They stepped out into unutterable smog. The ground underfoot was squelchy red dirt, the place resembled a tropical construction site under gas attack. They were inside their suits. Eyes that should have been streaming remained calm. Skin that should have been blistering and screaming felt nothing. They groped a little way into this muck and couldn't remember why they had decided to leave the ship. Cheops didn't come out from wherever it went inbetween unless it had identified some sort of planetary system. But it had never yet found anything like a habitable world.
"I didn't like that," said Merle, back in
shirt sleeves inside.
Merle stared her down. "I think I have a pretty good idea."
She herself was eating carrot cake with sour cream:
her tongue collecting delicious crumbs and smears from around her mouth.
After a lifetime of guilty obesity she was free at last, she didn't
have to care anymore. It was wonderful.
"Arrogant bitch," muttered Nanazetta.
Cheops tactfully offered a diversion. They had landed.
Lunch was abandoned. The ship's lander, in which the crew environment was embedded, had allowed them no sense of descent or impact. Only the screens now told them that they were planetside; and that exploration was possible.
They stood in the lock, five glimmering figures packed
close together. It opened, and the new world rushed in. A dozen or so
smaller Cheops remotes jumped out and scurried away like active little
Sasha knelt and touched the turf. It was really a
close matted creeper with tiny violet flowers. She wondered, could the
machinery be programmed to tell her what this would feel like to bare
"They can see us!" cried Sasha, confused.
"Of course they can see the suits," snapped
Captain and crew retreated, precipitately, back into the ship.
"What are we going to do?"
"Fuck knows," growled Nanazetta. "Have we any weapons?"
"Make love not war-"
"Will they be able to hear us? Will Cheops give
us voices out there? We hear ourselves but that's different isn't it.
That's like the carrot cake-"
Merle laughed. "We're not going to do anything.
Cheops is God. Cheops will let us know what the rules are. Come on,
ye lily-livered scum. Out there and enjoy yourselves. Captain's orders."
"We come in peace -"
Nanazetta was following the site inspectors, making menacing gestures.
Whistling and clicking: it sounded articulate, modulated. She believed it was language.
"We come from another world. Do you know what that means? We're on a voyage of exploration."
One of the Ma'atians came close and looked Sasha up
That's a very small ship, it 'said'. It peered
around and waved its arms. Where's the rest of the expedition?
(And at that moment knew this was a lie- )
Another Ma'atian came up to Merle. It waved its hand across her gleaming breast, across its own body and announced (it seemed) something important.
"And my name's Merle," said the captain affably. "Merle Candida. My mother didn't like me, she named me after a disease. I'm the captain here. You'd better take me to your leader."
The star of Ma'at was smaller and more brilliant in
appearence than the star of earth. It was descending in the sky, clear
diamond white as Venus, as the explorers were led into the native settlement.
The Ma'atian houses were scattered, with green plots between them. They
had dark brown walls and white or red tiled roofs with turned up eaves.
The party with the Cheops expedition shrilled and clattered: soon a
collection of smaller,
"Wait until I see them dance-"
"Dance? Why should they dance?"
That was Sugi.
Five of the plump terracottas finally came forward.
They raised their arms face high, forearms crossed. They made expansive
Later, after more gestural conversation and quantities
of whistling, there was a banquet. It was served on patios of beaten
earth outside the little houses. The Ma'atians did not appear to have
developed any communal or ceremonial buildings: their welcoming feast
was a street party. The tall slim ones ran to and
"Well, comrade?" inquired Irwin. "Which is which?"
"I don't know," she mumbled, and felt herself
hunching up in the suit: trying defensively as always to hide her horrible
folds of flesh. "I don't know. I haven't a clue."
Sugi chortled "Oh shut up you old misery," and thumped him playfully.
The captain tried not to look at anyone, especially
not at watchful Sasha. Her throat was swollen and her eyes were stinging.
She felt humiliated. It was the sunset light -the venus sun now vanishing
in a haze of gold, the flowers whose scent she would never know. It
was the comfort and joy out there, out of reach. These things were getting
to her as if she was maudlin drunk.
The plump Ma'atians were consternated. This failure
seemed to worry them far more than the strangers' weird appearence,
or their refusal of food and drink. Maybe they're not human after
all! - they whistled to each other.
"Well come on, why not?" Sugi was ready. "Let's get down."
"No!" snarled the captain.
"We can't dance." she told the Ma'atians,
in English, forgetting to gesture. "We don't dance. Not since we
joined this expedition. We'll never dance anymore."
They understood that, too.
Cheops had found exacly what it was looking for. It
settled down in orbit to count over the treasure. Its landing party,
meanwhile, behaved according to profile. Sugi was having a lovely holiday.
