A Thousand Deaths
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by George Alec Effinger
Category: Science Fiction
Description: While George Alec Effinger's Budayeen novel WHEN GRAVITY FAILS is perhaps his most famous work, his lesser known novel THE WOLVES OF MEMORY remained his favorite. In it, he introduced readers to Sandor Courane, an Everyman and Effinger stand-in who struggles as he swims against the currents of Fate. In life and in his multiple deaths, Sandor Courane serves as the unifying force in this collection of Effinger's stories, starting with THE WOLVES OF MEMORY and getting ever cleverer and more off-the-wall from there. When we first meet Courane, he must face down TECT, the self-aware computer that has come to control the Earth and its colonial planets. Exiled to Planet D, Courane races to solve the debilitating disease that attacks each of the planet's residents, even as his own memory begins to fade. Unfortnately, his only source of information about the illness is TECT, itself, and the computer's agenda doesn't seem to line up with Courane's. In the seven other stories contained in A THOUSAND DEATHS, Courane becomes detached from what is reality and what is story as Effinger expertly plays with narrative conventions. However, these aren't simply the whims of a SF writer; they are the frameworks the Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated author uses to answer questions about existence no one else even thought to ask.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2007
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [585 KB]
Reading time: 378-529 min.
* * * *
When his arms began to get weary, Courane put the corpse down on the sandy soil, sat with his back against a rough warm boulder, and tried to remember. He closed his eyes for a long time, listening to the faint whisper of the wind blowing the topmost layer of sand toward the western horizon. Courane's breathing was slow and easy, and he was as comfortable as a napping baby. He breathed deeply, enjoying the hot freshness of the afternoon. A buzzing insect disturbed him, lighting on his ear, and he made a rather indolent swipe to chase it away. He opened his eyes again and saw the young woman's body.
He tried, but he couldn't remember who she was. Or who she had been. He couldn't remember why he was sitting in the hot sun with her. He examined her as well as he could without getting up and taking a closer look. She had been pretty. He couldn't tell how long she had been dead, but the irreversible effects of death had begun to distort her face and form. Yet, even through the grotesque deformity of her life's end, she touched him. Courane wondered if he had known her while she was alive.
There was a tiny movement near his left foot, and it attracted Courane's attention. Two tiny glass eyes peered at him from a pocket in the sand, a concavity the size of his thumb. A tan snout twitched and disappeared. Courane laughed. He loved animals. Hestretched out on the ground and rolled over on his stomach. He rested there while quick-moving shadows of clouds skimmed over the empty landscape, covering him briefly like a dream of death. He closed his eyes again and slept.
The sun was setting when he awoke. He was startled and a little afraid. He didn't know where he was, and when he stood up and looked around he learned nothing. As far as he could see in every direction there was only flat waste, dotted frequently with broken boulders. There were no trees to break the lonely mood, nor even clumps of dry dead grass. Only a few feet from where he stood there was the body of a dead woman, a young woman with long dark hair and skin the bloodless pallor of the grave. Courane thought that there must be some reason they were together. There must be something in the past that connected them, man and woman, living and dead. He could not remember. He wanted to go on, but he didn't know where he was going. He was afraid to start walking until he did recall, and he didn't dare leave until he knew for certain if he should leave the girl's body or carry it with him. He wished that he could remember how he had gotten to this silent dead place.
Long after night fell, he realized that he was intensely uncomfortable. He sat shivering in the desert coldness, trying to identify the immediate source of his suffering. There was no way to measure time, and he didn't particularly care to know how many hours had passed, but after a few minutes he knew that he was painfully thirsty, and that earlier he hadn't been. Either that, or he had been but hadn't realized it. He patted his shirt absently, in a thoughtless searching gesture. He had nothing to eat or drink with him, but he looked anyway. He found a torn piece of paper in a pocket, with a message on it. It said:
* * * *
Her name is Alohilani. You and she were very much in love. You must take her back to the house. Keep walking east until you get to the river. Follow the river downstream to the house. East is the direction of the rising sun. They will help you when you get there.
