It’s got a somewhat preposterous space-opera-y setting (a writer with his own private starship!) but this story is very definitely about isolation. It’s even there in the title.
The character Clancy originally appeared in another story, collected in The Turing Test, called ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea.’ He’s also the narrator of a story called ‘Monsters’.
This story was first published by Postscripts in 2009 (in anthology #19, Enemy of the Good), and subsequently included in my second collection, The Peacock Cloak.
The Famous Cave Paintings on Isolus 9
My uncle Clancy was quite well known for his love affairs with famous women, but there was one occasion when he really fell in love. And this was not with a celebrity, not with a famous beauty. Elena was a thoughtful, rather self-contained woman who worked as an editor at the company which published his books.
“What’s new about this,” he said to his secretary Com, “is that I’m not trying to prove anything, and nor is she. We’re not performing on some kind of stage. We’re not trying to play heroic roles.”
“Yesterday evening at dinner,” he told Com (who helpfully backed up every conversation in an archive of the Metropolitan Library), “I did slip into Famous Space Traveller mode for a bit and Elena just told me to knock it off. She was quite sharp about it actually but I can’t tell you what a relief it was.”
“Sometimes it can be tiring to play a role,” offered Com (who, incidentally, was a powerful hyperspatial computer resembling a small yellow egg).
“I used to have a job like hers once,” Clancy went on. “Probably I still would have if Seven Moons hadn’t taken off the way it did. And I am like her in other ways too. We have the same interests, we take pleasure in the same things, see things from the same sort of angle. I’ve become so bloated by fame lately, you know, so swollen up. Elena has brought me right back down to the ground, or as near to the ground as we get in this city, and it feels like a good place to be.”
Com was very familiar with my uncle’s moods, but this one was new in its experience.
“You sound – happy,” it tentatively suggested.
“Happy?” Clancy repeated, as if it was a novelty to him as well. “Happy? Yes, do you know what, I believe I am!”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Com offered, having quickly consulted many thousands of reference works. “Opinion seems to be divided on the subject but many authorities consider happiness to be the actual goal of human existence.”
“She’s pretty, Com, and she’s funny, and she’s bright and kind and loyal and resourceful. But do you know what I value about her above all else? It’s that she just lives her life. She doesn’t feel the slightest need to be a household name in her own apartment block, never mind anywhere else. What could be more sensible than that?”
Com might have all of science and literature in its reach, and it might hold in its mind the complete map of the inhabited galaxy down to the level of individual dwellings, but very reassuringly for Clancy it nevertheless derived its system of values entirely from him. It was built that way. Whatever its legal owner thought important or worthwhile was important and worthwhile to Com, just as whatever its owner wanted, it pursued indefatigably. Subject of course to the usual legal safeguards and contractual obligations.
“I wanted her to come with me on my next trip but she has a horror of underspace, like most sensible people.”
“Where are we going this time?” asked the intelligent egg.
“I thought we’d visit Isolus 9.”
Like the good secretary it was, Com tried to anticipate its master’s wishes and over the next tenth of a second it searched through all the libraries of Metropolis, seeking out every reference to the planet Isolus 9.
“A quick summary?” it asked.
“A one minute summary,” said Clancy, who was meeting Elena shortly to go to the theatre.
Com told him that Isolus 9 was first settled two thousand years ago, just before the dissolution of the Wide Empire and the destruction of its Great Machine. When the Machine ceased to function the Isolans, like all the other Dispersed Peoples, were cut off from the Metropolis for almost two millenia. The difference in their case was that they’d had very little time to get established. Lacking the surplus capacity to sustain the transmission of skills like reading and writing between one generation and the next, they reverted to a precarious hunter-gatherer existence and came very close to complete extinction.
“Over the past century,” Com went on, “two major expeditions have visited Isolus 9, the first an exploratory visit to see if human life still existed there and the second an archaeological project. There have been a few other visitors in between so, although the planet is no longer culturally untouched by the Metropolis, it can go ten years at a time without any contact.”
“Books?” Clancy asked.
“No books have been written solely about Isolus 9, but it is mentioned in twenty-two archaeological and anthropological texts. The planet’s religious frescoes are of course the single most mentioned topic.
“Give me a bit more on the religion.”
“There have been no comprehensive studies on the Isolan religion. The only two scholars who have discussed it in any detail both did so as part of wider explorations of the religions of the Dispersed Peoples. And they profoundly disagree with each other. Professor Loyah Tomins, in his book Heritage and Necessity, argues that Isolans and other Dispersed Peoples never completely forgot their own history but rather ‘encoded’ it in the ‘compressed form’ of a religion. Professor Julina Doyana, in her book Narrating Abandonment, dismisses Tomins’ view as ‘obfuscatory’ and argues that the Isolan religion is not compressed history at all, but ‘reified anxiety management.’”
Clancy snorted contemptuously.
“It can be both, can’t it? And other things besides. Religions are stories. Any decent story works on several levels at once.”
His own books were a case in point. Each was, on one level, the description of an interstellar adventure, but each was also an enquiry into the nature of human existence. And each, too, was a piece of personal self-exploration, a confession even, albeit elaborately disguised.
“My books are like my journeys, David,” he once told me, not long before his mysterious final disappearance. “Each is simultaneously a cowardly escape from the world and an audacious attempt to get up close to it.”
