"Goldilocks" by Charles McChesney

 

The Goldilocks Zone
by Lance Hawvermale

 

Scratching his lopsided head, Mung wondered if he could drag the body across the wasteland before the desert killed him.

He stood in the dust of a waterless world with his shoelaces untied and his thick eyelids squinting against the sun, trying to decide what Dad would have done. Dad knew all kinds of things. After all, Dad was a si-tist. Si-tists were really smart, especially about things like the temperature -- which was hotter than it had been in longer than Mung could remember -- and smart about the liftsled, which was giving Mung a first-class headache. But headaches were the least of his troubles. Dad had said people were Passing On. Something in the air was messing with everyone's genes, and Mung wondered what your pants had to do with dying.

Two days ago Dad himself had Passed On. Strange, not to have him around smiling and smoking his pipe anymore. But Mung hadn't been very sad until Dilsofer got sick last night. Now Mung was afraid. Without Dilsofer, there would be no one left on the entire planet, and Mung would be alone. And being alone was scary. Mung's forehead was all knotted up with worry. Thinking was hard sometimes. But hoping wasn't hard. Hoping was easy.

Mung hoped his brother Dil wasn't about to Pass On.

He turned around and inspected the sled. Dad was a si-tist, and he used scanners and blueprints and computers to do his work. In fact, there were blueprints for the liftsled back in the colony's motor pool, but Mung had never been very good with letters. Professor Helondria claimed that Mung's memory was better than that of most people. So Mung couldn't read well, not even as smoothly as many of the colony's young children, but Professor Helondria said Mung's memory was --

"Off the chart," Mung said happily. The words came out all in a rush. He said them again, liking the candy-apple taste of them between his teeth: "Offthechart, offthechart, Doc says my memory is offthechart."

A lot of good that did him now. He approached the liftsled and kicked it gently. Why did it just sit there? Why wasn't it hovering like it was supposed to? Mung certainly couldn't get Dil across the desert unless the liftsled cooperated. He ambled around to the controls and peered down at all the knobs and dials. The liftsled was pretty simple, really. Just a long flat bed used for hauling up the beautiful stones the colonists had mined before they all got sick and Passed On. The driver was supposed to stand at the controls and guide the vehicle across the ground. But now the sled only sat there like a big rock.

"Offthechart," he chimed again, though he didn't know why.

He climbed aboard the sled and walked to the low railing at the back. He liked to pretend he was a sailor, when Dad would pilot the sled and the wind would blow in their faces. Mung the pirate. Mung the fisherman.

Only Dad was gone and the professor was gone and the whole entire colony was gone. Something in the air. Something in the earth. The si-tists weren't sure. The only thing Dad had said that Dil and Mung positively had to do was get their packs together and take a lot of water because the only chance of staying alive was walking across the desert and finding THE SHIP.

But Dil had gotten sick, which left the doing up to Mung.

 

* * *

 

Mung had a memory that was offthechart. The si-tists said so. So he closed his eyes and did what he could to remember. It was hard, thinking about things like numbers or letters or the right way to clip your fingernails so you didn't cut yourself, but remembering was as easy as eating ice cream. Mung remembered his Dad preparing to take the sled to the mine, and he imagined that he was in his father's shoes, which was kind of funny, because Dad had such big feet and Mung would've fallen on his face trying to walk around in shoes that size. Anyway, he went to the control board and saw Dad's hand. Mung moved his in the same way. Dad turned a knob. Mung turned a knob. Dad activated air pressure. Mung activated air pressure.

Gently the liftsled began to levitate.

"Alright!" Mung hollered. "Did it, alright, did it, got it going and fine! Yes, fine!" Grinning enormously, he jumped off the sled. He landed badly, as he often did, and plopped to the ground. Sand leaped up under his knees. But he quickly scrambled to his feet. Then he made a fist and pumped it in the air. "Yes, fine! Just like ice cream and offthechart!"

He ran two complete circles around the sled, admiring his work. Soft ribbons of dust rolled out from under the vehicle.

He stopped. He looked down at his arms and was surprised by all the sweat. Boy, it was hot. And only getting hotter. And Dil was lying in the house getting worse the longer Mung wasted time running and whooping. He remembered his mother asking him to please Be Patient while the ice-cream machine worked its magic. Mung didn't like to Be Patient. Didn't like to stand around doing nothing. So it was easy to get himself shuffling back to the house to retrieve his brother. He had to get Dil to THE SHIP, because Dad had said THE SHIP was so very important. Everything seemed to depend on the brothers getting to there.

He remembered:

"Dilsofer, I wish there were some other way ..."

