I wrote HOPE when we had first moved to Japan and had to live off-base until some housing opened in Yokota AFB. I did not mind living off-base despite tripping over every single thing we did not know yet and still don't know, but the house itself bothered me greatly. I woke up every morning and went to sleep every night thinking, "This house is going to burn down." I had a three-year-old and a six-month-old and a non-electric typewriter. It took me at least a half an hour to type each page, and there would still be typos.
I had received yet another rejection from a science fiction magazine for a short story and as I looked out onto the fascinating Japanese neighborhood, I thought, "I am wasting my time." I decided to write one more story and send it out to the highest market, and when it came back, I would quit. But I had to give it a fair trial so I gathered my sf magazines and studied the stories. In most of the stories, almost everybody died. Okay, so I would write a story where everybody dies.
I sent off the story and we moved on base into a wonderful apartment overlooking farms and factories where my little girl spent the next four years plugging the toilet a few times a month. A week after we moved on base, we decided to go visit the park next to the house we had lived in, and drove by the ashes of our former home. I got a letter from Damon Knight accepting my story for the Orbit series.
Aunt Kiloma was brushing my hair with a wooden comb. I was still numb and barely noticed the patches of hair she pulled out.
"But why did she die, Auntie? She was getting better."
Kiloma stopped pulling at my hair. When she spoke there was a catch in her voice. "I don't know, honey. I guess she gave up. I guess it's hard to keep fighting when you don't believe you'll be rescued anymore." Then she attacked my hair savagely. "But we will be rescued. God will see to it Earth gets our message!"
That was forty-five years after the crash. Forty-five years and sixteen days, the day my mother died of some virus that further yellowed her skin, eight days after my thirteenth birthday. My father had died forty-three years and three hundred eight-nine days after the crash, when a dread-for-all caught him as he foraged. I grew up with death (as a way of life, so to speak). Of course, most of the people died in the first five years. They died of night-bites, diseases, food poisoning, and missteps around ground-joints and anemone-thorns. After my mother died, there were thirty-one of us left on this yellow, dusty world.
Gregory stepped inside the doorway. "Are you ready? Would you like me to read the Scriptures for you?"
I didn't look at him as I answered. "You're not a believer. You never were and you never will be. I will read them."
"I thought I could help you out, Hope." Gregory's scarred face furrowed with concern. He was only two years older than I, an old and beaten fifteen, but he took charge of most things, like funerals.
"I'm sorry. I... Let's go."
We went outside and walked past the circle of huts to the cemetery. Aunt Kiloma held my shoulders and said, "Just remember, honey, it won't be like this forever. It won't be like this forever."
A few months later a night-grunt suddenly squealed in terror. I lifted the door flap and stared into the night even though nothing could be seen by the murky light of the planet's rings.
"I think we caught one, Auntie."
"Shh. I know, honey. Close the door before a night-bite gets you."
Knowing that we would eat well tomorrow made it hard to go back to sleep. I lay on one side, then the other. After turning, I don't know, maybe ten or twenty times, I gave up, got up, and trimmed a candle. Fumbling about in the wavering light I got a stick began to diagram on the sandy floor an antique analog mulltiplexor. It was simple and I enjoyed the symmetry.
Kiloma rolled over like a sack of hard-get grain. "What are you doing, child?"
A buzz-whine swooped and smacked into the leather door flap.
"Night-bite!" I screamed. We both hit the candle at the same time. It fell to the ground and winked out. We hugged each other as the night-bite scrabbled against the door-jamb. It scratched down to the ground where it snuffled and dug against the joint of packed dirt and doorsill. I began to shake. Auntie pulled my head down into her bosom and covered my ears. But I could still hear the creature probe and scratch at every seam in the door. At last it grew discouraged and flapped away. I sobbed and panted and hiccuped.
Auntie stroked my hair. There was a terrible smell on her swollen hands. “Child, I wish you weren’t always so afraid.” she sighed. “Now what does it say in the Bible?”
