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The man behind the counter stared at my hands and face, the only skin exposed by my ill-fitting clothes. I slid one of the slim, hard things they called money and used for bartering to him, but the man was still transfixed. I wanted to explain to him that what he considered so strange was very common to my people. Your skin became darker and darker, until eventually it peeled away to reveal the new, pink skin underneath. The people here seemed to have no word for it whatsoever. Of course, mine was lighter than usual; it had gotten a lot colder, shortly before I left. But I only repeated my request for water. I had to ask twice, before he finally started, and dialed the order. A moment later, a lukewarm espresso plummeted from a metallic box onto the counter. I had wanted water, but this would have to do; I did not feel able to stand under those openly curious eyes any longer. There was something in his gaze that humiliated me. “Where you come from?” the man asked, struggling to speak my language. “The higher Levels.” I told him. An *obvious* lie.
I passed through yet another crowded Level indulging in the fantasy that I had sustained ;if I just turned one more corner, I would find some simulation of the outdoors, the sun. Just around the bend, I envisioned an impossible expanse of green turf that led to a bronze sky. At this time of day, the claustrophobic corridors were filled with throngs of people. So small and pale, they looked like children. But then again, I must have appeared a giant, stooping beneath the low ceilings, and stumbling on the doorsteps. Their pearly skin shone with sweat from the hot passengers and the artificial lights that mirrored only abstractly the globe which I was accustomed to. After an hour, I was thoroughly lost, and longing for a breath of fresh air.
Anna Marie found me wandering a few minutes later “Oh, Thomas” she said in a voice of pity “I thought you knew the Levels now.”
“My name is Ugun, Killer of Great Beasts and raiders, son of Tugunm” I told her for the fiftieth time since the Council had entrusted her with my acclimation. I would have glared at her if I was in a position to do so. I hated her for her unshakeable conception that I was a barbarian—that before her people, I was nothing. I hated that she wanted me to conform, for no other reason that she firmly believed that any other way of life was unimaginably savage. And yet I was pathetically dependent on her. On all of them. “I will not leave you again, Neander.” her tongue obviously balked at my language. Anna Marie had tried to teach me hers, but like the white paste she had suggested I wear on my face and arms, the oils she had offered me for my hair, and the name they had tried to give me, I had refused. Why should I cooperate with these people when the cries of agony of my tribe still rang in my ears? I followed mutely as she led me to a quieter Level. We passed through tunnels and ducts, a lift here, a ladder there, but nowhere the sky. People parted when they saw me, and Anna Marie nodded her thanks, making the guttural hiss of her peoples’ language “Fank ou”.
When we finally stopped at her living quarters, her chalky brow was wrinkled. “Thomas” she said straining her tiny frame to touch my shoulder “you are not happy here.” It was a statement, but her eyes posed it as a question as well. I ignored the name, “No”. She spoke musingly, half to herself “But you have been here almost six months—six moons” she added for my benefit “The others adj—”
“Others?” I demanded, excitement choking me “others?” I envisioned an end to my loneliness and my exile among these strange people.
She smiled, revealing her obscenely straight teeth. I had often wondered how these people tore their meat, though I had seen none since I had come. The food consisted mainly of brightly colored foods with tecxtures and tastes that I was unaccustomed to. “Now I have irritated you.”
In my frustration at her misunderstanding, I hit the hard walls behind her. “You will never gain citizenship this way.” she reproved, unfrightened “You must maintain an outward calm—”
“Others” I gasped “You said—”
“Thomas…Ugun, calm yourself” she murmured soothingly, wrapping her flabby arms around my waist.
“Others. From my tribe.” I shrugged off her embrace.
She frowned “No. Not from your time.“
“You lie” I insisted.
“No, really” she pulled me into her quarters “Believe me. I did not mean to upset you so.”
But I would not let go of my newfound hope.
“Please.” Anna Marie spoke as if calming a herd beast, “Please believe me. You were the only one we could save from your time--your place. The others are from --you would not understand--other times.” There was silence for a moment, then she added”We are a merciful people.”
