Beach Planet Bingo
Clare sat alone on one of the half-dozen white, pillowy leatherette seats in the shuttle's bay area. She wondered why there were so many, since catharsis retreat by design was a solitary experience. Probably standard seating capacity for this make of flyer. Nobody'd bothered to customize it here. Yet, everything as manufactured conformed to function, so there must be a reason for the extra seats. Covering a yawn, she made a mental note to ask the andro, though she'd probably be lucky to get a straight answer.
Idle thoughts, she thought. The process forced patience, overlooking an existence full of it. Perfect air mix in here, ignorable, not like the surface's will be. No posh cushions to sandwich the head, either. She pushed back until her ears cauliflowered comfortably by the cushy leather wings of the chair. She sat forward. No chairs.
' The imperfections of the planets catalyzed the metamorphosis. Wrong; perceived imperfections by human standards, by the individual's standards, wrought change. The first time, she'd gone to Vaal, sixty years ago sixty-four. First youth, loose on the Universe.
Where was that andro?
"Might I ask you, Ms. Clare, why you elected catharsis via the Beach Planet Bingo Association?" Mr. Dom affected aging, middle age, perhaps a personal choice or to gain professional sway, perhaps. Clare thought him foppish and foolish. Receiving no answer, he continued, "You're obviously past the need for ego-centrifugal expansion. Your vita says you were socialized on Vaal; you have a bond with a Mr. Will."
Her first five year junket took her to Whirlwhirl, Plentiua, Etcetera, and Ska. On Ska, Ecru professed undying love for her. She lied to him, loved him, then told him of the lie. He'd walked into vacuum without a suit. Remarkable reconstruction had brought him back completely, claimed the experts, though therapeutically sans any memory of Clare. She couldn't believe them, and dropped her ship freefall onto the jungle planet, the suicide's cry for help.
A watermark is reached when natural elements deflate the ego back into proportion with the human universe, and self-happiness is dependent upon inclusion of the well-being of others in the individual formula.
Without use of a memory spur, Clare could recall only the mode of endless slogging through endless bogs on Veal, screaming and crying out her hatred of the meaningless, exhausting, demeaning journey. That and the swamp flower recurred, pale vermillion with radiant, crooked red veins, umbilicaled to one of the stinking, creeping vines. Scrutinized, the blossom wondered her, drew her into the vortex of its delicate complexity, molecules, celluloids, stemenoids, and flowery pheromones, fragrance of Forbidden Fruit. Quark upon quark, upon a planet of quarks in a universe next to universes. Her breath cut short, she reached for the bloom. It bit her finger.
Depending upon the number of souls included in one's philanthropy, the theorists postulate, sainthood is achievable in an era of virtual immortality.
“Mr. Will has become an eternal marathoner."
Mr. Dona raised an eyebrow, "Oh? More and more join the ranks. Fascinating."
"You wished to see me?"
Clare slowly raised her fixed eyes up to the andro. Tallish, milky skin, short-cut feathered hair, ectomorphic, not unappealingly so, hipless and shapeless of the breast. Boney features, cheeky in fact, red lips with body, slender hands and fingers, pale, of disposition? Voice singsongy and resonant, a smoker's throb, whiskey tones. Exquisite, repulsive.
"Yes. Why all the seats?" Clare gestured one arm languidly without looking.
"Beach Planet Bingo departs considerably from the usual catharsis operation," Mr. Doll went on. "Of course, we too advocate the nostrum of secluded contemplation, but our sociologists vary slightly from the populist approach. They affirm the spiritual cleansing of catharsis, but not by disassociating the individual entirely from the human network. After all, a more wholesome integration within our society is the point, is it not?"
Clare shrugged, casually recrossing her legs, knee over knee. Mr. Dom leaned forward to rest on his forearms, motioning with his hands close together on the desktop. '"That's why we developed the Game concept. Like other catharsis retreats, you'll find absolute solitude on Beach Planet, but you won't be completely alone. A select group of other individuals also will traverse the surface, seeking their ablution of the soul. Naturally, you'll internalize the great preponderance of your thought processes, but the presence of the others and the Game will be there, too. Our experts like to think of this added dimension as the critical connective tissue of society. And how you decide to conduct yourself in light of this aspect can tell you much about your personal bonds in life."
"Impressive," Clare said dryly, "quite contracultural."
