Isolation stories: (5) Dark Eden

No, not the novel, but the short story of the same name that was the prequel to the novel: the story of how people first came to live on the planet Eden. This story first appeared in Asimov’s SF in 2006, and was subsequently included in my collection, The Turing Test. (It isn’t the first story I wrote set in Eden, that was ‘The Circle of Stones’ which was published in Interzone in 1992, 20 years before the novel Dark Eden).

This is not the most brilliantly written of my stories, to be honest. (I think the previous story, ‘The Kite’, is about as good as I’m capable of.) But it has proved very productive, since this story is referred to throughout the Eden novels, right up to the final line of the final book.

Anyway, you don’t get much more isolated than the characters in this story.

PS: The Ballantyne effect is named after my good friend Tony Ballantyne, who suggested it.

Dark Eden

Tommy:

Space is a dangerous place but for me it always felt like a haven. Especially this time. In the final days before our mission every newspaper and TV station on the planet had been carrying revelations from Yvette.   I couldn’t pull back a curtain without a storm of flashbulbs and a chorus of voices.  I couldn’t pass a newsstand without seeing my own name:

TOMMY SCHNEIDER’S EX TELLS ALL

SEX-MAD SCHNEIDER BROKE MY HEART

The void between the stars, sub-Euclidean nothingness – all that was fine with me, a bit of peace.  It always had been.  But now it was beginning to look as if even this escape route would soon be closed off.

“I think this will be the last trip before they shut down the program, yes?” said my crewmate Mehmet Haribey on the shuttle out. He was a Turkish Air Force officer. We usually had one non-American, seeing as the program was nominally international.

“I guess, but I so hope not,” I said. “Who would I be if I had to spend my life on Earth?

Mehmet grunted sympathetically.  I’d worked with him several times before and liked him a lot.  He was an open, warm kind of guy. 

“Or it would be the last trip,” said our captain, “were it not for the fact that this time we are going to find life.”

Mehmet and I exchanged glances.     Dixon Thorley was okay when he was just being himself, but he found it very hard to forget that God Almighty had called him personally to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to alien civilizations.  It was a tale he had told to many a rapt congregation and many a respectful interviewer on the religious networks: God had put him on Earth to perform this one task.  And for him it was just inconceivable that the program should end without contact with any other life form. 

Poor guy, I suddenly thought.

The fact was that over two hundred fantastically expensive missions had traversed the galaxy and found no trace of any living thing.  Human beings had trodden lifeless planets right across the Milky Way and now it looked as if their footprints would just fill up with stardust again.  Silence would return, like nightfall.

I say nightfall, but of course in the solar system – in any solar system – it’s really always day, except in the tiny slivers of space that lie on the lee side of planets.  As we approached it in the shuttle, the galactic ship Defiant basked ahead of us in a perpetual noontime, an enormous cylinder half a kilometer long, covered in gigantic pylons.  It was huge, but 99% of it was engine.  The habitable portion was a cramped little cabin in the middle.  We crawled through into it and breathed in the familiar space smell of dirty socks, stale urine and potato mash.   How I loved that smell!  It was the smell of freedom.

“God I’ll miss this,” I said as I began switching on monitors. 

I’ve been thinking about this recently – I’ve had a lot of time to think – and what I’ve come to realize is that I have always been most at home in transient, dangerous places, even before I became an astronaut.  Even when I was a kid, danger was always somehow reassuring to me.  Safety and security had always made me feel uneasy. 

Dixon flicked the radio on to a county music station and we settled into our positions and started running through the pre-activation procedures.  Soon we’d start the ship’s gravitonic engine and then we’d head out into deeper space while the engine built up power for the leap.  Finally – blam! – we’d let it loose.  In a single gigantic surge of energy it would drive us downwards in a direction that was perpendicular to all three dimensions of Euclidian space.  A few seconds later, we’d bob up again like a cork.  We’d be back in Euclidean space but we’d be thousand light-years away from home.          

“The spaceman who wrecked my life,” said the radio, “New revelations from Yvette Schneider!  Exclusively in tomorrow’s Daily Lance.

“Poor Tommy,” Mehmet said.  “You can’t get away from it, can you?”

Dixon gave a snort, but refrained from saying anything.  He’d already told me that as far as he was concerned I had only got what I deserved.  And of course he was right.  I didn’t expect sympathy.  But I couldn’t help responding to the self-righteous baying of the radio.

“There’s always another side to the story,” I muttered. “I behaved badly, yes.  But there were things she did to hurt me too.”

This was too much for Dixon.

“Tommy, you just can’t…”

But he was interrupted by a voice from Mission Control.

“Tommy, Dixon, Mehmet, this is going to come as a shock…”

It was Kate Grantham, the director of the Galaxy Project herself.

“The mission is cancelled boys.  The whole project has been terminated.  Sorry, but the President has decided to pull the plug.  We all knew this was likely to happen soon but I’m afraid it’s happening now.  The shuttle is coming back for you.  Shut all systems down again.”

“But excuse me the project has barely started!”  Mehmet protested.  “Of course we haven’t found life yet.  Doesn’t the President know how big space is?  The galaxy would have to be bursting at the seams with life for us to have found it already.” 

