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THE DEMON IN THE DESERT

by

Sheila Clark

The bitter struggle for possession of the Holy City and the barren, infertile desert that surrounded it had lasted for many years, both sides stubbornly determined to possess the squalid, disease-ridden streets where two different Holy Men had once walked, centuries before. That both men had been of the same religion mattered nothing to the fanatical followers of the two cults, divided though they were by nothing more than a few minor procedures in worship mostly introduced in the centuries since the Holy Men walked the Earth; a few minor differences caused by different interpretations of the often ambiguous preaching of the two men.

And then the War was abruptly halted by the sudden appearance of the Enemy. Green-skinned, with strange pointed ears, the strangers were clearly Demons from Hell.

For a few brief days there was a general unspoken and uneasy truce as each side debated whether to accept the Demons as allies to defeat the heretical followers of the other sect; both sets of leaders decided that such allies would be uncertain, possibly treacherous, and hastily contacted their erstwhile opponents. An alliance was speedily formed; although based only on mutual self-interest, the forces of civilised Earth combined for the first time ever to combat a common enemy.

Yet there was nothing to combat.

There was no quick way to defeat the Demons. It proved impossible to meet them in battle; they refused to fight, and the men of Earth quickly discovered that the Demons and their camp were impossible to approach; an invisible barrier through which no Man could pass surrounded the Enemy, proof indeed of their demoniac origins.

More Demons arrived daily, though no Man could see from whence they came or how they arrived. The Enemy camp expanded, and with it the invisible barrier. A Man meeting the barrier was not hurt even by the impact that halted him; it seemed to give with him momentarily, then firm; thereafter, it was like trying to walk through a wall. Then strange buildings began to appear, built overnight as if by magic. The Men watched, puzzled; they waited, at first alert for the onslaught of these fiends from Hell - the onslaught that must surely come.

It did not.

The Demons ignored the Men who watched their camp as completely as if they did not exist.

* * * * * * * *

Years passed.

The original uneasy truce was extended; few, even among the most fanatical, cared to recommence hostilities with the outpost of Hell so close. Many minor leaders on both sides returned home with their men, trusting that they would be summoned back if it became necessary - what point in wasting one's life guarding a city against Demons who showed no interest in the affairs of Men? Some more important leaders went home too, usually leaving a small group of their men commanded by one of their sons - in many cases, an heir who showed more anxiety to take on the responsibilities of the family estate than his father thought fitting.

More years passed. The truce was now permanent; the religious differences recognised as the trivialities that they were, both sides now worked together. Trade flourished; men prospered. But the Demons were still there.

Few Men now stayed to watch and guard save those assigned to do so by their government. Although the Demons still ignored the world of Men, seemingly content to remain within the cramped environs of their settlement, nobody was so lost to reason as deny that a watch was necessary; Demons were capricious creatures, after all. Even the Holy City was deserted now, its mud-walled buildings eroding into ruins save where the military maintained some of the larger buildings as barracks; nobody cared to live so near the Demon camp, for even although they ignored Man completely, their presence nearby created nervousness - and in addition, a handful of people, mostly children, had vanished in the desert in the years immediately following the Demons' arrival, and who could say that they had not been captured, spirited off into Hell? Nobody seemed to remember that children had sometimes disappeared into the desert long before the Demons came.

* * * * * * * *

Sir James de Kirkhold gazed gloomily out from the small unglazed window of his tiny, airless office towards the Demon camp, subconsciously noting the steady activity there, little though he understood its purpose. He knew full well that it was his own fault that he was here commanding the small and dispirited garrison that purported to watch the Demons, but even after three months he still did not regret the angry outburst that told King's Secretary Baris exactly what his underlings thought of his self-important incompetence. Perhaps he might begin to regret it in time - he had no illusions about the length of Baris' memory, or the petty vindictiveness of the man. Sir James did not subscribe to the nearly outmoded belief so prevalent in his father's time that only the nobly born should hold positions of importance, but Baris was certainly no recommendation for the promotion of those of more lowly birth.

He sighed. There was absolutely nothing to do in this desert waste, and he wondered more and more just what had caused people to settle here, build a city here, continue to live here for centuries. Granted, there was evidence that the land had once been more fertile; the wind occasionally blew enough sand away to disclose tree stumps, dead now but proof of adequate rainfall in the distant past. Sir James knew well the desirability of keeping his men's spirits high, but the dry, enervating heat made it impossible to keep their morale up by holding tournaments. There were not even animals to hunt in this Godforsaken wilderness.

