The Dark Light Years
By Brian W. Aldiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1964 Brian Aldiss
All rights reserved.
On the ground, new blades of grass sprang up in chlorophyll coats. On the trees, tongues of green protruded from boughs and branches, wrapping them about — soon the place would look like an imbecile Earthchild's attempt to draw Christmas trees — as spring again set spur to the growing things in the southern hemisphere of Dapdrof.
Not that nature was more amiable on Dapdrof than elsewhere. Even as she sent the warmer winds over the southern hemisphere, she was sousing most of the northern in an ice-bearing monsoon.
Propped on G-crutches, old Aylmer Ainson stood at his door, scratching his scalp very leisurely and staring at the budding trees. Even the slenderest outmost twig shook very little, for all that a stiffish breeze blew.
This leaden effect was caused by gravity; twigs, like everything else on Dapdrof, weighed three times as much as they did on Earth. Ainson was long accustomed to the phenomenon. His body had grown round-shouldered and hollow-chested accustoming him to it. His brain had grown a little round-shouldered in the process.
Fortunately he was not afflicted with the craving to recapture the past that strikes down so many humans even before they reach middle age. The sight of infant green leaves woke in him only the vaguest nostalgia, roused in him only the faintest recollection that his childhood had been passed among foliage more responsive to April's zephyrs — zephyrs, moreover, a hundred light years away. He was free to stand in the doorway and enjoy man's richest luxury, a blank mind.
Idly, he watched Quequo, the female utod, as she trod between her salad beds and under the ammp trees to launch her body into the bolstering mud. The ammp trees were evergreen, unlike the rest of the trees in Ainson's enclosure. Resting in the foliage on the crest of them were big four-winged white birds, which decided to take off as Ainson looked at them, fluttering up like immense butterflies and splashing their shadows across the house as they passed.
But the house was already splashed with their shadows. Obeying the urge to create a work of art that visited them perhaps only once in a century, Ainson's friends had broken the white of his walls with a scatterbrained scattering of silhouetted wings and bodies, urging upwards. The lively movement of this pattern seemed to make the low-eaved house rise against gravity; but that was appearance only, for this spring found the neoplastic rooftree sagging and the supporting walls considerably buckled at the knees.
This was the fortieth spring Ainson had seen flow across his patch of Dapdrof. Even the ripe stench from the middenstead now savoured only of home. As he breathed it in, his grorg or parasite-eater scratched his head for him; reaching up, Ainson returned the compliment and tickled the lizard-like creature's cranium. He guessed what the grorg really wanted, but at that hour, with only one of the suns up, it was too chilly to join Snok Snok Karn and Quequo Kifful with their grorgs for a wallow in the mire.
"I'm cold standing out here. I am going inside to lie down," he called to Snok Snok in the utodian tongue.
The young utod looked up and extended two of his limbs in a sign of understanding. That was gratifying. Even after forty years' study, Ainson found the utodian language full of conundrums. He had not been sure that he had not said, "The stream is cold and I am going inside to cook it." Catching the right whistling inflected scream was not easy: he had only one sound orifice to Snok Snok's eight. He swung his crutches and went in.
"His speech is growing less distinct than it was," Quequo remarked. "We had difficulty enough teaching him to communicate. He is not an efficient mechanism, this manlegs. You may have noticed that he is moving more slowly than he did."
"I had noticed it, Mother. He complains about it himself. Increasingly he mentions this phenomenon he calls pain."
"It is difficult to exchange ideas with Earthlegs because their vocabularies are so limited and their voice range minimal, but I gather from what he was trying to tell me the other night that if he were a utod he would now be almost a thousand years old."
"Then we must expect he will soon evolve into the carrion stage."
"That, I take it, is what the fungus on his skull signified by changing to white."
This conversation was carried out in the utodian language, while Snok Snok lay back against the huge symmetrical bulk of his mother and soaked in the glorious ooze. Their grorgs climbed about them, licking and pouncing. The stench, encouraged by the sun's mild shine, was gorgeous. Their droppings, released in the thin mud, supplied valuable oils which seeped into their hides, making them soft.
Snok Snok Karn was already a large utod, a strapping offspring of the dominant species of the lumbering world of Dapdrof. He was in fact adult now, although still neuter: and in his mind's lazy eye he saw himself as a male for the next few decades anyhow. He could change sex when Dapdrof changed suns; for that event, the periodical entropic solar orbital disestablishment, Snok Snok was well prepared. Most of his lengthy childhood had been taken up with disciplines preparing him for this event. Quequo had been very good on disciplines and on mindsuckle; secluded from the world as the two of them were here with Manlegs Ainson, she had given them all of her massive and maternal concentration.
Languidly, he deretracted a limb, scooped up a mass of slime and mud, and walloped it over his chest. Then, recollecting his manners, he hastily sloshed some of the mixture over his mother's back.
"Mother, do you think Manlegs is preparing for esod?" Snok Snok asked, retracting the limb into the smooth wall of his flank. Manlegs was what they called Aylmer; esod was a convenient way of squeaking about entropic solar orbital disestablishmentism.
"It's hard to tell, the language barrier being what it is," Quequo said, blinking through mud. "We have tried to talk about it, but without much success. I must try again; we must both try. It would be a serious matter for him if he were not prepared — he could be suddenly converted into the carrion stage. But they must have the same sort of thing happening on the Manlegs planet."
