A chapter from the unfinished memoir
of Virginia Booth, noted xenoanthropologist
and novelist, London, Earth (b. 2345–d. 2474).
“I will not leave this cavern,” the voice said as soon as I stepped into the cave mouth. A baritone decaying into vibrato, an old man’s voice, full of dignity and pride.
I tried to pinpoint its source, but the air was thick with fog. The haze seemed to originate from inside the chamber, where a mysterious current of cold wind blew from underground. All around me, where the vapour met the pink light, it glowed, the colour of the primrose buds in my terrarium back home. The thought of missing them in full bloom this year, pricked at me. Focus, Virginia, I told myself. Don’t be so bloody addled. There are lives on the line.
There was no way to know for sure whether the voice belonged to the man I’d been sent there to meet, Vierro Casstratil, the grandfather shaman of Il’maril. Due to the technology taboos, there had been no holos made of him, but the voice sounded just as I’d imagined his would.
“I know how sacred your world is to you,” I said in his native tongue, the language I learned on my first visit decades ago, which a visit to the pharmatutors had refreshed. “But I beg you to reconsider —”
“Not that old song and dance,” the voice snapped. “From you?”
“I beg your pardon, sir. What do you know of me?”
“I requested you.” Casstratil sounded pleased, almost amused. I heard movement, then footsteps, though I still couldn’t see anyone. “When the I.U. asked to send another representative. Perhaps they hoped indulging me would change my mind.” He tittered, a thin laugh that devolved quickly into a cough.
Folding my arms over my traditional tunic, I nodded. The Interstellar Union had mentioned nothing of the sort to me, but it certainly would explain why they’d called me out of retirement. Stepping further into the cavern, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark. For a moment, it was like cataracts again, before my op. Then, I emerged from the haze, and the chamber came clear, filled with stalactites and stalagmites, crooking out of the stone like teeth. At its back, a tunnel, the apparent source of the wind, glowed with dim purple light. When I realised it wasn’t flickering like a candle, but steady, my heart stopped. Light, I thought. The Il’maril refuse medical care. They would rather die than board a transit ship. They aren’t supposed to use tech at all.
Focusing on the light brought the rest of the chamber into relief. A cloaked figure stood at its back, not much taller than I, two silver eyes glowing faintly beneath a hood. Tiny puffs of condensation floated from his mouth as he spoke. “I am glad our destinies have further intertwined. My father was the one who approved your first visit.”
“I wish I could thank him.” The life expectancy on Il’maril was fifty years.
The silver lights of Casstratil’s eyes went out. “May he live on in the sun.”
“May he live on in the sun.”
In the traditional silence that followed, I found myself remembering my first visit. My first mission as an I.U. xenoanthropologist. My first visit to Andromeda, my first love. Everything had begun then. Even my pub career. I couldn’t stop writing about the way the steppes glittered in winter, afterward, the terror and beauty of the Il’marillian sky at night. It was marvelous and wild, unlike the carefully controlled biodome of London, inside of which you could never quite forget the extreme heat and cold of the wastes outside.
Now was not the time for sightseeing, though.
“I wrote several —” I paused, trying to remember the Il’maril word for physical pubs, which the pharmatutors apparently hadn’t restored. “— books. I wrote several books about my time here. It’s an honor to get an audience with you.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He bowed slightly beneath his hood, then lowered his voice. “It cannot surprise you that we refuse to go.”
“It doesn’t,” I said quietly. I’d awakened that morning with a particularly germane line of scripture on my tongue. All day, as the caravan led me to this cave, I’d been repeating it to myself, worried I would forget without the memory chip I’d refused out of respect for the taboos. “‘Without the sun we are nothing.’”
He nodded. “Your teacher taught you well. And yet you advocate for evacuation?”
“No matter how much I love this place,” I hoped he could hear the regret in my voice, “I must.”
From the surface, the Il’maril sky was enchanting, the crimson sun bathed in rose–coloured light. Only from space was it clear the planet actually had two suns: a tiny white dwarf and its companion, a rosy red giant blooming petals of dust. Probe ships had been making passes over the system ever since convection began in the dwarf star, which accreted enough mass to go supernova long ago. This year, after their annual pass, the astrophysicists projected the disaster’s date: one month from today. Only a splinter group of Il’marillians had agreed to evacuate so far — the emigrants, they called themselves proudly, though the word for the concept was considered obscene. My mission was to convince Casstratil and the rest to go.
I gestured at the floor, the traditional place on Il’maril for discussions of state. “Should we sit?”
