They walked together on a bleak plain of seaside pebbles, captain and crew of the good ship Cheops. The sky was purple, it seemed to crackle at the edges. On a slab of shale among the pebbles there was a lichen growing. They had come to see it. According to Cheops' computers this was the only life on shore, the only life on a planet.

"Imagine that," said Merle, the captain. "Lying there quietly for millions of years, marching to the beat of a different drum. What insouciance."


They stepped out into unutterable smog. The ground underfoot was squelchy red dirt, the place resembled a tropical construction site under gas attack. They were inside their suits. Eyes that should have been streaming remained calm. Skin that should have been blistering and screaming felt nothing. They groped a little way into this muck and couldn't remember why they had decided to leave the ship. Cheops didn't come out from wherever it went inbetween unless it had identified some sort of planetary system. But it had never yet found anything like a habitable world.

"I didn't like that," said Merle, back in shirt sleeves inside.

"It was like being dead."

"How do you know? How would you know what that's like?" asked Sugi, the engineer. She laughed hopefully at her own joke: no one joined in.

Merle stared her down. "I think I have a pretty good idea."


They had been sent out in a spirit of the purest speculation. The Cheops was the first crewed interstellar probe -ahead of its time and dazzlingly expensive. They were covering unimaginable distances, but inside the Cheops there was no perception of the time and space outside. It was a small ship, the crew environment
a poky cabin in which they fell over each other; and another pod, reached through a diaphragm, where they slept strapped to the walls. This pod could be booked, by a scrap pad notice pinned to the soft rubbery doorway. If anyone lost the safety pin it caused great resentment. There was no gravity. A small object, once
mislaid, could get absolutely anywhere. They said that being on board reminded them, variously, of the mouse cages in New Kyoto; of life on a non-violent ward; of hanging round a soup-kitchen. These were the lives they knew, none other. Cheops overcame the problem of interstellar distance by constantly disintegrating and reintegrating itself: slipping in a flux of particles from one strand of galactic spaghetti to another. Extraordinary techniques had to be used to prepare human beings for this performance, and it had emerged that a history of
mild mental illness was the best primary indicator in selecting candidates for the new frontier. Further screening had identified the ideal minds, all of them with the same slightly abnormal brain chemistry: Dr Irwin, Professor Shaw, Dr Nanazetta, Dr. Ohba, Dr. Mihalaska.

The scientific qualifications were required for public relations, just as long ago the men who would sit strapped helplessly in primitive projectile capsules had had to be career test pilots. In fact Sugi had no engineering to do. Irwin could add little to the computers' analysis of climate, Sasha the anthropologist expected no field work. Even Nanazetta the
physiologist was not regarded by anyone as the ship's doctor.
Merle was the captain: but her title was as irrelevant as the others. The group was supposed to operate on consensual decision-making.

The five didn't like each other, but that was no special problem. They were all of them accustomed to having poor social lives. Invitations to the sleeping pod were arrived at in roundabout ways. Irwin was frequently employed as a go-between, because he was thought to have a friendly smile -if you could catch him between bouts of sour depression. Sasha was celibate: Nanazetta took this personally and nagged her about it. He bitched at Irwin too, because he was black and therefore (by Nanazetta's reckoning) had always been sneakily favoured by the team back on earth.
Merle's promptly announced and executed programme of trying anyone available was designed to save her from rejection on a more personal level, which it did. It didn't save her from general dislike. She guessed before long that she'd been appointed 'captain' because of, not inspite of, her somewhat abrasive personality. Captain equals scapegoat. The only person who still tried to be friendly to her was Sugi, and unfortunately the cheerful engineer had quickly been relegated to the foot of the pecking order, with the captain naturally pecking harder than anyone.

The days they spent in Cheops had the same hours as days on earth and moved in the same way, aimlessly and uncomfortably. Alarm call, get up, have breakfast, go to work, don't go to work, argue, have coffee. But the nights were long. When Merle lay in her bodybag, arms drifting above her face, she remembered strangely every bedtime of her past when she had longed for just what she was given now: night unfathomable. Not terrifying extinction but sleep. Sleep for a hundred years, sleep without dreams.

They were eating lunch when Cheops made its first landfall after the red smog system. In the earlier stages of the adventure they would have been excited, but now, when their morning came -as Cheops came out of flux within the system of a planet bearing star- they went about their business as if nothing was happening.The designers of the Cheops project had set a high value on crew morale, which they knew was bound to be shaky. Everybody was provided with exactly what they most liked to eat, which made mealtimes interesting in an appalling sort of way. Irwin ate nothing but organically grown haricot beans and fresh tomatoes, baked in olive oil and scattered liberally with chopped raw garlic and bombay onion. Nanazetta preferred huge hunks of practically raw meat, and had never troubled to learn to chew with his mouth closed. Sugi sucked vegetable soup out of a spouted beaker. There were hideous sound effects as she hauled up the tasty glutinous fragments that settled on the bottom.

