Galaxies Like Grains of Sand
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by Brian W. Aldiss
Category: Science Fiction
Description: "Brian Aldiss seems to have always had a more oceanic sense of time than even most science fiction writers, an almost measured vision of what will transpire in the long run..." - Norman Spinrad In Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Brian W. Aldiss tells the tale of mankind's future over the course of forty million years. Each of these nine connected short stories highlights a different millennia in which man has adapted to new environments and hardships.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1979
eBookwise Release Date: August 2012
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [278 KB]
Reading time: 167-235 min.
The War Millennia
OUT OF REACH
To begin then--though it is certainly no beginning--the first fragment is of a strange past world, where clouds of nationalism have gathered and broken into a storm of war. Over the forgotten continents--Asia, America, Africa--missiles of destruction fly. The beleaguered people of that day have not fully comprehended the nature of the struggle in which they are engulfed.
Those simple blacks, whites and greys which constitute the political situation are grasped readily enough with a little application. But behind these issues lie factors scarcely understood in the council chambers of Peking, London, Cairo or Washington--factors which stem from the long and savage past of the race; factors of instinct and frustrated instinct; factors of fear and lust and dawning conscience; factors inseparable from the adolescence of a species, which loom behind all man's affairs like an insurmountable mountain chain.
So men fought each other instead of wrestling with themselves. The bravest sought to evade the currents of hatred by turning outward to the nearest planets in the solar system; the cowardly, by sleeping away their lives in vast hives called dreameries, where the comforts of fantasy could discount the depredations of war. Neither course ultimately offered refuge; when the earthquake comes, it topples both tower and hovel...
It is fitting that the first fragment should start with a man sitting helplessly in a chair, while bombs fall.
The Director of Dreamery Five slid out of his chair before the silent control panels, the question of Floyd Milton making him ungovernably restless. Every so often a distant crump outside announced that the enemy attack was still on; that made the Director no more easy. Although he would be safer down in the vaults, peering into Floyd Milton's dreams, other considerations caused him to take the elevator and sink to the cool depths of Dreamery Five. He had seen Milton's face when he came in that afternoon. Milton had looked like death.
The sleep levels were as humid as usual, and reeked of the spirit used by the robot masseurs.
"You slugs!" the Director said aloud in the direction of the rows of sleepers.
They lay dormant, heads concealed in the feedback phones. Occasionally, a sleeper would be rolled up until his toes rested on his shoulders and his behind pointed into the air; rubber-covered machinery would flick up and pummel him. Then it stretched him out again and pummelled his chest, carefully avoiding the intravenal feed pipes which hung from the ceiling. Whatever their mental state, sleepers were maintained in good physical condition. And all the time they slept and dreamed their dark dreams.
"Slugs!" the Director said again. It would never have done to have a director who loved the sleepers in his charge; alone in the vast, automated dreameries, he would have been too likely to pry into the reveries of these hopeless introverts.
Apart from a few young people moved by genuine curiosity, only psychopaths and misfits lay in the dreameries, playing out their lives in useless reverie. Unfortunately, they accounted for a fair percentage of the population; the sixty-years cold war--now broken into something horribly hot--had produced an amazing number of mental invalids who were only too glad to retreat by the escape route of the dreameries into their own fantasy world.
Floyd Milton had not looked the type, nor had he looked like one of the tough spacers who, after the ardours of a long run to
Mars or Ganymede, came here sometimes to recuperate for a while. He looked like a man who had betrayed himself--and knew it.
That was why the Director had to see his dreams. Sometimes men--real men--could be saved from themselves before they sank too low.
The Director paused in front of Milton's bed. The latest arrival was silent, breathing shallowly, his face hidden under the visor and feedback phones. Noting his number, the Director hurried into the nearest control booth and dialled it. He assumed a visor and phones himself.
In a moment he would be plugged automatically into Milton's reveries; from the look on Milton's face when he had entered Dreamery Five, it would not be pleasant, but tuning circuits insured that the Director could always modulate the empathy effect enough to retain his own consciousness.
As always when about to undergo these supervisions, the Director hurriedly made a mental survey of his own world; once in someone else's dreams he had difficulty in orienting himself. It was not a comfortable world. The ideological barriers erected all over Earth since the forties of the previous century had precluded any advance in human happiness.
