The BOOKPRESSFebruary, 1996

Terrestrials


Paul West

I

Never having seen themselves from above, or behind, as they sat side by side in front of twin panels bristling with toggles and switches, rosy bulbs and quivering blue-metal needles, Booth and Clegg did not know they resembled two inhuman helmets with fins. In the nineteen-fifties, or even earlier, you could buy candies in the shape of these men: jelly-babies, and you popped them higgledy-piggledy into your mouth, sank teeth into several at one time, mingling raspberry, grape, honey, orange, peppermint as your saliva flowed. Or you bought plastic replicas of such men for pennies, wondering how mannequins could be manufactured at the sit, with thighs drawn up and knees bent. Then glued them, an inch high at most, into their seats in the model, usually an airplane, but sometimes a motor torpedo boat or a flame-throwing tank. The expressions never changed. The thighs and knees never unbent. The helmets never came off.

So too with Booth and Clegg, at eighty thousand feet over a smudged curl in the Nile west of Abu Hamed with Mount Oda behind them to the east. At three times the speed of sound they were only half an hour away from their Turkish base. Had their cockpit been open, as in the old barnstorming days, their speech would have been ripped away by the slipstream, or indeed their heads from their necks, and their blood forced back into its soft tubings even as the near-vacuum of the heterosphere invited it into the open.

Below them were the mother-of-pearl clouds, at over ten thousand, and the night-luminous clouds, at between forty and fifty thousand. The two men were at operational height and carried no armament. A homing missile could track and destroy them, but so far none had, this being their fifty-seventh mission over the desert and the Red Sea. They always turned back at Margherita on the equators three thousand miles outward bound, the same back, with hardly a movement of their heads, only their hands in mitts plucking on the control column. A computer flew them while they sat as if in a doll's house with the meagerest slant windows in front of them. Outward bound, the sun on their left. Homeward on the right. It barely had time to seem to move.

The airplane's name was Cyrano, for its long nose and its assignment to snoop. It was one of the best but least-known aircraft in the world: dartlike, black, rear-heavy, stuffed with cameras and sensors, its range preposterous, its potential unlimited. Priests in white coveralls tended it. Acolytes laden with passes and name-tapes came to eye it and yearned for the day when they too could fly it- Or would be flown by it. In that cabin nothing went wrong, nothing was unforeseen. Neither Booth nor Clegg looked down at his blunt-booted foot and saw a stowaway spider glinting emerald through the vizor. Neither man felt a draft, got a stiff elbow the next day from the wind coming in. No one threw up in there. Their privates were bound tight as the feet of children in ancient China.

The only sound was that of an oxygen tent, with the measured hiss and amplified suck of breathing. They said little, used an occasional expletive, mild as Hell, look at that substrate gauge, or murmured a name, Massala, or a map reference confirmed. Possessed, they skimmed south-east, parallel with the Red Sea, aimed at the Indian Ocean. The cameras and sensors functioned as and when the computers dictated, so there could be no blame. Yet semi-heroic this milkrun had come to be, with always the chance of a heathoming missile impossible to elude. Not for Booth and Clegg the vision of Earth swathed in blue haze made by the atmosphere's dispersal of light's blue component. They saw curds and whey scattered over a mottled azure flecked with pale green quadrants and oblongs, and straight lines of white as if epoxy had spilled along a seam.

Jockeys they called themselves, mock-modestly, their suits vermilion, their helmets white, their mittens canary yellow, Booth tall and dark, Clegg of medium height with brownish, faintly graying hair that showed most in his sideburns.

