With Isanusi blind and paralyzed, Gema sapped of all emotion, and Thondup grieving his deceased lover, the crew encounters a new low when a rare report back from Earth suggests that the planet’s inhabitants no longer care about space exploration and that international disarray could jeopardize the Sviatagor’s safe return.
The pincer trembled slightly . . . Thondup pressed down on his elbow, waiting for the tiny vibration to cease. His head was still tilted to one side to prevent his breath from reaching the interior of the receiver. A precise movement, and the circuit was reestablished.
Behind Thondup’s back, Gema let out her breath. While Thondup replaced the cover, she asked, ‘Have you fixed it?’
‘Can I tell Isanusi?’
Thondup straightened in his seat and wiped the sweat from his brow. He said, ‘There are still some things I need to check . . . But I think you can tell him.’
Gema hastily went over to the videophone and switched it on. Isanusi appeared on the screen, his body prone in the pod.
‘Isanusi, the receiver is almost ready; we can watch at least some of the transmission tonight. Stay alert: I’m going to leave the intercom on.’
A million harps began to play, soaring, soaring, trying to reach, to surpass infinity . . . but failed; all too soon, the final notes lapsed into silence.
“Has it broken again?” Tensing, Isanusi strained to hear more clearly. He could even make out the dim flow of blood through his veins . . . Mingling with that, a gentle murmur began to grow. It gradually swelled into a rushing river flowing towards the unknown, dragging Isanusi with it . . . Voices that were more human sobbed their happiness; they tirelessly played and replayed the same six notes, each time discovering new possibilities for astonishment, emotion, love . . . Then the non-human voices returned, overlaying the others, wordlessly telling of something incredibly beautiful, relieving the anxiety to hear those six notes, taking Isanusi to an ever-changing rainbow sky; he ran, shouting with the ardent voices and weeping when they moved on, seeking out other skies . . .
‘I’m sorry, Isanusi; but you mustn’t carry on listening.’
Gema’s voice faded away, and the silver bells fell silent. The lining of the pod wrinkled, rising to his empty eye-sockets, soaking up the pools of tears.
It was only then that Gema switched off the visual channel and returned alongside Thondup. She glanced at his red face . . . “No, it’s not doing him any good either. But I can’t get involved in that.”
Seated next to each other, they listened until the music ended. After a brief interval, they heard the familiar voice from Earth:
‘You have been listening to the second movement of the Stellar Pathway, the winner of this year’s Musical Olympics. Its composer is well-known to many of you, especially for the most recent cosmo-groups. They are the former 18-L group, now called the Beethoven group. As you will have appreciated, they thoroughly deserve their new name . . . And now, a report on the first inter-stellar probe. Over to you, Vera.’
A slight cough, and a warm female voice began:
‘Yesterday I visited the Project Center . . . There I was shown a scale model of the automatic exploratory probe that will head for Tau Ceti this year. They dismantled it, kindly explaining to me at every stage how each part worked. I have to admit I did not understand everything, possibly because I was being shown the most recent advances in astronautic science, which are often obscure for non-experts. Possibly also because I was thinking of something else . . . which I feel I ought to tell you about. I cannot deny that great interest has been shown in this probe here on Earth. I think you will understand the kind of interest I mean: a glance at the news, a smile of approval, a comment to friends, and then immersing oneself again in our daily tasks . . . I fear that here on Earth we have not properly assimilated the real magnitude of this new step towards the Cosmos. Perhaps we have grown used too quickly to the Universe you have opened up for us and continue to amplify . . . Perhaps we have shut ourselves up too much in our own Earth. What real significance does a few thousand men and women have, dispersed among a dozen bases between Venus and Jupiter? None of those planets can compare with Earth. In truth, for many years to come, possibly forever, we will be distant, alien to them . . . There is only one Earth in the solar system, and there is nothing more beautiful. So what drives us to go beyond it?’ The voice laughed softly. ‘I’m sorry; I was forgetting that I am talking to people who know the answer to that question. Not only do they know it, but they feel it inside themselves to such an extent that they have devoted their lives to it, however distant the goal . . . To you then it is enough to say it is highly likely that there is a planetary system in Tau Ceti and another in Altair; that the discovery of hydrogen in its hyper-dense state has led to the construction of spaceships that will attain speeds close to the speed of light, and you will start to dream . . . That’s not a reproach; dreams such as yours have taken humanity further and further, but unfortunately these first new craft will not be able to carry human crews . . . No, you will not be going to Tau or to Altair. The information these probes send back will take respectively no less than twenty-five and forty years to arrive here . . . And yet I know you will continue to dream. And you will continue to work to make your dream, our dream, a reality, so that others, who will not be you, can head for the Earths awaiting us in this vast Universe . . . Yes, that is the future. Yes, it is a long way from being the present; for now, you will continue to live on the bases in space, far from the Earth you long for so much . . . You will continue working to provide humanity with new dwelling places. And for all this I can only say one word: Thanks.’