There seemed to be nothing he could do to encourage his men, selected as they were from among the least useful elements of the cadets - an army was no longer needed, of course, although military training was given to every young man. Who knew when the Demons might decide to attack? This was one of the duties assigned as part of the training, but enthusiastic and capable men were unlikely to be wasted here. The general opinion was that if the Demons were going to attack, they would have done so long ago. And although his conscientiousness would not permit him to neglect the watch, at heart Sir James agreed. The Demons did indeed appear to be supremely unconscious of the presence of Men nearby.

But today he felt restless, longing for action - something, anything. Summoning Pavel, the young page whose grandfather had fought against Sir James' and who would have been horrified to see his grandson as page to one of the heretics, he called for his horse, thanking his guardian angel that he had at least been able to bring his own page.

After a short pause, Pavel returned to announce that the horse was ready; Sir James left his office with a tiny sigh of relief.

The horse waited dispiritedly, its head drooping wearily, its dank coat dull and lifeless in spite of all Pavel's grooming. Its ribs showed clearly, and Sir James shook his head. If any of his horses at home had been turned out like this, he would have had the hide off the back of whatever careless groom was responsible; here, he knew, he could expect nothing better. The enervating heat took the heart out of beast as well as Man. All supplies had to be brought in, and although by tradition the commanding officer must have a horse, little space could be spared in the supply train for fodder. The poor animal was existing on a starvation diet, and when it died, a fresh nag could be requisitioned... to starve to death in its turn. Sir James knew that this garrison would never be supplied with decent horseflesh. This one had the breeding of a hawker's crock, but it was at least willing...

Sir James mounted, and could have sworn he heard the horse give a weary and resigned sigh. He checked the water bottle fastened to the saddle even though he was confident that Pavel had seen that it was full; he had quickly learned that in the desert a Man had only himself to blame if anything went wrong.

He set off at a steady walk, thinking longingly of the easy canter of his favourite steed back home - but he could not have brought Star here. Bad enough that a mongrel horse should die in this hellhole - to waste the life of a valuable stallion would be criminal.

Deliberately, he selected a route that would take him past the Demon's encampment. He did not expect to see anything of value, so he was not disappointed when he saw nothing. Then, duty done, he spurred the horse to the slow and uncomfortable jog that was the nearest it could manage to a trot. Soon encampment and city were a blur in the distance.

Sir James could not have said that he was enjoying himself, but at least he could relax out here and for the moment give himself up to the illusion that he was a free agent. Damn Baris, anyway. Self-important, incompetent fool.

There was even a wind blowing. True, it was a warm breeze when he would have given anything for a cooling blast from the north, but the movement of air was welcome.

And then his horse stumbled and went down. Sir James, caught almost unaware, let himself be thrown rather than risk being rolled on. Then he picked himself up and looked at the fallen horse. It lay still. Quickly he checked it.

Dead.

Damn! He had come five miles - at least. Possibly six. It would be an uncomfortable walk in this heat. Should he wait till dark? The moon was a little more than half - her light would be sufficient to let him see his way.

He looked back towards the city and drew his breath in sharply.

He could no longer see it. The breeze, light though it was, was blowing sand along with it. And... it was stronger than it had been. He could only hope that there was not to be a fully-fledged sandstorm.

Taking the water flask from the saddle, Sir James fastened it to his belt, glad that he had barely touched its contents so far. Then he set off back the way he had come, unable to walk as briskly as he would have liked for the soft dry sand that hampered his feet. He estimated that the walk would take him at least three hours.

He decided that even the boredom of the camp was preferable.

* * * * * * * *

Within half an hour, he could no longer fool himself. The wind was gaining strength by the minute; soon he must find shelter or die, and where in this benighted desert could he find shelter? He was not even sure that he was still following a direct line back to the old city.

Then, a little to his right, he noticed a splash of colour. Blue. A deep, rich blue.

In this desert?

Curious, he altered direction fractionally and headed for the patch of colour. It was barely ten yards away, but the wind-blown sand was now so thick that it was not until he was almost on top of it that he realised that a body lay there, on its side, curled into a ball, head covered by a fold in the blue clothes. The clothing itself - a loose robe-like garment - was unfamiliar in style, as far as he could see, yet it was strangely familiar too.

Who could it be? Not one of his people, surely. Bending, he touched the body - and it moved. The concealing cloth was pulled from the head and the stranger looked up at him. He stiffened.

He was looking at the green skin, slanting eyebrows and pointed ears of a Demon.

The Demon looked at him; all it could see of him was his eyes, as they stared from above the strip of cloth he had wound protectively around his nose and mouth some time before, and its eyebrows lifted.

