The Outer Circle

Eighteen years after leaving Old Earth I’ve made planetfall, and my ship has fallen silent.

Can you understand what that means to me? For the first time in eighteen years the cabin has ceased to throb to the pulse of the generators. Throughout my life I’ve been so accustomed to engine-noises that they have been my silence. Now one by one new silences are entering the cabin. I sit very still and listen as I’ve never done before.

The first thing I notice is the hum of the blood in my ears, very far away like a little lost astronaut singing in space. Behind the hum I hear the silence of the cabin, a small silence often interrupted by the creaking of my space-suit as I shift in the pilot’s chair. Beyond this small silence, beyond the red-hot hull of the ship I hear a larger silence, the hush of expectation after my rockets have blasted a pit in the soil of this wild planet. And behind that larger silence if I strain my ears and hold my breath I can detect the largest silence of all: the quiet of deep space, the endless noiselessness in which the occurrence of galaxies and nebulae are no more than the squeaks and scuffles of insects in an empty room.

Have you noticed the insects? With all our sprays and toxins we’ve never managed to kill them off. There’s an ant crawling over the instrument panel even as I talk. It must have accompanied me from the beginning of my journey, along with germs, fleas, microbes, perhaps even mice. This ship is a miniature world teeming with life, which I haven’t even thought about till now, when I’m about to leave it.

As you can guess, I’m talking to kill time. I’m trying to put off the moment when I must leave the ship.

My ship rests in the centre of the pit she has made, like a severed hand reclining on outspread fingers. Above her I’m intensely conscious of an absence. This planet has no armoured ceiling like the one that protects my own world from the stars. There is only a sky as blue as the ones in stories, and above that the vacuum through which I’ve fallen for so many years: layer upon layer of space, each layer retaining a discarded husk of my former self. And now I lack courage to enter the airlock and open the outer hatch.

The measure of civilization is the number of layers between a man and his confrontation with himself. By that measure I’m now a thousand times more savage than I was when I took off. Often in the last part of my journey I stood in front of the cabinet that contains the only mirror on board, never daring to open the door and inspect my face.

In the early days I made a point of meeting my own eyes each morning, knowing I would soon have other eyes to meet. Let me remind myself of what I saw when I first looked in the mirror. My head was almost spherical, with a few lank hairs decorating the scalp. My cheeks were two quivering fields of flesh, irrigated by a network of tiny veins. Little lost eyes half-buried in folds of fat peeped timidly from the shadow of my shapeless nose. A series of miniature mountain-ranges supported my chin. Yes, despite all my sufferings I retained a degree of the elegant obesity I possessed in the prime of my youth.

But as the pressures of travel began to show I became frightened of seeing myself. I wasn’t afraid of human contact as most men might have been; space quickly inured me to strange company. I was afraid because I was beginning to change. No, I must be specific; before I leave the ship I must strip off the last layer of civilization and tell the truth, no matter how it hurts. I’ve become emaciated. I’ve sat helpless in my seat as the light of unknown suns burned away the layers of corpulence, the hanging gardens, the orchards, the rich pastures of my body. I’ve watched in horror as my noble bulk shrivelled to bone and sinew. I’m sorry to use those obscene words, bone and sinew, but I want to stress the irony of it. Before I left old Earth I was the most respected body builder in my segment, I had won prizes for Weight Gain and Fat Cultivation, my digestive tracts were the subject of dissertations; even after I’d passed my prime the media as the very picture of an intergalactic hero. Yet here I am at the end of my quest, shrunk to the dimensions of a common rent-boy!

I’m thin!

I never knew what the word meant before. Oh, I’m no innocent, I’ve seen thin bodies in my time. When I was a kid we were always tampering with the school computer, switching programmes while the robo-tutor wasn’t looking so as to pass porno-pics of skeletal nudes from screen to screen. But never in my most fevered nightmares would I have imagined that I might one day be reminded of those living skeletons by looking at my own magnificent body. Never, never would I have believed that I myself could be thin.