Estimated sun goings later (there was no real sun there), my allotted “acclimation” period was half over and Anna Marie no longer monitored me constantly. For days, I wandered aimlessly through the corridors of as many levels as I could—they had given me an unlimited pass for the moment. The first few days, the simulators were delightful, and the synthesized gardens were a constant pleasure. But as time went by, I lost the sensation of a child leaving his mothers hut for the first time. The people never seemed to engage in physical labor and my muscles ached to build a hut, or pursue a beast, but there was no recourse for my desires. But, just as my body longed for physical labor, my heart longed for you, V’iar. You whom I had become mate with shortly before I had been uprooted. You whose hair was fairest in the village, whose skin was bronzed like mine. But my thirst whether for work, my mate, or meat and bread, could not be quenched. And just as my search for water had been rewarded with bitter caffeine, my desire for my old life was rewarded with a sour monotony. How could the strenuous life that I had lived since infancy be replaced by wandering through corridors, or my love replaced by a pale skinned Anna Marie or any of her breed? Each sleeping period, when I finally settled my troubled mind and slept, I always dreamt of you, your long hair floating in the wind, the sun shining on your naked bronze skin. Behind you stretched the greenness of land going on forever, until it met with the brilliant blue of the sky. In my recurring dream, you always ran to me, running, your arms outstretched, reaching for mine. But though I reached in vain, I could not grasp your hands. We were always a sunray apart.
I spoke to no one for sun goings, and hid from their prying stares. I ate their food with the shame of a caged animal, and wore their clothes with the compliance only of a prisoner. But my skin began to fade to a sallow brown, and with it so did my spirit. When Anna Marie came to my quarters and told me that I must begin language classes or I would be judged as uncooperative and be punished, I agreed without a word. I let her rub paste into my skin and file my nails. In the months that came and went, I found my teeth blunted, and my hair cut short. I learned the concepts of words, shapes, colors, and machines. When people called, I came to the name of Thomas.
“See, Thomas” my language teacher Dylan said one day “You are much happier now.”
“Yes” I agreed in his tongue but in my mind I was Ugun and I was hardly content.
Finally, one day, Anna Marie came to my quarters. “Come, Thomas” she said, slipping her uncalloused hand around mine “Today you will become a Citizen!”I still could not stand these people’s touch, but I let her lead me through a set of corridors I had never traversed. She babbled enthusiastically about the benefits of citizenship until even I was caught up in her excitement. I would be able to have an occupation, choose a mate (she called it a wife), earn money… Anna Marie went on for the hour that we stood in the lift, going higher or lower, I couldn’t tell. She paused briefly, to bring a thin metal stick attached to a sack from her hip case. “This is an inoculation” she announced. I might have refused for her to use the unfamiliar name and tool, but she pushed it into my arm swiftly. It hardly hurt, and I turned my mind to her depictions of citizenship. At last, when the brushed metal door began to slide open, Anna Marie stopped talking. I waited for her to leave the lift first, but she shook her head. “I am not going with you” she said. I stepped out. “Thomas” Anna Marie faced me as the door slid shut “I wish you success.”
I did not want her good wishes, but I smiled, and stepped away from the lift. I turned. And before me stood my mate,V’iar, your long hair floating in the wind, the sun shining on your naked bronze skin. Behind you stretched the greenness of land going on forever, until it met with the brilliant blue of the sky.
You saw me and ran to me. Tripping lightly over rays of golden light, you ran, holding out your arms. “My love, come to me” Deep in my mind, I knew that this was impossible. You was not here among these people, nor were grass and trees, the sky, or the sun. And yet, I reached for you, trembling that I would be unable to take you in my arms, fearing that this was again only a dream. But you ran to me, and I found I could touch you. I held you against myself, relishing the feel of flesh beneath my arms. You nestled your head against my chest, and I held you. V’iar! My darling V’iar.
At length, you looked up “Thomas, will you come with me, back to our hut?”
There was something wrong but I could not grasp what it was. I stood there for a moment.
“Thomas! Will you come with me? You won’t go back to them?”
The sight of your face and your flowing hair for which I had so long craved overwhelmed me. I nodded to my mate, and we ran towards the sun, running forever, together.
But when I awoke, it was not against your arm, your hair blanketing me, but with cold metal sticking to my skin. I sat up quickly, but unsteadily. My vision blurred, and I sank back against the metal slab. My head ached, and I would have slept forever, if not for the realization that once again, I had fallen prey merely to a dream.
