By Phillip Mann
A NOTE ON THE BOOK’S ORIGIN
I began writing this book on Christmas day (1986 or 1987) which is quite a strange thing to have happen. We had finished lunch and everyone was quiet and reading their books or just having a snooze. For some reason I wandered into the room where I had my typewriter and I sat down and just started typing. At that time I had recently finished a difficult project: the reworking of The Gardener into a couple of volumes which became The Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families. I felt a bit stunned by this undertaking – quite the hardest piece of writing I had ever undertaken – and I now wanted to have fun and to write in a more carefree way. However, at the time of writing, I did not know I was starting another novel. I thought it was a short story.
The book was originally conceived as a series of short stories about the different rescue missions undertaken by Ariadne and Angelo. I remember thinking that it would be fun to create a lot of strange environments and the odd characters that had evolved as a result of their environment.
Very quickly however, the book started to take on a life of its own. The single adventure with Pioneer Murray – originally called Hubbard, the name being changed lest there be some confusion with L. Ron Hubbard, there being absolutely no intentional connection – came to dominate. As a character he interested me as I began to speculate what it would be like to wake up in such an alien environment and in the company of two such strange beings as Angelo and Ariadne. There came a point at which I abandoned the idea of a series of linked stories in favour of one main story dealing with evolution, though the vestiges of the former plan are still evident.
It was at about this time that someone daubed a graffiti message on one of the walls leading from the suburb of Brooklyn down into Wellington city. The message stated simply, “All Men are Rapists”. I remember wondering at the hatred which inspired such a statement and the cruelty and injustice it could generate. and in a strange and round about way this led me to try to write about what I thought constituted a ‘good’ man – a man who was clearly male, virile, macho even and yes, at the end of the day Good.. Angelo says of himself at some point, “I am not quite a man, but almost.” for he is genetically engineered, and the book became the learning of Angelo, the tempering of Angelo and the trial of Angelo when he meets the giant, his enemy, on Rick’s world.
I have never written a book so easily! Once I got started it simply flowed and required little revision I think it was composed in about 9 months. – a significant gestation period.
I am still just waking up.
Three days ago I was as inert as a statue, prone and stiff on the sea bed. Now, if I am not fully conscious, I am at least mobile and washed and sitting in our small kitchen waiting patiently while my body comes fully alive.
Three days ago I broke through the warm surface jelly of my sleeping tank, and when my face was dry and completely clear I took my first shallow tentative breath. Then, when I was breathing easily, my fingers fluttered and that motion set in full train all the complex wake-up procedures. The door covering my tub slid back and I tasted for the first time for many years the dry sterile air of the ship. The blue jelly deliquesced and drained away, for purification, leaving me high, dry and naked. Supported at the neck, head and back I was sat up by the auto-nurse and then my eyes opened. I climbed out under my own motivation and made my way to the dispensary where revival drugs were waiting. The drugs help, but there is really no substitute for movement for knitting together the sleeping body, and we are trained to stump about on numb legs and slap our hands and sing.
I remember my trainer. “Sing,” he said.
“Sing what?” said I.
“Sing any old thing,” he said.
And that was what I did. This time I sang an old song about a drunken sailor and I beat out the rhythm on the walls until I was sore.
Not that I remember all the details of my waking. One never does, any more than a full-human can remember the moment of birth, but I have watched films of my waking and the pattern never changes.
Now I sit, drink cordial and wait. The thought of solid food makes me feel sick. But soon I will get the urge to chew and then I will raid the larder.
Ariadne is still asleep. I checked her on my first day. She was rising slowly. The tip of her nose had just broken the surface. Today her chin is a dimple on the surface and I can see her face. Her breasts and thighs and the tops of her arms are like pale islands of sand rising from the sea. I give her another few hours to her first breath. And I am amused at myself. I desire her already and that is a very good sign. My psyche at its deepest levels is alive and clattering. And she will be surprised. Normally she is the first to awake. Once she predated me by over three weeks. That was terrible. I awoke to find her prim and poised. It was months before our rhythms came into phase properly. She will be glad to find me there and we will wake up together, sleepy and amorous and with only the peering stars outside for company.