"Father, what's happening?"

"I don't know, son. But the disease has spread too quickly. We haven't had time to study it sufficiently. I speculate that the answer can be found in our chromosome array, but we haven't the time to -- "

Dad started coughing then. There was blood.

Eventually he said, "You must, must get to the DNA replicator we left at the landing site. It's our only hope. The onboard AI computer will assist you in taking the proper cellular samples, making reproductions."

"The ... landing site?" Dil asked. He was almost crying.

"Yes. Take your brother with you. It will be a difficult trip, though I'm sure you're smart enough to manage. This time of year at these latitudes the sun will never set, and the heat will do it's best to beat you. But you must succeed. Do you hear me? You have to get yourself to ..."

"To THE SHIP!" Mung piped as he loped across the hardpan to the abandoned colony huts. "Got to get there across the sand and make everything okay again. Yep, that's the ticket." He entered his family's hut. Dad still lay on the cot, covered in a sheet. Weird red flies orbited his head. Back in the bedroom, Mother's body was carefully arranged on the floor.

The hut didn't smell very good, and Mung wrinkled his nose. It was hot in here, because the air-conditioners had quit working and nobody had ever told Mung how to fix them. Mung figured that most people would have said the smell was terrible, maybe even rushed outside and puked, but Mung liked to think of smells as being just ... smells. That's all. Just like flowers were flowers and dead bodies were dead bodies and rain -- which he could barely recall even with a memory that was offthechart -- was just rain.

He strode through the clutter until he reached his brother's cot.

Dilsofer was lying almost naked atop the sheets, a tiny battery-powered fan pointed at his face. His ribs were like sticks under his skin. His fists were clenched and wet. He opened his eyes when he heard Mung approach.

"Hey, big brother," Dil whispered. He tried to smile.

Mung smiled enough for both of them. "Hi, Dil. Feel okay?"

"Never been ... better. How 'bout you?"

"Feel good, Dil. Feel all right, and like racing."

"Yeah." He swallowed, blinked, and considered. "You're still not sick, are you?"

"Nope. Healthy, healthy, and just more healthy. Mom always said to eat my vegetables."

"Uh-huh. Mom was great, wasn't she?" His voice trailed off like a disappearing wind.

Mung touched him on the forehead. "Dilly?"

Dilsofer moistened his lips with his swollen tongue. "Yeah?"

"Tomorrow's your birthday, right? Isn't it? Isn't tomorrow your happy day?"

Dil managed to wink. "Sixteen years old. Stay off the highway."

"Highway?" Mung frowned.

"Forget it. Listen, bro, I'm sleepy as hell ..."

"Nope, nossir, no time for sleep." Immediately Mung ducked down and slid his arms under his brother's body. "Got to get you out. Got to listen to Dad. Got to move."

Dilsofer groaned.

Mung lifted him effortlessly.

"Mungy, please ..."

But Mung was singing, and he didn't really hear what his little brother was saying. But of course that was a lie, because he heard just fine when Dil said please, but he said it in a way that was sadder than Mung wanted to think about right now. Because thinking was hard and hoping was easy.

"You ... sure about this?" Dil asked.

"Am," Mung replied.

Dilsofer nodded his head against Mung's chest. "Then I'm with you, big brother ..."

Dil wasn't very heavy. He'd lost weight. But Mung was strong anyway, and carrying Dil wasn't hard. That's what big brothers did. He marched back up the slope with his brother in his arms, the sun directly overhead and squashing him with its heat, and he might have been perfectly fine had the voice picked not that moment to speak up.

Can't do this, Mungster. Not you. Can't beat the desert. You know why.

Mung made an unhappy face. He shifted Dil a bit in his arms. Kept his eyes on the sled.

They don't let you cook your own supper. Or use a pocketknife. Too dangerous.

"Is not," Mung argued.

Is. Mom would say this trip is too dangerous, but you know the real reason. Don't you?

"Nope," Mung said emphatically, even though he did.

You're dumb, that's why. The other kids knew it. You know it. Dumb dumb dumb.

Mung reached the liftsled and stopped. He stood there. Swaying. Hearing the voice but trying not to. Dumb. Sand crawled in his shoes. Dumb. He almost bolted. He came close to turning around and rushing back to the hut where it was safe. But then Dil lifted his head a bit, and opened his eyes so that the blueness of them flashed in the sun. He stared at Mung for the longest time, and Mung understood what that look was telling him.

Be Brave.

Very slowly, Mung nodded his head.

