"I've taken a contract to escort some guy across the waste," my partner said, coming out of the empty roadhouse, "guy named Barrington - absolutely no sense at all."
I checked the straps on Apricot's harness. The camel grunted sourly. I missed the burros, but the camels fared better across the cruel desert waste. What was now a bleak, bleached desert had still been prime, fertile wheat-land at the tail end of the last century. My partner, Mack, felt much the same. Camels were bad-tempered, smelled bad and it was a long way to fall off.
"Where do we pick him up?" I asked, securing the precious water bottles.
"Next town," Mack replied.
Mack had just returned from Oasis-town with fresh supplies while I waited at the roadhouse with Buttercup, Apricot and our gear. It was better that I didn't show my face at Oasis-town, at least not for a while. My camels were baulky, especially my pack-camel, Apricot, who was carrying much of our 'stuff' so that this Barrington could ride Mack's pack-camel, Number Two. Apricot was not pleased.
Barrington was much as I had imagined - pleasant, ineffectual and absolutely lacking in survival sense. We even had to remind him to wear a burnoose as protection against the sun's unfiltered rays. Mack kept the camel on a lead rope; damn good job as Barrington was dehydrated before midday and could hardly stay on top, never mind steer Number Two.
The camels had been well-watered and we could make it across the desert, no problem. The only danger was raiders, but the encroaching sands of the widening desert were pretty inhospitable and most raiders preferred the edges where there were more pickings. Still, there were occasional accessible homesteads, their wells long since run dry, where raiders could hole up with supplies to pick off passing camel caravans.
We found one homestead on the second day. From the look of the shifting dunes and the sand still piled up against the walls it had only recently been uncovered as the dunes shifted across the desert, driven by the prevailing winds. Barrington was parched - soft townie - and needed shade. We went through the cupboards and storage bins just in case the place had been used recently, though we had no doubt that the place was deserted and had already been picked clean.
The woman came to the back door while we were picking through the kitchen. She looked too tall and too handsome - handsome rather than actually pretty - to be a desert-dweller or nomad; her face wasn't burnt and her hair was yellow, real blonde rather than sun-bleached straw like mine, and cut tidy. Maybe she was part of a bandit crew which had staked a claim on this place and was about to lay claim to our supplies, leaving us stranded in the wilderness. She may have been a woman, but survival's a serious business so Mack hit her on the head with a hole-bottomed frying pan from the rack on the wall; not enough force to kill her, just hard enough to knock her out. He didn't trust women - apart from me and he'd more or less forgotten I was one. The pan clanged and bounced, almost out of Mack's hand, but the woman still stood there as though she hadn't even felt the blow. No wonder she survived out here, androids are pretty tough cookies.
"I'm not a threat," she said in a sad-sounding voice. Actually any well-modulated voice sounds sad in these parts, where you either holler or your throat's so dry you just croak.
Mack and I just stared. So far, the android lady hadn't made any move against us, but it didn't mean we were going to trust her. Maybe she was just a domestic companion for a lonely homesteader, but who knows what she'd been programmed for? She looked lonely, sort of lost.
"Take me with you - I can walk instead of ride," she said when we didn't say anything back to her.
"No way lady," Mack replied in tones which were almost courteous. He didn't trust her, but I could see him fishing for a plausible excuse for leaving her right here while we rode off into the sunset. "The minute they see you they'll want to buy you or steal you and the minute they find out what you are you'll be so much scrap metal. Androids ain't exactly popular right now."
True enough, women were mostly commodities hereabouts. Legally Mack owned me though he'd made me his business partner; he'd bought me way back when I was attractive enough to be desirable, not weatherworn and shrivelled from years on camel-back. Androids don't lose their looks and besides, no-one trusts them any more. It was high-tech got us into this mess in the first place.
She asked again and the weedy Barrington began to lick his lips as though contemplating a use for the android, but Mack refused point blank to have her come with us. He wanted her to stay put.
"Lady," Mack told her, "One of these days when civilization is on the up again, maybe they'll need your knowledge to help them along. You've got stuff programmed into you that'll be a godsend. But that time's not now; we need some time to get along on our own and learn our own limitations again. Your time will come."
It was probably the most philosophical speech Mack had ever made, leastways the most philosophical I'd heard him make in the ten years we'd been working the desert.
As we rode away, Barrington hunched pathetically on Number Two. He couldn't understand why we'd left the patiently waiting android female behind when we could have sold her in Oasis-town, or Cactus or Dry-Wells. It was no use him trying to remember how to get back there either; already sand-flumes were dusting the homestead and in a few days it would be covered up again. Maybe in a year or two the homestead and its inhabitant might re-emerge from its sandy shroud. It would go on that way until civilization got itself right enough to be ready for her. Maybe civilization would never straighten itself out and our android-lady would be proclaimed as an immortal goddess by a world even more desolated and downhill than this one.
Throughout the rest of the ride, I couldn't help thinking of that android lady. Barrington spent his time thinking of what he'd have done with her. I just wondered what she thought of as she whiled away the long days or maybe she just switched herself off. Barrington coveted her, but I felt sorry for her, wondering if civilization would ever be right enough to need her or if there'd even be anyone left to need her.