I must stay calm. I’ll try to think of something positive. I’ll think about my heroism.

But am I really such a hero? Heroes perform grand, simple feats which everyone understands. Do you understand what I’m doing, you citizens of old Earth? All you know about my mission is what you’ve seen on the visiscreen; and how many of you are still capable of following a coherent sequence of visual signs? After a lifetime’s viewing all the average citizen sees on the screen is the dance of innumerable coloured dots. I’m afraid mankind no longer possesses the concept of reality.

I’ve often mulled over the details of my take-off, and they only add to my uncertainty about my heroism. You’ve seen the newsreels: I was given a hero’s farewell. Even now I love to remember it. The ship rests on the long disused launching-pad of the Middle Circle as if balancing the earth on its fingertips. Dignitaries and statesmen throng the tarmac; when I appear in the door of the Film Academy they wave their tiny arms and burst into feeble cheers. Flags snap, fireworks explode in torrents of shooting stars, cameras flash, a thousand synthesisers strike up a martial symphony. I waddle down miles of undulating carpet, showered at every step with honours (those little greasy cakes with which a hero is expected to cram his jaws until his stomach rebels and he throws up, saluting his rapturous audience with a stream of multicoloured vomit).

But details jar. A faint atmosphere of seediness pervades the event. On close inspection I see that the dignitaries aren’t real; they’re battered plastic models left over from the last local election, their cheers and waves operated by teams of hidden puppeteers. When I look carefully I can spot the puppeteers at a bank of keyboards behind the cameras on my right. The robots which bustle to serve cocktail canapés are rusty and the canapés covered in mould. By the time I reach the ship and turn for a final wave the carpet has already been rolled up. Beetles fall out of it and dust rises in clouds. Puppeteers, cameramen and producers stand around knee-deep in conversation, which the robots spread for them in quivering and aromatic gobbets. The artificial dignitaries remain fixed in mid-cheer, their eyes shining with the hope and joy inspired in humanity by my glorious mission. I suspect now that my send-off was only a low-budget production.

And was it really heroism that made me undertake the mission? Perhaps I have really retained an unhealthy adolescent obsession with thinness, as the tabloids were quick to insinuate. It’s true that I first heard of the Third World while watching an obscene programme about ‘slimming’, but I don’t usually indulge myself with such trash. I’d fallen asleep in front of the visiscreen after a heavy meal and the programme came up before I’d fully recovered consciousness. I watched in stupefaction for a few minutes as a cavalcade of dancers who had starved themselves for erotic effect capered across the screen, flaunting their ribs. After a while I realized that the presenter was no longer discussing the more tasteless methods of weight-loss. Instead he’d turned to another subject likely to appeal to his target audience of freaks and perverts: the discovery of a new world in another solar system, whose entire population was starving.

The idea of the Third World gripped me at once. The planet had been given its name by the tabloids, who had taken it from banned pornographic documentaries of the distant past, when an entire section of the earth’s population was kept undernourished for the titillation of the rich. Although I can’t stand the tabloids – I find them indigestible, and much prefer to munch my way through a good broadsheet – the name was well chosen, since the planet might easily have been lifted bodily from a roll of ancient film. It was entirely populated by skeletal savages whose livelihood still depended on the cycle of the seasons. I was entranced by descriptions of its jungles where real wild animals prowled, its oceans filled with living fish, its grasses cropped by innumerable herds and its grain harvest which shrivelled year after year under the pitiless heat of a genuine sun. I think my excitement stemmed from the sheer range of activity still available to the planet’s inhabitants; and I don’t just mean sexual activity. You see, I’m a romantic, a lover of solid old-fashioned adventure movies rather than the interminable soaps consumed by most of my friends; and sordid though it may seem, adventures are best undertaken by thin people. You may call me retrogressive, but I’ve always maintained that adventures lose their credibility when the hero weighs eight hundred pounds and possesses only rudimentary arms and legs. Adventures need limbs, and whatever else the people of the Third World lacked they possessed limbs of great length and mobility. I began to think of the Third World as a planet of adventure, a scented wilderness where every night was one of the Thousand and One Nights. I would fall asleep dreaming of a slender Third World Scheherezade, who sat cross-legged in my cubicle and unfolded endless interlocking stories, each one more labyrinthine than the last. I never dreamed I might one day be Sindbad.