Carefully he placed his brother in the sled, made sure he was comfortable, and then stepped up to the controls. There was a funny feeling in his stomach, and he didn't know why.

 

* * *

 

Mung remembered everything, including the story of the lizard that ate human hearts.

His father and some other men had killed one shortly after the colonists landed, and it was a biggie: twice as large as the liftsled, with teeth that Mom said were longer than her kitchen knives and silvery reflective flesh to shield it from the sun. Dad told the children to stay close to the huts at all times. But the only thing harder than Being Patient was Being Careful.

They found little Shunashar's half-eaten skull two days after he disappeared.

That was awful. Everyone said so, and Mung agreed. But the lizards were still rather neat to imagine. Mung had asked his father why humans couldn't be lucky enough to get silver skin that protected them from the sun, and Dad had grinned and given him the same answer he'd give him days later when people started getting sick.

It was all because of something called dee-en-a.

The way Mung understood it, a person from Earth had dee-en-a that didn't get along well with this planet, or with its lizards. Mung didn't know about such matters, and wouldn't have recognized a dee-en-a had someone pointed one out to him. He assumed the si-tists were talking about a germ getting into the body. Dad said it was more complicated than that, but he patted Mung on the head and said close enough, champ, you've just about got it figured out.

He also had the liftsled figured out.

With frequent looks over his shoulder to check on Dil, Mung guided the sled away from the huts for what he figured was probably the last time. He didn't look back. Like smells, houses were just houses. They weren't the people who lived in them. So he dialed up the thrust like he'd seen his father do, and he ate a lot of sand until he told himself to quit being dumb and close his silly mouth.

There, that was better, but the wind still stung his eyes. He used one blunt-fingered hand to guard his face and gazed out over the hardpan that went on and on forever. Heat waves rolled up from the ground. The sky was the color of hot metal. Mung craned his neck back and looked up. No clouds ever formed on this world, which was kind of odd, since Dad had assured him that this was a Goldilocks planet.

"You'll like it here, son," he promised as they drifted down toward their first landing. "Of all the planets we've prospected, this is the only one that falls within the habitable zone. We don't need to use drones to do our mining here, because this place ... though it's certainly warm, it's not too hot, and not too cold. Like the story of Goldilocks, you understand?"

"You mean this planet is just right?" Mung asked.

Dad smiled. "Well, it may not be just right. It'll be a lot like living in the Sahara, but it's certainly not inimical to human life."

Mung wasn't sure what inimical meant, but a small quiet part of him was starting to think that maybe Dad was wrong. The dunes rose like monsters from a brown sea. The wind carved and demolished and recarved its sand sculptures as Mung drove the liftsled and sweated puddles and talked to his brother, who might get scared if he didn't hear Mung's voice. Usually it was Dil who watched over Mung, but something about that had never seemed quite right. After all, big brothers were supposed to look after the younger ones, not the other way around. So now it was Mung's turn to keep his little brother safe.

The dunes shifted. The sun blazed.

The shadow of Mung and his sled whispered over the ground.

 

* * *

 

An hour later he held the pinwheel to the wind. Its blue-silver blades whirled wonderfully, and Mung laughed. It was a sound to thwart the sand.

With one hand on the sled's controls and the other gripping the stem of the pinwheel, Mung did a little skipping jig, shuffling his feet in delight. Faster and faster the blades spun in the wind.

"You see it, Dil? See our little star?"

The pinwheel was one of the toys Dil had surprised him with after the colonists had settled into their new homes. They hadn't been allowed to take anything on their journey they wouldn't need in their work, but that was Dil for you. Tell him to Be Careful and he'd practice handstands on the roof of the house. Tell him to Grow Up and he'd give you a pinwheel he pulled from his sleeve.

"Isn't it beautiful, Dil?" He held it higher, like a torch to light his way. "Isn't it fine?"

Dil said nothing. Mung noticed the silence, turned around, and things weren't so fine anymore. Dil didn't look good. He was crumpled on his side, eyes closed, pale hair hanging in his face. Mung left the controls and hurried back to his brother. His hand released the pinwheel, which dropped to the floor of the sled.

Wait a second. Mung looked down at the pinwheel and frowned. "Silly Mung," he scolded himself. He shook his head in disapproval at his own foolishness. But that's how his mind worked: he might have had a good memory, but trying to think two thoughts at once made his brain fuzzy. Even something like holding on to his pinwheel was forgotten, because try as he might he couldn't concentrate on two things at the same time. And boy, did he know why --

-- because you're dumb --

-- so now was a good time not to be dumb. He bent over and retrieved the pinwheel, then hunkered down beside Dil and stroked the hair from his eyes. "Dilly? You still okay?"

