Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Garden of Eden

by Martin Westlake



As the plasma haze cleared I watched my fellow crew members climbing drowsily out of their pods. "Here we go again," I thought to myself. But this time a nagging voice at the back of my mind kept telling me things were different.

I ran my thoughts over the implants. There was the usual structure of mission files. Lowering my body back down into the pod I switched to inner visual. The overall mission was different, I saw, but we had known that from the beginning. If all had gone well, we had not landed on a planet this time, but on a planemo -- a planetary mass object, a lone, cold, rocky sphere lumbering through space, beholden to no gravitational field except its own. This one was so grim a slab of nothingness that it had been nicknamed "Eden" by some wag back in Shanghai.

I scanned the files only briefly before realising that the mission itself was not the source of my apprehension. I switched back to normal consciousness and got out of the pod. The other crew members were meanwhile running the standard post-trip biometric tests. I walked to my station and plugged myself in. The Ark ran its sensors over my functions like a blind man running his fingers over a familiar face. "All OK?" I asked. "All fine," the Ark 'pathed back. I unplugged myself, got dressed and joined the crew in the main operations room. It was then that I remembered what was different; we had a new crew member.

Now, usually I'm as open as the next disciple when it comes to fresh crew, but Goli was not a standard replacement. For a start, we couldn't access him completely and we didn't know whether this was in his basic design or whether he was somehow deliberately able to block us out. Before the voyage, back in China, we had repeatedly tried to converse with him, but his mind was somehow able to throw up a wall of static which we couldn't penetrate. Trying to converse with him was like trying to navigate in a blizzard. Did he have something to hide, we wondered?

At the same time, his own conversational powers were so strong that we couldn't keep him out. So powerful, indeed, that he had surely heard the doubts we had about him. And then there was his size; so tall and muscular. He towered over us so much that even when he had his back to us we felt intimidated. We had felt uneasy, I recalled and, understandably, that sense of uneasiness was still there. Did he have a confidential mission? Would it put us at risk?

The screens told us that Eden was just what we had been led to expect; uniformly grim and grey. The planetoid spun rapidly on an eccentric axis so we had a vertigo-inducing changing starscape -- if we dared to watch it. I was certainly glad I had been unconscious when the Ark had landed -- a feat that would surely have been beyond any human pilot.

We had to wait several hours whilst the Ark ran its standard checks before our part in the operation could begin. In the meantime, we had no choice but to settle down in our quarters and acclimatise to consciousness. As luck would have it, I was lodged with Goli (did I catch a half-wink from Noah as she assigned us our quarters?), so I had plenty of time to watch him.

At first, Goli stuck to his bunk, hands behind his head, staring up at the window he had turned on and the wobbling starscape beyond it.

I tried not to look at him. Occasionally, his mind would come over and make some friendly inquiries. Though it would have been rude not to converse, I pretended to be indifferent, replying monosyllabically. But I sensed that he could see through this and I began to feel a little ridiculous, like a child feigning sleep under the gaze of a disbelieving parent. So I started to respond more fully and gradually found out more about our new crewmate -- more than he had been prepared to reveal when he had been assigned to us back in China.

As far as he could remember back, Goli came from the burnt lands. Radiation levels were absurdly high there and he had gone through so many bodies that he couldn't remember the first one, let alone his childhood. He'd been involved in a lot of clearance work; London, Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow -- he'd seen most of the forbidden capitals. Gradually, Heinz had shifted him to more intellectual labours and finally had invited him to China to become a potential disciple. Goli had jumped at the chance.

I understood that, of course. All of the crew had been transcribed many times and, unless something catastrophic happened to us, our current shells were surely not our last. None of us wanted positively to die. Indeed, whenever we got into risky circumstances, we would do all that we could to survive. Yet none of us wanted to live forever. We held the concept of eventual death and release before us as a vague and ever-distant prospect. And it was true that, unless you somehow managed to override your own programming and s'cided (theoretically impossible), the only tacit possibility of morting was space exploration -- becoming a disciple -- because it was only as a disciple you might encounter mortal risks in circumstances where transcription would be impossible.

"Wouldn't you like to die?" Goli asked me. It was a strangely bold question.

"No," I replied, "No. I don't want to die. But... well... you know; I don't want to live forever either. Like you, no?"