Merle was on the fourth 'day' of a fast, and she was worrying Sasha.

"You must eat, Merle. We must behave normally. For everybody's sake -"

She herself was eating carrot cake with sour cream: her tongue collecting delicious crumbs and smears from around her mouth. After a lifetime of guilty obesity she was free at last, she didn't have to care anymore. It was wonderful.

"It's a protest," said Merle. "If you don't leave me alone I'll refuse to use the toilet next. And see how you like that, in here, comrade."

"Arrogant bitch," muttered Nanazetta.

Cheops tactfully offered a diversion. They had landed.

Lunch was abandoned. The ship's lander, in which the crew environment was embedded, had allowed them no sense of descent or impact. Only the screens now told them that they were planetside; and that exploration was possible.

They stood in the lock, five glimmering figures packed close together. It opened, and the new world rushed in. A dozen or so smaller Cheops remotes jumped out and scurried away like active little silver lobsters.

"Jibbooms and bobstays," said Merle. "Shiver my timbers. I can't believe it."

They appeared to have landed on a golfcourse. A serene, well-tended golfcourse, the rolling greens broken up by patches of flowering shrubbery.

It was Irwin's turn to name the planet. He decided to call it Ma'at, after the cosmic principle of harmony worshipped as a goddess by the Ancient Egyptians. He explained this in a rush of exuberance. He wanted to honour the race of the pharaohs now, at the moment when the project was finally justified, for their
inspiration, their mystical influence... Merle groaned and rolled her eyes. Irwin's mood swings bored her: and yet there was an awful temptation to provoke them.

"I heard it was called Cheops because there's never been more stupid waste of more money and brains since the pyramids."

But everybody approved of Ma'at, nonetheless. Five gleaming dolls spread out: first stepping carefully, then walking; then skipping, running, prancing. After the Cheops -not to speak of their lives on earth- this green paradise went to their heads like champagne. They ran around the bushes, laughing. Sugi picked flowers.

Sasha knelt and touched the turf. It was really a close matted creeper with tiny violet flowers. She wondered, could the machinery be programmed to tell her what this would feel like to bare human hands?

The Ma'atians arrived quietly. There were about fifteen of them. They came out of the trees on the edge of the glade where the lander stood, and stared. They were terracotta coloured, humanoid, rather tall and slim. They wore few clothes. There were no signs of humanlike secondary sexual characteristics.

The earthlings were transfixed, embarrassed at having been caught skipping about like children. The silvery Sugi doll hid its flowers behind its back, and all five earthlings heard her nervous giggle.

"They can see us!" cried Sasha, confused.

"Of course they can see the suits," snapped Merle.

"Contact! We aren't equipped for this."

Captain and crew retreated, precipitately, back into the ship.

"What are we going to do?"

"Fuck knows," growled Nanazetta. "Have we any weapons?"

"Make love not war-"

"Will they be able to hear us? Will Cheops give us voices out there? We hear ourselves but that's different isn't it. That's like the carrot cake-"

The others, even Merle, ignored her faux pas.

Irwin was shaking visibly -head to toe hysterical tremors.

"It always gets me like this," he kept muttering. "New people. Strangers..."

Merle laughed. "We're not going to do anything. Cheops is God. Cheops will let us know what the rules are. Come on, ye lily-livered scum. Out there and enjoy yourselves. Captain's orders."

The Ma'atians were still there. Some terracotta figures were examining the landing site, as if planning to present a bill for damages. Luckily it had been a soft touch down. Other Ma'atians sat on the violet flowered turf. They seemed completely, eerily unsurprised. The five heard whistling and clicking sounds, and saw teeth like white needles.

Sasha spread her gleaming arms.

"We come in peace -"

Nanazetta was following the site inspectors, making menacing gestures.

Whistling and clicking: it sounded articulate, modulated. She believed it was language.

"We come from another world. Do you know what that means? We're on a voyage of exploration."

One of the Ma'atians came close and looked Sasha up and down.

It (she? he?) gestured in an uncannily graphic manner at her, at the tiny lander.

That's a very small ship, it 'said'. It peered around and waved its arms. Where's the rest of the expedition?

"There are only five of us," she explained. "We're the crew of an experimental probe. We're quite harmless."

(And at that moment knew this was a lie- )

Another Ma'atian came up to Merle. It waved its hand across her gleaming breast, across its own body and announced (it seemed) something important.

"And my name's Merle," said the captain affably. "Merle Candida. My mother didn't like me, she named me after a disease. I'm the captain here. You'd better take me to your leader."

