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Authors: George Alec Effinger

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BOOK: The Exile Kiss
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Soon the pain in my belly really began to gripe me, and I wished I'd brought my pillcase with me. Papa had warned me that it would be a serious breach of etiquette to carry my cache of pharmaceuticals into the amir's house. This was what I got for turning into such a respect-ful guy. I got kidnapped, and I had to suffer through every little physical discomfort that came my way.
I had a small selection of daddies on a rack in the pocket of my
gallebeya.
One of them did a great job of blocking pain, but I didn't want to find out what the goon would do if I tried to reach inside my robe. It wouldn't have cheered me up to hear that things would soon get a lot worse before they got better.
After what seemed like an hour of driving, the limou-sine came to a stop. I didn't know where we were. I looked at Hajjar's goon and said, "What's going on?"
"Shut up," the goon informed me.
Hajjar got out of the car and held the door open for Papa. I climbed out after him. We were standing beside some buildings made of corrugated metal, looking at a private suborbital shuttle across a broad concrete apron, its running lights flashing but its three giant thrusters cool and quiet. If this was the main airfield, then we were about thirty miles north of the city. I'd never been there before.
I was getting worried, but Papa still had a calm look on his face. Hajjar pulled me aside. "Got your phone on you, Audran?" he said quietly.
"Yeah," I said. I always wear it on my belt.
"Let me use it a minute, okay?"
I unclipped my phone and handed it to Hajjar. He grinned at me, dropped the phone to the pavement, and stomped
it into tiny broken pieces. "Thanks," he said.
"The fuck is going on?" I shouted, grabbing him by the arm.
Hajjar just looked at me, amused. Then his goon grabbed me and pinned both of my arms behind my back. "We're going to get on that shuttle," he said. "There's a qadi who has something to tell the both of you."
We were taken aboard the suborbital and made to take seats in an otherwise empty front cabin. Hajjar sat beside me, and his goon sat beside Friedlander Bey. "We have a right to know where you're taking us," I said. „ Hajjar examined his fingernails, pretending indiffer-ence. "Tell you the truth," he said, gazing out the window, "I don't actually know where you're going. The qadi may tell you that when he reads you the verdict."
"Verdict?" I cried. "What verdict?"
"Oh," said Hajjar with an evil grin, "haven't you fig-ured it out? You and Papa are on trial. The qadi will decide you're guilty while you're being deported. Doing it this way saves the legal system a lot of time and money. I should've let you lass the ground good-bye, Audran, be-cause you're never going to see the city again!"

2

Honey Pilar is the most desirable woman in the world. Ask anybody. Ask the ancient, wrin-kled imam of the Shimaal Mosque, and he'll tell you "Honey Filar, no question about it." She has long, pale haii, liquid green eyes, and the most awe-inspiring body known to anthropological science. Fortunately, she's at-tainable. What she does for a living is record personality modules of herself during sex play. There are Brigitte Stahlhelm and other stars in the sex-moddy industry, but none of them come close to delivering the super-light-speed eroticism of Honey Pilar.

A few times, just for variety, I told Yasmin that I wanted to wear one of Honey's moddies. Yasmin would grin and take over the active role, and I'd lie back and experience what it felt like to be a hungry, furiously re-sponsive woman. If nothing else, the moddy trade has helped a lot of people get some insight into what makes the eight opposite sexes tick.

After we'd finished jamming, I'd keep Honey's moddy chipped in for a while. Honey's afterglow was just as phe-nomenal as her orgasms. Without the moddy, I might have rolled over and drifted off to sleep. With it, I curled up close to Yasmin, closed my eyes, and just bathed in physical and emotional well-being. The only other thing I can compare it to is a nice shot of morphine. The way the morphine makes you feel after you're done throwing up, I mean.

That's just how I felt when I opened my eyes. I didn't have any memory of supersonic sex, so I assumed that somewhere along the line I'd run into a friendly pharma-ceutical or two. My eyelids seemed stuck together, and when I tried to rub the gunk out of them, my arm wouldn't work. It felt like a phony arm made out of Styro-foam or something, and it didn't want to do anything but flop around on the sand next to me.

Okay, I thought, I'm going to have to sort all this out in a minute or two. I forgot about my eyes and sunk back into delicious lethargy. Someday I wanted to meet the guy who invented lethargy, because I now believed he hadn't gotten enough credit from the world at large. This was exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of my life, and until somebody came up with a reason why I couldn't, I was just going to lie there in the dark and play with my floppy arm.

