CLOSER TO HEAVEN, Part 2
6. The Gardener
As the days dragged by, Ruugol spent his mornings in Ibram's garden and his afternoons in the mosque. The elderly mullah -- the spiritual leader of the community -- patiently taught him the rudiments of the Old Tongue, using as a reader, a child's primer on the Holy Quran. It was a good way to learn both the unfamiliar language and the ancient beliefs, at the same time.

Ruugol, like most of the Star Service personnel, wasn't religious. He felt that Ibram had been rather open-minded in accepting an infidel as a prospective son-in-law, even on the promise of conversion. He had learned, though, that the villagers of Bosnarabia were not so strict about Islamic law as the Arabs. Perhaps, their many years here without enemies and warfare had relaxed their outlook. He felt a little guilty at having to pretend to accept their faith, but he guessed he'd come to accept most of their beliefs as he aged -- if he were here that long.

Ruugol soon began conversing with Ibram in the man's native language. His confined his talk with Mila to the usual pleasantries. She had managed, with gestures and by example, to teach him his garden duties. Then, she returned to the palms, leaving him feeling neglected and lonely.
***
He knelt on a pad while he pruned suckers from the tomato vines. The late morning sun was getting hotter, now. The pungent odor he released as he handled the stems was cloying, and his back was aching and his beard itching. He plucked a big green hornworm from under a leaf and severed it with his shears. The two halves wiggled, furiously. "By the Prophet, they're ugly.... It's horticultural warfare for you, now, uh ... uh ... Pilot-First."

At the sound of approaching footfalls, he peered through the vines to see Mila returning to prepare lunch. She noticed Ruugol looking at her and waved to him, but said nothing.

"What's for lunch?" he asked, as she turned to enter the house. He knew the likely answer, but he felt a need to speak to his fiancee.

"It's a surprise," she replied, jokingly, and entered the house.... To Mila, duty came first. Ruugol knew better than to call her over to the garden. Besides, he was getting hungry.

As the screendoor slammed behind her, Ruugol hesitated before returning to his labors. These days, he found that his physical desire for Mila was not so strong as it had been when he arrived at the village. He thought to himself that the reverse should be true. Familiarity should have increased their attraction -- at least, his. ("It must be all the work I'm doing.... I'm just too tired.")

Mila remained almost as shy as she had been when he first saw her. He knew she had been brought up to conceal her feelings about men. Ruugol had been careful to keep his relations with her to a minimum, anyway. Ibram, indeed the whole village, were watching them, and he didn't want to put himself and Mila in a position which might lead to trouble.

He talked to himself, often now, while working in the garden. "All this study and work is wearing me down.... Damn! I wish ...the people looking for me... would show up and solve my problem -- before it's too late.... Even if they do, I'll have a problem just explaining to Ibram and Mila why I have to leave them. I don't want to hurt their feelings. But, I don't want to be stuck here forever."

As Ruugol considered leaving Bosnarabia, he suddenly realized he was having to think carefully to remember that he was a Star Service Pilot, and that it was the Service that was looking for him.

"I'm going native.... I'm forgetting who I am."

For several weeks, now, he had lived like a villager. He even looked like one, tanned, bearded, and wearing a traditional Arab robe. And, he was speaking their lingo and mouthing their beliefs pretty well, he thought -- all to hedge his bet on being rescued.

"At this rate, those ... Service rescue guys won't recognize me when they do get here," he said to the tomatoes.
7. The Lover
"Everybody go, now!... Give the lovers a chance!"

Ibram shouted at the remaining guests who were dancing and consuming the last of the wedding feast laid out on tables in front of the house. The sun had dropped to the horizon and was turning red. At this time, when the food and drink ran out, the father of the bride traditionally dismissed the guests and escorted the bride and groom into the house.

"I'll be back tomorrow, 'Mar. You make my niece happy, you hear?..." Ibram would stay in the house of a relative on the other side of the village so the lovers would have his house all to themselves on this first night. He had given them his large bedroom and had moved his personal possessions into one of the smaller bedrooms.... This was his modest, but appreciated, wedding present to the young couple.

As the door closed behind them, Ruugol and Mila embraced. For the first time, she responded eagerly to his touch.... They held each other closely for a while, then moved toward the bedroom.

"I have something special for you, my love," said Mila.

"I know," he smirked.

"Not that. I mean a love potion."

"A what?"

"An aphrodisiac... All the newlyweds in the village use it on the first night. It's an old tradition. It'll help us ... you know ..."

"Okay, but with you here, I don't really need it."

