25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 74

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"So talk," Brannum said. "What's going on in Port Kato?"

"Nothing. It's pretty d.a.m.ned quiet here. The place is empty."

"The whole town's been evacuated?"

"The whole planet, for all I know. Just me and the f.u.xes and the balloons still around. When did you leave, Brannum?"

"Summer of '92,' said the man in the cube.

"I don't see why everyone ran away so early. There wasn't any chance the earthquake would come before the predicted time."

"I didn't run away," Brannum said coldly. "I left Port Kato to continue my research by other means."

"I don't understand."

"I went to join the balloons," Brannum said.

Morrissey caught his breath. The words touched his soul with wintry bleakness.

"My wife did that," he said after a moment. "Perhaps you know her now. Nadia Dutoit -- she was from Chong, originally -- "

The face on the screen smiled sourly. "You don't seem to realize," Brannum said, "that I'm only a recording."

"Of course. Of course."

"I don't know where your wife is now. I don't even know where _I_ am now. I can only tell you that wherever we are, it's in a place of great peace, of utter harmony."

"Yes. Of course." Morrissey remembered the terrible day when Nadia told him that she could no longer resist the spiritual communion of the aerial creatures, that she was going off to seek entry into the collective mind of the Ahya. All through the history of Medea some colonists had done that. No one had ever seen any of them again. Their souls, people said, were absorbed, and their bodies lay buried somewhere beneath the dry ice of Farside. Toward the end the frequency of such defections had doubled and doubled and doubled again, thousands of colonists every month giving themselves up to whatever mystic engulfment the balloons offered. To Morrissey it was only a form of suicide; to Nadia, to Brannum, to all those other hordes, it had been the path to eternal bliss. Who was to say? Better to undertake the uncertain journey into the great mind of the Ahya, perhaps, than to set out in panicky flight for the alien and unforgiving world that was Earth. "I hope you've found what you were looking for," Morrissey said. "I hope she has."

He unjacked the cube and went quickly away.

He flew northward over the fog-streaked sea. Below him were the floating cities of the tropical waters, that marvelous tapestry of rafts and barges. That must be Port Backside down there, he decided -- a sprawling intricate tangle of foliage under which lay the crumbling splendors of one of Medea's greatest cities. Kelp choked the waterways. There was no sign of human life down there and he did not land.

Pellucidar, on the mainland, was empty also. Morrissey spent four days there, visiting the undersea gardens, treating himself to a concert in the famous Hall of Columns, watching the suns set from the top of Crystal Pyramid. That last evening dense drifts of balloons, hundreds of them, flew oceanward above him. He imagined he heard them calling to him in soft sighing whispers, saying, _I am Nadia. Come to me. There's still time. Give yourself up to us, dear love. I am Nadia._ Was it only imagination? The Ahya were seductive. They had called to Nadia, and ultimately Nadia had gone to them. Brannum had gone. Thousands had gone. Now he felt the pull himself, and it was real. For an instant it was tempting. Instead of peris.h.i.+ng in the quake, life eternal -- of a sort. Who knew what the balloons really offered? A merging, a loss of self, a transcendental bliss -- or was it only delusion, folly, had the seekers found nothing but a quick death in the icy wastes? _Come to me. Come to me._ Either way, he thought, it meant peace.

_I am Nadia. Come to me._ He stared a long while at the bobbing s.h.i.+mmering globes overhead, and the whispers grew to a roar in his mind.

Then he shook his head. Union with the cosmic ent.i.ty was not for him. He had sought no escape from Medea up till now, and now he would have none. He was himself and nothing but himself, and when he went out of the world he would still be only himself. And then, only then, the balloons could have his soul. If they had any use for it.

It was nine weeks and a day before the earthquake when Morrissey reached sweltering Enrique, right on the equator. Enrique was celebrated for its Hotel Luxe, of legendary opulence. He took possession of it's grandest suite, and no one was there to tell him no. The air conditioning still worked, the bar was well stocked, the hotel grounds still were manicured daily by f.u.x gardeners who did not seem to know that their employers had gone away. Obliging servomechanisms provided Morrissey with meals of supreme elegance that would each have cost him a month's earnings in the old days. As he wandered through the silent grounds, he thought how wonderful it would have been to come here with Nadia and Danielle and Paul. But it was meaningless now, to be alone in all this luxury.