Casstratil nodded almost imperceptibly beneath his hood. I still couldn’t see his face. Somewhat further down the tunnel, I was certain now, I could see a light glowing on the wall. Orb–shaped, it glowed a vague silver colour with hints of purple; it wasn’t very bright. In my first pub, I’d speculated that they kept some kind of ancient tech in these caves, which ran on the mysterious geothermal energy the shamans referred to as zim–zivat. It had only been a storytelling device; now, I wondered if I was right.
“I must confess, it’s difficult for me to propose evacuation,” I hedged. The stone was cold beneath the fabric of my cloak, the wind from the tunnel even colder on my brow. Casstratil didn’t seem to care, at least as far as I could tell, based on the steady silver glimmer of his eyes. What must he think of me, I wondered suddenly. My white hair, my wrinkles, the clouded Earth–blue of my eyes. Does he wish he could live this long? The pharmatutors had failed, apparently, to restore the concentrative abilities of my youth. “I appreciate the richness of your meditative tradition,” I went on, tentatively. “I know how much of it you feel you owe to your sun.”
Casstratil nodded again beneath his hood.
I fingered the mini–mike in my pocket, as I considered revealing it. Never would I have dreamed of bringing tech on my first visit, but I had been ordered to try to record this conversation. My director had suggested that I do so without Casstratil’s knowledge, but she had apparently never screened a single one of my pubs.
Casstratil stared at me for a long moment, as if he were measuring something, then reached out to touch my arm. No, was all I had time to think as his fingertip brushed my skin, sending a strange chill up my arm. But it was too late. I knew enough from my first visit not to look away; it was taboo on Il’maril to break a shaman’s gaze. Casstratil’s hood fell back from his face as our eyes locked — his were bright, eerie silver — revealing his scales, his tattoos. On one side of his face was the traditional tattoo given to shamans: two silver fish. On the other was a symbol I’d never seen before — a purple sphere.
“Don’t,” he said, nodding at the hand in my pocket.
My hand flew from my pocket, with a jerk I wasn’t sure was my own. During my first visit, the teacher the council had assigned me, a shaman, had developed the ability to read my thoughts. But that was only after I’d lived with him a year. Apparently Casstratil was good, very good. I cleared my throat, reminding myself to make my speech sound unrehearsed. “We collected a new variant of the tale of two fish from the group who evacuated last month. Perhaps you could tell me what you think of it.”
The tale of two fish was ubiquitous on Il’maril: it was found in symbols, paintings, the songs parents sing to children. In most versions, two fish hear singing beyond the water. They crawl out of the underground sea into living caverns, where the zim–zivat burns so hot they peel off their fins. Then, the fish leave the caverns to find the light of their sun, which teaches them civilization, meditation, and the key to eternal life.
“I’m sure I’ve heard it.” Casstratil frowned. “But go on.”
“In this version, after the sun teaches the fish meditation, they realise it doesn’t know a thing about eternal life. The two fish go on to another system, and another, to learn the secret from the universe at large.”
I bowed my head. “Of course. But I was wondering if you could enlighten me, respectfully. What, in fact, is so special about your sun?”
Casstratil smiled. “Share meditation with me.”
“The sun radiates ever stronger. One no longer has to be outside.” He held out his hand.
Of all the shamans I’d ever met on Il’maril, Casstratil had the brightest eyes. On my first visit, I’d learned that children born with the trait were offered to the elders to be raised as shamans. His parents must have offered him right away, I thought as I took his hand, then shook my head in an attempt to clear my thoughts. For a moment, I could feel him, opening himself to me, as I entered the great white void of his mind. But it only lasted a moment. Maybe the lights run on natural gas, I thought suddenly, and my concentration faltered.
Casstratil lifted his head. “You’re out of practice.”
“It’s been many years.”
“Let us speak of what distracts you.”
His eyes were hypnotising, much more so than those of my first teacher. I found, staring into them, that I couldn’t recall the name of my late husband, our daughter, or our great–grandchild. Perhaps it was the light from the tunnel, but I thought I could see an echo, a ripple, of faint purple deep inside them. As I watched their colour change, mesmerised, all my memories of Il’maril came back to me. The kindness in the eyes of my teacher, the simplicity of his life, the way he laughed every time I asked him to explain a myth. The little silver–eyed boy, who had been lost to his parents and found by our village elders one winter, asleep at the mouth of a cave. Then Casstratil blinked, and I snapped back to the present. Even the boy is probably dead by now, I realised.