Courane read the note twice, not comprehending it at all even though it was in his own handwriting. The wind was cold and cut him like knives. The sand stung his face and brought tears to his eyes. He stared at the words and his vision blurred. He knew that it was a terrible thing to forget the woman he loved. He wondered how that could happen. He hadn't been lonely before, but now he felt a deep aching. He put the paper back in his pocket and sat down beside the young woman's corpse. He wanted to hurry to the house, but he had to wait until the sun came up. He wanted to get the help of whoever was there but until morning he was helpless.
Courane tried to sleep but the fierce coldness and his thirst deprived him of rest. He sat by the boulder and thought. Her name was Alohilani. It was a pretty name, but it meant nothing to him. It occurred to him that he knew her name now but not his own. That didn't seem important for some reason. He yawned and looked up at the stars. The stars were home. That strange thought formed in Courane's mind, like the first bubble in a pan of boiling water. Like a bubble, it burst and disappeared and was forgotten. Courane shivered and clutched himself and hunched against the sharp attack of the wind. Sometime before dawn he drifted into placid, dreamless sleep.
The warm wind, blowing from the opposite direction, throwing veils of sand into his face, woke him. The sun was well over the horizon. Courane stood and stretched and rubbed his face. He was surprised to find the body of a young woman beside him on the ground. He couldn't recall who she was or where he was, and he didn't know what he ought to do. He felt small and forlorn and, as the minutes passed and he stared at the swollen, lifeless woman, Courane heard himself whimper. He was hungry, but there was nothing at all nearby that might provide him with even a meager breakfast. He took a deep breath and resigned himself. There was neither road nor sign of human settlement in sight, and he didn't have the least idea how he ought to proceed. He sat down again and waited. The breeze blew almost steadily and the sun felt good on his shoulders, but he guessed that by midday the heat would become intolerable, and that at night all the warmth would bleed away and he would suffer with the cold.
An hour after awakening he found the piece of paper in his pocket. He was filled with joy. He read the directions several times and, though he didn't understand what they meant, he was given a new energy to obey his own instructions. He narrowed his eyes and looked to the horizon below the morning sun; he chose a landmark to walk toward. Then he bent and picked up the body and slung it clumsily over one shoulder. He leaned forward under the burden and trudged toward the eastern horizon. The sandy soil made walking difficult and Courane was soon out of breath, but he didn't stop. He had to get the woman back to the house before it got dark. After the sun set, he wouldn't know in which direction to walk. He worried about that for a little while, and then he forgot all about the problem. He muttered to himself as he went, and he was as unaware of the passage of time as he was of his own pain.
Courane took a rest in the middle of the afternoon. The place he chose for his break was identical to the place he had spent the previous night. The sand and the rocks were the same. As he sat in the sparse shade of a tall weathered rock, he watched a fly crawling along one of the woman's arms. He had dropped her roughly to the ground, and one stiff arm stuck out as though she were indicating something to the southwest that intrigued her. The fly walked along the fine sun-paled hair of her arm. Her name was--
--Alohilani! He remembered. He smiled at the achievement, but then his face contorted with grief. He wept loudly and helplessly as his thoughts battered him cruelly.
His memories were fugitive visions, and he clutched at them greedily on the occasions when they presented themselves. He studied them all to the smallest detail, disregarding the pain they threatened. He didn't care about pain any longer. He needed to know the truth. He needed to know who he was, where he came from. He needed to know where he was going, what he was doing. He needed to know why Alohilani was dead, and why his mind functioned only at widely separated moments, with bewildering gaps in continuity and understanding.
Courane felt a little sting on the back of his neck and at that moment he remembered how it had been.