The cooled nosecap slid out over Lake Tana, shunted it behind as Addis Ababa appeared down-range like pumice rubble dumped on a mountain top. Booth felt an itch, really a slight induration resulting in a callus within the crack of his behind. Clegg just felt hungry and craved a smoke, he being the smoker in the pair. Alert to risk, but inured to boredom, they had only temporary thoughts and rarely remembered what they said to each other during flight. It was as if they had been anesthetized. They returned, to sip coffee, still sweat-soaked, testy with unused adrenalin, sore-eyed, and galled from the too-tight harness. Booth read a financial weekly flown in from London and printed on paper of subdued pink, while Clegg inhaled deeply his long-awaited cigarillo, sometimes tugging out from its tip a long strand of fiber inserted to hold the leaf together.

Addis past, they bore down on Lugh and Juba to the tealblue Indian Ocean, curved round in a tight turn and came back, this time farther east so as to take them homeward along the exact line of the Red Sea's western shore. A fine day, as usual at that altitude, but dull so far. They had laughed so often at saying this, they said it no more, but it endured, like a grievance. Almost any given day in their earlier lives had been livelier than this. They longed to be novices or juniors again, and never mind the cost.

II

On first meeting, Clegg found Booth sarcastic and imperious. A man so tall, just within the maximum for pilots, could afford a less commanding manner, or so he reasoned. While Booth found Clegg a moody starer, his hands a bit too fat, Clegg countered with affable mumbles and inaccurate quotations from the fishing encyclopedia.

So it was a standoff until they were chosen to train together, then fly together, with Booth in command. First the elementary stuff on Northrop T 38s, followed by intensive work in the simulator and five transition flights in the 71B. To thin down, Clegg went on a diet of fish, broccoli, and fruit, and then was obliged to cut it all out for steak and eggs. Cyrano crews had to eat high-protein, low-residue meals, which had been Booth's favorite all his life. Gradually, Booth's manner began to seem a natural out-growth from his military role. The two of them began to reminisce together in the officer's club, quaffing tomato juice from embossed silver tankards. Somehow, Clegg's punctured feet matched Booth's broken arm, and Clegg's vestigial limp with a touch of tiptoe in his heavy tread echoed, to Clegg at least, the hand that could not quite touch eyebrow when Booth returned salutes.

When they spoke at last of sex, Clegg confided about his divorce from an assertive, tank-trunked interior decorator with periwinkle blue eyes. He missed the house but not the wife. Booth, convinced that he would be insatiably faithful if he ever married, told how he missed California, reassuring himself that in a Cyrano he could be home in much less than two hours. He thought of California as of a woman, and all the women it contained were his, on the beach, the freeway, the campuses, in the banks and the driveins. He and Clegg shared anattitude to sex, not so much casual as absent-minded. When making love, they thought about their flights, as if locked in some vaginal cramp of sheer aether, and, during their missions, they salted their tedium with improvisatory bordello vignettes, even to the extent of inserting the air dream into the ground dream, and vice versa, so that often they were not sure if they were dreaming of flying while they were having sex or dreaming of sex while flying, or dreaming of both while doing neither.

In the main, two kinds of boredom afflicted them, and they sometimes yearned for the open-cockpit camaraderie of World War One, when opponents waved at one another over chattering slow guns, or for the chastities of some mythic, decent marriage, in which sexuality mingled with lawn-mowing and grocery shopping as just another item on a list, when the children were asleep or at least in bed. At supersonic speed, when the outside skin temperature reached over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the Cyrano grew ten inches in length, an almost organic, human thing. They knew this and exulted, completing a lascivious thought.

All they dreaded, apart from cramp and boredom, was solar flares, lethally radiant, but these happened once or twice a year and could be predicted. Booth murmured hello to Djibouti as they slid over its khaki splotch at a height of sixteen miles. He mentally registered at the Hotel Continental, strolled outside again to stand in one of the Roman arches and study a ferny tree bang in front of him, his only thought that, seen from offshore, Djibouti's whitewashed stone-and-mud houses and its bone-white sands made an inviting vista, whereas, ashore, you found the heat, the flies, the fleas, all merciless even when a wind came in along the mole. Clegg himself dreamed of the Mal, or centaur fish, found only near coasts where the trees were so thick a cat couldn't get ashore, as Columbus once wrote in his log. Booth hated the sea, but it mesmerized him, while Clegg had no attitude to the sea at all except that, much as Booth thought California full of women, Clegg thought of the sea as full of fish. Two men, stranded priests of the highest technology, let their minds dawdle while their aircraft raced ahead.

