by James Graham
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Peter sat silent on the soft couch. The surround-images had faded. Haad and Alilis sat opposite, talking a little and sometimes glancing in his direction. Haad had taken a small round object from his pocket, and was running his fingers across it, back and forth.
Peter’s brain was swimming with questions. The world he had seen was so ‘unspoiled’ it seemed almost medieval - where was their industry? Their spaceport? But the most insistent question was one he had already asked, one that had crossed his mind again even as he viewed the Iranthan landscape. You have no leaders?
So much of his life, he thought, had been spent in futile protest against the follies and cruelties of leaders. Like so many others of his generation, he had once believed the world could be changed, even a little, for the better. But recently he had allowed himself to become pessimistic and bitter.
Seeing him emerge from his trance, Haad and Alilis looked at him inquiringly. He surprised himself by asking, ‘Are you older than us? I mean, has the evolution of your people been longer than ours?’
Haad smiled and nodded. ‘I believe you undersstand, and I am glad. Yess, our world is older, and our people alsso, by... aah... one million of your years, almosst. It iss our good fortune.’
‘So have you really no leaders? No governments? Wars? Money?’
‘None of these,’ Alilis said. ‘For many centuries we had wars. A ssorrowful passt. But now for many generations we have a long peasce. Our whole world is open to all.’
‘You mean the land is held in common?’
‘Oh, yess. And we have not leaders but keepers. I cannot easily exsplain.’
‘Keepers? What do they... no, I don’t really think you need to explain. And your world is open to all. I understand that all right.’ He felt a growing excitement. ‘You told me you’re historians,’ he went on. ‘You must know that here on Earth we have had people who tried to create a world like yours: the Diggers, the people of the Paris Commune and such like. But they failed. Maybe... maybe it was just too soon. Maybe...’
This was an old feeling, long dormant, but he recognised it. ‘Maybe... some time in the future we can achieve this too. One of our great men wrote, “The great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury.” Maybe it’s just a matter of time, of... growing up.’
He looked over at the two aliens, and found their expressions more solemn than before. His sceptical angel made him say, ‘But perhaps not. I really don’t believe in progress.’
Haad said, ‘It iss not always the pattern. You should understand, your Earth iss not the only planet we know. There are many. There are those that have desstroyed themsselves, but alsso those — perhapss three I think — whose peasce and common wealth are older than ours.’
Questions crowded into his mind, clamouring to be asked. Those peoples who destroyed their planets, how did it happen? What about Earth? Did these people know enough to say whether Earth would go the way of destruction, or become a world of peace and common wealth? But before he could speak again, Alilis said, ‘Peter, do you wissh to go with uss to Irantha?’
Peter met her spirited gaze for a moment. The idea had occurred to him, but now that the words had been spoken he did not know what to say. He closed his eyes, and the smooth waters of Loch Tomich came unbidden to replace the Iranthan forest.
‘Go? With you?’
‘We have been sspeaking about you. And we have assked the archive about you.’
‘The archive? Am I in the archive? Why would you...?’
‘Almost all of your people are here,’ Haad said, showing the disc that was still in his hand. ‘And much elsse of Earth. Please know, it iss for knowledge only. Of thiss world and others. To know how it iss with young planetss. We mean you no wrong.’
‘You are a good man,’ Alilis said simply. ‘You have done good things in your life. No matter that you have ssometimes failed; to fail is worthy, if you have given all your sself and being. In Irantha already we have good guesst people from sseveral worlds, but yet not many from Earth.’
You have done good things. No matter that you have failed. They’re Stoics, he thought. And so was I, until I let myself down. In old age.
‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘would this be for... a visit? A visit, and return?’
Haad shook his head. ‘We cannot return in your lifetime. Ssoon we are to go home, our work iss almosst complete. No-one elsse will come from Irantha to Earth for many years.’
‘Thank you,’ Peter said. ‘For what you said about me. But why would you want me to live in Irantha?’
They both laughed, kindly. Haad held up his disc. ‘Because you are not an archive, but a persson. You will sspeak and laugh with our people. We have many of your great books and music here; you will say what they mean to you.’
