Everything was ready. Our drive checks all flashed up Green Two and the mechanicals were perfect. Our course and ballistic analogs were registering FINAL CHOICE. I set the cybers at go and called for the crew members to confirm their readings. The panels winked and muttered with familiar intimacy and the rocket began to tremble as she always does immediately before launching. All I had to do now was punch a simple code into the console.
But I could not bear to touch the keys. It was clear to me at that moment that I lacked the strength of mind to perform the final action. My gauntleted hand was paralyzed, as though our gravitationals had suddenly ceased to function. I did not look at the console, refused to listen to the crew's voices as my people made their responses, and instead scrutinized the landscape through my autolens. There are many reasons why this action is strictly prohibited during launching. It was the sort of stupidity even a novice would not tolerate.
I was sure she would come. Our First Rank Mathematician, Clea had served with me for several years, never missing a trip. But I hadn't realized how much I was in love with her until this moment when I could not summon the will to leave the planet. I took another illegal look through the lens. She must come to me. I imagined her running down that odd, alien avenue of low shrubs, between houses which shimmered, crystal rainbows in the silver sunshine, the faint mist adding to the impression that this was nothing but an illusion.
The lens, however, showed me nothing but blood and chaos. It was like some costly circorama depicting the end of civilization. And it was of our creation. Indeed, only one of us bore the moral responsibility for what was happening here.
Landing on this planet in the Hair of Berenice a few days ago, we had expected to find an intelligent human community. All reports at our disposal bore this out. On Earth and the other inhabited planets our trip to the Hair of Berenice had been anticipated for several generations. Articles, treatises, whole books were written on the subject. Speculation about the appearance of the local inhabitants, questions as to their character, whether they would be as friendly as other creatures we had contacted in space, whether they would make the first approach to us, all had been discussed ad infinitum. There is so little life in the universe that relief and joy are the predominant feelings any such newly discovered community inspires. We are inclined to feel increasingly lonely as our venturings go further abroad. New life is an antidote to fear, the justification for all our sacrifices.
Our joy was not, however, to be reciprocated. The inhabitants of this world were physically little different from ourselves, only far better and more diversely endowed. We discovered this as soon as we landed. Since each member of our crew represented a particular branch of learning and the climate here was the same as Earth's, we were able to accumulate more than half the data we needed in the first twenty-four hours, which locally was about a third of a day. Our data included samples of air, minerals, liquids, specimens of the flora, holoroids of the fauna and the sentient inhabitants. Our vids recorded a great deal of useful detail and provided plenty of material for future research. What we lacked, however, was any record of direct contact. The behaviour of the inhabitants who congregated in a single but heavily populated community near the equator was neither friendly nor unfriendly, they showed neither pleasure nor dismay at our presence. Riding by in their various vehicles, flying overhead, resting on the terraces of their dwellings, they took not the slightest notice of us. Yet this was not the central mystery which confounded us.
We tried communicating with these incurious beings by means of our sophisticated contact-making equipment, but they refused to respond; though our apparatus has never failed us whenever we have landed on some new planet. Even on Earth it is capable of conveying human thoughts to such creatures as ants and dolphins and in turn receiving their thought patterns. Our technicians swore the equipment was functioning perfectly but that it simply had nothing to record. The local inhabitants did not speak any kind of language. This offered a contradiction, of course. If it were true, how had they learned to think? Their complex civilization could only have been created by beings capable of abstract intelligence. We tried to barter with them, but whatever we offered they casually produced a replica of local manufacture, which, to crown it all, seemed much finer than our own product. Rocket monocells, holoroids, cyberia, articles of clothing, and even the most sophisticated instruments were conjured up before our eyes. In our spacecraft we also had a number of works of art. Only these produced no improvement from their mysterious underground manufacturing sources. Our cast of the Samothracian Aphrodite remained a solitary original among the vast multitude of imitations. It evoked no more interest than our other artefacts. It seemed that these people could satisfy every material need yet did not understand art. That, we felt, was a significant discovery.
