A TRUE AND ACCURATE, COMPLETE ACCOUNT BY DITLO RAVASHAN FOR HIS OWN FILES
Unlike the others, I had an exact idea of where I was, and a fair outline of what I would do if possible. I waited until the other three had gotten over their first confusion, waiting as usual with perfect patience since it cost me nothing, and after a time the three of them set out in different directions, as they had been taught.
Once we had parted company, I moved off in the direction of a two-lane highway, carrying Joro for a time. I remember that except for Joro’s incessant moaning the night was still and clear. ‘I don’t – don’t think I can – stand the pain!’ he said at one point. What did he expect that to do – make the pain go away? In truth, I was sick and tired of him since considerably before the crash. I would certainly have left him – would have never picked him up in the first place – but he was needful for my plan, and so I carried him patiently. But after a time I laid him down, for his gasps had grown both more frequent and more shallow, and it was obvious that soon I would be alone.
Joro lay staring blindly up at me, his hands hugging his belly. ‘What’s going to become of me?’ he asked.
‘Chaplain,’ I said, ‘you’re going to die. If I had all of a military hospital here to help, I think you’d still die. And that’s the truth.’
‘But I don’t want to—’
‘Chaplain, you have the choice between going down a whimpering, puling babe, or dying like a man. That’s your only choice.’
‘Oh, Ravashan, why – why did we come all this way?’
‘Chaplain, we really don’t have time for this. Be useful. There is a question I hope you can answer.’
‘Wh-what do you want to know?’
‘What is the meaning of life?’
‘Wh—’ He did not answer at first, so I struck him lightly in the face.
He stopped his moaning, but did not otherwise respond. I struck him a little harder. ‘Chaplain. Answer the question.’
Joro looked at me, and it seemed some sort of remission were temporarily taking place, for his breathing steadied for a moment. ‘Ravashan,’ Joro said. ‘You’re crazy.’
‘Chaplain, there is nothing I or anyone else can do for you. You are dying. Tell me, if you can, the meaning of life.’ I struck him again, but all he did was weep. ‘Ssss …’ His eyes had closed and his head drooped. I struck him again.
‘Chaplain – what is the meaning of life? Do you hear me? What is the meaning of life?’ I crouched over him in the darkness, repeating the question tirelessly, but all he said was ‘Hurt—’ and then he lapsed into incoherent gibberish until he died.
Somehow, the night did seem a little more alien with him gone, for a moment or two. But I was … buttering no parsnips … where I was, and I wanted to be far away from the swamp by the time dawn occurred. So I shouldered my burden – it was a dead weight now, but on the other hand it was quiet – and in due course found the highway, a clear cut through the countryside, with soft sand shoulders. There was no appreciable light, but there were stars, and by the starlight I could tell that I had happened upon country in transition from the bogs and trees to bulrushes. I was not really near the coast, as yet, but I could expect estuaries, and creeks running to meet them.
The highway was deserted. Well, at that time of the morning it would be, for the most part. But somebody was bound to come along. I set Joro down on the shoulder and waited.
I remember what I thought. Two things, leading up to a third:
From time to time, birds went by overhead, on their own errands. Birds as such were not known on my home world, though they were on some others – including this one, obviously. We had, instead, creatures that navigated the air using the displacement of their bodies, distended by digestive gases. These were capable of a slow sort of dirigibility, enough to eat seeds and insects, and at the higher end of the chain, predatory types that ate lesser flying creatures. So they served the same purpose.
I have heard it said that the lack of birds on my home world can be explained by the fact that birds are actually descended from dinosaurs, or the equivalent. And dinosaurs, or the equivalent, were unknown to my people’s paleontology. The theory is that we are the dinosaurs – that in due course, we shall devolve into birds. So I followed the flight of these Terrestrial birds with some interest.
I watched the man-made air traffic, too, wondering if they were attempting a search for us. But I noticed nothing concentrating on the swamp. In fact, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary: propeller planes, almost exclusively, and mostly commercial, judging by their height and size. One or two jets went by overhead; those were military, but none of them showed any interest in my particular part of the darkness below them.
And the upshot of these thoughts, for what it’s worth, was that this was a relatively primitive world, and so I was comparatively safe from anything the natives might do. And at the same time it was a world sufficiently advanced for me to enjoy myself upon it. I was not at all sure that I would have been as happy on my own world, all things considered. There were quite a few Ditlo Ravashans back there. Here there was only one, and I was he, and this planet would support me in the style to which I intended to become accustomed. It was not an unpleasant thought.
After a while, the lights of a car began to glow in the distance, and I stepped out into the road. I reckoned that a uniformed man, which I was, so soon after the war, in trouble – which I was – would be able to flag down most forms of transportation. I was almost wrong, as it turned out. The car swerved and slid, and almost made it around me, in which case it might have sped up again and gone, but in the end it did stop, and the driver rolled down his window and poked a pale and bewildered face at me. ‘Wha-what do you want?’ he said in a breathless and slightly drunken voice.
He was a middle-aged man, with his tie undone, who was probably returning home to wife and children after a night partly spent with another woman. There was a smell to him of cheap perfume, and there was lipstick on his left ear. And he could not make up his mind about me, as I suspected he could not make up his mind about many other things as well.
I said, as he looked at me with his mouth slightly open and his eyes trying for sharper focus: ‘Get me to Atlantic City Naval Air Station as fast as you can. My buddy’s hurt bad.’ I said it just like that, and if my accent wasn’t quite right, my uniform wasn’t, either; it was just a coverall with a couple of badges sewn on. But I didn’t expect either one of these things to give me trouble with this man, and they didn’t.
He demurred only about the destination. He looked for a moment at Joro, lying huddled on the shoulder, a dim figure in the backscatter from the headlights, and said, ‘But there’s lots of places closer than Atlantic City.’
