…died since our ship touched down on this planet, eighteen days ago. The nature of the disease hasn’t been diagnosed: we know only that it occurs instantly on contact with the atmosphere, and that there’s no known cure. I’ve been confined to my quarters since nine this morning, when I re-entered the ship with a gash in my suit. If it really is a disease… to me it seems more like a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. I’m running a temperature that would have killed me hours ago, if it weren’t for the drugs.
Through the glass door of my cubicle the crew regard me with contempt. The accident need never have occurred if I hadn’t ignored our botanist’s advice and got too close to a sword-plant. But I was always the joke member of this expedition. After all, why should a priest have been assigned to a ship without Christians aboard, its destination a planet without intelligent life-forms? A bureaucratic slip at head office, perhaps; or a cruel prank played by some peevish atheist, who gigglingly transferred my name from one list to another without a thought for the years I would waste on this pointless mission. There’s no-one on the ship but miners, technicians, scientists, military personnel – every one of them a committed materialist, with a zealot’s passion for debunking the notion of transcendence. And there’s nothing on the planet at all. Just a wealth of newly-discovered minerals, which we shall mine, and a species of rodent, like rabbit-sized mice, which we shall of course exterminate as an accidental side effect of our mining operations. In my situation Saint Francis would have preached to the rodents, but we all wear helmets for fear of infection. Our helmets and suits are not decontaminated; we’re not afraid of infecting. Each time we step out of the air-lock we unleash a swarm of alien bacteria, enough to set off a thousand epidemics among the flora and fauna of this fragile ecosystem.
So the mice are doomed, unless some miracle interposes itself. But why should this concern us? We have our own body-count to fret over: the fact that three valuable crewmembers have died since touchdown, and that a fourth entirely useless crewmember is about to follow them. We’re already beginning to view this planet with hatred, and to treat its victims as traitors, feckless collaborators with an invisible army of hostile micro-organisms committed to wiping out all human life. The sooner we rid ourselves of both, the safer we shall feel.
So here I lie in this bare room, making the smooth walls bulge. This is a skill I’ve acquired since falling ill: I can alter my surroundings with a glance. The only ornament in my room, a crucifix, stretches and bleeds whenever my eyes light upon it. Tiny gaps between the panels on the floor expand and contract as my gaze sweeps across them. My hands lie inert on the sheets and my mind is mostly empty; but not for lack of power. Not at all! On the contrary: I’m afraid that if I move, say, my foot just a quarter of an inch I might punch a hole in the side of the ship, even as I buckle the walls with sight alone. And if a thought should cross my mind – a real thought, I mean, not this burbling stream of consciousness, this aimless interior chat – it might rend the walls of my understanding and scorch me with intolerable light. So I lie inert in this naked berth, sweating with the effort to contain my energies, trembling with force withheld.
The door shoots aside to admit the captain, a tall woman with hair so thick with product it looks enamelled. Her helmet flashes as she enters, almost detonated by my vision. At the press of a button a seat slides out of the wall; she sits. I struggle with the muscles round my mouth, not because I’m trying to speak, but to stop them wrenching my jaw into a mighty yawn that would swallow her helmet and all. I haven’t spoken to her more than a dozen times in the course of this expedition, intimidated by her height, her authority, the rigidity of her coiffure.
‘Any better, padre?’ she asks the wall. Inside her helmet she has formed a decision, like another chamber in her skull. With infinite gentleness I shake my head. The room leaps from side to side, shimmering with fear of my hidden strength.
‘You understand, of course, that I have no choice,’ she says harshly. ‘We can’t go back to the station with the plague on board. It’s simply too contagious. Doc reckons it could work its way through an unprotected human population within hours; through the race as a whole in the time it takes for the slowest of our ships to reach the Outer Reaches. Even as it is, we’re going to have to go through the most rigorous decontamination procedure in history before we can dock at the station. It’s my duty to begin that procedure now, before we leave this planet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here, padre.’
No reaction. You can see from her face that she thinks I haven’t understood a word, that I lost her drift before she’d finished her final, punitive sentence. As she speaks, her harsh voice over the intercom above my pillow grows gentler, more thoughtful, as if trying to soften the cruelty of duty with its maternal inflections.
‘Is there anything I can do for you, Padre? Any messages you want me to take back to your friends, your family? We’ll leave you with supplies, of course. But is there something else you need?’
I say nothing, but I’m touched.