TECT informed him that he had failed for the third time, had used up his last chance and had wasted it like a kid with an extra dollar. He went home to his small apartment in Tokyo and waited for the verdict and the sentence. There was no doubt that he was going to be found guilty. TECT had no margin of compassion. In all his years, Courane had never heard of anyone else who had failed as he had, and so he had no idea what TECT would decide to do with him. His imagination ran wild, picturing everything from death by etiolation to being condemned to life as one of TECT's hired social deviates, an addict perhaps, or a member of some squalid ethnic group.
There was a tect unit in the foyer of the apartment building. When the verdict and sentence were decided, they would be transferred there. No doubt the building's superintendent would run up the stairs with his usual mad energy to give Courane the news. Courane could wait. He put on a tape of Copland's Appalachian Spring and laid down on the couch. He ought to call his parents, he knew, but he wanted to put that off as long as possible. It would be humiliating, and his parents would be crushed by the news. While he waited, Courane read over the notice he had received at work.
* * * *
**COURANE, Sandor - RepE Dis4 Sec27
11:07:47 10 January 7 YT - DatAdvis**
Notification of failure to fulfill TaskFunc (Charges and Specifications follow).
When an individual fails at his first appointment, the supervisors and TECT in the name of the Representative look on the failure tolerantly and with good grace. After all, there is a strong possibility that test scores may have given an incorrect picture of an individual's aptitudes. After the second failure, TECT in the name of the Representative is still anxious to help the individual; perhaps a clearer profile is beginning to emerge.
BUT AFTER THE THIRD FAILURE, TECT IN THE NAME OF THE REPRESENTATIVE MUST VIEW THIS RECORD AS A TREND THAT MUST BE HALTED. IT SEEMS PROBABLE THAT THE INDIVIDUAL IS BEHAVING IN A MANNER DETRIMENTAL TO SOCIETY AS A WHOLE.
Consequently, TECT in the name of the Representative regretfully informs you that you are on trial for Willful Contempt of TECTWish.The verdict will be ready for you in one hour. You must comply with the verdict and the sentence. Failure to do so will be considered an act of revolutionary aggression, and you and your loved ones will be used as tragic examples.
No indication that the addressee understands the above is necessary.
Please stand by for further directives**
It was easy enough to understand. Courane's foreman, Sokol, had had a ghoulish pleasure in giving him the report. Courane could hardly blame the man. It was a marvelous novelty. In the small room, the Copland forged ahead without regard for Courane's feelings. The verdict should be coming through very soon. In a minute or two, old Mr. Masutani would be knocking on the door, bringing the news. Courane was in no hurry. He could wait.
Then, as the music paused between sections, Courane heard Mr. Masutani call his name. "Courane, come downstairs. There's an important message for you on the tect."
"I know, I know. I'll be right down." Courane sighed. There was nothing to do but get it over with. He went to the door.
Masutani looked at him and smiled. "Does it have to do with why you came home from work so early?"
"I guess so." He led the way downstairs to the foyer.
"Did you lose your job?"
"Would you mind giving me a little privacy, Mr. Masutani?" The red ADVISE light was blinking, but Courane ignored it for a moment.
Masutani raised an eyebrow. Privacy! He snorted at the European boy's bad manners, but he turned and went back into his own little den.
Courane went to the tect terminal. "This is Sandor Courane," he said.
The tect hurried through the preliminary data symbols, then presented Courane with his destiny.
* * * *
TECT in the name of the Representative has studied the records of your first labor assignment in Pilessio, Europe. As you will recall, your performance there did not meet the minimum standards of the community. Therefore, you were given a second assignment in New York, North America. TECT in the name of the Representative has analyzed your second attempt at finding a profitable career, and arrived at the same conclusion. You were graciously offered a third opportunity in Tokyo, Asia, and TECT in the name of the Representative has been informed that you have followed the pattern of your earlier failures.
It is not the purpose of TECT in the name of the Representative to search out criminals merely to punish them. It is TECT's essential duty to find a place for each individual, a role that will utilize the individual's talents to the utmost, provide the individual with an opportunity to grow and express himself, and benefit the community at large with the fruits of the individual's labor.