The star of Ma'at was smaller and more brilliant in appearence than the star of earth. It was descending in the sky, clear diamond white as Venus, as the explorers were led into the native settlement. The Ma'atian houses were scattered, with green plots between them. They had dark brown walls and white or red tiled roofs with turned up eaves. The party with the Cheops expedition shrilled and clattered: soon a collection of smaller,
plumper terracottas had gathered, popping out of the little houses or jumping up from among the greenery. The plump ones were wrapped in garments. They seemed less phlegmatic than the first group. There were shrill cries: somebody, Sasha saw, seemed to faint or collapse. There was a lot of urgent whistling, waving and even physical grappling between the two groups.

"These must be the women," decided Irwin, a smirk in his voice. "Typical feminine behaviour." He said it solely to annoy Merle. But Sasha answered thoughtfully.

"Wait until I see them dance-"

"Dance? Why should they dance?"

That was Sugi.

"They will."

Five of the plump terracottas finally came forward. They raised their arms face high, forearms crossed. They made expansive gestures.

Our home is your home. Please, accept our hospitality.

Later, after more gestural conversation and quantities of whistling, there was a banquet. It was served on patios of beaten earth outside the little houses. The Ma'atians did not appear to have developed any communal or ceremonial buildings: their welcoming feast was a street party. The tall slim ones ran to and
fro between the houses with bowls of hot porridgy food, flat dishes laden with what seemed to be flowers, bundles of creeper stems; oblate, double spouted pitchers of liquid. The household that had been awarded the honour, or terror, of entertaining the strangers did not seem surprised to find that their guests could
not or would not eat. Heaped dishes were brought to them, presented and removed without rancour.Then the Ma'atians danced. They danced separately, and in small groups. They tumbled down the housesteps and danced neighbour to neighbour along the little alleys between their gardens. There were no musical instruments. They sang and clapped, without losing breath, to give each other the time. They danced how happy they were to be alive, and what a beautiful day it had been. They danced a little fear -not much- and a good deal of amazement. They danced wisdom and serenity, mischief and sex (these last were chiefly handled by the taller group).

Sugi turned to the anthropologist, mystified. "Hey, Sasha. How did you know?"

"Well, comrade?" inquired Irwin. "Which is which?"

"I don't know," she mumbled, and felt herself hunching up in the suit: trying defensively as always to hide her horrible folds of flesh. "I don't know. I haven't a clue."

Nanazetta was muttering, "Watch out. Watch out. This could turn sour at any moment."

Sugi chortled "Oh shut up you old misery," and thumped him playfully.

The captain tried not to look at anyone, especially not at watchful Sasha. Her throat was swollen and her eyes were stinging. She felt humiliated. It was the sunset light -the venus sun now vanishing in a haze of gold, the flowers whose scent she would never know. It was the comfort and joy out there, out of reach. These things were getting to her as if she was maudlin drunk.

Two plump Ma'atians came over. They indicated, quite clearly, that it was Earth's turn to perform. Sorry, but no thanks, indicated the Cheops crew.

Oh, but you must.


The plump Ma'atians were consternated. This failure seemed to worry them far more than the strangers' weird appearence, or their refusal of food and drink. Maybe they're not human after all! - they whistled to each other.

And they were right, of course.

"Well come on, why not?" Sugi was ready. "Let's get down."

"No!" snarled the captain.

"We can't dance." she told the Ma'atians, in English, forgetting to gesture. "We don't dance. Not since we joined this expedition. We'll never dance anymore."

The Ma'atians put up their crossed forearms, repeatedly: they made soothing gestures, apologetic at having run heedlessly into an alien taboo.

"We want to go back to our ship!" shouted Merle.

They understood that, too.


Cheops had found exacly what it was looking for. It settled down in orbit to count over the treasure. Its landing party, meanwhile, behaved according to profile. Sugi was having a lovely holiday. She didn't even have to eat the funny food. She made no attempt to try and find the limits of what Cheops allowed: in fact she rarely moved more than fifty metres from the lander, except when she joined organised excursions into town. She seemed to Merle to be constantly looking, on her little walks around the golfcourse, for a sign directing her to the beach.

Nanazetta watched out for trouble.

Sasha Mihalavska and Bob Irwin made notes. They established that the Ma'atians in this village had no meat or dairy animals. They observed what appeared to be several species of flying lizards (they flew like bats) and many things that looked like brightly coloured giant millipedes. These seemed to be the only large fauna around. The vegetation suggested an equable warm temperate climate, wind direction was steady and gentle. Bob deduced -perhaps prematurely- that the Cheops had landed on an island. Sasha was not so sure. There were convincing indications, in the variety of artefacts and implements, that the Ma'atians belonged to a large and sophisticated cultural group. If this was an island it was a big one. There ought to be towns, maybe
cities, and yet they must be some distance away. No other natives had come to or left the village since Cheops landed.

In the crew environment they typed up their notes, under Merle's sardonic eyes.