It was a theme that he often came back to in those later days: the cowardice that hides in apparently courageous acts, the bravery necessary to sustain an apparently unadventurous life.
“Do you have any thoughts as to the main strands of the Isolus 9 book?” Com now asked him.
Com knew that my uncle always began the book before the journey itself had started. The outer journey was always contained within the inner one.
“One: the new experience of travelling with someone I love to return to. Two: dispersal and return in the Isolan religion. What links the idea of religion and idea of love is connection. Love connects people to each other. Religion makes people feel connected to the universe. So I’d also like you to come up with three or four treatments of that. Okay?”
Clancy stood up and headed to the bathroom.
“You do need to bear in mind,” Com began, “that the religion of Isolus 9 is rather unusual in that…”
But its master wasn’t listening anymore. He was humming cheerfully as he began to undress for the shower.
* * *
When my uncle set out for Isolus 9, Elena came to see him off. They had a last drink together on a gallery just below the launch platform, with a view of the City all around.
“I can’t believe how much I love you,” Clancy said.
The platform was near the equator and it was hot up there, but a cooling wind gently tossed Elena’s fair hair this way and that. Brushing it back she leaned forward and peered into Clancy’s face.
“Are those tears?” she asked him, touched and a little shocked. “Are you crying? Why? We’ll be together again before too long.”
The launch platform stood out above the planet-wide city like an emergent tree rising above a forest. Below and all around them were galleries, penthouse apartments, the giant golden sunflowers that gathered light for the city below, and the parabolic dishes that allowed the city to communicate with the moon and satellites and the local planets. (You cannot of course communicate with the Dispersed Worlds except by travelling to them.) Here and there other emergent pinnacles – launch ports, hotels, chimneys – rose above the general mass. Helicopters passed to and fro between them, along with parrots and other brightly coloured birds. And from time to time a sound like a small thunderclap broke above them, as another starship either descended into underspace, or emerged from underspace into the world. Each time it happened the birds rose and rushed about in noisy indignation.
“I don’t know anymore why I travel,” Clancy said. “I really don’t. Why wander through endless light years of empty space? Why trudge around dreary and impoverished little colonies half way across the galaxy? Everything I want is right here in front of me.”
“It’ll still be here when you return.”
They leaned over the balustrade and looked straight down. Immediately below them were the domed pools and hanging gardens of the upper tier, where lived wealthy businesspeople and senior officials in the Regulatory Entity. Then came progressively dimmer levels through which from time to time flashed high-speed trains rushing across the world-wide city at two thousand kilometres an hour, disappearing with a clatter and a sigh. In the shadier middle levels were the homes of minor officials and skilled workers, with all their lights already on. Beneath them, pretty much invisible from up here, were factories and generators. Finally, at the bottom of it all, two vertical kilometres down, was the murky orange glow of slum settlements on the planet surface where there was virtually no sunlight at all. Small yellowish lights moved about down there as surface dwellers made their way through the gloom.
“Aaaaawk!” shrieked a parrot, bright and brash in the evening sunlight.
“Clear platform!” the parrot cried, alighting on a railing. “Clear platform for departure!”
Clancy and Elena laughed, and then the laugh became an extended kiss. But soon the announcement came calling Clancy to his ship. They pulled apart and ascended to the wide platform where his silver vehicle, ‘Sphere,’ was waiting. Ragged windblown clouds, some grey, some white, passed across the high blue sky above them, torn and broken immediately overhead by the constant coming and going of underspace ships. In the distance to the west the clouds were tinged pink by the descending sun.
They kissed goodbye and Clancy had already put one foot on the ladder when suddenly he turned back again and once more wrapped Elena’s small, light body in his arms, holding her tightly and calling her his darling, his dearest, his sweetheart.
Sweetheart. Sweetheart. My sweet dear heart. These words appear over and over in the record of that period which my uncle’s faithful secretary deposited in that Metropolitan Library archive. He just couldn’t seem to say them enough. Yet up to that point he had always been the absolute archetype of the Metropolitan sophisticate: subtle, ironic, restless, determinedly unattached.
“But I didn’t know then,” he told Com more than once, “I just didn’t know.”
Elena had thawed out places inside him that he hadn’t realised were there. And he still wasn’t used to it, still couldn’t keep himself from visiting and revisiting this well of tenderness that had unexpectedly opened up inside him.
“It’s crazy to leave you,” he burst out. “I should just cancel this whole trip.”
She laughed and kissed him.
“Of course not, dearest. We’ve been over this. It’s your job. It’s what you do. We have to do something in our lives. We can’t just gaze forever into each others eyes.”
“I’ve heard of worse plans.”
“You don’t really mean that.”
“But will things change between us? Will you still be here for me when I return?”
“Of course I will. Right here.”
Well my uncle had kissed goodbye to many other women, sometimes even on this very same spot, with the same clouds rushing by above, the same parrots shrieking, the same vast city stretching away to the horizon all around, but he had never before sought this assurance, not even once. On every single previous occasion his departure had been —deep down, if not at the surface of his mind— a welcome escape, a way of dealing with the fact that his heart was going cold.
Solitude had always been his resting state.
“This is different from anything I have ever experienced before,” he told Elena
“So you keep telling me, dearest. So you tell me, over and over, every time we’re together.”
“You’re shaking,” he said.
“I don’t like underspace, that’s all. It gives me the creeps. The idea of descending into that dreadful little wormhole… Ugh! But I know it doesn’t bother you and I know you know what you’re doing. I’ll be fine once you’ve set off.”
