(Excerpt: Chapter 6, p. 71-76)
Laughter, lively conversation, the clinking of glasses...
Is it a party, then? Almost the whole crew of the Nostos
is there, as well as the settlers' delegates, most of the members
of the first expedition (a painful twinge in David's chest: Joris,
talking with Golheim). How can they laugh, how can they even
smile? Have they already forgotten the empty graves around the
Base, and the ones that are not empty in the settlements? Alpha's
history began with a bang: it has its martyrs - its pioneers,
names on tombstones. They can colonize now. First occupants of
the land, one might say: the ancient natives did not have cemeteries,
or at least they had not for several thousand years, if you believe
the fragmentary archeological excavations. They did not even
consider death worthy of commemoration: there are sometimes deaths
in the more recent murals, but no adorned corpses, no mourners,
no funeral processions, no funeral pyres... No vulture towers
either - or the local equivalent of carrion birds. No life after
death for the natives? No souls, no ghosts, no regrets? And yet
there was, as attested by other murals, some sculptures, a few
objects found in archaic tombs...
David shrugs: one more puzzle. Or maybe not: the ancient natives
were... so ancient. The evolution of intelligent life began late
here - it had to wait for a suitably distant burst of radiation,
produced by the fusion of the binary star that became Altair.
But then, an incredible explosion of life: merely fifty million
Earth years to evolve from sea creatures to humanoids. The first
marine explorers from the Western Continent had long ago landed
on the shores of the great Main Continent when Ur and Babylon
were only dusty hamlets on Earth. Meanwhile, around Tangerine
Lake, the northern civilization was already nearly three thousand
Earth years old. No doubt the ancient natives had ample time
to tame death. Time to go beyond all the childish rituals that
give reassurance to those left behind.
Someone laughs behind David. He makes a point of not turning
around. Rituals. Why can't they see that this is a wake? They
huddle together for protection against deathly images, to appease
the ghosts. The Greeks called the gods responsible for life and
death "benevolent". The settlers managed as well to
euphemize the reappearance of the blue thing. It is now the beginning
of the Virginian year - for the settlers the anniversary of day
0 of Year 0, when the Sea came to make them castaways. It will
be yet another anniversary from now on: by instantaneous WOGAL
communication, they will send to Earth the positive result of
the vote on colonization. Are they already celebrating too, on
Earth, at SeCom headquarters, and Bounderye in the big arcology
of his Bounderye Extrasolar Trade Corporation?
Do they, the settlers, the castaways, consider this positive
vote a form of revenge? Do they hear the nervousness in their
voices, the hard edge in their laughter sometimes a little too
loud? Are they aware they are obstinately turning their backs
to the sky where Prime is still shining, hanging like a Christmas
tree ornament? Nobody is trying to follow the progression of
the eclipse. They really do not need this ultimate confirmation,
they only waited this long to make Evans happy, the phenomenon's
periodicity is no longer in doubt: the "Sea" comes
with the black moon, leaves again with the black sun, and that's
it. Oh, teams will be sent to repeat the studies and experiments
of the colonists - with the same results. They already know about
the "Sea" everything they can know - almost nothing.
But they are such sticklers for rituals, the Earth people. For
gestures. This vote on colonization: a mere gesture. Going through
the motions. What power does anyone really have here, what choices?
They know that Earth wants Alpha - the ISA, SeCom and Bounderye
want it. These desires, coinciding for once, cast the vote, not
the colonists. And those who voted against made a gesture too,
they knew very well they were a tiny minority. They did it for
the history books, so that it can be recorded just in case things
go badly. But nobody really wants to think about that. Besides,
nobody really voted "against." Some of the archaeologists
wanted colonization to be delayed for a few years so they could
continue their excavations, and some of the psychologists have
doubts about the colonists' psychological development: taming
a wild planet is one thing, filling the shoes of natives who
mysteriously disappeared three centuries before the arrival of
the first expedition is quite another. What will happen, for
instance, in the big ancient cities, which are to be populated,
but which cannot possibly be filled to capacity for a long time?
