The warm night wind sprinkled sand against a faded yellow truck. Its windshield twinkled in the moonlight, and the patter of sand on metal rang like a distant chime. The green uniformed officer in the driver's seat did not move. The wind was strong, covering many night noises.
The sand was the kingdom of Keith, now asleep in the darkened farmhouse a quarter-mile away. Here he was the almighty creator and destroyer. It was he who could part the earth and the seas (when his mother allowed him to use the watering can). It was he who decided exactly which shovelful of sand was to be placed where, and the depth of the valleys, and the height of the mountains.
The sandpile was, to him, an unfrosted cake, undecorated and waiting. It was his habit to build each morning and level each evening, unless he had an exceptional city to preserve. Sometimes wind or rain disappointed the blonde boy and rearranged his work. But Sand City was the place for Keith to apply his imagination, or to vent his frustration. To others it was just a sandpile, and Keith just a green-eyed boy of six.
Only a few hours ago the sandpile had been an awesome battlefield with spectacular explosions, fierce sounds and saliva blown to the extreme as many green plastic army men were lost or buried in the heat of the battle. But casualties were the price of war, even in the sandbox. Anyone who watched M*A*S*H as regularly as Keith could tell you that.
Eventually, the battlefield had quieted as the sun had crept lower and lower. Smells of supper had drifted across the hay meadow. Keith had gone indoors. This was the time of rest. The sandbox could now heal. Its scars and trenches would erode, by wind, rain or irrigation water, to a smooth surface ready to be scooped out and retrenched the next morning; the work accompanied by moist "Brrrrrrrrrr-"ing motor sounds and occasional booming explosions. This battlefield had served him well, so Keith left it all intact. He had also left "Green," his favorite toy general in command, seated in the yellow truck.
The ship's recirculation unit blew warm, slightly stale air on young Aesporche's saffron scales. He imagined that he was standing in a breeze, on a live planet, instead of balancing on his single foot, traveling through space. He closed his eye and pictured some of the lush vegetation, the exotic scents he had experienced as he traveled with his parents.
"A live planet!" he thought. "I need that now."
The sickly boy's once bright-yellow scales were pale. This had been a particularly long journey. Home was farther away than he wanted to think about. Sobered by that thought, Aesporche shook himself and patted his scaled, rounded sides. As quickly as he had enjoyed it, his fantasy faded.
Aesporche hopped over to his cup-like bed, lay down and sobbed quietly, for he would be ashamed if his parents heard him cry. They had him, but they also had their work. He understood. He clutched Garris, his favorite comforting object. The metallic toy was round, greenish-yellow, single-footed, multi-armed, and single eyed: Aesporche's image in adamantium alloy. It glowed through the night in Aesporche's hand while he slept, a soothing keepsake from his distant home.
A mother rabbit shyly left her warren near the sandpile to search for blades of green grass. Not far away an ant scurried into his crumbling pyramid city, safe from the outside world. A bright blue light pulsated high above rabbit, army men, sandpile, and farmhouse. The rabbits ate on, used to the comings and goings of stars. The ant was already underground. The rest of the lonely farm world slept.
The light became a red glow as it lost magnitude and sank gently to earth. Its brightness diffused quickly and dissolved. A soft hum, like a smoothly-running appliance, was the only sound that could now be heard, had anyone been there to listen.
The hatch opened with a hiss. Aesporche hopped out of his family's spacecraft, his prison and theirs for some light years. He stood in the cool night, stretching his arms and shifting his scales like a living row of dominoes.
"Fidoo!" he exclaimed aloud.
How delightful it was to feel the moist, strange earth under his footpad and to smell flora and creatures of life! Not quite as delightful as home, of course, but there was breathable air and natural gravity. His scales rippled in anticipation. At the motion a rabbit bounded away. Aesporche watched, amused. He had read of Earth's harmless, gentle occupants, as well as of its dangerous Two-legs. He knew he must not go near even the homes of the Two-legs.