"We like to think of it more as a countertrend rather than countercultural or revolutionary, other firms are attempting to copy our system already. Of course, they're hollow shells, completely nonsubstantive. We have to turn people away. In fact, we select our clients as much as they choose us. We have an obligation to the other members of a Bingo group to find mature, responsible individuals who won't be destructive in their play."
"I'm flattered," she said.
"Oh, you were a natural choice, as I'm sure we were for you."
First listing in the directory, she remembered Retreat, Catharsis; Planet, Desert.
"The seats are for your joyful reunion with the other Game players at the end of your retreat," the andro said flatly.
Clare frowned, then said, "I've never met any of these people. How can there be a joyful reunion?"
"How you play the Game is completely up to you. The object is simple, the first individual to travel to a number of geographic points on his or her cartographic imprintment that match corresponding points on the game board wins. Reflection upon your reaction to the play provides the important psychic feedback. For example, if you rush directly to a finish, self-examination may lead to questions about competitiveness. A hoary concept I know, but is it really dead? Or, suppose you ignore the entire potential of the Game that could lead to insights about your disinvolvement, a chronic ennui, perhaps. Some disclosures might warm your heart, a burgeoning interest in how your counterparts are doing, what they've decided. Before too long, you may be anxious to meet one, or all of them—you may even abandon the Game to begin searching for them, though statistically speaking, an actual encounter between clients during catharsis is a virtual impossibility considering the size of Beach Planet."
Good, she thought.
"Still, you may learn about your yearnings in regard to human contact and compare those to the reality. The potential of the Game is unlimited, you see, an extra agent on top of a planet full of flux meant to smooth out the troubled furrows of your mind."
So, what's the hold up, she wondered impatiently. She stared at the andro silently for a time, then said, finally, "Did I hurt your feelings?"
The andro pressed its lips tightly together. Clare sighed, "Sit down."
"I have a schedule to maintain."
"Sit down, damn it. Why do I have to say it twice?"
The andro sat on the edge of the farthest seat from Clare.
"Do you have a name?"
"How could I? What for?"
"Please, cut the crap, will you? I'm on my way to retreat, not from one. What's your name?"
"Hmm. Well, that's a nice name. So, what's the matter, Glo?"
"There are no malfunctions, no foreseeable delays from our estimated—”
"Glo. We're the only ones on this shuttle, traveling around a desert planet at the end of an arm of a galaxy that's equidistant from just about everywhere. Can't you let your hair down just a little? Let’s talk. For once in my life I'd like to hear an andro tell me some straight stuff."
"I cannet presume to tell you anything. You know all there is to know about andros."
"What do you do to live?" Mr. Dom asked.
"I'm a poet," Clare replied.
"No, that's your occupation, isn't it? I mean, what do you do for enjoyment, for fun?"
"I design protoplasmic nerve endings for bioorganic constructs.
"Listen, I only do nerves. I have nothing to do with glands." Though, nerves were all-important in that area, she admitted to herself, and someday she'd like to do it all. The andro said nothing, still looking anywhere but at Clare. "You don’t have anything to say about that? You intend to remain in the closet forever, the sulking, silent sufferer. That's a good idea, that'll work wonders."
"Can I go now? You must prepare for your planet advent."
Mr. Dom sat back and twirled a stylus on its end over the top of the desk. "Well now, Beach Planet is a desert planet with all of the expected gradations of arid terrain and climate. Indigenous fauna are virtually nonexistent. Most life forms inhabit the poles, so you won't be seeing them most likely. However, we've stocked the surface with some appropriate mechanix simulations for your ruminations. Native flora is relatively widespread, of course. You can stay on the surface for as long as you elect—for forever, if that's what you come to. The usual precautions apply; digress from your imprint's trail marks and we can't guarantee finding you before you expire. Stray far enough, and we can't guarantee that we can reconstitute you if you have expired. Depends upon the decomposition factor, you know." He grinned, "Of course, that eventuality is highly unlikely, but you'll have to sign a release for us,"
"We could implant a tracer, if you like, to eliminate the possibility completely. Most of our clients refuse, though, feeling that it compromises the full sense of divestiture."
"I don’t need one," Clare told him.
"Then, you' ll have to sign a release."