While I was watching the programme I did not ask myself how its makers had come to hear of the Third World; I half suspected that the whole thing was merely a far-fetched erotic fantasy. But later I learned that the programme had been based on fact. A visitor had arrived from the planet only a few days before it was made. Images of him appeared on every channel – tastefully blurred so as not to shock the fastidious, for he was thinner than the most obsessive slimmer; and again and again we heard the tale of his arrival. Out of the void an unknown ship had burst, blasting its way through our derelict security systems. Its powerful rockets punched a hole in the Outer Circle and it landed with a terrible roar on the roof of the Film Academy. We heard how the hatch had opened and a limp figure had tumbled out, crawled a few metres, gasped a few words, collapsed and died. The words had been picked up by one of the Academy’s ubiquitous mikes, and these too we heard again and again: halting, harsh, incomprehensible. Interpreters told us that the visitor had appealed for food and technological aid for his starving people, and that he had offered his ship for the use of any volunteer who would undertake this mission of mercy. The ship could be inspected on a dozen different channels, dented and blackened by its interplanetary voyage.

To my surprise it haunted both my dreams and waking hours, that vessel in the likeness of an open hand, its fingers spread in supplication. I would spread my own chubby fingers to resemble it and lay them on the visiscreen, and the touch of the cold glass with the ship seemingly so close on the other side would send shudders through my flanks. For a while the rest of the world seemed as interested as I was. Celebrities appealed for volunteers to deliver the promised supplies; movies about glorious and mostly unsuccessful rescue attempts dominated the late-night slots; baseball caps with HAND AID on the front flooded the market. But very soon the ship was forgotten and the usual soaps and pornographic documentaries returned to the screen. I woke up one afternoon with a jerk, realizing that I hadn’t seen an image of the ship for days, and worse, that I’d stopped dreaming about it. My heart was beating wildly, nausea clung to the back of my throat, a sudden vision of the endless succession of days to come flashed before my mind’s eye. I was terrified that my dreams of adventure had vanished forever. That was when I decided to volunteer. No courage involved; just a dream I longed to recapture. No pride either, though that came later; simply a huge and shapeless fear like the one that grips me now. Perhaps huge and shapeless fear is the stuff heroes are made of.

I know now that I took the denizens of the Outer Circle by surprise. I know that they regarded the ship, the visitor, the message, as an eccentric joke, a brief alleviation of their all-encompassing boredom. They had given no instructions regarding the treatment of volunteers. In the absence of such instructions, I learned later, the World Computer took matters into its own hands. It devised a rigorous training programme which almost killed me before I set out. And it issued me with an invitation to visit the Outer Circle.

The Outer Circle! Largest and most exclusive of the Circles that imprison the withered Earth inside their vast revolving cage. What visions do the words conjure up in your mind? Perhaps you imagine golden halls paved with precious stones, trestle-tables groaning with roast meats and bursting fruits, all the infinite variety of tastes, smells and sensations that have long ago vanished from Old Earth. Perhaps you imagine pools of cool water where your bloated bodies can float in everlasting serenity, forgetful of the torments they suffered as you pumped them full of hyper-nutrients in your efforts to gain the weight required for promotion to the upper levels of society. But what do you really know about the Outer Circle? Nothing but what your dreams reveal to you.

