Can't get this sand offa me!

CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Part 1

by Frederick Rustam

1. The Vanquished

He sat for a while, recovering his equilibrium.

He had successfully landed his crippled Mourningdove-class scoutship, "mSC734" -- classed for its escape maneuverability -- on the shifting sand of a broad wadi. The landing was successful in that he was shaken, but uninjured. It was unsuccessful because vital ship's systems were out, and he knew he couldn't repair them enough to lift off. He could smell the damage, without looking back. He was down to stay.

He rotated his restraint-seat and stood, unsteadily, on the deck. Some of the circuitboards were still burning. He pulled open access doors and extinguished the small, acrid fires. He counted himself lucky that enough oxygen remained for them to burn, and that he, himself, had not been hit. The pilot's compartment had been breached by several needlelance shots from the two Varmool interceptors which jumped him. It was an old tactic: they had been trying to kill him and capture the
ship, with minimal damage.

He had escaped only because he had explosively disseminated a halo of tiny Mark-1B pyropellets, a new countermeasure the Varmits were unaware of -- and which he was supposed to use only in a dire emergency.... He had thought the frying sound of needlelance just behind him was justification enough, but he knew he'd have debriefing and paperwork, galore, when he returned to Base.

He opened the outside hatch and looked out at the desolation of his new world. It had been unimaginatively charted as Mercur because it was the first planet from its yellow-white sun. Unlike its namesake, however, Earth-sized Mercur had an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and wasn't nearly as close to its sun as Mercury was to Sol. He had aimed his crippled ship for the north temperate zone, which the datafile said was settled, but he had been unable to reach the cooler highlands where most
of the communities were.

The library subcomputer was out now, so he knew he would have difficulty locating one of the scattered oases in the desert lowlands. As his ship headed for the planet's surface, a navigation autosystem had recorded several high-res images, but with the displays dark, they were unavailable to him, now. He had no plastimaps of Mercur either, and thus no way of knowing exactly where he was. He shrugged his shoulders and turned to his next task.

He tried to set the ship's destructor. He was reluctant to destroy his only visible shelter, but the regulations were clear.... However, the destructor had been rendered inoperable by the needlelance fire from the interceptors -- so, he was mercifully released from the immediate consequences of that troubling security responsibility.

He checked the insulated emergency locator beacon. Its power cells made it temporarily functional. Following the instructions packed with it, he made a cable connection to the ship's solar-charged standby power source. He turned off all other systems so that the beacon could operate in coded-IFF mode, indefinitely. Then, he recorded a short, encrypted message for the beacon's squirt transponder. As he keyed, he could feel the compartment growing warmer.... Soon, it would be an
oven.

He strapped on his holstered radpistol, gathered his emergency backpack-kit, and exited the compartment -- letting himself down the side of the ship on the autoextended handholds. As he reached the bottom, he recalled the ancient tradition of dropping and kissing the ground when one lands safely. He looked down at the gravelly, yellow sand and grunted.

"To hell with that," he said to the torrid air.

He was anything but safe, anyway.... First, he walked around the ship, scanning the sky for the Varmool ships which had hit him. His eyes watered behind his sunglasses, as he squinted against the bright disk of the yet-unnamed sun. Apparently, the Varmits had declined to waste fuel by following him down. Probably, they figured he would die soon in the desiccated wilderness they had sent him into. One of their covert teams would be sent to examine the ship, later.

He estimated the nearest hills to be only a few kilometers distant, so he decided to climb them for a vista. From there, he hoped to spot a settlement he could walk to.

He put on the white Arab headdress from the emergency kit and lay down in the shadow of the ship to wait for the sun to reach a more hospitable angle. Then, he would hike for the hills until it got too dark.... Mercur had no moons.

***

By late morning of the next day, he had climbed high enough.

He sat on a rock, congratulating himself on his foresight. Distant in the blue haze was his oasis. It was beyond the wadi, close to the low hills on the other side and -- thankfully -- within walking distance from his downed ship. Leading to the settlement from its nearby hills, was a line of holes in the ground. ("That must be a qanat, a vented water tunnel,") he thought.

With his wide-angle electromonocular, he viewed a village of palms, dun-colored buildings and, in the center, the gray minaret of a mosque.

Mercur was not a Varmool-controlled world. It was a resource-poor planet located in the neutral region between the Varmits and the Empire. Worlds like Mercur were usually settled by groups of people who sought to maintain their identity away from the cosmopolitan Empire. They chose planets which had been surveyed and classified as economically worthless by the terracorporations. On such worlds, settlers could live as they chose -- but poorer without the support of the Empire's economic and cultural mega-net.

