A Touch of Earth
by Colin P. Davies
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Cautiously I tried walking along the dried mud path that ran beside the river. It held my weight and I became bolder, walked further.
“I can’t see the borders either,” Gunn said. “But invisible hands will stop us from hurting ourselves.”
“Is all this accurate?”
“Meticulously. It’s so close to the real thing it hurts.”
I examined Gunn’s face, possibly for the first time. Beneath his unkempt white hair, his skin was scored with wrinkles. I wondered, could I count them to determine his age, like the rings of a tree? “Why did you come to Mars? ” It seemed the obvious question. I wondered why I hadn’t asked it before. “You don’t belong on our planet. That much is plain.”
Gunn’s eyes narrowed, as though he was attempting to peer back across the decades. “I thought Mars had something I wanted. I was wrong.” Moisture gathered in his eyes. He blinked at me, then smiled. “God, was I wrong!”
I waited for him to tell me more, but he moved away, back towards the signposts.
“I think I’ve been here long enough,” he said.
I wasn’t sure which here he was referring to.
He stepped between the signposts and vanished.
Alone now in that Illinois morning, sadness swept over me. So much has been lost. It was Gunn’s regret, not mine. I shook myself free and followed him through the curtain.
I was met by screams and sirens. Men and women ran past me. Children were crying. Not far away, approaching between two trucks, I could see the black tunics and hard hats of a police troop.
“Bob! Quickly... this way.” Gunn was standing below me. He ran off. I leapt down the steps and followed, away from the police.
“You’d best get home,” he said as I caught up.
“What about you?”
“You’ve got more to lose.”
People came charging towards us. They arrived like a wave... mindless, unstoppable. A woman barged me into a red truck. My head thumped against the plasteel side.
“Bob... down to the lake. Come on!”
Gunn dragged me around the cab of the red truck and down a short grassy slope and into the path of half a dozen troopers. We turned and, deaf to commands to halt, dived back behind the truck. Whips cracked their charges on empty air.
“Where the Hell to now?” I yelled at Gunn as we squeezed into the confused crowd. I couldn’t help feeling he’d got me into all this. “The police are everywhere. They must have sent the entire battalion. ”
“They’re scared,” he said.
“They are scared?”
“In here!” Gunn bounded up six steps and into a truck. He was quick on his feet for his apparent age. I went after him. As I passed though the curtain, the outside world was silenced and I became aware, for the first time, of the sheer volume of terror that had filled the night air.
Inside the truck I discovered another carnival — not like this gathering of trucks beneath a Martian tent, but a genuine carnival, one lifted right out of Gunn’s stories. There were rides, shooting galleries, candy and carousels, laughing and cheering. Somewhere nearby a calliope played. It was nighttime under the sky of Earth and I knew that bright crescent was the moon.
Gunn gestured and, once again, I was in his tracks.
“There’s one thing here that is real,” he said. He led me to a rotating carousel — a marvelously intricate piece of nostalgia. As it passed him, he slapped the leg of one of the white horses. The carousel began to slow. “Let’s get to the middle and lie low.”
We stayed there for an hour as the carousel alternately rotated and stopped. Occasional ghost-visitors clambered on and off its beautiful animals. No one entered through the curtain — here disguised as a door into a shabby caravan. The carnival illusion continued around us: the excited chatter of the crowd, the smell of fried onions, children running and laughing. It became difficult to convince myself it was all fake, and I felt foolish huddled up on the ride.
We talked little at first; just speculation about the reason for the police raid. But Gunn was reticent and I found myself doing most of the talking.
In spite of my conviction that he was not telling me everything, or perhaps because of that, I got to asking him why it was so important that I was an architect.
“It’s just a dream,” he told me. “A mad eccentric vision.”
“And you need me?”
“Right now I’m not in a position to need anyone — I mean from a financial position. My money is tied up on Earth... unpaid royalties. That sort of thing.”
“So you’ve got money?”
“It’s not cheap getting to Mars.”