Yet for both of them no dream, no matter how gorgeous or thick, altogether shut out the reality of the Cyrano itself, in which two men, though similar in age, bound by friendship, honored with the same ribbons on the chest, functioned as steeplejack photographers. Hourly they received images of some hundred thousand square miles of only potentially interesting terrain. And that was that. Like the rudimentary eye in science primers, they sat passively in static relationship to light, no longer caring much if the film they took was of military significance or not. Something voyeurish jaded and sapped them. Their careers had begun to resemble those of mailmen, fashion buyers, dealers in antiques, all of whom plugged on year in, year out, never knowing when the ax would fall, on a snowy or a hot day, before or after a meal and the milk of magnesia, on the stairs or in traffic. Technically the missions were hazardous and the odds kept on remaininq fifty-fifty. Clegg refused to speculate. as usual, but Booth pondered the odds daily, marvelling at juxtapositions of all kinds, from the permanent crease in his best pants to the map of Africa, just as permanent, that slid below them, from the knobs on tha radio in his air-conditioned quarters to the toggles before him in the cockpit.

A superb line chief groomed the Cyrano for them. There was never a walkaround inspection. The line crews wore foot muffs and used small mats when servicing the plane. An entire medical team prepped them every time. But they had both discussed, intoning the phrase softly as if it had magical properties, breakoff phenomenon. which was the psychological feeling of being alone in space. This was their drug and their disease. The only cure was to have more of it. The lull went on, a hiatus of lulls, in which they functioned perfectly as machine-minders, good men both, high above the railroad from Djibouti to Diredawa, like a dropped strand of barbed wire. Safe in the titanium shell that was as strong as steel but lighter by far, they became somnaerialists. soothed by the same aspirin as the rest of the world, but as remote and unknown as if they had come from a different planet to look at Earth, map it, and go back home to drinks of molten rock and meals of fungus ingested through the pores of a carborundum skin.

III

When the flame died in the left-hand turbojet, the only tangible-audible effect was that of a vibration and a hum removed. Warning lights twinkled as thc computer corrected the Cyrano's left sag, but the engine stayed dead, and the altimeter began to whirl.

"Try yours," Booth told Clegg in a rehearsed whisper, and Clegg did, with a peculiar sense of being outside his own body, outside the plane itself, and looking on, as if death had already intervened. Then the other engine quit, a rare chance but not unprecedented. Sabotage was the word Booth mouthed as the Cyrano dropped like a forward-lunging grain elevator from eighty to sixty thousand feet. Try as they did, they could get nothing restarted within the accelerant whine of sixty streamlined tons beginning to steepen its dive to the desert. It was a titanium sailplane now, controllable only while going fast. Level, it would have reeled sideways and rearward into stall and spin. Once again Booth was trying to land on an attack carrier, only this time in something gross and unwieldy, Earth rotated him, and was now hauling him downward, below fifty thousand, in the same passive role. Out went the encoded Mayday signal, just the permitted once, and he heard the increasing buffet and whistle from outside, a sound coarse and spasmodic. He became dizzy and told himself to keep his head utterly still, and then he became sluggish, though calm, while something useless coursed through his brain like quicksilver: the remedy, the answer, maybe, but indecipherable. The cockpit had become full of noises, including those in his head. Who did this to us? Who'd know how? Who shot us down? What with? Scumbag politics. Who prepares for this? Who ever got out of it? Damn the future. We're just like Gary Powers 'cept we have the brains. Damn all air forces.