The receiver emitted a strange sound, similar to a sob. Gema cast Thondup a sideways glance. “Unsuitable; that’s the best description for such a broadcast.”
The announcer’s voice came on, sounding forced:
‘And now, a report on the state of negotiations between the World Communist Federation and the Empire, presented by . . .’
The announcer broke off suddenly: instinctively, Thondup’s hand moved towards the controls . . . But before he could begin to check them, the announcer’s voice returned, this time with an anxious edge to it:
‘We beg our listeners to excuse us a moment . . .’
He fell silent again. Thondup and Gema waited:
‘. . . To return to our transmission; we have just received official confirmation that the entire Cosmos Council has presented their resignation. The Supreme Council of the Federation has accepted this, on condition that they remain in their posts until the next Assembly, due to take place in March, when their successors will be appointed . . . The Cosmos Council has asked, and the Supreme Council agreed, for the following announcement to be broadcast to the whole Solar System . . .’
There followed a pause, with the sound of rustling papers:
‘We, the members of the Cosmos Council, accept full responsibility for everything that has happened to the Titan Group on its return to Earth.’
Thondup and Gema exchanged rapid glances. The announcer went on, in a voice struggling to stay calm:
‘Unfortunately, time does not permit us to broadcast the promised report on the negotiations between the Federation and the Empire . . . We will therefore renew our attempts to reestablish communication with the spaceship Sviatagor; in order to do so, we would ask you to close down all your receivers.’
Gema’s eyes narrowed. “Why are they ordering them to get off the air? What can they have to say to us they don’t want anyone else to hear . . . ?” A glimmer of comprehension flashed through her mind. She leapt towards the receiver, which was shrieking:
‘Earth to Sviagator . . .’
A fraction of a second before Gema could finish turning down the sound the equipment fell silent. “Too late.” Thondup was already beside her. He took her hand off the regulator and began to increase the volume with exaggerated care. The receiver was still mute. Thondup’s lips began visibly to tremble.
Gema said, ‘It’s useless feeling sorry for ourselves, Thondup.’
He gave no indication of having heard her. A bemused expression on his face, he wondered out loud:
‘Why didn’t I think of that before? It was what was most likely to happen, if the spaceship wasn’t completely destroyed . . . Damage to the system for amplifying sound signals; that’s what they must have thought back on Earth . . .’
He looked blankly towards Gema. Stressing each syllable, she asked him, ‘Can you fix it?’
Thondup looked doubtful as he gazed at the apparatus.
‘As long as it’s not the sound relay again . . . That was the last spare part I had . . .’
Gema turned and, without looking back, headed for her workbench in search of a psycho-stabilizer.
Two bodies stretched out on a bed. Two pairs of eyes staring at the ceiling . . . Gema’s head turned towards the man:
‘Why aren’t you sleeping, Thondup?’
‘I was remembering the 18-L group . . . They were in their last year when we reached the Academy. Do you remember Anke? Always so cheerful, so caring. Do you remember how she became our friend, even though we were nothing more than kids, freshly arrived and with no experience . . . I’ve forgotten why they didn’t go on . . .’
‘Liu suffered from cosmic vertigo. It was discovered during her stay in the Orbital City.’
‘See? An illness that affects one in every ten thousand; and for one of us to get it . . . a real shame; it was a good group.’
‘Kriegman’s physiological collective is developing a very promising new procedure . . .’
Thondup shifted his shoulders impatiently.