Yet what good did it do us? Generations of our ancestors had not worked to make this expedition possible only to be rewarded with such superficial information. It should not be forgotten that, in order to mount our expedition, people had been require to work harder in all the key fields. Thousands of scientists and laboratory workers had been prepared to abandon their own particular research to devote themselves to this project. Every citizen had contributed labour and skill to it. It was our duty to repay such a prodigious investment with the very best research and information.
"We have to get inside their houses," said Clea resolutely at our crew conference. I agreed. It was the obvious solution. And a potentially dangerous one, of course. I need hardly explain why. This people evidently had a sophisticated technology and would almost certainly possess efficient weapons. Consequently I decided to send only volunteers on what might become a highly dangerous experiment. Three came forward at once: two junior anthrophysicists and Clea. Clea was the only member of the trio experienced enough for the work, though the other two were technically better qualified, so in the end she went alone. You can guess my feelings after I had seen her vanish inside the nearest house, waited the agreed time, and she had not emerged, even after a whole seventy-two hours day during which Berenice, the star that rises in our West and sets in our East, traversed the sky. We waited another ten hours, and then I gave orders for a podule to be made ready for me. I set out after Clea, constantly covered by our protection centre, by now quite ready to defend me against this queer civilization if need be.
I left the podule at the roof-top opening of the oddly shaped dwelling. As I entered, the thing undulated like soap-bubbles yet was clearly as strong as any steel. Half-blinded, I proceeded down through a series of womb-like chambers, calling for Clea both on my radio and through the air. It seemed the waves of my voice bounced on the walls and spread a radiance wherever I passed; this radiance in turn opened new doorways in the walls until I stood in a large chamber whose crystalline sides glowed a warm silver traced with ruby, giving the impression of wonderful calm, safety and comfort. She was there, her arms curled around her legs, smiling at me as I entered. "This has to stop," she said. "It's killing us. Them. It's killing them. But what can I do? Have you the will? Please? To free them. I wanted to come back, but I needed help."
I reached out to her. I helped her to her feet. She had the expression of a happy child yet there was a shadow of alarm in her eyes.
My presence seemed to restore her to something resembling normality. "You've got to do it!"
I did not understand her at all. I experienced such absolute well-being here. The house I was in made me feel I was a child on holiday at the water edges. All I wanted to do was to relax and do nothing. This, Clea told me, was exactly what the local inhabitants had been feeling for generations past. Their perfect cyberfactories, located in the depths of their planet, were capable of fulfilling their every wish. They had become captives of this holiday-time happiness which never ceased and which I had already begun to experience. All their lives were spent in a kind of unconscious bliss. Even while Clea related all this, a glass of iced fruit juice came from the wall to refresh her voice and when she tried to hurl it to the floor, the glass remained hovering in the air, only the colour of the beverage changing, as if the invisible cybernetics that had produced it wished to amend the error and offer her a still more delicious drink. I could smell an unusual, pleasant scent, and felt like tasting it myself.
"Free them?" I remember laughing. "Clea, why should I? They're evidently happy."
"Not happy," she said. "Mindless. Believe me."
"Surely that's a question of interpretation?"
She moved against the wall in a certain way, as if she cleared a fogged mirror, and I could see a kind of garden or small park where several of the settlement's inhabitants lazed or strolled. As usual I found remarkable their physical likeness to ourselves, yet they were strangely listless.
"They've forgotten how to work, think or speak. They're devolving almost before our eyes. They've lost almost all their animal instincts, too. They're domestic cattle. Or perhaps pigs." She pointed disgustedly to where a specially repulsive fat specimen copulated in a corner of the garden with some kind of dog. "I've a name for this planet now. CircÚ." She had changed her inhabitants much as the Homeric sorceress had transformed Ulysses' men.
I understood her feeling but my own were far milder. "They're sure to work out their own salvation," I said. "After all, our forefathers centuries ago also wanted nothing but food, clothing, means of transport, leisure. Don't you remember the third millennium? Yet people managed to free themselves from this, even though they sometimes lived far worse than those creatures out there."
