The moment paused around him, the decelerating planets hung, then seemed to wait; he watched his controls, the motionless readouts … he even thought he saw the intervening seconds on the chronometer’s arm hesitate, and it was as if time stood still.
But time did not stand still; the moment came and went, and the old man continued on his way, down toward a planet and a pool. Down into a modern port, a streamlined customs process, out into Andridulla, the metropolis of Empire, and beyond, on train, on trail, and finally to the mud-brick sanatorium of the pool.
The pool had been there for millennia. Even before the planet had been colonized it had existed, the product of a fault that had never on record been active, a cloudy blue pool of thermal waters steaming and waiting. And it was during the waiting, with all the invalids around, with only one freed from his diseases at a time, that time seemed to crawl to a complete standstill.
“How did you hear about it?” the woman beside him on the train asked.
He looked at her: the first reptilian woman he had seen up close. Her eyes of that peculiar greenish yellow, her skin a coppery brown. This one had shaved her hair and only wore large, gold earrings for decoration. Her eyebrows were slightly raised now with curiosity. They had a gesture, these reptilians, that the old man had begun to notice. They would hold up their fingers and lightly lick them, lightly touch them with their delicate tongues in an absentminded way when they were being inquisitive.
“I heard about it through a medium,” he said in reply to her question.
“Yes? We don’t have any of those here, but I’ve heard of them. Where did you find the medium?”
“An old station orbiting a mined-out planet.”
“What was it doing there?”
“Oh, they end up in strange places, you know. Anyway, this one wanted to restore the life of the old planet.”
“How? With settlers?”
“No,” he said smiling, “it wanted to bring or perhaps to coax back its gods.” Looking at the reptilian woman with her delicate hand held up before her mouth, her eyes intense with curiosity, the old man wondered how he could explain. “Do you believe in gods?” he asked her.
Her eyes narrowed.
That’s not a serious question here — he thought. He looked out of the window at the jungle rushing past, the exotic growth of this lush world … of which he was no part, the way his question was no part … and once again time seemed to stand still around him.
* * *
They were staying in the same hotel, and she invited him casually for a drink. The lights whirled around him. “Have another suspension?” the woman said. He stared at her breasts: round and showing from her blouse. He leaned forward and said, “I drink my suspension in disbelief.”
She raised an eyebrow but he didn’t notice because he was still staring at her breasts. They rose and fell slowly, calmly. They were chocolate brown, and her top was yellow. They were pressed together and her blouse was opened, the last buttons undone.
“I drink my suspension in disbelief,” he repeated. “I ponder the march of the inevitable, stare at the symphonic … kaleidoscope, an intricacy of light.” For some reason it fascinated him that her breasts shone, reflected the lights. “Do you know,” he added, looking up at her face, “that the mammary glands store iodine, require it?”
She remarked that she did not, but that Andridullans had iodine. “We eat a lot of fish.” She stretched lazily. Had he been looking at her face, he would have seen narrowed eyes and the flickering tongue. But he was drunk, as she wanted him, and he was not looking at her face.
“And I am dying,” he told her after this, and he saw a shudder shimmer on her breasts. He continued, explaining to her the irradiation, the disease, the diagnosis, how he took iodine and his hope. He explained it slowly, laboriously, falling asleep at the bar before it was all done.
He saw her the next morning in the blinding sunlight. “What happened yesterday? You got me drunk.” he said.
She looked at him a while, without curiosity. “I was going to seduce you … but then you told me you were sick … I ….”
He remembered ogling her breasts and was embarrassed. He looked at the fountain instead. They stood in silence sharing a moment of strange intimacy.
Then she said, “We do believe in gods, my people. I was going to offer you to the gods of the crystal, the powers of the black holes.”
He looked at the beautiful, proud woman. “You do that here still, offer foreigners in the temple? There is an intergalactic ban. I thought—”
“Of course you thought —” and something in her eyes grew remote. “But our religion is for us, and … never mind.”
“No,” he said in the bitter sunlight. He was feeling weak and vindictive. “You’re very healthy, aren’t you? I mean, genetically.”
She looked at him with curiosity that verged on warmth. “Well, we are genetically sup —”
He looked away. The light reflected on the water penetrated his right eye socket and filled his cranium with a single, sharp ache, as if rebuking him. How had she got him drunk? Then it occurred to him that perhaps she somehow repented her behavior of the previous night. But what part of it? — he asked himself cynically.