Was he alone, though? On his first night, and again the next, he heard laughter in the darkness, borne on the thick dense sweet-scented air. f.u.xes did not laugh. The balloons did not laugh.

On the morning of the third day, as he stood on his nineteenth-floor veranda, he saw movements in the shrubbery at the rim of the lawn. Five, seven, a, dozen male f.u.xes, grim two-legged engines of l.u.s.t, prowling through the bushes. And then a human form! Pale flesh, bare legs, long unkempt hair! She streaked through the underbrush, giggling, pursued by f.u.xes.

"h.e.l.lo!" Morrissey called. "Hey! I'm up here!"

He hurried downstairs and spent all day searching the hotel grounds. Occasionally he caught glimpses of frenzied naked figures, leaping and cavorting far away. He cried out to them, but they gave no sign of hearing him.

In the hotel office Morrissey found the manager's cube and turned it on. She was a dark-haired young woman, a little wild-eyed. "Hey, is it earthquake time yet?" she asked.

"Not quite yet."

"I want to be around for that. I want to see this stinking hotel topple into a million pieces."

"Where have you gone?" Morrissey asked.

She snickered. "Where else? Into the bush. Off to hunt f.u.xes. And to be hunted." Her face was flushed. "The old recombinant genes are still pretty hot, you know? Me for the f.u.xes and the f.u.xes for me. Get yourself a little action, why don't you? Whoever you are."

Morrissey supposed he ought to be shocked. But he couldn't summon much indignation. He had heard rumors of things like this already. In the final years before the cataclysm, he knew, several sorts of migration had been going on. Some colonists opted for the exodus to Earth and some for the surrender to the Ahya soul-collective, and others chose the simple reversion to the life of the beast. Why not? Every Medean, by now, was a mongrel. The underlying Earth stock was tinged with alien genes. The colonists looked human enough, but they were in fact mixed with balloon or f.u.x or both. Without the early recombinant manipulations the colony could never have survived, for human life and native Medean organisms were incompatible, and only by genetic splicing had a race been brought forth that could overcome that natural biological enmity. So now, with doom-time coming near, how many colonists had simply kicked off their clothes and slipped away into the jungles to run with their cousins the f.u.xes? And was that any worse, he wondered, than climbing in panic aboard a s.h.i.+p bound for Earth or giving up your individuality to merge with the balloons? What did it matter which route to escape was chosen? But Morrissey wanted no escape. Least of all into the jungles, off to the f.u.xes.

He flew on northward. In Catamount he heard the cube of the city's mayor tell him, "They've all cleared out, and I'm going next Dimday. There's nothing left here." In Yellowleaf a cubed biologist spoke of genetic drift, the reversion of the alien genes. In Sandy's Mis.h.i.+gos, Morrissey could find no cubes at all, but eighteen or twenty skeletons lay chaotically on the broad central plaza. Ma.s.s immolation? Ma.s.s murder, in the final hours of the city's disintegration? He gathered the bones and buried them in the moist, spongy ochre soil. It took him all day. Then he went on, up the coast as far as Arca, through city after city.

Wherever he stopped, it was the same story -- no humans left, only balloons and f.u.xes, most of the balloons heading out to sea and most of the f.u.xes migrating inland. He jacked in cubes wherever he found them, but the cube-people had little new to tell him. They were clearing out, they said: one way or another they were giving up on Medea. Why stick around to the end? Why wait for the big shudder? Going home, going to the balloons, going to the bush -- clearing out, clearing out clearing out.

So many cities, Morrissey thought. Such an immense outpouring of effort. We smothered this world. We came in, we built our little isolated research stations, we stared in wonder at the coruscating sky and the double suns and the bizarre creatures. And we transformed ourselves into Medeans and transformed Medea into a kind of crazy imitation of Earth. And for a thousand years we spread out along the coasts wherever our kind of life could dig itself in. Eventually we lost sight of our purpose in coming here, which in the beginning was to _learn_. But we stayed anyway. We just stayed. We muddled along. And then we found out that it was all for nothing, that with one mighty heave of its shoulders this world was going to cast us off, and we got scared and packed up and went away. Sad, he thought. Sad and foolish.