I choked out, “Jesus is always with me, even to the end of the world.”
“Calm down. It also says, ‘What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee’. You say it.”
“’What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.’”
“I want you to lie down and say it to yourself fifty times.”
I did, and must have gone to sleep, for the cold dawn found Aunt Kiloma nudging me. I flashed awake.
“Oh! Let’s see if we still have the grunt!”
“Don’t worry, child. I know it’s there. Come and see what I have.”
I rolled out of my mat and followed Auntie to her corner. She lifted her pillow. I stared at what lay under it. It was a chunk of rottenwood with a hole carved in it. A crude carving of a night-grunt was jammed into the hole. When I pulled it out, one of the crumbly rottenwood legs fell off. The rotten-egg odor of it hit my nostrils.
“I’m sorry I ruined your sculpture.”
“It’s not sculpture, honey. It’s prayer.” She pulled her hair back from her puffy cheeks and temples as she sat back to smile at me.”
“It’s true. We covered that pit over a week ago and haven’t caught a blessed thing. Yesterday I decided to do something about it. So I carved what I wanted, put it under my pillow and prayed about it all night. And it worked!” She hugged her knees and laughed.
“But that’s idolatry.”
Her face changed. “No, it isn’t, honey. It’s to help me concentrate on what I want.”
“Look, honey, I know you can’t help it, not knowing the deeper things of the spirit. If it works, then its right, isn’t it?”
Now I was mad. I could hear the other people shouting excitedly as they raced toward the game pit. I didn’t want to join them until I had calmed down. After washing, I climbed a many-trunk tree and remembered the dusk when my mother had looked at me and burst into tears. She wouldn’t tell me why she was crying, and after going to bed I crept back in the dark to listen to her sobbing to my father.
“Jim, I don’t think I can stand it anymore.”
“All things work together for the good of—“
“I know it! But some days I can’t handle knowing Hope could have been a genius if it weren’t for her iodine deficiency. If she has children, they’ll be cretins!”
“Shh, shh, shh.”
“I’m tired of being dirty. I’m tired of being sick. I’m tired of being hungry. We live like savages!”
“But what do we have to look forward to? We’ll never be rescued after this long. We’ll have idiots for grandchildren!”
“We know that the Lord’s hand is upon us. I can’t stand to see you cry.”
“I know it, but there’s nothing left to do.”
My mother cried for a long time. I didn’t know what cretins were, but I knew what idiots were; and suddenly I understood why I was shorter and uglier than the pictures of my cousins on Earth, and why I sometimes couldn’t understand the lessons my parents gave me in the dark night hours. I had hair the color of mud instead of shining red like my parents. My blue eyes were dull and weak. We were all dull and weak from lack of iodine, lack of medicine, lack of food on this planet we called Sulfur as a synonym of Hell.
The next morning we had family devotions as usual. My parents never mentioned their conversation. I never did either. I thought about it, though, every time my aunt said I couldn’t help it if I didn’t understand. But there was something wrong with her rottenwood carving. If I though about it long enough I would figure it out; but I was calm now and wanted to watch the excitement too.
When I arrived at the pit, Gregory was arranging the archers. Suzannie rushed up to me and grabbed my arm and danced. “Think of it, Hope! Steaks and cutlets and fat!” She whirled away to gape at the grunt pawing at the splintered logs. Aunt Kiloma hobbled up and joined her.
“Look at that!” shouted Gregory, and pointed. “That log there didn’t break. The grunt could have climbed that and gotten out if its leg weren’t broken. Next time, we’ll build the pit better.” Most of the people looked and nodded.
My aunt smiled at me and mouthed the words. “Its leg is broken.” I thought of the rottenwood carving and felt sick.
After the grunt was killed, Gregory strode over to me and slapped me on the back “Listmaker! What day is it?”