Later that day, he began the long hike to the oasis.... Despite his comedown, Pilot-Tech-1/c Itamar Ruugol still considered himself to be a member of the elite Recon Patrol. He expected to be rescued,and intended to act accordingly.

2. The Stranger

He dragged himself up the last big dune and took off his backpack. He was tired and thirsty. Slogging through the loose sand beyond the wadi was fatiguing. His emergency waterpak was almost empty.

He looked down to the bright-green oasis. It was surrounded by a wall of unmortared stones, against which the restless sand thrust itself. From here, he could see that the minaret was topped by a verdigrised bronze crescent, the horns of which were joined by a thin extension, making it a circle.

As he took in the sight of the place where he hoped to find shelter, his eye was suddenly caught by a figure standing among the trees. He took the monocular from his backpack and lifted it to his eye.

His arm shook with fatigue, but he could tell that the jiggling image in the eyepiece was that of a young woman.... She leaned on her irrigation tool and stared up at the stranger on the dune.

He raised both arms in greeting. She stood silently, awaiting his next move. Wearily, he picked up his backpack and started down the slope toward her, grateful that she hadn't run for the village guard.

He lifted the latch of the wooden gate in the wall. As it creaked open, spilling sand inside, Ruugol found himself facing the young woman. She had come over to greet him.

For a moment, he stared at her -- mute and wary. She smiled, shyly, back at him. She appeared to be in her late teens. Her deeply suntanned face was plain-pretty. She had gray eyes, a snub nose, and dark-blonde hair. She didn't seem to be an Arab, as many of the desert people were. She wore their traditional robe, but no veil to hide her face from strangers.

He recovered his voice. "Do you speak Universal?" he rasped.

She shook her head and spoke, in a pleasant voice, a language he didn't recognize.

He pawed through his backpack until he found a small plastisheet pamphlet. It identified him as a harmless Empire pilot-functionary by means of a carefully worded paragraph, reproduced in many languages.... He handed it to her, smiling.

She leafed through it, stopping at a page to read. Then, she looked at him and shook her head, affirmatively.... "Impiri," she noted, and motioned for him to follow her. As they moved into the trees, she suddenly stopped and rushed back to secure the gate in the sandwall. When she returned to his side, her face bore a touching expression of innocent guilt.

As they proceeded down a path between the date palms, he pointed to himself and said, "'Mar..." She responded in kind with, "Mila..." They were introduced.

("`Mila' ... that doesn't sound like an Arab name.") What was she?... He found her intriguing and attractive, in a way.

She was still holding the pamphlet open at the page she had read from. He indicated that he wanted to see it. She handed it to him. At the top of the page, was a label: "CROATIAN/BOSNIAN." Below, the same words in a different alphabet were labeled: "SERBIAN."

3. The Captive

Waiting for them at the nearest house, was a bearded, older man whom Ruugol guessed must be her father, or grandfather. He was short, stocky, and had European features -- but, like Mila, he wore an Arab robe. He was seated in a homemade canvas chair under a suncanopy near the door. As they approached, he remained seated. He didn't seem to be troubled at the sight of his daughter with an armed, uniformed stranger.

Mila spoke to the man, handed him the pamphlet, and motioned to Ruugol. The man read the paragraph, then squinted at the stranger.

"You're a soldier of the Empire, then?" he said in accented Universal, glancing at Ruugol's radpistol.

"Oh..." said Ruugol, surprised. "...you speak Universal, sir?" He had been trained to be especially polite to neutrals.

"Yes, Pilot. I haven't always been on this sandball." He smiled and offered his hand. "My name's Ibram Sultanovic, Mila's uncle. I was a guardsman, myself. Got sent to the Empire for special training and learned the language. We don't need it much, here, though.... How did you happen to come to our Bosnarabia?"

Ruugol relaxed a little; he'd crossed a barrier. He wouldn't be treated like a faringi stranger, here. "I'm Itamar Ruugol, sir, Pilot-Tech-1/c.... My ship was damaged by Varmit -- uh -- Varmool interceptors and I had to land it in the wadi. It looks like I'm stuck here for awhile."

"Sorry to hear that, Itamar.... You're welcome to stay with us. Mila's parents died a few years ago. We have space for another in our home."

Ruugol glanced at Mila. She seemed so angelic that it was hard to believe she had sustained such a loss.