I was lying with my back on the earth, and my mind was floating in Heaven somewhere, and the dividing line seemed to run right through my body. Right through the part that hurt so much. I could feel the ragged pain thrumming down there, beneath the opiate haze. As soon as I realized what land of agony I'd feel when the drug wore off, I began to get very afraid. Fortunately, I couldn't keep my mind on it for more than a few seconds, and then I was grinning and murmuring to myself again.

I suppose I fell asleep, although in that state it was very hard to tell the difference between consciousness and dreams. I remember trying again to open my eyes, and this time I could move my hand to my chin and kind of walk the fingers across my lips and nose to my eyelids. I wiped my eyes clean, but I was so tired from that exertion that I couldn't move my hand back down. I had to rest for a minute or so with my fingers blocking my vision. Finally I tried to focus on my surroundings.

I couldn't see much. It was still too much trouble to raise my head, so all I could make out was what was di-rectly in front of me. There was a bright triangle with a narrow base on the ground, rising up to a sharp point a few feet high. All the rest was blackness. I asked myself if I'd ever been put in mortal danger by a bright triangle. ^The answer was slow in coming: no. Good, I thought, then I can forget about it. I went back to sleep.

The next time I woke up, things were different. Not pleasantly different. I had a tremendous, throbbing mis-ery in my head, and my throat felt as if a tiny little man in goggles had crawled down there and sandblasted it. My chest ached as if I'd inhaled a couple of pounds of mud and then had to cough it all up again. Every joint in my body shrieked with soreness whenever I made the slight-est movement. My arms and legs were in particular agony, so I decided never to move them again.

Cataloguing all the discomfort occupied me for a few minutes, but when I got to the end of the list—when I realized that most of my skin surface was sizzling with pain, proof that I'd been flayed alive by some madman before he got around to cracking my bones—there were only a few choices: I could lie there and appreciate the totality of my suffering, I could try cataloguing again to see if I'd missed anything, or I could attempt to make myself feel better.

I opted for number three. I decided to get out my pillcase, even though that act would probably cost me a lot in terms of further distress. I remembered what my doctors told me in times like this: "Now," they always said, "this might sting a little." Uh huh.

I gently moved my right hand down across my belly, until it was resting flat beside me. Then I sort of worm-walked my fingers down my
gallebeya
toward the pocket where I kept my drugs. I made three rapid observations. The first was that I wasn't wearing my
gallebeya.
The second was that I was wearing a long, filthy shirt with no pockets. The third was that there was no pillcase.

I've been confronted by maniacs whose immediate concern was ending my life on the spot. Even in those most desperate hours, I never experienced the sheer, cold emptiness I felt now. I wonder what it says about me, that I'd prefer to risk death than endure pain. I suppose, deep down, I'm not a brave man. I'm probably motivated by a fear that other people might learn the truth about me.

I almost began to weep when I couldn't find my pill-case. I'd counted on it being there, and on the tabs of Sonneine inside to take away all this horrible pain, at least for a while. I tried to call out. My lips were as crusted over as my eyelids had been. It took a little effort even to open my mouth, and then my throat was too hoarse and dry for me to speak. At last, after much effort, I managed to croak "Help." Uttering the single syllable made the back of my throat feel as if someone had hacked my neck open with a dull knife. I doubted that anyone could have heard me.

I don't know how much time passed. I grew aware that in addition to my other discomforts, I was also suffer-ing from great hunger and thirst. The longer I lay there, the more I began to worry that I'd finally gotten myself into trouble I wouldn't survive. I hadn't yet begun to speculate on where I was or how I'd got there.

I noticed after a while that the bright triangle was getting dimmer. Sometimes I thought the triangle seemed obscured, as if someone or something was passing in front of it. At last, the triangle almost completely disappeared. I realized that I missed it very much. It had been the only actual thing in my world besides myself, even though I didn't really know what it was.

A spot of yellow light appeared in the gloom where the bright triangle had been. I blinked my eyes hard a few times, trying to make them focus more clearly. I saw that the yellow light was coming from a small oil lamp, in the hand of a small person swathed almost completely in black. The black-clothed person came toward me through the triangle, which I now guessed must be the opening of a tent. A truly evil-smelling tent, I realized.

My visitor held the lamp up to let the light fall upon my face.
"Yaa Allah!"
she murmured when she saw that I was conscious. Her other hand quickly grasped the edge of her head cloth and pulled it across her face. I had seen her only briefly, but I knew that she was a solemn, pretty, but very dirty girl, probably in her late teens.