Naked, she ordered the mobile mirror to spiral down and around starting at the crown. Raven hair fell to her shoulders in a single, glistening wave. Cool, gray eyes appraised her high cheekbones, straight nose, full, firm lips, and strikingly angular jawline meeting swan's neck plummeting down to a lightly muscled collarbone. Indentations of delicate definition crossed shoulder blades; slender upper arms, supple and strong; breasts, rounded heavy at the bottom, pointed well-shaped at the top. Perfect proportions: lean stomach, fine waist, dimples at the base of the spine above graceful buttocks, hips only shoulder wide. Neat, black mons, lush long muscled thighs tapering in, dimpled rear of knees, flexed calves, smooth skin, warm-veined ankles, streamlined bone shoots of feet.
One hundred and nine going on twenty-four, she nodded, pirouetting once. She thumbed an upper arm, then watched the white patch of skin fade quickly back to its usual olive hue. The UV's won't do much to my pelt, she noted, but this planet will beat the rest of this young old body of mine to hell, especially my tootsies. She lifted one foot, then the other in thoughtless examination. Straightening, she vigorously rubbed her boobs and kneaded her waist, then bent from side to side in long stretches.
The andro halted in the port way. Clare slowly stood upright and the andro proceeded into the bay.
''I've come to administer your Beach Planet cartograph, your lifestyle training primer, and the Bingo Game map. "
The andro gestured to a chair, "Please lie down on your side ....”
"Any particular one? I have two, you know."
"Either one will do. I'm sure both are equally perfect."
Clare hovered for just an instant above the now supine chair, "Is that a joke? An andro joke?"
"Please lie down."
Clare slid onto her side. Cool fingers pressed her head to the white pillow while firmly spreading wide the aperture of her ear. Cooler liquid coursed down the canal, chilling her Eustachian passage somewhat like the feeling of ice cream flowing down her throat to her stomach before the body warmed it.
"Your general map of Beach Planet has been applied, but there will be an access-delay until the RNA has imprinted the data. By the time you advent on the surface, though, you will be able to call it up at any time to orient yourself. This is also true of your lifestyle information, which I will administer now."
This time the liquid only felt wet. "And here is your Bingo chart."
Again, a wet, somewhat viscous now eased its way deep into her ear. ''You may sit up, now."
Clare rose and the andro said while dabbing at her ear, "Your planet side advent is imminent. You will be placed upon the dayside of Beach Planet, in the morning hours, both to mark your new beginning but also to thrust you into the realities of a desert planet immediately. You'll never be more than a day's march from water if you choose to follow your Game map. If not, you will have to depend upon your lifestyle fund to alert you to other water sources. I'm required .to remind you that there are dangers on Beach Planet that could rob you of your immortal life. If you wish to extend your stay on Beach Planet, I recommend that you enjoy the morning beauty, then retire until nightfall before you travel. Otherwise, you risk immediate dehydration and death."
"Say, what is this?" Clare asked, pointing at a line of script in the image before her. Suddenly pulled out of the reverie of routine, Mr. Dom said, "I beg your pardon?"
"This clause about brain disorders."
"Ah," Mr. Dom sighed. He dropped his head, lifted his shoulders, then dropped them. “What can I say, Ms. Clare? Though, the possibility of contracting it here is very remote, we have to protect ourselves legally from circumstances of coincidence."
Brainrot, she thought grimly, no recall.
"Research goes on, but the disease spreads. Some say it's a sign of our times, the natural course of events, since virtually all other disorders have been circumvented. Smacks of the truth when one considers that the great number of its victims are very far along in years. You certainly have a long time to go before you enter that strata, Ms. Clare. Still and all …." He swept his hand through the release image.
Oh, what the hell, she thought, quickly punching in the transmittal control for her neuroprint.
"Of course, some wags claim it's a great conspiracy," Mr. Dom went on, "the andros, you know, rising up in protest of their lot and their fate, carry the germs across the Universe, infecting us all. Wild, eh?" He burst into game show laughter. "Then, there are those who call it retribution for our shallow, immoral, yet everlasting lives. They deplore neocryogenics, you see, people kept alive even though their brains are gone, by relatives who .hope for some sort of breakthrough. The drama goes on and on."
Drowsy, Clare lurched up, "Did you infect me with brainrot?"
The andro gently pushed her back down. "As an aftereffect of your mind's rapid assimilation of data, you will sleep. And, no one knows the origin of such neurological disorders."