“I can’t stop thinking about the fact that there is light back there. Artificial light.”
The fish on Casstratil’s temple wrinkled. “What if I were to show it to you?”
“You’d do that?”
He nodded, then stood. “The I.U. will try to force evacuation if your mission fails. And it will. I need you to take them a message for me.”
Into the tunnel we went, footsteps echoing, reverberating against the cold, damp stone. As we walked, I cursed the fact that I’d mentioned artificial light; such a statement was blasphemy here. How addlebrained have I become? Then, I remembered the stories I’d heard about Casstratil long ago, stories I’d forgotten because of how outlandish they’d seemed. At the time, I hadn’t believed them; I hadn’t even used them in my pubs. Supposedly, not only could he read thoughts, but he was able to channel the power of the zim–zivat to control minds.
The prospect alarmed me as I walked beside him, apparently of my own accord.
Casstratil muttered to himself as we went in a language I didn’t recognise. Our footsteps echoed on the stone. As we passed the light–orb, it was all I could do to keep walking. Stay cool, I thought. Don’t let on that you’re alarmed. The orb was spherical and smooth, and I thought I could see movement inside it. The stone of the wall around it was variegated, like the ‘shells’ in the biohistory holos I’d screened as a girl. I thought of the cold wind that blew through this tunnel, Casstratil’s silver eyes. There’s something I’m missing, I told myself, as I had a thousand times where Il’maril was concerned.
Seeing another orb on the wall up ahead, I paid closer attention, reaching out to touch it casually as we passed. Apart from the variegation, the texture was smooth, softer than stone, and it extended for some metres around the orb. It seemed to spring back when I touched it. Afterward, I was sure something inside it moved to follow our path. Purple ripples, like what I saw in Casstratil’s eyes. Violet flecks rising and falling like the snow in an antique Earth globe.
“They’re watching you,” Casstratil said mysteriously.
My skin crawled. Who on Il’maril would be responsible for surveillance of the subterranes? Who could possibly design the tech?
Casstratil took hold of my arm and led me deeper into the tunnel, around many a labyrinthine turn. The wind blew stronger, colder. As we passed another dimly glowing orb, then another, I heard a familiar sound up ahead. The sound of water. More and more, the orbs and variegation covered the tunnel walls. I found myself unable to speak, listening to the thump–thump of my heart. Who are they? was all I could think. Who is watching me? My eyes flitted from orb to orb.
Then Casstratil’s grip tightened, and I found myself moving my legs, one foot in front of the other, conscious only of his will. He wanted me to go with him, and that fact was all I knew. By the time I found myself in the howling cavern at the tunnel’s end, everything else was a blur. We could’ve walked for hours to get there, or days; looking out over the enormous underground lake, I couldn’t be sure. A silvery haze swirled like a storm over the water, spiraling over the giant grotto, picking up speed, setting the hair on my scalp on end.
Casstratil walked me to the edge of the beach where the waves pounded stone, then released me, raising his eyes to the ceiling, muttering in the same strange language he’d used before. As soon as he let go, my own thoughts returned: thoughts of the impending supernova, my mission, what would happen if it failed, and more immediately, my anxiety about the bizarre behavior of the fog. What in bloody hell is causing it to spiral like that? I wondered. Where is that wind coming from? Casstratil didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned; in fact, he looked almost reverent. I had seen the same look on the faces of tourists at the ruins of St. Marylebone’s.
I forced myself to take several deep breaths and observe the cavern. Its walls were completely covered in that shell–like stone, dotted with thousands of orbs. Each of them was glowing faintly, and there were thousands more above us, violet lights moving and undulating in beautiful patterns, glittering like stars in an underground sky. Like old holos I had seen of the Northern Lights at home.
They’re alive, I realised, suddenly. Alive. What if these are the living caverns? What if the zim–zivat is not energy, but another life form? I remembered what my teacher told me, all those years ago, when the elders found that missing boy at the mouth of a cave: that the silver eye trait only began to appear here some ten thousand years ago, and in the past thousand so many had been born with it they couldn’t all be shamans anymore. What if the tale of two fish is literal? What if the Il’maril evolved symbiotically with these orbs, then crawled out of the underground caverns, developing individual telepaths who could speak to the orbs?
“Ah,” said Casstratil, turning suddenly to meet my eyes. “Finally, you understand. Give me the recording device. I want you to take what I’m going to say back to the I.U.”
I found myself doing what he said before I was even sure I had decided to.