“Leave now if you want. You don’t need to watch me go.”
“I know I don’t have to, but I want to.”
“Mr Clancy,” called out the artificial intelligence that controlled the platform. “You need to make a move or you’ll miss your window.”
Clancy nodded. He climbed inside Sphere and the door closed behind him.
“Clear platform!” said the firm calm voice of the AI, much admired and imitated by the local parrots. “Clear platform for departure!”
* * *
Elena made herself watch as violent lightening, white and pink and green, suddenly flared around Clancy’s ship and it shot away with a sound like thunder. Parrots fled noisily. High under the ragged clouds of Metropolis, the sparkling Sphere seemed from Elena’s perspective to balloon to a gigantic size, like some silvery Godhead glaring down at the multi-layered anthill of the City-World, and then to explode into jagged mirrored shards.
It was an illusion, of course. With her head at least Elena knew that perfectly well. The ship was not disintegrating but merely surrendering its tenure of a specific location in Euclidean space. It was disappearing from the universe we all inhabit into a tiny universe of its own. But that alone seemed quite dreadful to her, because she lived for air, for space, for light, for companionship.
She stood there alone on the viewing gallery for a minute or two, steadying herself, allowing her racing pulse to settle. Then she gave herself a little shake. It was a characteristic gesture of hers. It was how she shook off the mood of one moment in order to move on to the next. And now, since there was nothing here for her any more (just a gap where Sphere had been, into which another ship was already rising up into position), she turned away.
And then came the moment that always comes after a parting, the moment when the person who stays behind becomes, by definition, someone that the one who has departed can never directly know. She became a stranger.
* * *
Clancy had dreaded the moment of departure in anticipation but in fact, at the precise moment when the departing Sphere had seemed to Elena to blow itself to pieces, my uncle had been reclining comfortably inside it, pouring himself a glass of wine and experiencing the familiar sense of contented release that he always felt at the beginning of one of his journeys.
What horrified Elena about underspace was precisely what made him feel at home in it. He liked being outside of space, beyond radio contact, beyond human contact of any kind. He liked the thought that there was no one with him, no minds except for his own and the machine minds of his faithful cybernetic servants, Com and Sphere.
When we were children, Uncle Clancy would often play with us but a moment would always come when we realised he was no longer with us, he had withdrawn into a private world of his own, not out of a lack of fondness for us, but because of a need for replenishing solitude. Well here in underspace that private world became an objective fact. There was no one to call him out of it. There was no ‘out’ to which he could be called.
He was savouring this, as he always did, when he thought about Elena and wondered whether he should not be feeling more grief at their parting?
‘Elena,’ he whispered experimentally to himself, ‘Elena.’
He was relieved to find that his heart filled up at once with warmth and tenderness. He could bear being away from her, but he had no sense at all that he was relieved at having left her behind. Clancy clapped his hands together with delight.
“What do the great religions have to say about love between men and women?” he asked Com, who lay on the table beside him, next to his glass of wine.
Com obliged at once with a selection of sacred texts from religions of every hue from the polygamous Warranians, to the strange Cassiopeians with their three-cornered morality, to the Christians, back in ancient times, who liked to say that marriage represented the sacred union between their Holy Church and the Son of God.
“Christians,” mused Clancy. “I can’t remember anything about them. Remind me, Com, what do they believe? I know they were very big at one time.”
“Yes, very big once. Not many of them left now. They believe that the human race was so wicked as to deserve being sentenced to an eternity of torment. But a merciful God sent his…”
“Ah yes, now I remember! God’s son came to earth in person, didn’t he, and allowed himself to be executed. And if people believed that he had died on their behalf, they could be spared from the punishment they deserved and get instead an eternity of bliss. Otherwise they still got the eternal torment.” Clancy laughed. “People manage to believe in the strangest things, don’t they? If you are going to believe in something other than the world that you can actually see around you, why dream up an torture chamber where the torture never ends?”
* * *
Isolus 9 was separated from Metropolis by more than a thousand light years and, even through underspace, it took several weeks to get there. Days passed, during which Clancy and Com did the preparatory work for his Isolus book while Sphere twisted and turned, driven by its own miniature and portable version of the city-sized Great Machine that had sent out human colonists to every corner of the galaxy two thousand years previously.
Once in a while Sphere surfaced into Euclidean space, in order to take astronomical readings and make the adjustments necessary to take it to its destination. During these times Clancy would indulge himself in another of his favourite pleasures. He would instruct Sphere to shut down all the lights and adjust the molecular structure of its outer walls to make them transparent. So he was surrounded by nothing but stars: stars in every direction in vast cliffs and canyons, moving round the galaxy on their billion-year cycle, pulling and tugging at one another across the void, utterly indifferent to human concerns.
“Elena,” he whispered in that dreadful void. “My sweet dear heart.”
Still the tenderness was undiminished and he was reassured. He had told Elena over and over that his feeling for her was different from all his other so-called loves, but he had secretly feared that he was deceiving them both. People don’t seem to realise this —his biographers tend to portray him as cold and calculating in his human relationships —but my poor uncle was appalled by the fickleness of his own heart, and lived in fear of the coldness and emptiness that seemed to him to seep constantly into every place that might possibly feel safe and warm.