The question of Ma'atian gender was not cleared up for many days, not until they'd evolved some quite sophisticated gestural communication. The answer explained the odd calm of their first encounter. Ma'atians were not well endowed with secondary sexual charcteristics. Their apparent dimorphism was a matter of age. It seemed that their vertebrae settled together and major bones became more dense and shorter at maturity: the tall slender ones were children.

They were very like human beings. If there were ever humans, that is, who lived in such perfect contentment.

"What happens to you when you die?"

Sasha and Bob had found an older Ma'atian, an 'old lady' they called her, who was willing to be their confidante. Her social role was not clear but she seemed unafraid of the strangers and accustomed to impart and receive knowledge. It bothered Sasha that she still was not sure whether her voice could be heard 'out
there' as it sounded inside her suit. Selfconsciously, she mimed death.

We go to another place, answered the old woman.

"What's it like, this other place?" asked Bob. He was becoming very adept with his dumb shows.

The old lady thought for a moment, then made the sweeping, disancing gesture.

"Schoo... Schoo...Ichi...Icchi..."

She thought again, and started away, beckoning.

"She's taking us to paradise," crowed Bob Irwin, sotto voce.

Not to heaven but to a blue lake, unsuspected before, beyond the terraced houses and gardens. It was the first body of water they had seen. The old woman crouched down. She smiled, (needle teeth, the same modified snarl) and swept an arm over the water.

"Water burial?"

"No." Sasha knew how much room there was for misapprehension: and yet what was there to trust in a situation like this, if not intuition? Understanding thrilled her...

"I know what she means. She means the reflection. Heaven is like here. Heaven is just the same as being alive."

Someone laughed. A shiny doll stalked across the turf: Merle had been following them. She knelt by the pool and flicked her silver, stylised hand into the surface. Loveliness vanished in a welter of bobbing ripples.

"You can look, but you'd better not touch."

Merle laughed again inside their helmets, and the doll walked away.

"I'm getting very worried about the captain," said Sasha.


Merle picked a fight with Bob Irwin. She was envious of the new friendship of course, and it had to be Bob she attacked because she was a little afraid of Sasha. Bob made some joking remark about the Ma'atians getting the impression that Earth was a female-ordered society, and she was onto him immediately.

He defended himself: "Well, you are the captain. And you girls out number us boys. That's all I meant -"

"And why do you think that is, Bob?"

"I don't know-"

"Could it be statistical? Could it be there are so many more 'mad' women scientists available, that with the worst will in the world this transgalactic political advertisment had to have a female majority? In fact, over all, Bob, I think you'd find there are far more 'mad' women about of any persuasion. Able to walk and talk and keep themselves clean, that is. Men have to be doubly incontinent psychopaths before anyone declares them unemployable or locks them up- "

"Quiet down!" yelled Nanazetta, banging his dinner tray on a bulkhead.

It was mealtime again, of course. Shards of mashed potato and bloody beef sailed through the air and landed -splat-: because they were not in space now and they all knew it.

"I'm watching you, Captain Shaw. You're trying to fuck us up. You're bad for our morale, Captain. And I'm going to report that,when we get home."

"You stupid bastard. None of us is ever going home."

"Yes we are, Merle," Bob broke in quickly, (he wished he'd never started this). "When the survey's done we're going right back to where and when we started from, we're going to get debriefed out of the project and go on with our normal lives."

"Only richer -" he added heartily, and Sugi cheered.

Merle seemed to grow calm. Perhaps even she realised she'd gone too far. She smiled a little and nodded.

"Mmmh, yeah. Okay." She sighed innocently. "You know Bob, I've thought of a better name for this place. You ought to call it Duat, not Ma'at. I'm sure you remember. That was the Ancient Eygptian word for heaven."

Bob and Sasha and Sugi, all began to smile.

"You know, the place where the dead people go."

They stopped smiling.

The captain snickered unkindly.


Sasha explored the outskirts of the Ma'atian village, admiring the beautifully tended little patches of subsistence farming. No doubt because of the confusion of that first encounter, she had a persistent impression that the Ma'atians were not the simple primitives they seemed. But there was no real evidence for this fantasy of an advanced, post-industrial idyll. Not that it mattered. She had to admit, Merle had a right to sneer. She and Bob were just playing. They had no way of knowing even whether their 'notes' actually found their way into Cheops' records. Still she couldn't help looking at this place with greed and awe. A new race! It was riches beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

She supposed that must be what the Cheops was thinking too, as it circled around this world. Riches!

It was absurd to feel concern for the Ma'atians. No doubt the crowded and hungry earth would be glad to colonise this lovely place. But there was little danger of imminent invasion. Even apart from the ruinous expense, you wouldn't get the most desperate colonists to accept the terms the crew of the Cheops had
accepted: and the alternative (she had a rough idea of the notional realtime/space element of their voyage so far) would be a journey of several hundred years.