"That argument is meaningless to a Columbian," Clea told me proudly. She referred to the political party which had developed when we first started conquering outer space. People had taken a renewed and detailed interest in the history of the fifteenth century when Westerners were discovering new continents on their own planet. The Columbians asserted that we were morally responsible for each newly discovered civilization just because we had contacted it and that it became our duty to introduce the highest forms of social organization, if need be against the will of the local population. In support of their view they quoted the instance of the colonization of America, pointing out how prosperous that continent had become, its inhabitants never threatened with starvation. The Columbians were an aggressive party and they made numerous grave errors, in my view. I, on the other hand, like all sensible people, was a Montezuman. In the name of that Aztec king we showed our fellow humans how many
civilizations had been exterminated in the fifteenth century alone and how terrible had been the crimes committed in the name of progress. Consequently we advocated gradual observation and non-interference in our contacts with newly discovered planets and naturally abhorred all violence. This difference of viewpoint was never settled in my lifetime and every new discovery resulted in fierce arguments at the Supreme Council. In these Clea had invariably taken my side.
"You're a Columbian now?" She could not miss my sarcasm. "That's the first I've heard of it. Exactly when did this conversion occur?"
She ignored my tone. "Since we discovered CircÚ. Actually, since I came here. What are we if we can't change our minds in the light of fresh experience?"
I offered to call a staff conference once we got back to our ship, to put her wishes to a vote, but she refused to come. She had to carry out more observations, she said. She wanted to prevent the inhabitants of this particular dwelling -- she used the term "nest" -- committing further "crimes." She spoke like a child. Not even the Columbians had ever suggested we take over the policing or the judicature of the new planets. Her morbid fascination was transparent: she was slandering the inhabitants of a house which she had no intention of leaving. She herself was intoxicated by that queer feeling of blissful lassitude. But her response was most confused. I was sure she was inventing excuses in order to stay there.
"You're unwell, Clea," I said. "I'll get you back to the ship at once. It's this environment, believe me. You're not making sense." I was reminded of the experiences of explorers in Sirius, where the local people had the knack of assuming the shape of any visitor they met. I looked round the real Clea, hoping to find the woman I had worked side by side with for so long. She smiled at me, as if she were party to secrets of such immense profundity I would never understand. She made a noise within her throat and a further room blossomed into the other. Together we went in.
Entering this room was like entering a dream. Suddenly I stood inside a storeroom full of everything I had ever desired in my life. There was even a little doll with which I had forced myself to stop playing as I grew up. I lifted the little princess in my hands and she was more beautiful now than thirty years ago. No one had ever known of this secret desire. I had never confided it to anyone.
I had the strangest feeling that I was slipping back down into my own vanished memories, into a past in which every disappointment became a fulfilment. It was an astonishing feeling of completeness. I was at one with myself. I had never felt closer to Clea. There was absolutely everything here -- the small aerocycle I was not allowed to fly at eleven because my tutor thought I was not strong enough to keep myself in the air thirty feet above ground, the experimental rocket in which I had one Saturday wanted to circle the Moon, the bottle of wine I had denied myself prior to my fourth launching when I was twenty. There were things there I cannot bring myself to mention even now, they are so deeply secret. I found that I was shaking with an unprecedented violence of emotion. Everything I had ever desired, even where I had suppressed the desire or the memory of it, had come into being. Clea's expression as she watched me was mysterious. After a while, she left, returning to the other chamber. With her absence the sense of fulfilment slowly dissipated. My desire for her was the strongest thing in me. I followed her back into the next room. She stood looking at a large, flat cold box crammed with delicacies no cook at home would remember existed.
"Did you ever experience real hunger?" she asked me. "When I was a child I went through a terrible polar winter with my father during his archaeological excavation work."
"You mentioned some hardship. But you always minimized it."