A Demon... Sir James shivered in superstitious fear, then common sense came to his aid. If the Demon had any powers at all, it would not be out here in a threatening sandstorm, apparently waiting to die. Hesitantly, he reached out his water flask. "Do you need water?" he asked hoarsely.

Without taking its eyes from him, the Demon accepted the flask and took a mouthful of water, then returned the flask. "I thank you," it said. The voice deep, quiet.

"You'll die if you stay here," Sir James said, conscious even as he spoke of the unnecessary nature of his remark. The Demon must surely know that.

"Yes," it replied. "But I have injured my ankle; I cannot walk unaided."

It was a Demon; an enemy. If it died, that would be one less to threaten his people...

"Can you walk if I help you?" Sir James could not have explained why he permitted his heart to overrule his head; he only knew that if he abandoned the Demon, he would forever be ashamed, even though only he knew about it.

"I can try."

Sir James, still slightly nervously, helped the Demon to stand. It was perhaps an inch taller than he. "There are rocks over there," the Demon said, indicating. "We may find shelter among them. Without it, we shall surely die."

They made their slow way across the sand. It was perhaps a hundred yards to the rocky outcrop; it seemed like a hundred miles. Among the rocks they were partly shielded from the wind, and it took only a few minutes to find a shelter of sorts; the wind had blown a small 'cave' in the sand under a boulder at some time in the past, and the present wind was eddying around the boulder in such a way as to leave a gap between the rock and the nearby sand dune. They clambered into the hollow, finding themselves in an oasis of windless calm, although the sound of the wind still echoed in their ears.

They huddled together. There was barely room enough for one, yet it must shelter both. Sir James offered his companion the flask once more.

This time the Demon shook his head. "We should drink sparingly, he said as Sir James made to remove the cap. "Fortunately, my people are accustomed to a hot climate, and so we require less water than your people do."

Of course. Noplace could be hotter than Hell.

There was a brief pause, then the Demon went on. "My name is Spock."

Sir James swallowed. In face of this self introduction, how could he avoid giving the Demon his name? Yet if he did, the Demon would have power over him... He thought quickly.

Ah.

"My... my friends call me Jim." No need to mention that nobody now used that old childhood name.

Almost, the Demon Spock seemed to smile. "Are you so afraid of me that you hide your full name from me? No, you need not answer that. I know your people consider mine to be demons. But... when you aided me ...I had hoped that at last one of us had found someone intelligent enough not to be blinded by ancient superstitions."

Sir James thought that over. Finally he said, "Most of us do agree that if you... your people ... had wanted to, they could have overrun us long ago. But there is a world of difference between believing that ... and ignoring the teachings of the Church with regard to the habits of Demons, when you are faced with... with..."

"With an alien who resembles these mythical beings," Spock concluded. "Does your Church have any proof - any proof at all - of the existence of Hell and its denizens?"

"Faith... " Sir James began.

"... Is a useful word for those trying to trick others into believing in something for which there is no logical explanation and which reason would otherwise reject," Spock said quietly.

"Fear of the unknown is instinctive," Sir James began slowly.

"True. But there is a big difference between being wary of something you encounter for the first time and deliberately inventing terrors, which your Earth religions appear to do, to frighten people into adherence to a church, the main purpose of which appears - to us - to be to keep your population in fear so that they will continue to support in affluence a small group who do no useful work for the community, whose only reason for existence seems to be to continue to invent terrors so that the people will continue to support them so that they can invent more terrors... need I go on?"

"There are some... abuses of the Church's position, I agree," Sir James conceded. "But many priests live in poverty, devoting their lives to helping others."

"They are as cozened by the system as everyone else," Spock replied. "Do not misunderstand me, Jim; we respect your belief in a deity - indeed, we share your belief in a deity, even though the existence of such a Being cannot be proved logically. We do not - cannot - respect the way in which your religious leaders operate. To us, a man's beliefs are his own affair, and the responsibility of nobody except his parents, whose duty it is to introduce their children to the concept of a deity. It is not logical for the general population to be impoverished so that a handful of men can pretend to a capability they do not have. You are a leader of men, Jim - would you respect or seriously consider the plea of one of your followers who did not have the honesty to approach you himself but made his appeal through someone else - especially someone whose only authority in the matter was self-selection, and who in fact was unable or unwilling to do anything else?"

"Put like that... No, I don't suppose I would." Sir James hesitated again, then said suspiciously, "But how do you know how our religion works, if you are not... what you seem?"

