The sun dropped like a jewel below the western horizon. There the mountains seem to sink back into the sands, leaving open that way to the cities from which, half crazy and running, I had come. A western horizon of tall dunes mounted on low rock, taller dunes since the sandstorm, maybe bare stone after the next.
Amber afterglow. Jang strewn along the veranda wailing about bones torn from sockets, muscles liquidized, sunburn. Luckily their skins—not one seemed to have designed a really desert-suited body—had not reacted too badly. Nilla, least burned of everyone, mewed that she was the worst burned. Felain rubbed salve into her, dreamily.
They’d worked very hard. Too hard for themselves, harder than they’d meant to.
Only Nilla still picked flowers. I’d seen her. Just like a child from hypno-school nicking a goody from under a Q-R’s nose. Nilla might be a handicap. I was fairly sure she’d done this predominantly female thing only in order to throw her circle off balance, in particular hapless Felain. Still, they were stuck with Nilla as a girl now, Nilla included.
Even Naz had loitered out onto the veranda. He lay on the pillowy couch, humming.
I’d had to warn them not to stare at the sun.
And now the sun had sunk.
I’d been so sure Danor and Kam would be back at this time that I’d been listening and looking around for several splits for their plane. Once I thought I heard it, but was mistaken. I’d been banking on their help in dealing with this mob, most of whom, I had the feeling, hadn’t been Jang for very long. Danor was about my age in Janghood, Kam, of course, older.
But the plane didn’t come. And didn’t come.
The sky emptied out into palest indigo. Stars burned through. The Jang, forgetting to grumble, stared at these phenomena silently, not taking ecstasy or howling about “This is where it’s at, ooma-kasma,” or anything. Even Naz was filling his drug-shadowed eyes.
“There’s no moon,” complained Nilla.
“So go up and make one,” Phy told her. He wasn’t crying with melancholia either. If he ever had.
Presently it was a mealtime, and they vaguely went off to eat it, like good children. I’d told them, attempting to intimidate them with numbers, that Danor and Kam would be here later, but they’d forgotten.
I stayed outside, watching, waiting.
The sky darkened. There was a silken rustle of subsiding sand about a mile away, the sound of it trickling easily across those spaces of quiet. The day had tired me out.
The Sisters woke me, punctual as ever. They woke the Jang, too, who had collapsed in comas of exhaustion in the saloon. They came hopping out to see the volcanic fireworks, half-scared, half-admiring.
“Your friends are late,” said Naz. “Got any ecstasy? I took all mine and the machines won’t dispense; say you programmed the robots to program them not to.”
“That’s it,” I said. “You can forego the ecstasy, or you’ll be unfit for work tomorrow.”
Naz, lethargically cursing me, meandered off.
No Danor, no Kam.
My guts had turned cold. Irrational. Anything could have delayed them. Most probably trouble with the newly set monitor computer. And yet, and yet.
“Ooh-weeh!” screeched Nilla at the Sisters, more or less in my ear.
I got up. I was going to check with the blasted computer, even if it did mean giving the water-mixer game away.
“I’m inquiring about some fellow exiles of mine,” I said. “Danor, female body from BEE, Kam, older male, BAA. They’ve put down over the mountains from me, eastward, I’m not precisely sure where. Have they been in contact with you on their monitor beam?”
Rattle. (Even the rattle sounded more efficient, more resolute.)
“Computed time of desert noon.”
I wasn’t obviously going to get anything for free, so I sold us out.
“What did they want?”
“Two water mixers.”
“Oh—ah—how odd!” I, falsely amazed.
“The request was refused,” said the computer. “Their plane was given your coordinates and they were told to join you and share your water mixer.”
“Did they argue?”
“For approximately one hour.”
Good for Kam. I could imagine.
“Didn’t work, though, did it?”
“It did not,” said the computer, without even a metallic hint of satisfaction.
Heavy chill dark was thick around me, not entirely due to the night beyond the windows.
“So, if they were coming here, I could expect them pretty soon.”
Click, click. No answer.
“Well, shouldn’t I? Or earlier? About seven hours ago, in fact.”
“Unless they have decided to abide by Committee suggestion and order a home built where they are presently located, without growing things.”
“Don’t try and fool me. You know and I know it was a plot to get a water mixer for us here in the valley. And you know they should be back here now. Did they link with you again?”
“No.” Rattle, rattle. “Perhaps they have realized the enormity of what they have done, and elected for suicide and Personality Dissolution.”
A white wave broke over me. I cut out the beam link, and stood, holding my breath with tension. Suicide? Not them. So what had happened?
There was a noise on the veranda, shouts, excited thumpings. The Jang had apparently spotted something. Could it be the plane?
I sped veranda-wards, and emerged among an applauding, pointing melee of Felainnillaloxiandphy. Something had come over the eastern mountains and plummeted into the greenery about ten feet from the porch.
“Oh, look, it’s a desert bird,” they were inanely squawking.
