He has counted the days precisely. No matter that they do not coincide with 'fleet-regulated time intervals. He has counted them anyway, delineating them in his mind just as sure as if he were watching the sun rise and set. He has watched them pass, wondering if his body will, since it has begun in its path, continue following the circadian rhythms of a planet he has given up as a thing of the past.

Glimpses of his home surround him. The thick, dull red of the curtains cradle him. The scent of incense from the firepot starts into his nostrils and curves away. He has special permission to change the sensitivity of the fire sensor in his quarters, else he would be starved of oxygen or showered in rain every time he lit his meditation flame or the billowing of fine ash particles became too thick.

He can feel it coming upon him, creeping day by day. It stalks him like a le matya in the dark. It prowls, touching him at the back of his spine, drifting past the tips of his fingers. He feels it in the heat of his loins, in the restless stirring of his most intimate parts. He counts the days off, and he knows that it is coming.

I had thought I would be spared this.

Those words drift past him, a memory from so long ago. A memory from almost precisely seven years ago. Almost precisely, because the rhythms of his own planet do not correspond to earth years.

He moans lightly, like a woman feeling the first tightness of labour, and presses his forehead against those dull red curtains. This place is too close, too tight. The air is recycled, never fresh. He is not sure if he is moaning because of a real pain, or because of the expectation of pain to come. Like a woman in labour, this thing will grow on him. It will press around him and inhabit his body, and finally he will find himself out of control.

He has put off this moment for long enough. This time, when he asks for a leave of absence, there are no delays, no conferences or issues of more importance than the needs of one biological entity. He finds himself home within three days, no questions asked, and just the tight, firm touch of his captain's hand on his shoulder to tell him that he is understood, and that people will worry until he returns.

If he returns…

He stands on the dry sand, grains scudding past the soles of his boots as they are driven by the wind. He has left his uniform behind. There is no place for it here. His boots are a light tan, made for desert wear. They have not been out of their storage place for three years. Neither have the clothes he wears – the loose, thin kaftan of white, the loose, white leggings that cinch tightly about the boots to stop the sand from driving in and rubbing the naked skin of his feet and ankles.

He stands still and sighs lightly. He is aware of the thinness of his lips and the minute lines that trace his skin. He is not even middle aged for one of his people, but there are fine lines about his mouth and eyes, an inheritance of his mother's blood. He tries to smooth concern and apprehension away from his face wherever possible, but those fine lines appear, and he tells himself that it is a symptom of a skin exposed to a ravaging sun, not of a mind exposed to emotion.

Arrangements should be made. There are places he could go. His people are no longer barbarians. They do not allow males of his kind to die in wracking pain. There is a certain logic, perhaps, that drives those who offer relief to his kind. They have their own interpretation of the axiom, the good of the many… There is no logic in letting a male die for want of a biological satiation which is such a short flicker in a life span of two hundred years. Such a short, intense flicker, like a solar flare reaching out in desperation from the boiling surface of a star and then dying back, weak and chastened and hopeless.

Arrangements should be made. But he finds himself hesitating. He finds himself indecisive. He finds his hands clenching at his sides and a few wind-driven particles of sand insinuate themselves into the creases of his palms. He would open his hands and examine the worlds he holds, but as soon as his fingers uncurl the grains are drifted away by a renewed breeze.

He tries to visualise the molecular structure of silica, and finds that he can't. He finds that all he can think of is smooth skin and the ripe curve of female thighs and the soft, receptive creases between. He turns toward his mother's house, but he knows in some part of his mind that it is too late for that. He is not going to knock on his parents' door and stand there, his lips slightly parted with need, with the catch of breath in his lungs, and explain to his father that it is his Time and that he needs shelter. He will not sit in his father's study and make clinical arrangements through his father's computer for one of those as'en'tda, those logical and blank-faced women, to come to his aid, to succour him in a closed off room in an annex of some small hospital where the walls are soundproofed and the patients come and go under the cover of night. No. He will not. He does not know what he will do, but he will not do that.