There was nothing to be done in any case. Sasha, none of them, had any chance of concealing information, of taking any control at all of the mission or their ship. She thought wryly of jeering comments that the first American astronauts had had to endure from their pilot buddies: a monkey's gonna make the first flight. The Cheops crew were less than monkeys. They travelled on the Cheops like fleas on a dog, though a quite irrational proportion of the finance had been devoted to arranging their passage. Human interest stories always help to raise funds. The 'experiences' of the crew would be retrieved and reconstructed as marketing videos. But she had no control even of this 'suit' in which she walked, though apparently by her own will. It was a
remote function of the AI out in space, like the lobster things but less useful.

The development that had made a crewed probe possible was a technique for transfering the whole of a human subjective entity into electro-chemical storage. As pure information then, the passengers could disintegrate and reintegrate without injury: stitching in and out through the vastness of space/time. The
process was a genuine transfer, not replication. A brain-dead body remained on earth, while that which was Sasha felt itself to be here and intact: filling this suit with arms, hands, belly, fingers, like some Kirlian ghost. In a way it did. They had been told that EVA 'in' these humanoid shells was important for their survival: analog of the endless exercises with which earlier spacefarers had warded off bone death. But where was she; in reality?

She had been able to accept, just about, the consensual reality which they created inside the lander (very small, for five people, as the Ma'atian child had so naively observed): and been able to stretch that reality to include their earlier excursions. It was Ma'at that was giving her problems, breaking her up. They none of them knew how anything worked. Cheops was supposed to run a life support system, giving them anything they needed in the way of perceptual construct to keep them sane. How far would it go? Sugi Ohba had always cared least -or at anyrate seemed to think least- about their existential predicament. Since the landing on Ma'at she'd been behaving exactly as if her suit actually contained her body. She picked flowers! What did the AI out in orbit make of that?

Sasha felt the vertigo which they had been warned to avoid. Like Orpheus they must not look at what they were doing, or it would vanish... She trembled (and that seemed real). She had accepted the bargain willingly, embracing a heroic destiny as they said on her country's television. She had felt that she hardly deserved all the approval: after all, she didn't have a lot to lose.

Sasha chewed miserably on her non-existent lip.

To dance.

To touch someone's hand..., to touch even a leaf or a flower...

They must keep the consensus going. That was why Merle's cynicism was as dangerous as Sugi's thoughtlessness. It was true that sexual equality still had to be achieved, especially in the former 'western' nations. It was true they all had hard-luck stories. But life is always better than death.

Beyond the farm patches forested hills began, but there was a well trodden path. A plump terracotta figure was watching her, leaning on a kind of hoe in one of the last vegetable gardens.

"Is there another village?"

Sasha pointed down the path and sketched roofs in the air.

The woman (close up you could tell from the clothes) left her hoe and came over. She gestured, and whistled "Schooo."

Sasha and Bob had decided that one meant something like 'far'. They were compiling a tentative glossary.

The woman looked her dead in the eye (another shared cultural gesture, like the concept of heaven). She crouched, and drew in the dirt. Houses: a little cluster of turned up roofs. "Schoo, schoo-"

Then down the path...several strides. Another tiny sketch of roofs. The scale was clear.

"Heesh! Heesh!"

The woman jerked her hands in the affirmative sign: and again looked at the invader straight: firmly, undeniably intelligible. We like it that way, she said. We like to be friendly, but we like people to keep their distance.

Sugi was by the lander, looking lost. She was waiting for a mealtime, guessed Sasha. Sugi could not snack, she had lost the ability in institutional years.

"These people are so nice," she burst out. "You know the boys who come and hang around the ship?"

Those were girls and boys but Sugi didn't understand that.

"They were here earlier. And the one I call Charlie, he sort of asked me -clear as words-: Why don't you stay with us forever?"

They entered the lander. As usual Sasha's consciousness ellided the transition: the two of them were in the crew environment, in their shipboard clothes. The idiot woman beamed and sighed. She was having a holiday romance now.

"Isn't that lovely. D'you think he means it?"

Sasha wished that someone else was here.

"He means it. They don't want any of us to get back to earth."

"Huh? Er -Why not?"

"Are you kidding? Because they're not stupid, you idiot. Not stupid at all."

Sugi took fright and retired into the sleeping pod. Sasha felt a desire to eat (for reassurance), but no appetite -the phantom itch of an amputated limb. That was a danger sign. She thought about the five of them, lying back on earth like so many Walt Disneys in their glass coffins; and with just about as much chance (let's face it) of successful resurrection. She could imagine the Cheops team agreeing among themselves. We'll find
ways round the problem eventually. But so it goes. You can't make an omlette without breaking eggs. She had sometimes thought the 'special brain chemistry' was a myth, invented as compensation.

But she still wanted to go home. And the Ma'atians didn't understand.