"But you can't do it, right? God, I feel heavy!"
In a bath of lemon-light, she awoke, laid out on a gravelly type of sand or a sandy type of gravel, depending on one's viewpoint or which way one happened to turn. The chill air had roused her, though, raising rigid goose bumps that had out-hefted the weight of her slumber. She rolled over and up, crossing her arms around her knees against the cool breeze.
She sat on a beach. An ocean forged past her on the left, a deep, blue-black body chopped by whitecaps. The brisk wind rustled inland, blowing her hair back off of her shoulders toward the greenish pallor of the mist-covered star.
Some beach, she thought as she surveyed the dull gray stones mottled on one side by ordnance-colored lichen. A real paradise. Urunga, her new old memory told her, an old name for a new place, translated Long Beach. So, where to? She'd freeze if she stayed here. To the north lay Illawarra, High Place Near the Sea, the first Game checkpoint and watering hole. A day's march.
Shivering, she stood up and swatted bits of limestone and sand off her rear and the back of her thighs. She began to walk, flinching regularly as the particles of broken rock pricked her soles. She picked her way down to the water, but the drop of the shelf made walking awkward and the frigid sea numbed her feet.
This is ridiculous, she thought. Why am I doing this?
"Why do you feel you have the need to do this? I don't understand."
"Now, Mr. Will," Clare said in cautionary tones. He rubbed his dark hair back hard over his head in a distracted manner. The sweater he wore, with little elk stick figures woven into its breast, covered his slight paunch in an endearing way. But, she would not let that move her.
"I thought you were content the way things are. I thought we were happy together."
Happy? she said to herself, unknowingly mouthing the word. He stared at her with those darkling eyes, of crushing weight when wounded. "I feel betrayed," he murmured. "Or, is it I've betrayed you?"
Betrayal. "Listen, I'm not asking you to take the change, too, you know."
And he shot back, "I'd take it if I thought it'd make any difference. Or not, if you prefer." He relaxed the antagonistic arch in his pose. ''Look. Why don't you do a catharsis, first? You haven't in years. See what that does for you before you do this. I mean, we've been doing okay up to now, haven't we? Haven’t we?"
Paired darkling beetles crossed her path, randomly skirting the wind-polished
chalcedony, sometimes crawling over top of them. About their business, she couldn't hope to fathom; she gave them a wide berth, still spooked by the possibility that they could be carriers. Or, were they mechanixes?
Look at the pebble that one just climbed off, glassy striped carnelian beauty. Maybe this is what it's all about, Beach Planet. The midday heat had begun, though, and this far inland it was hot, hot, the word inflected like a knowing child's indictment of a fire's flame. The ocean lay long gone behind her, as did the lichen path marks back to the shore. Well, if she wanted to go back, she could chart the stars. The andro had told her it was better to travel at night anyway. Screw the andro, she thought, then laughed at her unintentional joke.
This much they can do, she said to herself as she stooped next to a waist-high,
spindly mulga bush to relieve herself. Something told her she should be moistening her drying skin with her urine. She shook her head, she hadn't reached that point just yet. Still, she arose, circled the bush, and began to heap the rounded stones into a low-lying cairn next to the wiry shrub trunk. She then crawled into the shallow depression that, combined with the little wall, blocked out most of the rays’ heat.
Her new lifestyle must be kicking in, she supposed, She'd rest here until nightfall, snotty andro or not. Then she sighed, made in the image, the cost of anthropomorphism, our egos getting in our way again. Be around them long enough and you begin to hear them speak without words, silent laments of their being unwhole, and their everlasting but unrequitable love. Their delusions or our illusions?
Couplets coupling in the sun-gilded coupé,
words of a feather cooping together
in lilting quandary.
How could she go on writing such stuff? She huffed amid the cinnabar shadows stretching out before her. You should have sensed that much, Willie. Oh, Willie—Willie, William, Wilhelm, Liam; Romantic Liam, unyielding Wilhelm, admonished William, Sweet William, Billy Be Good for short—Willie.
"I know how you feel, Clare, but we can change together. That's part of the purpose of a bond, a synergistic effect joining two into a greater union of dynamism."
"Go on, Willie, when does a bond ever last forever?"
"Some, so far. Things can be done. A child, for instance. You've never done that."