“The President has been thoroughly briefed,” the director said shortly.  “He has a number of competing priorities to consider.”  And she couldn’t help adding: “The bad publicity around Tommy hasn’t helped.”

 “Oh that is logical!”  I burst out.  “One of the explorers gets caught cheating on his wife, so cancel the exploration of the entire galaxy.”

Dixon switched off the radio.

 “I must say,” he said, “I’ve never been able to understand how people can do things they know are wrong and then get indignant when it causes problems for them.  But that’s for another time.  Right now, crewmates, I’ve got a simple proposition to make.  We have power and provisions enough for one trip.  Let’s do it anyway!”    

“Dixon!” Mehmet gave an incredulous laugh.  “This isn’t like you!”

“I’m quite serious,” he said.  “How can they stop us?”

“How about by sending an interceptor after us?” I said.

There were interceptors in Earth orbit, a dozen of them at least at any one time, looking out for illegally launched communications satellites and for the killer satellites which big business and organized crime sent up to disrupt the communications of rivals.

“It’ll take them an hour to figure out what we’re doing,” said Dixon, “and an hour after that to decide what to do about it.  By then we’ll only be about six hours from the leap point.”

“Yes but…” Mehmet stopped himself and laughed.  “Okay.  This is a very stupid idea.  But, yes, I’m up for it if Tommy is.”

I thought about the alternative.  Going back to live among daily revelations of my own duplicity.  Walking down a street in which every passer by knew what, precisely, I liked to do in bed.  

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m in.  Even though it’ll mean a court martial when we get back.”

 “Oh we’ll be okay, you know,” Mehmet said.  “The public will love us won’t they?”

“It’s the goddam public who’ve pulled the plug on us,” I pointed out.

“Yes, I know,” said Mehmet. “But that makes no difference.  When they see us defying the bureaucrats they’ll yell at the bureaucrats to leave us alone.  They won’t remember the bureaucrats were acting at their request.  They never do!”

Well, they used to say there were only five people on Earth who really understood how a gravitonic engine works, and  I wasn’t one of them.  What I do know is that, for a few seconds, it generates an artificial gravitational field of sufficient strength to convert the space around it into the equivalent of a black hole.    And because it works by gravity, it can’t be used too close to any large object with a gravitational field of its own.  This would distort the field and would result, at minimum, in the ship emerging in a completely different place from the target area (“a completely different place” meaning in this context maybe a different galaxy, or an unknown tract of intergalactic space).  At maximum it could result in the field failing to properly enclose the ship, so that the ship itself would be damaged or destroyed.

 This was why, at the rate of acceleration that the Defiant could achieve with its Euclidean drive, it would be eight hours before we could reach a safe point to make our leap through sub-Euclidean space.  It would take half that time in any case for the engine to build up a sufficient charge.

Angela:

People laughed at me when I put myself forward for secondment to the UN’s “space-cop” service.  The British police forces had only been given a quota of four secondees altogether and I was only twenty-five, black and a woman.   Plus I was only an ordinary uniformed cop and had no training as a pilot beyond what I did with the air cadets at school.   But then my mum and dad had always taught me to believe in myself.

Yeah and look at me now, I thought, as our interceptor passed five thousand miles above India.  Who says a black girl from Peckham can’t get on in the world?

This was my third patrol.  My captain Mike Tennison and I were looking for Mafia satellites, which we would either tow to destruction points or, if they were very small, simply nudge down into the atmosphere to burn up as billion dollar fireworks. 

Mike was an air force secondee, a former fighter pilot.  He was your original RAF officer: decent, sporty, stiff upper lipped.  He was a brave man too.  He’d served and won medals in two of the recent wars.  But something was happening to him that neither he nor anyone else could have predicted.  He was becoming a cosmophobe.  Space was starting to scare him stiff.

 “It’s a silly thing,” he’d confided on our previous mission, “I’ve flown in all kinds of dangerous situations and never thought twice about it.   I didn’t think twice about this at first either.  But now I can’t seem to forget that out here I’m not really flying at all, I’m just constantly falling.  Please don’t tell anyone, Angela.  I’ll get over it I’m sure.”

But it was getting pretty obvious to me that he wasn’t going to get over it.  His face streamed with sweat.  He kept wiping his hands so as to be able to grip properly on the controls.  And his eyes, his weary frightened eyes, were just unbearable to look at.  I was going to have to confront him about it at the end of this mission, I knew. I couldn’t sweep this under the carpet any more.  He was putting us both in danger.

But that was for later.  Right now we were heading towards a rogue satellite which had been launched a few days ago from Kazakhstan.  We were just about to get close enough to actually see the thing when we received an unexpected order from ground base.  The intergalactic ship Defiant had been hi-jacked by its own crew and they were taking it out of orbit.  We were the nearest interceptor and we were to go after it, grapple it if necessary and prevent it from making a leap.

 “Jesus!” I breathed.

 Mike gave a kind of groan.   I realized that up to that point he’d coping by counting off the minutes until we could drop out of orbit and return to base.

But he was a professional and he set to.  He located the Defiant, calculated a trajectory which would intercept theirs in about three and a half hours and then off we went, me leaning out of the window to stick a flashing blue light on the roof.

Well, okay, I made that last bit up.