When an individual seems to be working to deny these benefits to the community, it is the responsibility of TECT in the name of the Representative to persuade the individual to change his behavior or, failing that, to remove the individual from the life of the community at large.
That this is true in the case of COURANE, Sandor, M232-86-059-41Maj, is the final decision of TECT in the name of the Representative. It is not necessary to protest innocence. TECT in the name of the Representative is aware that COURANE, Sandor, has committed no crimes of violence, passion, or fraud. COURANE, Sandor, has broken no laws, transgressed no moral imperatives, flouted no statutes, nor contravened sacred traditions, codes of conduct, established precedents, or principles of civilized behavior. In short, he has done nothing in an overt manner, premeditated or otherwise, for which to be punished.
Yet the community at large demands that COURANE, Sandor, be dealt with by removing him from the fellowship of the people and their Representative, and of TECT in the name of the Representative. In response to this compulsory obligation, TECT in the name of the Representative has selected for COURANE, Sandor, a plan that will enable the community at large to enjoy his absence without causing the individual himself the inconvenience of such solutions as summary execution.
You are ordered by TECT in the name of the Representative to report to TECT TELETRANS Main Substation in New York, North America, at 12:00:00, 11 January, 7 YT. Failure to do so will be considered Contempt of TECTWish and you will be hunted down like a dog and slain in your tracks.
No appeal is permitted. You are advised to make whatever final arrangements you feel are necessary. You will be allowed to take with you no more than five pounds of clothing, essential medications as described in your permanent personal file, a photograph of your parents and one of your spouse if you are married, but nothing else of a personal nature or otherwise.
No indication that the addressee understands the above is necessary. There will be no further directives unless COURANE, Sandor, does something foolish**
"They really hit you over the head with it, didn't they?" said Mr. Masutani.
Courane turned around quickly, startled. He was bitter and upset, and he didn't like having the superintendent sharing his moment of defeat. "Leave me alone," he said.
"Will you be staying here tonight? They want you in New York by noon tomorrow."
"I don't know. Maybe I'll see my parents tonight."
Masutani coughed. "If you won't be here, let me know. I want to move your mattresses down here." Courane said nothing. He went back to his apartment, his thoughts jumbled and bleak.
How easy it would be to prepare for his new life, he thought. He went to his closet and brought out a small canvas zipper bag. His whole future would be packed in that one bag. Five pounds of socks and shirts and, if he went home to get one, a photograph of his folks. He almost wished that he was married, just to be able to take another thing with him. It occurred to him that TECT might merely have been trying to calm his fears or delude him, that he wasn't going on to a new life somewhere. When he stepped across the teletrans threshold, he might easily step out on the bottom of the ocean or on the top of some nameless mountain in Antarctica. TECT had no discernible strain of mercy programmed into it, but there was a kind of savage irony.
Courane put the zipper bag on the bed--he felt a twinge of perversity, wishing that he could dispose of that bed so that Masutani couldn't profit from the situation--and began to stuff it full of clothing. He was glad, in a way, that there was a short limit to the amount of belongings he could take with him. His poverty wouldn't be so apparent wherever he was going. He finished packing, zipped the bag closed, and dropped it to the floor. That chore was done. He looked around him, around the apartment, wondering what else he could do to occupy his mind. There didn't seem to be anything urgent. He was dismayed that he could wrap up his affairs, his life, so quickly and effortlessly. Wouldn't there be some loose ends? Weren't there some people who would miss him terribly? Wasn't there anything in the world that would suffer without his attention?
No, there wasn't. That was what TECT had tried to tell him. That was why it had decided to excise him from the community at large. TECT had said that Courane was a weed in the garden. TECT admitted that Courane wasn't a threat or a danger, but weeds had to be removed nevertheless. They used up resources and contributed nothing. They disturbed the garden's integrity. They offended the sense of proportion of the gardener--and that was what TECT was these days, even though it always added that it operated "in the name of the Representative."