Where is Bob? she wondered in sudden panic. Where is Nanazetta, where is Merle? They don't want us to leave, to go back and report on this choice bit of real estate. They're trying to split us up, they're picking at the weak links.


Merle was alone, most alone. She could have been in Eden before the fall. She had walked into the hills above the settlement. They had closed behind her: now there was nothing, not even a whisper of birdsong or the sound of water. She followed a ridgepath, deeper and deeper into a world of green crags and plunging chasms. This is Treasure Island, she said to herself derisively. Presently I will shoot a goat, and dress myself in skins. Her Kirlian eyes were wide open and very still. An enormous presence watched at her back and looked down at her from the heights. She was afraid, though there was nothing to fear; and finally so afraid that she could go no further. She sat down on a rocky promentory beside her path. This is how it must have been, she thought, to wake up in the world. The first thinking thing, looking at the not-thinking. So much greater than I. The huge crags looked down at her tiny figure, impassively. She was aware that to endow that green immensity with persona was a reflex of fear: fear of what it really was. Slowly, slowly, she let the
fallacy slip away. And fell into unknowing...

After a while, she got up and stripped off the suit. She was naked under it. She stood examining her body, wondering if she would know it among a hundred other bodies of tallish, dark haired white women -apart from the all too familiar face. She thought not. The small white sun was warm. She could feel it, she could
see the shadow it gave her.

A Ma'atian child appeared, coming down the path. On seeing her naked it beamed all over its face and sat down on the edge of the promentory.

"Hello-" said Merle cautiously.

She knew this was an adolescent female, from the patterns on the tiny kilt slung around its slender hips. If you didn't look too closely it made a pretty young woman, inspite of the fishlike needle teeth.

You have taken your clothes off, remarked the girl, in gesture and whistle-clicking. We didn't think you could do that. We thought you were maybe ghosts.

She touched the shed carapace curiously.

Merle laughed lightly.

"What a silly idea."

Perhaps the laugh seemed like an invitation. The child settled more closely on the rocky perch, and took Merle's thick white hand. I like you very much, she pantomimed. Why don't you stay with us, don't go away in that little box. I wish you would stay.

The pretty girl seemed sweetly sincere: however, Merle understood at once that she was being tempted; and why. She started to giggle. It was so ludicrous. Make love not war: Sugi had said that. Which was typical of Sugi, the good hearted simpleton. Sugi was probably the only one of them all, villagers and invaders, who didn't know this paradise was doomed. The natives had no way of guessing their world had five hundred years grace, at a conservative estimate. But Merle was not about to try and explain that. Let them sweat. After all, technology does make giant strides sometimes. They could be right to be scared for their own skins.

"Why should I want to stay with you," she snarled, abruptly losing her temper. "You made me suffer. Just when I thought it was all over damn you. You made me feel things I thought I was safe from forever. You want to know the truth? We're not explorers, we're a bunch of escaped maniacs. And the rest of the asylum's
coming right after us."

The child was not affected by human rage. Emboldened by the lengthy speech she moved even closer, grinning. We call you, the people who wrap up their farts, she confided. It must get very smelly inside your boxes.

The mime was clever and ridiculous. Merle snorted. They laughed together, uproariously.

Merle wiped her eyes: looked down at herself, looked at the alien girl: in sudden, belated, heart-catching wonder...


Sasha was still in the crew environment, panicing and wishing she could make herself feel hungry, when Merle joined her. She began checking over Cheops' present status on the information screens. She was obviously in a foul mood.

She glared at Sasha and asked abruptly -"Have you been having hallucinations?"

Sasha was alarmed.

"Have you?"

Merle just scowled.

"Where's Sugi?"

"She's sleeping."

Merle groped around in the wall niches. She located the worn piece of scrap paper, and after some rummaging the safety pin. She pinned the booking notice on the sleeping pod diaphragm. She seemed to be daring Sasha to comment. As she was about to disappear, she looked around briefly.

"Cowardice and stupidity," she said in a bored tone. "Are the mainsprings of your existence. And mine. Do you know why they picked us for Cheops? Because we're too stupid to kill ourselves, and too scared to do anything else."


Sasha went up to the lake, feeling safer now that both of her weak links were accounted for. She was thinking wistfully that Cheops was bound to call an end to shore leave soon. A shiny doll came running up. She was afraid it was Sugi or Merle, turned violent. But it was Bob Irwin.

"Where's the captain?" he yelled

"She's in the sleeping pod with Sugi."

"Oh -shit. We've go to do something. Nanazetta's jumped ship.


"He has! He has! I found his suit. He dumped his suit!"

Sasha jumped to her feet. "They've got the Do Not Disturb sign up," she wailed.

The token was so sacred that even in this crisis they didn't know what to do.

"Fuck it -" decided Bob. "We'll go after him ourselves."