“You got me drunk,” he said, moving out of the reflected light.
She stared at him with new indifference. He looked past her and noticed a sign with a pair of whirling eyes; it reminded him of something he had see once about mesmerism. She followed his gaze and then coughed.
On an impulse, he said, “Aha!”
To his surprise, her cheeks darkened and her eyes seemed to withdraw, confused. He realized she was blushing, and he stared at her, trying to understand.
“I’m suddenly ashamed.”
“Of what?” he asked, and found her staring back. “Of your religion?”
She glanced up at the sign, and he did too. He saw the word ‘mesmerism,’ and groped: “You mesmerized to make me drink?”
She laughed out loud at this and shook her head, her color high and beautiful, her eyes bright. “You didn’t realize?”
“You were manipulating me.”
A large transport arrived with dust and a sudden crowd which divided the old man and the woman. And with the crowd, the moment drifted into the hotel and was lost.
* * *
Chaldiss was her name. Her life was a string of useless relationships and a successful career nobody knew she didn’t want. She wasn’t so much shallow as she was impulsive in her private life, cynical also about the religion of the crystals and strangely aching to find new gods. A recent experience guided her on this trip, but she knew not where.
One evening she had started playing her harmonium with so much ease and intensity that she had carried on till midnight. And then, when she had exhausted all her repertoire, felt full and empty, she went to her balcony to look over the city. There she had begun to cry.
The city lights had melted, as if hearing her inexplicable frustration, and then in the lights had emerged the pattern of a tree of beautiful shape. Somehow it was like a piece she had been playing, Manger’s Arvodeum opus 12. It was all willowy, the tree, with curls at the end of the long switches and with delicate leaves.
And then it had vanished and she was looking at the city lights from her balcony.
It had not occurred to her then that it could have been a god. She had gone to the temple afterward and offered herself, and been assigned to seduce this foreigner to sacrifice for the desperation of her soul.
* * *
The old man was surprised to find her in the transport the next day, a few seats back.
* * *
“What need,” she said that night when they had reached the end of the paved road and were having supper in the lodge, “what need if after all we are genetically superior?”
She said it gently, as if pleading, and there was no offence. And it was true: had she been irradiated like he had been, her cells would have restored themselves and she would not have been terminal like he was now. And that was all the reason why she and her people did not believe in better gods.
“But what do you want to know, then? Why come to the pool with me?”
He saw a dull, metallic curiosity in her eyes and felt anger. Did she have any sympathy for a fellow being or just a kind of insect-like curiosity? Her tongue showed, and he looked away.
Their cultures clashed in darkness in the lamplit restaurant. Her nervous tongue moved rapidly, her eyes brooded in mysterious depths and she knew she wanted at his pool to find her own new god — a god that didn’t only take but gave as well.
The waiter brought the glasses, a decanter and the colored ampules. She lifted a green ampule and watched it flower and swirl in the sparkling water.
He watched it too, and watched her drink, scowling. He remembered himself and hastily picked an ampule, dropped it in. It was yellow and made a sort of willow tree pattern in the water. As he glanced up, he noticed she was completely still, transfixed by what transpired in his glass.
“It’s like the vision in the stars,” she said with awe. The way she said it made the old man’s heart ache, and he hated her.
* * *
They were stuck waiting for a caravan to take them into the hills. The old man sat by the hotel’s pool watching the kids. They had a game with repulsor soles of trying to walk across the water. It was difficult but possible for the repulsor soles to work on water. It was better if the water was still.
One kid would start across and the rest of them would agitate the water from the edges of the pool to make the kid crossing fall. And when the kid was in the water, the repulsors acted strangely and made it all but impossible to rise again. One of the kids could and did struggle rise out of the water again. And it was satisfying to the old spaceman that that kid made it all they way across.
They had been waiting for a caravan, and the old man wondered if the woman would abandon him after all; she didn’t seem so keen anymore. She had told him she was on some kind of administrative leave from her employment. He sometimes wished she would abandon him because she often made him feel like a bug she was examining.
Now she appeared and sat down at the same table, watching the kids.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve never asked your name.”