In the late sixties, the first manned ships had plunked themselves down on the moon. In the late eighties, the principles of subthreshold suggestion had been applied to the sleeping brain; coupled with feedback techniques, this had permitted a method to be evolved for making one's own dreams more vivid than a 3-D film. Within three years, Dreamery One had been built.
Just before the turn of the century, the Solites had arrived. They came not in spaceships but in vessels they termed portmatters, houselike affairs which broadcast themselves to Earth from the Solite world. Their science was a parascience far beyond Earths understanding, yet they took an innocent delight in Earth.
"They loved Earth!" the Director said. He had seen the Solites, with Earth's blessing, load their portmatters with Earth's riches--which meant for them not gold or uranium but Earth's plants and animals and butterflies. They had been adorable people, sophisticated savages welcoming all of life. When the cold war suddenly blew hot, they had disappeared, declaring they could never return.
That moment, to sensible people everywhere, had seemed the moment that hope died. Earth was alone again, derelict by its own woes.
"You are through, sir," a metallic voice announced.
The Director braced himself. Next second he was plunged into the dreams of Floyd Milton.
It was pleasant. After the creepy vaults of Dreamery Five and the murmurs of a global war, it was doubly pleasant.
All the same, for the Director it was strange, incredibly strange.
The plants sported flowers as lovely as girls' mouths; the flowers budded, blossomed, faded and produced streamers fifty yards long which billowed lightly in the breeze, scattering perfumed seeds. The plants grew in a circle, and the circle was a room.
Only one room. Another room had for its walls a twinkling myriad of fish, little grey fellows with forked black tongues like snakes. They swam in towers of water that wet your finger if you touched them. The matter-transmitter fields, two molecules thick, held them in place, towering into the vermilion air.
Another room seemed to be sheathed in stars; giant moths flew about and settled on the stars. The stars chimed as they were touched.
In another room, tall grasses glistened with the heavy-lidded dews of dawn.
In another room, snow fell eternally, magnifying itself as it sank into crystals three inches across which vanished as they touched the floor.
In another room--but every room was different, for this was the palace of Amada Malfreyy, and the palace was on Solite. Amada herself was here, just returned from her visit to Earth, loaded down with flowers and tigers. She was giving a party to reunite all her old friends and introduce them to her second husband.
The guests numbered under five hundred. A good proportion of them had brought their husbands, brightly dressed men whose frivolous robes contrasted with the black-draped semi-nudity of the women. Many women and some men came escorted by animals--cheetahs, macaws, or a sort of superb lizard that was three feet high when it walked erect. Animatedly, they thronged through the magnificent rooms.
Gay balloons, wafted on artificial trade winds, floated glasses of drink about the rejoicing palace. Everyone appeared to be drinking; no one appeared to be drinking too much. Another thing made the party quite unlike an earthly party--although everyone talked, no one did so at the top of his voice.
Dazzled as he watched it all, the Director thought that he had never seen a fantasy half so fantastic as this. He could tell by its careful detail that it was memory rather than the wish-fulfilment stuff most of the inmates of Dreamery Five brewed in their dark little brains. Floyd Milton had actually walked through this incredible building.
He had walked among these gay avenues of cold-burning argon, playing its rainbow light over the guests' faces. He had strolled along this invisible path above a gurgling stream. He had eaten those fantastic foodstuffs and spoken to guests in his halting version of the Solite tongue.
All these things Milton had done because it was his palace. He was Amada's second husband, and the party was being given in his honour. The guests flocked here to meet him. This was the great night of his life; yet he was not happy.
"You look worried, pet," Amada said to him. She might have been a woman of Earth, and a lovely woman at that, except for the scanty thatch of hair which curled tightly across her head. Now she wore the martyred look any woman wears when her husband is being awkward at an awkward moment.
"I'm not worried, Amada," Milton said. "And please don't call me 'pet.' Your blue tiger here is a pet."
"But it's a compliment, Floyd," she said, patting the creature's head. "Is not Subyani a beautiful pet?"
"Subyani is a tiger. I am a man. Can't you try and remember that little distinction?"
Amada never looked angry, but now the martyred expression deepened; it made her, Milton had to admit, extremely desirable.
"The distinction is quite obvious to me," she said. "Life is too short to waste pointing out the obvious."
"Well, it's none too obvious to me," Milton said angrily. "What do your people do? You come to Earth, and you proceed to take everything you can--trees, grass, fish, birds--"
"Even husbands!" Amada said.