Tommy:

It was after we’d been going for about an hour that we became aware that we were being followed. 

“It’s gaining on us too,” Mehmet said.

 “Shall we talk to them?” Dixon asked.

I thought better not. But the others decided we should call and tell them if they didn’t back off, they might get sucked down into sub-E with us when the time came to make a leap.

We were surprised to hear the voice of a self-assured young Englishwoman in reply.

“We’ll reach you long before you get to your leap point,” she said in response to our threat, “and we are certainly not going to back off.”

Dixon winked at us.

“Listen,” he radioed back, “When you get close to us, we leap, even if we’re four hours short of the leap point.  It’s up to you.”

 I looked at Mehmet:  “He’s bluffing, yeah?”

But we should have noticed the gleam in Dixon’s eye, the mad religious gleam as he turned back to watch the power monitor.

The interceptor drew closer.  There was no sign of them backing off or even reducing the speed at which they were gaining on us.

“I meant what I said,” Dixon told the orbit-cops.

“So did I,” said the young woman who we now knew to be Sergeant Angela Young.

Dixon shrugged.

“Okay, then,” he said, “here goes! God save us all.”

What!” Mehmet and I simultaneously yelled.  We were still three and a half hours short of a safe leap point!

But Dixon laughed as he switched on the field.

“Thy will be done!” he hollered as we plunged into the pit.

Angela:

Purple lightening prickled up and down the Defiant’s pylons.  Our vehicle shuddered violently as it was sucked towards the artificial gravity they were generating.  Suddenly the stars and moon and sun and earth were far away in a little disc, and everything else around us was like a sort of mirror.  It was like when you’re under water and look up and see that little circle of sky straight above you, and everywhere else it’s just the silvery undersides of waves.  Our own faces were there in front of us, huge, distorted reflections of our frightened faces, peering back at us from a huge distorted cabin window.  Then the stars vanished altogether and something hit us like a bomb blast.  I vaguely remember hearing a hissing noise coming from somewhere and Mike giving out a kind of groan. Then I blacked out

When I came round I was in the Defiant, and those three famous galactonauts were looking guiltily down at me like naughty little boys who’ve done a stupid dare and it’s gone wrong.

“Hi, you okay?  Listen, I’m…”

 “Where’s Mike?”

“Your partner?  He’s okay.  He’s not come round yet, but he’s okay.  Listen, I’m Mehmet Harribey and…”

 “…and I’m Dixon Thorley.”

  “…and I’m…”

 “I know.  You’re Tommy Schneider.  The famous stud.”

My head was killing me, and I was very scared and feeling sick, but I was damned if I was going to show any sign of weakness.

“I meant to leap before you got too close to us,” said Dixon, “but I must have left it too late because we pulled your craft through sub-E with us.  It was badly damaged but we came over and managed to get you and your crewmate out before the pressure dropped too low.”

“That was a leap?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid we’re kind of…”

“So where the hell are we?”

“Well, we’re…”

“The truth is,” Mehmet said, “that we don’t exactly know.  We’re in intergalactic space, I’m afraid, which… um…  is kind of a first.  But we believe that the nearest galaxy is our own.  So it should still be possible to…um… ”

“…to get back to Earth and not suffocate or freeze to death in space – although that is the most likely outcome.  Is that how it is?”

“Well, yes, I’m afraid so,” Mehmet laughed ruefully.  (I grew to like him best of the three.  He was a nice-looking man with nice natural manners, and he didn’t come with a reputation either as a religious nut or a serial adulterer.  I remembered seeing a photo of him in some magazine with a pretty wife by the Aegean somewhere and three or four pretty little Turkish kids.)

I nodded and looked around.  The cramped little cabin was about as big as the back of a small delivery truck and it smelled like the boys’ changing room at school only worse, but as far as we knew it was the only habitable place for thousands and thousands of light years: the only place in which a human being could exist without dying in a matter of moments.

“You arseholes,” I told the three of them, and I felt like a copper back on the streets of London, pulling up three silly pimply little naughty boys.  “You selfish, childish, thoughtless little arseholes.”

They never had a chance to respond because suddenly Mike screamed.  He’d opened his eyes and the first thing he saw was the wheel of the galaxy outside the porthole.

Tommy:

It was pure hell there for a while.  The British guy hollered and roared and grabbed us and grabbed at the controls and swore and wept.  I got a black eye, Mehmet got his shirt torn, Angela was yelling at us to back off and not make things even worse (but where the hell were we supposed to back off to?) and all of us were getting dangerously close to seeing ourselves just like the Englishman saw us: doomed to die slowly in a stuffy tin can with nothing but nothingness outside.

Eventually Dixon managed to get to the medical box and whack a sedative into the guy’s ass.

 “He is afraid of space,” Angela explained as he slumped down..

 “A space-cop who is afraid of space?

  Even Angela reluctantly laughed.

I’d never gone for black girls particularly before, but I found myself noticing that this was one attractive young woman.  She was tough, and funny, and sharp – and she looked great.  Maybe this was what I’d been looking for all this time, I couldn’t help thinking.  Maybe I’d just been looking in the wrong place… 

Yeah, I know, I know.  There we were in a damaged ship in intergalactic space and so far from home that, if we could pick out our own sun in that billion-star wheel, we’d be seeing it as it was back in the Pleistocene era – and even then I was thinking about sex.  I guess that is what you call obsession.  

