Authors: Gwyneth Jones
GRAZING THE LONG ACRE
They walked together on a bleak plain of seaside pebbles, captain and crew of the good ship
. The sky was purple, it seemed to crackle at the edges. On a slab of shale among the pebbles there was a lichen growing. They had come to see it. According to
computers this was the only life on shore, the only life on the planet.
“Imagine that,” said Merle, the captain. “Lying there quietly for millions of years, marching to the beat of a different drum. What insouciance.”
They stepped out into unutterable smog. The ground underfoot was squelchy red dirt; the place resembled a tropical construction site under gas attack. They were inside their suits. Eyes that should have been streaming remained calm. Skin that should have been blistering and screaming felt nothing. They groped a little way into this muck and couldn’t remember why they had decided to leave the ship.
didn’t come out from wherever it went in between unless it had identified some sort of planetary system. But it had never yet found anything like a habitable world.
“I didn’t like that,” said Merle, back in shirt sleeves inside. “It was like being dead.”
“How do you know? How would you know what that’s like?” asked Sugi, the engineer. She laughed hopefully at her own joke; no one joined in.
Merle stared her down. “I think I have a pretty good idea.”
They had been sent out in a spirit of the purest speculation. The
was the first crewed interstellar probe—ahead of its time and dazzlingly expensive. They were covering unimaginable distances, but inside the
there was no perception of the time and space outside. It was a small ship, the crew environment a poky cabin in which they fell over each other, and another pod, reached through a diaphragm, where they slept strapped to the walls. This pod could be booked, by a scrap pad notice pinned to the soft rubbery doorway. If anyone lost the safety pin it caused great resentment. There was no gravity. A small object, once mislaid, could get absolutely anywhere.
They said that being on board reminded them, variously, of the mouse cages in New Kyoto, of life on a non-violent ward, of hanging round a soup-kitchen. These were the lives they knew, none other.
overcame the problem of interstellar distance by constantly disintegrating and reintegrating itself: slipping in a flux of particles from one strand of galactic spaghetti to another. Extraordinary techniques had to be used to prepare human beings for this performance, and it had emerged that a history of mild mental illness was the best primary indicator in selecting candidates for the new frontier. Further screening had identified the ideal minds, all of them with the same slightly abnormal brain chemistry: Dr Irwin, Professor Shaw, Dr Nanazetta, Dr. Ohba, Dr. Mihalaska. The scientific qualifications were required for public relations, just as long ago the men who would sit strapped helplessly in primitive projectile capsules had to be career test pilots. In fact, Sugi had no engineering to do. Irwin could add little to the computers’ analysis of climate, Sasha the anthropologist expected no field work. Even Nanazetta the physiologist was not regarded by anyone as the ship’s doctor.
Merle was the captain: but her title was as irrelevant as the others. The group was supposed to operate on consensual decision-making.
The five didn’t like each other, but that was no special problem. They were all of them accustomed to having poor social lives. Invitations to the sleeping pod were arrived at in roundabout ways. Irwin was frequently employed as a go-between, because he was thought to have a friendly smile—if you could catch him between bouts of sour depression. Sasha was celibate. Nanazetta took this personally and nagged her about it. He bitched at Irwin too, because he was black and therefore (by Nanazetta’s reckoning) had always been sneakily favoured by the team back on
. Merle’s promptly announced and executed programme of trying anyone available was designed to save her from rejection on a more personal level, which it did. It didn’t save her from general dislike. She guessed before long that she’d been appointed ‘captain’ because of, not In spite of, her somewhat abrasive personality. Captain equals scapegoat. The only person who still tried to be friendly to her was Sugi, and unfortunately the cheerful engineer had quickly been relegated to the foot of the pecking order, with the captain naturally pecking harder than anyone.