One telephone call would be enough. "Hello, Dad?"
Courane coughed nervously but said nothing. He was already sorry he had called.
"Dad? Hey, just calling to see how you and Mom are."
"We're fine, Sandy, we're both fine. How are you?"
"Fine, Dad. It's awful cold here."
"Cold here, too. The landlord has the thermostat set at some goddamn freezing temperature. Your mother has to wear her big blue sweater to bed. I was going to go buy one of those little heaters, but your mother's afraid of being gassed to death in the middle of the night."
"So, what's up with you? We went to Vienna weekend before last to visit your mother's brother. They bought a little farm. Filthy place. I didn't like it, but you know your mother. How's your new job?"
Courane felt his eyes fill with tears. His mouth was dry. He wished that it were tomorrow, next month, five or ten years in the future and whatever was going to happen would be done and finished. No, instead he had to go through it all, step by step, and he couldn't just close his eyes and wait for it all to go away. It would go away eventually, but it would disappear the hard way. "That's one of the reasons I called, Dad. I got laid off."
"Laid off? You mean fired?"
"Goddamn it, Sandy. That's the third time. They're liable to--"
"They already have." Courane closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He had a headache. He spoke in a low, weary voice. "I got a message on the tect here at home that TECT has ordered something special for me."
"What?" His father sounded almost frantic, much more concerned than Courane was himself.
"I don't know, Dad. I'm not sure."
Courane's father was astonished. "You mean to tell me that you don't know what they're going to do to you? You didn't ask?"
"I was a little afraid."
"Sandy, you put the phone down and you go to your tect and you find out. I'll wait."
"It'll cost a fortune."
"The hell with that," said Courane's father. "I'd think that would be the least of our worries. I don't believe you sometimes, son."
"I'll be right back." Courane was feeling more anguish than he showed to his father. He wanted more than anything not to distress his parents, but that would be almost impossible. Knowing that, Courane wished to keep the hurt and grief at the lowest possible level. This wasn't the first time in his life that in seeking to protect his mother and father, he had succeeded only in wounding them more deeply. This knowledge burned him as he hurried downstairs.
He confronted the tect. "Regarding the last message to Courane, Sandor, what precisely are the details of my sentence?"
* * * *
You are to be sent as a colonist to the agricultural world of Epsilon Eridani, Planet D. You will become part of an integrated farming community. Your future of successes or failures will thus be of no consequence to the community at large here on Earth, yet you will be placed in an environment which will demand much of you and reward you with peace and satisfaction**
"That's not so bad," said Courane.
* * * *
No, it's not. Many successful but harried citizens would be willing to trade their situations with you. You will lack for little on this distant world, except of course for personal contact with old friends and family, and certain material possessions. But in the balance you must weigh your new self-esteem, gained through hard work and the knowledge that you are free and owe your liberty and good life to no one, that your happiness is of your own making**
"Well, then, I'm very grateful."
* * * *
And well you should be. You would do well to recall that TECT in the name of the Representative had no part in selecting you for this treatment, or in prejudging your lapses, or in deciding your fate. These things were made necessary by the current standards of the community, and TECT in the name of the Representative must be absolved of all direct responsibility.
Compliance with the above is to be indicated.
"Yes," said Courane, permitting the immense machine to wash its electronic hands of the affair, to salve its magnetic conscience. Courane remembered his father, still on the phone upstairs, waiting in Europe for the news. Courane hurried back to his apartment. "Hello, Dad?"
"I haven't gone anywhere."
"Well, I will be. They're sending me to another planet. Epsilon something. A farming world. I'm going to work on a commune or something."
"That doesn't sound bad."
"Except that your mother and I will probably never see you again."
Courane hesitated. He hadn't even considered that. He felt a stab of guilt. "I'll be home in a couple of hours. Is my room still empty?"
"Who do you think is staying there? Your mother will put on clean sheets. You can pick up the rest of your books and clothes."
