Maybe if I squeeze tight and think about it enough, I’ll just sleep and never wake, he thought. He tried it. An hour later he awoke with a mouth full of blood. He got up and spat it out and felt very sorry for himself. This blood rust—it filled your mouth and your nose; it ran from your ears, your fingernails; and it took a year to kill you. The only cure was shoving you in a rocket and shooting you out to exile on Mars. There was no known cure on Earth, and remaining there would contaminate and kill others. So here he was, bleeding all the time, and lonely.
Saul’s eyes narrowed. In the distance, by an ancient city ruin, he saw another man lying on a filthy blanket.
When Saul walked up, the man on the blanket stirred weakly.
“Hello, Saul,” he said.
“Another morning,” said Saul. “Christ, I’m lonely!”
“It is an affliction of the rusted ones,” said the man on the blanket, not moving, very pale and as if he might vanish if you touched him.
“I wish to God,” said Saul, looking down at the man, “that you could at least talk. Why is it that intellectuals never get the blood rust and come up here?”
“It is a conspiracy against you, Saul,” said the man, shutting his eyes, too weary to keep them open. “Once I had the strength to be an intellectual. Now, it is a job to think.”
“If only we could talk,” said Saul Williams.
The other man merely shrugged indifferently.
“Come tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll have enough strength to talk about Aristotle then. I’ll try. Really I will.” The man sank down under the worn tree. He opened one eye. “Remember, once we did talk on Aristotle, six months ago, on that good day I had.”
“I remember,” said Saul, not listening. He looked at the dead sea. “I wish I were as sick as you, then maybe I wouldn’t worry about being an intellectual. Then maybe I’d get some peace.”
“You’ll get just as bad as I am now in about six months,” said the dying man. “Then you won’t care about anything but sleep and more sleep. Sleep will be like a woman to you. You’ll always go back to her, because she’s fresh and good and faithful and she always treats you kindly and the same. You only wake up so you can think about going hack to sleep. It’s a nice thought.” The man’s voice was a bare whisper. Now it stopped and a light breathing took over.
Saul walked off.
Along the shores of the dead sea, like so many emptied bottles flung up by some long-gone wave, were the huddled bodies of sleeping men. Saul could see them all down the curve of the empty sea. One, two, three—all of them sleeping alone, most of them worse off than he, each with his little cache of food, each grown into himself, because social converse was weakening and sleep was good.
At first there had been a few nights around mutual campfires. And they had all talked about Earth. That was the only thing they talked about. Earth and the way the waters ran in town creeks and what homemade strawberry pie tasted like and how New York looked in the early morning coming over on the Jersey ferry in the salt wind.
I want Earth, thought Saul. I want it so bad it hurts. I want something I can never have again. And they all want it and it hurts them not to have it. More than food or a woman or anything, I just want Earth. This sickness puts women away forever; they’re not things to be wanted. But Earth, yes. That’s a thing for the mind and not the weak body.
The bright metal flashed on the sky.
Saul looked up.
The bright metal flashed again.
A minute later the rocket landed on the sea bottom. A valve opened, a man stepped out, carrying his luggage with him. Two other men, in protective germicide suits, accompanied him, bringing out vast cases of food, setting up a tent for him.
Another minute and the rocket returned to the sky. The exile stood alone.