He stayed at Arca a few days and turned inland, across the hot, bleak desert that sloped upward toward Mount Olympus. It was seven weeks and a day until the quake. For the first thousand kilometers or so he still could see encampments of migrating f.u.xes below him, slowly making their way into the Hotlands. Why, he wondered, had they permitted their world to be taken from them? They could have fought back. In the beginning they could have wiped us out in a month of guerrilla warfare. Instead they let us come in, let us make them into pets and slaves and flunkies while we paved the most fertile zones of their planet, and whatever they thought about us they kept to themselves. We never even knew their own name for Medea, Morrissey thought. That was how little of themselves they shared with us. But they tolerated us here. Why? Why?

The land below him was furnace-hot, a badland streaked with red and yellow and orange, and now there were no f.u.xes in sight. The first jagged foothills of the Olympus scarp k.n.o.bbed the desert. He saw the mountain itself rising like a black fang toward the heavy low-hanging sky-filling ma.s.s of Argo. Morrissey dared not approach that mountain. It was holy and it was deadly. Its terrible thermal updrafts could send his flitter spinning to ground like a swatted fly; and he was not quite ready to die.

He swung northward again and journeyed up the barren and forlorn heart of the continent toward the polar region. The Ring Ocean came into view, coiling like a world-swallowing serpent beyond the polar sh.o.r.es, and he kicked the flitter higher, almost to its maximum safety level, to give himself a peek at Farside, where white rivers of CO2 flowed through the atmosphere and lakes of cold gas filled the valleys. It seemed like six thousand years ago that he had led a party of geologists into that forbidding land. How earnest they had all been then! Measuring fault lines, seeking to discover the effects the quake would have over there. As if such things mattered when the colony was doomed by its own hand anyway. Why had he bothered? The quest for pure knowledge, yes. How futile that quest seemed to him now. Of course, he had been much younger then. An aeon ago. Almost in another life. Morrissey had planned to fly into Farside on this trip, to bid formal farewell to the scientist he had been, but he changed his mind. There was no need. Some farewells had already been made.

He curved down out of the polar regions as far south as Northcape on the eastern coast, circled the wondrous red-glinting sweep of the Cascades, and landed the airstrip at Chong. It was six weeks and two days to the earthquake. In these high lat.i.tudes the twin suns were faint and feeble even though the day was a Sunday. The monster Argo itself far to the south, appeared shrunken. He had forgotten the look of the northern sky in his ten years in the tropics. And yet, and yet, had he not lived thirty years in Chong? It seemed like only a moment, as all time collapsed into this instant of now.

Morrissey found Chong painful. Too many old a.s.sociations, too many cues to memory. Yet he kept himself there until he had seen it all, the restaurant where he and Danielle had invited Nadia and Paul to join their marriage, the house on Vladimir Street where they had lived, the Geophysics Lab, the skiing lodge just beyond the Cascades. All the footprints of his life.

The city and its environs were utterly deserted. For day after day Morrissey wandered, reliving the time when he was young and Medea still lived. How exciting it had all been then! The quake was coming someday -- everybody knew the day, down to the hour -- and n.o.body cared except cranks and neurotics, for the others were too busy living. And then suddenly everyone cared, and everything changed.

Morrissey played no cubes in Chong. The city itself, gleaming, a vast palisade of silver thermal roofs, was one great cube for him, crying out the tale of his years.

When he could take it no longer, he started his southward curve around the east coast. There were four weeks and a day to go.

His first stop was Meditation Island, the jumping-off point for those who went to visit Virgil Oddums's fantastic and ever-evolving ice sculptures out on Farside. Four newlyweds had come here, a billion years ago, and had gone, laughing and embracing, off in icecrawlers to see the one miracle of art Medea had produced. Morrissey found the cabin where they all had stayed. It had faded and its roof was askew. He had thought of spending the night on Meditation Island, but he left after an hour.

Now the land grew rich and lush again as he pa.s.sed into the upper tropics. Again he saw balloons by the score letting themselves be wafted toward the ocean, and again there were bands of f.u.xes slowly journeying inland, driven by he knew not what sense of ritual obligation as the quake came near.