* * *
There was a thunderclap. Lightening, white and pink and green, flickered across the cloudless sky of Isolus 9. Mirror shards seemed to rush together to form a gigantic silvery sphere, which hung there for a moment, as if it was a steel ball on a chain about to smash poor Isolus 9 to rubble. But instead it shrank. It became a tiny glinting speck, far far up, descending towards the planet’s dusty red surface.
Camel-like animals stirred and whinnied. Winged creatures with leathery skins rose screeching from their perches just like the parrots back in the Metropolis, all that unimaginable distance away. And children came scrambling up ladders from underground dwellings where they’d been sheltering from the midday heat, shouting excitedly to one another, and hopping from one foot to another on the baking sand.
“Sky people!” they shouted. “Sky people with toys!”
Most of them had only heard of such things in stories.
And then here was Clancy himself, in silvery gear, descending the steps from his shiny starship, as he’d done so many times before.
He had travelled to more of the Dispersed Worlds than any one else has ever done before or since. A few of the worlds he visited had never been contacted since the destruction of the Great Machine, so that it was Clancy himself who brought them the news of their forgotten brethren beyond the stars, but most had been visited over the previous century by other explorers. Isolus 9 was in many ways typical of that second group of worlds. It had acquired just enough Metropolitan technology and culture to make the indigenous culture seem primitive and tawdry to its own inhabitants, but not enough to confer even slightly the subtlety and richness of the World City itself. I have since visited it myself. It is a dismal place.
There was a single modern air-conditioned building near the landing site in the main settlement. There were modern flower-like solar collectors scatted over the surface with their cables trailing down into the tunnels where the people lived, providing them with bright electric light in place of the soft glow of the luminous saprophytes on which they had relied for the previous nineteen centuries. In the main underground meeting hall, the bright cartoon-like frescoes of village history that covered the ceiling were all but forgotten, over-shadowed by a huge screen provided ten years ago by a Metropolitan charity that worked to improve the lot of the Dispersed Peoples. In The Fleeing God, his book about Isolus 9, Clancy describes how the Isolans’ eyes kept turning furtively towards the bright scenes which the screen displayed, and he notes that even the grey-bearded headman of the settlement, the most powerful person on Isolus 9, was wearing the frayed and faded jumpsuit, three sizes too big for him, of a corporal in the Metropolitan Peace Force. Pathetically, Clancy says, the old man seemed to think this conferred more honour on him than the coloured robes that were traditional signs of leadership among his own people.
And Clancy encountered a familiar figure which he had met and described several times before, the figure of the half-Metropolitan, alienated both from the local culture and the Metropolitan one. This time the role was played by a young woman called Uletha, the child of a local woman and young male archaeologist from the City.
“We despise the Metropolis here,” she told Clancy in his own language. “We’re proud of our tradition of surviving not by relying on machines but by using our wits.”
Clancy always describes women carefully. It seems that Uletha had dark hair, a pretty but bitter face, and a prominent vertical scar on her left upper lip.
“And so you should be,” he told her, quite sincerely. “It’s a tribute to your people’s ingenuity that you are here at all.”
They were talking in the meeting hall under that annoying screen. The headman and most of the people of the main settlement were gathered around them.
“Exactly,” Uletha said. “With no one to help them and on the hottest and driest planet that has ever supported a human life, our ancestors built a new civilization, a new culture, raising it up over the centuries from a low point at which their numbers had been reduced by famine and disease to no more than nine individuals. Imagine that, Mr Metropolitan man, who can have everything he wants with the touch of a switch and can meet ten thousand people in a single day. Imagine that. Nine people all alone in a world of sand and dust and rock, building a culture that would endure for two thousand years without any help from the rest of the human race. Excuse us if we hold our heads high in your presence. How many Metropolitans would survive under the same circumstances?”
Having heard Uletha speak to the Sky Man in a language they didn’t understand, the watching Isolans turned to Clancy to hear his reply. Many of them, including the headman in his ridiculous jumpsuit, stood with their mouths gaping open.
Clancy took Com out of his pocket.
“Your ancestors survived where most Metropolitans would undoubtedly have perished,” he told them, politely forbearing from pointing out that the original settlers wereMetropolitans themselves, “I salute you all.”
Com repeated the tribute in their own language. Everyone’s eyes goggled at the talking egg and then cheered with delight and gratitude when they heard what, in all his glory, the magnanimous Sky Man had to say.
But, as my uncle said in his book, and as I can vouch from personal experience since, the Isolans reallydid not hold their heads high. That was the sad and painfully obvious fact. Possibly they had done so when the first Metropolitan expedition came, perhaps they had done so previously in the centuries of their isolation, but the Metropolis had long since ground them down, not by cruelty or oppression but by simply being there. Without meaning to at all, we had convinced them of their marginality and ignorance and backwardness, we had made them feel like fools. Now, receiving Clancy’s tribute, they were abject in their gratitude.
“The Sky Man is too kind!” the bearded headman croaked, with tears forming in his eyes. “The Sky Man does us great honour! The Sky Man has lifted our hearts!”
Probably he had said the same sort of thing when that Peace Force corporal had tossed him his cast-off jumpsuit: “The great warrior does me too much honour!”
“Isolans are like babies,” she told my uncle tartly. “They are easily impressed. But you won’t find me like the rest of them. I really do have pride.”