"They won't let me take but five pounds, Dad. I have everything I need except a good picture of you and Mom. Do me a favor, though. Get Mom ready. Break the news to her so that she won't be hysterical when I get home."
Courane heard his father sigh. "Sandy, no matter what I do, she'll be hysterical when you get here. For that matter, maybe I will be, too."
Courane felt a hot tear slip down his cheek. "Dad," he said in a hoarse voice, "it's hard enough to keep myself under control. Please, I need you to be strong. You were always strong when I was little. You've always been strong for me."
"Sandy, it was never easy, and I am getting old and tired. But I will do it one more time."
"Thanks, Dad. I love you."
"I love you too, Sandy. Be careful coming home. I'll see you soon."
Courane hung up the phone. He sat on his bed and stared at the wall, where there was a framed print of Tiepolo's Madonna of the Goldfinch, which Courane felt was the most beautiful woman ever painted. He stared at the print, and every thought he entertained made him a little sadder. He wouldn't be allowed to take the picture with him. He would be cut off forever from both it and the world that had created it. His idle dreams of performing a startling act of genius, a work of art or a scientific breakthrough or a marvelous athletic achievement, were dead now and he had no other course but to acknowledge that dismal fact. There were so many things that Courane had wanted with the vague grasping desire of youth, and he had denied them all to himself by his failure. He had achieved something closely related to death, despite TECT's curious reluctance to be held accountable for it. Certainly Courane's failures to come would be far from the affairs of the community at large, but then so would be his triumphs, and Earth would be cheated of these. And Courane would be cheated of the acceptance that he needed so desperately. That was the true punishment.
It was just past sunset. The first brush of stars glinted in the sky like the dust of broken jewels on sable. The air was already cooling, and it was the rising wind that had roused Courane. Where am I? he thought. I'm on my way home, he told himself. I'm on my way to my parents' home in Greusching.
Then why was he sitting alone in the middle of some voiceless desert? Where was he? He stared into the sky and watched the deep blue lose the last faint measure of light. He watched the stars increase and he watched them form patterns and shapes in the heavens. He felt fear grow in him as he searched in vain for familiar constellations. There was no Dipper, no Orion, no Cassiopeia, no Draco. The moon, low on the horizon, was half the size it ought to be and was an untrustworthy purplish color.
Courane had the same feeling one has on waking from a particularly vivid dream, when the waking world and the dream are superimposed for a moment, when aspects of one distort images of the other, and one must make an effort to sort them and decide which shall have precedence for the remainder of the day.
Courane knew he wasn't on Earth, and that took away the fear he had felt looking into the strange foreign sky. But then, how did he explain being alone and lost in a waterless wilderness? That would take more of an effort, he was afraid, and he was further afraid that he was not equal to it. He breathed deeply. The cool night air was spiced with the earthy smells of the sunbaked rocks and the parched sand. A more unpleasant odor made him frown, and he sought its source. He discovered the young woman's corpse and gave a cry of alarm. He did not know who she was or why she was with him. The idea of sharing the night with a corpse did not bother him so much as the notion that he appeared to be involved in a terrible drama and had no sense at all of its significance.
He found the explanatory note before he decided to sleep, and this time he had a good idea as well. He reasoned that if he had written the note to himself, then his periods of lucidity were alternating with periods of complete forgetfulness. It was likely that he would forget her name again, as well as his mission. He decided to fasten the note to the woman's blouse, rather than stuffing it back into his pocket. Then next time he would have his explanation as soon as he discovered her again. He still did not recall what she had meant to him or why she had died, or why he was carrying her across the desert or why she had to return to the house, or where the house was or who was waiting in it for her.
As he waited for sleep, Courane hoped that when he awoke he would not start off across the sand before he discovered the body again. It was possible that he might leave her there and go wandering off into the wastes to die himself.