Dil made no reply.

"Hey, Dil?" Mung's hand forgot about the pinwheel again and let it go. "Dilsofer?"

Finally, Dil cracked open an eye. Promptly he closed it again. "Sure is ... bright out here, Mungy."

"Yes, bright, sure is bright out here, I agree, Dil." Mung nodded severely. "And you know what else, Dil?"

"Hmmm?"

"I concur," Mung proclaimed. Something he remembered his father had said.

Dil made his mouth into a crooked smile. "Concur, huh? Good for you, big brother."

"Yep, good for me, good for Mung. And good for Dil, too. Hey, Dil?"

"Yeah?"

"You going to be all right?"

Dilsofer was quiet for longer than Mung thought he needed to be. Then he said, "Sure thing, my man." He found Mung's hand and gave it a sweaty squeeze. "Count on it."

Mung opened his mouth to tell his brother that he couldn't count on it, at least not very high, because he wasn't swell with numbers and all, but maybe Dil could teach him--

The liftsled struck a rock.

Mung jolted. He pitched on top of his brother, and everything was suddenly slanted. The nose of the sled rammed into a boulder, and down they went. Dil rolled. Mung rolled. And bit his tongue. And made a little sound like an animal in a snare. And as he slipped off the sled he looked back at the controls and knew, too late, that he had been dumb all over again.

He'd left the sled untended and now it was crashing.

"Dummy!" he shouted at himself. He went so far as to smack his forehead with the butt of his hand, and then the side of the sled was grinding into the ground, and Mung and Dil both landed in a stir of arms and legs and spiraling sand.

They jostled for a few seconds, then lay flat.

The sled wheezed dust into the air and sputtered, butting against the rock. Then it died.

It balanced on its edge for awhile. Mung watched it with his cheek against the ground. Then it fell over upside down with a sound that made Mung cover up his ears. A curtain of grit spewed up as it fell, and something metal cracked underneath. It rocked for a moment after impact, then was still. Mung coughed back the vapor, sneezing a few times, rubbing his eyes.

Then he remembered Dil.

"Oh, no, no, stupid stupid dumb." He wobbled upright and cleared his eyes, and there was Dil, facedown against a flat rock with one arm pinned behind his back.

Mung spun him over and cradled his head. "Dilly? Dilly, please say something funny." He patted his brother's cheek encouragingly. "Come on, Dilsofer. Say something funny, please. Please, for me?"

From lips that barely moved: "Knock, knock."

Mung brightened at once. He moved his face so near to his brother's that they were almost touching. "Who's there?"

"Dwayne."

Mung felt the smile build itself on his face. "Dwayne who?"

"Dwayne the bathtub, I'm drowning!"

Mung lifted his mouth toward the sky and laughed.

But then he stopped. The laughter dissolved.

He looked at the sled. Upside down. Ruined. And dunes as high as mountains all around. Overhead, the sun hadn't moved. Ghostly lines of heat rose from the ground. Staring at all of it, Mung realized that tending the sled controls wasn't the worst thing he'd forgotten.

He felt tears poking at the corners of his eyes. His head dropped to his chest in dismay.

Water.

 

* * *

 

He sat there among the strange purple desert weeds with his brother's head in his lap.

"Dil?"

Dil slowly swiveled his eyes to Mung's face.

"Sorry, Dil. My fault. All mine."

Dil only stared at him. Every now and then his entire body trembled.

"No water. No water and no luck. Stupid me, Dil. Stupid stupid me."

Dil closed his eyes.

Mung watched him for awhile. Now they would never make it. Mung coughed around the nugget in his throat, and when the tears came, he wondered if he could save them so that his little brother might have something to drink.

 

* * *

 

Half an hour later he started to get thirsty.

"Nope, not thirsty, don't need a drink at all, no way." His voice was scratchy and Dil's skin was dappled in sweat and Mung could hear his father talking very serious-like about the importance of THE SHIP. It couldn't have been hard to find, even for someone like Mung who was dumb sometimes, because Dad had drawn a map.

"See this ravine, Dilsofer? Head toward the cliffs on the horizon until you ... reach the arroyo." Dad swallowed several times. His hand shook as he pointed at the map. "The arroyo will lead you directly to the landing site."

"How far are we talking here?" Dil asked. His eyes were still bright.

"A little over twenty kilometers. But it's rough country, Dil. You're going to have to keep a ... a sharp eye out, and watch after your brother. You're going to have to--"

"Be Careful!" Mung shouted at the desert. Too late for that now.