Mila pulled him over to the kitchen corner and took a small bottle from the back of a food storage cabinet. As Ruugol watched, she added half of the dark liquid to each of two tumblers of thinned palm wine.

"I've had enough wine, already. I don't want to get drunk, tonight," he asserted.

"It's just enough to change the taste of the potion, love."

They touched tumblers and drank.

"Gaagh!..." said Ruugol, making a face. It was bitter, despite the wine. "What IS this stuff?"

"I'm not sure. The Herbalist makes it.... It's a secret."

Mila embraced Ruugol and looked up at him, lovingly. "I'll make you forget the taste, soon." Then, she led him toward the bedroom.

"I'll bet you will," he replied, eagerly.... He thought he could already feel the potion beginning to work its magic.
***
Ruugol opened his eyes to find a girl standing beside the bed, shaking him. "Wake up, love. It's time for breakfast. Ibram's back."

He found that his memory of the night's pleasures was somewhat fuzzy. In fact, all his memories were a little hard to come by. He stared at the girl, his brow wrinkled.

"Who?"

"Ibram -- your `father-in-law.'" She smiled sweetly at him.

"Oh, yeah ... Ibram."

But he couldn't even remember his young bride's name. As he was trying, an older man entered his field of vision.

"Good morning, 'Mar. Did you have a good night?" he asked, with a wink.

"Uh, I guess so.... I'm having trouble remembering things ... Ibram."

"Don't worry, `Mar. It's the aphro. It has that effect, sometimes -- especially on the young."

Ruugol sat up in the bed and looked around. The surroundings seemed familiar. ("`Mar'?... Is that my name?... Why can't I remember my own name?... What's wrong with me?")

"This is crazy -- but I can't remember who I am."

Ibram and the girl stared at him with sympathetic expressions. Ruugol felt he belonged here, but...

"It'll all come back.... But, just to help you recall: your name is Omar. This is the oasis of Bosnarabia. You came here from the highlands after your parents were killed in an accident. You fell in love with Mila, and you're part of our household, now. Do you remember the wedding, yesterday?"

"Wedding?..." He thought. "I remember there was a party where people were dancing." He felt overwhelmed by his memory loss.

"Do you remember taking care of our garden?... It's your garden, too -- now."

"Mine?... Yeah... I'm part of the family, now." He tried to smile, but did not quite succeed. "I guess I'll have to learn the garden all over, again."

"Oh, 'Mar," said Mila, plaintively. "I shouldn't have given you the love potion."

He looked at his bride. "I remember you, Mila ... last night." She blushed, and brightened.

"You'd better," she said.

"Come on and eat your breakfast, 'Mar. It's getting cold," said Ibram as he left the bedroom.
8. The Husband
They had returned late to the house cfrom the fatiguing task of pollinating the date palms.... After supper, Ibram and Ruugol sat in their man-chairs outside the house. Night had fallen, and above the trees, the stars twinkled brightly in the dry air. Ibram was telling Ruugol that tomorrow he and Mila could finish up the work in the grove, by themselves. He sounded old and tired.

Ruugol stared at the sky. "And, don't forget to bag -- ... 'Mar, are you listening? I'm talking about tomorrow's work."

Ruugol replied without taking his eyes from the glory above them. "I'm listening, Ibram."

"What do you find so facinating about the sky?" Ibram inquired, with some anxiety.

"Oh, I just remembered some of the names of the stars and constellations. I must have learned them somewhere.... That one, there, is the Reaper." He pointed and glanced at Ibram, who was scowling.

"In Bosnarabia, we don't have much use for such knowledge. It won't help you to be a better husbandman -- or a better husband, either."

Ruugol resumed looking at the sky. "I guess not, but I can't see it'll do any harm to enjoy the stars, though.... I feel drawn to them, like I..."

"Yes?..."

"You'll laugh."

"I'm too old to laugh at the fantasies of youth, Omar.... Tell me."

"I feel I belong closer to the stars -- traveling among them to other worlds. I must have wanted to be a pilot, up in the highlands."

Ibram sighed loudly, in rebuke. "Starship pilots get killed. Men from the otherworlds are still fighting wars among the stars. Here, we have peace and contentment.... You are contented, aren't you, 'Mar?"

Ruugol lowered his gaze to the ground. He felt he had offended Ibram, who had given him a home and a wife.

"Yes... I have a good life, here."

"Well, then, use the stars to light your way at night, but forget about traveling among them. It's not for us.... Now, tomorrow..."

Ruugol saw that Mila was standing in the doorway of the house, looking at him. She looked as if she were harboring a secret.
***
Ruugol and Mila left the mosque with the other worshipers.