"Yes, even husbands. You do all this, Amada, because you people have fallen in love with Earth. You ship just about everything you can here. It makes me feel no better than an exotic plant or a poodle."
She turned her beautiful back on him.
"Now you are acting as intelligently as a poodle," she said.
"Amada!" he said. When she turned slowly around, Milton said penitently, "I'm sorry, darling. You know why I'm irritable; I keep thinking of the war back on Earth. And--the other thing..."
"The other thing?" she prompted.
"Yes. Why you Solites are so reticent about where in the universe this world is. Why, you wouldn't even point out its direction to me in Earth's night sky. I know that with your portmatters distance is immaterial, but I'd just like to know. It may be a detail to you but it s the sort of thing that bothers me."
Amada let an image of a big butterfly settle on her finger as she said, carefully, "In Earth's present state of civilization, she cannot reach this world; so why should it matter where we are?"
"Oh, I know our little spaceships are just a beginning..."
He let his voice trail away. The trouble was, Solite civilization was too big and too beautiful. They might look like Earth people, but they thought and acted differently; they were--alien. That, basically, was what worried Milton. A lingering puritanism made him wonder if he was not, perhaps, committing some nameless sin in marrying a woman of another planet.
After only a month of marriage, he and Amada had had several--no, they were not quarrels, just differences. They loved each other. That, yes; but Milton, questioning his own love, wondered if perhaps his hand had not been forced by the knowledge that by marrying her he could get to fabulous Solite. Only by marrying a citizen of the matriarch-dominated planet could one visit it; otherwise, it hung remotely in other skies, completely out of reach.
Despite himself, Milton tried to make his point again.
"Earth's a poor world," he said, ignoring the boredom on her face. "Solite is a rich world. Yet you fall in love with all terrestrial things. You import them. You give Earth nothing in exchange--not even your location."
"We like the things of Earth for aspects in them you do not see," she said.
There it was again, the alien line of thought. He shivered, despite the warmth of the room.
"You don't give Earth anything," Milton repeated, and was at once aware of the meanness of what he had said. He had spoken without thought, his mind filled with a host of other things.
"I'm trying to give you all this if you will accept it," she answered lightly. "Now please come and smile at some people for my sake."
Although his worries persisted, Milton soon managed to shake them to the back of his mind. Guilt was his trouble; at home his country was at war, while here everything was created for pleasure. Solite was immensely enjoyable for its own sake. Milton loved its hedonistic atmosphere, that nevertheless contained an astringent tang. He loved its women for their beauty and for the gay delicacy which concealed the firmness with which they controlled everything. With Solite men he was less enamoured; they were nice enough, but Milton could not forgive them for being the weaker sex. Old attitudes die hard.
The new bunch of women and animals--as ever they were mixed together--that Milton was introduced to began roving around the palace with him. All was wonderfully confusing--some rooms had an indoor feeling, some an outdoor; the contiguity of flesh and fur was stimulating; the kaleidoscope of colour intoxicated. Milton found himself besieged with questions about Earth. He answered them almost without thought, as it grew later and the procession became a sort of strutting dance. Inevitably, the gaiety soaked into him, warming his heart, tempering his pulses.
What the Solites thought of him was clear enough: he was a primitive, odd, perhaps even dangerous, but therefore all the more exciting. Let them think what they liked! They could think he was a cave man, provided this wonderful party went on a little longer.
Yet for all his rapture, Milton learned a little about the civilization of which he had become a member, picking up scraps of information dropped in casual conversation. Solite was mainly a barren world; half the land between the poles was crater-filled and bereft of soil. In the rest, the Solites had tried to create their idea of paradise, raising occasional oases among the deserts.
Their oases were being stocked with the fauna and flora of Earth, since their own species were few in number.
"Don't you get plants and animals from other planets in the Galaxy?" Milton asked one witch-eyed woman. Just for a second he thought she lost her step in the dance. Her green eyes searched him until he dropped his gaze.
"Only from your Earth," she said, and dipped away from him in a glide.
The Solites reckoned their culture to be fifteen thousand years old. They had now reached a period of stability. For all their gaiety, Milton fancied he could detect a core of loneliness in them. But, finally, his sense of difference disappeared in the excitement of the evening. He was becoming slightly drunk, though he drank little.