After watching Ariadne come gently alive I performed a grim task. It is one of the responsibilities of the first awake.
Beyond our long-sleep chamber there is a small room where the temperature never rises above freezing. When the door is opened, dim blue lights come on which seem to make the air even colder. In the room are two coffers and above each of them dangles an auto-nurse. Inside the coffers, waiting at a point just below life, are clones of Ariadne and myself.
It is an education in courage to look down at the dead sleeping face of yourself, suspended a few inches below the fluids which sluice round the body massaging it. The clones have no dreams. They are as lively as bricks. But they wait, ready in case one of us has an accident.
Each time, before and after the long sleep we must check them. Of course alarm bells would clamour if something were wrong and the auto-nurse would be far wiser than us in coping with a catastrophe; but we are required to check.
I am pleased to report that all is well.
I must have dozed again for I see that thirteen hours have disappeared somewhere. Ariadne is breathing. She will be with me in (say) five hours . . . seven at the outside.
Being more awake now, I am beginning to ask questions, such as why am I doing this? Writing my thoughts. Trying to describe things. I have no easy answer. Such an activity was not part of our training. In fact I know of no other member of a Pioneer rescue team who has ever lifted a pencil other than to fill in report forms or perhaps doodle. The truth is, I suspect, that there was a contamination in my gene balance. No, that is a bad way to put it. Not contamination. An irregularity perhaps. A kink in the chain. Something so insignificant or innocent-seeming that it escaped all detection. I find that a nice thought. It gives me a finger hold on individuality . . . though I am not sure that I regard individuality as a virtue. It is something that I observe in full-humans.
There, my mind is running on. There is a strangeness about words on paper. I do not know what is going to come next and at the moment I am not worried. In my mind I see the words like bubbles coming to the surface of a liquid. Something causes those bubbles. I want to discover that cause.
Apart from my waking first, this awakening has not been quite like the others. Not only do I feel more alive . . . more me . . . but I awoke with an extraordinary dream that will not leave me. I have already mentioned that the dozing dream of friends; well this dream was different. I was climbing a mountain (I have climbed many mountains) and just behind me, keeping pace, was a full-human that I seemed to know. We were climbing up an almost sheer face of grey stone and had reached that point in a climb at which a mountain seems to have a personality of its own which is pitted against you. I looked up and saw that we still had a long way to go, that there was an overhang coming which would require all our strength and courage. I explored with my fingers up the sheer face. I found a crevice and worked my blunt fingers into it. I made sure my purchase was firm and then called to my companion below that I was moving up. He looked up at me and his face under his helmet was dusty and streaked with sweat. He nodded. Then I lifted. Having great strength in my arms I was able to lift myself bodily until my face was above the crevice and I could see a ledge which ran like a diagonal pathway directly across the stone face. With one reach I had my arm over the ledge. A pull, and I was over cleanly (no small stones dislodged) and found myself lying on a comfortable sandy path.
I squirmed round and offered my arm to my companion who was spread along the cliff holding with toe and finger. He could not quite reach my hand. I saw him transfer all his weight to his left foot and then reach with his right hand. He brushed my fingers and then his toehold flaked away and he fell. The rope jerked as it ran out of slack and I saw him spinning like a spider at the end of its thread.
All would have been well, but in my hands the rope turned to clay and parted. He did not fall immediately but hung there in space staring up at me. He called something strange. He said, “You’re almost human, but not quite.” And then he fell, turning over and over, like a scrap of paper.
I don’t remember waking from this dream, but of course I did. I glided from sleep and found myself stretched on my bunk gripping the bar. Those words have stayed with me though I cannot remember my companion’s face. “You’re almost human, but not quite.”