"Go after him?" Sasha was bewildered. "But he's, I mean, if he's not in the suit?"

"Sash, either I'm going crazy or... Come and see."

The suit was where Bob had found it, stowed in some composting vegetation at the bottom of a Ma'atian garden. The footprints lead away: distinctly human, nothing at all like the slender tracks of the natives. The Ma'atians agreed that the fifth stranger had gone away. They even agreed, reluctantly, to show his friends where he was.

Nanazetta had covered a surprising ammount of ground: when Bob and Sasha discussed it they couldn't remember when they had last seen him. He could have been gone for days, and their 'reality' might have just closed over the gap. They lay in their shiny suits under unknown stars beside the two adult Ma'atians who
were leading them. Neither of them managed to sleep.

In the morning they found him. They had been following a rocky valley which dwarfed the tiny stream buried in its midst. Ahead, the country was beginning to open out. They could see that this was no island. The green crags were the foothills of a great mountain chain, which loomed up against the lemon coloured dawn sky.

"Awesome-" breathed Irwin.

And there was Nanazetta. The Ma'atians gestured upwards, and Sasha saw the phyisiologist's big burly pink body. He was watching from a grassy cove, a natural step cut half way up the valley wall. The figure bobbed out of sight.

"He's up there!" cried Bob. "Let's get the bugger!"

The Ma'atians stayed below. Bob and Sasha climbed. In the cove, an extraordinary sight met their eyes. Somebody had started building a hut. There were Ma'atian artefacts strewn around, and on a flat rock someone had been mixing brown clay with water to plaster the stake and creeper walls. A Ma'atian boy squatted beside this rock, his arms wrapped around his knees. To Sasha he looked proud and frightened, and a little guilty. She guessed at the desperate plotting: the urgent deliberations of a society not given to violence trying to invent strategies for survival against the odds. It was a world of affection and comfort: they had no
other weapons.

While Sasha saw this Bob Irwin was catapulted back to earth by bewilderment. He saw the boy as a youngster of his own race, and was appalled.

"You can't mean to live with him!" he cried. "You're ruining your life, kid. The man's a horror story. He eats red meat!"

He remembered the glossary, and tried whistling and clicking: hoped he was saying something..."Don't stay with bad stranger. Your people better. Go home!"

The boy whistled and clicked too: it sounded almost the same.

"Hey! Leave the kid alone!"

Nanazetta came running out from behind the half built hut, brandishing a knobbled tree root.

Bob and Sasha grabbed at each other clumsily."Okay, Nanzetta," quavered Bob. "Party's over-"

"Don't waste your breath. I like it here. I've got myself a girl, the food's good. When you get back, you can report me missing."

"That's a boy, Nanazetta," Irwin told him, exasperated. "We can tell by the kilt."

The physiologist flushed darkly, colour spreading down his chest through the thick mat of hair. He was wearing a Ma'atian kilt too.

"What the fuck business is it of yours? Get off my patch!"

"For God's sake Nanazetta. You aren't really here. None of us are really here. You don't exist at the moment, except as an array of -of psychic dots and dashes, or whatever it is, in Cheops' memory. You can't have forgotten that."

He had never accepted it, not deep down. That was his secret. He could not take seriously any theory of the human entity as something that could exist separated from the body. Nanazetta believed in flesh and blood. He hefted his twisted root, smiling contemptuously. He knew who was crazy.

"Nanazetta!" cried Sasha. "You're betraying your planet. I don't know what you've done, but you mustn't do it. We are all of us part of the Cheops. You're going to wreck the whole project-"

"So why should I care? Did anyone care what would happen to me, stuck in a cryogenic vault while my 'Kirlian structure' was off shooting round the galaxy? Piss on them. Piss on the Sahel, Piss on the Boers, Piss on the teeming masses everywhere. This is my promised land. I'm staying."

"Oh Bob, this is crazy. This is just another shared hallucination. He can't have escaped. He's still part of the
Cheops, and he'll be back in the crew environment at take off with the rest of us. He can't help it."

Nanazetta's fury boiled over. He charged across the cove. Sasha and the boy clung to each other this time, Bob tried to run.

"Get the fuck off! Get the fuck off!" gasped the big man hoarsely, flailing with his root. Bob scuttled, dodged. Nanazetta went flying past him, still yelling furiously, over the edge of the shelf.

He landed with a crunch, out of their sight below.

"Oh God -"

Down by the side of the stream the two adult Ma'atians were bending over something fleshly, solid, and still.

Nanazetta had broken his neck. He was dead.

The boy brought a kind of digging stick down from above and all five of them took turns at the work. They buried him where he lay. The Ma'atians seemed to think this was the right thing to do, and Bob and Sasha were in no state to argue.

On the journey back they camped when darkness fell, as before. In the middle of the night Sasha jerked awake. She shook Irwin violently.