A voice cloaked with a newfound assurance, but nevertheless the voice of Anna Marie resounded in my brain. “Thomas, we know you’re awake. Get up.”
“What--?” I heard my own voice rasp.
I opened my eyes slowly and faced a circle of men, each small and pale, staring at me with open curiosity.
“I just wanted some water” I mumbled “Not this”
“You overdosed him” a voice muttered “This is a waste of our time.”
“I’m fine” I assured Anna Marie.
“Very well” Anna Marie spoke for the assembly, though she stood behind me “Will the leader bring forth the charges?”
Another, smaller man rose.“Thomas. We have harbored for two year” or two winters “we have required nothing of you but to adjust, and become one with the people. Have we not provided you everything you needed? But though you had many warnings and opporUgunities, you remained stubborn in your old ways. Even when we thought you had finally adapted to our civilized way of life, in your final test, you proved otherwise.”
“Final test?” I blinked “there was no—”
“We have been studying you, as we do every foreign applicant for citizenship—“
My mind suddenly cleared “I never applied for your citizenship” I snapped. “I was given no other choice.”
“Ungrateful” commented the speaker “and disrespectful. Nevertheless, your final test. Your experience was a drug induced hallucination. Anna Marie, you are commended for your excellent acting”
These words meant nothing to me. “Anna Marie?”
“This” rejoined the leader “is beyond the point. We have saved your life and given you every opporUgunity to—“
“Saved my life?” I insisted “You stole me away. You—“
I was speechless, unable to believe that these men believed that they had saved my life. I remembered that day, when the great metallic hulk had landed in the Village. All but the finest warriors fled to the mountains from the strange blaring voice. Of all the warriors, the best in the village, I who had killed but fifty Large Beasts survived the bursts of sound that the strange object emitted when we attacked it. Metal arms had carried me inside… to where I was now.
“Anna Marie” one of the old men murmured in their language “I thought you explained.”
“He wouldn’t listen. I—”
“Tell him now.”
Anna Marie turned to me “Thomas, we are a merciful people. We seek to save life where we can. There was a –a large rock coming from the sky. It has destroyed the place that you remember. All of your” she paused, thinking of the right word in my language “Tribe has probably been destroyed. We had hoped to save all of your people—“
“I do not believe you” I said.
“It is the truth” said the leader.
“This is ridiculous” I shouted “No ‘great rocks’ fall from the sky! I-”
Behind the men, a great picture suddenly came to life. For a moment, I was filled with joy to see the place that was my home again. But my joy quickly turned to sorrow as I watched the skies darken, and the impossible happen. A great stone fell from the sky, and the place I knew was crushed and burnt and surrounded in a dark, swirling cloud.
“Are we not merciful people?” the leader inquired “We wished to save your tribe from their extinction. We saved you from death. But you are a stubborn, ungrateful man.You wish to go back to your world? Very well.”
I had fantasized about these words ever since the beginning of my imprisonment, but now, watching the flickering, burning swamp that I had known as bright, fertile place, my happiness was muted.
“You will become the father of a new world. It will be yours to rule and shape. ” The leader turned, and walked away, the other men following him, leaving me alone with Anna Marie.
“You will become the father of a new world. It will be yours to rule and shape. ” she spoke in my own language, smiling “Are you happy now?”
“Yes.” I said “I am very happy.”
On the long journey home, they taught me of things I had never learned. Irrigation, the taming of beasts, how to cultivate grains, tame fire, and write. I still hated them for their murders of my Tribe’s warriors, for their attempt to “civilize” me, but they gave me such learning freely and I was not fool enough to refuse. They gave me knowledge and knowledge is power.
And finally, it was over, and I had returned. I stood on the ash scattered ground and watched the strange shape which I had inhabited for so long, slowly leave as the bird does. This place is not the same as when I left it. Much of the green is burnt and the beasts dead, the sky is darker than I remember. But you are alive and we will restore it, and rebuild it. You and , V’iar, and our children. Together we will build great Villages. The world will become fertile again.
Now my story is over. Moon Rule is fading into Sun Rule, and when the sky grows brighter, I will teach you collect to seeds from the grass plants. I will teach you to fashion a digging tool that is more than a stick and I will show you where to bury each seed.