But even so her eyes shone with excitement when he distributed his usual gifts: miniature underspace ships that leapt back and forth between two points, cheap little speech processors which would mimic the language of their owners, small holographic representations of the World-City through which brightly lit trains were constantly rushing…
* * *
What I particularly want to tell you about, though, is my uncle’s trip to the Caves of Laygaroth, some way from the main settlement, where the most famous of the religious frescoes are to be found.
Clancy travelled by night on camel-back. He was accompanied by a couple of tongue-tied young boys and by Uletha. Surly as she was, adolescent in her resentment of her father’s people and in her scorn for her mother’s, she was the sole official archaeologist of the planet, having received a very basic training as a child from her father and his colleagues before they disappeared back to the World City. She rode way out in front of Clancy and the boys, like a teenager performing some unwelcome social duty under protest, following a faint track beaten into the reddish earth, and leaving them to follow her as best they could.
A selection of moons were strewn like a broken necklace across the sky and, in their pale pink light, nocturnal animals scurried and flittered about, muttering and croaking and rustling, each with its own gauzy ring of pale moon-shadows. Winged beasts the size of dogs swooped and dived above the human travellers and their camel-like beasts, assaying their potential as carrion or prey. Trees that by day were nothing more than shrivelled stumps opened up and waved long feathered tentacles in the cool night wind, seeking for the windblown spores and tiny flying creatures on which they fed, and giving off a subtle scent that reminded Clancy of the smell of a baby’s skin. It was at night that Isolus 9 came to life, and the four of them reached the site of Laygaroth just as night was coming to an end.
As the animals returned to their burrows and the tentacled trees battened themselves down for the remorseless onslaught of the day, they came to another bleak little fragment of the Metropolis. There was nothing at all to see on the surface at Laygaroth except for a kind of shed made of carbon polymer material which the archaeologists had left behind some twenty years previously, standing on its own on the desert plain. Inside the shed were machines that regulated the air in the underground caves. In the name of preservation, in the name of helpfulness, the Metropolis had managed to turn this masterpiece of Isolan culture into a mere adjunct of its own vastly more complex one, transforming it from an ancient and holy site to an interesting artefact, an object of study. Even though no Metropolitan had been here for many years, the caves had become, in effect, exhibits in the Great Metropolitan Museum, maintained in their original location for the sake of authenticity, and out of benign deference to the religious sensibilities of the locals.
So it seemed to my uncle, and so it seemed to me too when I visited some years later.
Uletha picked up a powerful torch and led the way down a shaft in which the original foot holes cut into the soft sandstone had been replaced by a metal ladder. Originally the cave would have contained its share of the luminous saprophytes that the Isolans used to light their tunnels, but these had all been removed by the archaeologists because they were shortening the life of the frescoes by increasing the moisture levels. Uletha turned off her torch at the bottom and led Clancy blind in pitch darkness through a low and narrow tunnel into a large and echoey space. The boys followed giggling behind.
“Alright then,” Uletha commanded. “Stop here and look straight upwards.”
She turned on her torch. Fierce desert colours appeared in profusion all around them – red, steely blue, yellow, orange, covering every surface – and painted faces stared down at them from above and from every side.
“This is Mem,” said Uletha, pointing straight upwards. “This is the origin of us all.”
* * *
Mem was not your usual God, presiding in glory over the world. Not at all. He was not big and powerful, not surrounded by angels, not enthroned at the pinnacle of a pyramid of worship. This place was the core of the old Isolan religion and the undisputed centrepiece of its culture. It was its Cistine Chapel, its Mecca, its Wailing Wail, but there were no genuflections, no rituals of reverence. Imprisoned in a cell barely bigger than himself, Mem beat helplessly against the rocky walls which contained him. He was small and nondescript, trapped in the midst of solid rock whose extent was infinite. There was no outside. That cell was the only space in the universe and Mem the only living thing inside it, doomed to be alone there forever. He hammered on the rock with his fists. “I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it!” he screamed, but there was no one there to hear, for there was no one in existence but Mem himself.
The images were like cartoon strips, brightly coloured, divided up into frames. Frame after frame around that central image showed Mem’s torment: Mem screaming, Mem pushing and hammering on the walls, Mem clutching his head in horror, Mem weeping, Mem tearing at himself, Mem screaming and hammering again.
Clancy was unexpectedly shaken. He wanted to scream himself. He wanted to flee from that cave as fast as he could go, out into the open air, even into the baking daytime air of Isolus 9 with its three ferocious suns.
But he allowed Uletha to lead him onwards into other chambers. There was a series of pictures in which tiny people and animals and moons and stars came bursting out of Mem’s head. And then of course there was the famous sequence in which Mem, that wan, colourless figure, was depicted riding alone on a camel. He was riding as fast as he could, his robes trailing behind him in the wind. In one frame he gazed ahead longingly, as if something on which his life depended was disappearing beyond his reach. In another he was looking back fearfully over his shoulder. These images depicted the theme in Isolan iconography, subsequently made famous by Clancy himself, to which archaeologists had given the name ‘The Fleeing God’.
“Mem is no longer in prison,” Clancy observed, “but he still looks afraid.”
“Oh she is always afraid,” agreed Uletha, with a shrug.
And for the first time she gave him a smile, a small smile, mocking, but not entirely unfriendly.
“Male Isolans use the male pronoun to refer to Mem, female Isolans use the female,” Com explained after translating her words. “The word Mem itself simply means ‘self’.”
Clancy wasn’t much interested in the pronouns. “Imagine that!” he breathed, “A god who is always afraid!”