‘That will be too late for them, Gema . . .’ His voice became dreamy once more. ‘I can almost see them now, on the day when they learned they would not be able to . . . All eight of them were sitting together on the Pioneer Promenade, staring at the monuments. Some others would come up, sit with them for a while, also in silence . . . and then walk on. They themselves left when it was evening . . . Anke saw me; I hadn’t dared approach them. She smiled, so I went up to her. That was when she told me she had decided to dedicate herself to emotional engineering. I’m really pleased they succeeded; it’s a well-deserved reward.’
Gema hesitated a few moments before deciding to speak:
‘Thondup, forgive me if I’m asking you something obvious, but I’m trying to understand better . . . Tell me, do you think Anke is happy now?’
Taken aback, Thondup looked across at Gema.
‘It seems to me I didn’t get your question.’
Gema tried to explain:
‘I’m asking whether you think the success they’ve achieved has really compensated her for not . . . for not having reached here.’ She swept her arm around the cabin.
Thondup thought it over for a long while. Gema waited patiently for his reply.
They both fell silent again.
Thondup tautened his neck muscles and raised his head.
‘Your arm must be numb, Gema.’
She tensed it, stretched out her fingers.
‘It’s not too bad . . . But if you like, come closer to me.’
Thondup relaxed his head again, this time on Gema’s shoulder. She passed her arm around his neck until her hand rested on his chest. She ordered him:
‘Now go to sleep. You need it.’
From this new position, Thondup looked up at Gema’s dark eyes, and asked, ‘Why are you keeping Isanusi alive?’
‘Isn’t that what I should be doing?’
Deep furrows appeared at the corners of Thondup’s mouth.
‘He’s suffering, Gema.’
‘He can’t feel pain; his nerve sensors are all dead.’
‘But he understands. There are other things beside physical pain. He suffers to see himself as an invalid, as simply another burden, knowing he is bound to die anyway . . . He also suffers at seeing us in this situation and being unable to do anything to help.’ He sat up in the bed, facing Gema. ‘You cannot comprehend this, but in reality what we are doing is torturing him.’
Gema also sat up slowly. Her voice was flat, expressionless:
‘I have my own view of that, Thondup. You and I are the invalids; his is the only mind that has remained unchanged, that still operates and is human. He is the only one I can really trust . . . I’m sorry, but I had to tell you. I know it’s not your fault that you are in this situation . . . Once we’ve got all the necessary elements to make a decision, we will need Isanusi. What is more, he knows it; if he himself had thought he was a burden to us, he would have asked to us put him to death by now . . . And I must tell you that this opinion does not come solely from what I am now; as far as I can recollect, the former Gema would have thought the same.’
She waited for Thondup to respond. He stretched out again, and Gema did likewise, staring at his back. She whispered, ‘Don’t think it’s because I dislike you, Thondup . . . Remember, I cannot feel such emotions. Come closer.’
Thondup’s head was soon nestling on her shoulder once more.
Sunday January 2 2039
The door to the cabin opened silently, and Gema entered. Thondup asked from the bed:
‘Have you corrected the trajectory?’
Half-undressed by now, Gema nodded, then inquired:
‘What about you, are you still not sleepy?’
Gema disappeared into the bathroom. Thondup went on:
‘What a shame they couldn’t transmit the report on the negotiations between the Empire and the Federation . . . What do you think, Gema? Do you think anything will come of it this time?’
She came out of the bathroom with a glass of water in one hand and a grey pill in the other. She replied:
‘Yes. Here, take this.’
Thondup surveyed her curiously . . . Straightening up in the bed, he took the pill and began rolling it around in his hand.
‘So you think that . . . And have you also been able to work out what the result will be?’
‘Naturally. The Empire will dissolve, and the countries that made it up will become part of the Federation.’ She held out the glass, and said, ‘Make sure you take it, Thondup.’
He swallowed the pill and drank the water. He answered:
‘I don’t see how the imperial clique would agree to renounce all their privileges . . . What elements are you basing your judgment on, Gema?’
By now she was already in bed. Turning towards her, Thondup regarded her with a mixture of curiosity and doubt. Gema replied, ‘The key factor: the Dream Palaces.’