He'd spent the last thirty minutes trying to come up with a plan. But thinking made his stomach feel sick. Anyone else would've known what to do. What a great plan Dad might have had for this! Or Professor Helondria! But Mung, all he could come up with was walking.

He could walk to THE SHIP. Pretty dumb plan. But what else could he do?

He hoped that Dil wasn't too thirsty. He wiped a line of sweat from Dil's face and spread it over his dry lips. He wondered if that helped, but Dil didn't say.

Then he stood up. He looked up at the sun, because maybe it was getting tired of hanging around in the sky and would go away for awhile. But no. It was enormous and orange and seemed to fill half the sky. Muttering to himself, Mung turned his back on the sun and stooped down and retrieved the pinwheel. He held it tightly. Reminding himself to pay attention to what he was doing, he slipped his arms under his brother. He lifted him, shifted his weight. There. That wasn't so bad. Doc Helondria had said that Mung was good at carrying things because he had a Broad Stance. Mung might have been short, and his arms not as long and skinny as most people, but if a Broad Stance was good for lifting, then Mung wouldn't have traded it for anything but eagle's wings right now.

He took his first step in the sand. Then another.

Humming always made the time go faster, so Mung made a tune. It was a silly song, and that made him feel a little better. He climbed a rather steep embankment without really realizing it, and soon the liftsled vanished behind him. Mung crested the hill.

And there was the lizard.

 

* * *

 

Mung lurched to a standstill.

And there he stood: holding his little brother on a wind-scarred plateau, a stone's throw from a monster with hooks for toenails and armored skin that glistened like chrome in the sun. The lizard had six legs, the two in the center of its body a bit fatter, thicker, than the others. Its head was shaped like the nose of the liftsled, wide and rounded, with eyes like glass spheres stuck on either side of a giant jaw. As Mung watched, the creature lifted its tail high above its body, just like he'd seen scorpions do. A spiny tongue ribboned from its mouth.

"And here's trouble," Mung said softly. His stomach went from feeling woozy to all knotted up, like something was twisting him on the inside. "Trouble, trouble, and I'm too too slow to run." Mung had never been as fleet of foot as the others. Especially Dil. Dil could outrun anyone in the colony. Except he never outran Mung. Somehow whenever he was racing Mung, he wasn't as fast anymore.

But no time to think about that now. No way.

The lizard moved, causing Mung to take a step in retreat. The lizard angled its body so that it was facing the brothers on the slope.

"Sees us, Dil."

There was no question. The glassy eyes rotated in their sockets. The tail stood erect, like the mast of a ship Mung used to imagine he was sailing. The monster rushed forward, stopped, and sniffed at the wind.

"Now what do we ever do?" Mung wondered. He felt like crying again. Most people wouldn't have this problem, because most people would be smart enough to figure out how to get away. "But not me, nope, not Mung." He shook his head, and there was the voice again, saying things just behind his ears that he didn't want to hear, so to get rid of the sound he started moving.

The lizard turned its head, following. And from its tail, a huge fan unfolded as layers of reflective flesh spread open like a tremendous kite. Mung froze. Patterns of color simmered on the great fan. Shafts of muscle held the skin taut, and Mung was fascinated. Slowly the lizard shifted this fabulous device. The sun winked. A dozen hues melted and flowed.

Dil hung limp. His head. His arms.

Mung took a few more jagged steps, his eyes never leaving the fireworks display.

Then the tail caught the sun in such a way that a sudden wall of white light struck Mung in the face.

He cried out, slamming his eyes closed against the glare. He was so distracted that his arms forgot what they were doing and Dil fell to the ground. He let out a yelp. At that sound, Mung opened his eyes, already calling himself names for his stupidity, and here came the lizard, running up the hill at him with all of its six legs churning up plumes of sand and its tail throwing forth a blinding wall of light.

Mung could do nothing but put his hands in front of his face.

The lizard mounted the slope, shifting its fan so that the sun always preceded it, closing in on its prey with its tongue whisking between teeth as large as Mother's kitchen knives, and thinking about his mother Passing On made Mung something he wasn't very often, and that something was angry. He forced himself to look, just as the lizard's mouth began to open not a meter in front of him.

The teeth were huge. The throat was black and speckled green. Breath like poison gas issued up from its guts.

The lizard lunged down to devour him.

Mung stabbed it in the eye with the pinwheel.

He may not have been as tall as others his age and maybe not as pretty, what with his squarish forehead and flattened nose, but he had a Broad Stance, and that meant power. He drove the stem of the pinwheel deep into the lizard's left eye, popping it like a bubble. Juices burst over his hand, and the monster screamed.