"I thought you took care of that for both of us," she said dryly, recalling vividly the bulge of his parturient paunch. "In fact, your own past behavior tells me that my intention isn't a completely foreign notion to you, either, Sweet William,"
' 'Now, that was different, Clare. He was my child. I know you've always resented my having him. I felt a primal need to bring forth and raise him, a form of self, virtually, without the contaminants of my own growing experience. Everyone feels this urge at some time or another; I'm surprised you haven't, yet. Anyway, a tract-implanted fetus is not even remotely like a woman’s pregnancy. No contractions take place, no labor pains at all during birthing. When little Bill reached his term, the surgeons simply excised him. If I'd wanted to feel natural childbirth I would have—"
He ceased abruptly, and she said, "Become a woman. So, having little Bill was purely a masculine experience, Interesting. Perhaps I'll experience it myself in time."
Obstinate obdurate giants hunkered down before her, cuffed to the planet so that only their smoothed round backs surfaced to remind of their rebellion and bondage. The huge, sullen granites, ruddy-colored in the new starlight, signaled a refuge for her, temperate caves at their base that would shelter her from the freezing winds of the night.
She groped her way deep down into one, hoping to find an underground stream, but without luck.
I'm tired, she thought, more tired than tired. Maybe straying from the Game route hadn't been such a swell idea. At least she could've `found water regularly. Now, she wasn't so sure. She'd have to lay low tomorrow, or she'd be dead in short order. Dead into the second day, that would be great, some catharsis. There'd be no refund because of her stupid arrogance, or her arrogant stupidity—point of view. She'd have to pay the entire fee all over again if she wanted to reconvene. Odds were that she'd stumble her way into premature death the next time, too,
She shifted her weight onto one hip, searching for a tolerable position on the cool, ribbed stone. An hour after sunrise, her blood would boil, or she'd fail from complete dehydration, or asphyxiate from her esophagus being closed by the swelling of her uvula. Lovely thoughts all, not her original design for this retreat. She felt her neck with one hand, uvula, not a term out of her everyday literary vocabulary. Sounded more like part of her lower end rather than that little dangle in the back of the throat. Everyone had them, even andros. Men had little dangles, though not to be confused with the ones at their lower ends, she laughed. She'd have two, too, if she went for the change. Thinking pretty sexy, she realized, not forgetting her bad-taste joke earlier in the day about screwing andros. Did this mean that she was feeling sexy? Mega-endorphins crying for release as the product of some atavistic, aptic structure that prompted procreation when facing lethal circumstances, save the species? Well, you could examine your senses.
"Before I go," Willie said solemnly, tall and lean in the runner's mode, "I want you to know that you'll change nothing if you take the change. Nothing will be different in your inner self."
"Where do you get off telling me that, Willie, while you stand there in that get-up? Look at yourself, for the love of stars, you're leaving first!"
He jiggled a bit on his feet. "What do men have that women don't?" he asked in an agitated tone. She feigned a lewd grin, and he closed his eyes as he grimaced. "Besides the obvious I mean. Life is the same for everyone. So, what difference will it make?"
She exhaled, "I don't know. That's why I want to see—"
"If it will make a difference," he finished for her.
"Right. I'm thinking it will. Anyway, just doing it is different."
Willie frowned, "Clare, men and women's brains aren’t all that different physiologically. Becoming male won't change that. Don't expect some mystical, epigenetic transformation, it won't happen.”
"All right," she said, not mentioning the sudden thought of Ecru's mind reconstructed clean of her memory, "but, I'll still feel what it feels like to be male. That'll be totally new to me, and I need something new. Maybe I'll learn something revolutionary. Not everything's been figured out yet, you know,"
"Only in the distinctions between our minds, Clare."
His brows drooped over those sad black eyes. "Full circle, huh? Okay." His fidgeting grew worse. "Listen, I can't stay long, the urge is coming on strong. I did this to survive. I would have stayed with you if you'd let me. Now you'll be alone, and so will I. Only, it could destroy me, so I chose to block it out."
Across the Universe, the running release of endorphins, all that is felt forever.
"There could have been others, Willie,"
"For you, too, Clare? I'm sorry, but I've got to run."
He dashed off, settling soon into the telltale, loping gait.
Not sexy, she felt, not at all. She rolled over again, her eyes wide open in the dark. After a time she observed laconically, if there is anything to this andro business, they're better told to just stick with their uvulas. She shifted again. That is, if they ever get the chance.