Ejecting was simple enough, but Booth could think only of its dangerous complications, its sheer irrevocability. A poor-sounding splumf took Clegg upward, then horizontally because the Cyrano was diving, and then out of sight. Booth armed the camerasensor self-destructs and, for the second time in his life, blasted forth like a seed, only today within a supersonic escape capsule with Mach 3 capability, survival gear, radio, and buoyant for water landings. His mind formed the cognate verbs reject, inject, project; what a pedantic taskmaster the old brain was.

Now each man was a monad in a capsule, buffeted but sealed away, each fierce in his keyed-up trance, wondering if he would ever have to do this again: Booth plucked horizonward now in a somersault that took place thirty-odd thousand feet over the rusty-looking cobweb of Eritrea. Out popped the stabilizing tubes, like telescopes, to check the spin as soon as it began, and they saw the Cyrano explode far below them, soundlessly. I am Booth, Booth felt his mind say. I am still Clegg, said the other's mind. All they had were torn thoughts, not about each other. Booth had lost Clegg, and Clegg Booth, yet externally speaking their encapsulation was the same. Their throats were sore from oxygen. Their eyes dribbled. The heated canopies were not warm enough. Now Booth, beginning to think they had been shot down, saw a huge mountain range, in fact the one in which Clegg had already landed, his mind feverishly switching between shot-down and sabotage. What was that mottled darkness of splits and blanks into which Clegg had descended like a human arrow entering meat? In fact, he was marooned on a sheersided plateau, his mind a spastic jumble in which the phrases blown up, shot down, chattered to him derisively, reassuring him that nothing in their training got them ready for this -- nothing in their lives or reading. Cyranos had gone down, but for the prosaicest of reasons. This, this was sacrilege.

Down Booth floated with the drogue chute open above him, plucked invisibly, small and too small until the main canopy bloomed, apex first, followed by the skirt and shroud lines. He saw two or three panels rip, perhaps even an entire gore, but he reassured himself that such mishaps were standard. Of course. The air-anchor held firm while he drifted away from the mountains, down toward the desert, then below sea level into a depression of hot salt.

It was six thirty-eight Zulu Time when the capsule, with egress window already open, clunked along the salt-pans and rumbled to a dangling halt with the mild implosion sounds of light-bulbs smashed and, harsher without being extra loud, the noise of an old snow-shovel.

Booth with sunglasses on felt less hammered-at by light, less as if he were standing on a chunk of the sun. His skin crawled as his body tried to cool itself. He shook his head, his arms, to dislodge the envelope of sweat. No sound reached that silently stoked morning, in which not a bird cried, not an animal scampered. He heard the salt creak and inhaled an aroma similar to that of swampwater. The untidy bundle of orange laundry that was the parachute lay still as the salt in that breathless oven. He was down, and almost out, and where was Clegg? Things beginning this badly ended worse.

Ah, he breathed on the compass's glass face, then spread out on a piece of chute fabric the bandages, the bandaids, the pack of knife blades, the tube of antibiotic ointment, the tin of aspirins, the ammonia inhaler, the triangle bandages, and the pack of water-purification tablets. For sure he was going to be healthy now, and he almost saw himself presiding at a lonely salt-pan jamboree, troughing on soup mixes, hard candy, vitamin capsules, in a panama hat improvised from the heavy aluminum foil the food was packed in.

Dizzy again, he sipped water from a thermos, set the beacon for below sea level, and arranged the chute's main canopy into a low tent. Then he crawled underneath, came out again and daubed ointment on the insect bites that adorned his face and arms. After that, he checked his heat tablets, his signalling mirror, his penlight flashlight, and wondered what use any of it would ever be. That he was alive and unharmed cheered him no end, certain as he knew he was to be found within the day. Already the Cyrano was overdue, and, though no helicopter from his own base could reach him, and no rescue plane land hereabouts, he could easily be snatched up in a harness that the Hercules snagged by flying over low, as over a tennis court and hooking the top cord of the net. Was it truly like that? You sat in the suit that was a harness and waited for the plane to get the cord centrally, and then the huge pull as you climbed skyward even while being reeled in. What did they call the damned thing? Breeches-buoy? No, that was a Navy thing. This was the sky-suit or the air-chair. The Hercules dropped it to you, like rescue manna, after which it was easy. so, OK, two required. Drop one to Clegg as well and waft us home for dinner. If you prayed for one, or two, did you get instant service? He did not even know what to pray for, but he had seen the device work in a movie when they floated out a Viet Cong general just kidnapped.