He turned his head and nodded slowly in apparent agreement, then looked back at the universe racing crazily overhead.

"How can you watch it?" I asked. "It makes me dizzy."

He laughed.

"I'm not really watching it," he explained. "I'm looking beyond it, far beyond it."

Had Heinz decided we were expendable, I wondered? It was funny. I was a veteran disciple. I had been on over twenty lengthy explorations and not once had I felt afraid as they closed me down for a trip. Somehow, it was different, though, when you were awake; I found the concept of just never re-awaking far more comfortable (after all, wasn't that what we all hoped for?) than being conscious and getting killed. To die and not to know it; wasn't that the perfect solution?

####

Several hours later Goli got out of his bed and turned on a wall window. Eden's surface appeared in the frame and glowered grimly back at us. Now I noticed once again how big Goli was: tall, with very broad shoulders and great hulking upper arms. After the revelations of our initial conversation we reverted for a while to neutral ground. Yes, we were both still groggy. Yes, it was strange the way consciousness returned so suddenly after space sleep. Yes, Heinz's ceaseless quest to map out near space seemed futile in the absence of any proper colonisation policy -- the usual post-sleep chatter.

When I thought I had established a sufficient degree of familiarity I began again to probe a little.

"Why won't you let us in?" I asked him. I tried to come over and immediately encountered the wall of static. He turned back from the window, looked at me and shrugged.

"I'm sorry," he said, using his voice this time. "I think I must have been engineered that way. I assure you I am not consciously trying to keep you out."

I didn't believe him. I couldn't get past the static but I sensed somehow that the impenetrability was something he was willing, that he wanted to hide something. And I could sense also that he was aware of my suspicions.

"What is your mission?" I asked.

"The same as yours, I think."

"Come and see,' I said. I felt him come in and look through the files at the back of my mind.

"As far as I can see, mine are identical," he 'pathed.

"I'll have to take your word for it, won't I?"

It was my turn to gaze at the ceiling.

####

To be fair, Goli made periodic efforts to converse more openly with the crew. It must have been difficult for him. We had been disciples for so long that it didn't matter what bodies we happened to be in, but Goli was completely new. We didn't recognise his body and we didn't recognise his mind. And why did we need a new disciple anyway? We hadn't lost anybody, so why had he been assigned?

Noah called us back to the operations room as the Ark neared the end of its control programmes. It had discovered nothing out of the ordinary: no atmosphere, a gravitational field that had been sufficient, over time, to mould the rock into a rough sphere, average radiation and no life. We started to kit up.

With his suit on, a dark bronze colour, Goli looked even more massive, like a giant. (There'd long been rumours that Heinz had been trying to evolve bigger shells and I wondered if Goli was one of the results).

Noah manhandled into the vacuum chamber one of Heinz's milestones then ordered us in. As we clambered past her she gave me a curt nod.

I stumbled in clumsily, not yet used again to the combined effects of the suit and the heavy boots. I sat down on a bench lining one wall.

Goli, sitting opposite, gave me a thumbs-up sign as the air roared out of the chamber. I flapped a non-committal hand back.

Setting foot on Eden did nothing to relieve my growing feeling of apprehension. There was the same sense of immense emptiness I always felt when I first stepped out onto any planet without an atmosphere; there seemed to be nothing between you and space -- just one long continuum of a perpetual vacuum. And there was the silence; I have never got used to the total silence of space. In the old deeveedees there's always some sort of background noise as the space heroes cavort. But the truth is that there is no noise in space, only the noise in your helmet and your own noise; your breathing, your blood coursing, your heart pumping, your joints creaking, the air circulating.

Our ever-present gravity packs gave us an illusion of security but I never trusted the things entirely and was always careful to take small, cautious steps. In addition, after lazing around in the ship in loose, casual overalls for almost four days, I found the close-fitting suits and helmets restrictive and had to fight a vague sense of claustrophobia. Worse still, 'pathy couldn't work in a vacuum, so we had to switch to old-fashioned radio connections. We couldn't even have a proper conversation.

Goli had insisted that he would carry the milestone. It wasn't heavy, especially not on Eden, but it was bulky and awkward.

We'd walked about twenty metres when Goli crackled in over my intercom. Or, rather, when his breathing crackled in.

"Heavy going, uh?"

"Uh," I grunted.