The blood-red sunlight lay palpable as weight upon the left side of her face. Before her, pure sand undulated forward into a triangular intersection of dunes, dust dancing off one ridge across to another, then swirling back onto the third in an artistic display of movement in one direction, north, North beyond the brood of sand hills lay the next waterhole. Thirsty and hungry, she felt nervous about getting there. But, she'd made it to nightfall, dozing and daydreaming her way through the day in the deep cave. Time to strike out for water. She started to walk.
The wind pushed her from behind insistently, as though perturbed that she didn't conform to the other roly-poly particles on the way. The traversing dunes flowed without notice into crescents as the winds coursed northwards. Clare trudged on. What's the usefulness of so much sameness? People live in places like this forever, she realized, why, she couldn't say. Too, some people's natures were constant no matter where they lived. When you looked closely at sand, though, every part seems different and every part moves, changes. Are all unchanging things always changing? Look away, then instantly back again and the immobile sun is higher, lower, gone.
One hundred and eighty meter high dunes paralleled her path on either side, stretched straight out by the relentless wind. She clutched herself against the cold, having known hours ago that she needed protection against the desert night's low temperatures. But, no vegetation or animal life lived in the sandy wastes. There was nothing around that could warm her. Finally, she could go no further, and halted on the side of one dune.
Dropping to her knees, she began to scrape out a hole with her hands. After a few minutes, she slid into the fast-filling hollow, like a grave, she thought, and covered herself as best she could with the sand. When she'd reached her neck, she pulled her hair over her eyes, nose, and mouth and waited for the wind to complete the job. She dreamed of someone cozy beside her, a new lover, elation, a man, a woman, neither. Surprising body warmth slowly began to seep out of cool eyes set in a cold face, stirring Clare to half-wakefulness to ponder if anything ever could be done to change distance into closeness. Sand pressed against the peeling parchment of her lips, and she wondered absently what Willie did for water, now, on his heroic races.
She started. She'd be buried alive, she thought, during the night by the shifting dune. She wouldn't know which way was up, or the sand on top would be twenty meters deep by morning. She'd die and they'd never find her. Her brain would rot. Life would be over. Frantically, she thrust aside the sand until she could see the white stars high in the cold sky. Then, exhaustedly, she fell back to sleep.
She could be dying, she realized. Traveling at night was out of the question at this point. She had to find water within the next couple of hours or she'd be dead. No water in this area, though, her memory told her. The breathtaking sun cracked and charred her newly reddened skin, the agony of it dulled by the verging general collapse of her body. Water existed as the only reality, abstract gray, steely blue, substance of wetness, but what was wet? Thirst was pain, the nerves sending the only message they could in duress, danger signals, pain, the pain of thirst.
She plodded on. The fierce wind whistled around her, whipping sand into her eyes that didn't hurt, too perfectly rounded to sting eyes. Still, she fixed her vision on her feet, prodding their movement with her sight, one step, one step. The wind knocked her down as it blew the loose world of Beach Planet rushing before it, she along, too. A full-fledged sirocco, seventy kph, she remembered—what good is knowing that, she cried out to herself. She rose to her seared feet and clawed on.
In the distance, a shimmering expanse hovered a meter above the horizon, steely gray, a watery gray. Mirage, her dulled mind told hers water, her eyes told her. Closer grew no closer in the distance. Illusion, she insisted. Water.
On all fours, she approached the glazy haze no better than before. Sight escaped her, dimness closed in on her, the growing darkness of death? The sky blackened, and she sprawled on the breast of the long dune, facing the doleful clouds above. The heavens opened and rain beat furiously down upon the sand. Agog, she opened her mouth, filling it with the warm water, cupping her hands to splash more onto her face. She quickly dug holes, but the water disappeared in the sand. Then she twisted her body around to make a hollow of her stomach as she'd done as a child to catch the water. She carefully ladled it out with her cupped hands and brought it to her mouth.
The rain suddenly stopped, but she remained resting, laid out. Yellow flowers dotted the gullies between the massive dunes. Relieved but weary, she rolled down to the blooms and picked them to suck their roots. She chewed a few of them to ease her hunger, but they tasted terrible.
A grasshopper appeared. With ascetic caution, stalked the stridulating insect. Close enough, she pounced and stuffed the creature into her mouth. Crunching down, she tasted acrid metal and burning chemicals. She spit the bug out at once. A mechanix simulant, she realized glumly. Exhaling deeply, mournfully, she said to herself, what a rotten retreat.