Thus far, Clegg had not even dared to move. After an endless-seeming but sunny descent during which he felt almost glad of the change in his whereabouts, he sailed past a mountain's peak, then drifted along a razor-backed ridge, thinking how humped, how rigid, how sullen and iron the planet looked. Next came a series of collisions with rock spurs projecting from a sheer wall down which his capsule coasted, twirling and rebounding with crashes that jarred his teeth. Along a ledge his capsule went, almost halting as it settled, only to be plucked up again by a ripping wind. Then it resumed its ragged descent. He felt shaken about as if inside a child's plastic rattle. All he could see now was a massif against whose anvil wind and gravity kept pounding him. Accustomed to the smooth sensations of flying in the Cyrano, he wished himself twelve miles higher up, sleighriding in the same harness and seat. He was far from ready for the sudden stop which, unlike its predecessors, remained a stop and was not the prelude to another shuddering tumble.

He glimpsed a wall of rock, haunch of something vast. On the other side was a more distant wall dropping to the valley floor, how far down he could not tell. Then all vision ended as the chute collapsed, enclosing him and his capsule in an orange blur. The only way to fix his whereabouts was to get outside and look. How wide was the shelf he was on? Going out, would he plunge a thousand feet down a sheer cliff, in a cocoon of plastic, dragging the capsule after him? Or would he lift the fabric and stride clear, down a gentle incline? He slid the window-panel open and began to use the knife. Layer after layer exposed only more orange. He found olive bird-dung on the knifeblade. He listened, heard only his breath, then some shredded kind of call -- bird or what? The shroudlines creaked under a strain he could not identify, and an occasional click came from the canopy as it did something small.

After a while he became reckless and sliced away madly at the chute. When the knife finally seemed to move about in air, and wiggled freely, he cut out a patch and looked across about one hundred yards to a layer-cake wall of rock, golden tawny in the sun. There was nothing in between. of whitish sand, the valley floor was perhaps four or three thousand feet beneath him, shelving gently for the last thousand, but, for the upper two thousand, perpendicular slate. The capsule was on the very edge, maybe a foot or two over it, and the chute hung uselessly down.

A sudden movement on his part and he would plumbline to his death. A gust, claiming enough of the chute's area, would also send him down. At some risk, of course, he could stay put until his food gave out or he was found. He switched on his Mayday beacon, thinking he could combine shroud lines and fabric strips into a rope of sorts, but one almost a third of a mile long. Handful after handful, he slit it and pulled it in, hardly knowing what the next stage of the process would be. After all, to what would he fasten the one end of his makeshift rope? He had not yet found even one of the shroud lines with which to make a start.

Tomorrow's mission, flown by Xavier and Young, would go on as usual, while he and Booth alternately froze and boiled in the least known of the less known parts of Africa. Their only reason for being, his and Booth's, had been aerial. and now they were so much refuse. He yearned for the tie rack whose rotors had slowly turned his neckties for inspection and selection. Which tie went with which suit and which socks? Facing his walk-in closet, he used to activate the little motor and watch his ties revolve like clusters of snakeskins whereas his half dozen suits hung still, his shorts lay flat, and his shoes aimed their plane-like noses at him from a rack. That slow whirligig of draper's bliss had given way to a gradually unrolling film of Africa.