“Out of the way, floops, it’s an android, and I know it.”
It was Danor’s swan.
I knelt by the swan, which, exhausted but apparently whole, was recovering in the grass.
“Oh God, swan, what’s happened?”
And the swan fluted: “You are the wonderful sun of my sky!” which sent the Jang morons into raptures. But not me. It was the warning song, the song which pleaded for aid.
When they saw my face, the Jang row ebbed.
“Naz,” I said, noting him full length on the pillowy couch.
“Sure, I’m awake,” said Naz. “Are you going to give me some ecstasy, ooma, my ooma, or your own nut-brown self?”
“Naz,” I said, “I think you’ve lived longer than the rest of your circle, and I think under your sprawling hide there lurks a spark of intelligence. You and your crowd foisted yourselves on me and I’m stuck with you and you’re stuck with me. Just over those mountains there, those low ones, a couple of friends of mine are in trouble. I don’t know what kind, but it must be bad. And their monitor beam is probably out so they can’t call for city help, all they can hope for is mine. Now, listen. I’m going to take Yay—the robot—and your bird-plane, and I’m going over east to look for my friends. While I’m gone, Naz, you’ll have charge of your circle. And if I come back and find you’ve ruined my ship or my Garden, I’ll tear you limb from limb and stuff the bits down a sandhole. Is that clear?”
“I’m not clear quite how you’d manage it,” drawled Naz.
“I don’t think you’re entitled to our bird-plane,” said Nilla.
“Entitled!” I squalled. “When you think you’re entitled to my home and my land and to pick my bloody plants to bloody pieces. Every moment I waste on you, two people out there may be in agony, or dead without benefit of Limbo.”
That sobered them. Nilla looked down. Naz said:
“Go on then. I’ll take charge. How about some ecstasy before you go?”
But I was running, Yay clacketing on my heels, for the plane in the grove of purple trees, so no doubt he didn’t catch my obscene answer.
Yay took forever at the controls before we lifted. I’d told him to check them out, remembering the wild Jang landing, and sure enough there was something wrong that he had to correct before we could get airborne.
We made it eventually, up into a black-marble sky veined with faint cloud.
I didn’t know exactly where Kam had aimed for—it had been pot-luck, anywhere over the ridge, just so a few miles and rocks stood between their place and mine.
I know that I was thinking even then that they’d crashed, and it seemed so illogical for a plane to malfunction that the computer’s words came back and back to me. Maybe the desert had suddenly swelled up around them, huge and terrifying, a delayed phobia, robbing them of courage, sense, even of love. Maybe suicide, or panic, had caused Kam’s blue plane to dive into oblivion. But no, I couldn’t believe it. Wouldn’t.
There were a good four hours of darkness left as we searched along the eastern ridges, scouring them with the plane’s underlights. Twice we went over the Cup, and I could look down past its rim into a vast, extinct volcanic crater; truly it was a cup, even inside, and once that bowl had brimmed with fire.
Near dawn we landed to recharge the friction batteries, which were crackling fretfully, then, after half an hour, went up again.
First pallid intimations of sun-arrival on the sky far below.
With daylight, it should be easy to spot…anything, not of the desert.
I saw the wreckage one hour after sunrise.
It lay along a sandy shelf, smoking dustily. Shadow and night had hidden it, for we’d passed this area before. From the positioning they’d been on their way back to the sandship, coming from the dunes beyond the eastern mountain slopes.
I shut my eyes and each of my senses when I saw. I felt no grief, no sickness, and no anger, only a great blank of nothing.
But I made Yay land our plane. I had to be certain they were dead, and then I had to get back and contact Limbo. Ego-death was better than absolute death, or so we all believed. Danor and Kam would be Danor and Kam no longer, but, rorls in the future, they’d come back from PD at least living.
I wasn’t relishing the thought of what I’d find—stray human parts, blood…The plane made a perfect touch-down on the rocks. I opened up and got out.
Then I heard the new noise, the thrub-thrub of motors in the sky I had just vacated.
I stared up. A tiny black dot circling westward. Limbo—it looked like Limbo even from this distance. Limbo robots zooming in to save the life sparks of Danor and Kam.
Yes, circling nearer, I could see now it was a Limbo craft. Circling nearer, near enough to check, with its beamers, life or death below; circling, but not landing. Not landing. Then—
I looked again, past the wreck to where the rock shelved up into a hollow arching, hiding its cavelike depth from the sky above. And I saw Danor standing there gazing back at me, and Kam about a yard in front of her.
I ran, and they ran, panting in the thin air. The three of us ran together and more or less collided. We clung to each other on the rock, muttering things that made no sense, and overhead the dark city messenger droned away.
“They’ve only got Joyousness laid on in their stupid Jang plane,” I said, “but if you don’t mind a bit of ecstasy, it’s not bad.”
“After yesterday,” said Kam, “ecstasy would be a pleasant change.”