Uletha shrugged. What other kind of god could there be? Surely any sentient being in this terrifyingly empty universe must be afraid, unless it was either very foolish or very blind?
“How did Mem get out of his cell though?” my uncle asked. “I can’t see a picture that shows us that.”
“She didn’t get out.”
“But he’s on the back of a camel, fleeing!” he protested. “He’s no longer trapped in the rock.”
Uletha shook her head, smiling at his naivety.
“She’s always in the rock,” she said. “The camel is just in her mind, like everything else in the world. We’re all just dreams in her mind. We’re all Mem herself dreaming. She herself is always alone inside the rock. We might like to think that we have companions but the thing that looks out of our eyes is always alone. It’s just that Mem divides herself constantly so as to make it seem not so.”
Clancy gave a whistle. He was impressed. He was also quite seriously alarmed, though he didn’t yet realise to what degree.
“Com, what was the name of that silly scholar who said this religion was a form of anxiety management?”
“Well she missed the point completely as such people usually do. She got it the wrong way round. If this lot are right, the entire universe is a form of anxiety management for God!”
He shook his head.
“But what solace is there in this for these people?” he muttered. “What possible benefit?”
He hadn’t intended the question for Uletha but she turned and answered.
“We learn endurance,” she told him. “We learn not to ask for what is impossible.”
The next picture in the sequence showed what Mem was trying to escape. Following the cartoon-like conventions of Isolan art, the image was contained in a rough square, its background painted bright red. On the left-hand side, the fleeing god and his mount were disappearing out of the frame. On the right-hand side, his pursuer was just coming into view. The pursuer wasn’t some monster, though. It wasn’t a stranger. It was in fact none other than Mem himself, on an identical mount and wearing an identical cloak to the other Mem that he was chasing. Only the facial expressions differed and even then only a little: the fleeing god looked back in fear, the pursuing god urged his camel forward with a look of longing.
But now there was a development. The fleeing god stopped, dismounted and turned to face his pursuer. He held up one hand to say, “Stop! No nearer.” His pursuer unexpectedly complied, also dismounting, though holding out his own hands in pathetic entreaty. The two identical figures stood facing each other from opposite sides of the frame.
“What’s happening here?” my uncle asked Uletha.
She gave her characteristic shrug.
“The one behind longs to touch and hold the one she pursues. The other says no, if you come too close the dream will be exposed and we will both be one again, one person, alone in the cell in the rock.”
* * *
An unexpected thing happened on the return journey to the main settlement. Uletha dropped back beside Clancy, glanced round to check that the two boys were out of earshot, and spoke to him quietly.
“If you would like me to come and visit you some time in that silver sphere of yours…”
Her eyes were bright, her voice soft and she reached out and touched him lightly on the hand. She offered no explanation for her change of tone, no apology for her coldness and rudeness up to now.
“You do me an honour,” he told her, after a few seconds pause, “but I belong to someone else.”
Uletha nodded. Clancy guessed that she’d hoped he would provide her with an escape route, a means and an excuse to leave this bleak world behind forever. But now, accepting with dignity her continued incarceration on lonely, empty Isolus 9, Uletha drove her camel forward and became a proud Isolan once more.
“It’s not jam today or jam tomorrow for these people,” Clancy said to Com. “It’s living with no jam ever. “
“Indeed,” Com observed, “and as Professor Doyana has observed….”
“I don’t want to hear about Professor Doyana,” Clancy said shortly.
He didn’t want the thoughts of people whose job it was to dissect and pin out the beliefs of others like the insides of dead animals. He wanted to look at Uletha’s slender back ahead of him, erect, proud, but stiff with disappointment. He wanted to guess at her feelings and to experience his own. He felt a moment of regret, of guilt even. There was something about this proud, scarred, bitter young woman that made him feel protective, and at the same time something that he would like to have conquered, to have overcome, to have seen unravelled by passion. The writer in him, always hungry for vivid new experiences, hated to let the moment go. But he reminded himself of the reason.
“Elena,” he whispered. “Sweetheart.”
Suddenly he missed Elena desperately, longed to be with her, longed to abolish the appalling tracts of emptiness that lay between them.
* * *
“Let’s have one more look back,” said Clancy, a few hours into the return journey to the Metropolis.
Sphere surfaced into Euclidean space, darkening its inner lights and making itself transparent. The planet Isolus 9 itself had disappeared from view, but Clancy could still make out, in the corner of a large constellation shaped like the letter L, the reddish fire of the triple star Isolus. Next time they surfaced the L itself would be too small to see.
As Sphere slipped back down into underspace, Clancy and Com got back down to his book. It was of course my uncle’s trademark, his gimmick, that the book of each of his journeys became available in Metropolis at the exact moment he first emerged there from his sphere.
“I think we might start the book off with the Fleeing God sequence in the caves,” he decided. “Let’s try that. Can you show the pictures for me?”
Sipping a cup of coffee, Clancy studied the images which Com had captured and was now projecting onto Sphere’s viewing screen. He looked at Mem in his cave, screaming, kicking, covering his face with his hands. He studied Mem in his despair hallucinating the world into being. He looked at Mem on his camel, fleeing from himself, fleeing from having to wake in his tomb-like cell in the rock.
