The rising sun hovered close to the horizon, but it was already hot. Even in the shade of the flimsy shelter that she had made, the heat was unbearable. Her eyes burned as sweat rolled down her sunburned face, and she winced as she wiped it away with the back of her hand; the gritty mixture of dried salt and sand had scratched her skin.
Samira was exhausted; her sore muscles screamed for rest, but she ignored her discomfort. The baby stirred uneasily in her lap, and Samira rocked her gently as she brushed away the droning insects that threatened her dreams. Samira sighed with relief when the baby yawned and continued to sleep. She wiped away the sweat from her own face once again, rested her forehead in her hand, and listened to the sounds of the small and powerful homing beacon. It reassured her that it still functioned unfalteringly as it transmitted its steady signal into space.
Samira’s eyes scanned the sky for a sign of Bar‑an’s re‑entry. He would come as he had promised; the homing beacon would bring him back to her. Samira refused to consider the possibility that he had not been successful, and as she waited, her fingers caressed the smooth, metal disk that housed the pulsating beacon. As always, its vibrations shot a tingling sensation through her body. During the past three days she had touched it many times, in just the same way, as if to reassure herself that it still functioned.
Each time that she felt the beacon’s vibrations, however, she was reminded of Bar‑an’s strict order to cut its power immediately after one complete day‑night cycle. He had feared that the pursuing Purification Squad might pick up the signal. Although the homing device transmitted on a frequency not normally used by Rizorian ships, (the beacon was a Tragian design) Samira also worried that the signal might be intercepted by those who searched for her and for her child. She was aware of all of the dangers, and yet she refused to obey his last order. To turn off the beacon was to admit that he had failed, and if he had failed, he was now dead. That was a truth that Samira was not ready to face; she preferred to continue her vigil on the beach.
The strong sun’s rays on the surface of the rippling water caused her eyes to tear incessantly. The tears stung her cheeks as they mingled with the sweat to slide over the numerous bug bites. But Samira would not close her eyes and rest; Bar‑an might come at any moment, and for two more days Samira’s tired eyes searched the sky for some sign of his tiny ship. By the end of the fifth day, her hand rested almost continuously on the vibrating beacon. In the late afternoon of the following day she thought that she had detected a slight tremor in the beacon’s vibrations.
“No, it can’t be,” she thought as she hovered over the beacon anxiously. She ignored the crying infant as she hugged the small machine and caressed it with her fingers. It had to be her imagination, she decided. The beacon still transmitted, and Samira sighed with relief. But later in the evening, she felt it again.
The hereto steady vibrations became irregular, like a faltering heart beat, and there was no doubt that the beacon’s power had diminished. Samira knelt in front of the failing device and clutched it with both hands as if she could squeeze her body’s energy into it, as if she could force it to continue its transmissions. She watched helplessly as the beacon’s power drained steadily during the night, and her hopes that Bar‑an would find her also drained until she felt hollow and empty inside. That overcast morning she was forced to accept the fact that Bar‑an would never come; the beacon transmitted no longer.
The baby was asleep. Samira left her on a dry patch of sand, walked over to the dead beacon, and took it in her arms. As she helt it, Samira felt an overpowering surge of anger grab hold of her; she hurled the useless device into the raging surf. It dropped from sight immediately only to reappear moments later; the incoming tide had returned it to her. The beacon shone like a pretty bauble as it bobbed in the foamy water a few meters from her feet. Samira retrieved the lifeless disk, dropped to the ground, and with quick, savage strokes, slashed into the yielding sand until a hole deep enough to cover the beacon was completed. Huge, glistening tears streaked her luminous copper cheeks as she shoved the sand back into place. She buried the beacon that rested at the bottom.
Samira heard the baby begin to stir restlessly; in seconds the child would awaken to demand that her hunger be satisfied. Realizing that for the first time in her life, responsibility for their survival rest solely in her hands, Samira brushed away her tears and prepared to nurse her child. There was no time left for self‑indulgence; the Purification Squad could be closing in on her at this very moment. She had to hurry, and there was so much that she had to do. All evidence of her arrival on the planet surface had to be wiped out, and she had to get away from the camp as fast and as far as she could. The Purification Squad was well known for its ruthless efficiency, and she had been careless.