“My name is Chaldiss,” she said, without asking for his. Then, “The caravan is ready. We can leave this afternoon.”
* * *
The pool had a mud brick building all around it, and the building had a porch which was full of genetically deficient reptilians. They stood looking around — the old man and Chaldiss, and the sight was moving to her.
“I did not know about them,” she said, “Am I the product? Are they the early efforts? I owe to them —” Her eyes no longer narrowed, but wide, her lips closed, the reptilian woman wept, and the old man watched the tears rolling down her cheeks.
In a sort of astonishment, the old man asked the nearest man why all these people were here, just to hear it out loud from somebody.
“We are here to be cured of our genetic deformities. We are the discarded.”
“Discarded by whom?”
The old man looked around, wondering who would be the next person in, how long the line was, what his hopes were, and when it was the waters moved.
And then the waters moved.
He saw it from the corner of his eye and turned automatically. As if a drop had fallen in the middle of the pool, a single drop. The ripples were spreading outward, growing, and he watched the surface of the water as it moved. For a long time he watched it, but it must really have been an instant because when the ripple reached the edge it had passed him: he was already in the water and he did not know how he had got down.
Now a tree rose out of the middle of the pool: a luminous willow, beautiful in its arrangement and light. The leaves shone and the bark was bright, and there were shadows moving under the leaves. Like fish—he thought—like darting shadows in a river . . . the ordering principle of the gods or god. And he realized, without knowing how, that this tree nourished the whole planet. And the inhabitants were all unconscious of it!
“I am the tree,” it said to him. “Come and be nourished.” It sounded like the woman, only the voice was more liquid, and more like the sighing of a wind among the leaves. “I am the woman, Chaldiss” it said, “I am Chaldiss and I am not Chaldiss for I am more than Chaldiss. I am my people and I am not my people for I am more than they. I am that which has been neglected.”
The old man looked upon the god: his friend and not his friend. He stared at the tree rising out of the midst of the waters and felt naked before the presence that spoke to him.
“I will take your disease, though you are no son of mine. I will take your disease and you must take on you the malady of Chaldiss my daughter. For I can absorb and overcome your disease, as you can absorb and overcome hers.”
“What is hers?” the old man asked the tree.
“Hers is mine,” the tree said, and it was as if the sound of rain on the leaves had uttered words. “She is separated from her kind as I am by the religion of the crystals!”
In that moment and for a moment the old man saw the stars again, but they were like trees with roots and branches, and they formed an intricate and beautiful web. And he also saw a tree alone and withering and then he looked on all the scattered stars before the vision passed away.
“Now,” the tree said, “touch me.” And it seemed to stretch a long willow wand toward the old man.
He touched it, and in that instant saw again a great web of beings all connected, and he felt a surge of joy, and everything stood still.
And then time resumed again. The reptilian woman Chaldiss was beside him in the waters, knowing that a transfer had taken place, that she had been forgiven, and that she had looked upon the god at last.
The god, the tree, sighed and faded from view, seeming to sink into the waters. The old man was left with Chaldiss. Everybody else had left.
He looked at Chaldiss.
“What did it forgive you?” the old man asked her, his voice all hoarse.
She looked at him and said, “I was going to take you and to offer you to our gods of light and crystal, our biotechnical gods in the great temple in Andridulla.”
“But you did not.”
“Had you not been an unfit sacrifice I would have seduced and prepared and offered you,” she said. And she looked at him strangely, in a way that reminded him of the medium.
“Yes, and now?”
“Now I am free of them, and now my people must be free of them.”
“How will you do it?” the old man wondered.
“I think … its seems to me that it’s already being done. I am the first and soon others will see. I think it is something the god must do, not I. Perhaps not all will follow, but look! All the people around the pool have left, they’ve already been cured. They will go back to the people that disowned and doomed them. How was it —” she said, turning “— the touch of the god?”
He reflected a while, splashing the waters with his hands. “It was … the touch of the god was … timeless. It felt like an eternity of joy.”
“And the god took an eternity of sorrow.”
“Did it?” he said, realizing then that she was right. It was the way of exchange.
“And now?” she asked.
“I start my life again,” he said after reflection.
She smiled at him and said, “Me too.”
[Joel Zartman lives and works in Bogotá, Colombia.]