I mean we had a month’s supplies at most.  Maybe six week’s oxygen.

But I caught her eye anyway and smiled at her, to let her know she was appreciated.

Angela:

It turned out that their stupid leap had not only sucked through our interceptor and turned it into scrap, it had also damaged the Defiant itself.  Because they’d made the leap too early the artificial gravity of the field had been pulled back by real gravity towards the Earth – that was why Mike and I had been caught inside it – and some of the pylons at the front end of the ship had actually been left right outside the field, and so literally ceased to exist, while others further back had been bent and twisted.   This was bad news.  To get home from this distance would take a minimum of three or four leaps, which was pushing things at the best of times, even without a defective engine. 

So Dixon, Mehmet and Tommy suited up and went outside to see what repairs they could make, Tommy cheesily asking me if I was sure I’d be okay minding the fort and keeping an eye on Mike.  Can you believe that he’d already given me the eye several times?  Was this bloke entirely ruled by his dick?

“I’ll be okay,” I said, “and I promise not to answer the phone or to let in any strangers.”

Answer the phone!  Even if my mum and dad could have called me up from Earth – even if there was a signal strong enough to reach this far, I mean – I’d have been dead a million years by the time their message got to me.

Pretty soon all three gallant galactonauts were back.  They’d been able to straighten out a few bent pylons. But now something else was on their minds and they rushed to the sensor panel and started playing around with frequencies and filters like kids with a new video game.

“There was this dark disc in front of the galaxy,” Tommy explained to me. “Mehmet spotted it first…”

 “Never seen anything like it!” Mehmet interrupted.  “It was…”

 “Here it is!” called Dixon, pointing to a screen.

He’d turned radar onto whatever it was and it turned out to be a solid object the size of earth, but out in intergalactic space without any kind of star anywhere near it. 

“There’s a thing called the Ballantyne effect,” Mehmet explained to me. “Your trajectory through sub-E space is always twisted in the direction of any large mass that’s in the vicinity of your notional exit point.  It means that you always end up nearer to stars that you would predict on chance alone.  But who’d have thought we’d find any sort of object out here to pull us towards it, eh?” 

“So it’s planet with no sun,” I said.

“Yes,” Dixon told me excitedly.  “A .planet all on its own.  It’s been assumed for a long time that they exist, but no one has ever found one before.”

“Well so what?” I said.  “What use is it to us?  Even Pluto would be hospitable by comparison with a planet that has no sun at all and Pluto is so cold it’s covered with solid methane.  We’re trying to survive, remember?  What use is a dismal place like that?”

“But the thing is, Angela,” Mehmet said, “the thing is that this planet isn’t cold!”

 “And it’s not completely dark either!” said Tommy.

 They were all over one another in their haste to show me the evidence.  Somehow, even without a sun, this strange object had a surface as warm as Earth’s.  Seen in infrared it glowed.  In fact, even in the visible spectrum it glowed, but very softly, so softly that against the blazing mass of stars it still seemed dark.

And when Dixon did the spectrometry on the starlight passing round the planet’s edge, he made the most sensational discovery yet.  This was a planet with breathable air.

Tommy:

Mehmet, Dixon and I had made a whole career of looking for habitable planets.  And now, with very little chance of ever being able to bring the news back to Earth, it looked like we’d finally succeeded, by accident and in the least likely place imaginable.

Of course we had to go and look at it.  The thing was only few days away across Euclidean space and a short delay wouldn’t make our next leap any more or less likely to succeed.  The only difficulty was Angela and Mike, but she shrugged and said okay, if she was going to die, she might as well see this first – and he was strapped to a bunk and peacefully off with the fairies.

Angela:

The ship had a landing capsule stowed along its side.  When we’d got the Defiant in orbit, we climbed into the capsule and sank slowly down towards a surface that we could now clearly see to be gently glowing over most of its area, as if the planet was covered by a huge candle-lit city.  But when we reached the ground, it turned out to be a forest: a shining forest of glowing trees and luminous pools, stretching for thousands of miles.

The trees were like gnarled oaks with warm fluorescent bark, leafless but with shining flowers along their branches. The pools and streams had flowers under the surface that glowed.  And the whole forest was mild and scented like a summer evening on Earth.

“Look at that!” cried Mehmet as something bird-like with neon blue wings swept by overhead.

“Hey, come and see this!” called Dixon, squatting down to look at clumps of orange flowers like miniature sodium streetlights.

Tommy wandered off in one direction, Mehmet in another.  Neither of them said where they were going, and no one asked.   Dixon settled down under a tree with flowers all around him shining like Chinese lanterns. (The trunks of the trees were warm to the touch and gently pulsed.)  I knelt down on the mossy banks of a nearby stream.  Strange melodious cries came to us from other parts of the forest.  All around us the trees throbbed and hummed under the great wheel of the Milky Way galaxy that filled up most of the sky. 

I was lying by the stream watching little shining fish-things darting around in the water when I remembered that Mike was still inside the capsule.

“Dixon,” I said, “would you mind giving me a hand?”

My voice sounded very strange and looming, like when someone suddenly speaks after a long silence during a night journey in a car. 

