...in honor of Ray Bradbury, one of the parents of American science-fiction and tales of the strange and wonderful.
Fluted red pillars stood beneath a sky the color of hammered bronze. Ovas lingered between them, loathe to stray far from the pool they bounded. Water had become precious long ago; wars had been fought over it. Now, there weren't enough people left to fight wars over anything.
Ovas had been waiting all morning. The Elders were meant to come, to wander down through the burnished landscape of baked stone to the great reflecting pool. Sometimes they came early and sometimes late, but it was unlike them not to come at all.
In one hand Ovas held a long silver scepter, made from twining strands of metal. It marked his office as the First of Almath, the one most suited to treat with the Elders out of all the citizens. He was old, Ovas was, and getting older every day. He should have been an Elder himself, had not politics prevented it. He was tired of meeting with them, tired of bowing and scraping before them at the Pool of Mirth. There was no mirth left on all Envea. It had dried up with the water.
The Elders weren't coming. The sun had made its course through the brazen sky twice since Ovas had arrived. He had eaten little in that time, subsisting off of the wild flowers that grew amongst the rocks. His hunger made him light-headed and tired. His anger didn't help, compounding the feelings. Ovas was done with waiting.
He tapped his silver staff against the ground two times, bringing a ringing from it like the sweet sound of bells. The chiming echoed far across the plains of Envea, through the burning rocks, and hopefully to the dark evil-smelling cave where the Elders dwelt. Damn them, Ovas thought. Damn them all!
* * *
Ovas' home in Almath stood on the Street of the Night. Long ago, many many centuries ago, it had been one of the finer streets of the great city. Perhaps it still was, but the city itself had declined so badly in that time that it was hardly possible to call it great. Almath was all but abandoned. Envea was all but abandoned, the last of her people dying slow deaths beneath the sun-bleached sands or the uplands of blazing rock.
Ovas of Almath was the First, and as such he could have any house in the city that he chose. He wouldn't even have to evict anyone, as there were only perhaps thirty other people in all of Almath. They lived strange quiet lives, never speaking to each other unless it was arranged. Ovas sometimes played Ch'un with Thevas, who lived down the Street of the Night. Sometimes he mated with Al'ara who lived on the far side of the city. But mostly, he stayed within the palatial walls of his own house and slept, safe from the sledge-hammer rays of the sun.
Almath had been the greatest of all the great cities of Envea once. She had been the center of art, of culture, and of civilization. Ovas had been very young in those days, only a mere boy of eighty. There were aqueducts that carried water through her streets and made music of its passage. Almath had once possessed fifteen waterfalls and three hundred fountains, all to her glory. But even in Ovas' youth, the water was beginning to dry up.
Where did it go? the great minds had asked. What is happening to our water? As the cisterns emptied, the great Almathan luminaries frowned and pouted while the politicians looked for solutions. They found solutions before the thinkers found answers: the other great cities of Envea still had water, they said. We must take it from them. After all, who is as deserving as Almath, Mother-of-the-World?
Ovas didn't like to think about those days. They were times filled with greed, and hate, and bloodshed. Life was easier now, if not better, with the great broad avenues abandoned and the wildflowers slowly growing between the cracks of ancient manors.
Ovas' own house was falling into disrepair as well, but he didn't care. He didn't need the western wing, which had tumbled down the hillside twenty years ago, nor did he care for the southern archways. He enjoyed the porticos and the grounds, so he tried to keep those from collapsing, with what little energy he could muster.
He returned to his home burdened with exhaustion and sorrow. The message he had planned to give the Elders would now never be delivered. Tumbar and Thevas, the last two philosophers of Almath, had bid him deliver it. The handful of people in Almath wouldn't make decisions for themselves anymore. They were tired of deciding, since every time they chose a path it invariably led to sorrow. Instead, they relied on the advice of the Elders. Once, the Elders had served as Council Advisory to a whole body of government, but when the people had withered the government had withered with them.
The capitol building was an empty ruin, her great libraries dark and without power, the Readers blank-faced, their memories emptied. Thevas had his own private version of the Almath Library, Ovas knew, and Tumbar might as well. Ovas chose not to read, because reading reminded him of the way things had been on Envea. He wanted to live in the way things were now, so he closed his eyes and dozed under the sun and let it do its brutal work upon his body the way it had done its work upon the world.
Thevas and Tumbar had been out of their minds with worry when they came to him. Thevas had kneeled and begged for him to go and see the Elders. They needed guidance, they said, they needed to know what to do. Ovas was tired of hearing their stupid plans, but he had agreed anyway. He knew that they would come to nothing.
Thevas and Tumbar had been part of The Plan. Not its instigators, nor even its chief minds, but they had worked on the The Plan and now everyone else who had also worked on it was dead. The Plan was the last, the very utmost, hope that Envea had for her survival. After the wars had ended and the great pyres of choking smoke had burned down to their last embers, the remaining peoples of Envea had abandoned their conflicts and come together to form The Plan.
The Plan was a simple one in concept, if not in execution. The wisest philosophers on Envea worked on it. They built their laboratories in Almath. Ovas could still see the shadow of the complex from his rear portico, if he cared to look southwards. It stood upon one of the tall slope-sided hills of the city, a cluster of white marble domes with tendrils pointing up at the sky.
Gather information, that was the first part of The Plan. Gather information, and then send people to the Little Sister. One by one, send the greatest minds of Envea to reconnoiter the Little Sister and see what there was to be seen. But it was a long process, and though the antennae had been built and the transmission devices turned on to the hopes of all, most of the men and women who had worked on The Plan had died before its fruit could bloom.
The station had been unmanned for a long time, before Tumbar and Thevas had decided to go and reactivate it. Their message was an urgent one. In three days time, it read, our receiver dish will be in the correct position to recall our great thinkers back home. Their minds have been given mortal flesh, and the people of the Little Sister do not live as long as we do. We must call them back now, for in two hundred and forty three years their flesh will have expired and they will be beyond recall.
Ovas looked up at the sky. Damn the Elders. He would give the order himself.
* * *
Seated within the darkened station, Ovas held his breath. Envea was now between the sun and the Little Sister. The recall had failed three times. Govas must have died, for his body remained limp and useless even when Thevas and Tumbar had turned on the machine. Lander came back, but his mind had been broken and he swallowed his own tongue moments after returning. The circuits in Gethiron's bed had rotted out, and when Thevas and Tumbar turned on the device to bring him home, voltaic current had surged through his body, liquifying what was left of him.
Arvay was the last and the greatest of all the minds of Envea. His body was there, sleeping, waiting to be called back. Thevas was at the viewer, and Tumbar at the device. Thevas called out, "We are now over the City of Smoke. Our aim is at optimum."
"Who did he pretend to be on the Little Sister?" Ovas asked softly, waiting for the final disgrace to rob them of Arvay, the most brilliant philosopher and dreamer ever to walk on Envea.
"He didn't pretend," Tumbar said. "None of them did. Their brain-patterns were planted into the fetus' of natives. They grew up again, thought they were like the people they lived with. Only upon returning to his body with Arvay realize who he truly was, all this time."
"But who was he on the Little Sister?" Ovas asked again.
Thevas sighed and said, "He was a dreamer and a philosopher... just as he was here. We are ready, Tumbar. Let's bring Arvay home."
The machine began to hum.