For the first time since landfall, Samira turned her attention to the tangled and lush jungle. The immense profusion and the diversity of green, growing things, so entangled and disorderly, both puzzled and frightened her. Samira had never been anywhere that had not been carefully planted and lovingly cultivated, but this was her home now. The beautiful, and endless gardens of Rizoria were a long, long way away. Samira smiled wistfully as she thought of her native world.
“Wasting time again,” she chided herself as she shook her head free of thoughts and memories. Some other time, perhaps, she would be able to indulge herself, but not now. Samira ground her teeth in determination until her jaw hurt. She would find the courage, somehow, to enter the wilderness, just as she would have to accomplish many things, which had never been required of her before. She started to work.
The number of things that she had to do to insure their survival overwhelmed her. She grew nervous, and at times, periods of dizziness forced her to rest, but she persisted. By the end of the day she had finished all of the preparations for abandoning the camp. Food, water and other supplies were packed and waiting. She had cleaned and restored the area around the camp so that no trace of her stay there remained. In the morning she would dismantle her shelter, and leave at first light.
She did not sleep well that night. A few days ago Samira had become aware of an annoying pain in her arms that she had been able to ignore at first, but during the night the pain grew.
At dawn, she forced herself from the bed and proceeded to finish the dismantling of the camp. She sighed with relief when the job was done, and she turned to walk towards the baby and the pack of supplies. The feeling of fire in the pit of her belly struck then.
Unaccustomed to illnesses of any sort, Samira was unprepared for the ferosity and the intensity of the fever; she had never experienced anything like it before, and it frightened her. She fought for control, but the thick, swirling fever haze threatened to engulf her completely; it blurred her vision, and later, it blinded her. Terrified, Samira thrust out her arms to push back the darkness that pressed in on her. Suddenly, the blackness touched her mind; it seemed cool and strangely soothing. She yielded to the darkness and embraced it almost eagerly as she escaped the searing pain.
When the darkness receded, she heard the high pitched wailing of her baby. Alternately shivering with cold and burning with fever, Samira dug her fingers into the wet sand as she crawled back to her child. Although her knees were cut and bleeding from broken sea shells, she felt no pain from those wounds.
The baby was hungry, but before she could nurse her, Samira needed some of the pain killing medication that she had found in the supplies that Bar‑an had left her. She took a strong dose, stretched out on the sand, and offered her breast to the child who grasped it eagerly. The medicine took effect almost immediately, and for that, Samira was grateful. The gentle breeze fanned her feverish body, and Samira stopped sweating; her tense muscles relaxed and her eyes closed.
Suddenly Samira felt something strange; a sense of immediate danger cut through her sleep to awaken her. She opened her eyes in time to see a formless shadow slide across her body. Without a moment of hesitation, Samira reached for the tiny laser tube that all adult Rizorians wore on slender silver chains around their necks. She raised herself on an elbow to look around.
The sun had moved in the sky and she was no longer in the cool shade. Holding the laser tube in her fingers, Samira raised a shaky arm to shield her eyes from the sun’s intense light. Immediately, tears flooded her eyes and blurred her vision. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, squinted into the sunlight and saw the blurred outline of a man! Her heart raced uncontrollably urged on by hope, and fear.
“Bar‑an?” she whispered hoarsely.
There was no answer.
Samira held her breath, and even the normal day sounds seemed hushed as if waiting.
“Bar‑an, is it you?”
The dark figure moved silently to the other side of her so that it no longer stood in front of the burning face of the sun. When her vision cleared, she saw him distinctly.
The alien male was extremely short by Rizorian standards, and he was thin, so thin that his cheek bones jutted out through the mass of wrinkles on his face. For a moment he looked as if he might be one of The People, but no; it was ugly, and Samira shuddered in disgust.