The Outer Circle is the storehouse of the dreams of humanity, just as the Inner Circle is the repository of its foodstuffs and the Middle Circle the location of its automated administration, as well as of the fabled Film Academy. In ancient times the Earth was said to lie at the centre of a nest of concentric spheres. Each sphere was made of crystal, and each contributed its own musical note to the harmony of the cosmos. The outermost sphere was the sphere of fire, the Empyrean, Heaven. Only in Heaven could the spheres’ full symphony be heard, only here could the design of the whole be appreciated. Did the ancients have some premonition of the future? With unimaginable labour we have built the spheres they dreamed of. At their centre lies the Earth, our ravaged mother who century by century yields more of her exhausted substance to her children. And her children in their turn pour their substance into their dreams. All the painful cultivation of our bodies, all our ambitions, all our yearnings are directed towards one end: the hope that we might one day be chosen to ripen everlastingly in the light-filled chambers of the outer Circle. Those who are not chosen eventually die, and contribute their rich mould to the vegetable gardens of the Inner Circle. Those who are chosen – but I soon gained an insight into their fate.

I won’t describe the pain I felt when the tubes were first torn from my belly, mouth and anus – tubes that had been buried in my flesh from the moment my foetus took shape in its perspex flask. I’ll omit from this account the agony of my training, when the blubber threatened to tear itself from my frame, when the sweat poured from my pores in torrents. My sufferings were recorded; no doubt you’ve seen the documentary. Even the passage through the many levels between the Middle and the Outer Circles, a hundred cranes hoisting the battered ship (with me inside it) from level to level, was an excruciation of a sort; for I was aware that in the heat of the exercise my fat was melting from me like butter. I became terrified that when I confronted the denizens of the Outer Circle my appearance would disgust them. My terror shrivelled me still further. By the time the ship docked in one of the ruinous space-ports of Old Earth and I stepped out into the regions of which I had dreamed so long I was already no more than the palest shadow of my former self.

I said I stepped out, but in fact I tripped and fell out of the hatch. I rolled sweating down an interminable chute full of grit and dust. At the end of the chute I dropped onto a mattress covered in mould, bounced several times and lay still. It took all my courage to stand up and look about me.

A long dim chamber stretched away before me as far as the eye could see. The walls on either side were festooned with ducts and cables; some of these had snapped and were dropping slow showers of sparks or oily fluid to the floor. The floor wasn’t paved with crystal or precious stones; in fact I couldn’t see what it was paved with, it was so thick with dust, dead flies and broken tiles. Curtains of cobwebs trailed from the ceiling, where rows of naked light-bulbs stretched into the distance. Many of the bulbs were broken, and the rest dispensed a cold blue light which failed to penetrate the shadows at the room’s edges.

In the row down the middle of the chamber stood many large crystal spheres mounted on tarnished metal legs. The spheres emitted a continuous humming. Dust veiled the upper part of each globe and the crystal underneath was streaked where liquid from broken pipes or the droppings of bats had struck it. Inside the spheres I could make out the dim outlines of things that might be alive. Hesitantly and with what I hoped was reverence I approached the nearest sphere and polished the crystal with my glove, hoping to see more clearly what was inside. The action set off a faint ringing which mingled with the other harmonics in the chamber.

What I saw made me step back with a cry of horror. The thing inside was itself almost spherical: a grey, pulpy mass floating in some sort of liquid, like an ancient internal organ preserved in formaldehyde. Its surface was dimpled with little valleys and disfigured with purple-green blotches. I wouldn’t have been so sickened if I had thought the putrescent lump was dead. But in the middle of the lump, half-buried among folds of blubber, a single tiny eye looked out, full of intelligence and despair. And the eye had seen me.

Even now I don’t understand why this intelligent eye so frightened me, why my gorge still rises when I think of it. Wasn’t this the most highly developed human form I had ever encountered, the culmination of centuries of physical culture? Wasn’t this the body I had dreamt of possessing since childhood? I can only attribute my revulsion to the fact that I was already in the grip of the wasting disease that has consumed me ever since.

A shudder went through the lump and somehow I knew that it was about to speak. A click sounded somewhere overhead, followed by a hiss as long-silent speakers were activated. The voice when it came had a metallic weight that shook the floor, as though a hundred metal tongues had spoken at once. ‘Who are you?’ it said.

