LITERARY SCIENCE FICTION--The Archives of Varok
THE VIEW BEYOND EARTH (a revised, updated version) The original edition of "A Place Beyond Man" is now available as a new Authors Guild Backinprint Edition
Chapter 1. To Trust a Stranger
Beyond the moist, vibrant Earth and pocked Mars, past the wild storms of Jupiter and its sequestered haven, Varok, and far from the cold regions of skirted Saturn and the track where lonely Pluto rides, there is Ellason, glowing dimly in the deeps, lit with its own internal warmth and thirty bright, seething moons.
The elll, Conn, realized that Ellason—tenth planet in Earth’s solar system—could have been a normal planet, if it hadn’t been clobbered. While the young sun was fusing hydrogen into helium, Ellason was still busy scooping up icy planetesimals that happened to be rich in uranium. At the same time, Jupiter was sucking up most of the leftover hydrogen and kicking nearby icy planetesimals out to the young Oort Cloud. Some, kicked too hard, went sailing off into interstellar space. When Ellason came under Jupiter’s influence, however, the giant tossed the smaller planet off course. No longer in the orbital plane of its fellows, Ellason careened like a billiard ball through the embryonic solar system, until, after a history of near misses, one large ice ball gave it a glancing blow.
The blow shattered part of Ellason and slung the planet into an eccentric orbit. It sped away from the outer planets, until, just beyond the Kuiper Belt at 1100 astronomical units, it reached aphelion and looped back toward the sun, while its broken pieces continued to orbit their mother planet. Slowly they gathered into thirty moons, as Ellason began its first 12,000 year orbit.
After the moons congealed, they churned with volcanic fury, causing Ellason’s surface to be stirred and heated and illuminated. Meanwhile, the orphaned planet’s slow contraction and uranium decay added heat to its interior, and the ice of its captured planetesimals melted to cover its abused surface with deep oceans.
As on Earth’s sea floor, sulfur compounds powered life in the warmer waters of Ellason. Tiny living things fed larger creatures, until the oceans teemed with life. Soon the more venturesome organisms tested the shore lands, and some covered the land as moss-like plants, glowing with light of their own. In places, a symbiotic compromise was reached with the persistent sea life, and oxygen began to accumulate in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, polyenes (biochemicals with alternating double and single bonds) jostled for reaction space under Ellason’s warm moons and beside her veins of molten volcanic and tectonic rock. Some had strong absorption bands in the infrared, so they captured both incidental and internal light in well-placed nooks. These reactions were selected and enhanced, and photosynthesis nourished primitive cells that cooperated to survive, until plant-like beings evolved in Ellason’s brighter crannies.
Ellason’s gravity (1.4 Earth’s) proved too much for some organisms trying to live out of water; many gave up their dry land venture to continue their evolution in water. Thus, in the shallowest waters and near the warmest spots of the vast oceans, oxygen breathers like great-fish joined the race for life.
Much later, clever swimmers with prehensile fins and stereoscopic infrared vision and frontal gills—the ancestors of ellls—found temporary refuge from predators in moss-covered rocks, aided by rapidly-evolving ultrasonic bio-equipment like sonar-focusing melons. Newly evolved optional lungs contributed more oxygen to their ever-growing awareness and inventiveness. Their fins extended into powerful limbs that withstood Ellason’s gravity. The tips of those appendages became ever more dexterous, while the creatures’ senses tuned in to the demands of escaping and foraging on the dim land, to the challenge of farming in warm sea currents, and to the enjoyment of watching the violent weather those warm waters created. Thus, over a span of four and a half billion years, ellls came into being and named their planet Ellason.
While the ellls lounged and played through the eons in Ellason’s glowing waters, nature toyed with them: enlarging their wit to ridiculous extremes and adding unnecessary but charming decorative touches.
In 9930 BC, when Ellason made its infrequent approach to the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, it went unnoticed by Homo sapiens. Then it took off for another 12,000 years, while varoks scrambled after it, found it tolerable, and began work establishing an observation base on one of its extensive mud flats.
Conn decided his species were still handsome creatures, even by human standards, with an enormous capacity for joy—and occasionally a capacity for much more. Occasionally an elll like himself came along—one of the mutants—a loner who drove his fellow ellls wild with worry, because he refused to school normally, with no regrets.
In his youth, Conn had spent long periods depriving himself of immediate life-pleasure by engaging in relentless study, mumbling to himself in the strange, hard sounds of the languages of Earth, and toughening himself to prolonged drought. As his youth passed, however, he gave his worried sponsors some reassurance, for when he schooled, he played with great creativity and enjoyed life as much as any elll. Indeed, when he learned of his acceptance into the Varokian Concentrate as a student of the planet Earth, he communicated his joy to the entire school with such wild abandon that they did not regret the difficult adjustment his forthcoming absence would require. They enjoyed sharing his life's desire, now attainable in reality: to be an active participant when contact was made with the provincial and dangerous inhabitants of Sol's third planet.
