Monday, December 10, 2012

Heaven Is A Place

On the evening of his second day in the Gulf of Ten Billion Blossoms, Rhea, Rickasht Chandrasekaran fell in with a crew who were taking a last break before heading out from the Saturn system to Uranus. This was in the guesthouse in one of the steep little villages that stepped up from the shore of the long lake. Rickasht had reached the village late in the evening, tired and exhilarated after a long hike along a trail that switchbacked through dense semitropical forest, and had been given the last bed. The crew were a boisterous and talkative group of young men and women who sat in a circle on cushions and shaped stones on the guesthouse’s terrace, passing food back and forth and squirting wine into each other’s mouths and making toasts. Several small children ran about. A man was nursing a baby. A woman played a dulcimer, and led a small group in songs that predated the colonisation of the Outer System. Rhythmic handclaps. Laughter. A torrent of happy chatter.

Rickasht found he didn’t mind the crowd, the noise. He could disappear inside it. Nothing was expected of him. He smiled and nodded as two young, earnest men told him that they were going to tent over and landscape an embayment in one of the long, deep canyons that cut the icy surface of Uranus’s largest moon, Titania. The crew’s engineers were already out there, supervising the big construction machines that were pouring the tent’s foundations and fabricating the struts and panes of its diamond-fullerene roof. The people here were mostly gardeners and farmers. It was a working holiday, the two men told Rickasht; they were studying the Gulf’s ecosystems, the kelp forests in its lake, the forests that climbed its walls, the heaths and sedge bogs of its upper reaches. The crew's small tent and its simple biome was the beginning of an ambitious plan to tent the deep, long canyon section by section, and create a garden several dozen kilometres wide and more than five hundred kilometres long. The usual mad ambition of outers, limited only by their imagination.

After a little while he noticed one woman in particular, neat and compact and quiet, long black hair teased into a cascade of ringlets. Almost certainly from Earth, Rickasht thought, and felt a pulse of the old familiar ache in his belly. She noticed his attention and smiled at him, and he looked away, pierced by stupid guilt, then looked back again.

Her name was Nisha Minnot-Varma. She had been born on Mars, the Hellas Basin tent. She’d come out to the Saturn system three years ago, and now she was going further out, like the rest of her companions sinking all her credit and karma into the venture. They talked about adjusting to life in the Saturn system. They talked about Rickasht’s childhood on Earth, in Brasilia; he apologised for knowing very little about Greater Brazil’s rainforests and grassy plains and great rivers. They talked about his work in the reclamation plant in Paris, Dione. They talked about Nisha’s work: she was a microbiologist, had been one of the supervisors of the soil manufacturing plant in Camelot, Mimas. In a way, she said, they were both in the recycling business.

'You don’t need soil to farm, but it’s essential for stable ecosystems of any size. Everything passes through it at some point. . . I am amazed by what they have built here in the Gulf. It’s a huge mosaic, yet fully integrated. Hellas was much bigger, but not as stable. We had a severe crash when I was a child; there was talk of evacuation. We had to wear masks that absorbed the excess carbon dioxide for a whole year. I’ve learned so much here, and now I will put it to practical use. You probably think we are crazy,’ she said, looking at Rickasht sidelong.

Rickasht said something stupid about it being an adventure. She had large brown eyes, Nisha, and beautiful eyelashes. Slender hands, nails painted different shades of blue.

‘We will build a new world,’ she said. ‘A very exciting prospect.’

Rickasht said it was a brave thing to set up a home in the unknown; Nisha said that it was a frontier, yes, but not unknown.

‘There are more than ten thousand people in the Uranus system. Too many already for some of the first pioneers, they are striking out for the Kuiper belt. I find it amazing,’ Nisha said, ‘at how skilled we have become at making ourselves at home out here. Three centuries ago the Saturn system was the frontier. And now there are cities and settlements, farms and gardens, wonderful parklands like this. All carved from ice frozen hard as granite, carbonaceous tars, comet CHON . . . ’

‘And outside it’s still cold and airless and lifeless. And a stupid accident can kill you in an instant,’ Rickasht said, and immediately regretted it. Because he didn’t want to talk about that. A year later, and he still missed Jen every day, her absence was a great wound ripped into his side, but he was tired of talking about it, tired of people’s sympathy.

Nisha was saying something about the stark beauty of the moons, the time she’d walked out across Mimas’s surface the first time, and climbed a pressure ridge and stood for a long time looking out at the tumbled moonscape, under Saturn. She’d walked all the way around Mimas, had been to Enceladus and Iapetus and Titan.