‘I... don’t know,’ Peter said. ‘I don’t know. I have to...’
‘Think,’ Alilis said. ‘And to do sso, you musst return to your mountain.’ She pointed a finger, and the arched opening reappeared. ‘If you come to uss again in a sshort time and ssay no, or if you do not come again, we will not’ — she gave a little laugh — ‘abduct you.’
As he started towards the archway, Alilis reached out and gently held him by the arm. ‘Peter,’ she said, ‘We do not dessceive you. In all we ssay, we sspeak truth.’
Peter climbed all the way back to his viewpoint, and sat down.
With the strangers out of sight, in spite of what Alilis had just said, a cool wave of common-sense disbelief came over him. It’s a damn good story, he thought. Don’t know who they really are, or how that thing got there. Could be just a weird sort of holiday retreat, and they’re both mad. Not absolutely mad, just enough to want to live in a decorated bottle and enjoy a bit of con-artistry now and again. There’s the path home, over there; the path down to the road and the car park.
But he stopped himself short. Common sense wasn’t getting him very far. Oh, come on, he told himself, it’s not that it’s hard to believe them. It’s actually hard not to. There are Earth-like planets. Some very Earth-like, they say. Intelligent life there would be human-like. Not smart lizards or little green men. And if their planet is older, and has had life on it for longer, it stands to reason their technology would have advanced out of sight. This is real.
I like them. Not just because they told me I’m a good man. I can’t help it, I like them very much. No, it’s more than like. Not love. Affinity. Being at home in their company. Oh, there are people I know who are just as... nearly as... homely to me, but they push all the right buttons.
He was trying to think himself towards a decision. But somewhere a voice was telling him to think twice. No more than a whisper, but it was there.
Ignoring it, he went on rationalising. I’ve been so much at odds with so many people. Such an angry life, at times. Such frustration and disappointment. They’re offering me... they’re offering me a reward! They’re telling me now I can put all that behind me. What more can I do anyway? And realise my dream! They think I could live there. ‘Speak and laugh.’ Be a citizen of a world I always wished for and never hoped to see!
There was a hiatus. He seemed to have come to the end of his reasoning, or needed a new argument. Of course he would have to think about Mike and young Peter. What could he tell them? How could he tell them? His mind began to weary, his thoughts wandered, and the dissenting voice made itself heard.
It was Jan. Nothing as absurd as a ‘message from the other side,’ merely his crowded memories of her. Her voice was in his head, the precise timbre and inflection of it, not telling him what to do now, but saying, ‘That’s me,’ as she always said when she was ready to go out, and ‘Oh, it’s good to be home,’ as she would say after a holiday, or latterly when she had been in hospital. And ‘I don’t think so.’ And ‘Don’t forget to lock the doors when you’re coming upstairs, to thwart the Opportunist Thief,’ one of their little running jokes.
He could hear her knowing laugh, and her delighted laugh. He could see her eyes turned to the left as she thought, and cast down with disappointment. He saw the delicately crooked third finger of her left hand, her amber ring, her signature with the graceful slanted J and the oval A, her elegant walk with no stoop, even as she got older.
‘She’s dead. She’s dead,’ he said aloud. ‘But she has come together. She’s come together. I have her ghost.’
I want to go home. I want to go back to that house, because that’s where she is. She chose the colour of every room, the style of every chair and table, the pendulum clock, the little owl-figures in the hall. The owls are so lifelike. She hated silly, cartoonish ones. She made our living-space beautiful. The silver birch in the front garden, the yellow azalea, all the trees and shrubs, though I planted them, she chose them and knew where they would look best. I want to go home, because that’s where she is.
He put a hand on a nearby stone, and got to his feet. Turtle City appeared again to the mind’s eye. Strangely, it seemed an old memory, not a fresh one. He turned towards the rough homeward path, then stopped. A new thought had come to him out of nowhere. It’s a kind of Heaven. But I would die there.
Turning back towards the small horizon beyond which the Iranthans waited, he thought, I’ll tell them that. I’ll thank them, and tell them that, and then I’ll go. And I’ll tell them: I shall be buried in Earth.
Copyright © 2014 by James Graham