by James Graham
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
A woman emerged from behind the bottle, then a man, casually looking round. Almost at once the man caught sight of Peter, turned and said something to the woman, and pointed. Peter came forward, two steps down the slope, and said ‘Hello’ as agreeably as he could.
‘Hello!’ the woman said, brightly.
‘Come,’ said the man, beckoning. Peter picked his way down the slope, and stood facing them. Once down, he realised how tall they were, the man slightly taller than the woman but both six-and-a-half feet or more. They were lightly tanned, Mediterranean brown.
The man was quite gaunt, with an angular face; the woman round-faced and chubbier. She wore a loose dress, not caught in at the waist, coloured in washes of blue and bronze that seemed to turn paler and darker as she moved. The man wore what looked like deep blue overalls, a single garment with pockets on the breast and thighs.
Neither of them spoke immediately, so Peter nodded towards the bottle and said, ‘This is beautiful.’
‘Ah,’ the woman said, inclining her head with a half smile. ‘You also ssee it so? It sseems to be universally sso.’
He nodded. He was about to ask what it was, and how it got there, but something told him the answer might be complicated or not forthcoming. Besides, the accent puzzled him. So he said, ‘Where are you from?’
‘Irantha,’ the man said. His eyes were suddenly full of mischief, as if challenging the stranger to solve a puzzle. Iranians? Peter thought, and was about to say it when the man said, ‘Which doess not mean we are Irahnians.’
‘We are from Irantha,’ the woman said. ‘It is not our name for it, but the name we gave it here on Earth because it is ssimple. Irantha is in the sstar sysstem... aah... 51 Pegassuss. I am Aliliss, and he is Haad.’
Peter laughed quite heartily, for the first time that day, partly at the absurdity of what he was hearing, but also at what now struck him as a comical accent. It was the long esses, not a hiss exactly but drawn out just a smidgen, as if they enjoyed the sound. And that long ‘aah’ which sounded oddly like a sigh of relief. He remembered to say, ‘I’m Peter. Peter Alexander.’ And then: ‘Are you telling me you’re aliens?’
‘If yuh like,’ Haad said. ‘Or elsse... you are.’
Peter gave another little laugh, almost a scoff, but stopped himself. A new feeling took him by surprise. He didn’t mind what the stranger had said; in fact, it pleased him. He was certainly some sort of alien.
Feeling the downside of alienhood coming on, he countered it with a sort of joke. ‘OK, you’re not Iranians. But you’re not the Borg, either.’
‘Indeed we are not,’ Haad said, mischief in his eyes again. ‘But Vulcans perhapss?’
He was beginning to enjoy the repartee. It was always therapeutic, even with ordinary folks on the street. ‘Would you like me to take you to my leader?’
Alilis laughed, and Haad gave a guffaw. Haad said, ‘Your Headman? Your ssuperior? Chiefss are an old missfortune.’
‘You have no chiefs... no leaders?’
Haad simply shrugged and shook his head.
‘So you’re not planning to take over the world and enslave us?’
‘No,’ Alilis said. ‘But we have the aim to take your world away with uss.’
She noted his reaction with amusement. Just as he was about to exclaim, she added, ‘As images, of coursse. And archives. We are here as geographers and... aah... anthropologists.’
There was a long moment in which they made eye-contact. The words formed in Peter’s head: Come on, let’s not play games any more. But he didn’t say them. The curious pleasure he had felt at being called an alien was still there; if anything, it had grown.
And another feeling was mingling with it. He looked over at Haad, and caught his eye too. They didn’t look like two tourists who made a habit of winding up the odd passer-by. Their expressions were ineffably genuine. He liked them and was almost willing to believe them. Glancing again at the gazelles, he felt the last few extraordinary minutes coming together in a moment of truth.
Alilis stepped forward and held out her hand to him. ‘You may visit our world, if you wissh.’ Again she seemed to tease, but only for a second, adding quickly, ‘Ssome images only, of coursse.’
As they moved towards the spacecraft, something prompted him to ask one more test question. ‘What are you doing here? I mean, on this hill in Scotland?’
‘I think perhapss the ssame as you,’ Haad said. ‘We work hard, and we need an interval.’
‘Well, I don’t work at all nowadays, but intervals... oh yes, I need intervals.’