Hopping out to have a look around, a glint caught his eye. He bounded toward it, relishing in the freedom of open space and the rush of circulation in his muscles as he landed in the center of a sandy square. Shining in the half moon light was a miniature faded yellow earth-vehicle, piloted by a green-uniformed Two-leg.
Aesporche thought of his play-place at home, where he had many similar objects. If he was not to approach the Two-legs, perhaps it was acceptable to borrow their toys? He removed the green-uniformed Two-leg from the yellow vehicle and absently put it in one of his pouches, substituting Garris, his own glowing plaything, to pilot the earth-vehicle. Aesporche busied Garris at commanding the vast, sandy outpost, which Aesporche built to resemble a fortress he had seen once on the planet Vaharn.
Rolling over the sand, Aesporche flattened the gallidome he had just created. It wasn't quite right yet. He had just begun construction of a new one, with the help of Garris and the earth-vehicle, when he felt something in the sand. He held the object under the sand for a moment, trying to guess, thinking it to be a stone. Then he quickly shook it clean.
Green in color, the object was molded into a form of some kind. But a form of what? The olive-green plastic Two-leg seemed to have an agonized expression, as if it were doing something against its will and not enjoying it much. It carried a rounded stick, thicker, at the end it held, and it pointed the stick outward threateningly.
Aesporche had a magnificent time in the sand. One of the best times he could remember. Breathing the clear Earth air, he placed the green form in one of the wheeled earth-vehicles and rolled it over mountainous obstacles. He pitted Garris in his vehicle against the new form in his, making sure Garris won the races. He jumped the wheeled machines over lunar craters and great peaks. He made the sandpile spring to life in the moonlight, the way Keith did by day.
Aesporche made roads of all convolutions and dimensions, dry lakes filled with imagination, monorails and canals. He built a tremendous structure for his own toy, Garris. The castle-like building was interlaced with corridors and dungeons, and the architect had provided escape tunnels, in case of Two-leg invasions.
Aesporche paused to admire his creations. He had used practically all the sand, and there was no more room for any other intergalactic wonders in the pile. Aesporche would have patted himself on the back if any of his multi-armed appendages could have reached that far around his body.
He heard a familiar high-pitched chime. Mother, calling him back to the ship! As he stood, shaking off his dorsal scales, a grain of sand fell into his eye. The eye watered, more than one grain of sand warranted. A tear of gratitude, not pain, slid down the facets of his face.
Aesporche hopped around the carefully planned city and reached into the yellow vehicle to retrieve Garris, then paused. The sky was lighter now and the moon had gone over the horizon. He took a deep breath, savoring the pollens he smelled, and the slightly sweet taste of it. The faint glow of Garris provided the only color in the monochromatic sand. With a sinuous motion of his arms he slid the yellow earth-vehicle to the top of the highest mountain in the sandpile, parked it, and returned his favorite toy to the driver's compartment. Aesporche's mother toned again, and he hopped with a rapid gait toward the ship, not glancing back at his favorite toy, which glowed greenly in the pre-dawn dimness.
Aesporche had always secretly wanted to overcome his fears and confront, perhaps befriend, a young Two-leg. Now he saw that it wasn't necessary. He felt as if he had already known one.
Keith, with trowel in one hand and the odd metal figure he had found in Sand City in the other, tried to understand the strange changes to his land. It was too bad that something -- probably the wind last night -- had flattened his battlefield and rearranged the mountains. Even worse was the loss of his general, Green. But this new toy was certainly interesting, and its garments were better than Green's. With its lime-yellow color, the name "Green" would suit this toy too. There was a lot of work to be done in Sand City, but change wasn't always bad, at least where sand was concerned. Keith hopped up from his knees and ran toward the house to show his mother the strange new toy which had dropped into his sandpile, apparently from nowhere.
They were light years from Earth in the ship before Aesporche discovered that he had kept the toy of the young Two-leg. Studying it in the bright light of the ship's library, he thought it quite ugly. Why, it had two eyes, only two arms, and ugh, those double legs. Still , "I think I'll name him Garris II," Aesporche murmured.