In New York, Courane arrived at the TELETRANS Substation a quarter hour early. There were very few people wandering about. Teletrans was still a very expensive way to travel; most people still used the trains and airlines, and only the rich and the desperate made the instantaneous journeys by tect. For travel between cities on Earth, it was almost prohibitively expensive. For travel between the stars, it was the only way to go.
Courane stood with his zipper bag and looked around. On the ceiling of the substation were depictions of the six men who had been the Representatives, done as though they were novel groups of stars in the sky of the northern hemisphere. These men had retired now one by one, and the last of them had turned over the power and the responsibility to the tireless and unerring TECT. The Representatives today were but nonexistent constellations and fading memories. TECT governed for them and few people noticed any difference. Surely no one voiced any objection.
It seemed that no one had been instructed to meet Courane. After a moment he realized that there was no good reason to expect that anyone should. He went to a uniformed CAS guard and asked for directions. "Just check in over there at the TECT desk," said the man with a yawn. Courane carried his bag across the polished floor.
"Good morning," he said. He dropped the bag beside him.
A young woman with curly pink hair looked up at him. She was drinking a cup of coffee and reading a romance novel on the microfiche reader. "It's almost lunchtime," she said.
"My name is Sandor Courane. I was told to report here at noon."
The woman grimaced and slipped the novel fiche out of the reader. "You don't have a ticket then?"
"No," he said in some embarrassment. "You see, I--"
Her eyes widened. "I know who you are! You're being exiled!"
The word surprised Courane. He didn't like it at all. "Exiled? My father said I was being expatriated."
"Whatever. Oh, wait a minute. I have a friend at the package claim who wanted me to make sure to call her when you came in. This is just terrific. Will you sign my book? It's for my mother, really. She always has me ask people to sign the book if they're in the news or anything like that."
Courane just wanted to get on with it, but he had to go through the entire embarrassing scene. People came from all over the substation to look at him, to point at him and whisper and laugh. Soon he begged to be allowed to walk through the portal and get away from the crowd.
"Will you look at this guy" she said, shaking her head. "He actually sounds like he's in a hurry. Say, how does it feel?"
"Awful," he said. He looked around resentfully at the mob surrounding the desk.
"I mean, screwing up as bad as you did. I can't imagine it."
"It was easier than you might think," he said.
"Easy for you, honey," she said. "Still, shipping you away from Earth forever. That seems a little harsh. It's not like you robbed a bank or anything."
"It's for your own good," said Courane. "I'm a menace in my own way. I take without giving, and the community at large can't allow that."
"When you put it that way, I see your point. Why do you do it, then? You look like a nice boy. Was it your parents? Was it something that happened to you as a child?"
"Yes," he said. "A woman at an information counter once said something to me, and it affected the rest of my life."
"What did she say?"
"She was giving me directions and she said, 'You can't miss it.' I took that as a direct challenge and I determined to get lost. I succeeded, and I didn't stop there. Until TECT put an end to my career, I was quickly becoming a legendary failure. A failure of mythic proportions. And I owe it all to her. You have that potential, too, Miss. Someday you may inspire someone to abandon everything and ruin his life."
She seemed transported by the idea. "Do you really think so?"
Courane studied her and nodded slowly. "I don't doubt it for a moment," he said. "It must be almost time."
She checked her watch. "It is," she said. "Just follow the yellow line to the portal. You'll have to identify yourself to the operator, but from then on I'm told it's easy. Good luck."
"That way," she said. "You can't miss it."
There wasn't a trace of humor in her voice. She didn't realize what she had said.
Courane left her and pushed his way through the crowd of curious people. They cheered him, but he paid no attention. He followed the yellow line to the portal. The gate wasn't very impressive to look at, much like the metal detectors used by the airlines. There was a small door set into a wall of cinder blocks, apparently leading outside to the parking lot. Courane produced his identification, let the operator examine his single bag of belongings, and turned to take his last look at the planet of his birth. He wondered if he ought to make a final statement, some brave word to be remembered by.