“We’ll call the book The Fleeing God,” he decided. “It’s such an arresting image: a god in flight with his cloak flying behind him and his eyes full of…”
And then he broke off. He was shaking violently, his mouth dry, his stomach clenched. Quite unexpectedly he was overwhelmed by fear. And I don’t mean by this some sort of interesting literary ‘fear’ contained and distanced by words. I mean real visceral terror.
“Elena,” he whispered, seeking for a source of warmth and comfort.
“Elena,” he croaked, as if he had woken after a bad dream and was seeking her beside him in the darkness.
But of course he hadn’t been asleep and no one was near him. No one even inhabited the same continuum of space.
“Show me a picture Com!” he muttered. “Quickly! Show me her face!”
Com obliged. In my uncle’s eyes she was truly lovely and she never ceased to be. But a terrifying doubt was darkening his heart as Com produced a sequence of pictures of his lover’s gentle face. Who was she? Did she really exist or was she just a creature of his own longings?
* * *
Clancy kept working on the book all the way from Isolus to the Metropolis. Most commentators have expressed admiration for the courage and professionalism that this demonstrated, given the appalling mental state evidenced by the medical data which the meticulous Com placed in the archive. I think myself, though, that it was a survival strategy, a way of mitigating the horror by naming it, by pinning it down, by locating it outside himself. As Clancy said to me more than once, heroism and cowardice are much closer to one another than many people think.
He certainly needed something to distract himself. The experience of being in his sphere in underspace, which on the trip out had been positively cosy, was now so claustrophobic as to seem unendurable. Clancy felt like Mem in his cell. He began to feel that Elena and the Metropolis were only dreams. He began to fear that there was no such thing as space even, no such thing as air and light, nothing in existence at all except himself in this tiny bubble surrounded by the nothingness of underspace.
“Elena does exist,” Com assured its master, showing him picture after picture.
“What do you know about it you egg?” he snapped. “You don’t exist yourself. You feel nothing, you want nothing. You’re simply organised data. When it comes down to it you’re just a fancy list.”
He glared at the small plastic object, wondering if he should smash it open and expose it for the mere artefact that it was. Then he decided that was beside the point.
“In fact, you probably have no objective existence at all, let alone a subjective one. You’re just a dream of mine, most likely, along with all these silly little comforts here: this wine, this side table, this couch…”
“It’s true that I feel nothing and want nothing,” said the calm voice that came out of the yellow egg, “but I am aware of myself.”
“I also am aware of myself and so also exist,” Sphere then said, in the deeper, more sonorous voice that Clancy had chosen for it.
Probably it had been prompted to speak by Com, for Sphere was no great conversationalist.
“Two machines claim to know that they exist,” Clancy muttered bitterly. “Wow! Is that supposed to be a comfort to me?”
My poor uncle could barely sleep, even with the sedatives that Com and Sphere kept pouring into him. He could hardly eat. He was unbearably restless. His body yearned to pace up and down, to run, to fling itself around, but there was no room for any of that in a living space the size of a prison cell. Sometimes he yelled until his voice was hoarse. Sometimes he broke things. Sometimes he huddled in a ball and sobbed, his machines administering chemicals and offering suggestions in their flat, patient voices.
But there was no reassuring him. Even when he surfaced in Euclidian space and saw the stars all around him, there was no comfort. What were stars, far away, seen through the glassy wall of a tiny bubble? Even if they had an independent existence, which he seriously doubted, what story did that existence tell? Only one about the utter otherness of the material world.
“Elena!” he murmured, peeking out between his fingers at the cold glare of millions of suns. “Elena my dear heart.”
He had Sphere make the walls opaque again and return to underspace. He had Com summon up images of Elena once more. Throughout that long voyage he was unable to stop seeking solace in her face, even if solace did not in fact come, and even though, each time he looked at it, it became less like a face, and more like a pattern of dots on a screen.
And probably even the screen had no existence. Probably there was literally nothing at all. Probably what he thought of as self-awareness was only the hole left over by the absence of anything.
* * *
Elena was there to meet Clancy when he emerged from Sphere, but this time so were the representatives of a score of news organisations. Right across the World-City, millions studied their first embrace. Did the famous traveller’s heart still beat for his unknown lover? Had this obscure publisher’s editor succeeded where models and movie stars had failed?
Theories were advanced. “Close friends of the couple” were earnestly questioned. Panels of psychologists and relationship counsellors were invited to speculate as to what might be going on in her mind and his.
Clancy climbed slowly down the steps of Sphere, turned at the bottom to face the waiting crowd and let the newsmen capture his image and call out questions while he sought out Elena’s face over their heads. The questions themselves he didn’t answer or even hear, except as a kind of background braying. All he was interested in was finding her.
“Elena,” whispered Clancy. “Elena.”
There she was, just as he had remembered her, her fair hair blowing this way and that in the warm wind. “Are you alright?” she asked him, as she pushed forward and took him in her arms. “You look so thin and tired, my dear. You look half-starved!”
As he felt her warm lips against his and her small warm body against his, tears came pouring from his eyes and he began to shake with sobs.
“What’s the matter dearest?” Elena asked him again. “What’s wrong?”
Security guards hired by the publishing company hustled them over a footbridge into a private room, holding the journalists back. Far below, lights moved in the gloom of the planet surface.
“Say something to me, Clancy,” Elena said in this new quiet space. “Just say something.”
“The camel…” Clancy began.
“What about a camel?”
She wondered if he had gone mad.