Outside, in the plaza surrounding the building, it was hot and dusty. The worshipers shuffled off to their homes, the mullah's familiar sermon fading from their memories. They no longer stared at Ruugol. They now thought of him as one of them.... Their welcome had not been typical of small villages. Here, new blood from the outside was badly needed. The Bosnarabians had lost too many young men -- who left to seek wives, but never returned.

"Mila, let's go for a walk before we go home."

"Where?... I have to make supper."

"We'll be home in time for that. I want to climb the dune outside the wall next to our grove."

"Why?..." she asked. Ruugol thought he detected irritation in Mila's voice.

"To see what's beyond, silly."

"'Mar!..."

"Now, Mila, don't be angry. I haven't been outside the village since I came here. I've forgotten what the outside looks like."

She replied, "It's just sand and more sand. It focuses our attention on our village. That's all it's good for."

"Hmmm... We'll see." He took her hand.
***
As they left the last line of palms, walking toward the gate in the sandwall, they stopped and stared at the bright, cloudless sky.

There was something brighter there.... It was falling somewhere beyond the dunes.

Mila pulled at Ruugol's arm. "We shouldn't go out there."

He stood, resisting her effort. "I know what that is. It's a starship. It's landing."

"It could be raiders. Let's go back, `Mar."

"If they're raiders, hiding in our houses won't save us.... I think they're traders, or something.... I want to see."

He broke free from her grip and began running for the gate. She muttered an oath Ibram didn't know she knew, and followed him. ("His memory must be returning. He wants the stars again.")

Ruugol yanked open the gate and thrust himself up the loose sand of the great prevailing dune -- the one which had to be pushed back, constantly, lest it overwhelm the groves.... The mullah called it, "the Punishment of God."

As Mila pounded up the slope, she recalled the day she looked up from her work in the ditches to see a handsome stranger standing atop the dune. ("How can it be a punishment?... God sent my love from the desert down this great hill of sand.")

She caught up with Ruugol and stood beside him, staring with him at the cloud of dust on the horizon.

"It landed in the wadi." He shaded his eyes and squinted into the ochre distance. "I can't see it, but I know it's there."

Mila held her tongue. She was afraid to say anything which might encourage him to have a closer look. But her caution was to no avail.

"I'm going to have a look at it," he announced.

Mila's mind was in turmoil. She knew she couldn't stop him.... He was drawn by his own deep, ragged memories.

"You can't go out there without food and water. I'll go back and get us something."

"Thanks." He looked at her with gratitude. ("She's such a good wife. I couldn't ask for better.")

"Stay here 'til I come back," she warned. She ran back down the dune. ("Ibram'll tell me what to do. Maybe I can get him to talk 'Mar out of this.")
***
"Let him go, Mila. He won't leave with the faringi. He's ours, now.... Keep an eye on him, but don't show yourself to them. If he talks to them, get him to tell you what they talked about, before he forgets."

Ibram's assurance made Mila felt better. She hurriedly stuffed Ruugol's old backpack -- now emptied and stripped of its insignia -- with bread, dates, and water. Then, she rushed back through the palms, half expecting to find her husband's tracks leading off into the haze. She was wrong, though.... He was sitting on the dune where she had left him, staring at the big, slowly-dissipating dust cloud.

"Let's go," he said with enthusiasm, leaving her to bear the backpack, something he would not have done in his former identity.

They trudged through the sand, noisily. After a couple of hours of fatigue, they could see the nose of a starship above the next dune. Mila remained on the backslope, as Ruugol boldly crested the dune and stared with fascination at the two starships in the wadi, below.

One was partly covered with sand and looked like it had been there for a long time. The designation, "mSC734", was cast on the side of its nose.... The other, larger ship -- the "FarSearcher" -- stood tall and polished, nearby. Ruugol could hear its outside making little noises as it cooled in the heat of the late afternoon.
9. The Native
"They took what they wanted, Lieutenant. But, the pilot fired the M-1s before he came down. All the Varmits got was the ECM controller." The Tech Chief held a damaged component in his hand as he reported to the officer.

"And, the destructor?... Why didn't he set it?"

"Needlelance damage. There's a lot of that.... It looks like they were trying for a pilot-kill and ship-recovery."

"Those bastards," said the Intelligence Officer, without much heat. "I'd like to needle one of them in a quietroom. I'd learn some things HQ wants to know."

"That's why they carry a blackpill, Ensign -- " The Lieutenant halted when, through a port, he saw a robed figure standing on a nearby dune.

"We have a visitor." He pointed, then spoke to his lapelcomm. "Sarge, bring in that guy on the dune. But, don't stun him unless he runs."