Tommy:

Angela and Dixon fetched Mike down from the capsule and settled him on the ground, still fast asleep.  He came round a few hours later.   There was no screaming and yelling this time. He just wandered through the trees like the rest of us and found a place to sit down and stare and try and take it all in. It turned out that he was some kind of amateur naturalist back home – he went on bird-watching holidays and stuff like that with his wife and kids – and now he had a whole new set of plants and animals to explore. It was him that came up with the theory that the trees worked like radiators, pumping water through hot rocks underground, circulating it through their branches, and warming the surrounding air.  They got their energy from the planet’s core, he reckoned, instead of from a sun.

Eventually everyone got hungry and we reconvened round the capsule for a share of the rations we’d brought down with us.   We supplemented this cautiously with fruit we’d found on the trees.  Most of it turned out to be good to eat.

“Isn’t this great?” exclaimed Dixon, munching contentedly, his back against a warm tree-trunk.  “This is what it must have been like in Eden before the Fall.”

 And Eden is what we decided to call it.

Angela:

Mehmet was who I got on best with.  He was friendly and interested and fun to be with.  Dixon was okay I suppose but I was really angry with him for doing the leap when Mike and I were so close.   I’m not a person that likes to hold grudges but I really did need to get some of that anger off my chest before I could get along with him – and he simply wouldn’t let me.  Whenever I tried to challenge him, he just said that God had told him to make the leap: the fact that we’d found Eden was proof of it. 

“I’m sorry I dragged you away from your family and your friends Angela,” would have been nice, or even: “I quite understand why you’re so angry.”

But I wasn’t going to get any of that.  Instead it was: “Angela, you need to try and accept the will of God.”

The will of God!  The arrogant prig!  It seems wrong to talk about him like that now, after what’s happened, but that’s how I felt at the time.

Mike, on the hand, was really sweet in this context.   Free of the role an RAF officer and free of the fear of space, he became a sort of gentle, dreamy, solitary child.  Not that he wanted to talk much, or to be with the rest of us, but then he had never been much of a conversationalist.

As for Tommy, he really got on my nerves.  He tried to be charming and helpful but he was this world-famous lady-killer and he couldn’t forget it.  In one way I felt that he just took it for granted that I’d want to fall and worship at his feet, yet in another way he was quite afraid of me and needed to keep testing me out all the time to see if he could get a reaction and work out where he stood with me.  So he was complacent and insecure, both at the same time, a weird and seriously irritating combination. 

Annoyingly, though, he was just as handsome as he’d always looked on TV, so you just couldn’t help looking at him, whether you wanted to or not.

Tommy:

Angela was graceful, funny, natural.  I thought she was wonderful.  Stranded a million light-years away from home and very probably in the last days of her life, she was undefeated and unbowed. 

I’ve been with all kinds of women in my life – models, film stars, university professors, athletes and, yes, even whores – and I guess what everyone says about me is true in a way.  Women are not just people to me: they are also a kind of addictive drug.  But, and I guess this is the part that people don’t understand, I really do like women.  I mean I just like being with them, I like them as human beings. And I always have.  I remember when I was five years old my teacher asked the whole class one day to pair up for a walk in the local park – and all the boys looked for other boys and all the girls looked for other girls, but I risked the ridicule of everyone to ask a girl called Susan if I could hold her hand.   I remember another time I was chasing round the school yard with a bunch of boys, yelling and hollering and waving sticks around, when I noticed a bunch of girls quietly playing in a tree.  And suddenly I wanted to be in their game with them, their quiet game, and not with the boys at all.  That’s how I felt about Angela.  I just wanted her to let me join in her game.

The sad thing was, she didn’t like me at all.  Every time I tried to talk to her, she ended the conversation as quickly as she could.  Whatever tack I tried with her, I could see she saw it all as some kind of trick.  Yet she would sit for hours with that goddamned Turk, talking and laughing away like they’d known each other forever.  

Angela:

When we’d been there the equivalent of two or three Earth days we started to ask each other the question “What happens next?”

I wanted to know what the chances were of getting successfully back to Earth. Dixon immediately said that he had no doubt at all that God would see us safely home to bear witness to the new Eden.  But  Mehmet and Tommy both said that it would take at least three leaps to get back to Earth and that each leap would have no more than a 25% chance of success at maximum.  I quickly worked that out.  A quarter of a quarter of a quarter: that was a one in sixty-four chance of getting back alive.  A fourth leap, which we’d quite likely need, would knock those odds down to one in two hundred and fifty-six.  A fifth leap was out of the question.  We didn’t have the power.

 “There is an alternative, though,” I said.  “We could stay here.”

“That’s true,” said Tommy. “Or some of us could stay here while the others tried to get back.  If they succeeded, they could send out another crew in the Reckless or the Maverick, to fetch back the ones who’d stayed.”

“And if they failed, the ones who’d stayed would have to grow old and die alone,” said Mehmet with a shudder.  “Okay I know it’s pretty here, but to live a whole lifetime here and die here and …”

“Not necessarily grow old and die alone,” I said. “Not if I was one of the ones who stayed and one of you stayed with me.  We could have babies, and then we wouldn’t be alone.  We could start a whole new race.”