Slowly, very slowly, Samira set all but one of the tiny rings of the laser tube in place. She didn’t want a sudden motion to upset the alien; he might interprete her actions as hostile to him, and he might retaliate before she was ready. The laser tube had to be set perfectly in order for it to function; it wasn’t meant to be used as a weapon, but it was all that she had. When the time came, she would self‑destruct just as she had been taught to do since she was old enough to understand the ancient sacrament of the clean death. It was her obligation, and her right to insure that her passage into the void be a clean and honorable one. At this time her responsibility was a double one; she had to act for her child as well.
The alien circled her again. His actions indicated that he seemed to be astonished and curious, but not yet hostile. Samira was not eager to rush into the void unnecessarily, and she didn’t set the last ring. He moved closer to her, and he spread out his hands, palms up in front of him as he knelt beside her. Almost immediately, the odor from his twisted and unclean body choked her. She coughed uncontrollably, and the violent spasms that accompanied the cough, weakened her even more. Her chest swelled up and collapsed in upon itself, the pain lifted her from the ground, back arched, head thrown back, mouth open; she gasped for air. At last the cough subsided; the pain in her chest hindered her from breathing easily, but she could breathe, and for that she was grateful.
The alien’s expression almost seemed to be one of concern. Strange sounds came from his mouth and he waved his arms in front of him. For a moment she considered the arm movements might be part of his speech pattern.
Suddenly Samira realized that the alien was trying to communicate with her. “Intelligent, he has to be intelligent!” she thought, and her hopes were raised. He spoke and she became aware of the sound of his voice. She listened carefully to the patterns of the sounds of his speech; none of it made any sense to her. The alien cocked his head first to one side then to the other, and he gestured with his hands, but Samira failed to understand. He appeared to be intelligent and non‑beligerent, but until she was certain, she would hold onto the laser tube tightly.
Then without warning, the man spread his lips in a terrifying gesture. He exposed his teeth to her, and Samira panicked. Were the people of this world flesh eaters, or worse, cannibals?
The alien leaned closer to her. Sweat poured down Samira’s face, and each heart beat was like a violent explosion that threatened to shatter her body. She decided that she had to complete the last turn of the laser tube’s rings. Yet although his wild animal expression terrified her, it was strange how his quiet tone of voice seemed to reassure her. To add to her confusion, he smiled at her! It was a proper Rizorian smile that did not expose his teeth.
The baby whimpered. Samira tried to hold her even closer to her, but the pain in her arms almost totally hindered any movement. The baby’s whimper caught the attention of the alien; he seemed astonished, as if he had not noticed the child until that moment. His eyes were open very wide and round as he reached for her with heavily calloused and dirty hands.
“Don’t dare touch her! I warn you!” With all the strength that she had left, Samira commanded him to stop. The words had rumbled out from her scratchy throat like a low growl, and the expression on her face was fierce.
The man sat back on his heels. That baby shouldn’t be lying on the sand, he decided, so he wiped his hands on his salt encrusted pants, and reached for the child again.
“No!” The woman waved a small metal thing at him while with the other hand, she covered her baby’s face. He didn’t know what to do.
Both the mother and the child looked sick, too sick to be lying on a beach exposed to the unfriendly elements. He would help them, but it was obvious that she didn’t want him to touch them. Manolo shrugged his shoulders, sat cross‑legged on the sand beside them and folded his hands in his lap. He didn’t want to upset the woman again; he would wait for a while. He had spent the major part of his life fishing these waters, and he knew how to be patient.
It was lucky for the woman that he had decided to fish today because she looked so sick that he didn’t think she would’ve lasted another day. Now he had to figure out a way to get her off the island quickly. It was a problem, but just a problem, just like so many others he had encountered during his days.
Manolo thought that nothing would ever surprise him any more, but to find this strange woman and her child on this tiny, uninhabited island was something beyond anything he could have imagined. And madre de Dio’s, the woman was so beautiful! Never had he ever seen anyone quite like her. As he waited and watched her, Manolo wondered whether she was an apparition from heaven, or some evil demon from the deep of the sea sent to ruin him. He was torn between the desire to run and the need to pray.