As his life unfolded with his dream, Conn traveled from Ellason, his watery dark world, to Varok. There he absorbed all that the Varokian scholars could offer his agile mind. After he had earned the designations Generalist in Human Studies and Specialist in Engineering and Space Navigation, he was accepted for assignment at the Elll-Varok Observation Base on Earth's moon.
At Moon Base Earth he joined the crew of thirty ellls and five varoks who were currently entrusted by Elll-Varok (EV) Science to watch, to record, and to analyze events on Earth. Their continually updated prognosis for the blue planet went up and down with the inspired efforts and dashed hopes of Homo sapiens sapiens, and their recommendations for constructive interference became more and more uncertain. When Conn arrived to make a detailed analysis of current human affairs, the various EV crews had accumulated almost six hundred Earth-years of data. A consensus was growing to give up thoughts of contact and pull out of EV Base, leaving continuing observation to remote pickups.
Empathic being that he was, Conn felt no small pain in watching a progressive deterioration in human life quality. Before five years had passed, in 2050 AD, he saw little remaining on Earth he could call beautiful, few moments he would call peaceful, for most human beings let old hatreds and economic goals downgrade all other considerations. The international accords on human population control and food distribution had not held. As a result, human beings, as well as the myriad forms of life adversely affected by their activities, were well into the expected massive die-offs—a fact that the human members of Earth's living community largely ignored, though the suffering had begun decades earlier in India and Africa.
This kind of repression was incredible to Conn. In spite of being a loner, he saw himself as an inseparable part of his school. He could imagine far too well the personal costs of large-scale suffering. Apparently humans did not identify with the tragic lives and early deaths of their fellow humans.
Conn and his colleagues, ellls and varoks watching Earth from its moon, saw lowered minimal standards for air and water purity slowly squeezing thin any possible chance of escaping the worsening health statistics.
Conn realized there were no simple answers to Earth's enigma. No species on Earth could contain the onrushing chain of natural disasters humans had set off, but at his insistence EV Moon Base Directorate decided to make one last effort and offer whatever help they could. In good conscience, they could no longer remain silent. As a first step the directorate decided to determine if direct contact with Homo sapiens would pose any serious biological problems.
Some indirect, accidental contact had already been made. Once, when relieving themselves near a remote mountain trail in British Columbia, the ellls Conn and Killah had met a human who had the presence of mind to tell the helmeted figures his name and worldnet address before they made their hasty retreat with a bio-sampler full of ripe huckleberries. . . .
(Excerpt from Chapter 9. The Sounds of Grief)
Artellian stopped her in the hallway. "Are you all right, Tandra?" he asked.
"Yes. No," she stammered. "I must find Orram."
"He's in the hangar. Go slowly, Tandra. There is time for everything."
She smiled gratefully at the Master elll, but his green alien countenance no longer seemed fatherly, just strange and bestial. She shuddered, and hurried down the hall.
When she reached the hangar she strode directly to Orram, who was standing beside the plump gray-brown vehicle, Arlaht, with Junah and two ellls.
Slowly Orram's face turned away from the land craft toward her. Before she spoke, she watched the varokian face return to its usual placid veneer as Orram locked away a look of frustration.
"Orram, please read this."
He took the synthetic sheet, read it, and handed it back with a grim look on his face. "This is no elll you have described, Tandra. It could be a human or a varok. Where are the pressure plates, the sonar lines and melons, the back fin, the lack of ears, the webbed extremities, the large eyes covered with dimming lenses?" He led her away from the others and chose his words carefully. "Have you confronted the fact that you may find the ellls unacceptable, even abhorrent, now?"
"After loving Conn so well . . ." Tandra began. "I'm obsessed with a vision of Conn as a green blur, wallowing in the mud with whomever comes along."
"What is it that you love about Conn? Try to define that," Orram said.
"I loved his easiness and wit, his directness, his competence, his modesty, his…his beauty."
"And what has destroyed all of that for you?" He paused. "Why do you fear knowing more about the ellls?
Suddenly Tandra was shaken with an insight that seemed to come from outside herself. "Can you read my mind?" she asked. "Is that what the patch does?"
For a moment Orram stared searchingly at her, his brow heightened in surprise. "Not quite," he said. The dim caution in his face lifted, and he spoke lightly, with a touch of excitement in his voice. "Tandra, come with us on the expedition to the lunar pole. There are things we must discuss. I will assist you in your adjustment to the ellls. You will have a fresh perspective after two weeks away from Conn. . . .
(Exerpt from the end of Chapter 9. The Sound of Grief)
Tandra laughed, and a wave of affection for the elll washed through her. "You mean so much to me," she said. She reached for Ellalon's arm, but before her hand touched the green, mossy skin, the elllonian girl grabbed for the controls and threw the Arlaht out of the path of a large boulder that was bounding lazily down on them from its precarious position high on the wall of crater Grimaldi. The boulder skidded past them, but it brought behind it a slow motion cascade of smaller rocks. Rapidly they engulfed the Arlaht, bringing it to a halt.