"Bob! We shouldn't have buried him! The contamination! All kinds of bacteria -viruses. We'll have to go back and dig him up and, and burn him!..."

Bob waited until her babbling ended in silence. Each of them, in Ma'at's radiant starlight, bright as a full moon on earth, stared at a metallic doll.

"Was there a body?" asked Sasha at last. "Do you think we're imagining all this?"

"I don't know. But no body left earth, Sasha."

"Oh good. So no earth bacteria can be contaminating Ma'at."

Slowly, Bob removed his suit. Sasha did the same. Bob dug his bare hands into the dark soil and looked at them. There was dirt under his fingernails. He could feel the grit on his palms.

"This is impossible," whispered Sasha.

They put the suits back on.

Sugi was waiting for them at the settlement. She didn't seem to take in the news of Nanazetta's death. She had worries of her own.

"I don't know what it is, Bob, but I can't seem to get into the lander. I must have locked myself out."

She was confused, showing the pathetic wariness which they remembered from the first days of Cheops, before she got to trust them.

The Cheops lander looked the same as always, a glassy tetrahedron that turned from black to silver as the light struck it. It stood in the centre of the glade, under the clear blue sky: a large packing case that would open when triggered by Cheops, just big enough to fold in all the AI's mobile exploratory hardware. Including five servo-units converted from human pressure suits.

"It's bigger inside, isn't it," suggested Sugi uneasily. "Only, I can't get in anymore."


It was cooler that night. Sasha and Bob sat on the porch of the house that had been lent to them and watched fireflies. They had taken off their suits again and were wearing borrowed Ma'atian garments, the light swathing folds making a comfortable cloud of Sasha's gentle bulk. Sugi, surprisingly, had made a swift and complete recovery. She was down in the settlement somewhere with her holiday friends. Faintly, the marooned explorers caught strains of the earthling dance track which had been top of the charts when Cheops departed.

Merle was gone. They had searched for her, they had asked the Ma'atians. But all that anyone would do was to point to the hills. She went that way. Schoo...Schooo. She has gone far.

"Should we go after her?" wondered Sasha.

Bob shook his head. In the quiet of this night he could think of the captain with apology. They had all picked on her, and it wasn't fair. It was only the nature of a born solitary, forced to live always in a crowd, that had made her so abrasive. But he could do without her angry, restless presence.

"No, let her be. Let her find her own promised land."

On earth the Cheops development team was waiting for the ship's return. Cheops had been launched by a conventional rocket system from earth's surface, for no space station yet had the capacity to deal with such a major event. It had winked out of existence slightly beyond the orbit of the moon and at once passed out of all human contact, all knowledge. Its return was supposed to be to the same location, a year downstream in
time. There was no real reason for the 'safety' period. But even the designers of the probe had found themselves unable to accept completely that time could now be treated as a landscape...

Meanwhile here, on Ma'at... The "fireflies" were actually luminous spots on the tails of little night-hunting lizards. But they danced just the same.


Bob pulled something out from under their doorstep. It was one of the lobsterlike remotes: stiff and dead.

"I found it in the street. What happened, Sasha? Don't worry, I know we're stranded, I'm not going to get hysterical about that. But I simply don't understand-"

"I suppose -well, Nanazetta broke free: but I think we all... We all found out how good life can be, and didn't want to be ghosts anymore. The probe, the Cheops AI, started off with the directive to preserve our sanity by giving us what we wanted immaterially. But I think five hungry humans influenced it more than the team at home reckoned for. In the end that directive had become its vital task. And there was the flux principle. I mean, the process of break down and build up was there, and we unconsciously activated it -with a different orientation. Instead of remaking itself somewhere/when else, Cheops made itself into something else. What are bodies after all: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen? And it had all the information . . . Well, something like that. That's my theory, anyway."

"Okay, yeah, but it doesn't work out, Sash. Nothing comes from nothing. Look -this er, lobster's still here. And the lander, and all our suits. It can't have made us out of Ma'atian materials. How could it affect them? That's crazy."

"No, Bob. You weren't listening. I said The Cheops converted itself, don't you get it?"

"Meaning what?"

The shore party had often watched the Ma'atian sky at this time. Together, and briefly more or less at peace, they had waved and cheered as little Cheops tracked by overhead, Ma'at's new satellite. The Ma'atian night was the same: moonless, ablaze with jewels. Maybe the good ship Cheops had gone home alone. But Sasha didn't think so. Five solid human bodies had to come from somewhere. She heaved a sigh. Her socialist conscience pricked her a little: but she could not seriously regret the way things had turned out.

"Watch the sky, Bob."

Tonight, all the stars stood still.

first published Interzone September/October 1989; reprinted in the collections Grazing The Long Acre, PS Publishing 2009; and in The Universe of Things, Aqueduct Press 2011

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