The strain of watching the alien proved to be too much for her; she needed rest, and against her will, her eyes closed. The white haired fisherman spoke to her quietly as she rested, and slowly the sound of his voice became as familiar to her as the sounds of the beach. After a while the man grew silent; he seemed to be waiting for her to respond. She smiled at him and closed her eyes again. The silence which had hung between them, impenetrable as the Domes of Athir, seemed to grow friendly and comfortable. Samira began to feel as if she had known this man for a long time, a life time. Once or twice she glanced at him through her half closed eyelids; Manolo hugged his bony knees to his chest as he shifted his position. He watched over her.
It wasn’t until the burning afternoon sun had grown pale, and the slight afternoon breeze had developed into a strong, steady wind that the fisherman moved or spoke again.
Samira opened her eyes.
Manolo spoke rapidly; he pointed to the sky and then to the water, and although she could not understand him, she knew that something troubled him. The man became increasingly agitated with her failure to comprehend what he was trying to explain.
Didn’t she have eyes? Couldn’t she see? In desperation he leaned forward, grabbed her by her shoulders and tried to drag her in the direction of the water where his small boat was beached.
Samira’s first impulse was to resist, but when she realized that the sky was filling rapidly with threatening black clouds, she understood the reason for his anxiety. Storm!
There was a need for haste. Samira tried to get to her feet and found that she couldn’t; Manolo tried to help her, but she was too heavy for him to carry alone. The fisherman paced back and forth like a caged animal at the Athmir Zoo. Samira decided to try one more time to stand; the best that she could do was to raise herself on all fours, and then she fainted.
When she opened her eyes, the fisherman hovered over her. He looked worried. Samira smiled as the thought occurred to her; perhaps he worried about her, like a friend. A friend! He was the only friend she had.
“Take care of the baby,” she whispered. Samira knew that he couldn’t understand her words, but she felt that somehow he would know what it was that she asked of him.
Manolo patted her hand and brushed away the bright copper‑colored curls that were stuck to her feverish forehead. The intensity of her fever shocked him, and once again he tried to resolve the problem of getting the woman and her child off of the island before the arrival of the storm. The old fisherman felt panic strike him when for the tenth or eleventh time the woman closed her eyes. Dios mio, what would he do if she died? His hands shook; he took a deep breath. He would have to drag her all the way to his boat. It was the only way.
“Take care of the baby,” she repeated.
Manolo looked at her. Her eyes were wide open and they shone with a strange, luminous light visible even in the bright sunlight. He gasped when he realized that all of her skin glowed in the same way, silvery, like the reflection of the moon on a calm sea. He crossed himself, and moved away from her.
The woman spoke again; the words were strange to him, but the sound of her voice washed over him and held him transfixed. Was she a witch? Was she casting an evil spell? Manolo crossed himself again.
“Oh, please, don’t turn away from me, not you too!” She held her hand out to him; tears rolled down her cheeks. Manolo took her hand and knelt by her side once again.
“They all turned away from us when they found out, even my sister Sa‑Dayna. Everyone said that I had to be a carrier. Why else would the renegade tech have altered the results of my tests?
“But I’m normal! Surely you can see that. Look at me!”
Manolo, couldn’t take his eyes off of her face. She was so beautiful, almost too beautiful to be human. He shifted his weight on his knees, but he stayed by her side.
Samira noticed the look of concentration on the man’s face, and it pleased her that he listened to her. She held onto his hand tightly.
“I don’t know when it started. Like most people, I never paid any attention to it. The Adept problem was just something that people whispered about when they thought that the children weren’t listening.
“But one day they came for me! I didn’t want to run away, but Bar‑an insisted. He said that they would kill our unborn child!”
Samira’s voice grew barely audible, and although the meaning of her words were lost to him, he felt compelled to listen. He leaned closer to better hear her voice.
“They nearly caught us twice. Bar‑an said that he could lead them away from us and then out‑run them. So we separated, but I don’t believe that he escaped. He would have come for us.”
Manolo wasn’t listening any more. The darkened sky had captured his attention. He jumped to his feet; they had to leave now! Without any hesitation he started to drag Samira to the boat, but she kept pushing his hands away. A loud groan of desperation escaped his clenched jaws.
What did the woman want? She pointed at the baby, then at the boat. Yes, that was best.. He would take the child first and then come back for the mother. But as he picked up the child, the woman held out her arms in a gesture that he could never have mis‑interpreted. Manolo growled with impatience as the woman cradled the child in her arms and murmured loving, cooing sounds.