So we drank Joyousness and ate toasted angelfood, which was the only thing their first-meal-dispenser button would give us (typical).
And then a tale was unfolded. Kam’s account and Danor’s. I’d like to write it in the old way, with ink and pen, frame it in gold, and set it up in the ship’s saloon for everyone to see.
Having asked Four BEE for the water mixer, argued, and got nowhere, they set the controls for my ship and up they went. Presently there came a clucking in the panel. Kam checked and got the panel to check itself. The panel told him it had malfunctioned, and it was too late to right itself since something had snapped somewhere and poured off oil into the batteries. About two splits later the batteries cut out.
Danor said she stood there, wan and useless, just expecting to take his hand and say goodbye. But Kam pulled all the guts from the float-bed and they baled out on them. It was brilliant and chancy, but it was the only chance they had. Luck and the float-gas held, and they escaped with minor abrasions, falling on the rocks about fifty feet below the spot where the plane itself crashed, and slowly climbing up to it, no easy task without oxygen tablets.
The monitor beam had had it, but they reasoned that this fault would duly have registered in Four BEE, and a rescue plane would come to see what sort of situation they were in, salve their cuts, and probably dump them back in my valley.
Around sunset they heard the throb of motors, left the overhang where they’d sheltered from the sun, and waved clothing and arms about. Sure enough the plane came closer and closer. Soon it was close enough to see it was a Limbo item. Certainly it saw them. In the gathering gloom they made out the flash of its beams, registering them.
But it didn’t land. Just circled there. After about ten splits it went away.
It gets cold in the desert at night, particularly up in the mountains; the stars hammer on the rock and strike frost. Kam raided the plane wreck, and managed to coerce some warmth out of a dying battery or two. It got them through the night, with no margin.
Just before dawn the Limbo plane came over again. It’s a wonder I didn’t bang right into it, but I and it must have sidled by each other in the darkness somewhere, and the sound of my own motors camouflaged it. It circled them once more and went away. They knew by then.
There used to be a certain bird in the desert, but I think it is extinct by now. It lived off carrion and, noting a dying animal from on high, it would circle there, watching, till the last spark of life went out. Then swoop and devour the corpse.
The plane from Limbo had been watching. It was waiting for Kam and Danor to die. They had a vast choice of deaths. The natural ones of exposure—too much sun, or too much cold—or starvation, dehydration, or oxygen deficiency. Or they could hurl themselves from the rocks, or find a handy bit of metal in the wreck and slash a vein. Once dead, the Limbo plane would swoop and carry them safe to PD in the city.
I suppose with me, the first exile, the one the Committee had outcast themselves, they’d felt obliged to observe the rules. But with voluntary exiles, PD was obviously the best place for them, and the quicker they got there the better. So the Committee was kind enough to help them make their decision.
It was horrifying. It was true fear with a naked face.
Could they still, those compassionate Q-Rs programmed so long ago to serve humankind, be kidding themselves that they were acting in humanity’s best interests, protecting us from ourselves? Or had the old grievance at last asserted itself, the grievance that twelve vreks before had suggested itself to my instincts? Even in the tanks, you can’t breed a human without the relevant cells from two other humans; however, given these cells, the child comes alive and grows on its own. But the Q-R, bred from selected metals and flesh—man outside, machine inside—is born from a blueprint on the great farm at BAA, and brought to life by the force of an electronic charge. They have no actual life spark, no “soul” as the ancients termed it. Could it be that they’d come to resent the lack? Or had the blueprint itself somewhere gone wrong?
When they bailed out, Kam had taken the swan, but the floater wouldn’t tolerate the combined weight or the swan’s kicking, so he had to push it off, trusting to the memory that it had flown before—one of the few things it could do. And, after dropping like a stone for a couple of feet, the swan opened its wings and saved itself very efficiently. Once they were all down, the swan had stamped about the terrain discontentedly, obviously under the impression that Danor had organized the crash on purpose, for some incomprehensible reason. Finally it vanished, and neither of them could find it. In the circumstances, confronted with doom as they were, they thought it possibly for the best that the swan had deserted them. Perhaps it would make out in the desert, even get back to the valley. They had considered that possibility, too, but, inadequately clothed, with no oxygen or water, they wouldn’t have lasted an hour on those treacherous slopes.
Danor was bowled over by the swan’s display of concern and intelligence on reaching me. I mentioned the Jang only briefly. It would be bad enough to have them in our laps on our return, and we had no dearth of problems.
The oxygen pump in the Jang plane was doing wonders for Kam and Danor. So were the Joyousness and angelfood, surprisingly enough. They were both tanned almost black, of course, but otherwise seemed OK. Only their eyes retained the darkness, the knowledge of that fate the Committee had intended for them. Beyond the bare facts, we hadn’t spoken of it too much.
At length I tapped Yay, and the plane, overcrowded again, lifted up into the sky and headed homeward.
It was a beautiful morning.