It was a painful sound. Mung cringed. The lizard lashed its head from side to side, striking Mung with its snout and sending him flipping down the hill. Mung ate a mouthful of sand and his elbows burned as he scraped four meters down the slope. He rolled on his back, and the lizard was thrashing now, trying to dislodge the pinwheel, which spun madly in the wind.

Mung pushed himself up on his hands and watched. His chin and arms were bleeding.

The lizard went crazy. It hissed and roared, its legs chopping at the ground. It ended up skidding down the hill, still shrieking, its fan folded and its tail sagging, and then it was gone, skittering across the desert floor, the blades of the pinwheel winking circles of light until it disappeared over the dunes.

Panting, Mung plopped down beside his brother. He put a hand to his chest. He could feel his heart racing underneath. Now he was thirstier than ever.

"Sorry, sorry, Dil," he said, dragging his brother into his lap. "Didn't mean to drop you, and that was dumb, I know. Real dumb." He sniffled. "Should've been born faster. Should've been smarter. Yep, should have." He held his brother to his chest, rocking back and forth.

He waited for the lizard and the pinwheel to return, but they never did.

 

* * *

 

But he had to move, because he may not have been very bright by just poking the lizard in the eye but that didn't mean he could sit here calling himself names. He had forgotten the water and wrecked the sled and almost gotten eaten. Really made a mess of things. If he baked here till his skin swelled up, it was only what he deserved. But not Dil.

No way.

Dil had stopped sweating. His skin was smooth and cold. When Mung put his ear to his brother's lips, it was sort of like listening for a whisper from far away. He could hear the rise and fall of Dil's chest, but just barely. Dad had used words like necessary and vital when he told Dil to get himself to THE SHIP. And Mung always tried to do what his father told him, so despite the voice that reminded him he wasn't smart enough for this, he lifted himself to his feet, waited for the dizziness to pass, and then hoisted Dil off the ground.

He walked and walked across the desert.

How many hours passed during his journey, he couldn't say. Often he stopped for a rest, hoping for water in a pond over the next hill because hoping was easy, but it wasn't always true; he found nothing but dry gullies and rocky canals. His lips were chapped and his shoulders were complaining about the extra weight, but Mung thought about the time when Dil had carried him home after the bullies had done their thing, and he wasn't about to stop moving now. The stitch in his side made it hard to breathe. His throat was so dry that it hurt to swallow. Somewhere along the way he happened into a shallow arroyo and followed it without thinking until it petered out in a steep wall several kilometers later.

Mung didn't think about his feet. He concentrated only on keeping his brother in his arms, because he knew that if he got distracted by things like the knives of pain in his ankles or the ashy color of Dil's cheeks, then his arms would forget what they were doing and let go. And he was never letting go. Insects whizzed around him and landed on his face. He reached the base of the wall and wondered if a Broad Stance helped in climbing, and up he went, skidding on rocks and cutting his knees, sweating so hard he could barely see through the moisture, and midway up the cliff he slung Dil over his shoulder like one of the miners carrying a sack of rock, because his arms seemed about to pull from his body and wouldn't he be a sight to see then, an armless Mung, and he tried to smile at that but the pain was too big and the sun was too hot and the hill ... this hill was killing him. But then suddenly it wasn't.

He made the top. And there. Standing between two pillars of stone.

THE SHIP.

Red stripes gleamed against the black hull. Windows like stars. Fancy fins in triangle shapes and a cluster of thrusters like a honeybee hive at its base. A single blue light pulsed in its nose.

Though Mung could hardly walk, he found himself running.

 

* * *

 

The wide metal doors parted as he lumbered up the ramp.

Air as cool as a dream passed over him.

"Almost there, Dilly. Almost ... inside." He collapsed at the top of the ramp. Dil slumped off his shoulder and landed on the cold steel floor. "Got to ... stay awake." Mung crawled inside. Turned around. Dragged his brother in after him. "Got ... to ... drink."

Keeping a hand on Dil's face, he looked up and forced his eyes to focus. The inside of the ship was full of machines and lights and beacons and tubes and ladders and little robotic arms. Things began to come to life by themselves. Computers turned themselves on and started talking. Mechanical arms moved. A big glass tank full of pink fluid commenced a gentle bubbling, and the sight of the liquid made Mung feel faint.

His tongue was bloated and it was hard to speak. He forced out the words: "Water, please, Mr. Ship. My brother ... he's real thirsty."

The computer seemed to understand. A cabinet opened up, revealing a tall plastic pitcher.