“We must hurry!” he shouted.
As if unconcerned, the woman looked up at him serenely. She smiled and took his hand; he felt helpless and could not pull away from her touch, even if he had wanted to. She spoke to him, and just like before, he could do nothing, except listen. The sounds of her speech, he decided, were the most beautiful sounds that he had ever heard. Her words were like music, and he was lost in the melody that they made.
The rapt expression on the man’s face filled Samira with pleasure. The child would be safe with him; he would take care of her. There was just one final thing to do.
“I name you Mir‑an for your father and for your mother,” Samira whispered. Manolo leaned closer to listen; it seemed to him that those words were very important. She repeated the name, Mir‑an, as she pointed at the child.
“Her name is Mir‑an, M‑I‑R‑A‑N! Do you understand?”
The frown of concentration on Manolo’s face disappeared.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Yes, it is a lovely name for the child. Miriam!”
“No!” Samira protested. “M‑I‑R‑A‑N!
“Si, seilora,” he replied, “Miriam.” Manolo patted the baby’s head, and he smiled with the pleasure of his understanding.
Samira sighed. His pronunciation was close enough; the child would know her name. Knowing her name was the only thing that mattered.
Slowly, the old fisherman got up to his feet; his knees ached, and he rubbed them. It was time to go. Once again he pointed to the boat, and then to the child. He waited.
With a strange sense of peace in her heart, she glanced up at the sky; it grew darker and more threatening with each passing minute. She sighed and gave him her child.
Samira watched the fisherman walk back to his boat with Mir‑an in his arms. The child would love, grow, and perhaps even flourish in this new world. Nothing else mattered. In spite of the pain, Samira felt joy. Mir-an would live.
The roar of the boat’s engine cut through her thoughts. It was time.
Before she could move, a sudden rush of pain gripped her body; it tore at her like some savage beast ripping open its prey and devouring it with voracious bites. Samira tried to clench her jaws shut, but she couldn’t.
Manolo heard Samira scream; it was the most awful sound that he had ever heard, and he froze in fear until the last echo of the scream had faded.
When Samira saw him run towards her, she knew that she had to hurry. It had to be done while he was still a safe distance away. The fever burned intensely, the pain grew even stronger, and at that moment it seemed as if the laser tube had leaped into her shaking hand with a I ife of its own. It felt cool in the palm of her hand. She turned the last ring.
Manolo wasn’t sure what it was that he had witnessed. One minute she lay screaming on the beach, the next minute a blinding light and then nothing. It was like a bolt of lightening! He looked anxiously at the sky.
The woman was gone as if she had never existed. Manolo trembled with fear as he circled the spot where she had been. He searched for proof that she had existed, but nothing remained except for something that looked like fine gray ash. Manolo was afraid to get too close to it. He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head as he muttered to himself.
How could he tell anyone what had happened? And how could he ever explain the child to his wife, or to the authorities? Who would believe how strange the woman had been, and how beautiful?
A slight breeze ruffled Manolo’s whispy hair. Very quickly he crossed himself, and he whispered a half‑forgotten prayer. It had been a long time since he had felt that need.
The child cried in his boat. Manolo knew that there were many things that he would never understand, but that child’s cry needed no explanation. He shrugged his thin shoulders, and he rolled off the sweat from his brow with his crooked finger. The baby Miriam cried because she was sick, and she was hungry, and those were two things that he understood very well.
The wind was getting stronger, and soon the sea would be too dangerous to cross; he had to hurry. The fisherman scanned the sea and the horizon. There was no doubt in his mind that he would have to push the small engine to its limit in order to out‑run the threatening storm.
The boat was as old as Manolo, and it needed paint badly, but as he stepped into it, and he gripped its sides, he noted with deep satisfaction that it felt firm to the touch. It was real, and it was his. The sea grew rougher, but his boat could take it. His father had built it in those days when they knew how to build things right. And the long hours that Manolo had lavished on the small engine paid off; it was running beautifully. He would be home before the baby could get wet.