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Authors: George Alec Effinger

Tags: #Fiction, #Cyberpunk, #Genetic Engineering, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Science Fiction

The Exile Kiss (6 page)

BOOK: The Exile Kiss
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"Drink your water when you're thirsty, my nephew," Papa told me. "I've seen men dehydrate and die because they were too stingy with their canteens. Not drinking enough water is like spilling it on the ground. You need about a gallon a day in this heat. Two or three quarts won't keep you alive."

"We only have one gallon each, O Shaykh," I said.
"When it's gone, we'll have to find more. We may stumble across a trail,
inshallah.
There are trails even in the heart of the Rub al-Khali, and they lead from water hole to water hole. If not, we must pray that rain has fallen here not long ago. Sometimes there is damp sand in the hollow beneath the steep side of a dune."
I was in no hurry to try out my Desert Scout skills. All the talk of water had made me thirstier, so I unscrewed the cap of my canteen. "In the name of Allah, the Com-passionate, the Merciful," I said, and drank a generous quantity. I'd seen holograms of Arab nomads sitting on the sand, using sticks to make tents of their
keffiyas
for shade. There weren't even sticks in this landscape, how-ever. The wind changed direction, blowing a fine curtain of grit into our faces. I followed Friedlander Bey's example and rested on my side, with my back to the wind. After a few minutes, I sat up and took off my
keffiya
and gave it to him. He accepted it wordlessly, but I saw gratitude in his red-rimmed eyes. He put on the head cloth, covered his face, and lay back to wait out the sandstorm.
I'd never felt so exposed to the elements before in my life. I kept telling myself, "Maybe it's all a dream." Maybe I'd wake up in my own bed, and my slave, Kmuzu, would be there with a nice mug of hot chocolate. But the broil-ing sun on my head felt too authentic, and the sand that worked its way into my ears and eyes, into my nostrils, and between my lips didn't feel at all dreamlike.
I was distracted from these annoyances by the blood-curdling cries of a small band of men coming over the shoulder of the dune. They dismounted from their camels and ran down on us, waving their rifles and knives. They were the scruffiest, most villainous-looking louts I'd ever seen. They made the worst scum of the Budayeen look like scholars and gentlemen by comparison.
These, I assumed, were the Bayt Tabiti. The leopards of the desert. Their leader was a tall, scrawny man with long stringy hair. He brandished his rifle and screamed at us, and I could see that he had two snaggled teeth on the right side of his upper jaw, and two broken teeth on the left side of his lower jaw. He probably hadn't celebrated occlusion in years. He hadn't taken a bath in that long, either.
He was also the one we were supposed to trust with our lives. I glanced at Friedlander Bey and shook my head slightly. Just in case the Bayt Tabiti felt like murdering us where we sat instead of leading us to water, I got to my feet and drew my ceremonial dagger. I didn't really think that weapon was of much value against the Bedu's rifles, but it was all I had.
The leader came toward me, reached out, and fin-gered my expensive robe. He turned back to his compan-ions and said something, and all six of them broke up with laughter. I just waited.
The leader looked into my face and frowned. He slapped his chest. "Muhammad Musallim bin Ali bin as-Sultan," he announced. As if I was supposed to recognize his name.
I pretended to be impressed. I slapped my own chest. "Marid al-Amin," I said, using the epithet I'd been given by the poor
fellahin
of the city. It meant "the Trustwor-thy."
Muhammad's eyes grew wide. He turned to his bud-dies again. "Al-Amin," he said in a reverent tone. Then he doubled over with laughter again.
A second Bayt Tahiti went over to Friedlander Bey and stood looking down at the old man.
"Ash-shaykh,"
I said, letting the stinking nomads know that Papa was a man of importance. Muhammad flicked his eyes from me to Papa, then back again. He spoke some rapid words in their puzzling dialect, and the second man left Papa alone and went back to his camel.
Muhammad and I spent some time trying to get an-swers to our questions, but their rough Arabic slowed down our communication. After a while, though, we could understand each other well enough. It turned out that the Bayt Tahiti had received orders from their tribal shaykh to come find us. Muhammad didn't know how his shaykh knew about us in the first place, but we were where they expected us to be, and they'd seen and heard the military chopper from a long way off.
I watched as two of the filthy rogues pulled Fried-lander Bey roughly to his feet and led him to one of the camels. The camel's owner prodded the knees of the beast's forelegs with a stick, and made a sound like "khirr, khirr!" The camel roared its displeasure and didn't seem willing to kneel down. Papa said something to the Bayt Tahiti, who grabbed the animal's head rope and pulled it down. Papa placed a foot on the camel's neck, and it lifted him up where he could scramble into the saddle.