She didn't even have to eat the funny food. She made no attempt to try
and find the limits of what Cheops allowed: in fact she rarely moved
more than fifty metres from the lander, except when she joined organised
excursions into town. She seemed to Merle to be constantly looking,
on her little walks around the golfcourse, for a sign directing her
to the beach.
Sasha Mihalavska and Bob Irwin made notes. They established
that the Ma'atians in this village had no meat or dairy animals. They
observed what appeared to be several species of flying lizards (they
flew like bats) and many things that looked like brightly coloured giant
millipedes. These seemed to be the only large fauna around. The vegetation
suggested an equable warm temperate climate, wind direction was steady
and gentle. Bob deduced -perhaps prematurely- that the Cheops had landed
on an island. Sasha was not so sure. There were convincing indications,
in the variety of artefacts and implements, that the Ma'atians belonged
to a large and sophisticated cultural group. If this was an island it
was a big one. There ought to be towns, maybe
"What happens to you when you die?"
Sasha and Bob had found an older Ma'atian, an 'old
lady' they called her, who was willing to be their confidante. Her social
role was not clear but she seemed unafraid of the strangers and accustomed
to impart and receive knowledge. It bothered Sasha that she still was
not sure whether her voice could be heard 'out
"What's it like, this other place?" asked Bob. He was becoming very adept with his dumb shows.
The old lady thought for a moment, then made the sweeping, disancing gesture.
She thought again, and started away, beckoning.
"She's taking us to paradise," crowed Bob Irwin, sotto voce.
Not to heaven but to a blue lake, unsuspected before, beyond the terraced houses and gardens. It was the first body of water they had seen. The old woman crouched down. She smiled, (needle teeth, the same modified snarl) and swept an arm over the water.
"No." Sasha knew how much room there was for misapprehension: and yet what was there to trust in a situation like this, if not intuition? Understanding thrilled her...
"I know what she means. She means the reflection.
Heaven is like here. Heaven is just the same as being alive."
Merle laughed again inside their helmets, and the
doll walked away.
Merle picked a fight with Bob Irwin. She was envious
of the new friendship of course, and it had to be Bob she attacked because
she was a little afraid of Sasha. Bob made some joking remark about
the Ma'atians getting the impression that Earth was a female-ordered
society, and she was onto him immediately.
"And why do you think that is, Bob?"
"I don't know-"
"Could it be statistical? Could it be there are so many more 'mad' women scientists available, that with the worst will in the world this transgalactic political advertisment had to have a female majority? In fact, over all, Bob, I think you'd find there are far more 'mad' women about of any persuasion. Able to walk and talk and keep themselves clean, that is. Men have to be doubly incontinent psychopaths before anyone declares them unemployable or locks them up- "
"Quiet down!" yelled Nanazetta, banging his dinner tray on a bulkhead.
It was mealtime again, of course. Shards of mashed potato and bloody beef sailed through the air and landed -splat-: because they were not in space now and they all knew it.
"I'm watching you, Captain Shaw. You're trying
to fuck us up. You're bad for our morale, Captain. And I'm going to
report that,when we get home."
"Yes we are, Merle," Bob broke in quickly,
(he wished he'd never started this). "When the survey's done we're
going right back to where and when we started from, we're going to get
debriefed out of the project and go on with our normal lives."
Merle seemed to grow calm. Perhaps even she realised she'd gone too far. She smiled a little and nodded.
"Mmmh, yeah. Okay." She sighed innocently.
"You know Bob, I've thought of a better name for this place. You
ought to call it Duat, not Ma'at. I'm sure you remember. That was the
Ancient Eygptian word for heaven."
"You know, the place where the dead people go."
They stopped smiling.
The captain snickered unkindly.
It was absurd to feel concern for the Ma'atians. No
doubt the crowded and hungry earth would be glad to colonise this lovely
place. But there was little danger of imminent invasion. Even apart
from the ruinous expense, you wouldn't get the most desperate colonists
to accept the terms the crew of the Cheops had
She had been able to accept, just about, the consensual
reality which they created inside the lander (very small, for five people,
as the Ma'atian child had so naively observed): and been able to stretch
that reality to include their earlier excursions. It was Ma'at that
was giving her problems, breaking her up. They none of them knew how
anything worked. Cheops was supposed to run a life support system, giving
them anything they needed in the way of perceptual construct to keep
them sane. How far would it go? Sugi Ohba had always cared least -or
at anyrate seemed to think least- about their existential predicament.
Since the landing on Ma'at she'd been behaving exactly as if her suit
actually contained her body. She picked flowers! What did the AI out
in orbit make of that?
Sasha chewed miserably on her non-existent lip.
To touch someone's hand..., to touch even a leaf or a flower...
They must keep the consensus going. That was why Merle's
cynicism was as dangerous as Sugi's thoughtlessness. It was true that
sexual equality still had to be achieved, especially in the former 'western'
nations. It was true they all had hard-luck stories. But life is always
better than death.