Even as I write those words I feel a stillness. They carry more meaning than I understand. I am still very dozy.
Anyway. Today must be a day for memories. My mind is off again. I am thinking about stillness and I remember a full-human I once worked with. He was an evil man in many ways. The kind of man who laughs when you cut yourself and then starts to tell you about the time he injured himself. But I quite liked him. At least he was nearly as big as me and that pleased me as I don’t like taking orders from small men. But we were working out from San Francisco Write-Off, about forty miles inland. I was very young then. It was only some twenty or so years since my first waking.
Someone in the South Pacific Safety had picked up a radio call and we were investigating. It was a slow jog, working our way down the old roads, cutting a path. Anyway, in the long nights this human and I would talk. He’d led an interesting life, always in trouble, and he had lots of stories of the olden days, as he called them. He meant the days before the Catastrophe. Once he’d been in prison and he described what it was like to stand in a court of law and hear your life picked apart in graceless dry phrases. . . .Isn’t that strange, I can remember his words but not his name. . . .He told me how the conceits that gave his life glamour were drained of their essence. He told me that when he saw his life unwound like a bandage that still bears the marks of bloody sores, he felt a great stillness.
That is what I feel as I face that unpleasant truth. Stillness. For it is a truth that I am not quite human, but almost.
When he had finished speaking my nameless companion just sat brooding. I suppose when you can truly see yourself there is not much more to be said after all. Silence is best.
But am I jealous of the full-humans? Have / been brooding on that? And if so, for how long? Centuries probably. I have just heard the doors on Ariadne’s sleeping tub roll back.
I have watched Ariadne limber herself out of her coffer. It is a long time since I have seen her do this. Sitting upright she slid her arms along the bars which run along the side of the tank and pulled herself forwards. The auto-nurse helped. Her legs bent at the knees as they slid over the edge of the support platform and then she sat for several minutes, her feet flat on the floor, gathering her strength. She had not registered that I was already awake. Her eyes were open but gazed vacantly. She was dozing. Then she pulled herself to her feet and tried to walk. Her legs did not know what to do and she slewed round on her heels and had to catch herself and lift herself upright with the strength of her arms. Next she worked her toes on one foot and the leg inched forwards. It seemed painful and I wanted to help, but I didn’t. We must all learn alone and she would not have thanked me for my strong arm. Slowly she advanced one foot and then the next.
Gradually she worked her way out of our long-sleep chamber and into the short corridor which leads into the kitchen. I backed out of the way and heaved myself up the pull-pole for I didn’t want her to see me. I could still hear her. Slide, pause. Slide, pause. Then she came into the full light of the kitchen and squinted.
I was glad to see a pinkness was mounting into her face. Her hair, black as the wing of a raven, stood out round her head in ringlets, stiffened by the drying solution in which we had floated. I have seen pictures of the old enchantress Medusa and she never looked so fierce or fateful as my sleepwalking Ariadne.
Ariadne did not look up. With arms advanced she felt her way down the passage to the dispensary and washing rooms. I knew that I would not see her again for several hours.
Though I know Ariadne as well as I know my own hands, I am still startled by her beauty. I recognize the fine hand of the genetic engineer who planned us to be a pair. I know that full-humans find her attractive. I have seen men at the spaceport on the moon pause in their stride when they see her. I have intercepted many a would-be lover at the moment of his advance. I have noticed that women also want to get close to her. It is as though beauty were a magnet that draws full-humans after it. Perhaps a technician who stared at her own wrinkled face or falling hair tried to design in Ariadne an ageless, beguiling face. What did they design for me?