"Well," Ellalon grinned. "Let's go throw rocks at each other."
Tandra laughed with her. The warm regard was there again. Now if only she could clear the blurred vision.
Orram was at the back of the craft with a lunar exposure suit already pulled over his legs.
"It will save time if we all help repair the road," Ellalon said. "Tandra and I need some exercise and a good stretch. Aen, are you coming?"
"Wouldn't miss the chance. I'll do some exploring while you three do all the work."
They helped each other into the exposure suits. The Arlaht was depressurized, and they disembarked to scramble about the boulders that blocked their path. Aen tossed a few small rocks away from the Arlaht and clambered up the hill leading to the bowl of the crater Grimaldi.
"I don't see any loose rocks," he said into his communicator.
"Look around some more," Orram answered.
Aen climbed higher, while Orram and Ellalon and Tandra quickly cleared the path. They were moving the last of the boulders when Aen carefully turned on the steep slope above them and started back. Suddenly, blinded by the brightness of the sun at the horizon, he stumbled into a depression. He grasped at a large boulder as he fell, but it tore out of his hands, then rolled slowly down the hillside, ricocheted suddenly off another precipitous outcropping, and before it hit the path, mindlessly crushed the life from Ellalon.
No sound told the tale. Tandra thought she heard Aen grunt and mumble into his communicator as he made his way down the rock slide, but she didn't realize that anything else had happened, until she turned away from the Arlaht and saw Aen roughly drag Ellalon's limp body to the side of the path and strip off its space suit. Tandra screamed and ran to him, tugging desperately at his hands doing their gruesome work. "What happened? What are you doing?" she cried.
He looked at her blankly. No sign of grief, no indication of care or regret showed behind his helmet. "Go to the Arlaht and fill an injector with disintegrating compound," he said calmly. "I fell, and this was in the path of the boulder I knocked loose."
Horror grew within Tandra. "This! This? Aen!"
"Do not excite yourself. There is nothing more to do. There is no more to Ellalon."
Orram came from the Arlaht carrying an injector. He picked up Ellalon’s delicate green arm, probed its vein, and waited quietly while the powerful chemical found the elll’s blood pools and quickly converted her back to organic molecules.
"Pea soup," Aen said, and he smiled with warmth at Tandra.
Incredulous, she broke into wild, angry sobs. Orram pulled Tandra to her feet and urged her toward the Arlaht. "We must continue our trip," he said.
"Even you," she sobbed, "even you will just leave her here without…with nothing."
"I have no choice." His voice was very tight. "I must get us back into the Arlaht safely. Then I can allow the grief to break me apart. Remember, Tandra, I am varok. I cannot function rationally and feel an emotion like grief at the same time."
"But kind Aen—how can he do this?" Tandra shook uncontrollably, her mind a fierce tangle of confused concepts and emotions. . . .
(Excerpt from Chapter 11. Contact and Detachment)
As the varokian receiver picked the astronauts’ voices out of the moon’s airless space, Tandra smiled at the familiar banter. But soon the radio conversation crackled with tense excitement as the lunar craft turned to give the astronauts a view of the Straight Wall:
"There she is. We’re right on it. Sixteen thousand at eighteen. Sailing over Birt now. Beautiful! Up a bit. Keep it up. Fifty-five hundred at eight. Eleven hundred at five. There’s the Wall. Who-ee, look at that—a mountain climber’s dream!"
"Or nightmare," a second voice interjected.
"One thousand at four point seven. Nearing the Wall, Midpacific. Looks rough over there. Nine-fifty at three point five. Approaching Wall. Twenty-five at two point two. Boulders, by God. Let’s try—over this way. Fifteen at two point one. Poor visibility."
"Can’t see a damn thing down there. We’re kicking up dust."
"Take your time, Bob."
"Roger, Midpacif . . ."
Suddenly the voices were interrupted by a loud crunch—and silence.
A controlled but frantic call came from the receiver: "Bob! Carliano, this is Midpacific. Can you read us? Jim, can you read us? Inclinometer critical. Confirm."
Tandra grasped Orram’s hand, and they waited interminable seconds.
Finally, a thick slow voice grumbled through space, "Roger, Midpacific. Carliano here. Dove Two has landed, so to speak. Too much dust kicked up. Couldn’t see. Apparently flipped on a large boulder or something and fell flat on our face. Confirm eighty-eight point six."
"Report status, Bob."
"Roger, Midpaf. No obvious damage. What we need is a crane. We’re completely over on our side. Jim Wright was thrown against the front panels. He’s unconscious. Ted Bardeane seems to be in shock. Hold on while I check them out."
He looked hard at Tandra. "Can you understand why we may not help them? We could put the Lurlial into low orbit and pick them up within a few hours. But you realize that our most recent decision was to avoid contact until we could devise an effective introduction of ourselves. There is much at stake, Tandra."
Tandra turned up the volume on the receiver. An hour passed, and it became clear that the lunar craft was lying helpless on a craggy ledge near the upper rim of the Straight Wall, with no hope of rescue.