“And now you can’t afford to go back?”
“I may not want to go back... yet.” He glanced around at the illusion that surrounded us. “What I can see is the possibility of making this real, this holographic, imitation Earth.”
“The terraforming project began decades ago. In time... .”
“I’m not immortal. I want to enjoy it in this life, not haunt it from the next. No... I’m talking about a theme park. A new independent tented city in which just about every memory of Earth would be genuine. You could touch it ... taste it. You could live there. The only illusions would be horizons and sky.”
“Very ambitious, and totally beyond my capabilities,” I said.
“I’ll need a team, not a Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“It would be cheaper to take a return flight to Earth.”
“That wouldn’t help a Mars-born boy like you. You’re not young anymore. That gray’s not just fashion. It would be tough enough now for me, but the higher gravity of Earth would cripple you. Yet we all need a touch of Earth. It’s what makes us human.”
“You’re beginning to sound like Carol. Different words, but the tone is the same.”
“Perhaps you’ve never felt anything deeply enough.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by that, but then I considered it could be the truth.
We fell into silence. The carousel continued to turn and stop, turn and stop.
Finally, as we once more came to a halt, Gunn crawled under the horses and fell to the grass. I was right behind him. We lay a while as the ground continued to spin below us.
When we could stand, we approached the caravan — the exit curtain. I grabbed Gunn’s sleeve to hold him back. “The police...”
“We can’t stay here for ever,” he said. Then he stepped through the curtain.
After a moment, and a final look around at the beauty of Earth, I followed.
Some way from the steps, Gunn was in the firm grip of two troopers. Closer to me, more police waited, whips poised. And at the foot of the steps, hand raised to accuse me, stood Carol.
* * *
The chaise longue was out of place in the bare interrogation room. An attempt to unsettle the unfortunate visitor, no doubt — an impression strengthened by the blood-red upholstery.
I was sitting uncomfortably on the edge, guessing at what would happen now that they’d brought me from the cell, when Carol came in. The door was locked behind her.
She stood well away from me and stared, as though I was a stranger, and a strange one at that. I rose from my seat and stepped forward. She retreated. Apparently she’d determined a safe defensive distance, just as this last year she’d cultivated an emotional distance between us.
“There’s the question of the children,” she said.
Despite myself, I felt a boot land squarely in my stomach. “You know, you look a lot like my wife... but she had a heart... and she wasn’t in the secret police... at least I didn’t...”
She cut in, “You’ve made things more difficult than they need to be.”
“For you? I couldn’t give a damn.”
“Your eccentricities are...”
“I’m an architect!”
“...and your bloodymindedness...”
“What does that mean?”
She turned to converse with the wall. I watched her breath surging slow and deep into her body. Then she looked at me again. “I can’t live in the same house with you anymore.”
“Just tell me when I can leave here.”
“When exactly you will get out of here, Robert, is a decision for the Mayor. I’ve pleaded emotional immaturity on your behalf.”
“You’re a gem.”
“I’ve got my feet screwed to the ground and my eyes fixed on the future. You, Robert, are a dreamer. Of course, I knew that when I first met you, but at the time I thought it quite endearing.”
“Politics and maturity aren’t necessarily mutually compatible. For instance, take yourself...”
She was silent a moment, then said calmly, “Let’s stop bitching. We’re only providing entertainment for the guys in surveillance. Let’s talk about Gunn and his stories.”
“You’re hardly qualified.”
“They’re unhelpful... a nuisance. And more than that... subversive. His books circulate for high prices. The carnival is a manifestation of his poison.”
I couldn’t help laughing.
Her tone hardened. “We’re trying to prepare the ground for a new order here. We want hope and grand futures, inspiring futures. Fiction must be uplifting... moral and beneficial. Optimistic. Otherwise it serves no purpose.”
“You mean you want stories of the great days to come.” I found myself growing angry on Gunn’s behalf. “Some would call that propaganda.”
“The last thing we need is Gunn stirring up nostalgia. It makes people feel cheated, as though something is missing.”