She nodded. "I doubt if you know what it means to be hungry." Evidently the experience had been so terrible she had resisted reviving it, even in our most intimate exchanges. Now it was clear that all her life she had dreamed of just such a plethora of delicacies, as I had yearned for that little princess doll. It was also obvious that she had lost the courage or the will to tear herself from that wonderful place where wishes came true. Yet her ordinary sense of survival still informed her, translated as her demand that we interfere with the life of this planet, that we somehow save the inhabitants from themselves.
"You must return to the ship with me, Clea."
"No," she said simply and made another sound, passing through a further wall, leaving the cold box behind her.
But she was gone. I was desperate. Unless we saved her from herself, by force if necessary, she would inevitably come to resemble the local barely sentient beasts. I myself had to exert all my mental energy to fight the lure of the place. My love for her was what gave me the strength. It did not comfort me to know that her love for me might not be as intense.
She returned, passing through the wall overhead. "I have lost my will," she said. "But you will not take me back. Not until the job is over."
Again I was baffled. "You must realize this system is not meant to assuage hunger," I said urgently. "This is the most pernicious deception, the most monstrous trap I've experienced in any of our ventures. All the dark stars' electroids, even the flesh-eating plasmatics of Aldebaran or the neurovores of Kaspar 2 are harmless nuisances compared to this. This is like the temptation prepared by some prehistoric Satan. You must come with me to the ship. Now."
"Oh, you are right," she said. "It has conquered me. It has certainly conquered me. Can you not feel it? You must destroy the source. Only then will I be restored."
I reached for her. I seized her and tried to make her come with me. She struggled furiously. It was at this point, I think, that I realized how much I needed her. It was not in my nature to use violence. As I hurried back to our ship without the pod, which took time to discover and follow me, all the presents I had ever given her appeared before me: the pictures I had chosen for her after my second trip, the ring I brought her from Pluto, the antique fur I got for her on Mars by digging in those quaking pits...Maybe it was my imagination, but I suspected it was the work of the local cybermatics, intending to remind me there was, after all, one emotion I would never give up, that there was something I had to have if I was not to perish on my journeys, if I was to live. This was my love for Clea. And that I swore I would not sacrifice to this planet. A madness only different in degree had taken possession of me as thoroughly as it had taken possession of her.
"We must attack them at once." At the staff conference I was barely in control of myself. It was a contention I found most difficult to justify. I could not admit that my only concern was for Clea. So I spoke of the humiliating condition of the local inhabitants, completely deprived of their powers of cognition and creation. They had been turned into creatures which almost certainly no longer even realized what they were, spending all their energy on the process of feeding, digestion and copulation, on a vegetative existence pure and simple. My people did not want to take the initiative without a decision by the Council. They knew the rules as well as I did. After all they were also Montezumans. Very few Columbians were ever selected for these ventures. Now it was my crew's turn to wonder if some local chameleon had come aboard our ship in my place.
Yet ultimately I had the power to make any decision. They did not dare oppose an authority entrusted to me by our entire species.
We had to rescue Clea. Effectively, I argued, the natives had taken her prisoner. By that act they had therefore declared war on us. Since we were at war it made tactical sense to strike at their nerve centre. I would not take lives, I said, but I was prepared to destroy some of their machines in the hope that this would help us recover our First Rank Mathematician and also set the inhabitants on the road to self-help.
Against many objections, I gave the necessary commands. All the while I was fighting a strong urge to return to that storeroom of lost memories, of forgotten longings. The pain in me became physical. I had never experienced such terrible reactions.
In a cold dream of spurious clarity, I began the appropriate preparations.
After two hours of aerial reconnaissance we managed to locate their coordination control high
up in the hills. It was clear from the tone of my crew's voices that they disapproved completely of my decision, yet there was nothing for them to do but obey. I gave the order to attack the control with intensive rays. We were astonishingly successful. The control had obviously not been designed with attack in mind and had absolutely no defences. I was in the leading battlepod. When we hit their control a terrific explosion sent us all veering off course. One of our pods was lost in the gushing energies pouring from the centre and even our mother ship had certain instruments and her cooling apparatus slightly damaged. I returned to the ship to reports that repairs would take several days. None of the crew spoke to me, even when I issued orders. They were prepared to obey me but gave me nothing else. That same false clarity remained with me. My whole attention was on saving Clea from CircÚ's lure.