“The tale of two fish,” Casstratil said, eyeing the device in my hand with distaste, “is, indeed, based on evolutionary fact, as you’ve speculated in your books.”
I blinked at him in surprise.
“Yes, yes,” he admitted with a wave of his hand. “I’ve read them. We had them translated. That’s why I requested you. I thought you might be sympathetic to our cause. I see, looking into your mind, that I was right.”
I took a deep breath. “Go on.”
“Tech is taboo on Il’maril because we knew it would interfere with evolution. Unlike on your world,” he sneered, “where tech has altered its course, evolution has proceeded naturally here. As the tale of two fish implies, not one but two sentient life forms evolved on Il’maril. The zim–zivat were first. A coral reef that spread from this underground sea to the walls of this cave, permanently fixed, feeding on stellar energy that passes through rock. They were our first teachers. When we walked out of these caverns to find the sun, we left them behind physically, but they have remained very present in our thoughts.” He tapped his forehead and smiled. “These orbs are their eyes, though they’re much more advanced, more sensitive than ours. They understand much better than we do the process our sun is undergoing. Very soon there will be a burst of the energy they consume, enough to complete the process we started together aeons ago.” He smiled, almost hysterically, at the storm. “It has already begun.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I paused for a moment, staring up at the orbs on the ceiling, the beautiful purple and silver light show, thinking of my daughter, my great–grandchild. The flowers in my terrarium at home. “You requested me?”
Casstratil chuckled. “Perhaps coerced would be a better word.”
“You believe the supernova, the energy burst, holds the key to eternal life?”
He smiled. “We don’t understand how, exactly, but the zim–zivat do. They say that we three — the Il’maríl, the zim–zivat, and the sun — will become one, eternally sharing in meditation.”
His words knocked the breath from my chest. I closed my eyes, overcome. Not by grief or pity, but awe. There was a terrible beauty in such belief.
Still, I couldn’t help but ask, “How can you be sure?”
He scoffed. “What a sad place your world must be.”
What certainty, I thought. I haven’t encountered anything like it since I retired. It reminded me of the way my teacher had laughed, each time I asked him about his planet’s myths, seventy years before. It was a carefree laugh, full of joy. The laugh of a man who knew God.
The ceiling of the cavern glittered with thousands upon thousands of orbs. I thought of my primrose plant, barely blooming under the glass of my terrarium at home.
Beside me, Casstratil stood for a moment, impassive, his eyes bright. Then, he touched my arm in an apparent gesture of farewell.
“Send regards to the I.U. from all of us,” he said.
And I was conscious, suddenly, of nothing but his will for me to go.
I watched the supernova from the safety of my flat: a 3D holo in my living room. Security system armed, phone switched off, I sat on the lounge in silk pajamas I’d purchased with the I.U. honorarium. My daughter had been calling me all day, but I preferred to watch alone. I couldn’t shake the nausea I’d developed on the flight home, hugging the toilet while the I.U. ship jumped through space. The further I got from Il’maril, the worse it became. By the time we landed in London, I was a mess. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was read and reread my journals from my time on Il’maril, all my notes on their myths. The day of the event, I ate very little; watching the holo, I felt faint. The camera was too far from the system to record planets, but it was close enough to display the stars in magnification. With the shades drawn, the room was almost as black as space. The white dwarf appeared to float near the front wall, a silvery sphere almost completely enveloped by the crimson dust of its companion star. The dust cast an eerie glow over the dim flat, the lounge, my toes. The same colour of the haze that surrounded Casstratil’s cave.
At the edge of the holo, a countdown pulsed: 03:02. 03:01.
My heart pounded as the image shrank and the holocasters appeared. Talking heads: a Scottish woman with bright red hair and freckles, a dark–skinned man from New Nairobi. When I reached for my drink, my hands shook.
The holocasters had been advertising the event ever since I returned; someone had leaked my intake interview. “Retired xenoanthropologist loses marbles, cites obscure policy to justify a million deaths,” the captions scrolled. “Primitive mass–suicide imminent.” Never mind that the I.U. position on cultural sensitivity was public record, or that I had only recommended inaction because evacuation would require force and loss of lives. One ad juxtaposed a heavily–edited clip from my interview with a simulation of the explosion: “Let them die,” I said, blue eyes bright, white hair frizzing around my face. Then, the simulation appeared onscreen: the binary system, the rose sun, the dwarf star. Fade to white.