She is tall, for a woman, and her shoulders are broad; a necessary adaptation to her job. She is built to carry me, should that ever be necessary. The eyes that stare into you are a startling green and her hair is a mass of curls, which tumble down over her shoulders. When she wakes in the morning, she brushes her hair while she sits naked in the bed beside me, and her hair falls into patterns. Sometimes, playfully she brushes my stark fur. She is supple too, in ways that I am not. She can sit cross-legged and with her back straight for hours. She can press her head between her knees. She can cross her legs behind her neck. When she does this she achieves a deformity which I find unpleasant but which makes her laugh. Imagine that, a beautiful woman naked and with her legs crossed behind her head, supporting herself on her hands and laughing. Am I not right when I say that Ariadne is beguiling?
She is also fearless. She is a woman to have at your side when trouble shows its face. More than once her speed of reaction has saved me when we have landed on some rogue world. And she has fought by my side in drinking places when we have been set upon by gangs of full-humans. There is no other woman I would have close to me whether in bed or battle. But what she thinks of me I hardly know. We have never discussed ourselves. What I am doing now, writing down my random thoughts, is the closest either of us has ever come to introspection. She accepts me. I am what is. I am the way things are meant to be. In all the ways that matter, she is totally faithful to me.
I observe that our brains differ in interesting ways. All part of the plan I suppose. Ariadne is more logical than I and can weigh up a situation in moments where I become stranded in contradiction. The price that she pays for her logic is that she is predictable. I am the one that improvises. I am the one that does the unexpected.
Today seems to be a day for questions. Here are some more. Given that Ariadne has beauty, brains and near-immortality, why is she not more happy? Given that I have a beautiful woman at my side, excitement in my work and abundant energy, why am I not contented? Perhaps the questions have different answers. Perhaps they have the same answer.
When I get the chance I must ask Ariadne if she dreams. I have never asked her that. I have never been curious until now.
I have moved out of the kitchen and up to the control deck of our ship. I want to be alone for a bit longer. Before I left I heard the shower start and that is a sure sign that Ariadne is waking up quickly . . . making up for lost time.
Here on the control deck I am surrounded by buzz and hum. I can hear the machines talking to one another, but what they are saying I do not know. Everything seems to be well. And if it were not . . .? Well, I doubt there is much I could do. The ship is its own world. Given luck it could rattle on to eternity. I sit in my swivel chair with its magnetic harness and tilt back until I can see the main view-screen which shows our destination. High and to the left of the screen is a dull red sun. I presume that our trajectory will intersect that sun and that the planet named La Plage is somewhere out there in the darkness. The name means nothing, unfortunately. The names were chosen at random. When Pioneer Murray was hurled into space, some eighteen generations ago, it was already decided that whatever world he happened upon, its name would be La Plage.
We are slowing quickly. Two g’s, I am told by one of the machines. We will be strong when we make landfall. But we have several weeks yet.
Apparently we encountered interstellar grit shortly after dropping into this space and received some damage. That has now been repaired but there is a polite request for me to do some more permanent repairs in the third sector hangar. A servopipe has been sheared and this has affected the hoist capacity of the crane. Well. Well. Every journey there is something, some small maintenance problem. I think such problems are built into the circuitry to give us something to do during the long days when we are fully awake and mobile and wailing for landfall.
I he air in here smells awful. It is cycled up from below wHlioul passing through the normal filters. An economy, I presume. You see, when we are asleep, only the cabins, kitchen and long-sleep areas are supplied with air. The rest of the ship pumps to vacuum. The machines that run the ship prefer it that way. Air is corrosive.
I do not like the control cabin. I do not feel at ease here. The electronic jabber makes my teeth tickle after I have been here for a while. But I recognize that the style of genius that made these wise-idiot machines that protect us without cause or conscience, also created me and Ariadne.
Are we more machine than man?
That is a hideous question. It has the face of death. For if we are more machine than man, why give us life? Why give us consciousness?
What manner of creator would it be who gave us consciousness only so that we could be aware of our own futility?
I retreat from these thoughts and wonder what is happening to me. I long for Ariadne’s strong arms. I long to be there, nuzzling deep, strong in fang and fur, oblivious of the stars and their courses; just me, simple, a not-quite-but-almost human, alive. That is the main thing, ALIVE.