‘I like to visit and study Avernus’s gardens,’ she said. ‘Do you know her work?’

Rickasht said that he’d heard of her, of course.

‘She hid on Titan during the Quiet War, and created several extraordinary gardens there. So simple, so elegant, so strange. She was born on Earth, yet she had a complete understanding of the landscapes of the moons.’

They drank a toast to the famous, long-dead gene wizard. Rickasht confessed that this was the first time he’d left Dione, almost his first time he’d been anywhere outside Paris. They talked about places he should visit, gardens and cities, the great mountains of Iapetus. Sharing a bag of wine, sitting so close Rickasht could feel her warmth. It was late, now. Many people had retired; most of those left where clustered around the dulcimer player. Rickasht tingled with anticipation, tried to formulate an invitation that wouldn’t sound crass or clumsy, and then a young woman ankled over and sat next to Nisha, draping an arm around her shoulders with casual familiarity, and he knew with a plunging sensation how stupid he’d been, and after he’d been introduced he stammered something about needing to sleep, and left.

But he couldn’t sleep, not in the shared dormitory. He couldn’t stay. He grabbed his day bag and set out up the village’s steep dark streets, finding his way by luminous dabs on the path and the yellow light of Saturn’s crescent, tipped beyond the high roof. He was drunk and angry, but when he reached the edge of the village he knew it would be crazy to try to find his way through the forest and the high bluffs, and crept under a great sprawling fig tree.

He woke early, from a silly muddled dream of searching for Jen through endless rooms of a rambling house a little like the villa of his parents, and climbed a steep trail beside a slow fat stream that trickled amongst boulders in a slanting ravine. Hauling himself along tethers in Rhea’s minimal gravity was almost like flying (he’d watched fliers rising in slow spirals on thermals above the lake, but hadn’t dared to rent wings). He paused at a deserted camp site to use its shittery, picked a couple of apple bananas and a handful of figs from bushes alongside the stream, perched on a shelf of pitted siderite to eat his breakfast, went on. Climbed a vertical stair of spikes jammed in the sheer face of a cliff, topped out on a broad belt of grassland, drifted onward for several kilometres.

He’d walk to the endcap, he told himself, and take one of the trains along the narrow- gauge railway on the far side back to the locks, and go home. Back to Dione. Back to Paris and the empty apartment full of dead things and memory traps, and his work.

There were no settlements on the strip of heath, and he saw no other people. The tether he’d been following soon ended, and he ankled on in the low gravity gait he’d learnt long ago, moving only from the knees down. The land rose and fell. Swales of tussock grass. Low thorny trees. Industrious bees working patches of small sweet-smelling flowers as yellow as Earth’s sun. A lone bird piping somewhere. His shame and self-disgust blew away on the warm breeze, dissolved in the quiet beauty of the land.

Late in the afternoon, he found a near-vertical path down to another village. A teahouse, little more than a canvas-roofed wooden platform jutted above the boulders tumbled along the shore of the lake. There were many like it along the lakeshore, but as Rickasht sipped his gyokuro he noticed the pleasant manner of the hostess as she talked to the other customers, the way she smiled at the badinage of her partner as he deftly fried snacks on a hotplate and boiled plump little savoury dumplings. The gyokuro was sweet and delicately perfumed and the food was simple but tasty, bamboo tubes hung under the edge of the roof gently clattered, and there was a tremendous view across the tall, slow waves of the lake to the hazy panorama of the green forests and white cliffs of the far side.

There was a flier high up there, a red mote gliding close to parallel to the pine trees along the edge of the cliffs.

Rickasht thought how much Jen would have liked this place, and the familiar pang was there and gone. Red lanterns under the canvas roof brightened as the chandelier light dimmed, and the hostess came over to Rickasht and asked if he would like more tea. He said why not, asked if there was a guesthouse in the village.

'I think I’ll stay a while.’

3 Comments:

Anonymous Nathan said...

Lovely, Paul. There seems to be a theme of loss and hope in these little latest QW stories (I include the story in the new Strahan anthology)- any particular reason? I found this short and the latter I mentioned particularly touching.

December 10, 2012 5:42 PM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Nathan, Thanks for the kind words. I'm of an age where loss and hope loom large, so am probably working out some personal preoccupations and experiences. More hope here than loss (hopefully). Am interested to see where this is going, and what other themes might develop.

December 10, 2012 7:48 PM  
Blogger PeteY said...

Hi Paul, I don't mean to be picky but Titania is a moon of Uranus, not Neptune, isn't it?

January 11, 2013 4:56 PM  

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