Now the palace was like a mirage, shining with people, glittering with music, its whole architecture adrift with calculated magic.
"Soon we will move it all down to the sea!" Amada cried. "Such a night is incomplete without an ocean. We will transport shortly to Union Bay. We must have waves, and the rhythms of the tide around us!"
Meanwhile, the rooms became hallucinatory. The portmatters seemed capable of any miracle, as the delicate servomechanisms behind them responded to the party-goers' mood. Bright wall drifted through bright wall, rooms floated up and down among each other bearing their merrymakers with them, so that stars and snowflakes mingled in a beautiful, impossible storm, and angelfish flew among branches of viridian cacti. Hidden music increased in tempo to match the marching decor with its beat.
Then Wangust Ilsont arrived, the last of all the guests. In her hair a magenta chameleon curled, matching the magenta of her lips and the nipples of her breasts. She hastened to Amada and Floyd Milton. She, too, had been to Earth; she, too, had returned with a native husband.
"It'll be pleasant for each of you," Wangust said, beaming warmly at Milton as she clutched his hand, "in case you ever feel homesick; you shall be my husband's best friend, hunting and drinking with him. We don't live far from you; a horse can take you almost as quickly as a portmatter."
She brought her Earthman husband forward and introduced him as Chun Hwa.
As the two men confronted each other, everyone else seemed to fade away, lost in a moment of crisis.
Clearly enough the expressions chased themselves across Chun Hwa's face. First an angry dislike. Then regret for the dislike. Then embarrassment. A pained searching. Finally a grimace that said, "Well, this isn't any time or place to be unpleasant." With a smile he put out his hand.
Milton recovered himself less quickly.
Ignoring the hand outstretched to him, he turned vexedly to Amada.
"This man belongs to a nation which is at war with mine," he said.
A strained silence fell instantly over the whole group. In part, it was a silence of incomprehension. Milton spoke in the Solite tongue, but since to his knowledge that language had no exact equivalents for the words "nation" and "war," he was forced to use instead the equivalents for "group" and "trouble."
"How can there be trouble between you?" Amada asked, calmly enough, but with a hint of danger in her voice. "You are both Solite men now. Earth is far away and has no claims on you.
The words had exactly the wrong effect on Milton. All his feelings of guilt welled up strongly within him. He clenched his fist, part of him aware he was about to act foolishly.
"There is trouble between us," he said. "One of us must leave at once."
"This I don't understand," Wangust said. She was completely nonplussed by Milton's reaction. "You are both Earthmen--"
"Have you ever met before?" someone asked.
"What are these groups you speak of?" someone else asked.
"What is this trouble?"
"Stay out of this!" Amada begged them all. She turned to her husband. Subyani, her tiger, could not rival her for ferocious beauty when she grew angry. Amada in her wrath was at once potently appealing and intimidating.
"I wish to know at once, clearly, the cause of this foolishness," she demanded of Milton.
Chun Hwa began to explain. His Solite, Milton noted angrily, was more fluent than Milton's own. The concept of nationality seemed above the heads of most of the women present; they belonged to a sparsely populated world where the ubiquitous portmatters rendered segregation into groups an impermanent affair.
Amada and Wangust, however, having visited Earth, knew something of the terrible weapons of war, and had even seen the start of the global conflict before leaving for Solite. Both were alarmed to find an echo of that fearful struggle here in their midst. During the argument that followed, they let slip a piece of information previously withheld from Milton, either by accident or design: now that the war was on, no more portmatter units would visit Earth. He was entirely cut off from his native world.
Chun Hwa, urbane and conciliatory, had their ear now. Milton, unable to follow all that was said, found he did not want to listen. Perturbation swamped him; already mazed by colour, light, and tempting women, his brain rocked with conflict. The sense of being alien, of being numb to so much glorious life, was overwhelming.
Angrily, he turned on his heel and left. Amada made no movement to detain him.
In its present state of gay upheaval, the palace was an impossible place for a novice to leave. Milton contented himself with walking as far and as fast as he could, agony of mind goading him on.
He was sorry for what he had done here; he was sorry he had left Earth. He loved Amada passionately; equally, he loved his own land. It was a cruel antithesis to resolve. His thoughts churned more madly than the hidden music.
He travelled a long way, pushing through ranks of startled revellers, sometimes being carried back by the rooms almost to the point he had started from. And then the scene changed.