This was the last question I had expected. Surely the denizens of the Outer Circle, with their unlimited access to every untrodden info-retrieval corridor in the most ancient recesses of the World Computer – surely they must know perfectly well who I was? ‘You know who I am,’ I stammered. ‘You sent for me. I’m the volunteer who… er… volunteered for the mission.’

A short pause followed. ‘We remember the mission,’ said the voice or voices at last. ‘That was one of our best ideas of recent years. But there was no volunteer.’

In my confusion I became angry. ‘Of course there was!’ I said. ‘You appealed for one on the visiscreen, and I put myself forward. You sent me a letter of congratulation, one of the finest I ever tasted, and put me through a gruelling training programme. Then you invited me to come and meet you before I set out for the Third World. Don’t you remember?’

‘Did we appeal for a volunteer?’ mused the voice. The eye, at which I was still staring, vanished suddenly, as the lump furrowed what might have been its brow in thought. ‘Yes, I think we did. That was a good idea too. But the invitation was an error. There must be a fault in the World Computer’s communication circuits. You see, there was no volunteer.’

I took a step forward. ‘No volunteer?’ I cried. ‘Who am I, then?’

‘Precisely,’ said the voice with an air of self-satisfaction. ‘That’s just what we’d like to know. Who are you?’

I must have looked so shocked and desperate that the creatures in the glass jars took pity on me. The eye reopened and I fancied it looked kinder than before. ‘Let us explain,’ suggested the voice. ‘There could be no volunteer because we didn’t invent one. We are the inventors; inventing is our job, here in the Outer Circle. We are responsible for dreaming all the dreams, thinking all the thoughts, and scripting all the conversations of any significance that occur on any level of Old Earth. Nothing happens unless we make it happen. All human beings in all the circles beneath us are either the actors who shadow forth our ideas or the audience who absorb them. The mission exists because we made it up. But we didn’t invent a volunteer. Therefore there isn’t one. Have we made ourselves clear?’

Can you imagine the new horror that stole over me, the worst I had yet experienced? My self-confidence had already suffered several damaging blows, but I still thought myself a hero, even if a somewhat shrivelled one. Now abruptly the speakers assured me that I was merely an automaton, a puppet like the artificial dignitaries who had seen me off; and these – things – were my puppeteers! What I had thought to be the bravest deed of my life turned out to be an illusion, generated by a tiny maladjustment in the vast network of the World Computer: a glitch that permitted me to think for myself for a fraction of a second, long enough to answer a scripted call for help from an imaginary alien before sinking once more into the ocean of artificially generated dreams. The doubt still returns to me sometimes in my sleep, and with it the horror: am I really no more than a thought conceived by a blob floating in a sealed glass jar? My mind groped for evidence that the mission at least had not been an illusion. ‘The ship,’ I whispered. ‘The ship that brought me here. Surely the ship is real?’

‘We could easily have made it up,’ answered the voice. ‘But you’re right: the ship is real. It’s a relic of the distant past, a piece of flotsam washed up by the tides of space. Hundreds of similar odds and ends are orbiting Old Earth even as we speak, jostling the epidermis of the Outer Circle. Every so often something crashes onto the Earth’s roof: the outer surface of the Outer Circle is a litter of shattered satellites and broken spacecraft. Very few of these falls are dangerous. But now and then – once every hundred years or so – a falling wreck succeeds in punching a hole in the canopy and doing some serious damage.

‘That’s what happened a few weeks ago,’ it went on. ‘A particularly sturdy starship managed to smash a section of the Outer Circle adjoining this one; the accident destroyed some of our best thinkers. In tribute to the dead we decided to construct a story around the starship; we tell very good stories, here in the Outer Circle. That’s how we came up with our affecting little drama about the Third World. But we never intended anyone to take it seriously. There was no one inside the ship. There was no mission.’

I hardly registered the last few words. All the futile agony – all the humiliation of my training came back to me. But this was as nothing compared with the revelation that my dreams were no more than the fantasies of a fantasy. Strangely enough, it never occurred to me that the denizens of the Outer Circle might have been lying when they told me they invented the mission. One of the many absurd beliefs I entertained about the Outer Circle was that it was the abode of truth. Only sheer luck taught me otherwise.