Sasha pointed down the path and sketched roofs in
The woman looked her dead in the eye (another shared cultural gesture, like the concept of heaven). She crouched, and drew in the dirt. Houses: a little cluster of turned up roofs. "Schoo, schoo-"
Then down the path...several strides. Another tiny
sketch of roofs. The scale was clear.
The woman jerked her hands in the affirmative sign:
and again looked at the invader straight: firmly, undeniably intelligible.
We like it that way, she said. We like to be friendly, but
we like people to keep their distance.
"These people are so nice," she burst out. "You know the boys who come and hang around the ship?"
Those were girls and boys but Sugi didn't understand that.
"They were here earlier. And the one I call Charlie, he sort of asked me -clear as words-: Why don't you stay with us forever?"
They entered the lander. As usual Sasha's consciousness
ellided the transition: the two of them were in the crew environment,
in their shipboard clothes. The idiot woman beamed and sighed. She was
having a holiday romance now.
Sasha wished that someone else was here.
"He means it. They don't want any of us to get back to earth."
"Huh? Er -Why not?"
"Are you kidding? Because they're not stupid, you idiot. Not stupid at all."
Sugi took fright and retired into the sleeping pod.
Sasha felt a desire to eat (for reassurance), but no appetite -the phantom
itch of an amputated limb. That was a danger sign. She thought about
the five of them, lying back on earth like so many Walt Disneys in their
glass coffins; and with just about as much chance (let's face it) of
successful resurrection. She could imagine the Cheops team agreeing
among themselves. We'll find
Where is Bob? she wondered in sudden panic. Where is Nanazetta, where is Merle? They don't want us to leave, to go back and report on this choice bit of real estate. They're trying to split us up, they're picking at the weak links.
A Ma'atian child appeared, coming down the path. On seeing her naked it beamed all over its face and sat down on the edge of the promentory.
"Hello-" said Merle cautiously.
She knew this was an adolescent female, from the patterns
on the tiny kilt slung around its slender hips. If you didn't look too
closely it made a pretty young woman, inspite of the fishlike needle
Merle laughed lightly.
"What a silly idea."
Perhaps the laugh seemed like an invitation. The child settled more closely on the rocky perch, and took Merle's thick white hand. I like you very much, she pantomimed. Why don't you stay with us, don't go away in that little box. I wish you would stay.
The pretty girl seemed sweetly sincere: however, Merle
understood at once that she was being tempted; and why. She started
to giggle. It was so ludicrous. Make love not war: Sugi had said
that. Which was typical of Sugi, the good hearted simpleton. Sugi was
probably the only one of them all, villagers and invaders, who didn't
know this paradise was doomed. The natives had no way of guessing their
world had five hundred years grace, at a conservative estimate. But
Merle was not about to try and explain that. Let them sweat. After all,
technology does make giant strides sometimes. They could be right to
be scared for their own skins.
The mime was clever and ridiculous. Merle snorted. They laughed together, uproariously.
Merle wiped her eyes: looked down at herself, looked at the alien girl: in sudden, belated, heart-catching wonder...
She glared at Sasha and asked abruptly -"Have you been having hallucinations?"
Sasha was alarmed.
Merle just scowled.
Merle groped around in the wall niches. She located the worn piece of scrap paper, and after some rummaging the safety pin. She pinned the booking notice on the sleeping pod diaphragm. She seemed to be daring Sasha to comment. As she was about to disappear, she looked around briefly.
"Cowardice and stupidity," she said in a bored tone. "Are the mainsprings of your existence. And mine. Do you know why they picked us for Cheops? Because we're too stupid to kill ourselves, and too scared to do anything else."
Sasha went up to the lake, feeling safer now that both of her weak links were accounted for. She was thinking wistfully that Cheops was bound to call an end to shore leave soon. A shiny doll came running up. She was afraid it was Sugi or Merle, turned violent. But it was Bob Irwin.
"Where's the captain?" he yelled
"She's in the sleeping pod with Sugi."
Sasha jumped to her feet. "They've got the Do
Not Disturb sign up," she wailed.
"Fuck it -" decided Bob. "We'll go
after him ourselves."
"Sash, either I'm going crazy or... Come and see."
The suit was where Bob had found it, stowed in some
composting vegetation at the bottom of a Ma'atian garden. The footprints
lead away: distinctly human, nothing at all like the slender tracks
of the natives. The Ma'atians agreed that the fifth stranger had gone
away. They even agreed, reluctantly, to show his friends where he was.
And there was Nanazetta. The Ma'atians gestured upwards,
and Sasha saw the phyisiologist's big burly pink body. He was watching
from a grassy cove, a natural step cut half way up the valley wall.
The figure bobbed out of sight.
The Ma'atians stayed below. Bob and Sasha climbed.