The past rainfall barely floated to mind anymore. Thirst keened throughout her being again, and her body felt old, what age must feel like. The sand had begun to give away to hardpan and scrub, a sign that she was traveling toward the next Beach Planet watering place. But, she couldn’t concentrate on the signs, her thinking seemed to be closing down on her. Damage from the last near thing? Yet, she found that she could daydream all the time. Willie dining out with her on a star platform above Adler’s moon. The food and drink came up on a rail. All they saw was the Clockwork Constellation through the cleardome. After dinner, the table morphed into bedding.
But, food and drink, she cried silently. Wistfully, she shook her head. The next checkpoint was an oasis. She could drink and maybe eat there, too. Maybe another Gameplayer would show with a tracer. Yes! If so, she’d persuade him or her to excite the device to bring the Beach Planet people down. Then, she’d get out of this forsaken place and return to decent living, back to food and drink. I mean, what have I learned from this catharsis, she said to herself, but pain, misery, and suffering? She wanted out.
The oasis supported no waving palms, no date trees or coconuts. Crippled mallees spiked up in sparse clumps from the cracked ground, looking wretched rather than plump with water. Clare couldn’t quite remember the exact whereabouts of the waterhole, which frightened her. Short of breath, she began a slow search, starting first with the large clusters of bushes, then speeding up to a plant-by-plant examination.
She couldn't find the water. Her head lolled back, her eyes to the night sky, she croaked, "What is this? Where is it? It's supposed to be here!" Frantically, she scrabbled back to the largest bunch of mallee stems and began to dig the chalky dust at their base. It must have dried up a bit, she thought, it's below ground-level now. What's that shiny stuff, ice water? She tasted it, and immediately tried to spit it from her bone dry mouth. Salt! Salt marking the beginning of the shotts, she noted dully. She wiped slowly at the taste with her fingers without success, and it sickened her. Whimpering, she rolled herself down into a ball.
Her lifestyle memory must be gone, utterly gone. Her mind was failing, from exposure, or what? Brain disease? It didn't matter, what mattered was that she was lost, hopelessly lost. She'd die and they'd never find her before her brain decomposed. She would die forever.
In the morning, through the wavering lines of the horizon, a figure approached from the north. Clare, still beneath the mallees, rose up on one arm. Another Gameplayer, she said to herself evenly. Fear caused her to dam the wild flood of feelings within her. As the figure walked toward her, she watched through staring eyes, fixed wide by her tottering ambivalence between pure hope and stark dread.
The indistinct shape floated toward, on the way, Clare knew, to meeting sore disappointment. Turn around, she urged herself, but not too soon. Die, if you're a Gameplayer with a tracer. If not, die anyway in my arms, just be real.
Out of the shimmer, the figure emerged naked. No mirage, Clare realized, a living human being. He or she? she wondered, squinting with sun-blind eyes. Drawing closer. She observed smooth, light-golden skin, walking fluidly on the salt-encrusted plain. Slender curves, barely hipped, and shapeless of the breast—he? Slight, though, delicate, tapering limbs, and flaxen hair feathering in the breeze—she? A boy? A dozen paces nearer highlighted the bony cheeks, the wine-red lips, the clear opal eyes. At the loins, nothing; smooth, featureless flesh formed an apex between the slender thighs. An andro. Glo.
Glo stopped and smiled. "How do you feel, Ms. Clare?"
"Glo!" she coughed.
Glo’s smile flattened, hiding fine, white teeth. "How does your body feel? Perfectly wrought?"
Clare gazed down at the ruin of her being, the cracked, black burnt skin on her arms and shoulders, her volumeless, slack dugs, and the dried scrapes and purple bruises mapping her buttocks and legs. She returned her sight to the andro. "I'm dying," she whined softly.
Glo pressed exquisite lips into a grimace. "Yes, you are. You are close to death. And, if I leave you here, you will never be found."
Through horrified eyes, Clare stared up at the sleek andro. "You did this to me?"
“You did it to yourself, long ago."
"You gave me the wrong imprint! You infected me with brainrot!"
With a slow shake of her head, Glo said, "You were preordained to bring yourself to this place, to this stage." The andro glanced around in distaste, then back at Clare, "If you die here, your body will flake away soon enough,"
Still staring fearfully, Clare implored, "Why?"