In an attempt to fend off the failure of her party, Amada had moved the palace. Having been an electronics officer before his marriage, Milton knew something of the complexity behind this seemingly simple transference of location. Nevertheless, even in his present mood, the wonder of it overcame him.
The great building was suddenly half-submerged in a summer sea. Its rear apartments stood on the beach, its forward ones, like the bow of a doomed ship, sunk under the foam. It was night. An illusion of phosphorescence washed against the walls and, by cunning back-projection, appeared to float through the palace itself.
Under the pellucid waters, the participants in a weird ballet began to arrive. Seals bearing luminous globes, lancelike cornet fish, eels, chubs, big purple parrot fish, shoals of doctor fish, dolphins, sharks and manta rays whirled onto the watery stage. Around the transparent walls they swam, sinking and rising in a curious saraband.
"I've got to get home!" Milton exclaimed, and turned his back on the parading fish.
Breaking into a run, he pressed through the seemingly submerged rooms until he came finally to a chamber that, camouflaged though it was, he recognized. Here be was alone.
He pushed his hand through floating bunches of syringa blossom. Behind them he felt a metal box; opening it, chancing a shock, he probed gingerly for the first terminal. This little box contained the scrambler that, on instructions from the computer housed deep down in the foundation, maintained this particular room s cubic contents in their desired spatiotemporal location.
Milton, his face pressed into the sweet syringas, wrenched out the wire below the first terminal. As soon as it came away, it dissolved beneath his fingers.
The room snapped out of being.
Somewhere an alarm began to sound, then it faded out sharply on a dropped octave. The palace vanished. People, music, flowers, the bright facades and terraces, all evanesced.
In the emergency caused by Milton's broken circuit, the computer had recalled the entire building to its base inland.
Milton fell twelve feet into the slumbering sea.
All was silent as he gained the surface. The underwater menagerie had fled. There was only a sea bird, killed by the original materialization of the palace, which floated beside Milton on the water Overhead, Solite s weird moon burned, a pregnant crescent; it glowed red and baleful, like an eye whose pupil swims with blood.
Blowing out a mouthful of water, Floyd Milton kicked out and made for the shore.
"I'm going home!" he told himself aloud. It could be done. The distance to the great portmatter units that had travelled to Earth was not great; he could walk it. He would smuggle himself aboard, force them to take him back. The call of duty was suddenly absurdly strong.
To get back he would not hesitate to kill. The Solites were alien; even his beloved Amada could not understand. She would not even tell him such a simple thing as how many light years it was to Earth; therefore she could not love him deeply. Amada must be forgotten. Perhaps after the war ... if there was an after to follow that terrible holocaust...
He needed a weapon.
A small pier jutted from the beach. Milton swam to it and hauled himself up a ladder. On the pier, red in the eerie moonlight, stood a wooden hut. Milton broke open the door with one heave of his shoulder.
Fortune was with him. Inside the hut hung skin-diving equipment. Fins, goggles, fathometers and waterscopes lay ready for use. And there was one magnificent speargun--a fortunate concession, Milton reflected, considering the peaceable nature of the Solites. Examining it, he found it was air-powered, and fired a fearsome-looking barb equipped with a cartridge that would explode upon contact.
Scooping up a belt of spare ammunition, Milton left the hut with the gun. Outside, he stopped sharply. Chun Hwa was coming along the pier toward him.
Yes, of course--they would guess what had happened when a fuse blew and he was no longer anywhere to be found. They would hurry back to get him ... Baring his teeth, Milton swung the gun up and took aim. Chun Hwa stopped immediately.
"Don't fire!" he called in Solite. "Floyd Milton, please listen to me. I am not your antagonist! You do not understand; quite evidently you have not been told as much about this world as I have."
"I don't want to hear a thing!" Milton shouted. His blood bellowed like surf in his ears. Through the red night he could discern moving figures on the land; they must be coming to hunt him down.
"Hear me, Milton! Don't fire, please! These people have saved us and the animals and plants because the war on Earth will destroy nearly all things. Do you understand, Milton? The Solites are our--"
Milton cut him off with a savage shout. People were crowding down the cactus-fringed beach. They had reached the pier. A few of them charged into the surf, calling his name. He pressed the trigger of the speargun. Almost at once, the cartridge exploded in its screaming target.
Everything went blank, freezing down into a dull, uniform grey.