Haad stretched an index finger towards the craft, and with a quiet note like a tuning-fork its side parted and an arched opening appeared. ‘Come,’ said Haad.
For a moment Peter felt an impulse to back off, but anticipation and trust were far stronger.
‘Peter?’ Haad said. ‘Come now.’
He followed them, and found himself in a furnished room. A long couch ran almost all round the curve of the wall. Close to it at various points were several low tables. In the centre of the floor stood a small animal figure he couldn’t identify. On part of the wall there was a line of the same calligraphy — if that’s what it was — which he had seen earlier on the shoulder of the bottle. Nothing in the room looked remotely technological.
Our world will be all around you,’ Haad was explaining. ‘ You will sseem to be there. But you will see uss also, and know it iss only an image.’
Haad approached the line of calligraphy and fingered one of the characters. All at once they were in a forest. Stout towering trees surrounded them like the columns of a vast cathedral.
Peter looked to right and left and behind; the forest was everywhere. Looking upwards, he saw that there were no low branches but massive crowns at a height that must have been a hundred metres, with patches of bright sky beyond. Feeling suddenly lightheaded, he looked again at his companions, who were both smiling. Alilis reached out and held him gently by the arm.
The picture began to move. Though he was standing quite still, and Haad and Alilis were beside him, it seemed they were all walking — no, gliding — along a bronze mossy pathway. A small brown animal crossed in front of them, not a beaver, not an otter, a little like both. It turned its head towards them as if it had seen them; its little black eyes were haloed in spectacles of blond fur. Then it was gone. Presently they came towards a bright clearing.
A giant tree had fallen, and another stood naked, cloven from top to root; by lightning, Peter supposed. But the fallen tree... it was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. They stopped, or the image stopped, just below it. This dead thing was alive. It was in fancy dress!
On its flanks and ridge a grew a host of mushrooms: drifts of gentian blue, with little bronze-caps flowing among them; snow-white thimbles on groves of slender stalks; broad hands like ivory, each with three fingers and a thumb, explaining, begging; fat sturdy growths like the upturned feet of elephants; sea-green and azure vases, meant for a single rose.
‘It iss an ancient foresst,’ Alilis said. Then no-one spoke for what seemed many minutes.
‘Such life,’ Peter said at last. ‘Such... prolific life! The dead tree giving such life to these beautiful things.’ He lifted his gaze beyond the tree and saw a mass of saplings reaching for the light: slim, delicate, tapering towards young canopies of oval leaves, deep turquoise, glossy, crimson at the edges, that did not droop but seemed to climb the air. ‘Just so... abundant! So lavish!’
‘There are such plasces on Earth,’ Haad said.
‘There used to be. Well, maybe there still are. But there are people who see only money in them.’
‘We will fly now, if you are ready.’
‘Sslowly at firsst, sso that you will not be afraid. We will look at Irantha from above. Are you ready?’
Peter scarcely hesitated. ‘Yes,’ he said confidently. ‘I’m up for it.’
Rising slowly among the tall trunks and past the crowns was easy, but as the forest fell away Peter cried out. Vertigo and fear of falling almost overwhelmed him, but he closed his eyes and tamed it. It was a film, a sort of 3-D movie, he told himself. He looked again. A great bird laboured past him, big as an albatross, obsidian eye in a patch of white, expansive wings ribbed black and sand and gold.
And then the lovely world came into focus, and he seemed to see a hundred miles. He caught a restless light from a far-off ocean. In the middle ground, the forest seemed more orderly, more husbanded; hollows and little hills were open to the sky. It might have been an earth-scene but for the turtles. Sleeping turtles.
Carapaces grooved and plated, coffee, chestnut, every shade of brown, their plates configured to their curve and sweep; some gold, some green; some covered in eight-sided buttons, others smooth as an egg; some small as houses, some that seemed as large as St Peter’s dome.
He waited for some sleepy turtle heads or languid legs to venture out, but nothing happened. Then a kind of zoom seemed to take effect, and flecks and specks appeared, becoming insects, tiny creatures, something alive and moving in and out and underneath the shells, and overground from shell to shell.
And slowly they were magnified, became themselves, and he cried out again - for these were people! Busy people!
This was a city! A city of turtle-houses! Turtle City!
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Copyright © 2014 by James Graham