Men are funny creatures.  They all visibly squirmed – and then laughed loudly to cover up their unease. 

I told them I wasn’t kidding. I’d stay here with any one of them, or more than one if they liked, and if the Defiant didn’t make it back and the Reckless and the Maverick never came, I would make babies with whoever was here to make them with.

Tommy:

I wanted to shout, “Me! I’ll stay!” but I honestly wasn’t sure whether I was included in the invitation. Dixon put on his religious voice and said he was married so he obviously couldn’t consider her proposal.  Mike and Mehmet both said they had to at least try to get back to their kids.

 “How about you, then Tommy?” Angela asked.

 I was amazed. 

Angela:

We gave them two months, two Earth months.  If no one had come back for us by then, it would mean the Defiant had definitely failed to get through.

Two Earth months was April 8th.  The date didn’t mean anything, of course, in constant Eden, which has no days or nights or sun or moon and (as it turns out) doesn’t even change its own position relative to the distant galaxy.  But we still followed Earth time on our watches, and hung onto some kind of notion of months and days.  And we both started keeping this diary record on pocket recorders.

April the 1st, there was a small earthquake and a mountain appeared in the distance that we’d never seen before, illuminated by the lava streaming down its sides.  A hot sulphurous wind blew from the volcano and we started to move away from it through the forest.  We carried a radio beacon with us so the Maverick or the Reckless could find us if they ever came and we made a circle of stones to mark the site of our original landing.

April 3rd it rained for half a day and then stopped.  We sheltered in some caves in a rocky outcrop, Tommy sleeping at one end, me at the other.  The caves were even more full of life than the forest outside, and Tommy came up with the idea that life on Eden must have begun in underground caves when the surface was still covered in ice.  You get little pockets of geothermal life even on Earth, he pointed out, in deep caves and on the bottom of the sea beyond the reach of the sun.  Life here could have begun like that and then spread upwards when it discovered how to heat its own environment.  Anything that could reach the surface and melt the ice would get an advantage because it would be able to spread more quickly than was possible in underground caves.

Tommy was trying really hard to be nice to me and not to slip into his smooth lady-killer routine which he knew I hated.  In fact we were weirdly formal with each other.   It was such a strange position to be in.  I was quite clear in my mind that if we got back to Earth I wouldn’t want to have anything much to do with him again.  His celebrity as such didn’t impress me and as a person he really wasn’t the type I chose to spend my time with. 

But if no one came for us…?  Well then this really would be a marriage which nothing could end but death, a marriage more total than almost any other. 

The thing was that until April 8th we didn’t know which of these it was going to be. 

Tommy:

April 4th there were more eruptions from a different volcano, in the opposite direction to the last one, and the galaxy was half hidden for a while behind black dust.  The volcano was one of another whole range of mountains that now came dimly into view in the orange light of the eruption. 

We saw an animal a bit like a cat, only it had luminous spots and its eyes were round and flat.  The weird thing was that when it moved its spots could ripple backwards along its sides at exactly the same speed as its forward motion, so as to create the illusion that its skin was standing still.  It also had six legs, like most of the animals here.

April 5th, I shot a pig-like animal and we skinned it and cooked it over a fire.  It was the first thing we had killed, but we knew we couldn’t live on fruit and space-food for much longer.  It tasted of chicken, but kind of sweet and fatty, maybe a bit sickly and rich but not bad at all.

We didn’t talk much, but I guess we both did a lot of thinking.   I’ve never noticed myself as much as I did then.  I’d often been told I was selfish, self-centered and self-absorbed – by Yvette among others, though I’m not sure she was really in a position to talk – and I guess I was, yet I’d never reflected much before on me, on this strange being that happens to be myself.  I’d always just been this person, blundering and trampling around like some kind of wounded beast, without ever thinking about who he was or why.

Angela:

April 6th I woke up loathing the perpetual night of Eden.  It’s not cold, it’s not pitch dark, it looks pretty enough with its lantern-flowers, like a garden forever decked out for a midsummer night’s party.  But to think that there would never be a sunrise here, never a blue sky, never a clear day when you could see for miles …   Never.  Never.  Never.  For a while I felt so claustrophobic it was all I could do not to scream. 

Tommy and I hardly said a word.   We’d said we’d wait to April 8th so we did, but really we knew already that no one was going to come to us, and that Mehmet and Mike and Dixon had not got through.  They were dead and we were stuck here.  We would never see a dawn again.  We just weren’t going to allow ourselves to say it. 

Tommy:

April 7th we decided to start giving names to things.  I guess it was a way of taking our mind off the bigger picture.  The leopard thing we called a mooncat.  The little bat-like hunters we called flittermice.  The peacock-like creatures with luminous stars on their tails we called starbirds. 

I like the starbirds.  They sit high up in the trees and pairs of them call to each other through the forest. 

Hoom – hoom – hoom,” goes one. 

Then the other, which may be nowhere near the first one, goes “Aaaah!  –  Aaaah! –  Aaaah!”

That’s all they’ve got to say but they’re happy to say it for hours and hours, gradually moving through the forest in parallel, maybe a mile or two apart from each other.  

Starbirds don’t know they’re in Eden, I often find myself thinking.  They don’t know Eden is in intergalactic space.   They don’t know that this ground isn’t the base of the universe itself.  To them this is just how the world is. 