It was obvious that he'd done this before. I, on the other hand, had never ridden a camel in my life, and I didn't feel the need to start now. "I'll walk," I said.
"Please, young shaykh," said Muhammad, grinning through his sparse dentition, "Allah will think we are be-ing inhospitable."
I didn't think Allah had any misconceptions at all about the Bayt Tahiti. "I'll walk," I said again.
Muhammad shrugged and mounted his own camel. Everyone started off around the dune, with me and the Bedu who'd given his camel to Papa walking alongside.
"Come with us!" cried the leader of the party. "We have food, we have water! We take you to our camp!"
I had no doubt that they were heading back to their camp, but I had serious misgivings that Papa and I would arrive there alive.
The man walking beside me must have sensed my thoughts, because he turned to me and winked slowly. "Trust us," he said with a cunning expression. "You are safe now."
You bet, I thought. There was -nothing to do but go along with them. What would happen to us after we ar-rived at the main camp of the Bayt Tahiti was in the hands of God.
We traveled in a southerly direction for several hours. Finally, as I was reaching exhaustion—and about the time my canteen ran out of water—Muhammad called a halt. "We sleep here tonight," he said, indicating a narrow gap between two linked chains of sand dunes.
I was glad that the day's exertions were over; but as I sat beside Papa and watched the Bedu tend to their ani-mals, it occurred to me that it was strange they didn't push on to rejoin the rest of their tribe before dark. Their shaykh had sent them out to find us, and they arrived only a few hours after we'd been dumped out of the chopper. Surely, the main camp of the Bayt Tabiti couldn't have been far away.
They went about their chores, whispering to each other and pointing at us when they thought we weren't watching. I started toward them, offering to help unload their camels. "No, no," said Muhammad, blocking me off from the animals, "please, just rest! We can see to the packs ourselves." Something was wrong here. And Fried-lander Bey sensed it, too.
"I do not like these men," he said to me in a low voice. We were watching one of the Bedu put handfuls of dates in wooden bowls. Another man was boiling water for cof-fee. Muhammad and the rest were hobbling the camels.
'They haven't shown any outward signs of hostility," I said. "At least, not since they first ran down on us, yelling and screaming and waving their weapons."
Papa gave a humorless laugh. "Don't be fooled into thinking that we've won their grudging admiration. Look at that man dividing the dates. You know the packs on the camels are loaded with far better food than that. These Bayt Tabiti are too greedy to share it with us. They will pretend they have nothing better to eat than old, stone-hard dates. Later, after we're gone, they'll prepare them-selves a better meal."
"After we're gone?" I said.
"I don't believe there is a larger camp within a day's journey from here. And I don't believe the Bayt Tabiti are
willing to offer us their hospitality much longer."
I shivered, even though the sun had not yet set, and the heat of the day had not yet dissipated. "Are you afraid, O Shaykh?"
He pursed his lips and shook his head. "I'm not afraid of these creatures, my nephew. I'm wary—I think it would be wise to know what they're up to at every mo-ment. These are not clever men, but their advantages are that they are more than we, and that they know this terrain. Further discussion was interrupted when the Bedu we'd been watching came to us and offered us each a bowl of rancid-smelling dates and a dirty china cup filled with weak coffee. "These poor provisions are all we have," said the man in a flat voice, "but we'd be honored if you'd share them with us."
"Your generosity is a blessing from Allah," said Fried-lander Bey. He took a bowl of dates and a cup of coffee.
"I am quite unable to express my thanks," I said, tak-ing my own supper.
The Bedu grinned, and I saw that his teeth were just as bad as Muhammad's. "No thanks are needed, O Shaykh," he replied. "Hospitality is a duty. You must travel with us and learn our ways. As the proverb says, Who lives with a tribe forty'days becomes one of them.' "
That was a nightmarish thought, traveling with the Bayt Tabiti and becoming one of them!
"Salaam alaykum,"
said Papa.
"Alaykum as-salaam,"
the man responded. Then he carried bowls of dates to his fellows.
"In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful," I murmured. Then I put one of the dates in my mouth. It didn't stay there long. First, it was completely coated with sand. Second, it was almost hard enough tocrack my teeth; I wondered if these dates had been the downfall of the Bayt Tahiti's dental work. Third, the piece of fruit smelled as if it had been left to decay under a dead camel for a few weeks. I gagged as I spat it out, and I had to wash away the taste with the gritty coffee.
Friedlander Bey put one of the dates in his mouth, and I watched him struggle to maintain a straight face as he chewed it. "Food is food, my nephew," he said. "In the Empty Quarter, you can't afford to be fastidious."
I knew he was right. I rubbed as much sand as I could from another date, and then I ate it. After a few of them, I got used to how rotten they tasted. I thought only about keeping my strength up.