In my agitation I had begun to stride up and down the chamber, struggling to recover a sense of my own identity. My footsteps ran ahead of me and behind me like a column of eager robots hurrying about their appointed tasks. I had completed one of my agitated marches and had turned to stride back the way I’d come when I caught sight of a glass case by the chamber wall – an elongated rectangular box, half-hidden by cobwebs. Acting on impulse – or guided by some cosmic puppeteer – I decided to inspect it more closely. In a few steps I’d reached the case and torn down the dusty veil that concealed its contents.

Inside stood a man: the tallest, thinnest man I’d ever seen. He wore a baggy atmosphere suit much like my own, tightly fastened at waist, wrists and ankles and open at the neck to reveal his scrawny chest. His skin had been blackened by the light of distant suns. Masses of black hair floated about his head in the preservative fluid, as if he drew webs of night behind him wherever he went. His dead eyes shone like stars in the darkness of his face. I recognized him at once from the visicreen, and knew beyond all doubt that he came from far away, that he had crossed infinite vastnesses to reach Old Earth.

‘The visitor!’ I cried, turning to face the spheres. ‘The stranger who came in the ship! You said it was empty!’

‘Did we say the ship was empty?’ the speakers asked sharply. ‘We don’t think we did. We said there was no-one inside the ship, and we were right. Look at him! Have you ever seen a more repulsive specimen? He clearly hadn’t eaten properly for months before he died; he’s nothing but bone and sinew. Perhaps he isn’t a man at all.’

‘He’s as much a man as I am!’ I shouted.

‘Precisely,’ replied the speakers. ‘But we haven’t yet established that you are a man. Which brings us back to our initial question. Who are you?’

Their circular arguments made my head spin, but by this time my rage succeeded in conquering my fear. A piece of half-rotten cloth had wrapped itself round one of my boots as I tramped. With no little difficulty I stooped and picked it up. ‘I’ll show you I’m a man,’ I said as I wrapped the cloth round my right gauntlet. Before the speakers could say another word I’d swung back my cloth-bound fist and hit the glass front of the case that held the stranger. The case exploded, spraying me with glass and liquid; you can still see the rips and stains in my space-suit where the splinters cut me. The stranger flopped forward and struck the ground at my feet. A sweet smell rose from his body, and I was violently sick on the floor beside him. Afterwards I noticed that I’d vomited out the last of the greasy cakes from my send-off.

Layer upon layer of echoes radiated from the shattered case, getting louder and louder till I thought my head would burst. I cowered by the corpse, trying to protect my ears with my bloody gloves. After a while the echoes subsided and I became aware of another sound, one that came from the speakers. The sound puzzled me until I recognized it for what it was: an antiquated form of accolade known as clapping, which you can still hear on the soundtracks of old sitcoms. The blobs had evidently enjoyed my little demonstration.

‘Well done!’ said the voices with metallic enthusiasm. ‘What a spontaneous gesture! What a masterful display of self-assertion! We see now that you are indeed a man. We must confess that we didn’t believe in you at first. You see, most of the visitors we have here are exquisite illusions, downloaded by the entertainment programmes of the World Computer. But the Computer could never have invented such a daring statement, such an act of raw aggression! You’ve given us material for many years of dreaming. Well done indeed!’

Behind the cobwebs near the ceiling hundreds of tiny visiscreens flickered on. Each screen replayed some detail of my act over and over from a hundred different angles. Again and again my fist swung at the glass; again and again the case exploded and the splinters tore through the fabric of my suit; again and again the corpse struck the floor at my feet. Shielding my eyes from the relentless barrage of images I groped my way past the spheres, looking for an exit from this chamber of horrors.