Thondup’s voice reflected his skepticism.
‘Is that all? But Gema, the imperial government itself prohibited the construction of any new ones . . . So what influence can they have?’
The young woman sighed.
‘I can see I’ll have to start from the very beginning . . . Thondup, for various reasons I have had to study the human way of thinking, even that of the Empire, from my current perspective. Listen: the capitalist mentality is based on the cult of individualism, the supremacy of the self over the others, over all of society, isn’t that so?’
‘Yes, that’s elementary . . . But what has that got to do with what we are talking about?’
‘Be patient. For an individual who is contemptuous of society, who sees it as his enemy and only values his own interests, what is his basic need, his highest aspiration?’
‘That’s elementary too: his own pleasure.’
‘So, from that point of view, look at the facts . . .’
Thondup’s mouth widened in a yawn he could not suppress. “The sleeping pill is taking effect,” Gema realized. An idea came into her mind: “Why not try now? His critical faculties must have lessened . . . Perhaps he won’t realize I am speaking just as the old Gema would have done.”
Without any perceptible pause, she continued, with only a slight change in her tone of voice:
‘. . . The first imperial Dream Palace is being built: Who can pay for a century of living, beautiful dreams? The answer is obvious, Thondup. And the choice of the Dream is understandable too, from their point of view. Thanks to it, there is no danger of any frustration, of experiencing the failures threatening them in this so unpleasantly real world of ours. Yes, in the Dream they will also come up against adversaries envious of their riches and power, but they are there solely in order that the dreamer may experience the pleasure of crushing them . . . In the Dream world they can do whatever they wish, without restrictions, without any real opposition. Now put yourself in the place of the imperial leaders. What are they likely to choose between a dream and an increasingly harsh reality?’
Thondup managed to raise his eyelids and answer in a sleepy voice:
‘Yes, there’s a logic to that, and yet in the end, a dream is not reality . . .’ He yawned once more, before concluding: ‘That’s why it could never satisfy them, Gema.’
‘It seems to me you haven’t taken your analysis of the individualistic way of behaving to its ultimate consequences . . . Don’t you remember solipsism, Thondup?’ He nodded, but Gema could not tell if this was in agreement or simply that he was falling asleep. ‘That is the logical consequence of a thought process focused entirely on the self: “What my senses perceive is real. If what reaches me from the outside, from the Non-Self is the Dream, then that is what reality is.” That must be what the members of the imperial elite think and feel. Possibly now you’ll understand what has been going on in recent years. One after another, their leaders have yielded to a curiosity to know what the Dream is, and have all tried it. Ever since, all they desire is to live in their Dream . . . The process is unstoppable; one after another, they have sought refuge in the Dream Palaces that have sprung up all over the place. Those people have been replaced, but the new ones are unable to resist the temptation either . . . Do you understand now why the imperial leaders last for such a short time, why they suddenly vanish? They are there, in their Dreams. Yes, so now it is strictly forbidden to construct any new Dream Palaces; the successors of the successors have become aware of the progressive weakening of the ruling class and have reflected on all this . . .’
His voice slurred, Thondup interrupted her:
‘Doesn’t that mean that the Dream Palaces are no longer a danger to the Empire, Gema?’
‘That’s an error of judgment, Thondup. Do you think they haven’t experimented with the Dream as well? That somehow they don’t want to seek refuge there too and no longer be the guard-dogs for all those already dreaming, those who already possess the happiness they themselves long for? Why cling onto this world and its tottering Empire? Why go on facing real difficulties and dangers when there’s a niche waiting for them in one of the Dream Palaces? Isn’t it better for them to do a deal? To say, “You respect our Dreams, and we will no longer stand in the way of History?” There’s no doubt that is their safest option. They can see that the Empire is drawing perilously close to its final crisis, which means anything can happen. The Dream Palaces are shielded against the direct effects of an atomic war, but their energy sources aren’t. The fear that they could wake from their artificial paradise and find themselves in a devastated world was and is the best possible argument. For the first time ever, their egoism and the needs of humanity coincide . . .’
Gema stopped. She settled the sleeping Thondup in the bed, and stretched out beside him. “I don’t think I did that any worse than the old Gema . . . We can continue tomorrow.”