The days they spent in
had the same hours as days on
and moved in the same way, aimlessly and uncomfortably. Alarm call, get up, have breakfast, go to work, don’t go to work, argue, have coffee. But the nights were long. When Merle lay in her bodybag, arms drifting above her face, she remembered strangely every bedtime of her past when she had longed for just what she was given now: night unfathomable. Not terrifying extinction, but sleep. Sleep for a hundred years, sleep without dreams.
They were eating lunch when
made its first landfall after the red smog system. In the earlier stages of the adventure they would have been excited, but now, when their morning came—as
came out of flux within the system of a planet bearing Star—they went about their business as if nothing was happening.
The designers of the
project had set a high value on crew morale, which they knew was bound to be shaky. Everybody was provided with exactly what they most liked to eat, which made mealtimes interesting in an appalling sort of way. Irwin ate nothing but organically grown haricot beans and fresh tomatoes, baked in olive oil and scattered liberally with chopped raw garlic and bombay onion. Nanazetta preferred huge hunks of practically raw meat, and had never troubled to learn to chew with his mouth closed. Sugi sucked vegetable soup out of a spouted beaker. There were hideous sound effects as she hauled up the tasty glutinous fragments that settled on the bottom.
Merle was on the fourth ‘day’ of a fast, and she was worrying Sasha.
“You must eat, Merle. We must behave normally. For everybody’s sake.”
She herself was eating carrot cake with sour cream, her tongue collecting delicious crumbs and smears from around her mouth. After a lifetime of guilty obesity she was free at last; she didn’t have to care anymore. It was wonderful.
“It’s a protest,” said Merle. “If you don’t leave me alone I’ll refuse to use the toilet next. And see how you like that in here, comrade.”
“Arrogant bitch,” muttered Nanazetta.
tactfully offered a diversion. They had landed. Lunch was abandoned. The ship’s lander, in which the crew environment was embedded, had allowed them no sense of descent or impact. Only the screens now told them that they were planetside, and that exploration was possible.
They stood in the lock, five glimmering figures packed close together. It opened, and the new world rushed in. A dozen or so smaller
remotes jumped out and scurried away like active little silver lobsters.
“Jibbooms and bobstays,” said Merle. “Shiver my timbers. I can’t believe it.”
They appeared to have landed on a golf course. A serene, well-tended golf-course, the rolling greens broken up by patches of flowering shrubbery.
It was Irwin’s turn to name the planet. He decided to call it Ma’at, after the cosmic principle of harmony worshipped as a goddess by the Ancient Egyptians. He explained this in a rush of exuberance. He wanted to honour the race of the pharaohs now, at the moment when the project was finally justified, for their inspiration, their mystical influence….Merle groaned and rolled her eyes. Irwin’s mood swings bored her, and yet, there was an awful temptation to provoke them.
“I heard it was called
because there’s never been amore stupid waste of more money and brains since the pyramids.”But everybody approved of Ma’at, nonetheless. Five gleaming dolls spread out: first stepping carefully, then walking, then skipping, running, prancing. After the
—not to speak of their lives on
—this green paradise went to their heads like champagne. They ran around the bushes, laughing. Sugi picked flowers.
Sasha knelt and touched the turf. It was really a close-matted creeper with tiny violet flowers. She wondered, could the machinery be programmed to tell her what this would feel like to bare human hands?
The Ma’atians arrived quietly. There were about fifteen of them. They came out of the trees on the edge of the glade where the lander stood, and stared. They were terracotta coloured, humanoid, rather tall and slim. They wore few clothes. There were no signs of humanlike secondary sexual characteristics.The
were transfixed, embarrassed at having been caught skipping about like children. The silvery Sugi doll hid its flowers behind its back, and all five
heard her nervous giggle.
“They can see us!” cried Sasha, confused.
“Of course they can see the suits,” snapped Merle.
“Contact! We aren’t equipped for this.”
Captain and crew retreated, precipitately, back into the ship.
“What are we going to do?”
“Fuck knows,” growled Nanazetta. “Have we any weapons?”