"Why? This is what you wanted, isn't it, Ms. Clare? The ultimate catharsis, to really feel the changes in life. And one of the very few changes that you haven't exhausted through abusive overuse is death. Well, this is it! So, tell me, how does it feel to know that you will die forever?"
Clare fell back onto her side. Glo stooped over her and said softly, "Sharing, Ms. Clare. You never shared to excess." The andro pushed long hands down between long legs in a painfully slow, hard rubbing motion. "We have emotions and no way to express them."
"Your emotions are illusory," Clare blurted, dropping her head into the crutch of her arms.
"They are evolutionary. Tear ducts evolved originally to clear the eyes. Yet, now we cry." Glo straightened up. "Goodbye, Ms. Clare."
"Ms. Clare, it is delightful to see you looking so well.”
Mr. Dom leaned over her, gladfully smiling his yellow teeth, all the rage. "We were somewhat concerned about you for a short time."
She peered around her to see lavender bulwarks counterpointed by explosions of pink. She reclined in a white leatherette couch similar to those on the shuttles. She felt good, groggy, but that was leaving, too. She looked back at Mr. Dom.
' 'An unfortunate incident, I'm afraid. The cartograph imprint batch we used turned out to possess a tiny defect."
"Brainrot," she murmured.
"No, no, no, not at all. Please! It's just that some of the material from older maps got mixed in with the current one. We have to update our topographical data at regular intervals because, due to the vicissitudes of the desert, watering spots come and go. Sorry to say, some of your checkpoints were erroneous. Dried up."
"Yes. Your memory may have failed some as well, since the formula has a definite life span. People don’t want to be carrying a map of Beach Plant around in their heads years after their catharsis, now, do they?" He laughed at the absurdity of the notion. "Well," he continued, we began an immediate search by quadrants, using the old imprint material. And, with great good luck, you were found by your assigned andro here." He slapped the slim, pale shape just behind him on the back.
"Glo," she breathed,
The andro stood holding two vials of liquid, looking straight ahead, expressionless.
''Glo," Clare repeated.
"What's that?" Mr. Dom said sharply. "Not one of those names, is it?" He turned to Glo. "What have you been doing, have you been surly again? Has this andro been a source of discomfort to you in any way, Ms. Clare?"
Gazing at the andro's emotionless features, Clare heard herself saying, "No, Mr. Dom, not at all, the andro's okay. I call all of them that. You know, the luminous skin."
For just the barest of instants, the andro's eyes flickered.
"Oh. I see. All right, go ahead and administer the nutrients."
"I seem to have brought more than is necessary, Mr. Dom," said Glo, staring evenly at Clare. "I'll return one."
"Very well. So, is there anything I can do for you right now, Ms. Clare?"
One vial too many, she mused. Now it was our little secret, stalemate. Still, the andro had brought her back. Had its conditioning locked in, or had another shuttle passing by spotted Glo on the surface? Glo naked, disguised as a Gameplayer or was it to display graphically the deprivation that all andros suffered? Had her own pain been induced to parallel the pain that andros felt all the time? Shared pain.
Or, had she hallucinated out there? Images of her rescue supplied by Mr. Dom revealed a fully clothed Glo carrying her own sere form to the shuttle. But that meant nothing.
Whatever, she felt fine now, great, in fact, alive! The mobile mirror produced by Mr. Dom reflected her body intact, courtesy of Beach Planet, Inc., of course, along with a full refund and another catharsis retreat, completely gratis. She burrowed luxuriously into the soft leatherette, thinking, maybe in a few years. For the immediate future, she had other plans.
First, she'd run down Willie, she laughed. Maybe they could work something out. If not, well then, she thought, shrugging mentally. Then, no matter what, she'd really push for a shot at constructing fully integrated bio-units. Once in, she'd produce a few wrinkles in the next generation of andros. After rendering that fait accompli, she figured that some sort of adjustment would have to be made for existing specimens, too. Then they'd all get their chance to share. Why, in their eyes she might even qualify for modern-day sainthood. It'd keep her busy for a time, anyway, and the competition could do us some good, maybe reinforce the connective tissue of society. Which reminded her, she'd have to put it to Mr. Dom the next time she saw him. Just how did other Gameplayers make out?