Mung wanted to be excited. He tried to smile. But he couldn't. He lowered Dil's head to the floor and then crawled to the cabinet, and when he could no longer crawl he dragged his legs along behind him. And then the pitcher was in his hand and he told himself to Be Careful and not spill a single drop because Dil needed as much as he could get.

But Mung couldn't help it. He started gulping water before he made it back to his brother. He got sick twice. Puked. But drank more. Dabbed some on his face. And then his voice was not so thick anymore and he said, "Made it, Dil. We did it, didn't we? Crossed all that sand and here we are and that's just fine. Isn't it?" He lifted his brother's head and tried to pour some water down his mouth.

The water sloshed down Dil's cheeks.

"Now, come on, Dilly. Got to drink. All things have to drink. Even that nasty old lizard. Yep, so here you go." He poked his fingers between Dil's teeth to open his mouth. Then he poured in more water. But Dil wasn't drinking.

Dil wasn't moving at all.

"Dil?" Mung splashed his brother's face. Nothing.

"Listen to me, Dilly." Mung leaned close, listening. He put a hand on Dil's chest and pushed it a few times. "I can't hear you, Dil. I don't like that. Nope, not at all. Understand? I don't like what you're doing now, Dil. So stop it, please."

He held his ear at Dil's lips. The only breathing he heard was his own.

"No, no, no, Dilly, please." He hauled his brother into his arms and shook him. "Tell me something funny, Dil. Can you do that for me again? Just one more time, Dil. Tell me a funny joke. Okay? Dwayne the bathtub, Dilly, okay? Dil, please Dwayne the bathtub."

Dil's head just hung there.

"Alright, Dilly, I can tell a joke. Okay?" He smoothed the hair from his brother's face. "Knock-knock, Dilly."

He swayed back and forth, rapidly blinking his eyes. "And you say who's there, right? And I say ..." He opened his mouth but made no sound. He swayed faster. "And I say ..."

He crumbled. He cried silently. He only made a sound when he drew breath, a long thin gasp, and he kept rocking and every now and then saying, "Knock-knock." And he just kept on rocking. Minutes later he'd mumble, "Who's there?" But that was all of the joke he knew because he was dumb and had never been good at riddles.

"Who's there?" he whispered again.

The computers continued waking themselves up at the sound of his voice, moving their robot mouths around him and offering responses to his question that he was no longer capable of hearing.

 

* * *

 

He woke up on the floor. His head was resting on Dil's chest. A bright rectangle of sunlight slanted in from the open door. The computers were busy chattering to themselves.

Mung sat up. He waited there, staring at his hands. He didn't want to look at Dil. Instead, he grabbed the empty pitcher and crawled back to the cabinet, where he drank until he felt like he was about to bust. And that would be funny, too. Mung the balloon. Blowing up because he'd filled himself with too much water. He smiled with half his mouth.

While he waited for his stomach to start feeling normal again, he tapped a few buttons on the nearest keyboard. The device flickered to life at his touch. When it spoke, Mung jerked in surprise. "Thank you," the voice said. "Initiating tutorial sequence." The sound was very adult-like, and hearing it made Mung feel a little better. "Please select program and skill level. Hydroponics. Human biology. Civil engineering. Basic language and reading. Agronomy--"

"Stop," Mung said, and the computer did. So this was a school-teacher computer, and that was neat enough but not much good right now. All Mung could really do was try not to look at Dil lying there, which was impossible. He had failed. Mung the dummy hadn't been able to keep his brother from Passing On. The voice inside of him was right.

But there was another voice. His father's:

"... the DNA replicator we left at the landing site ..."

Mung looked around the room with all of its fancy bulbs and si-tist tools.

"... taking the proper cellular samples, making reproductions ..."

Mung had a memory that was offthechart. The words formed pictures in his mind.

"... the onboard AI computer will assist you ..."

Oh, was it that easy? Mung shrugged. Couldn't hurt to try. "Mr. Ship? Are you still listening, Mr. Ship?"

"You are addressing the master control expert system. Awaiting your next command."

Mung thought the computer had a very nice voice. Rather like the professor's. But he sat there with the water pitcher between his legs, not knowing what to say. He certainly wasn't smart enough to talk to something with a computer for a brain. So with no other choice, he could only repeat the pictures of his father's words he saw in his mind. "Mr. Ship? I need help. Help with the ... the dee-en-a repli ... the replicator."

"As you wish."

There was a flurry of machine voices and a swirling of machine hands. He hoped the computer knew what his father was talking about, because Mung certainly didn't.

After several minutes, the computer asked if Mung wanted to finalize genetic-echo program number four.