He was right. What had looked like the sheen of a flat slab of rock was actually the shine of deep crystalline rock powder. I'd never seen snow, but I had read about it, and I imagined the rock powder beneath our feet was similar to the fresh powder snow alpine skiers had once enthused about. The difference was that we had boots, not skis, on our feet. With each step our feet sank deep into the powder, making walking an awkward up-and-down affair. After a minute I stopped, already winded, flipped up my glare visor and looked towards the horizon.

"Don't do that!" I heard Goli shout. "Don't look up!"

It was too late. What a fool I was! And me supposedly such an experienced old hand! In the first few seconds I had a vision of stars racing up from the edge of the rock, like the way I'd seen sparks and red hot cinders shooting up above the old capitals in the conflagration. But then I felt my stomach drop away. I was falling! I dropped to my knees and looked down at the rock dust.

"You OK?" Goli's voice crackled.

"I guess so," I replied, gasping, slowly recovering my sense of balance.

"Just don't do that, OK? Don't ever look at the horizon." I heard his rasping breath as he started back towards me.

"Don't bother!" I insisted. "I'm OK. I'll be all right in just a few seconds."

I lowered my glare visor then got to my feet, slowly, and started off again. Weird, I thought, that I couldn't look at the horizon. Back on earth the sure fire cure for sea and air sickness was to gaze at the horizon but on the wildly spinning Eden it was the opposite. Reassured, Goli had turned and started to labour forward and I followed him, my feet slowly flailing with cautious deliberation through the rock dust.

A faint, flickering light in my visor told me Noah was trying to make contact. I switched from multilateral to bilateral.

"How's it going?" Noah asked.

"It's going," I replied.

"Is Goli ahead?"

"He's ahead."

"What do you make of him?"

It was a huge irony that I had had to go out onto the benighted surface of some grim slab of rock in order to be able to talk confidentially with Noah, back in the Ark, but this was truly the only way. (Goli could only listen in to our radio conversation if I switched back to multilateral.)

"Well," I replied, "he's clearly here on a mission and somehow I don't think it's the same as ours."

"That's the consensus on the Ark as well," said Noah. "Watch your back."

Great! I thought to myself.

"Thanks, Noah, for the valuable advice," I said. "Switching back to multilateral now."

"...seems to be something over the horizon," I caught the end of Goli's sentence.

"What was that, Goli?" I said. "The signal faded."

"I said there seems to be something over the horizon. Don't look, but there is a green glow over there. Let's install the milestone first and then take a look."

I joined him where he'd gently placed the milestone on the dust. From a distance he'd reminded me of a pre-conflagration image I'd once seen in a deeveedee of a man laying some sort of white-haired animal tenderly on the ground. We took the milestone out from its cover, turned it on, held it down while its gravity pack generated sufficient stickiness, and then waited while it auto-calibrated.

"To think Heinz wants one of these on every damned rock in near space!" I moaned.

"It will keep us in work," Goli's voice rasped.

"Seriously, it's some sort of navigation aid, no? Heinz wants a complete map of near space, doesn't he?"

"In the heart of the burntlands they are building a new pad."

"In the burntlands? That makes no sense!"

"It does if you don't want anybody to know what you are up to."

"Did you see it, Goli?"

Goli stood up to his full height and looked back at the Ark.

"Did you?" I insisted.

"I think I did, but I can't remember. I think that's why I'm here. I think Heinz might be getting ready to go somewhere."

"But how would these milestones help?"

"I don't know. But I think I used to know. That's it!" Goli sat on his heels and rubbed the top of his helmet with his huge gloved paw. Then he grunted. "I've found a file but I can't open it."

The milestone had meanwhile started to broadcast. We locked it in position. Goli folded up its cover and flung it into space. We watched the cover spin away, gradually falling towards the surface.

"Come on," said Goli, "Let's check out that green light."

Noah came on the radio as we shuffled away.

"Job done, boys?"

"Job done."

"So why the additional exercise?"

"Goli has seen a green glow of some sort over this way, Noah," I said. "We"re just going to take a look."

"OK, but be careful. The Ark's getting impatient. When I give you the signal you come straight back, OK?"

"OK, OK," Goli growled.

I could see the glow myself by now. It was reflecting faintly up off of Eden's powdery surface. I stopped and looked back. The Ark was no longer visible, even when I raised my glare visor as near to the horizon as I dared. When I turned back, Goli had disappeared over a sort of cliff edge, with a steep slope beyond it. My radio crackled.