Three weeks two days five hours. Plus or minus.

He flew low over the f.u.xes. Some were mating. That astounded him -- that persistence in the face of calamity. Was it merely the irresistible biological drive that kept the f.u.xes coupling? What chance did the newly engendered young have to survive? Would their mothers not be better off with empty wombs when the quake came? They knew what was going to happen, and yet they mated. And yet they mated. It made no sense to Morrissey.

And then he thought he understood. The sight of those coupling f.u.xes gave him an insight into the Medean natives that explained it all, for the first time. Their patience, their calmness, their tolerance of all that had befallen them since their world had become Medea. Of course they would mate as the catastrophe drew near! They had been waiting for the earthquake all along, and for them it was no catastrophe. It was a holy moment, a purification -- so he realized. He wished he could discuss this with Dinoov. It was a temptation to return at once to Argoview Dunes and seek out the old f.u.x and test on him the theory that just had sprung to life in him. But not yet. Port Medea, first.

The east coast had been settled before the other, and the density of development here was intense. The first two colonies -- Touchdown City and Medeatown -- had long ago coalesced into the urban smear that radiated outward from the third town, Port Medea. When he was still far to the north, Morrissey could see the gigantic peninsula on which Port Medea and its suburbs sprawled: the tropic heat rose in visible waves from it, buffeting his little flitter as he made his way toward that awesome, hideous concrete expanse.

Dinoov had been right. There were stars.h.i.+ps waiting at Port Medea -- four of them, a waste of money beyond imagination. Why had they not been used in the exodus? Had they been set aside for emigrants who had decided instead to run with the rutting f.u.xes or give their souls to the balloons? He would never know. He entered one of the s.h.i.+ps and said, "Operations directory."

"At your service," a bodiless voice replied.

"Give me a report on s.h.i.+p status. Are you prepared for a voyage to Earth?"

"Fueled and ready."

"Everything operational."

Morrissey weighed his moves. So easy, he thought, to lie down and go to sleep and let the s.h.i.+p take him to Earth. So easy, so automatic, so useless.

After a moment he said, "How long do you need to reach departure level?"

"One hundred sixty minutes from moment of command."

"Good. The command is given. Get yourself ticking and take off. Your destination is Earth and the message I give you is this: _Medea says good-bye. I thought you might have some use for this s.h.i.+p. Sincerely, Daniel F. Morrissey. Dated Earthquake Minus two weeks one day seven hours_."

"Acknowledged. Departure-level procedures initiated."

"Have a nice flight," Morrissey told the s.h.i.+p.

He entered the second s.h.i.+p and gave it the same command. He did the same in the third. He paused before entering the last one, wondering if there were other colonists who even now were desperately racing toward Port Medea to get aboard one of these s.h.i.+ps before the end came. To h.e.l.l with them, Morrissey thought. They should have made up their minds sooner. He told the fourth s.h.i.+p to go home to Earth.

On his way back from the port to the city, he saw the four bright spears of light rise skyward, a few minutes apart. Each hovered a moment, outlined against Argo's colossal bulk, and shot swiftly into the aurora-dappled heavens. In sixty-one years they would descend onto a baffled Earth with their cargo of no one. Another great mystery of s.p.a.ce to delight the tale tellers, he thought. The Voyage of the Empty s.h.i.+ps.

With a curious sense of accomplishment he left Port Medea and headed down the coast to the sleek resort of Madagozar, where the elite of Medea had amused themselves in tropic luxury. Morrissey had always thought the place absurd. But it was still intact, still purring with automatic precision. He treated himself to a lavish holiday there. He raided the wine cellars of the best hotels. He breakfasted on tubs of chilled spikelegs caviar. He dozed in the warm sun. He bathed in the juice of gilliwog flowers. And he thought about absolutely nothing at all.

The day before the earthquake he flew back to Argoview Dunes.

"So you chose not to go home after all," Dinoov said.

Morrissey shook his head. "Earth was never my home.

Medea was my home. I went home to Medea. And then I came back to this place because it was my last home. It pleases me that you're still here, Dinoov."

"Where would I have gone?" the f.u.x asked.