Clegg worked at his rope without even looking down, aware of blisters already forming on the tips of his fingers and thumbs. Above him blue sky quivered in the gash he'd made, requiring of him a mental effort that said it was the same sky he'd flown through earlier that morning. Lymph gathered in his blisters. The rope grew longer. He was wondering why, in extreme situations, human thought became barbaric and conjured up only violence and hate. It was the mind's way of recharging itself, a reminder not of what it feared to lose but of how not to lose it. Coughing dryly, he paused in his work for a teaspoon-size sip of water, the taste almost that of the distilled variety. What if Booth had already been saved? Had they truly resented each other? Would he care if Booth survived? If Booth died? No, he told himself, all that is beside the point. Two men, so far two survivors. It must be so. Just the onboard computers have died.

He had an extraordinary sense of having been simplified or factorized, for the first time in years equipped with a genuine horizon. He knew now where he ended and other things, or other people, began. Parameters had come to life, that deadhead jargon word sprucing up. High in what he guessed was the Tegre range, he wondered how cold the night would be, how many nights he would have alone, and how to fortify himself without hymn-singing, abrupt raucous shouts. or biting his lips in order to taste blood. So should he work all through the night? If he went too soon, his descent would end in a long drop. Was it better to go at full strength down an unfinished rope than at one fourth strength down one that reached all the way to the ground? Other pairings occurred to him, such as half-strength down a half-rope, the one criterion being the maximum drop he could survive. Sixty feet or fifty.

It all depended on what he wanted to do once he was down, whether to walk to death in the desert or to die broken-legged at the mountain's foot.

In a daze he began to work again, cutting fabric and twisting it as if making firelighters from newspaper. Then he tied the ends together. After an hour, although he still had not laid hand on a line, he saw one coming up toward him. At his feet he he had a fifteen-foot daisy chain of orange loops, an heroic promise that he would not let himself die.

IV

A shrewd observer with some military flair, and a feeling for savage topography, might reasonably conclude that these two men would now encounter different fates: Clegg, high up, likely to be torn to shreds by eagles as if he were in the Caucasus; Booth captured by some fearsome breed of desert isolatos, who would first castrate him, and his shrieks would somehow blend with Clegg's terrible cries as the eagles snipped away at his liver. They might have been bored to death, of course: first bored one hundred per cent, then giving up the ghost without a murmur. Such things have happened. Glancingly, Clegg and Booth wondered about each other, but readily got back to the matter at hand. A summary of their sufferings would be unfeeling, whereas a second-by-second recital of them would be tedious and try the reader's patience. It ill-suits to say they bled and wailed dozed and shuddered, guessing always what was coming to get them (this including a rescue machine of some kind). Say simply that they lasted from day to day by numbing their imaginations, Clegg allowing himself to think he was the mercury sinking in a thermometer, Booth a newspaperman sent to meet Doctor Livingstone. Beyond such paltry sideshows, imagination served them not at all. They sank their identity into their body processes, into their very peristalsis, their rumbles and burps, their aches. They became agonizing pre-cadavers, refusing to think in terms of numbers, and they lasted, Clegg until he had converted the remains of the parachute into an unuseable rope, Booth until a crew of shaggy-looking salt miners, accepting him as a gift from the gods of physical labor, put him to work alongside them, cuffing and nudging him to put more effort into his chores. Clegg's mind, which had at first receded from the barrenness and vacancy that.surrounded him, and had then shrunk from ceaselessly peering at himself, now retreated yet farther, into the very stratosphere of self-awareness, losing himself in impersonal quavers. Booth, newly exhausted, lay down on the job, heedless of dunts applied to him with a pole. Clegg almost deliquesced. Booth drained away into the salt. No one saw Clegg and those who saw Booth took no interest in him. This was the middle of their history, a few days, but long enough to transform them into hulks of trauma, still aware, but waning fast, with just enough volts traversing their brains to wonder if God had seen them and was going to intervene.