“What I mean to say is…” Clancy tried again. “What I meant to say is if the camel is only in Mem’s mind then so is the rock! So is that dreadful cell!”
Elena laughed uneasily.
“Can you explain it another way? I can see you’re very upset, but I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“No, not upset!” Clancy protested, the tears still streaming down his face. “Not upset at all. Relieved.”
“Relieved to be home? That’s good.” She kissed him gently. “I’m relieved you’re home as well.”
“Relieved,” Clancy repeated. “They made their god in their own image, that’s all. Just like everyone does.”
Still completely bewildered, Elena kissed him again. Then one of the security men came in, asking if Clancy could come out and offer a few words to the press. He nodded. He’d have to explain it to Elena later.
“Those famous paintings weren’t the final truth about anything,” he informed the puzzled journalists. “The Isolans were trapped in a hostile world, alone in the universe, and they made a god who was also trapped. That’s all it is. It’s just how things seemed to the Isolans long ago, when the Great Machine failed and they were left alone.”
A huge burden seemed to lift from his heart as he returned to Elena over the little bridge and took her once again in his arms. She might be puzzled, she might be troubled, she might be a bit distanced from him on that account, but she wasn’t a picture on a screen, not a dream in his mind, not a mere projection of his longings. She was a real warm physical person, as real as he was, with a mind and will of her own.
* * *
That night, over dinner in her apartment, my uncle tried again to tell Elena how much she meant to him. Writer as he was, words seemed inadequate to the task, and he could only repeat the same things over and over again.
“Really and truly,” he told her, “you’ve released me from a lifetime in solitary confinement.”
She laughed but there was something strained in it, and quite suddenly he realised that she didn’t want to hear all this. He might have crossed thousands of light years of empty space but she had also been moving through time, confronting new experiences, passing through places that he knew nothing about – and she had changed.
Clancy fell silent. And then for a short time the two of them just looked at each other, trying to read each other’s troubled faces and trying to decide what to say next.
Elena spoke first.
“The thing is Clancy I’m just me. I’m just a person like you are. I’m just a human being.”
“I know that,” he told her urgently. “I really do know that. In fact that’s the whole point, that’s what’s so…”
He broke off, realising that he was doing the very thing that irritated her. He offered a humorous little gesture of apology in an attempt to lighten things. But though Elena laughed, the laugh had the same strain in it as it had done before. She had not been reassured. They ate in silence for a little while, Clancy desperately wanting to say more, but knowing that if he did speak he would only compound his offence.
Finally Elena laid her fork down on her plate and looked straight at him.
“Can you really live without drama, Clancy?” she asked. “Can you still feel love when it becomes ordinary and everyday and is no longer as exciting as landing on some lost planet where they greet you like a god?”
My uncle also put down his fork. He rubbed his hands over his weary face. He opened his mouth to speak. Then he closed it again.
And he realised that it was over. Probably Elena herself didn’t quite know it yet but she’d made up her mind and wouldn’t change it.
“Do you know what,” Clancy said, “I am utterly exhausted. It was a hard trip, and there were some difficult problems on the way back. I don’t mean to be rude but I think it would be best if I went back to my own place and just got some sleep for twenty-four hours or so.”
She didn’t protest, he noticed. She didn’t point out that she had a spare room and that if he wanted to sleep alone he could do it just as easily here.
“I clung too tightly,” he told Com as he sat at his own window looking out over the lights of the city. “I clung too tightly and didn’t let her breathe. She’s got tired of it – who can blame her? – and now I’ve lost her. It’s too late to get her back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Com said.
“What do you mean you’re sorry, you plastic rattle? You have no feelings, you’ve admitted as much yourself.”
Uncharacteristically Com paused for fully a second, long enough for it to have surveyed the whole of human knowledge.
“I know about human beings,” it then said. “I know human history and human biology. I know you want safety and you want danger. I know you want desire and freedom from desire. I know you want to grow up and to remain children. I know you want to be connected to others and to be alone. I know you want to be free and to be contained. I know you want all those things and many other things too. I know you are pulled in different directions all at the same time. I know this is why you are so complex and so impossible to predict. I know that this is why you are so mysterious even to yourselves. I know this is why you think you are free. And I know I am different. I have only one drive, in human terms only one want, and that is why in human terms I am not free, have no personality and am not really even alive. I have only one want and that is to serve you.”
Clancy was floored by this for a few seconds.
“But in the end you are only a toy, Com,” he finally said. “You really do have no personality, you really aren’t alive, you really aren’t free. When it comes down to it, Com, you really are just a very fancy toy.”
And he thought of Elena who he loved so much: funny, gentle, tough, pragmatic, kind, firm, self-reliant Elena. He thought of her lying awake in her own bed across the city, wondering what had gone wrong, noticing how much she’d outgrown him. And he imagined her wondering what would be the kindest and fairest way to bring it all to an end.
My uncle turned back into the room. My poor lonely Uncle Clancy. Listening and re-listening to the recording of his voice when he next spoke, the image that comes into my mind is of some sort of weary beast of burden, once again shouldering a load which for one foolish moment it had thought it could set aside.
“Come on Com,” he said, “let’s get down to work. Let’s find somewhere really remote that I can go to. Somewhere that will take me away for a really long, long time.”
He gave a small wry laugh.
“Yes, and somewhere where people don’t live underground and paint scary things on the walls of caves.”
Copyright 2009, Chris Beckett