“Make love not war…”
“Will they be able to hear us? Will
give us voices out there? We hear ourselves, but that’s different isn’t it. That’s like the carrot cake.”
The others, even Merle, ignored her
.Irwin was shaking visibly, head to toe, in hysterical tremors.
“It always gets me like this,” he kept muttering. “New people. Strangers…”
Merle laughed. “We’re not going to do anything.
will let us know what the rules are. Come on, ye lily-livered scum. Out there and enjoy yourselves. Captain’s orders.”
The Ma’atians were still there. Some terracotta figures were examining the landing site, as if planning to present a bill for damages. Luckily, it had been a soft touch down.
Other Ma’atians sat on the violet flowered turf. They seemed completely, eerily unsurprised. The five heard whistling and clicking sounds, and saw teeth like white needles.
Sasha spread her gleaming arms.
“We come in peace.”
Nanazetta was following the site inspectors, making menacing gestures.
Whistling and clicking: it sounded articulate, modulated. She believed it was language.
“We come from another world. Do you know what that means? We’re on a voyage of exploration.”
One of the Ma’atians came close and looked Sasha up and down. It (she? he?) gestured in an uncannily graphic manner at her, and at the tiny lander.
That’s a very small ship, it ‘said.’ It peered around and waved its arms. Where’s the rest of the expedition?
“There are only five of us,” she explained. “We’re the crew of an experimental probe. We’re quite harmless.”
(And at that moment knew this was a lie. )
Another Ma’atian came up to Merle. It waved its hand across her gleaming breast, across its own body and announced (it seemed) something important.
“And my name’s Merle,” said the captain affably. “Merle Candida. My mother didn’t like me, she named me after a disease. I’m the captain here. You’d better take me to your leader.”
The star of Ma’at was smaller and more brilliant in appearance than the star of
. It was descending in the sky, clear, diamond-white as Venus, as the explorers were led into the native settlement. The Ma’atian houses were scattered, with green plots between them. They had dark brown walls and white- or red-tiled roofs with turned-up eaves. The party with the
expedition shrilled and clattered. Soon a collection of smaller, plumper terracottas gathered, popping out of the little houses, or jumping up from among the greenery. The plump ones were wrapped in garments. They seemed less phlegmatic than the first group. There were shrill cries: somebody, Sasha saw, seemed to faint or collapse. There was a lot of urgent whistling, waving, and even physical grappling between the two groups.
“These must be the women,” decided Irwin, a smirk in his voice. “Typical feminine behaviour.” He said it solely to annoy Merle. But Sasha answered thoughtfully.
“Wait until I see them dance.”
“Dance? Why should they dance?”
That was Sugi.
Five of the plump terracottas finally came forward. They raised their arms face high, forearms crossed. They made expansive gestures.
Our home is your home. Please, accept our hospitality.
Later, after more gestural conversation and quantities of whistling, there was a banquet. It was served on patios of beaten
outside the little houses. The Ma’atians did not appear to have developed any communal or ceremonial buildings: their welcoming feast was a street party. The tall slim ones ran to and fro between the houses with bowls of hot, porridgey food; flat dishes laden with what seemed to be flowers, bundles of creeper stems; oblate, double-spouted pitchers of liquid. The household that had been awarded the honour, or terror, of entertaining the strangers did not seem surprised to find that their guests could not or would not eat. Heaped dishes were brought to them, presented and removed without rancour.
Then the Ma’atians danced. They danced separately, and in small groups. They tumbled down the housesteps and danced neighbour to neighbour along the little alleys between their gardens. There were no musical instruments. They sang and clapped, without losing breath, to give each other the time. They danced how happy they were to be alive, and what a beautiful day it had been. They danced a little fear—not much—and a good deal of amazement. They danced wisdom and serenity, mischief and sex (these last were chiefly handled by the taller group).
Sugi turned to the anthropologist, mystified. “Hey, Sasha. How did you know?”
“Well, comrade?” inquired Irwin. “Which is which?”