He did. A searching Russian helicopter, on loan to the local regime, found them both (they were not far apart, not as the chopper flies) and brought them back into civilization, Clegg by now a mountain man, wordless and frozen and annulled, Booth a parody of homo faber, Man the laborer, not quite gruntless, but dehydrated and racked with pain. Were they still alive, they wondered. Were they still American? To whom would they belong henceforth? Neither man spoke to his rescuers, but their lips fell open at the smell of water.

The Russian helicopter had made the same overwhelming noise: how the almighty would sound if he spoke. For Clegg the chopper was like the apparition of a bridge disintegrating and falling, for Booth a contraption not of this Earth, indeed a tractor; say, or a plough, something that could not possibly fly, but did. So fast they went from samovar and vodka to bagels and yoghurt, from an allnight orgy to breakfast. It was as if one part of a bargain had been paid ages ago, and the rest of the transaction had to be done in haste. The Russians did not want them, did not need them; it had been agreed that piLots would be returned without delay, hindrance, questioning, or even prejudice. Such were the boons of an extinct war. But, Booth thought, it was only the style that had slipped; the basic underlying situation remained the same. He had a secret self that Clegg knew nothing of; he was so open-minded he belonged to both old rivals, which made of him a Colonel Facing Both Ways, persona grata to both though only paid by one, in dollars. Clegg kept breathing hard, as if to glean answers from the very air, first of all back in Turkey (where birds picked fortune-cookie type predictions from a tray for a pittance. Then a slow boat cruised them from Cairo to England, through the fabled Mediterranean.

"The open sea at last," said Clegg, not having relished the torrid delay on the Bosphorus. His white-sheathed arm hailed the sun lolling in the south across miles of shot-silk Aegean.

"You could cover your arm" Booth told him from the wheelchair he did not now quite need but used when on deck, almost as a vehicle of honor. His teeth had been fixed.

"I am drying it out, it always feels damp."

"You could cover it with the sleeve of your sweater rolled down."

"Don't fuss, Booth, for God's sake don't fuss. Let me enjoy the ocean."

"How green and open it is, almost like flying at high altitude."

"Never again. What will you do?" Clegg rolled his sweater sleeve half way, making a white-and-dark-gray contrast.

"Breathe deeply and slowly for a whole year."

"We fouled up. Funny thing, though, while it was all going on I never had any sense of doing the wrong thing, of not going by the book. Is that 'Lack of Moral Fiber'?"

Slyly bitter, Booth sighed, "Ah, the book. Who ever went by the book?"

"Protestants do."

"I mean military."

"But~" said Clegg, "we were never very military, were we now?" He tugged the sleeve up all the way to the wrist.

"Look at the sun, it nearly did us in." Booth never looked at the sun now without a slight shiver of homage.

"It will in the end, it can't help doing that."

"You look like that statue of Poseidon somewhere in Sweden. Its arm sticks up just like yours, and a fountain plays over it."

"Then," said Clegg morosely, "I may have a future after all, as a decoration in some public park, somewhere in Albany maybe."

"They won't be naming any constellations after us."

"Or streets."

"Or latrines in foreign theaters of war."

"Not even that. Hell," Clegg exclaimed, "look at that sky!" It was the unquenchable superthick lazurite of an angel's eyes.

"Bluest blue," crooned Booth unself-consciously. "It goes everywhere. It doesn't stop."

"It's radiant," Clegg told him shyly.

"It sure is. It has no opinions."

"None of us, anyway."

"No, it has no opinions of anybody. It just is."

"And it goes on is-ing itself. Can you," Clegg teasingly asked him, "say that?"

"You just did and the sky didn't mind."

"lt goes on and out, and then around." Clegg sighed the sigh of the fisherman with no pole, no catch.

"I just might go into advertizing," Booth said apropos of nothing. "There might be a place."

"Things will always need advertizing, they never let things look after themselves."

"Always a sell," said Booth. ~What a swell afternoon."

"We've weeks of this to come. Know what?"

Booth looked blandly away and asked what.