“Forty-five years, one hundred forty days since the crash.”
He slapped me again. “Good girl! Mark our success on your calendar tree.”
He watched the people hack at the carcass for a moment. A buzzfly settled on his cheek but he waved it off. “Why did it take us so long to build a good game pit?”
I don’t know why he asked the question. Our parents had been able to salvage so little from the crash; a family Bible, a few clothes, grain seeds that died of fungus the first year, shards of plasiglass, jagged bits of metal we used for knives and spear-tips. It’s hard to dig a deep pit out of clay and rock when you’re sick, when all the daylight hours must be spent in foraging, when you have improvised shovels that are constantly breaking.
When the butchers were finished, we all hoisted leaf-wrapped bundles of meat onto our heads and marched single-file back to our huts. We skirted the patch of grand-daddy ground-joints. The banshee trees quivered as small creatures popped in and out of the slotted bark. Suzannie swung the grunt’s ten tusks on a loop as we sang and joked. Yellow dust clotted on the blood-soaked leaves, but what did we care? We were going to eat!
It was my turn to forage while the others prepared the food. When I went into the hut to get my basket, I saw Kiloma showing her carving to Suzannie and Francis.
A week later it was time to wash the bedding. When I gathered up my aunt’s pillow, another carving dropped out. My parents had drawn pictures for me in the dirt, so I recognized the shape. It was a rocket. I hesitated a moment, and then shoved it under a pile of stinking baskets.
I carried the blankets to the river that wound down from the crash-site plateau and jumbled hills. (“Actually, it’s only a trickle,” my father had said. “Now calculate the minuscule volume of water passing this point in twenty-four standard Earth hours.”) I slopped them into the pond. A shadow fell over me. I looked up at Aunt Kiloma.
“All right, honey. Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“My prayer ship.”
I looked down, ashamed for myself and Auntie. “Under the baskets.”
“What’s wrong, honey? Why did you hide it?”
“I don’t understand why you’re worshiping idols.”
“It’s obvious you don’t understand. It’s only to help me pray. You saw how I got us that night-grunt. Now I’m going to get us home.”
“It’s God who has to do all that.”
“But I have to pray first. Here, honey, sit down.”
We sat on the water-smooth rocks by the river. A far off wind-gaunt hooted. A slight breeze ruffled our ragged hair and made the banshee trees wheeze. It was easier to talk to Auntie sitting, because I was only three-quarters as tall as she.
“Child, I’ve been thinking. It’s going to take a few years for an Earth ship to get here and rescue us. We have to start praying now if they’re going to get here in time for our golden anniversary.”
“It won’t be long until we’ve been here fifty years. What better way to celebrate than by going back to God’s green Earth.”
Gregory clattered up with some buckets in his hands. “Watcha talking about?” He dipped a bucket into the sulfurous water. A mottled water-bug swirled in and scooted out again.
My aunt stiffened. “I’m going to pray and we’re going to be rescued – fifty years after the crash.”
Gregory shook his head. “Don’t you know prayer is talking to yourself? That’s time wasted, time you could spend doing something useful.”
I winced. Gregory sounded just like his mother Accie when he talked that way. His father had died trying to find new edible plants to expand our food supply. His mother had been a hard atheist ever since.
Aunt Kiloma snorted. “Those who don’t believe, get nothing.”
Gregory shrugged and hauled his full buckets away, sloshing water on the dusty path.
Auntie turned to me again. “I’m not the only one praying. Francis, Harley, and Suzannie are too.”
I was shocked. You could expect Harley, since he was a Theosophist, to do any weird thing. But not Francis.
Auntie patted my hand. “A ship will come and take us to a glorious place. You’ll see, honey.”