How will the human city dwellers react to permanent contact with
all those ghost neighbourhoods? But neither Shandaar nor Golheim
have succeeded in convincing many people. They did not even really
try. They too want colonization. Even Evans voted in favour,
and he has not even set foot on the planet yet.
And I want it too. So that Christian won't have died for
There is someone, close to the window. David makes an effort
not to turn away. Makori. He ignores the slightly shy smile of
the girl, goes over to the transparent panel and presses his
forehead against it. Prime's crescent is quickly waning as the
two systems come into conjunction.
"Six minutes," Makori says.
David looks at everything except his wristwatch, irritated.
He must have begun looking, unconsciously, and Makori must have
guessed his desire to know the time. The circumstances really
do not allow for any other explanation. One is standing there,
watching the planets align, no need for special abilities to
explain Makori's guess. A mere coincidence. Golheim's ESP tests...
Don't mean much. Besides, there were no results at all with Makori.
But wasn't this too negative, significantly negative? Could
he have failed the tests with Makori on purpose?
He resolutely pushes that idea aside. The extrasensory perception
tests always had good results when the transmitter was Christian,
that is all there is to it. It could not work with someone else.
Christian is dead. The bond is broken. No point in bringing it
up anymore. Stupid of him to have agreed to those tests. Stupid
to have stubbornly returned to those metal rooms. Nothing to
do with ESP. Hallucinations. Unknown types of radiation emitted
by the metal. Not detected yet, but it must be something like
that. Or fatigue. The grieving process, which is coming to an
end. Christian is dead, dead and gone. And the anniversary of
his death will be the anniversary of colonization.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees two other people close
to Makori: Yvan Kulhevich and Reina Delgado. He feels like they
are watching him. Golheim's other little guinea pigs. They spend
all their spare time with him, he has not given up on his idiotic
idea. He must be putting them through tests too. So does it work
with them? The tricks with the old Zener cards, cross, square,
circle, star, waves, all such a muddle (it only worked with Christian...);
or else he has them do more sophisticated tricks, with electronic
beeps and all that. Golheim and his pet project - ridiculous...
And did he have them try the metal rooms?
David turns abruptly to the little group and the three young
people move closer together, as if they were frightened by his
sudden movement. "Ever visited an A-10 room, Makori?"
Taken by surprise, the girl starts to nod, then bites her lips
as she looks away. Golheim told them not to talk to him about
it. David does not know how he knows, but he is sure of it. He
nods towards the others: "Them too." It is not a question;
they do not answer. But he knows. "How many others?"
"About ten," whispers Makori; "Only among the
youngest ones," Kulhevich adds, and Reina Delgado, very
quickly: "It doesn't have as much effect on us as on you."
What do they all have to apologize for, huddling together that
way, as if they were afraid, afraid of what? And suddenly, very
clear again, the certainty: they are afraid for him; they are
trying to spare him. For one instant of perfectly detached lucidity,
he feels like he's seeing himself from very far, or from not
so far perhaps: through their eyes. Too bad he is not further
away, at least he would not be aware of what's happening to him
(a distant flash of amusement: but it won't take long).
A little further. A little deeper. Where? There, below, close
to the empty graves that the blue will soon cover again?
He turns towards the window, vaguely hears the silence taking
hold behind him in the room, but he is alone now with the slow
celestial mechanics. The eclipse is coming to its apogee. It
looks suddenly unreal. Space no longer has depth, it is a black
fabric in front of which two big balls turn, the three other
little balls also turn, invisible cogwheels engage, as if dancing
light and night change places, and suddenly, a secret click,
the devil comes out of the box, the thing is back, one of the
big balls turns a vaguely fluorescent violet and the other is
suddenly sheathed in blue.
But David does not go to the other window, as some do, to see
the fog that has returned to the sky, beyond the wharves. A confusion
of satisfied voices rises behind him. He would rather not hear
them, but he cannot help it. Again he presses his forehead against
the glass: a burning band is tightening around his skull...
© 1996 Éditions
Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg
find out what happens next...