This time Spock did smile, though briefly. "My mother was one of your people. A girl-child who wandered into the desert while Men still lived in the city. She would have died had we not found her; but then we kept her, as we had kept other lost children, to discover as much about your people as we could. Most of them settled among us perfectly happily."

"You wouldn't learn much about us from young children."

"No. But adults rarely got lost as the children did."

A sudden eddy of wind blew sand into their faces, reminding them that the safety of their tiny shelter might be illusory. Sir James coughed as the sand irritated his throat, and groped for the water bottle. Spock caught his hand.

"Wait, Jim - you may need the water more urgently yet."

Sir James looked into the alien eyes and in that instant forgot the lingering remnants of his superstitious fear of the 'Demons'. He could not remember ever seeing such gentleness in the eyes of any of his own people;, he could not imagine seeing such warmth in the eyes of any of his own people.

"I wish... I wish we were not on opposite sides," he said sadly.

"Indeed; in a different reality, I could have called you friend." Their eyes met again, acknowledging the mysterious and inexplicable attraction that both men felt drawing them together.

"Why not?" Sir James said suddenly. "Why should we not be friends? Why should your people and mine not be friends?"

Spock smiled at the other's enthusiasm. "Indeed, we would be happy to meet with your people as friends. But your people fear mine, remember."

"Yes... Spock?"

"Yes, Jim?"

"Why are you here?"

"Your world contains certain minerals - " he broke off, seeing the sudden incomprehension in Sir James' face. "Metals," he amended. "We need certain of these, but our world is sparsely provided with them, while your world is rich in them. We have no intention of stripping your world of its resources, Jim; you will need them yourselves one day. We are mining only this one desert area where few of your people live."

"I see - I think." Sir James could understand people wanting metal. "But where do you come from?"

"Another world. Forgive me, my friend; your people do not yet have the knowledge that would let you understand a more detailed explanation."

"But where is this other world, if it is not Hell? And how did you get here?"

Spock shook his head. "You do not have the technology to understand."

"I can try."

"You have seen the stars on a clear night." Although it was not a question, Sir James nodded. "Each of these stars is a sun - yes, I know. The stars look tiny because they are so far away."

"It has been theorised. But the Church says such a thought is heresy."

"It is truth. Many of these suns have worlds circling them, and on these worlds, other people live."

"The Sun..." Sir James began. He hesitated, then went on. "The Church says the Sun circles the Earth."

"Not so. Your Earth is one of ten planets that travel round your Sun - though you cannot see them all. You see, Jim? Your knowledge is limited by a Church so jealous of its position that it rejects any teaching contrary to its outdated beliefs. There is so much that we could teach you, but we dare not. Your people will learn, one day, but they must learn at their own speed. We could give you technology, but to your people it would be as magic."

"And your people came here by... by technology, so that mine think of you as Demons who come by magic?"

"Exactly." If Spock was surprised by the speed of the Human's understanding, he gave no sign.

Sir James nodded. "The Church would oppose you. Our Holy Book tells us everything we need to know... or so the Church says. It is evil to seek to know more - and the Devil is quick to tempt the curious. Yet I find myself wondering... There must have been a time before the Holy Book was written down, a time when men were ignorant of its teaching; a time when pagan religion flourished. What if their Holy Men also said that new learning was evil?"

"You have the insight to see that to adhere to these tenets is to invite stagnation," Spock said.

"Today's youth is restless, ready for a change," Sir James commented. "But to defy the Church is to invite death - slow and unpleasant."

There was a brief silence, broken only by the steady swish of sand blowing across the surface of the desert. The wind itself was strangely silent, to Sir James' mind; it took an effort to remember that much of the noise of wind was caused by the object through or over which it blew.

He shifted position slightly, and Spock moved with him. They wriggled into a more comfortable position. He closed his eyes for a moment; when he opened them it was dark, and utterly silent. He moved, trying to look round. Beside him a deep voice said, "You slept. It is now night. The wind has dropped, but the sky is overcast. There is neither moonlight nor starlight to guide us."

Memory connected. "My people may look for me in the morning."

"But you do not entirely believe so?"

"They're a demoralised lot."

"We... had noticed. However, there has been some improvement in the last few weeks. I think they may look for you where they would not have bothered searching for their previous commander."

"You've watched us pretty closely if you can say that. We thought you - your people - paid no attention to us,"

"We do not watch, exactly - but we notice things. It is, after all, wise to be aware of your neighbours if they are hostile to you. Recently, your people have been more active; exercised more; their weapons shine more brightly when they reflect the sunshine. It was logical to assume a change of commander; a new commander who had not yet himself become demoralised.'