I took as deep a breath as I could with the pain in my chest and lungs, and I croaked out another "Help." She stood there, blinking down at me for a few moments. Then she knelt, placed the lamp on the level sand beyond my reach, stood up again, and ran from the tent. I have -that effect on women sometimes.

Now I began to worry. Where exactly was I, and how did I get here? Was I in the hands of friends or enemies? I knew I must be among desert nomads, but which des-ert? There are quite a number of sand seas throughout the geographic expanse of the Islamic world. I could be anywhere from the western edge of the Sahara in Mo-rocco to the fringes of the Gobi in Mongolia. I might have been only a few miles south of the city, for that matter.

While I was turning these thoughts over in my trou-bled mind, the dark-shrouded girl returned. She stood beside me and asked me questions. I could tell they were questions by the inflections. The trouble was that I could make out only about one word in ten. She was speaking some rough dialect of Arabic, but she might as well have been jabbering in Japanese for all I could tell.

I shook my head, once slightly to the left, once to the right. "I hurt," I said in my dead voice. She just stared at me. It didn't seem that she'd under-stood me. She was still holding her head cloth modestly across her face, just below her nose, but I thought her expression—that part of it that was visible—was very kind and concerned. At least, I chose to believe that for the moment.
She tried speaking to me again, but I still couldn't understand what she was saying. I managed to get out "Who are you?" and she nodded and said "Noora." In Arabic, that means "light," but I guessed it was also her name. From the moment she'd come into the tent with her lamp, she'd been the only light in my darkness.
The front flap was thrown roughly aside and someone else entered, carrying a leather bag and another lamp. This was not a large tent, maybe twelve feet in diameter and six feet high, so it was getting kind of crowded. Noora moved back against the black wall, and the man squatted beside me and studied me for a moment. He had a stern, lean face dominated by a huge hooked nose. His skin was lined and weathered, and it was difficult for me to guess his age. He wore a long shirt and he had a
keffiya
on his head, but it wasn't bound with a black rope
akal,
merely twisted around with its ends stuffed in somehow. In the dancing shadows he looked like a murderous savage. Matters weren't made any better when he asked me a few questions in the same dialect Noora had used. I think one of them had to do with where I'd come from. All I could do was tell him about the city. He may have then asked me where the city was, but I couldn't be sure that's what he said.
"I hurt," I croaked.
He nodded and opened his leather bag. I was sur-prised when he pulled out an old-fashioned disposable syringe and a vial of some fluid. He loaded the needle and jammed it into my hip. I gasped in pain, and he patted my wrist. He clucked something, and even ignorant of his dialect I could tell it was "There, there."
He stood up and regarded me thoughtfully for a while longer. Then he signaled to Noora and they left me alone. In a few minutes, the injection had taken effect. My ex-pertise in these matters told me that I'd been given a healthy dose of Sonneine; the injectable variety was much more effective than the tabs I bought in the Budayeen. I. was tearfully grateful. If that rough-skinned man had come back into the tent just then, I would have given him anything he asked.
I surrendered myself to the powerful drug and floated, knowing all the while that the relief from pain would soon end. In the illusory moments of well-being, I tried to do some serious thinking. I knew that something was terribly wrong, and that as soon as I was better I'd need to set things right again. The Sonneine let me believe that noth-ing was beyond my power.
My drug-deluded mind told me that I was in a state of grace. Everything was fine. I'd achieved a separate peace with the world and with every individual in it. I felt as if I had immense stores of physical and intellectual energy to draw upon. There were problems, yes, but they were emi-nently solvable. The future looked like one golden vista of victory after another: Heaven on Earth.
It was while I was congratulating myself on my good fortune that the hawk-faced man returned, this time with-out Noora. I was sort of sad about that. Anyway, the man squatted down beside me, resting his haunches on his heels. I could never get the hang of sitting like that for very long; I've always been a city boy.
This time when he spoke to me, I could understand him perfectly. "Who are you, O Shaykh?" he asked.
"Ma—" I began. My throat tightened up. I pointed to my lips. The man understood me and passed me a goat-skin bag filled with brackish water. The bag stunk and the water was the most foul-tasting I'd ever encountered.
"Bismillah," I
murmured: in the name of God. Then I drank that horrible water greedily until he put a hand on my arm and stopped me.
"Marid," I said, answering his question.
He took back the water bag. "I am Hassanein. Your beard is red. I've never seen a red beard before."