"Thanks, Mr. Sultanovic. I'd like that." ("For how long, though?")

"Call me Ibram, Pilot, and have a seat. Mila will get us some water and wine. We have something to discuss, and you look thirsty."

"Call me "'Mar, sir.... I don't want to be a burden. I can work while I'm here." Ruugol sat in the other chair under the suncanopy.

"I guess you'll have to, 'Mar. In a few months, your ship'll be covered by the sand. And, besides, you're one of us, now."

Ruugol became apprehensive. "How do you mean?"

"Well, 'Mar, Mercur is a neutral world. When one of you warring folk comes down here, we have to try to keep you. It's called `internment.' If we hand you back to your people, the other side'll make a fuss. Our neutrality will be in jeopardy.... Didn't your officers tell you that?"

"No... They said they'd recover us if we went down on a neutral planet -- as soon as they could.... I confess I never gave it much thought," admitted Ruugol.

"If you'd come down in the highlands, they'd have put you in a camp with others of your kind. Luckily, we don't have a planetary government on Mercur. Here in Bosnarabia, the Elders'll make you feel more welcome, but you can't leave us."

"What if my people come looking for me?" asked Ruugol, frowning.

"If they show up here, they can have you. Bosnarabia doesn't want to start a war with the Empire, all by itself. But, you'll have to give your word to the Elders that you won't try to leave, otherwise."

Ruugol felt betrayed and annoyed by this revelation, but controlled his temper in the same disciplined manner that took him up through the ranks of the Star Service to Pilot-First. His mind was in turmoil, though.... ("Will the Service really search for me, here, or have they written me off?... I can't stay in this primitive village, after all the time and effort I spent to become a recon pilot.... But, where can I escape TO?")

Ibram watched the young man for signs of his true reaction to the bad news. He could tell that Ruugol was agitated, but concealed it well. ("Will he try to escape?")

Mila came out of the house with water and wine.

"Have you ever drunk palm wine, 'Mar?"

"...No... I haven't," replied Ruugol, distractedly.

"It's a specialty of the village. We sell it to the highlanders to buy the goods we need. Some of it even reaches the Empire, I hear.... Drink some water, first." He handed Ruugol a clay mug of water.

Despite his thirst, the pilot hesitated. The water was the color of water-thinned coffee. He looked from the mug to Ibram, who was watching him, closely.

"Our drinking water is a little darker than you're used to. It's caused by minerals from the rock in the village well.... Don't worry. It's good for you, and it doesn't taste as bad as it looks."

Ruugol sipped some of the dark liquid. It had a slight tar-like taste.

"It keeps us from getting goiter and other deficiency diseases," added Ibram. "By the way -- don't ever drink the irrigation water. You never know what's gotten into it, upstream." Satisfied with the old man's explanation, Ruugol drained the mug. It left an aftertaste.

"Now, have some of our pride-and-joy, 'Mar." The wine instantly masked the taste of the water. Ruugol coughed. It was strong stuff, but good.... As an off-duty military pilot, he had tried many kinds of alcoholic beverages, but not this.

"Not bad," he said, hoarsely.

"I knew you'd like it.... Nearly everybody does."

Ruugol drank more, then relaxed as his eyes ceased watering.

"Are your people decended from the Old South Slavs, Ibram?"

"Yes, 'Mar. We're Bosnians.... We were driven out of our ancient homeland on Old Earth because of our religious beliefs and became refugees in lands where we weren't welcome. Neither the Europeans or the Arabs saw us as quite their kind. When the Great Migration occurred, many of our ancestors left Earth for the outerworlds where they could have their own government and live in their own way."

Mila left to resume her tending of the irrigation channels in Ibram's date palm grove. Ruugol watched her graceful exit, with admiration. If he was going to be here for awhile, he wanted to know her better.... He had to.

Ibram, noting Ruugol's interest in his niece, said, "She's a fine girl. Not as pretty as her mother was, but she'll have no difficulty finding a husband. Some of the village lads are showing interest."

Ruugol looked at his new guardian, suspiciously. "Yes. She's a nice girl." ("Is he trying to match us ... to keep me here, maybe?")

The late afternoon sun was beginning to turn yellow. For the first time, Ruugol noticed how quiet it was in the village.

"Tell me about the Star Service, 'Mar," said Ibram. "What kind of flying do -- ... did you do?"