"It was our plain duty," I explained to each of them in turn. "After all, they're human beings like us. They'll start working again, they'll learn to use tools, and they'll help one another. They can start from scratch, building their civilization anew. We've saved them.
Privately I hoped at least that we had saved Clea. As soon as I could I returned to the section of the settlement where I had originally found her. The building was nothing more than a few filaments, strands of wire waving in a fierce wind from the mountains. The whole cybernetwork had been demolished in the explosion. There was hardly anything left but naked circuitry.
I think I had been certain she would be there, perhaps a little baffled but returned to her old sanity. But I could not find her anywhere nearby. All that remained of the great miracle that had been CircÚ's only city were faintly glowing threads tracing the exquisite, almost metaphysical geometry of a sophisticated impulse-operated cybernetic system our own scientists could scarcely imagine possible, let alone create. It was appalling to see it destroyed. Yet it was so clearly an example of virtue turned to vice I still felt no pangs of conscience at ordering its destruction. Those would come later.
I had not planned so complete a destruction.
I reached out between strands of conductive fibres as if I could personally complete the circuit which would bring back that storeroom of fulfilled desires, of desires unrealized, of desires unadmitted, of desires which were again impossible, even in dreams. What great solace to my own soul, to the souls of my fellows, had I destroyed in my madness?
I cast amongst the fused ground of the foundations, but all I discovered was what I thought might be dried blood. I remained in that place for hours, perhaps believing that my hunger and longing alone would restore it to what it had been, would bring Clea back to me.
The inhabitants were running amok through the shallow avenues. All that was left of the place was the vegetation, marking borders which were now meaningless. Any checks on the bestiality of these creatures were gone for good. Howling like dogs they attacked one another, fighting for the last remnants of their provisions. They fought with bare hands and with teeth. It had not occurred to any of them to arm themselves. They were no longer even primitive tool-users. Before my eyes several females fell on the fat fellow I had seen earlier. He squealed and grunted exactly like a real pig as he was slaughtered. I was horrified by now. This had not been my intention at all. I had merely wished to stimulate them into helping themselves and to rescue Clea from their spell. I grew desperate, running for miles through those electronic ruins. Had Clea died like the fat man? Now I realized these creatures could never hope to become human again. They were utterly devolved. As their science had grown more subtle, they had grown cruder. Their excessively protected existence had doomed them to die out like the dinosaurs. Yet we had not become extinct in the same fashion -- what had saved us back there at the end of the third millenium?
I had run in a circle. I was on the site of the storeroom. My feet now slipped on blood and little bits of flesh and entrails. To one side of me, amongst the shrubs, the females snored, still clutching half-eaten bones. The fat creature's skull had been cracked and its brain and eyes both eaten. It was then that I began, uncontrollable, to vomit. Yet even as my stomach heaved, I remember how I longed for my little princess doll.
I sat in my cabin and waited, delaying our take-off as much as I could. It did not matter that I returned to our home world in disgrace. I had forsaken any interest in my own fate. But I still harboured the hope that Clea would return to the ship. I made my crew take further copies of the material we had collected. I had them check and re-check our energizers, I even gave orders to freeze a few of the local inhabitants to take home with us. Everything I had ever believed in was destroyed. Everything I had ever desired was now denied to me. But I refused this truth.
As the days went by and still Clea did not come back I sat alone in my cabin, holding my head in my hand, ready to sacrifice everything, to delay the expedition to mar all our existing research and perhaps not even return home for my own selfish ends, because of my own desires. I was the last victim of this planet. I was probably the only victim conscious of its fate. I knew this and I tried in vain to fight that knowledge.