I dreamed of Earth that night. I awoke in the black night and listened to Auntie’s snoring while I tried to remember the bright images. When I was littler, I used to mix up the stories about Heaven and Earth. Now that I was older, I knew Heaven was the place with streets of gold, a metal that glows like the sun, and Earth was green all over. I tried to imagine trees that were green all over instead of just on the leaves like the ones here. I had dreamed of elephants with noses that touched the ground and people in orange robes bowing before carved statues. I decided I had to talk to Suzannie. I tiptoed to the doorflap and lifted it carefully. The huts were lighter humps against the black. The stars glittered. I didn’t hear the buzz-whine of a night-bite or any obvious sounds of a predator. Dirt-frogs moaned. Something made tiny rustling noises in the whittle-berry bushes on the other side of the barren field; a slither, perhaps?
I ran. I hoped, in the right direction, found a doorway, and scuttled in. I felt around in the dark until I felt Suzannie’s mat. “Suzannie,” I whispered, “wake up!”
“It’s me. Move over,” I whispered.
She did and let me lie beside her. I could smell the rottenwood under her pillow.
“Who’s there?” grunted her father.
“Me. Mr. Martins.”
“No. I’m just going to talk to Suzannie.”
“All right. Keep it quiet.” I could hear him shift under his blankets. He and his wife were agnostics, maybe. They refused to talk about it. They had five children but only Suzannie lived. I knew many wished she hadn’t, but I liked her even if she couldn’t keep her mind on one thing for very long. Her parents didn’t care that she was Christian.
I brushed her hair behind her ear, put my mouth next to it, and whispered, “Why are you praying for a rocket?”
“I pray all the time, like you say.”
“You’re supposed to pray to God.”
“Auntie gave it to me. Are you mad?”
“Yes. And I’m not allowed to talk back to Auntie. But it’s wrong.”
“Auntie said I might lose my faith.”
“Where are you going to lose it? Under your mat? If Jesus has you, he’s not going to lose you.”
“I’m not going to talk to you anymore.” She put her hands over her ears. I tried to pull them off, but he buried her head under the blankets. I gave up and wondered what I was supposed to do now.
I was pounding hard-get grain on a stone a few weeks later when Gregory sat beside me to sharpen some spear-tips.
“Hey, you know what your aunt is doing now?”
I knew. My cheeks turned hot.
“She carved another night-grunt and said we’re going to catch one tonight.” He scratched around one of the ulcers on his legs. “Isn’t she funny?”
Gregory rubbed metal against whetstone in silence for a few moments. Then, “I suppose you’ll have your little carving like her and Francis and the Ables and Kadish too.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Will you talk to your aunt?”
“I already have.”
“There’s a lot of people getting upset about this.”
“Like your mother and you.”
“Like me and my mother and the Martins and Halverson.”
I threw my pounding stick down. “Well, what can I do?”
Gregory looked at me. “I don’t know. But I’ll think of something.”
Yellow-grey light seeped into our hut the next morning. My aunt threw a blanket over her bulky body and struggled to get up. “Let’s get our dinner, honey,” she croaked.
“I didn’t hear anything fall in the pit.”
Her voice strengthened. “Have some faith, child. Help me out.”
She leaned against my shoulder and hobbled out into the pale morning. I saw Suzannie and a few others picking their way back from the privy. My aunt nodded at them and started toward the pit. Everyone followed quietly. Gregory passed us, looking determined.
My aunt called out, “Child, haven’t you forgotten your arrows?”
A look of disgust crossed his face, but he went back to get them.
We reached the pit. It was broken in.
“See, O ye of little faith?” said my aunt.
“Meat!” squealed Suzannie.
We drew closer and peered in. At the bottom lay a land-lobster its claws and teeth and pedicles clicking slightly. Apparently, it had broken its back. A slither had crawled down there and was feeding on it.
“See? There’s no grunt,” I whispered.
“That is a grunt!” she shouted, and glared at me. “Don’t tell me that thing hasn’t eaten grunts. That’s a hundred grunts down there that we could have had! Now that this predator’s dead, we’ll have lots of grunts to eat.”