"Coming? You'll have to climb over the edge," Goli explained. "It's best to turn around and walk backwards."

I did as he advised. The planemo was so small it was almost like clambering over the sharp angles of a rock. As I climbed down I realised that the green glow was coming from the rock itself.

"If you turn around on your hands and knees," said Goli, "you'll avoid seeing the horizon again."

Again, I did as he told me. Without me sensing it Goli had come to my side and now he helped me to my feet. I felt uneasy about him being so close but I could not refuse his help.

"Just look at this," he said.

At the bottom of the dusty slope stood a vast, pale green, crystalline forest. The "trees" that made up the forest -- weird, angular growths of huge crystals -- towered high above us.

"Come on," Goli urged, stepping forward.

"Wait," I insisted. I called Noah. No contact. We were below the Ark's radio horizon.

"Come on," Goli repeated, disappearing between the "trunks" of the trees. I hesitated but couldn't resist. There was something inviting, compelling, entrancing about this crystal forest, glowing faintly, grown Heinz knew how on an otherwise blasted, grim, grey rock spinning aimlessly through near space. The "leaves" glinted and glistened as the rock spun. I heard Goli chuckling somewhere in wonderment. "So," he said, "those Shanghai wise guys were onto something; Eden wasn't such a bad name after all!" I walked on into the forest. The ground underfoot had changed. The rock powder had given way to small, sharp-edged, crystalline pebbles.

"What do you think caused it?" I asked.

"I don't know," Goli replied, lost among the crystal trees, "some sort of chemical soup. The crystals are ancient. Maybe the planemo flew through the acidic tail of a comet."

"Do you think Heinz would be interested? Should we record this somehow?"

Goli snorted.

"Heinz isn't interested in crystal forests. They're not interested in Eden. They're not interested in planemos. They're not interested in near space at all."

Then Goli made a noise I hadn't heard for scores of years. He was humming.

'This will do," he said.

"Goli!" I cried. "Where are you?"

He snorted again.

"We should be getting back," I said

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden movement and instinctively flung myself forwards. One of the crystal trees fell to the ground behind me. It shattered as it fell, and I realised that the carpet of crystalline pebbles on the ground was made up of the remains of collapsed 'trees'.

"Goli!" I cried. "The forest is unstable. Let's get out! Come on!"

I heard Goli laughing. Again, I saw a sudden movement as a tree collapsed and had to fling myself out of the way.

"Whoops!" said the invisible Goli.

"Goli!" I shouted. "What are you doing?" Was he pushing them over? Was he trying to kill me?

I instinctively picked up a sharp-edged pebble. It lodged in my glove.

"Come on, Goli! Stop it. Let's get back."

And then there was Goli, looming in front of me.

"One of us won't be going back, little man," he said.

I instinctively flung the pebble at him and started to back away. It was a feeble effort. I was going to die. Goli was going to kill me in this enchanted place on a spinning rock. As I prepared myself for the onslaught I saw Goli shift his body. He very deliberately lifted up his glare visor and placed his head in front of the spinning pebble. I watched, bemused, as the pebble bounced off the front of his helmet and ricocheted off into the forest.

"That's done it," he said, with a satisfied tone. He sat down on the crystalline carpet. "You'd best be getting back, Davi. You've done your job."

I shuffled cautiously forward towards him.

"Goli," I asked, "What has happened?"

He sighed impatiently.

"My helmet's cracked," he said. "My air's leaking out."

"Get up, then, come on! Let's get back to the Ark."

"No, no, Davi. There's not enough time." I heard his breathing becoming more laboured. Drawing closer I saw wisps of liquid oxygen fluttering away from a small crack in his visor. Goli collapsed onto his back. I knelt beside him, lifted his massive shoulders and gazed down at his expressionless features.

"Are you a giant, Goli? Is that it?"

"Of course," wheezed Goli. "Do you think I built this body up in a gym?"

He chuckled painfully.

"You killed a giant, Davi; you killed a giant. Just fancy that!"

I shook him gently.

"Goli! What was your mission? What did Heinz want you to do?"

Goli shook his head and coughed.

"Heinz didn't want me to do anything. They gave me exactly the same mission as you."