Not with military personnel. Not that I knew of. ‘Atlantic City is where we have to go.’
‘Well, all right, I was just—’ But I was gone away from his window, opening his offside door, wrestling Joro into the backseat, and settled in beside the driver, before he could complete the thought. And if he was a little amazed at how fast I did all that, he did not speak of it. He craned his neck to look at Joro again, and I said, ‘Let’s go.’
He nodded uncertainly, but put the car in gear, and began climbing up the ladder of speeds until he had the car up to highway velocity. ‘You got it,’ he said, having decided that, really, it was all his idea.
It was too much to hope, of course, that the Earthman would just drive and do his job. He was a man who thought of himself as being different from other men because he had a woman on the side, and he was a man who, underneath that, realized that he was overweight and over age and not especially lovely to look at, so that some small but vital part of him knew that his woman on the side was either desperate or playing him for a fool, or perhaps both, and therefore he actually got no pleasure from his pleasure. So every opportunity to open up his life, to give it meaning and texture, was, necessarily, exploited. So about ten minutes into it, he began talking. ‘Can’t get much more than seventy out of this bucket without goin’ all over the road,’ and ‘Boy! Have I got a story to tell my wife!’ and similar expressions. Well, Joro wasn’t in any kind of a rush, actually. As for the Earthman’s wife, whatever he told her wasn’t going to be believed. ‘Your buddy doesn’t look too good, what I could see of him. What kind of outfit you in?’ was closer to the mark.
‘Brazilian Naval Air Force,’ I said. ‘We’re allies of yours. Night flying exercise. Couple of things went wrong.’
‘Oh.’ There was a pause. ‘Hadn’t you better check on your buddy?’
‘My buddy’s as all right as he needs to be.’
‘Oh.’ More thought. ‘What about your plane?’
‘I know where it is. The naval station will send out a recovery vehicle, have it back at the air station by dawn.’
‘Oh.’ I could see him pondering that. The next thing out of his mouth might be You know, there’s something fishy about this story, so I said: ‘Sooner we get to the authorities, the better,’ and he remembered that we were, after all, headed for the authorities. Which meant, I suppose, that no matter how fishy the story, it had the official sanction of the United States government; which meant, since he was too clever to be taken in by it but it was the story the government wanted told, that he could tell the story without feeling like a fool, and with the feeling he was on the inside of something. It never occurred to him, I reckon, that somebody would head to the authorities who didn’t belong to the authorities.
We pulled up, finally, at the main gate of the naval air station. It was before you actually got to Atlantic City, on the highway that ran through the cattails, and though it was off to one side it was easy enough to direct him to it … it was, really, the only thing that looked like a naval station, and one of the few things that were lit up at night.
The gate was a guard shack with the highway dividing to run to either side, and two guards in it, except that they came out, carrying rifles, as the car came toward them but then turned partway to go back, and yet stopped. The guards looked at us … like we had two heads … and they pointed their weapons at us.
I reached into the backseat and pulled Joro out. Rigor had set in; he was like a wooden dummy, and very cold to the touch, even though he was at the ambient air temperature or even above it. He sprawled on the tarmac, one leg in the air, hands over his belly, and this was the first I’d seen him that way in the light; he was dirty, pieces of foam clung to him, pieces of coverall were blended with scorched flesh, and his mouth was ruined.
The guards were not combat veterans. One of them choked down an outcry. The other reacted to the thump of Joro’s body on the tarmac by firing his rifle automatically; that was how I learned the weapons weren’t loaded, for all I heard was the click of the firing pin. I turned to the driver of the car. ‘You can go now.’ And he did, with one glance at Joro, sick dismay beginning to dawn on his face, backing the car until he could complete turning it around and go, where the first thing he would have to explain to his wife would be the lipstick, which would mean he might never have to explain anything else. I turned to the guards, who were very young. ‘Let me speak to your commanding officer,’ I said, and let the military routine take over. There was a great deal to it, of course, and I did not speak to the commanding officer until I had worked my way up the chain of command. But eventually I spoke to an adjutant, and explained that Joro’s body wasn’t getting any sweeter-smelling, and at that stage they put it on ice somewhere. And then I did get to speak to the commanding officer, and explained to him that what he was wanted for was to relay my demand to speak to a government official.
And by then there was enough mystery about me, what with my uniform badges that looked real only at first glance, and my first-aid kit, which had Johnson & Johnson on it but just wavy lines where smaller letters should go, and only slightly comprehensible things inside, and as luck would have it, spending the night at the naval station was a young congressman who until recently had been in the Navy. They got him up; in truth, he undoubtedly was up by then, and possibly even had had breakfast, but they told me they got him up, and they brought him to my room, with a couple of really armed guards to keep him safe. And so this man who was to be wedded to me in so many ways over the years to come came into the gray room where I sat. He looked at me, and sat down in a chair opposite mine, across the plywood table. He cocked his head and watched me. He did not, at first, speak.
I explained about Joro’s body – that it would require a confidential autopsy which would prove my bona fides. The congressman nodded – he was quick, and that was far from the last time he would display that quality – and waved the military personnel out of the room, although they were very uncomfortable with that. I could hardly blame them, but the congressman was right – he was utterly safe from me, because he was the key to what I wanted.
I told him what I was. And he believed me. And we worked out a deal, which has been very good for me and not bad for the congressman, either. An early part of the deal, as we worked it out across the plywood table, was that he would call me by a nickname, and I would call him by a nickname, and avoid what might happen if our real names became known at some time. It was only the first of myriad precautions we would take, in the end. It has been so long, now, that I have trouble thinking of him as anyone but Yankee. And I think that is for the best.
– Never revealed.