"I'm going to read the fishing encyclopedia cover to cover. Just that." Clegg near-giggled.

"The long way home."

"The rest cure."

"The well-known tonic of the ocean voyage."

"Port outward, starboard home," Clegg mused.

''Posh," Booth crowed. "It's what the British used to say about their ocean voyages to India. It meant that a good berth keeps you away from the sun."

"Just what we could have used," Clegg murmured. "On the left of the ship when you were going eastward, and on the right when going westward. You would always be facing north."

"And we, right now," Booth told him, "are facing south, but our cabins are on the right and we're sailing westward. Very posh indeed!"

"Did we," Clegg wondered, "deserve it?"

"Maybe not, but it's like the last favor."

"Before the pension." Clegg gave a dry-lipped whistle.

"Just like a dream," Booth said, spacing the words out to match. "Were you scared?"

"Back there? I mean up there?"

''Both."

"I was more scared in the mountains than in the underground hospital."

"And I in the desert. I chopped salt for a week. It seems like a week." Booth mined salt with his hands.

"I thought I was dead, I really did, but I didn't think I'd done anything wrong. How could I?"

Booth nodded and stared through the rail down at the Ocean scudding by. "Quite a few knots."

"Less than the old days!" Clegg's good arm flew in a vague parabola.

"It's tempting," Booth told him quietly. "You could go all the way back to the cabins, get up speed, and shoot yourself clean out of your chair into the sea."

"You could," said Clegg, making a pretense of affront. "I didn't mean anybody else."

"You'd pull me out."

No he wouldn't, Clegg told him curtly. With his armÉ

"But you otherwise would," Booth insisted. "It would be your duty. As second-in-command."

"Of what?"

"Good question. Anyway, you're famous among the tribes back there."

"In a pig's eye I am."

"All things considered," Booth said, fingering his jaw as if testing the tan of his skin, "I'm none the better for any of it. It's as if somebody else lived that piece of my life for me and, in doing so, screwed up the rest of it . We didn't even make the newspapers." He took a cup.

"Not in a big way, " Clegg corrected him . "There was one story."

"Yeah," Booth scowled, "they called it a malfunction."

"It sure malfunctioned us."

"For keeps," Booth snapped. "You don't want that kind of thing in the middle of your career."

"Or ever. It stops you dead."

"We survived, that's something." Booth drank all of his bouillon and slung the cup into the sea. There was no splash.

"One cup missing," Clegg chanted.

"Fucking cup," Booth snarled, then cracked a smile as he heard himself. "I was glad to discover the opposite sex again, even in the hospital."

"You always are," Clegg said dreamily. "Will we write each other over the years?"

"You bet, " Booth told him crisply. "It's a deal. And maybe get drunk together, real smashed, in Cincinnati, halfway across the country."

"Chicago maybe, at the Palmer House," said Clegg from an opulent dream of deep leather chairs and twilit bars.

"Wherever." He no longer wanted to be great, only to feel so.

"You're on," Clegg said, relieved to be at home somewhere, even on an ocean liner inexplicably named Mazzaroth.

"No more Cyrano," moaned Booth.

"Already, " Clegg told him, "there's a Mark Four. It was faster by fifty knots. I guess it still is."

"What a kite!"

"What a prang!"

"They no longer need us," Booth said faintly.

"Want is more like it." Clegg sounded euphoric.

"Goodbye, Africa," Booth said.

"No more mountains," said Clegg.

"Case closed."

"Dumb."

The steamer veered left just east of the Dardanelles and aimed its bow at the sun for half an hour as if heeding evidence of things not seen. Everything, Booth thought, had already happened; but, as always, you only found out about it when it caught up with you, just when you weren't looking. In other words, fate was complete, but its victims (or lucky legatees) didn't know.

Paul West's previous novel, The Tent of Orange Mist, was recently nominated for the National Book Award. Terestials is forthcomming from Scribner.



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