When the sun slipped behind the ridge of a western dune, Friedlander Bey removed his shoes and got slowly to his feet. He used my
keffiya
to sweep the sand in front of him. I realized he was preparing to pray. Papa opened his canteen and moistened his hands. Because I didn't have any more water in my own canteen, I stood beside him and extended my hands, palms up.
"Allah yisallimak,
my nephew," said Papa. God bless you.
As I executed the ablutions, I repeated the ritual for-mula: "I perform the Washing in order to cleanse myself from impurity and to make myself eligible for seeking the nearness to Allah."
Once again, Papa led me in prayer. When we finished, the sun had completely disappeared and the sudden night of the desert had fallen. I imagined that I could already feel the heat leaching out of the sand. It would be a cold night, and we had no blankets.
I decided to see how far I could push the false hospi-tality of the Bayt Tahiti. I went over to their small fire of dried camel dung, where the six bandits were sitting and talking. "You pray to Allah," said Muhammad with a sarcastic grin. "You're good men. We mean to pray, but sometimes we forget." His tribesmen cackled at his wit._ I didn't pay any attention to that. "We'll need water for. tomorrow's journey, O Shaykh," I said. I suppose I could've phrased that more politely.
Muhammad thought about it for a moment. He couldn't very well refuse, but he wasn't happy about part-ing with any of his own supply. He leaned over and mut-tered something to one of the others. The second Bedu got up and fetched a goatskin bag of water and brought it to me. "Here, my brother," he said with a blank expres-sion. "May it be pleasant to you."
"We're obliged," I said. "We'll just fill our canteens, and return the rest of the water to you."
The man nodded, then reached out and touched one of my corymbic implants. "My cousin wants to know what these are," he said.
I shrugged. "Tell your cousin that I like to listen to music on the radio."
"Ah," said the Bayt Tahiti. I don't know if he believed me. He came with me while I filled my canteen and Papa's. Then the Bedu took the goatskin bag and returned to his friends.
"The sons of bitches didn't invite us to join them by the fire," I said, sitting down on the sand beside Papa.
He only turned one hand over. "It means nothing, my nephew," he said. "Now, I must sleep. It would be well if you remained awake and watchful."
"Of course, O Shaykh." Papa made himself as com-fortable as he could on the hard-packed sand of the desert floor. I sat for a little while longer, lost in thought. I re-membered what Papa had said about revenge, and from the pocket of my
gallebeya
I took the paper the qadi had given me. It was a copy of the charges against Friedlander Bey and rne, the verdict, and the order for our deportation. It was signed by Dr. Sadiq Abd ar-Razzaq, imam of the Shimaal Mosque and adviser to the amir on the inter-pretation of
shari'a,
or religious law. I was happy to see that Shaykh Mahali had apparently played no part in our kidnapping.
Finally, I decided to lie down and pretend to be asleep, because I realized that the Bayt Tabiti were watching me, and that they wouldn't retire for the night until I did. I stretched out not far from Friedlander Bey, but I didn't close my eyes. I was sleepy, but I didn't dare drift off. If I did, I might never awaken again.
I could see the top of a gracefully curved dune about a hundred yards away. This particular sand hill must have been two hundred feet high, and the wind had blown it into a delicate, sinuous fold. I thought I could see a stately cedar tree growing from the very crest of the dune. I knew the mirage was a product of my fatigue, or perhaps I was already dreaming.
I wondered how the cedar tree could live in this wa-terless place, and I told myself that the only answer was that someone must be cultivating it. Someone had planned for that cedar to be there, and had worked very hard to make it grow.
I opened my eyes and realized that there was no cedar tree on that dune. Maybe it had been a vision from Allah. Maybe God was telling me that I had to make plans, and work very hard and persevere. There was no time now for rest.
I lifted my head a little, and saw that the Bayt Tabiti had thrown themselves on the ground near their fire, which had died down to pale, weakly glowing embers. One of the Bedu had been ordered to keep watch, but he sat against a wall of sand with his head thrown back and his mouth open. His rifle lay discarded beside him on the ground. I believed all six of them were sound asleep, but I did not stir. I did nothing for another hour but stare at the seconds as they flicked by in the window of my watch. When I was certain that all the Bayt Tabiti were in deep slumber, I sat up quietly and touched Friedlander Bey on the shoulder. He came awake quickly. Neither of us said a word. We picked up our canteens and rose as silently as we could. I agonized for a few moments about trying to steal food and rifles, but at last I knew it would be suicidal to approach the camels or the sleeping Bedu. Instead, Papa and I just sk'pped away into the night.

BOOK: The Exile Kiss
9.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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