"Common," I said, able to speak a little better now that I'd had some water. "In Mauretania."
"Mauretania?" He shook his head.
"Used to be Algeria. In the Maghreb." Again he shook his head. I wondered how far I'd wandered, that I'd met an Arab who had never heard of the Maghreb, the name given to the western Muslim lands of North Africa.
"What race are you?" Hassanein asked.
I looked at him in surprise. "An Arab," I said.
"No," he said, "I am an Arab. You are something else." He was firm in his statement, although I could tell that it was made without malice. He was truly curious about me.
Calling myself an Arab was inaccurate, because I am half Berber, half French, or so my mother always told me. In
my adopted city, anyone born in the Muslim world and who spoke the Arabic language was an Arab. Here in
Has-sanein's tent that relaxed definition would not do. "I am Berber," I told him.
"I do not know Berbers. We are Bani Salim." "Badawi?" I asked.
"Bedu," he corrected me. It turned out that the word I'd always used for the Arabian nomads, Badawi or Bedouin, was an inelegant plural of a plural. The nomads themselves preferred Bedu, which derives from the word for desert.
"You treated me?" I said.
Hassanein nodded. He reached out his hand. In the flickering lamplight, I could see the dusting of sand on the hairs of his arm, like sugar on a lemon cake. He lightly touched my corymbic implants. "You are cursed," he said. I didn't reply. Apparently he was a strict Muslim who felt that I was going to hell because I'd had my brain wired. "You are doubly cursed," he said. Even here, my sec-ond implant was a topic of conversation. I wondered where my rack of moddies and daddies was. "Hungry," I said.
He nodded. "Tomorrow, you may eat,
inshallah."
If God wills. It was hard for me to imagine that Allah had brought me through whatever trials I'd endured, just to keep me from having breakfast in the morning. He picked up the lamp and held it close to my face. I With a grimy thumb he pulled down my eyelid and ex-amined my eye. He had me open my mouth, and he looked at my tongue and the back of my throat. He bent forward and put his ear on my chest, then had me cough. He poked and prodded me expertly. "School," I said, pointing at him. "University." He laughed and shook his head. He slowly bent my legs up and then tickled the soles of my feet. He pressed on my fingernails and watched to see how long it took for the color to return.
"Doctor?" I asked.
He shook his head again. Then he looked at me and came to some decision. He grabbed his
keffiya
and pulled it loose. I was astonished to see that he had his own moddy plug on the crown of his skull. Then he carefully wrapped the
keffiya
around his head again.
I looked at him questioningly. "Cursed," I said.
"Yes," he said. He wore a stoic expression. "I am the
shaykh of the Bani Salim. It is my responsibility. I must
wear the mark of the
shaitan."
'
"How many moddies?" I asked.
He didn't understand the word "moddies." I re-phrased the question, and found out that he'd had his skull amped so that he could use just two modules: the doctor moddy, and one that made him the equivalent of a learned religious leader. Those were all he owned. In the arid wilderness that was home to the Bani Salim, Has-sanein was the wise elder who had, in his own eyes, damned his soul for the sake of his tribe. I realized that we were understanding each other thanks to grammar and vocabulary built into the doctor : moddy. When he took it out, we'd have as much trouble communicating as we'd had before. I was getting too weary to keep up this conversation any further, though. Any more would have to wait until tomorrow.
He gave me a capsule to help me sleep through the
night. I swallowed it with more of the water from the
goatskin. "May you arise in the morning in well-being, O
Shaykh," he said. j
"God bless you, O Wise One," I murmured. He left * the lamp burning on the sand floor beside me, and stood up. He went out into the darkness, and I heard him drop the tent flap behind him. I still didn't know where I was, and I didn't know a damn thing about the Bani Salim, but for some reason I felt perfectly safe. I fell asleep quickly and woke up only once during the night, to see Noora sitting crosslegged against the black wall of the tent, asleep. When I woke again in the morning, I could see more clearly. I raised my head a little and stared out through the bright triangle. Now I could see a landscape of golden sand and, not far away, two hobbled camels. In the tent, Noora still watched over me. She had awakened before me, and when she saw me move my head, she came closer. She still self-consciously drew the edge of her head scarf across her face, which was a shame because she was very pretty. "Thought we were friends," I said. I didn't have so much trouble talking this morning.
Her brows drew together and she shook her head. I wasn't having trouble talking, but I was still having trouble being understood. I tried again, speaking more slowly and using both hands to amplify my words. "We... are ... friends," she said. Each word was strangely accented, but I could decipher the dialect if she gave me a little time. "You . . . guest ... of ... Bani Salim."