When the ticker hit 00:30, I was on the edge of my seat, oblivious to everything but those numbers and the glow. Blooming hell, I told myself as the countdown hit single digits, my heart pounding. This is it. The culmination of the myths.
The explosion was not like the one from the simulation — a white flash that blotted everything out. Nor was it pink and silver and violet, like the one I’d seen in my dreams. It was every colour at once, a brightness so bright one cannot translate it into words. I stiffened in my armchair when it enveloped me, undulating along the ceiling, setting my flat ablaze.
I thought my body would go up in flames.
I felt trapped in my flat, after that, like the primrose in my terrarium. When I went to purchase groceries, people pointed and whispered. Even my daughter admitted that she preferred not to be seen with me. One day, on the way home from her flat, I caught myself searching, desperately, for the shimmering air behind the buildings that betrayed the curvature of the dome. I wanted to go off–world, but there was no way the I.U. would rehire me, and my pension wasn’t enough for me to pay my own way. Eventually, I realised I could leave my flat unrecognised if I wore dark glasses and stuffed my hair under a hat. My daughter couldn’t be reasoned with, but the disguise freed me to walk about during the day. After that, the observation panels at the edge of the city called to me. I visited them several times that week to stare at the wastes. The weather outside haunted me—the gusts of coloured snow, the fog that glittered with metal sediment and dust. It was beautiful, if one could forget what the particles contained. I went to the ruins, too. Marylebone’s, St. Magnus the Martyr, the East London Mosque, the Neasden Mandir. The graveyard from before the era of mandatory cremation. I walked so far and often my leg muscles began to ache.
The day I received the transmission from my old director, I was speechless. I had no idea what to expect as I rode the lift upstairs. When she told me about the distress call the I.U. received from the emigrants, I could feel myself coming to life. My blood pumping, my heart fluttering in my chest. Bloody hell, Virginia, I thought. You’re going off–world.
On the ride over to the wilderness planet where they’d been relocated, I experienced no trace of the nausea I felt on my last trip. I felt fine as the ship jumped through space, until that first night, lying in bed. Watching the dim confetti that had drifted across my field of vision for years, I couldn’t sleep. The distress call I’d translated only said the emigrants weren’t faring well away from Il’maril. Out of a few thousand, a quarter of their people had taken ill. With great reluctance, they wanted us to try to save them with tech. The pharma crew expected to find some previously undetected microbe in the atmosphere or vegetation. We were carrying every class of antibiotic, antiviral, and pharma; the ship boasted a lab large enough to mass–produce whatever worked.
The settlement was an endless sea of thatched huts in a recently cleared wood. By the time we reached it, the grandfather shaman of the sect informed us over half the population was ill. He was an old man by Il’marillian standards, almost fifty. Grizzled, with a thin white beard and hollow face. He treated us coldly, despite my traditional greetings; there was no hint of the gratitude I’d read about in the resettlement report. It was icy and wet as he led us back to his hut; everyone we saw — standing in doorways, or hurrying through muddy alleys — had wrapped themselves in I.U. blankets to ward off the chill. In his hut, the fire sputtered loudly; he wore the sort of heavy blue cloak that signified mourning on Il’maril.
“Help us,” he said from the dirt floor where we sat with the equivalent of a shrug. “Any way you can.” The fish tattoo on his temple wrinkled. His eyes bore the look of defeat.
That first week, the pharmatechs tried every treatment we had brought. They smiled as they worked, until I told them what their patients were saying — that there was nothing they could do. As they trudged from hut to hut with their machines and vials, people murmured prayers under their breath. They closed their doors. They jeered. Mothers stood in doorways, holding infants, their eyes wild with grief.
I returned to my hut each night with my journal, where I was writing down the names of the dead in my shaky hand. As the days turned into weeks, the list grew long. I read the names by rush light each night, before I went outside to search the stars that shone over the wood.
The official I.U. report, which I did not write, blames infection. Some mysterious airborne virus, which our scanners never managed to detect. But what does the I.U. know of Il’marillian physiology? The grey faces, the pinched lips, the difficulty they all had with speech at the end.
The grandfather shaman who presided over the sect was one of the last to go. I had been visiting his hut. His fire needed tending, and there was no one else to listen to his stories about the wife he had lost. I held his hand each time I sat with him on his cot. He spoke to me in whispers. The day before he fell silent — as they all did — he told me Vierro Casstratil had visited his dreams. “The old man says it is true,” he whispered, in that dim hut, his silver eyes glistening. “‘Without the sun we are nothing.’”
And who am I to question him?