“That’s true,” said Suzannie in a tiny, frightened voice.
“You could look at it that way,” said Francis slowly. Gregory ran past us and shot the slither. It writhed a long time before it died. The slither’s meat wasn’t any good to eat, but its scaled skin would make nice bags and its many ribs would make needles. Gregory laughed all the while he was peeling the sand-paper skin off the land-lobster.
“Are you happy, child, that we’ve broken through on how to survive this planet?”
Gregory shook his head. “This is the funniest grunt I’ve ever skinned.”
Cicero Able waved a hand at Gregory. “It’s as good as a hundred grunts. Because it’s dead, we’re going to have more to eat.” He winked. “I just hope I can chew all the food we’re going to have now.” He grinned and showed all the gaps in his teeth.
Every day it seemed another person would decide to carve a rocket, a night-grunt, or a bowl of hard-get grain. Soon there was a heap of stinking, crude rockets near the central cooking fire. Every nightfall and sunrise the growing body of “believers” stood in a circle around the rockets and prayed. I prayed for rescue every morning and night too, but I could not join with them. Soon they were chanting in unison and swaying. My aunt exhorted the people to more faith that things would get better, since they were concentrating right.
One morning after a hot and restless night, I woke to hear my aunt groaning. I rushed to her side. “Auntie, what’s wrong!” I was terrified that she might be dying.
She heaved herself up to a sitting position and rolled her head from side to side.
“Auntie, tell me what to do!”
Her eyes focused slowly on me. She said feebly, “Honey, what day is this?”
I had to stop and think. “Forty-five years, one hundred eighty-nine days.”
“Mark this on your calendar tree, honey. I had a vision.”
“A vision? Like in the Bible?”
“Yes, ma’am. A vision of things to come.” She struggled to her feet and smiled down at me. “Honey, we’re going to be rescued.”
I said nothing.
“Did you hear me? We’re going to be rescued. On our fiftieth golden anniversary. God Himself is going to send us a ship. Then you know where we’re going?”
“No?” I had grown up reciting every day that I wanted to go to Earth.
“No. Earth is good, but this is even better. I remember Earth and I know it has some problems your parents never told you about. Problems that made us colonists in the first place. Where we’re going is perfect.”
I was thoroughly frightened. “Maybe it was just a dream you had.”
“How unspiritual can you be? It was a vision. This planet we’re going to has fruit trees. There are no animals that can hurt you, no poisonous food. We’ll have cars and electricity. In only five years, Hope!”
I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know why. I grabbed a basket and ran outside to forage by myself so I could think.
When I returned at noon, Gregory met me by the river. He shouted angrily, “Do you know what your aunt is telling everybody now?”
“It’s not my fault!” I shouted back.
He breathed deeply a few times. “I’m sorry. We’re having a meeting at our hut. See if you can get your aunt there.”
After he left, I began to wonder who was having a meeting. I found my aunt in the rottenwood grove gouging at another limb. Her hands stank with curls of the yellow stuff under the fingernails.
We entered Gregory’s hut and in the dim light I saw Gregory, his mother, Accie, and Mr. Goldstein. Mr. Goldstein wasn’t a Christian either, but he was the kindest man in our group and I liked him.
Gregory’s mother never was the type to waste time. “Kiloma, this nonsense has got to stop.”
My aunt drew herself up. “Accident, I don’t have to listen to you. I listen to God.” I was embarrassed. Accident was born the year after the crash, and her name was supposed to signify a lot of things. Nobody dared call her anything but Accie or Mrs. Colewell.
Her nostrils flared. “Your have got to stop fomenting trouble.”
Mr. Goldstein interrupted. “Please, Kiloma, consider how we will feel if we believe something will happen on a certain date, and it does not happen. We shall probably be rescued, but we cannot set a specific date.”
I tugged at her hand. “Please. He’s right.”