‘You may go now,’ the voices murmured sleepily. ‘Go back to your cubicle and get some rest. Put on a little weight. Stop taking violent exercise. We’ve recommended you for transfer to the Outer Circle as soon as you’re back in shape. It will give us the deepest pleasure to welcome you to our little community. We will be honoured for you to share our dreams. They are very well worth dreaming. You can’t imagine the visions… the sounds and the visions…’

I was standing once again in front of the sphere whose surface I had polished. The sad little eye that had examined me glittered as if with the ghost of a smile. Then it winked shut and vanished into the surrounding pulp.

Suddenly a deep weariness filled me, as if the sleep that permeated the chamber were contagious. My dreams had come true. I had won a place alongside the inhabitants of the Outer Circle, and could look forward to unending suspension in a crystal jar, rocked to sleep in the ocean of eternity by the celestial harmonies of the World Computer. Why shouldn’t I accept their offer? What more could I wish for?

Sometimes on my journey I’ve imagined that I did indeed accept the offer, that I never went back to the starship, never left the earth. I imagine that the entire journey has been a hallucination induced by a potent cocktail of drugs and electronic simulators. I imagine I’m about to wake up in that immense dusty chamber, that I’ll try to open my eyes and find I’ve only one dull eye to peer through, try to stretch and find that my limbs have vanished, that the most I can do is wriggle a vestigial toe or ripple the sea of blubber where my stomach once was. On these occasions I scream and thrash and pinch myself as I did in the chamber when I felt the lethargy of acquiescence creeping over me. Once I’ve convinced myself I’m awake, I calm my shattered nerves by replaying the details of my escape over and over in my head.

‘Wait!’ I cried as the lump closed its eye. ‘The mission was real! The stranger exists! The Third World needs our help!’ But the lump merely quivered and rotated on its axis as if to find a more comfortable position. Half-blind with apprehension I fumbled my way to a hatch marked EXIT. Behind me the chamber fell silent. But no, it didn’t fall silent; even as I squeezed myself into the chute that would return me to the ship my ears rang with the sounds that filled the room. The walls hummed, the speakers buzzed, the ghosts of the metallic voices chimed, and over all I could detect the distant boom of thunder from the shattered glass case, as the echoes spread in ever-widening circles into other chambers. Casting back one glance I saw the circles made by my feet in the dust of the floor. I imagine they are still there, the scribbled testimony of my last moments on Earth.

I reached the ship without incident. Activating the flight programme proved simple: I had only to lift a lid marked GO and lay my hand on the cool panel beneath. The ship blasted effortlessly through the frail doors that separate Old Earth from the chill of space.

In fact, I’ve often wondered why my escape was so easy. Perhaps the inhabitants of the Outer Circle had forgotten there’s a universe beyond Old Earth, and ordered their cybernetic police to seek me out among the corridors of the lower levels, where only the insects scurry. Perhaps they let me go because the force of my dreams threatened the stability of their world. Or perhaps, perhaps in their limblessness and the circularity of their thinking, my escape was their only way of extending a hand to their fellow creatures: a helping hand, an appealing hand, albeit a severed one. In that case my delusions of heroism aren’t so far-fetched after all.

I don’t believe that the dreams they dream in their jars can possibly match the visions of space. As soon as I left Old Earth the visions began. Forests rustled their leaves in the gaps between stars, and the stars themselves took human shapes. I was attacked by space pirates in the third week of my journey, but this may have been only the first of the complex illusions that crowded in on me as I entered the outer reaches of the Solar System. Scheherezade sat with me in my cabin. Asteroid storms became tiny fists pummelling the ship’s outer shell. A cloud of gas became a muslin-veiled woman whose breasts took a week to cross. Far off I saw star-children playing with comets among dark magnetic mountains. Often I was tempted to abandon my mission and join in their games, but I didn’t know how to change the ship’s course. Saffron-robed merchants offered me scarlet cakes which I couldn’t reach through the portholes; when I looked closer I saw that the cakes were planets rolling around a distant sun. most persistent of all these appearances, a tall thin man ran after me with suns on his belt, drawing jewelled webs of night behind him in his hair. Accompanied by this host, and feeling my mind and body assume a new identity at each stage of my journey, I’ve never felt closer to humanity than since I entered space.

