in my eye, ran to get the aforesaid water, and of course the water mixer had exploded and there wasn’t any. I was trying to force anti-dehydration pills between the unfortunate devil’s tightly clenched and scowling teeth when the desert sun came up and woke me. And two seconds after the light touched my face, the Transparency Tower frantically opaqued, so I shouldn’t see the frightening dawn. Though it was still there, outside; waiting for me? Well, at least there is always that, I reasoned sentimentally.
Fair dawn, always fair, so red, so emerald, so golden, bathing the sky behind the jagged silhouettes of the eastern mountains, and the peak I called the Cup looking just like a cup with pink Joyousness-type bubbly-clouds swimming over it.
So, without stopping to tidy up or go and inspect what the robots had achieved, for their dramatic hammering had ceased, I plodded to the outer doors, opened them, and went out to greet the morning.
The sun was already shining on my porch; below the rocks the unbroken sand looked like a carpet of pale jewels, except, I hazarded, bow-wards on the other side of the ship, where the spout of part-food, part-liquid had fallen yesterday.
The revolting fountain had angled northwest, and I couldn’t see the disaster area from my southeastern veranda, for which I was thankful. I was staring up into the flaring sky, wondering if the super-fast robot plane might be early, when the revelation came to me.
It came coiling about the side of the ship, born on the dawn wind. It came like a rope of silver on the air. Green-silver. For a second I was dumbfounded, trying to place that unique and magic scent. Then I knew.
I tore around the ship, narrowly avoiding collision with a placidly ambling robot still intent on repairs. Tore round, and pulled up too fast and fell prone. Which was quite appropriate, for among the extinct nomadic tribes the prone position was the one in which they worshipped their gods.
The deluge of mixed water and semi-made food had covered about half a square mile of dunes. It hadn’t lasted very long, maybe three hours all told. The rains, of course, which come only once in every three hundred days, and not even then necessarily, do at least last a whole glorious diluvian night. After the rains you could understand, even if you marveled at it, the extraordinary reply of the desert. But this.
Green shoots blowing like fine green hair before that morning wind. Green shoots thickly massed over half a square mile, like slender soldiery in some fable. And the scent of them, the smell of their sap, and the oxygen they expired. Some in bloom—little flowers or buds that might turn out to be anything, except that there wouldn’t be time. The generating life of the sands, dormant, brought to fruit prematurely and by accident. And in an hour or so the sun would be draining the soul from them. By sunset they would be black and withered in this waterless place. By dawn tomorrow you could safely offer a prize to anyone able to detect their ruined dust among the other dusts of the land.
I stood and swore. I felt I had betrayed those shoots, dragged them up here on false pretenses without even a night of rain to sustain them, sold them out to the cruel sun. Dawn, farathooming dawn.
As I snarled there, along came a conscientious robot with a tray, and on the tray one meal injection (large), one draught of silver-cordial (small), six anti-dehydration tablets, four oxygen pills, and a lot of space.
“How groshing,” I remarked, knocking things back, and shooting things into myself ferociously. I balked only at the oxygen. “Look at that field out there; I’m not going to need these things. At least, not all of them.” The robot whirred worriedly, and went into a tape-monologue-dehumanized voice stressing rather than alleviating solitude—about how I must take all the pills, all the pills. So I had to reprogram it quickly in the interests of peace.
When it had gone, I sat on the already hot rock, digesting my horrible first meal, and staring at the greenery. The idea arrived presently and was perfectly simple. No doubt anyone else would have thought of it eighty vreks before I did.
“Hallo there, it’s me again,” I informed the monitor computer jollily.
Quite probably it blew a steel gasket. It sounded like it.
“Wait. Wait,” it chuntered out, and a wild rattling broke loose for a whole split before it had calmed itself down, or been calmed. Then: “There is no need to panic,” it said. “The repair bird-plane is on its way, and will reach you at—click—click—computed time of desert sunset.”
“Who’s panicking?” I gravely asked, hoping it would get the point that of the two of us, it was. “I opened the link because I have another request.”
“No other requests are acceptable until the first request has been granted.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “Suppose I’d broken a femur?”
“They are extinct,” said the computer, either mishearing or, lacking certain vocabulary, making an uneducated guess.
“Listen, you,” I said. “I’m an exile. Very well. But I’m positive that while I opt to stay alive, the Committee has to keep me that way. So if I say I need something urgently, you have to send it to me.”
“We cannot send you any femurs,” moaned the computer.
“I don’t want a drumdiking femur, for God’s sake.”
It probably thought it was a femur that had fallen down the provision dispenser, but now something worse had slipped out.
“Godgodgod,” it asked itself, searching frantically the stockpiled labyrinth of its brain. “Godgod? Godgod? Godgod?”
“Shut up. Cancel. Be quiet,” I cried. “Forget about God. It’s a sensation, a belief, I don’t know—forget it. Forget about femurs, too. They’re not animals, I’ve got a couple anyhow, and believe me, if I do ever break one, you’ll hear me screaming quite clearly in the city without recourse to a monitor beam. What I want is this: one extra water mixer, on rather a large scale, about the size of the ship, say, and rigged for adaption, and some housing for it, and, obviously, self-servicing equipment tied in. And you’d better use a displacement machine, because I’ll need it by noon at the latest.”
There really was a sort of overcharge then. But the computer surmounted it.
“Why do you request this?”
“Because, my perma-steel friend, I’m going to make the desert waste blossom!”
The silence which followed was predictable and far from pleasing. But I stuck it out, knowing they had to listen, couldn’t just leave me there; I’d got the Q-R Committee by their service-to-humanity-programming curlies. Though a menace, I was human, and I had a need, so—
The displacement machine had been an inspiration. It was a body displacer, of course, meant for people use, but since hardly anyone does use them because of the violent nausea that generally results, they are sometimes recruited for sending intercity hardware about. (Dematerialize on Angel Walk in BAA, rematerialize smack in Peridot Waterway, BEE, but that sort of mistake doesn’t happen often, only when some Employed Older Person pops the wrong button.) If I could make them agree to my demands, BEE could shoot that water mixer out into my valley inside half an hour, and since water mixers are the stuff of life everywhere, it shouldn’t be so hard to find one—or make one—by noon. Then, oh then—a nourishing rain could fall, and my garden—yes, I really thought of it already as My Garden—could go on growing, and, what is more, go on and on. If the desert yielded so verdantly after one night of rain, what couldn’t happen here?
I was fired, ablaze with enthusiasm.
I beat the computer down—and the Q-Rs clustered by it now, I should imagine.
“I can’t see a friend, can’t even talk to a friend,” I histrionically bawled. “Alone in the sands, and all I want to do is water a bit of real garden.” (Boo-hoo)
There came at length a long long silence. From that silence, I knew I’d won. The computer spoke:
“For this item there will be a charge. You will have to pay.”
I was het up enough at that moment they probably realized they’d get a mass of utilitarian energy from me, even on tape.
“Yes. Plug me in and I’ll pay.”
And I did. I gave them their water mixer’s worth, and double. I sobbed and laughed and blessed them, and called down upon the city the joys of the firmament. It was worth it, and I didn’t even know then how worth it it was going to be.