She pulled her hand away. “Are you taking a seat among the scornful?”
“You must deal with reality, not fantasy,” said Accie.
“This is very real. But you, poor child, can’t be expected to understand the deep things of the spirit.”
Accie snorted. “Myxedema madness!”
“Your goiter’s as big as mine, dear. How can you say I’m mad and you’re not?”
A terrible look came over Accie’s face. “Maybe you’re the first. Maybe we’ll all become like you.” She glanced at her dwarfed son and ran sobbing from the hut.
We found her body by an anemone-thorn. This time I arranged the funeral. That left thirty living, and three hundred fifty-six mounds in the cemetery.
After that, nothing was ever said again by either side to persuade or dissuade. Gregory went about his chores, but it was plain the heart was out of him. A few more became believers. I clung to the beliefs my parents had taught, but I had always been held as of no account, so no one cared. Surprisingly, things did get better. We learned how to bait the pit and caught many grunts. Mr. Goldstein experimented one last time, and found that the root of the common lacy-leaf was edible. And that, out of the dozens of plants we had tried, was cultivable. No more people died. One year, then two and three passed.
On the forty-eighth year, twelfth day after the crash, I was weaving an over-blouse. The sun was setting, and we were all hurrying to finish what we could before it got too dark. I looked up to ease a crick in my neck. Sparks flared in a line across the purpling, star-sprinkled sky. A meteorite shower? I started to calculate their trajectory before I remembered again that Father was not here to check the answer.
“Did you see that?” called out Mr. Goldstein, leaning on his broom. “I remember watching those on Earth.” We looked to see if there would be any more. There weren’t, and we went to bed.
The next morning I saw a white line grow across the sky.
“Auntie, what is that?”
She stared up for a long time, puzzled. Suddenly her face brightened. “It’s a vapor… it’s a contrail! Glory to God and concentration , it’s a ship!” she shouted and waved. “Look at the reward for our faithfulness! Our ship’s come early! Look!”
Everyone stared up and shouted. “We’re going to be rescued! We’re going to be rescued!” Suzannie threw rocks, leaves, anything, into the air.
I stared at the growing white line. All the history, alphabets, science, culture, and science fiction we had been taught as children seemed to coalesce into one glowing point: a ship was coming to rescue us.
“Hurry, honey. After forty-eight years, you don’t want to be late.”
It hadn’t been forty-eight years for me, but I didn’t want to be late. I looked around the hut one more time, trying to decide what to take with me. I didn’t want the moldy blankets or the flat pillow, and I had so little else. Finally I grabbed my other over-blouse and straw doll my father had made.
My aunt carefully wrapped a rottenwood ship in a square of cloth. “Well, dearest, do you still call this rocket an idol?”
“No.” I had had time to think it over as I watched the rituals develop for three years. “The carved ships are not idols. Your concentration is.”
“Oh, you poor child. But you can’t help it.” She crushed me with a magnanimous hug of a winner. “You’re going to love where we’re going, honey. After I’m gone, they’ll take good care of you.” She rose and went outside to lead our little band to the crash-site plateau.
If a ship were looking for survivors, it would come to the plateau. Great chunks of metal had gouged dark furrows in the thin yellow soil. Radioactive residue formed another beacon. Once a year we trekked up to the plateau and polished all the skyward metal surfaces to make another glittering signal.
We moved slowly. Aunt Kiloma, Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Kim, and Mrs. Lutti, the original survivors, were very old, and no eagerness could make them young. Marylee was shivering from another illness. Glad had lost the use of one leg.
We skirted grand-daddy ground-joint for the last time and jeered at it. Suzannie grabbed a rock and swung back to throw it at the ground-joint.
“No, don’t!” I said, and held her arm.
“How come you’re always afraid of everything?” said Gregory. He bent down to look for a rock.
Mr. Goldstein enfolded Suzannie’s hand and mine with his. He said softly, “Grand-daddy’s old, and I’m old. Let’s respect the aged, eh?”