Below, the Guards-Sergeant in charge of the Marine detachment decided to try persuasion, first. He waved for Ruugol to come forward.

"Come on down, friend! We want to talk to you! Okay?!..." He tried not to sound threatening, as he yelled at the top of his lungs.... It wasn't easy.

Ruugol understood the trooper, even though he spoke a faringi tongue. He even knew how to answer the call, and this sudden knowledge kept him silent with wonder. ("I know his language!... How can that be?")

The Sergeant relaxed. It had worked. The visitor slewed down the loose sand like he'd been doing it all his life.

"Lower your pieces, troops. He looks unarmed. But, stay tight -- he might have something in that robe," he warned his men, who looked more tense than they should have been.
***
"The village is back there," gestured Ruugol. "My name's Omar. I farm a grove and garden."

The Intelligence Officer stared intently at the stranger. He had begun by making polite inquiries. "Are your people Arabs, Omar?"

"No, sir... Bosnian."

"`Bosnian'?" questioned the Lieutenant.

"Old South Slavs, Lieutenant -- Muslims.... Here, they live like Arabs."

The Lieutenant looked around him. "In a place like this, I'm not surprised at that."

"Omar, has a faringi man come to your village in the last year: a young man in a pilot's suit?..." The I.O. handed Ruugol a plastiphoto. "...This man?"

Ruugol looked at the photo. He felt a little stab of recognition, but he didn't know why this should be.... Then, he smiled and looked back at the officer. "He looks like me."

The officer took back the photo and compared the youthful face of the pilot with that of the bearded, deeply tanned man before him. There was a resemblance.

"Yes... Have you seen him?"

"No, sir... Nobody comes to Bosnarabia, except to trade."

"Did you see this ship come down?" He pointed to the scoutship grounded in the drifting sand.

"No, sir."

"How is it you speak Universal?" asked the Lieutenant.... He was suspicious, even though the Bosnian spoke it with an accent that showed it wasn't his native language.

At this point, Ruugol discarded his ingenuousness. He had no truthful answer for the officer, and he judged this to be a risky situation.... He lied.

"I was sent to school in the highlands, sir. They teach the faringi tongue there."

The Ensign looked at the Lieutenant for a sign.... The team leader gave his opinion.

"The pilot must have died trying to get to this guy's village. He's finished. Delete him from the roster." He turned to the Bosnian. "Okay -- you can go. Thanks for your help."

Ruugol nodded, but stayed put as the Lieutenant yelled up to the Tech Chief, who was looking down from the hatchway of the "mSC734." "Finish it up, Chief. I want to get out of here before a Varmit scout spots us."

With that, he and the Ensign returned to their ship. The troopers stood around the mSC734, scanning the horizon like they'd been trained to do.

Ruugol looked to the Guards-Sergeant like a rube, as he gawked at the ships.

"You like starships, fellow?"

"Yes, sir," answered Ruugol. "What makes them go?"

This question provoked the troopers to laughter.

"Magic," said one of them. This produced a round of guffaws from his mates and a scowl from the Sergeant.

The joker, seeing the effect his crack had, compounded it with a question for Ruugol.

"Why don't you come with us?... We'll take you up to heaven."

"Thanks, sir, but I have to get back to the palms. We're pollinating them, now."

This answer inspired a bawdy remark from another trooper -- and snorts, all around.

"All right! All right! Get your damned eyes back where they're supposed to be!" the Sergeant ordered, sourly.... He gave Ruugol a hearty, "See you later, pal!" and nodded his mirror-armored head toward the horizon, in what was a clear signal.

"Goodbye," Ruugol replied, good-naturedly -- even though he knew the faringi had made fun of him. He walked back the way he had come.

When he reached the top of the dune, he turned and waved to the troopers, but they ignored him as they escorted the Tech Chief -- who was staggering under the weight of the ship's last salvagable components -- back to the "FarSearcher."
***
As Ruugol started down the backslope of the dune, Mila arose from the sand, where she had remained -- fearing to show herself to the warriors. With relief, she questioned her husband, who appeared to be deep in thought about his experience.

"What did those Impiri want with you?... What are they doing here?" Her anxiety was lost on Ruugol, who was still somewhat dazzled by what he had seen.

"They wanted to take me up to heaven." At first, he appeared deadly serious -- then, when he saw her grave expression, he flashed her a smile.

"But, I didn't want to go with them.... In our Bosnarabia, I'm closer to heaven than those faringi will ever be."

Then, he put his arm around his good wife and returned to finish pollinating the palms in his grove.  €

Story Copyright © 1996 Frederick Rustam (frustam@CapAccess.org)



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