"The rest of your people are migrating inland. I think it's to be nearer the holy mountain when the end comes. Is that right?"

"That is right."

"Why have you stayed, then?"

"This is my home, too. I have so little time left that it matters not very much to me where I am when the ground shakes. But tell me, friend Morrissey: was your journey worth the taking?"

"It was."

"What did you see? What did you learn?"

"I saw Medea, all of it," Morrissey said. "I never realized how much of your world we took. By the end we covered all the land that was worth covering, didn't we? And you people never said a word. You stood by and let it happen."

The f.u.x was silent.

Morrissey said, "I understand now. You were waiting for the earthquake all along, weren't you? You knew it was coming long before we bothered to figure it out. How many times has it happened since f.u.xes first evolved on Medea? Every 7160 years the f.u.xes move to high ground and the balloons drift to Farside and the ground shakes and everything falls apart. And then the survivors reappear with new life already in the wombs and build again. How many times has it happened in f.u.x history? So you knew when we came here, when we built our towns everywhere and turned them into cities, when we rounded you up and made you work for us, when we mixed our genes with yours and changed the microbes in the air so we'd be more comfortable here, that what we were doing wouldn't last forever, right? That was your secret knowledge, your hidden consolation, that this, too, would pa.s.s. Eh, Dinoov? And now it has pa.s.sed. We're gone and the happy young f.u.xes are mating. I'm the only one of my kind left except for a few naked crazies in the bush."

There was a glint in the f.u.x's eyes. Amus.e.m.e.nt? Contempt? Compa.s.sion? Who could read a f.u.x's eyes?

"All along," Morrissey said, "you were all just waiting for the earthquake. Right? The earthquake that would make everything whole again. Well, now it's almost upon us. And I'm going to stand here alongside you and wait for the earthquake, too. It's my contribution to inter-species harmony. I'll be the human sacrifice. I'll be the one who atones for all that we did here. How does that sound, Dinoov? Is that all right with you?"

"I wish," the f.u.x said slowly, "that you had boarded one of those s.h.i.+ps and gone back to Earth. Your death will give me no pleasure."

Morrissey nodded. "I'll he back in a few minutes," he said, and went into his cabin.

The cubes of Nadia and Paul and Danielle sat beside the screen. Not for years had he played them, but he jacked them into the slots now, and on the screen appeared the three people he had most loved in all the universe. They smiled at him, and Danielle offered a soft greeting, and Paul winked, and Nadia blew a kiss. Morrissey said, "It's almost over now. Today's earthquake day. I just wanted to say good-bye, that's all. I just wanted to tell you that I love you and I'll be with you soon."

"Dan -- " Nadia said.

"No. You don't have to say anything. I know you aren't really there, anyway. I just wanted to see you all again. I'm very happy right now."

He took the cubes from their slots. The screen went dark. Gathering up the cubes, he carried them outside and carefully buried them in the soft moist soil of his garden. The f.u.x watched him incuriously.

"Dinoov?" Morrissey called. "One last question."

"Yes, my friend?"

"All the years we lived on Medea, we were never able to learn the name by which you people called your own world. We kept trying to find out, but all we were told was that it was taboo, and even when we coaxed a f.u.x into telling us the name, the next f.u.x would tell us an entirely different name, so we never knew. I ask you a special favor now, here at the end. Tell me what you call your world. Please. I need to know."

The old f.u.x said, "We call it Sanoon."

"Sanoon? Truly?"

"Truly," said the f.u.x.

"What does it mean?"

Why, it means the World," said Dinoov. "What else?"

"Sanoon," Morrissey said. "It's a beautiful name."

The earthquake was thirty minutes away -- plus or minus a little. Sometime in the past hour the white suns had disappeared behind Argo. Morrissey had not noticed that. But now, he heard a low rumbling roar, and then he felt a strange trembling in the ground, as though something mighty were stirring beneath his feet and would burst shortly into wakefulness. Not far offsh.o.r.e terrible waves rose and crashed.

Calmly Morrissey said, "This is it, I think."

Overhead a dozen gleaming balloons soared and bobbed in a dance that looked much like a dance of triumph.

25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 74

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25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 74 summary

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