4. The Guest

The next day, Ibram took Ruugol before the Council of Elders, who met in a room in the back of the mosque. The older men who ran the village of Bosnarabia debated, then allowed Ruugol to live with Ibram and Mila, after explaining the village customs to the young pilot and telling him just what they expected of him.

As Ibram looked on impassively, they told Ruugol -- in no uncertain terms -- that the girls and women of the village were off-limits to him. If he wanted a woman, he would have to convert to Islam and marry one. Mila was not mentioned, specifically, but Ruugol guessed the elders had her in mind.

They concluded the meeting by making it clear that any serious breach of conduct would result in their transferring him to the regional market town in the highlands -- and confinement in an internment camp.

Then, they relieved the young pilot of his radpistol.

Afterward, Ibram took Ruugol on a tour of the village that ended on the balcony of the minaret where the muzzein called the faithful to prayer, without a loudspeaker.

"Well, 'Mar, how do you like our little village?..." He gestured to the flat-roofed mud houses and verdant palms spread out below them. The shadow of the minaret thrust itself across the plaza of the mosque like the gnomon of a sundial.

Ruugol looked toward the horizon, beyond which his wounded dove rested, while the sand piled up around it. ("Will it really be covered in a few months?... I find that hard to believe. Maybe I should have stayed with the ship for a while.... No. My people will come for me -- sooner or later ... before the Varmits do, I hope.")

"It's a nice village," he said, politely.

***

He entered the living/dining room, only half-awake. Mila was serving breakfast to Ibram. She smiled at him and pulled his chair out from the table before returning to the stove in the corner.

"You'll get used to getting up early, 'Mar. You're a farmer, now -- a gardner, actually. I want you to take care of our garden while Mila and I tend the palms."

"Okay," Ruugol said, without enthusiasm. ("It's better than wasting away in an internment camp.")

"Mila's been doing it, but I want her to spend more time with me. I could pass on any time now, and the grove will be hers after I'm gone, so I want her to learn the whole routine. She'll spend part of the morning teaching you to garden, though."

"Good," Ruugol said with, perhaps, too much enthusiasm.

"We quit about ten o'clock, when the sun rises high. After lunch, we take a nap, then go back to work 'til late afternoon. No fixed time for quitting -- just when you've finished a good day's work."

"I see."

Ibram began to talk about the garden, as Mila served Ruugol breakfast. To drink, there was more of the dark water from the village well, but no wine.... Ruugol understood. Wine was for after work.

Then, he remembered something. The ancient Muslims were supposed to abstain from alcohol. As diplomatically as he could, he asked Ibram about this.

"Don't let the name of our village fool you, 'Mar. We're Bosnians -- not Arabs." He winked at Ruugol and left it at that.... Ruugol dropped the subject.

The pilot glanced at Mila's tanned ankles, as she worked at the stove, and regretted that their traditional beliefs on relations between the sexes were not more progressive, too.

After Ibram had wound down about the garden, Ruugol decided to make a request which would test Ibram's determination to safeguard his niece's chastity.

"Ibram, isn't day-after-tomorrow your ... sabbath?"

"Yes, 'Mar. It's a day of rest. You may need it, too, after your first day in the garden."

"Heh, heh... Well, I was wondering if I could explore the village qanat, then?"

"Sure... You'd better take Mila with you, though. I don't like the idea of you wandering back up that tunnel, by yourself."

"Okay." ("That's just fine with me, old man.")

"Just don't go too far upstream."

"Okay." Ruugol congratulated himself for his cleverness.

"And, watch out for the snakes."

"Snakes?!..." Ruugol's enthusiasm for taking Mila underground took a sudden downturn.

Ibram smiled, benevolently. "Not many. But, those watersnakes are venomous. If you feel one swim by, just remember to stand still."

Ruugol glanced over at Mila. She was looking at him as if she had understood every word. She smiled her little shy-smile. He looked back at Ibram.

"O-Okay... I'll remember." ("I'll yell and jump like a rabbit, I know, and Mila'll laugh at me.")

5. The Explorer

The light ahead was strong enough now so he could turn off his flashlight. He looked around at Mila and pointed ahead. She replied with a nod.

He had kilted his new workrobe for the expedition into the qanat, and so had Mila.

("She sure looks good with her legs exposed.")

In Bosnarabia, only young girls normally showed their legs, as they rushed about in the enthusiasm of childhood.

Ruugol pushed against the chilly current of clear water, which was almost knee-deep, here. He was in a hurry to reach the next cleanout vent-shaft, where he could stand upright again.