Angela:

And then it was April 8th.  We were both awake watching the GMT click over from 23:59:59 to 00:00:00.  

“They didn’t make it,” we admitted to one another at 00:05:00.  “They didn’t get through.

I wondered how it had ended for those three.  It’s possible that in mid-leap they had been swallowed up by those weird distorting mirrors of sub-E, which are really tiny, temporary universes which shrink back to nothing when the engine stops pushing them out.  But I’m afraid it’s more likely that the engine died on them after a leap or two and left them stranded in that smelly little box in the middle of the void, while the food and water ran out and the ship gradually grew cold and Mike’s last sedative shot was finally used up.  So Mike would have gone crazy and then…

But there was no point in thinking these thoughts, was there?  There was simply no point.

I took Tommy by the hand and we went to a pool we knew and which, without ever speaking of it, we’d somehow both set aside for this moment.  It was surrounded by pulsing trees.  A soft cool moss grew on its banks, little bat-like flittermice swooped over the water and there always seemed to be starbirds in the vicinity, calling to each other across the forest.   It sounds romantic but really for me it was a case of Plan A has failed so let’s move quickly on to Plan B – to Plan Baby.  This just seemed the best place to put it into effect. 

But then again I really did feel a sort of closeness to Tommy simply because of the weird experience that just the two of us had shared, and because there were so many emotions going around in my head that passion wasn’t hard to come by, and because there was never going to be anyone else to turn to but Tommy – or Tommy and whoever else he and I managed to summon up between us inside my body.

After we’d done, we looked around and I noticed for the first time that there was a tree by the pool of a kind that we’d named the honey tree.  Honey trees have large fruits which grow high up in their branches and are really good to eat.  I’ve always been good at climbing trees and so I separated myself from Tommy and scrambled up to get one for us.  Tommy stood up and waited for me below.  I could just make him in the soft glow of the tree’s red lanterns, smiling up at me.  Like a little boy, I thought, and it made me angry all of a sudden: a silly over-indulged little boy, who does silly selfish thoughtless things and expects to be instantly forgiven. 

I got the fruit and clambered back down, pausing before the last bit to toss the fruit down to Tommy so I could use both hands.  As I dropped to the ground beside him, Tommy, without any warning, kissed me profusely and then burst out that he loved me and that he’d loved me from the day he saw me.  In fact he’d never loved anyone as he loved me, he told me.   He hadn’t known until now what love was really like.

Jesus! 

Well, of course I told him not to talk crap.  I mean I didn’t ask to come here, did I?  I didn’t ask to be stuck with bloody love-rat Schneider.  I would have much preferred Mehmet.  Yes and I didn’t ask never to see my mum and my dad and my sister Kayley again, or my friends, or the sun, or green leaves, or the friendly streets of London. And if it wasn’t for Tommy Schneider here and his friends I would still have had all of those things, most likely for years and years to come.

So I was angry.  I ignored what he had said completely and started instead to tell him all the grimmest things I could think of about what lay ahead of us.

If we got sick here there would be no one to cure us, I told him.   I told him we’d go blind one day in this dim light.  I told him I could die in childbirth, die in agony and leave him alone here with nothing for company but mine and the baby’s corpses.  Yes, and if we did have children that lived, hadn’t it occurred to him that when they grew up they would have to turn to each other for lovers – or to us – because there would be no one else there for them? 

And I told him that after a couple of generations of inbreeding our descendants would have to cope with all the hereditary diseases and deformities that were now hidden away harmlessly in his and my genes.  There’s sickle cell in my family, I told him, and diabetes too and one of my aunties was born with a cleft palate.  (Did Tommy Schneider know what a cleft palate looked like, or how to surgically correct it, of course without the use of anaesthetics?)  All these things would become rife in a few generations, along with whatever little genetic contributions Tommy’s family might have to make, assuming of course that there were future generations at all and that the line didn’t simply die out, as was more than likely, leaving some poor devil at the end of it all to face the experience of being utterly alone in this ghostly forest where day would never come. 

“This isn’t some kind of happy ever after story, Tommy,” I told him.  “This is very very far from happy ever after.  The best you can say for it is that it’s the only way we’ve got of going on living and finding out what happens next.”

And I thought about my ancestors, my great-great-great-great-grandparents, taken from Africa in chains and dumped in the Caribbean to cut cane under a slave driver’s lash.  Horrific as it must have been theywent on living, they kept going.  If they hadn’t, I would never have been born.

Tommy nodded.  He seemed quite calm about everything I’d said, which was disappointing because I wanted to upset him.  I wanted to trample over his lovey-dovey daydream so as to pay him back for what he and his friends had done to me.  Those three men had stolen my life from me, stolen my home, stolen everyone I loved.

“So it was all a cold calculation?” he asked, quite calmly.  “You staying with me.  You making out with me here beside the pool.  There wasn’t any feeling involved, just a clinical assessment of the situation.  Is that right?  Is that what you are trying to tell me?”