Ah, the legendary hospitality of the Bedu! "Hassanein is your father?" I asked. She shook her head; I didn't know if she was denying the relationship or if she just hadn't understood my question. I repeated it more slowly. "Shaykh . . . Hassanein , . . father's . . . brother," she said.
After that, we both got used to speaking simply and putting space between our words. It wasn't long before we weren't having any trouble following each other, even at normal conversational speed.
"Where are we?" I asked. I had to find where I was in relation to the city, and how far from the nearest outpost of civilization.
Noora's brow wrinkled again as she considered her geography. She poked a forefinger into the sand in front of her. "Here is Bir Balagh. The Bani Salim have camped here two weeks." She poked another hole in the sand, about three inches from the first. "Here is Khaba well, three days south." She reached across the much greater distance between us and made another hole with her fin-ger. "Here is Mughshin. Mughshin is
hauta."
"What's
hauta?" I
asked.
"A holy place, Shaykh Marid. The Bani Salim will meet other tribes there, and sell their camel herd."
Fine, I thought, we were all headed for Mughshin. I'd never heard of Mughshin, and I imagined it was probably just a little patch of palm trees and a well, stuck in the middle of the awful desert. It most likely didn't have a suborbital shuttle field nearby. I knew I was lost some-where in the kingdoms and unmarked tribal turfs of Ara-bia. "How far from Riyadh?" I asked.
. "I don't know Riyadh," said Noora. Riyadh was the former capital of her country, when it had been united under the House of Saud. It was still a great city.
"Mecca?"
"Makkah," she corrected me. She thought for a few seconds, then pointed confidently across my body.
"That way," I said. "Good. How far?" Noora only shrugged. I hadn't learned very much.
"I'm sorry," she said. "The old shaykh asked the same questions. Maybe Uncle Hassanein knows more."
The old shaykh! I'd been so wrapped up in my own misery that I'd forgotten about Papa. "The old shaykh is
alive?"
"Yes, thanks to you, and thanks to the wisdom of Un-cle Hassanein. When Hilal and bin Turki found the two of you on the dunes, they thought you were both dead. They came back to our camp, and if they hadn't told Uncle Hassanein about you later that evening, you surely
would be
dead."
I stared at her for a moment. "Hilal and bin Turki just left us out there?"
She shrugged. "They thought you were dead."
I shivered. "Glad it crossed their minds to mention us while they were sitting comfortably around the communal fire."
Noora didn't catch my bitterness. "Uncle Hassanein brought you back to camp. This is his tent. The old shaykh is in the tent of bin Musaid." Her eyes lowered when she mentioned his name.
"Then where are your uncle and bin Musaid sleep-ing?" I asked.
"They sleep with the others who have no tents. On the sand by the fire."
That naturally made me feel a little guilty, because I knew the desert got very cold at night. "How is the old shaykh?" I asked.
"He is getting stronger every day. He suffered greatly from exposure and thirst, but not as greatly as you. It was your sacrifice that kept him alive, Shaykh Marid."
I didn't remember any sacrifice. I didn't remember anything about what we'd been through. Noora must have seen my confusion, because she reached out and almost touched my implants. "These," she said. "You abused them and now you suffer, but it saved the life of the old shaykh. He wants very much to speak with you. Uncle Hassanein told him that tomorrow you may have visitors." I was relieved to hear that Friedlander Bey was in better shape than I was. I hoped that he might be able to fill in some of the gaps in my recollection. "How long have I been here?"
She did some mental figuring, then replied, "Twelve days. The Bani Salim planned to remain in Bir Balagh only three days, but Uncle Hassanein decided to stay until you and the old shaykh were fit to travel. Some of the tribe are angry about that, especially bin Musaid."
"You mentioned him before. Who is this bin Musaid?"
Noora lowered her eyes and spoke in a low voice. "He desires to marry me," she said.
"Uh huh. And how do you feel about him?"
She looked into my face. I could see anger in her eyes, although I couldn't tell if it was directed at me or her suitor. She stood up and walked out of the tent without saying another word.
I wished she hadn't done that. I'd meant to ask her for something to eat, and to pass the word to her uncle that I'd like another jolt of Sonneine. Instead, I just tried to find a comfortable position to lie in, and I thought about what Noora had told me. Papa and I had almost died in this wilderness, but I didn't yet know whom to blame that on. I wouldn't be surprised if it was all connected to Lieutenant Hajjar, and through him to Reda Abu Adil. The last thing I remem-bered was sitting on that suborbital shuttle, waiting for it to take off. Everything that came after—the flight itself, the arrival at the destination, and whatever events had led me into the middle of the desert—was still missing from my memory. I hoped it would all come back as I got stronger, or that Papa had a clearer idea of what had happened.

BOOK: The Exile Kiss
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