In places, soil from the walls or ceiling had fallen into the stream. Generally, the structure was in good condition, given its age. Even so, a claustrophobe would lose his mind before moving very far from the open outlet in the village. Ruugol's new robe was soiled on both sides from rubbing against the clay.

They reached the circle of sunlight which spilled directly down the shaft from the surface. Ruugol stood, squinting up at the hole, meters above them. Mila moved up beside him and, shading her eyes against the light, looked upward.

Ruugol looked down at Mila, who unshaded her eyes to return his look. Unable to speak her language, he had to communicate with his facial expressions. He had never faced her this closely, before. It was an awkward moment as they gazed at one another. She seemed to be waiting for him to make the first move.

He took a step closer and, grasping her arms, pulled her toward him. She yielded gracefully, unresisting.

Slowly, deliberately, he bent and kissed her, closing his eyes as he did so. She allowed the kiss without enthusiasm, her hands remaining at her sides. When he pulled back and opened his eyes, he saw she was staring at him with an emotionless smile.

("Maybe, she doesn't really like me. Maybe, she's just being polite to the stranger who lives under the same roof.... I know I can warm her up, if I have the chance. It's just a matter of time.")

Ruugol felt a sudden desire to move on -- to cover the embarassment he felt at his impulsive behavior and Mila's seeming lack of enthusiasm. He was accustomed to receiving reciprocated gestures of passion from the girls he kissed.

He pointed back down the tunnel and squeezed past her, without looking back. He had momentarily lost his desire to embrace the object of his fantasies.

On the way downstream, his mind raced in agitation as Mila followed him, splashing through the water, but otherwise silent.

("If I'm going to be stuck here, I want a girlfriend.... It looks like I'll have to get married. Am I ready for that?... What if the searchers come for me after I marry Mila? I know they won't let me take her with me, even if Ibram approves. Regulations.... Hell -- I probably won't have time to go through their whole damned process of becoming eligible to marry, anyway, before the Search and Rescue boys show up.")

Troubled by the increasing difficulty of his situation in the oasis of Bosnarabia, Ruugol forgot all about the snakes in its qanat.

***

On the way back to Ibram's, they stopped at the village well, where Mila drew him a dipper of the dark water. Standing in the bright, hot sunlight -- and feeling relieved to be out of the confining irrigation tunnel -- Ruugol found the drink so refreshing he gestured to her that he wanted another.

She drew him another dipperfull. Then, she drank, looking at him gravely over the curve of the dipper with her pretty gray eyes, while passing villagers stared at them and whispered.

***

Sitting with Ibram in the late afternoon sun, Ruugol surprised even himself.

"Ibram, I'd like to marry Mila and become part of the community." He looked anxiously at the bearded man for his reply.

Ruugol had finally concluded he'd better get the wheels moving before some other guy in the village spoke for Mila, first. He had reservations about it all, but overcame them in a rush.

"Would you ask her for me?"

Ibram took his time, sipping his wine and staring at Ruugol.

"Yes, 'Mar. I'll do that.... But, remember, you'll have to learn our language, become a Muslim, and -- of course -- have Mila's approval. Until then, you two must remain apart."

"I understand," Ruugol replied. Ibram wasn't smiling, but he wasn't frowning, either.... It was a good sign.

"Mila!" Ibram called her from the house, where she was preparing supper. She came outside, her hands coated with flour. Ibram spoke to her in Bosnian -- pointing at Ruugol as he did so. She glanced at the pilot. Then, with downcast eyes, shook her head "yes" and mumbled the word.

"She is willing," translated Ibram. "I think she likes you, you know." He said something more to Mila, and she turned and entered the house, without another word.

Ruugol felt a little embarassed for the girl, whose future was being arranged by the two men of the household. But, he knew that was the way things were done in Bosnarabia. Young people weren't allowed to chose mates without the involvement of their parents or guardians, and the approval of the Elders. Ruugol felt lucky that his own parents weren't around to complicate things.

"I'll speak to the mullah, tomorrow," said Ibram. "He'll begin your instruction in Islam and our Old Tongue."

Ruugol, anxious to change his status from stranger to villager, inquired, "How long do you suppose it'll be before I'm ready?"

"Oh ... I guess a few weeks, if you're a quick learner."

"I'm already circumcised," he blurted out.

"Really?... That's a good start," said Ibram, with a twinkle in his dark eyes.

 

Click here to continue to Part 2

 


[ Prev | Table of Contents | Next ]