In the cove, an extraordinary sight met their eyes. Somebody had started
building a hut. There were Ma'atian artefacts strewn around, and on
a flat rock someone had been mixing brown clay with water to plaster
the stake and creeper walls. A Ma'atian boy squatted beside this rock,
his arms wrapped around his knees. To Sasha he looked proud and frightened,
and a little guilty. She guessed at the desperate plotting: the urgent
deliberations of a society not given to violence trying to invent strategies
for survival against the odds. It was a world of affection and comfort:
they had no
"You can't mean to live with him!" he cried.
"You're ruining your life, kid. The man's a horror story. He eats
The boy whistled and clicked too: it sounded almost the same.
"Hey! Leave the kid alone!"
Nanazetta came running out from behind the half built hut, brandishing a knobbled tree root.
Bob and Sasha grabbed at each other clumsily."Okay,
Nanzetta," quavered Bob. "Party's over-"
"Nanazetta!" cried Sasha. "You're betraying
your planet. I don't know what you've done, but you mustn't do it. We
are all of us part of the Cheops. You're going to wreck the whole project-"
"Oh Bob, this is crazy. This is just another
shared hallucination. He can't have escaped. He's still part of the
"Get the fuck off! Get the fuck off!" gasped the big man hoarsely, flailing with his root. Bob scuttled, dodged. Nanazetta went flying past him, still yelling furiously, over the edge of the shelf.
He landed with a crunch, out of their sight below.
"Oh God -"
Down by the side of the stream the two adult Ma'atians were bending over something fleshly, solid, and still.
Nanazetta had broken his neck. He was dead.
"Bob! We shouldn't have buried him! The contamination! All kinds of bacteria -viruses. We'll have to go back and dig him up and, and burn him!..."
Bob waited until her babbling ended in silence. Each of them, in Ma'at's radiant starlight, bright as a full moon on earth, stared at a metallic doll.
"Was there a body?" asked Sasha at last. "Do you think we're imagining all this?"
"I don't know. But no body left earth, Sasha."
"Oh good. So no earth bacteria can be contaminating Ma'at."
Slowly, Bob removed his suit. Sasha did the same. Bob dug his bare hands into the dark soil and looked at them. There was dirt under his fingernails. He could feel the grit on his palms.
"This is impossible," whispered Sasha.
They put the suits back on.
Sugi was waiting for them at the settlement. She didn't seem to take in the news of Nanazetta's death. She had worries of her own.
"I don't know what it is, Bob, but I can't seem to get into the lander. I must have locked myself out."
She was confused, showing the pathetic wariness which
they remembered from the first days of Cheops, before she got to trust
It was cooler that night. Sasha and Bob sat on the porch of the house that had been lent to them and watched fireflies. They had taken off their suits again and were wearing borrowed Ma'atian garments, the light swathing folds making a comfortable cloud of Sasha's gentle bulk. Sugi, surprisingly, had made a swift and complete recovery. She was down in the settlement somewhere with her holiday friends. Faintly, the marooned explorers caught strains of the earthling dance track which had been top of the charts when Cheops departed.
Merle was gone. They had searched for her, they had asked the Ma'atians. But all that anyone would do was to point to the hills. She went that way. Schoo...Schooo. She has gone far.
"Should we go after her?" wondered Sasha.
Bob shook his head. In the quiet of this night he
could think of the captain with apology. They had all picked on her,
and it wasn't fair. It was only the nature of a born solitary, forced
to live always in a crowd, that had made her so abrasive. But he could
do without her angry, restless presence.
On earth the Cheops development team was waiting for
the ship's return. Cheops had been launched by a conventional rocket
system from earth's surface, for no space station yet had the capacity
to deal with such a major event. It had winked out of existence slightly
beyond the orbit of the moon and at once passed out of all human contact,
all knowledge. Its return was supposed to be to the same location, a
year downstream in
Bob pulled something out from under their doorstep. It was one of the lobsterlike remotes: stiff and dead.
"I found it in the street. What happened, Sasha?
Don't worry, I know we're stranded, I'm not going to get hysterical
about that. But I simply don't understand-"
"No, Bob. You weren't listening. I said The
Cheops converted itself, don't you get it?"
The shore party had often watched the Ma'atian sky at this time. Together, and briefly more or less at peace, they had waved and cheered as little Cheops tracked by overhead, Ma'at's new satellite. The Ma'atian night was the same: moonless, ablaze with jewels. Maybe the good ship Cheops had gone home alone. But Sasha didn't think so. Five solid human bodies had to come from somewhere. She heaved a sigh. Her socialist conscience pricked her a little: but she could not seriously regret the way things had turned out.
"Watch the sky, Bob."
first published Interzone September/October 1989; reprinted in the
collections Grazing The Long Acre, PS Publishing 2009; and in The Universe
of Things, Aqueduct Press 2011