As I’ve come closer to my destination the apparitions have grown rarer. I have the feeling I’m approaching the place where stories end and action begins. My feeling is strengthened by the increasing material evidence of man’s presence all around me. I’ve found ruined mines on planets and their moons. Broken satellites and derelict spacecraft have floated by, knots of twisted cables have obscured the starlight, cascades of broken glass have tinkled over the ship’s hull. My final descent onto the planet’s surface plunged me through seas of swirling debris. Once upon a time this planet must have supported a civilization as powerful as that of Old Earth. A lump of rock rushing past the porthole made me think of the lumps of flesh I had left behind, and I managed to convince myself that an eye was about to open in the rock and look at me. I completed my descent with my own eyes tightly shut.

There’s little more to say. The ant I’ve been watching all this time has reached the end of the instrument panel. Soon I’ll switch off the microphone in my space-suit. Off and on I’ve been talking into that microphone for eighteen years, never knowing if you could hear me back on Old Earth, and if you could hear me never knowing if you understood. But I’m certain that once I’ve stepped through the hatch I’ll truly have passed into regions beyond your understanding.

Before I do that I must open the cupboard door and look into the mirror. I’m standing in front of the cupboard now. My hand is reaching for the handle, then drawing back. The only way to do it is to take myself by surprise.

The door’s open.

And there’s the face I shall present to this new world. For a moment I thought the visions had returned and someone else was standing in the cabin with me. But when I turned my head to look, the head in the mirror turned too. Now, little by little, my reflection and I are getting to know each other. My hair has grown until it floats in a thick black mass round my head, as if I’ve drawn deep space down into the atmosphere of this planet. My skin has been scorched black by the light of nebulae. My eyes glitter in the darkness of the cabin. It’s a hungry face, seamed all over with wrinkles. It’s the face of the stranger I saw in the Outer Circle.

I’m no longer afraid to meet the stranger’s people. Once before I set him free with a blow of my fist. Now I free him again by entering the airlock and opening the outer hatch.

Beyond the crater in which my ship stands, a grove of trees has been uprroted by my rockets and tossed into a blackened and disorderly heap at the edge of a forest. Beside the heap I think I can see something moving, a creature walking upright on two legs. It might be a man, but my sight is so dimmed by the sun that I can’t be sure. But the man, if that’s what he is, doesn’t arrest my attention so much as the sky above his head. I squint up at it in amazement. When I first described this sky I called it blue, since that’s how it looked from inside the ship. But now I see I was wrong; blue is only the dominant colour in the bright triumphal stained-glass dome that covers the planet. Sunlight filtering through innumerable crystal shards, the microscopic splinters of a shattered civilization, creates jewelled arches of colour from horizon to horizon and lays an ever-shifting mosaic on the earth. The sight holds me spellbound and breathless, and I stare at the brilliant dome until something else is revealed to me. All over the sky spreads a network of silvery lines. After a while I see that this shining web is an immense construction of twisted girders which floats many miles above the planet’s surface. A little later I understand that the girders are all that remains of an Outer Circle like our own, a skeleton revolving in exquisite lifelessness above forests, plains and seas. My ship must have traced an intricate course through the girders as I sat with my eyes shut, thinking of Old Earth.

The man has walked forward and is standing in front of the ship, looking up to where I stand framed in the hatch. He is very tall and thin. Behind him a group of equally thin aborigines, bearded men, women with waist-long hair, children naked and scampering, have left their hiding-places among the trees and hover at the rim of the crater. After all my talking, all my puzzling, all my dreaming, now that the moment has come I can think of nothing to say.

Suddenly the man smiles and extends his hand palm upwards, fingers spread like the fingers of the ship. Without thinking I scramble down the ladder, reel across the little space that separates us and place my hand in his. I’m trembling as I do this, because this is the most intimate gesture I’ve ever made.

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