Gregory dropped his stone and shrugged.
We walked past the pit, pausing when Mr. Goldstein carefully laid a packet of spoiled meet on the edge.
Auntie hooted, “Don’t you think they have food on the ship?”
“Now, now, Kiloma,” said Mr. Goldstein. “We may want to give them a dinner before we leave. A predator like land-lobster might be a treat for them.”
“Suppose it takes them a week to find us?” said Gregory.
“God sent them. They’ll find us. Let’s sing!” The believers chanted until they ran out of breath as we clambered up the rocky cliff.
The plateau was a windy place, with stunted plants spaced about eight meters apart. Broken spaceship walls rose jagged against a flat horizon. We walked to the shade of one wall and sat down to rest. The believers joined hands and chanted, “Come, come, come, rocket. Come, come, come, starship.”
My aunt began to cry. “Think of it, dearly beloved. Fruit trees!”
“Amen,” moaned Able.
“Foam rubber beds!”
Suzannied clapped. “Soft beds! Soft beds!”
“Concentrate on it!” shouted Francis.
“Asprin and antibiotics!”
I turned away and prayed by myself. The other nonbelievers grouped in the densest part of the shade and pretended to ignore them. An hour dragged by. So did another hour. Mr. Goldstein and Gregory had been the only ones to think of bringing any food, so all of us shared their meager meal of hard-get crackers and dried lacy-leaf root.
The sun crawled across a sallow sky. The air hung like a heavy curtain. The sun was nearing the rim of the world when a spear point streaked across the sky.
“They’re here!” screamed Suzannie.
We leaped up and poured into the open. The spear point banked and slowed. It seemed to float toward us. We burst into tears and shouted and hugged each other.
Mr. Goldstein took my hand and said deeply, “Thank God.”
The craft touched down in front of us. Fear rose in my throat and choked me. Some mechanical sounds came from the ship. I turned and ran away.
“What’s the matter with you? Afraid to be proved wrong?” shouted my aunt.
Yes, I thought as I skidded behind a thrust up wall. I’m afraid to be wrong!
I peered through a rent in the tortured metal as I cried to myself, What’s wrong with me? Help me, Jesus! They won’t leave me behind, will they?
The door opened. A ramp slid out. A figure about two meters tall appeared in the shadowy doorway.
“Thank God you’ve come!” shouted my aunt.
The figure stepped out and everybody froze.
The creature had a rat’s pointed nose and lustrous auburn fur. It walked upright and wore a compartmentalized belt, nothing else. Four more creatures followed it.
“Angels!” Auntie shouted. “They’re angels come to rescue us! Get down everybody!”
The believers flopped down and the rest stood uncertainly. The lead creature walked down to where my aunt was groveling in the dirt. It looked at her and chittered something to its companions.
“This is ridiculous,” said Gregory. “They’re aliens and we need to communicate with them.” He snatched up a stick for writing in the dirt and strode toward them.
An instrument was in the creature’s hand. It pointed at Gregory. And there was a hole in his chest. His mouth opened, his eyes glazed over, and he fell down.
Suzannie jumped and flung her hands into the air and screamed. It shot her down.
My aunt looked up—“Why?” – and her chest exploded.
The other creatures took out instruments and began to point them. Down went Mr. Goldstein, Able, Caruso, and Fortune. The rest scattered screaming. Down went Marylee and Edgar.
I ran toward our camp, not able to think of anything but the screams. I threw myself over the edge and slid down the cliff, dust and rocks clattering after. I ran between boulders and into the forest. I ran.
I reached the pit, panting and snorting. There was a hole on the far side of the covering. I stumbled around and fell beside it, crying, to see the meal we would never eat.