My mind is almost tempted out of hiding by the captain’s kindness. I can feel it pushing against its restraints, swelling, burgeoning, growing. Be careful! Once free of my skull it will continue to expand till it fills the ship, crushing furniture and people against the vessel’s inner membrane as it thrusts itself into every corner, eager to make the most of its fine new cranial cavity. With a violent effort I force it back into the skull’s narrow casement, commanding it to retreat like a swollen snail into its shell. For a while its tender horns explore the bony walls of its enclosure, probing for weaknesses, shoring up fragile areas with its mental secretions. I satisfy myself that my head is sound, that the bulk of my new-found power may be safely contained there. Then one by one I allow the horns to steal forth into the open.
Good God! The sky!
My mind gives a dreadful lurch, almost dissipating itself into the limitless acreage of heaven before I take hold of it again with a grip of iron. Its mollusc foot once anchored in my skull, I dare tentatively to look around, take stock of my situation.
I’m on a stretcher, and the stars jump from horizon to horizon with the stretcher’s motion. They are carrying me in a straight line from the ship to the place where they plan to maroon me. Apart from sword-plants, the planet supports little vegetation: only many-coloured lichens carpeting the rocks and patches of crawling fruit-vines bristling with spikes the length of nails. The heart-shaped fruits burst beneath my bearers’ boots, spattering their suits with bloody liquor. We are making for the highest point in the vicinity, a hollow mound of rock eaten away by the acid rain so that it’s pocked full of holes. From one angle it resembles a crumbling snail, from another a skull.
Now and then rodents trot from the shelter of the thorns and stare at us with alien eyes. We know nothing about these creatures. The only biologist on board is a botanist, who advises us on the dangers posed by sword-plants and refuses to waste his attention on the little quadrupeds. Once I tried to interest him in the question of why they like to stare at us with such apparent interest. I have a theory of my own, I said. Somewhere I’ve read that there was a species of rodent on earth called a groundhog, long extinct, which used to sit along the verges of highways absorbing vitamin D from sunshine through a kind of plate in the top of its head. Perhaps the rodents here absorb energy through their eyes, so that they’re literally drinking us in as they watch us crashing about the surface of their planet, fiddling with our equipment, clearing paths through the foliage, gesticulating at one another and shouting through our intercoms. That would be a nice thought, wouldn’t it, I said: that we’re giving them, as it were, a visual feast, even as we spread the germs that will eradicate their species? The botanist just glared at me and returned his attention to a lichen he was trying to chip away from a boulder. I suppose he thought my theory as stupid as my faith; but it comforts me now as they carry me past a row of staring rodents. What a sumptuous banquet they must be getting from the heat that radiates from my feverish body! It would be strange and pleasing if I should finally get a proper function only after I’ve been abandoned to die on an alien planet!
We reach the hollow mound by picking our way between crazier and crazier rock formations, some leaning so steeply that the stretcher-bearers hunch their shoulders in anticipation of an avalanche. Happily, though, we arrive unharmed at one of the skull’s decaying cavities. As we enter, the roof arches overhead like the roof of a mouth. The cave is deep, the floor uneven. They set me down in a corner, at such an angle that by the merest twist of the neck I can peep out of the cave-mouth and scan the twisted land beyond. By my right hand they place a plastic picnic hamper full of goodies. At least, that’s how I like to imagine it: stuffed to the brim with honey-roast ham, chicken drumsticks, pickles, cheeses, raspberries and cream, a dozen kinds of freshly-baked bread. In fact, of course, it contains only nutrition tablets, water tablets, and painkillers – enough of these to kill an ox. If I swallow the painkillers I shall be able to leave the other tablets for the next poor unfortunate to be marooned in this cave.
They place my battered old bible gently on the lid of the hamper. Then they gather round in awkward silence, hands clasped as if holding hats, heads bowed in a show of reverence they never managed at the daily act of worship. With the hint of a smile I raise two fingers in blessing, then inch them towards the bible on the hamper. I prod the spine, striving to open my lips and offer it as a gift. But the stretcher-bearers have gone; I must have taken longer than I intended.
My mind again retracts to wrestle with its power. This time I’m no longer a mollusc: I stand knee-deep in a pitch-black chamber full of echoes. Somewhere something flounders in the water, its splashes magnified by the high curved walls. Somehow I must reach that floundering thing before it drowns, discover its identity. A shower of acidic rain hisses down outside the cave, each drop raising a wisp of vapour where it hits the ground.
A flicker by the cave-mouth. A rodent sits there gazing at my face. Has it come to absorb another dose of my body’s warmth through its giant pupils? Another rabbit-mouse hops to its side; a third, a fourth. Dropping to all fours, the mice approach me paw by paw in a dance too complex to be followed by the uninitiated.
Now and then they sit up again and stare at me with alien eyes. Each time I find my thoughts distributed in dialogue.
RODENT: Are you sick?
MAN: I think so.
RODENT: So were many of our people.
MAN: What was their sickness?