“Something is missing!” I yelled. “How can you compare this dry desert wilderness to Earth? Where’s the rivers, the meadows...? We must be crazy living here.”
“You only prove my point.”
I sat down again, somewhat confused by my outburst. “What now then?”
“For now, you go back to your cell.” She knocked on the door. It swung open. “And in the morning I’ll have a talk with my children.”
* * *
When the two guards locked me back in the cell, I glanced at Gunn. He was sleeping. Being irritable and unable to settle — a part of me was still arguing with Carol — I went to the small solitary window that looked out over the city lake.
It was still night. That surprised me. I’d lost track of time. The brilliant guardian lamps at the top of the central support arm swept lazily about, pouring prying light into secret alleys, washing green parkland white, peering into bedrooms. The lake itself was evident by the wavering starfield of reflected promenade lanterns and the occasional sweep of a guardian beam.
My breath misted on the window.
“No bruises then?” Gunn was awake.
I turned my head and squinted into the brightness. “None that show.”
I think he understood.
It could be hours before daylight. Neither of us were able to sleep, so we talked. We talked about childhood adventures, family loved and lost, ambitions achieved and abandoned. The hope of youth and the frustration of adulthood. We talked about Earth. He told me his stories and, for a time, I lived on his planet.
I lay back on my hard bed and let his words transport me millions of kilometers through space, and soon the meaning of the words was unimportant; they became merely soothing sounds, comforting... .
I was looking out through the cell window. It was morning, though the sky above the tent was dark and heavy. The lake surface was glass-calm. Then snow began to fall. Large flakes drifted within the tented city.
At first I searched for explanations — perhaps a freak drop in temperature outside the tent — then it didn’t seem to matter. I watched the flakes dancing down. Soon the lake shore, the copse of oaks, the concrete streets... all were white.
The lake was frozen.
I was in a silent winter heaven.
I was about to call to Gunn, to urge him to the window, when the snowflakes thinned and I saw something move down there by the lakeside.
It was a man, too far away to be seen clearly, walking slowly away through the thick snow. As I watched, he turned and waved. I knew that wave was for me. And I understood that it was goodbye.
I was awoken by rough hands dragging me from the bed. I was hauled upright. The room was brilliant and blinding.
“Check under the beds!” a voice yelled.
“I have checked!” Another voice.
“Then how...? Take this one along! There’s going to be some questions...”
* * *
Gunn has gone.
Carol insisted that he had escaped — somehow conjured his freedom in the middle of the night. The carnival also departed that night, and perhaps he went with them. She showed no great concern. He was gone, and that was all that mattered.
But I can’t escape the conviction that he was removed... Murdered. They wanted him out of the way. I guess I’ll never know the truth. Some things though are clear.
Carol and me... we’ll never reconcile these differences. It would be easier to reconcile the governments of the two planets. I can’t even bear to hear her broadcasts — she thinks she’s entertaining children again.
Our children are with me — Carol’s choice. She moved out last month.
I’m working again. Without the distractions I’ve actually improved on my initial targets. Finances are looking better. But I can’t shake off Gunn’s words or his world. I suspect now that he never truly believed in the theme park idea. I think he cultivated my friendship for another, more subtle reason.
Last night I started to write a story. Yes... I surprised myself. It was on impulse, but now I’ve had the taste I doubt I’ll ever be able to quit. I was writing of strange things. Gunn’s things.
Am I happy? In a way. The job’s okay and the kids are great.
However, I want the impossible. I want to return to Earth — yet I’ve never set foot there and never can set foot there. The emotion is genuine and I curse Gunn for the gift.
So I will write of a past I never lived and of people I never loved and perhaps, in time, there will be those who wish to read my stories and together, through the magic of words, we will reach out and touch the Earth.
[Author's note: A Touch of Earth first appeared in issue #2 — June-July 1995 — of the short-lived UK magazine Beyond - Fantasy & Science Fiction]
Copyright © 2006 by Colin P. Davies