My heart froze with another terror. Pacing the bottom of the pit was a dread-for-all. Its tentacles above each clawed limb curled and uncurled in animal wrath. Its broad jaws opened and shut like traps. A sixth sense caused me to look up and roll at the same time. The ground smoked where I had been and I saw the alien point at me again. I fell behind a many-trunk. The creature ran after me. It saw the change in ground color too late, and plunged into the pit. The alien’s shriek was strangled.
The sound of footsteps told me another alien was coming. This time I knew where to go. I broke off what leaves and branches I could as I went. When I ran around the circle of grand-daddy ground-joint, I dropped the leaves on the path so the alien would not see that we never walked near the small puckered thing in the center of the clearing. I waited on the far side.
The alien came around the grove of banshee trees. I threw a rock at it and ducked behind a bounder. The boulder scorched. I dared not look for fear of having my head burnt off.
The alien walked into it. The ground-joint’s radial ribs crackled up and sliced the alien. The puckered thing enlarged to feed on the pieces.
I listened for a long time as a wind shifted through the forest and made the banshee trees moan. No one else came. The sun set and it grew dark.
“How long will Thou forget me, O Lord? Forever?” I cry silently as I shiver in the cold. “How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?” Everybody is dead. What will I do? What will I do?
It is too cold for me to sit any longer. If the aliens have gone away, I can start to bury the bodies. And then what will I do? I stumble along the path toward the crash site again.
“How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?”
I reach the cliffs and find them hard to climb. It is now completely dark. Night insects sting my arms and face.
“Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”
I reach the plateau and plod toward the crash site. I come close, and stop. The aliens are still here. The aliens have lights!
I hide in a curl of metal and quietly place whatever I can reach in the entrance. Now I wait…
Because the lights are on the plateau, it takes longer than it would in the forest. The three aliens pace (nervously?) the perimeter of their brightly lit field. One takes out a flare and shoots it. Red sparks trail down like a fountain.
The swarm hits with a buzz-whine and hundreds of dark flitting bodies. Tiny razor teeth rip through auburn fur. The aliens snarl and bat at the night-bites. One alien stumbles into an anemone-thorn. The thorns pierce its leg. Its blood coagulates instantly and it falls under a flurry of black wings. One alien falls by the ramp. The last alien almost makes it to the doorway of the ship before its eyes are torn out.
I am fortunate. No night bite notices me, huddled in my make-shift cave. While they gorge themselves on alien flesh, I fall asleep.
I wake in the morning, after the last night-bite has flown back to shelter. I see that I have no bodies to bury, only bundles of bones to straighten out and pray over.
Good-by, Aunt Kiloma. May God have mercy and send you to His place better than Earth.
Good-bye, brave Gregory.
Good-bye, glad Suzannie.
Good-bye, kind Mr. Goldstein.
Good-bye, quiet and good Marylee.
Good-bye … Good-bye … Good-bye.
I wipe my eyes, for I am finished. I have nothing left but my name. I kick the alien skeletons off the ramp and enter the ship. After trying several combinations of buttons, I find one that makes the ramp slide in and the doors shut. I find the bridge. If this ship is like human ships, I won’t have to fly it – the computer will. All I have to do is tell it where to go. I find a rack of circuits and randomly push them into slots. Once the screen lights up with a picture of a variety of ships and a human. It is a human not marred with scars, ulcers, dwarfishness, and swollen necks as we were. Did the aliens kill us because they are at war with humans, or because they are allies and we didn’t look human? I take a break, scrounge around, and find a huge locker of food. If our nutritional requirements are the same, I won’t starve for a few months, anyway. Then I go back to work again.
At last the right circuit connects. The ship races across the plateau. Its nose lifts and up we go, the ship and I, to see what we shall see. I can die only once, and I need not fear God’s judgment. Who knows? God knows. I may find Earth. I may find the perfect planet. I may find death in an orbit too near the sun. But nothing shall separate me from the love of God, and I am content.
I recite out loud the end of the Thirteenth Psalm, “But I have trusted in Thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation.”