RODENT: An epidemic brought by you, the creatures with two heads.
MAN: Aren’t you afraid I might infect you?
RODENT: Don’t be afraid. Our Queen is coming. She cures all disorders.
The conversation has gone this far before I know I’m neither dreaming nor delirious. Our speech isn’t made of words: it’s a mutual understanding. I hear the scrabble of claws on the rocky floor, the uneven sound of my breathing, but nothing else is audible over the intercom. An extraordinary warmth washes over me, an ecstasy of a wholly unfamiliar kind, as I bask in the sudden consciousness of full communion. We are speaking together without the use of tongues, rolling back the intervening ages since the fall of the Tower of Babel! After so long without speaking to anyone, the joy of this easy exchange is almost past bearing.
The first rodent has reached my boot and sniffs at it, nose a-quiver. I long to take off my glove and touch its fur, but fear that my hand will crush it into lifelessness.
MAN: Tell me about yourselves.
RODENT: We are the little dancers, we dance the star-dance among the piercing thorns. And you?
We believe, I’m about to say – some of us believe – that this lump of pallid flesh shares natures with infinity. But in my mind-vault I’ve finally reached the floundering thing and am struggling to lift it from the water, poor sodden mouse. It’s the magnitude of my next question, not the heightened power of my body and mind that dries up my tongue at the root. How share my faith with creatures who don’t share my humanity, to whom parables are nothing, comparisons mere confusion? Our minds have touched for an instant; but where on earth, or off it, can our souls connect?
Fever makes my head ache, but the pain in my heart is worse, because the love of those who have shared your skull is the deepest love of all. I remember the rodents’ Queen, the one who cures disorders. Perhaps one might draw a parallel from that?
MAN: Tell me about your Queen. What is her nature, what rooms does she inhabit?
RODENT: There is no telling, there is no knowing, there is only showing. She is here, she will give you comfort.
As we speak, more rodents gather at the cave-mouth looking in, then spill forward, more and more until the floor is crawling with rabbit-mice. Like the lichen on the tottering rocks they are all colours – purple, orange, emerald green, magenta – and they range in size from six inches to three feet. The multitude divides down the middle, leaving a gangway from the entrance to the soles of my boots. There’s no sound apart from the patter of claws, but the thoughts of this mighty gathering eddy and mingle like the voices of massed choirs. A light, sunshine I guess reflected from the steaming puddles outside, flashes from the cave-mouth. And now there’s a rodent scuttling down the passage as if on a sunbeam, a delicate white rabbit-mouse with a glint of gold on the top of her head, on the place where the groundhog absorbs the rays of the sun. Every mind in the assembly bows down low, every rodent’s nose touches the ground between its foreclaws in honour of their tiny Queen.
Again words lack. I know the Queen shares natures with infinity, that she travels through this many-coloured Gethsemane towards some rodent passion as terrible as Calvary. I know that there is pain in her heart as there is in mine, that ahead of her lies sorrow, torture, despair and death, and that she can see the path ahead with appalling clarity. Wherever there are empty chambers, chaos-filled caskets, lonely cubicles or vaults teeming with isolated lives – there you will find Golgotha, place of the skull. The pain in my body and mind is worse than ever. But her claw touches mine and the doors are flung wide open, every room and closet filled with light.
And once again I’m lying in my naked berth. The captain sits beside the bed, hands propping her forehead (she has taken off her helmet). Between her elbows rests my battered old bible, shut. There are stains on the cover where she has wept, each tear raising an invisible wisp of vapour where it struck the binding.
A smell of burning, traceable to the gun in her holster, pervades the room. I planned to maroon you, padre, she whispers, because I feared you. The heat you radiated scorched my cheek, as if something inside you had grown so huge it was seeping through every pore. So why did you stumble out from behind the crazy piles of rock, scaring me so badly that I pulled out my gun and shot you down at my feet? And then why did you bless me, padre, broken on the broken ground, and press your book like a treasure into my trembling glove?
On the wall the crucifix shivers as if under water. There were suddenly so many rodents, padre, rodents of every size and colour milling about our boots as we carried your corpse to the ship, bursting fruit at every step. And now my crew regard me through the glass door of the cubicle with undisguised contempt, because I’ve murdered you twice over – first by giving the order for you to be marooned, then by blasting a hole in your chest through which the last few fierce convulsions of your heart were clearly visible. Where are you now, padre? Can you hear me at all? Have you found a tongue large enough to speak with? Is there room enough in the universe to accommodate such a tongue?
From the swelling in my skull I fear I’ve caught a touch of your sickness. If sickness it is… I find it more a heightening of the senses to the pitch of madness. Four crewmembers have died since we touched down on this planet, nineteen days ago.