Sir James laughed bitterly. "My men are the useless ones; the lazy, the careless, shuffled out here where they can do no harm. The commander... Well, I'm here because I insulted a petty official. A jumped-up little incompetent with delusions of grandeur, and enough influence to have me moved. I imagine the other commanders have been in much the same position. I'm here until another petty official has his corns trod on."

Spock looked puzzled. "Corns?"

"A figure of speech. Feels himself insulted."

"Ah. But you are not yet... sufficiently chastened by your punishment?"

"I'd do it again tomorrow."

They fell silent again. Light began to streak the sky; slowly, reluctantly, the darkness retreated. The sky was still grey with clouds, but here and there a glimpse of blue showed; in another hour it would be hot, dry...

Sir James offered Spock the water once more. The alien, this time, took another mouthful. Sir James also drank, then shook the bottle. "It should last," he said.

"It should," Spock agreed.

They scrambled out of the hollow, struggling upright in the narrow gap between rock and sand. They could barely see over the great drift of sand that had protected them from the main force of the storm. In the distance, but not in the direction Sir James had expected, they could see the city and the Demon - no, not Demon; alien - camp.

"How's your ankle?" he asked abruptly, remembering it.

"Painful," Spock conceded. "I can walk, however, if you assist me."

It took them some minutes to clamber out of the hole that had protected them. The sand was softer than it had been; their feet sank into it, making progress slow. At one point Sir James considered leaving his companion and going on alone for help; but he suspected that the Demons would ignore him, his own men think him mad - and his own obstinacy rejected the idea anyway.

The clouds had long dispersed; the sun beat down now, heating the air; the exertion of walking made him sweat, even without the strain of half carrying his companion. Spock had taken no more water, but even so the flask was almost empty.

Voices...

They stopped. Looked up.

Five men, Pavel at their head; the chirurgeon another.

"Sir, what happened?"

Sir James half smiled. The men were looking warily at Spock, but so far none of them had gone for a weapon. He explained concisely, then added, "Sir Leech, do you examine my friend's ankle."

"A Demon?"

"Without his aid I would not have survived the storm. He knew, as I did not, where shelter could be found. He is no Demon. But even if he were, he is in pain. Your oath as a doctor requires that you give him succour." Gently, Sir James allowed Spock to sink into a sitting position.

"Jim, do not force him," Spock said. "You forget, already, the fear your people have for mine."

Their was a rustle of movement among Sir James' men. Then Pavel said, "No Demon would speak like that."

Hesitantly, Surgeon McCoy reached forward. His fingers touched the swollen ankle lightly, explored cautiously. Spock flinched; McCoy's examination gained in confidence at this proof that the alien did in fact suffer pain. Finally he looked up. "Broken," he said.

Sir James wanted to continue helping his new friend but he knew that he was tiring. Even the three miles they had covered was a marathon distance under the circumstances. He nodded to two of the men. "Kyle, Scott - do you carry him first. Spock - will you come with us, or will your own people give you better care?"

Spock looked at him. "I will come with you," he said. Their gaze locked; Sir James smiled, understanding. Spock's people could undoubtedly give him better care; but this was an opportunity to let Humans see a 'Demon' at close quarters, injured, in pain, needing care. It would not be easy; but these five men who had the initiative, the willingness to come into the desert in search of him, were a beginning. They would help persuade the others... help him guard Spock from any superstitious fools in the garrison.

* * * * * * * *

Human and alien stood outside the old city, looking towards the alien camp. Spock's ankle was not yet wholly mended, but he could now walk unaided. He knew, even without McCoy's warning, that it would remain weak for some months.

During the past weeks, all the Humans in the garrison had come to accept him. Sir James was quietly pleased; when they returned home, these men would have tales to tell of how the 'Demons' were little different from Men. Pavel had even gone to the alien camp, and had managed to speak to a Demon there, letting them know Spock was safe. Sir James had been aware of a closer watch on the city thereafter, but doubted that any other Human was aware of it.

Now the two stood together, knowing that the time had come to part. They clasped hands firmly.

"This is not goodbye," Sir James said quietly.

"Indeed not," Spock replied. "One day we will meet again. And on that day, your people and mine will no longer be strangers, but friends."

"I will work for that," Sir James promised. "My recall has come; Secretary Baris over-reached himself and has been disgraced. I leave for home in five days. Alas that you cannot accompany me, but I feel it would be premature."

"You could be correct; Jim. But when the time is right, I will come."

Sir James watched him walk easily through the barrier around the alien camp; then he sighed, feeling suddenly lonely, and turned to begin preparations for his own departure.


***********************************

Copyright Sheila Clark

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