Everything was ready. Our drive checks all flashed up Green Two and the mechanicals were perfect. Our course and ballistic analogs were registering FINAL CHOICE. I set the cybers at go and called for the crew members to confirm their readings. The panels winked and muttered with familiar intimacy and the rocket began to tremble as she always does immediately before launching. All I had to do now was punch a simple code into the console...
The lens showed me nothing but blood and chaos. I thought I saw in the distance some of the local creatures climb clumsily on to the rocks where their dwellings had been and there were several in the trees. Still Clea did not come. I had to make my decision. At any moment the catastrophe that had overtaken an entire planet might sweep us away as well. Was I to sacrifice the chance of Clea's being alive or risk the failure of our mission in the Hair of Berenice? It was against all my training and habit to consider my own feelings. But having already succumbed to the lure of CircÚ, to the temptations of the storeroom of lost desire, I had abandoned all confidence in myself, in the value of my decisions.
All I had to do now was punch a simple code into the console.
And suddenly I was not thinking merely of quantum propulsion but the real energy of this machine, of the sacrifice made by entire generations of our ancestors, who gave up comfort and pleasure, even love, to learn to know the universe they lived in, to solve the mysteries of existence, to honour their forefathers and their descendants, to show a profound respect both for themselves and for everything which existed.
That, of course, was what had saved them from the fate of this people. That was why they had not reverted to the animal state once technology had solved all their production problems.
With this understanding came sanity. That false clarity disappeared and I became fully aware of my moral responsibility, of what I must now do.
Slowly, I raised a heavy, lifeless hand. It was as if I had been paralyzed in the spacesuit. Without realizing what I had done I punched the starting code and saved my friends, the whole expedition, just as a bizarre wave of energy poured like water from a wrecked dam into the streets of that ruined paradise. The stuff roiled and writhed, a crazy rainbow. I thought I saw Clea high above, poised like some ancient Martian dust-rider, wild ecstasy on her face, her hair like the golden radiance which had filled the house where I had found her. Was it the last promise of that treacherous planet? I would never know.
We got away just in time. Our engines yelled. The ship lifted. Suddenly there was nothing to be seen in the lens but streaming clouds. I collapsed in my couch, afraid I would faint with the pain of that separation.
I had lost my Clea. I would never set eyes on her again. Everything came back to me now with renewed force. How happy I had been in that crystal house. How well I had felt there! What perfection it had been. No human beings had ever known such a sensation of complete fulfilment. And in the madness which such fulfilment brought me I had destroyed all the dreams of my life. Worse -- I had destroyed the one reality which was worth as much as any dream. What a stupid, unnecessary sacrifice!
I had been wounded a dozen times during my expeditions. But this was worse than any physical injury. Flesh tore from flesh. Soul was torn from soul. It was an agony beyond agony.
"Clea!" I cried. "Clea!"
Only at that point did I understand the extent of my love for her. I would have remained on CircÚ if she could have left in my place. I would have sent my ship back and stayed to seek her out. I would have done anything but what I actually did and destroy that subtle and delicately maintained paradise.
Yet perhaps she had a reason for staying behind? Maybe she had hidden from us deliberately, planning to build something fresh and better on CircÚ? What had she learned? Had the destruction itself been no more than an illusion?
My emotions again gained the better of me. Now we were leaving CircÚ's gravity I screamed with the agony of it, alone, so utterly alone with the consequences of my actions. What might we have achieved if we had marshalled the energies of that storeroom, used it for the benefit of ourselves, CircÚ's inhabitants, perhaps all intelligent life throughout the universe?
I told myself that this, too, was a delusion. I congratulated myself that I had conquered CircÚ's insidious spell. At the last moment I had shown an appropriate strength of character, proving the trust that my people had placed in me.
Clea rode the rainbow wave for eternity.
I was returning to the planet of my birth but I was not going home.
Home was an illusion I had destroyed.
(translated from the Czech and prepared for English publication by Georges Theiner and
Michael Moorcock -- originally published in Interzone, July-August 1989)