 I’d thought a lot about this.  I’d been thinking hard about it for days, weighing things up, sorting things out.  Of course I didn’t love the man.  He didn’t love me either, whatever he’d decided to tell himself.  (What did he know of me, after all, except that I’m pretty and that I have a brave face I’ve learnt to put on when I’m scared?)  But there was a bond between us now, I’d decided, which in a way was much stronger than love.  And love could grow from that bond, is what I’d thought, maybe not constantly like the flowers of Eden, but perhaps on a recurring basis like the flowers back on Earth.

That is what I’d decided in those strange quiet days of waiting.  If we stayed on Eden there would be a bond between us of necessity, stronger in a way than ever existed in almost any marriage on Earth – and this would reach deeper than our own particular personalities and our own particular life histories.  Necessity was as deep as love and maybe deeper; that was what I had told myself, that was what I had made up my mind to believe.

But right now I still wanted to hurt him.

“A calculation?” I sneered.  “Yes, that’s about right, mate, a calculation.  If Mehmet had stayed, it would have been him who had laid down here with me just now.  If…”

 But he didn’t let me finish.

Tommy:

It was bad enough to look at her up in the tree, just like I watched those girls in the tree all those years ago when I was a kid at school, wishing they would accept me into their game.  It was worse when I tried to tell her how I felt and she trampled on that (just like those little girls did, come to think of it, when I asked if I could play and they all laughed at me).  But it was when she mentioned Mehmet that I lost control.

“You goddamned women are all the same!” I found myself yelling at her.  “You fool us, you lie to us, you twist us round your fingers.  You offer us something so sweet that we’d give up everything we have just to possess it – everything! – and then you take it away again and trample on it, and tell us it doesn’t mean anything to you at all!”

I’ve been told I’m ugly when I get like that.  My eyes bulge and spit comes flying out of my mouth.  She looked at me with disgust.

“I suppose this is what happened with all your other women,” she said, speaking very quietly and coldly.  “As soon as they try to inject a tiny note of reality, as soon as they admit they’ve noticed that Tommy Schneider isn’t a hundred percent perfect and that Tommy Schneider isn’t the one thing they’ve been pining for since the day they were born, then Tommy Schneider flies into a rage and runs off to find some other woman who doesn’t know him yet, so that she can dry his tears and take him to bed and tell him he’s wonderful.   That’s it, isn’t it?  That is what always happens.   Well, you’ve got no one else to run to now!”

“You just don’t get it!” I told her.  It was such an old, old script she’d trotted out there and I felt so weary and so defeated and so betrayed:  “None of you get it.  I don’t want you to think I’m perfect.  I know I’m not.  I’m nothing special at all.  I’ve never asked anyone to think I’m perfect, just to make me feel that I’m wanted for what I am.  Why is that so hard to understand?”

And then I grabbed her.  I honestly don’t know what I intended to do next.  To shake her?  To beat her against the ground?  To rape her?

I never found out because next thing I was in the pool with those little shining fishes darting away all around me.

“I don’t think I told you I was in the British national judo team,” said Angela from the bank.

“No.  Now that you mention it, I don’t believe you did.”

Angela:

There was a moment there when I really panicked.  I’d made the wrong decision!  I was trapped with a violent brutal man without any possibility of escape! 

Then I got a hold on myself.  Don’t be so silly, I told myself.  You made a choice between this and death, that’s all, and death will always be an option.  (Maybe that’s how my ancestors thought too, out in the cane fields?  It’s this or death – and death will always be there for us, death will never let us down.) 

Tommy:

I climbed out of the stream.  My anger had vanished, the way anger does, so you wonder where it comes from and where it goes to and whether it’s got anything to do with you at all.  

“Since we’re the entire population of this planet,” I said, “I guess we’ve just had World War One.”

That made her laugh.  She took my hand again and then we lay down together again in the moss, as if nothing else had happened in between.

Angela:

Hoom – hoom – hoom” went a starbird deep in the forest to the south, as we pulled back from each other and lay down to rest.

I thought to myself, well there is something about him that is okay really.  And I cast back in my mind and realised that I’d read many bad things about Tommy – that he was a serial adulterer and a liar and all of that – but I’d never actually heard it said or even hinted at that he beat any woman up.

And I thought that, after all, I had been a fool to go straight for the place that would hurt him and frighten him the most, even though, God knows, I had a right to be angry.  No one reacts well when you deliberately prod their deepest wounds.  And there was some wound in Tommy, some old wound to do with love.

Of course I knew that the time would soon enough come again when I would hate him again and want to do everything in my power to hurt him.  There would be a World War Two and a World War Three and a World War Four.  But this peaceful place we were in now would still be there, I thought.   It would be somewhere to come back to.

Aaaah!  –  Aaaah! –  Aaaah!”  called back a second starbird, far off to the north.

Hoom – hoom – hoom,” returned the first. It had got nearer since it last called.  It was just across the pool.

“They don’t give a damn, those starbirds, do they?”  Tommy said.  “They don’t even notice that great wheel burning up there in the sky.  They don’t give it a moment’s thought.”

Tommy:

Angela didn’t answer.  I didn’t expect her to. I was just speaking my thoughts aloud. 

But then, five or ten minutes later, after we’d been lying there in silence all that time looking up at the stars, she spoke:

“No they don’t,” she said. “You’re right.  This dark Eden, it’s just life to them, isn’t it?  It’s just the way things happen to be.”

Copyright 2006, Chris Beckett

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