Mung said sure, you bet.

The computer asked if full organic construction was also required.

Mung didn't see why not.

Then the computer asked him for a tissue sample.

To this, Mung had no response.

The computer asked again: "The proper tissue sample is required as a reproduction template. Is such a sample available?"

Mung felt like crying again. It was all too much. "Mr. Ship, I don't ... I don't understand."

Wonderfully, the computer seemed quite good at Being Patient.

The expert system gave directions. And, oh, Mung was so thankful that he went from crying to grinning, because he was tired of having to think for himself. The computer needed a little bit of blood, that was all, and since Dad had told Dil he had to get himself here, then Mung thought Dil's blood must be what the computer was asking for. But after the robot arm stuck Dil with a needle, the computer said this wasn't going to work at all.

"Sample unacceptable. Subject deceased."

Mung knew what that meant. Deceased meant dead.

I'm so sorry, Dilly. He slumped there with his eyes drifting shut and his shoulders bent until the computer jolted him to his senses. It was asking for another sample.

Well, who else was there but Mung? He knew he was probably messing up the computer and all of his father's intentions, but he held his arms up anyway, because they were the only other arms on the planet. His blood would have to do.

The computer took a sample, hummed for a few moments, then said, "Sample flawed. Subject afflicted with chromosomal abnormality. Triplicate copies of twenty-first chromosome result in congenital malformation commonly known as Down Syndrome. Please advise."

Mung didn't understand a word. So he just shrugged again and said, "Uh, keep going, Mr. Ship."

"Command to continue procedure?"

"Yep, sure, you betcha and yes."

And that was that. The computer set to work, the pink fluid in the tank bubbled, thickened, and started to glow. Robotic limbs swung from one work station to the next, pictures of bright double spirals appeared on the monitors, and through it all Mung sipped his water and nibbled on rations the cabinet provided and positively tried not to think about his brother.

Twenty hours passed.

And then twenty years.

 

* * *

 

"So what do you think?" Korbin asked as the skids touched down on the planet's surface and the anchors embedded themselves in the sand. "Sensor fluke? Maybe alien lifeforms?"

"In this biosphere? I doubt it." Mendez unsheathed herself from her flight shell and set the stabilizers to adapt to local gravity. "The signal the miners transmitted took years to reach us, and there's no way in hell a human being could survive for that long in the air they found down here."

"Maybe they've been holed up in the ship. It's got self-regenerating life-support."

"Yeah, right. Forty-two people living in a single ship for two decades? They would have either killed each other by now or gone stir crazy. Come on. I don't want to spend any more time here than we have to." She zipped into her precious environment suit and attached the helm. When Korbin was ready, they opened the seal and stepped out under the sun.

"Fairly close star," Korbin observed, looking up at the sky. "Warm, too."

"Keep your weapon handy," Mendez advised. "Unless our probes have gone muy loco, there should be several someones waiting down here to greet us."

"Sure. Or eat us."

They trekked across three kilometers of burning dust until they came to the flower.

"What the hell?" Mendez squatted down and examined it. "I don't remember any readings of familiar flora down here. Looks almost like a daisy."

"Wait a sec. Hear that? There's something over there."

Mendez stood up and adjusted the audio amplification on her helm. She pointed. "There. Just over that ridge. Sounds like--"

"People," Korbin finished.

They jogged to the top of the ridge.

The village lay at the bottom of the hill. In the center stood what was plainly a starship, although it was apparently decorated with banners and crude bells and flags of homespun fabric. Surrounding the ship were rows of low stone houses, cinnamon-colored smoke rising from their chimneys and mismatched flower gardens planted in between them. A herd of six-legged lizards was held in a corral on the edge of the village. Patches of furrowed fields defied the desert sun. And bustling amongst these unlikely constructions were dozens of people.

They were short, with flattened foreheads and visible folds of skin on either side of their noses. And they were laughing. And if they weren't laughing then they were grinning, waving to each other as they bore packages and baskets on their shoulders and carried handmade works of stone and unfinished glass in their small but capable fingers.

"What is this place?" Mendez took a few steps forward. "Who are these people? And how the hell have they survived?"

Korbin shook his head. "I have no idea." He planted his hands on his hips and stared. "I think there's some kind of sign on that pole in the center of the village."

Mendez activated the helm's magnification until she could read what was written there in a child's clumsy script.

JUST RIGHT.

From somewhere in the village came the sound of singing.

 

Story copyright 2001 by Lance Hawvermale logos@peoplepc.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Charles McChesney charliemc@prodigy.net

 

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