He thinks of those messages that sometimes flicker onto the computer when the ship is near a planet or starbase – those messages that get through all the filters and offer up cheap sex, free sex, drugs for sex and impossible biological enlargements. He should have taken notice of one of those, perhaps. He should have found himself in a dirty room in a forgotten corner of a starbase with a women with no face. Anything but this. He had been a fool to come home.

He turns away from the path home and turns to the desert instead. Out here it is primal. Out here these is nothing but creatures that move to the urges of their own bodies and plants that grow without will. There is no thought, no logic. The oldest traces of civilisation have been worn almost to nothing by sand. The pillars of ancient structures have been scoured to spindles and the ignorant would not discern them from the natural towers of eroded rock.

He walks and he walks. The heat of the sun bears down on him and the sand keeps skimming his clothing, a soft, susurrating sound on the fabric as it brushes and leaves him in its wake. He has a canteen of water, as all desert travellers must, and he takes sips now and then, letting the liquid settle about his tongue and trickle warmly down his throat. This time will be his death, he knows, but still the body does all it can to stay alive. It makes him crave water. It makes him crave woman. It makes him crave a spot of shade to crawl into and to huddle in while the cramps and the fire shudder through his body.

This not even depths of his Time. This is only the fringe. His hands shake only subtly. His spine is still straight. His breathing is still even and almost controlled. His thoughts are still even and almost controlled. That is why he is able to do this. That is why his is able to choose to retain his dignity and retreat to a quiet place, and try to control what cannot be controlled and try to outlive what cannot be lived through.

Somewhere out here, somewhere in this vast blur of blowing sand, there is a structure that has been abandoned for more time than his troubled mind can count. Somewhere there is a well and there are dark corners shaded by stone where the heat of the day is kept a little at bay.

He raises his eyes to the horizon, where mountains rise up like a handful of cracked stones. They are old, as old as the sand that scuds about his feet. This far away they look like shards of gravel, but in reality they are thousands of metres tall and snow lies ancient and still on the highest peaks. He cannot imagine that coolness, standing here on the flat desert plain where the air is dusted red with sand and the sun beats down from above and heat shimmers up from the ground below.

Perhaps night time will ease the heat from his shoulders and arms and leave his head clear. Perhaps it will give some succour to the aching that is setting up in his bones and the burning that is beginning to cloud his eyes. He thinks of women, of towns full of women, of women walking the streets. He thinks of a woman in the closeness of her quarters, dropping her dress from her cool body, showing the curve between hip and ribs, showing the pearl necklace of her vertebrae as she bends to gather up a robe. He sees her hair loosen and drop to brush the smooth skin of her back, sees her turn as she moves toward the shower…

He finds himself on his knees in the sand, his eyes squeezed closed, his hands gripping about a formless clutch of grains. If his wits were about him he would notice the burning of the silica beads against his knees, against his palms. His wits are enough about him to notice abstractedly the feeling of it, the hotter-than-is-safe sting on his flesh, but he is not composed enough to let go or stand up. Not straight away.

It burns in him. He needs to turn back. He needs to crawl, metre by metre, back across the desert to where those women are, to that oasis somewhere out of his sight where there are legs that will part and a softness to sheath himself in.

A moan like that of an animal startles him. There is no animal here but himself. He has put himself far enough away by now that he cannot crawl back. He would not survive. The moan pushes through him again, like a woman in labour. It courses through his cells. He feels it deep through his chest and stomach. He feels the heat in the pit of his belly and the stiffness between his legs. He sees woman like a mirage and he begins to stand and walk again, step after step, barely seeing where he is going.

It has come on him like a flood tide this time. He hadn't realised it would come so soon, so fast. His body is a mess of pain, a knot of cramp. His mind is losing hold on anything that he used to call logic. He sips at his water only from habit. His clothes are thick with dust and his eyes are half closed and he stumbles again and finds himself thinking, please, please