Sitting on the balcony of my apartment, contemplating what a life I have had, I was struck by the grace and promise of the children playing in the street below. Scrawny with the rampant growth of childhood, far more than infants, far less than adults, they leapt and shouted with no thought of the future, or livelihood, or mortality. They were their own spaceships, swooping and battling among their stars, making improbable sounds of engines and weaponry with exulting voices.
We returned a boy about that age to Wehr when the government finally acceded to the demands of the diplomats. At least he looked to be around nine years old; no one told me so much as his name. He wore what we would consider 'little kid clothes', and only came up to about my shoulder. This child was blonde and fair, with greenish-blue eyes and the dark eyelashes and eyebrows you see on some blonde kids, the ones you know won't be blonde forever. Unlike most pre-adolescent boys, he certainly wasn't bold or outgoing: in fact he kept to himself, not exactly hiding, but definitely withdrawn, thoughtful, almost like he was listening for something.
I don't know why I was the one who ended up attached to the boy. The captain pretty much ignored him, and to the rest of the small crew of our little ship, it was just a long trip to do one little task: take this kid back to Wehr and return him to his people.
Long ago, maybe a couple generations ago, maybe more (there's a lot I never did know or find out), when the climate of Wehr really started to get bad, when they had overused and abused the poor planet beyond its ability to heal, most of its people left, emigrating to other planets where resources were still plentiful. But instead of finding renewed vigor as a people in their new settlements, they began to dwindle, their life spans getting shorter and shorter. The few children who were being born were likely to lose one or both parents before they were old enough to take care of themselves.
And not just in one or two settlements. Everywhere! Plenty of medical facilities over all their years tried to find out why it was happening, and there was no answer. They didn't even 'get old', so to speak, they just got weaker and weaker and...stopped. Of course the humanitarian efforts were phenomenal, taking care of the fading populations, raising the children, finding homes for the orphans, even foster parents among other races -- the people from Wehr were nice people, we all wanted to help them.
Somewhere along the line, rumors murmured that the people of Wehr decided that the reason for their dying lay in having deserted their planet. That it was Wehr itself that had sustained them as a people, and 'fed' them, in a sense. They started returning to Wehr.
As I understood, it wasn't that the people of Wehr were keeping in touch and saying, "Hey, it's not so bad here on Wehr after all," or sending postcards through the ether saying, "Wow, the beach is great, wish you were here!" They weren't sending back any representatives to encourage others to go home. But if there were no obvious invitations being sent, there was some sort of -- what shall I call it? -- homing instinct? telepathic pressure? -- I don't know! -- that made those people turn toward their home and start moving to leave every other place behind.
Seeing this odd racial migration, the humanitarians chipped in to find them passage, and the politicians everywhere agreed with their cause, and pretty soon just about all the Wehr who were still alive went home. Even the orphans who had been fostered out were found again, and sent home to Wehr. There were hardly any of them left, and the one we were carrying was one of the very last.
He had no baggage but what he had on his back, and the change of clothes or two that the agency sent with him, so we didn't have much to tote along with us when we landed after the two week journey to Wehr. It was eerily quiet when we came into orbit, and bizarrely quiet when we left the ship. Wehr was a desert, tan and dusty looking, and although there was some kind of oasis off in the distance, the coordinates we'd been given put us on nothing but sand, a hardpack rather than dunes, at least, but without a bit of vegetation or sign of life.
I've never lived in a place with no sound of living things. Hell, I've never lived anywhere that didn't have some kinds of sounds of people doing things: building, traveling, maintaining. But there was no sound here except the wind hooting and moaning in our ears.
There was a building, a pyramid-like thing in big steps, with a kind of wing off it, partially submerged in the sand drifts around the walls. No windows, and no door visible. We looked up at the pyramid against the blue sky with its wisps of white cloud, and figured we might as well climb it to see if we were maybe on the wrong side or something. The captain stayed beside the ship, and the boy and I walked away on the gritty soil.
There were steps built into the sides of the blocky structure, and I put my arm around the child's skinny shoulders as we began to climb. I was starting to feel uneasy about this repatriation, and although the boy had obviously not objected to coming, he, too seemed confused about the lack of a welcoming party. We hadn't grown close or anything, he was too wrapped in his own thoughts to interact in a child/protective adult kind of relationship, but just having been the one to take care of him brought out some misguided (but sincere) maternal feelings in me and I wasn't about to just drop him off and leave and hope someone came by for him.
If I had expected us to see a city or a settlement on the other side of the pyramid, then I was disappointed indeed, because more sand stretched away forever. At the top of the pyramid, instead of a point, there was a little flat area between two walls. Just in front of either wall was some kind of lens, and we stepped down one step to stand between them.
Immediately, some horrible vibration began that turned the air we were in into a pounding, oscillating, wrenching nightmare. The vibrations battered me, and I could feel my flesh being pulled and pulverized. My ears roared and I doubled over, not even able to scream. I threw myself out, away from the killing lenses. The boy, too, had bent and was on his knees, chin tucked on his chest.
"Get out!" I screamed, but he made no response. Clenching my teeth, I leaned forward and stuck an arm into that hell of vibrations and grabbed his arm, pulling him toward me with a surge of terror that my little boy would be masticated before my eyes. Then he did respond to me, but not in the way I would have expected. He battered at my arm with his other hand, and cried, "No, I have to stay! This is right!"
In shock I let him go and he sank to hands and knees in the deafening hum. And then he just...turned into light and then vanished completely. I stood there blinking stupidly for a moment, and then turned, looking around the faded stones for any explanation.
Sick to my stomach, I went back down the steps to the captain and ship and told him what happened. He took my upper arm in his hand and turned me to face the distant oasis. "More oasis just appeared over there."
We found a door into the arm of the structure that jutted from the left of the pyramid, and crawled down a little used passageway into a dark warehouse tomb of shelves, each packed full of...things. I stopped by a shelf that was jammed with dusty toys, red and blue and yellow, a couple balls, some books, a carved wooden animal in bright colors muted by the dun-colored dust. All the treasures of someone's life, carefully but tightly packed away.
A vision hit me like a thunderclap following close on lightning that this was the work of the god of this place, that Wehr had all but died without its people, as its people had died without Wehr. They came home and stood between the lenses, giving themselves back to their world to heal it. And this god who accepted their bodies back into the planet, making the desert green again, kept of them a tangible memory of the things they had loved most in their lives, little precious bits that the god would not allow to perish from existence, not though no one else would see them forever. The god loved the people of Weyr so much that not one beautiful memory, not one beloved toy would be lost to forgetfulness or time; each of the loves of the people of Wehr -- the god loved each one, too.
We left that place, and through all my years of service, and all the worlds I have seen, I have never forgotten how much I wished that at the end of my time, I could journey back to Wehr, and stand at the pinnacle, to give my life to Life, so that what I have loved would be treasured, too.
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