"Hurry up," said the operator. "It costs a fortune to keep the connection open. We're talking light-years here, you know. You're not going on a weekend trip to Atlantic City."
"All right," said Courane. He took a firm grip on his zipper bag, opened the door, and stepped through.
Behind him there was the sound of a door sighing closed. He turned, but there was no sign of the portal. There wasn't so much as a shimmer in the air.
He was on another world.
It wasn't what Courane would call an especially attractive world. Naturally, he hadn't had any choice in the matter, but if he had he might have picked a place where the colors of the sky and ground and growing things were more in harmony. The sky was bleak and clothed with storm clouds. The light had an unsettling greenish cast to it. The tall grass and the leaves on the twisted trees were the precise red-purple of a flea gorged with blood. Courane's face showed distaste, but in a moment he settled himself enough to look around.
The sun--Epislon Eridani--was low in the sky, but there was no way for him to say if it was morning or late evening. Not far was a large house with a barn and a silo. That was his new home, evidently, and he took a deep breath and headed toward it. He felt strangely nervous. He didn't know why he was so anxious; he couldn't fail here. There would be no evaluations. This was the end of the line, the bottom of the barrel. If there were any others in the house, they were there for the same reason he was. Birds of a feather, they had been marooned together.
The house had a large front porch with several comfortable old chairs arranged so the tenants could sit and watch the grotesque dull-red grasses waving in the winds of approaching storms. A half-filled pitcher rested forgotten on the porch railing.
There was neither bellpush nor knocker beside the screen door. Of course not, Courane thought, applauding his own perception; they wouldn't often receive package deliveries or weary travelers. "Hello?" he called. There was only silence. For a moment he had the horrible thought that he was alone, not only on the porch but on the planet, that TECT had banished him to solitary confinement on a strange world. But a moment later a woman came around the corner of the house. She was his mother's age, in her middle or late forties, with short blonde hair and a youthful face. She didn't show the signs of years of toils beneath the foreign sun. Although she wore no makeup, there were no lines of pain or hard work around her mouth or eyes. She wore a plain gray dress that was imperfect enough to have been made here at home. She smiled and came toward him, one hand extended.
"Hi," she said. Her voice was low and friendly. "My name's Molly. We didn't know anyone was coming today."
"TECT didn't tell you?" he said, taking her hand.
"No. Doesn't make any difference, though. I'm glad I was around when you got here. Everyone else is either working around the farm or too sick. So come in, put your bag down. What's your name?"
"Courane. Sandor Courane. I'm from a little town in Europe. Greusching."
"We've got a few Europeans here," said Molly. "A few North Americans, one Pacifican girl, and some folks from other colonies."
"How many altogether?"
"Twelve. Two of them are kids. Isn't that awful? Two children, both boys, neither of them older than eleven." She looked across the yard, lost in thought. "So come in." She smiled and held the screen door open.
Courane steadied the woman's body with one hand. His shoulder ached from carrying her. The day was hot and there was no breeze at all. The sand had given way to small rounded stones, and the footing was difficult. The ground had risen slowly, and as he paused he looked out over a gentle declivity that stretched before him all the way to the horizon. He would have to carry her down into the basin in search of the river. The only proof that there was a river was the note pinned to the woman's clothing. Courane accepted its authority without question. It didn't occur to him to ask if the note might belong to another time, another situation, another world perhaps, that there might be no river within the limit of his strength and perseverance. There were low gnarled trees scattered around the floor of the depression, and clouds in the distance gave hope of rain and an end to his thirst. He did suffer a growing fatigue, an exhaustion that almost overpowered him when he became conscious of it. When he remembered, it was with a clarity and a force that consumed him; he was aware of nothing else, nothing at all in his present condition. His past was denied to him, so far as voluntarily calling it up. But when it visited him unbidden, it blinded his senses and hungers to everything else.
Courane shifted the corpse to the other shoulder, settled his burden more comfortably, and descended into the desert basin.