"Then why did you try to kill me?"

Goli wheezed.

"Did I?"

"Of course you did! Those crystal trees could have crushed me to death or at the least slit my suit open."

Goli wheezed again and shook his head.

"But didn't you yourself say that the forest was unstable?' he asked. "Well, anyway, you did what I hoped of you."

"What do you mean?"

"It's true that I had a mission, but it wasn't Heinz's -- it was my own. I came here to try to die, Davi."

"Then why didn't you just s'cide yourself?"

"I tried, Davi. Believe me, I tried."

"Great, so you got me to kill you?"

Goli coughed.

"Did you kill me?" he asked. "It was an accident, wasn't it? And, anyway, who cares? You did a good job. Just what was required."

I looked at the sharply glittering green crystalline world around us.

"I'm sorry, Goli."

"Don't be!" he wheezed. "It's a nice place to die, you know. I like it."

"Tell me -- did you really see the old capitals?"

"I did, their ruins standing proud under the soot."

I laid him down and got to my feet.

"Yes, Davi," he whispered. "You'd better be getting back."

"Is there anything I can do?"

He emitted a sound somewhere between a cough, a sob and a laugh.

"You've done more than enough, thank you."

I turned and started to walk back through the forest.

"Davi."

I stopped.

"That file," he whispered, "I can read it now."

I walked back to him.

"Well?"

"Heinz is going to use the earth to leave it -- for good."

"And the milestones?"

"Heinz is not interested in near space. They need to plot a safe course for their ship, that's why. When you disciples have finished your work they'll blast off."

"Where will they go?"

"They've found a new earth in the Andromeda Galaxy. That's millions of light years away, Davi, so they are going to need a lot of energy." He gasped, as though he could draw some more oxygen out of the remaining thin air around him. "They'll blow up the old Earth to help them on their way. By installing milestones the disciples are helping them to chart their future course through near space..."

I watched as his consciousness faded.

"I'd better be going soon, Goli."

"Thanks, Davi. Take care."

I wanted to go but I couldn't leave him, so I stood by his side as the life slowly, finally, leaked out of him. When I was sure he was dead I undid the neck clips on his suit, took off his huge, bronze helmet and laid it on the crystal carpet alongside him. I wanted him to have a good view of the stars.

####

As soon as I had got back over the angled surface I radioed the Ark.

"Are you coming back?" Noah asked.

"I'm on my way, Noah."

"I mean, both of you?"

"I'm on my way."

"We're waiting for you, Davi. Make it quick -- the Ark's getting very impatient."

As I reached the ship I pushed my glare visor down then turned and looked back. I could see our footprints in the dust -- two sets going out, one returning. If I raised my eyes to just below the horizon I thought I could make out the faint green glow of the crystal forest where Goli would now lie forever.

Faint steam jets were trickling out of the Ark's spindly legs as I climbed back into the vacuum chamber. Clearly the ship was impatient to leave. I bade Eden and Goli farewell then swung the chamber door shut and instructed the lock switches to close.

In a short while I and my fellow disciples would be turned off again and wouldn't be awakened until we got to the next assignment. What would that be, I wondered? I switched to inner visual. It was the same sort of thing; another lump of barren rock -- a moon, circling a gas giant in an elliptical orbit. Once again, we would have to install a milestone and then move on.

I thought back to what Goli had seen and told me, how Heinz planned to destroy the old Earth to reach a new one, and I realised sadly that part of me welcomed the prospect. For maybe the end of Heinz's project would bring a new perspective to my otherwise perpetual life and frequent transcriptions. How many more shells would I otherwise be condemned to know? How many more grim and pointless space rocks would I visit? How many more milestones would I install and activate?

And then the image of Goli as I had last seen him came into my mind; his giant body, encased in its metallic cocoon, lying peacefully, helmet beside him, on a glittering carpet in the middle of a crystal forest. As I took my own helmet off I realised there was excessive moisture around my eyes.

The inner pressure door hissed open. Noah was waiting to greet me. As I stepped into the Ark she gripped my arms and shook me.

"Don't worry, Davi," she said, wearily shaking her head. "We're all envious of Goli, you know; so very, very envious."

THE END


© 2011 Martin Westlake

Bio: Martin Westlake is a British-born resident of Brussels, Belgium...

E-mail: Martin Westlake

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