"It won't be long now. Mother, will it?"
When she did not bother to answer, for the grorgs were trotting actively up and down her spine, Snok Snok lay and thought about that time, not far off now, when Dapdrof would leave its present sun, Saffron Smiler, for Yellow Scowler. That would be a hard period, and he would need to be male and fierce and tough. Then eventually would come Welcome White, the happy star, the sun beneath which he had been born (and which accounted for his lazy and sunny good nature); under Welcome White, he could afford to take on the cares and joys of motherhood, and rear and train a son just like himself.
Ah, but life was wonderful when you thought deeply about it The facts of esod might seem prosaic to some, but to Snok Snok, though he was only a simple country boy (simply reared too, without any notions about joining the priesthood and sailing out into the star-realms), there was a glory about nature. Even the sun's warmth, that filled his eight-hundred-and-fifty pound bulk, held a poetry incapable of paraphrase. He heaved himself to one side and excreted into the midden, as a small tribute to his mother. Do to others as you would be dung by.
"Mother, was it because the priesthood had dared to leave the worlds of the Triple Suns that they met the Manlegs Earthmen?"
"You're in a talkative mood this morning. Why don't you go in and talk to Manlegs? You know how his version of what happens in star-realms amuses you."
"But, Mother, which version is true, his or ours?"
She hesitated before giving him her answer; it was a wretchedly difficult answer, yet only through it lay an understanding of the world of affairs. She said: "Frequently there are several versions of truth."
He brushed the remark aside.
"But it was the priesthood that went beyond the Triple Suns who first met the Manlegs, wasn't it?"
"Why don't you lie still and ripen up?"
"Didn't you tell me they met on a world called Grudgrodd, only a few years after I was born?"
"Ainson told you that in the first place."
"It was you who told me that trouble would come from the meeting,"
The first encounter between utod and man occurred ten years after the birth of Snok Snok. As Snok Snok said, this encounter was staged on the planet his race called Grudgrodd. Had it happened on a different planet, had different protagonists been involved, the outcome of the whole matter might have been other than it was. Had someone ... but there is little point in embarking on conditionals. There are no "ifs" in history, only in the minds of observers reviewing it, and for all the progress we make, nobody has proved that chance is other than a statistical delusion invented by man. We can only say that events between man and utod fell out in such and such a way.
This narrative will chronicle these events with as little comment as possible, leaving the reader on his honour to remember that what Quequo said applies as much to man as to aliens: truths arrive in as many forms as lies.
Grudgrodd looked tolerable enough to the first utods who inspected it.
A utodian star-realm-ark had landed in a wide valley, inhospitable, rocky, cold, and covered with knee-high thistles for the greater part of its length, but nevertheless closely resembling some of the benighted spots one happened on in the northern hemisphere of Dapdrof. A pair of grorgs were sent out through the hatch, to return in half an hour intact and breathing heavily. Odds were, the place was habitable.
Ceremonial filth was shovelled out on to the ground and the Sacred Cosmopolitan was induced to excrete out of the hatch, in the universal gesture of fertility.
"I think it's a mistake," he said. The utodian for "a mistake" was Grudgrodd (as far as an atonal grunt can be rendered at all into terrestrial script), and from then on the planet was known as Grudgrodd.
Still inclined to protest, the Cosmopolitan stepped out, followed by his three Politans, and the planet was claimed as an appendage of the Triple Suns.
Four priestlings scurried busily about, clearing a circle in the thistles on the edge of the river. With all their six limbs deretracted, they worked swiftly, two of them scooping soil out of the circle, and then allowing the water to trickle in from one side, while the other two trod the resulting mud into a rich rebarbative treacle.
Watching the work abstractedly with his rear eyes, the Cosmopolitan stood on the edge of the growing crater and argued as strongly as ever a utod could on the rights and wrongs of landing on a planet not of the Triple Suns. As strongly as they could, the three Politans argued back.
"The Sacred Feeling is quite clear," said the Cosmopolitan. "As children of the Triple Suns, our defecations must touch no planets unlit by the Triple Suns; there are limits to all things, even fertility." He extended a limb upwards, where a large mauve globe as big as an ammp fruit peered coldly at them over a bank of cloud. "Is that apology for a sun Saffron Smiler? Do you take it for Welcome White? Can you even mistake it for Yellow Scowler? No, no, my friends, that mauve misery is an alien, and we waste our substance on it"
The first Politan said, "Every word you say is incontrovertible. But we are not here entirely by option. We ran into a star-realm turbulence that carried us several thousand orbits off course. This planet just happened to be our nearest haven."
"As usual you speak only the truth," the Cosmopolitan said. "But we needn't have landed here. A month's flight would have taken us back to the Triple Suns and Dapdrof, or one of her sister planets. It does seem a bit unholy of us."
"I don't think you need worry too much about that Cosmopolitan," said the second Politan. He had the heavy greyish green skin of one bora while an esod was actually taking place, and was perhaps the easiest going of all the priesthood. "Look at it this way. The Triple Suns round which Dapdrof revolve only form three of the six stars in the Home Cluster. Those six stars possess between them eight worlds capable of supporting life as we know it. After Dapdrof, we count the other seven worlds as equally holy and fit for utodammp. though some of than — Buskey for instance — revolve round one of the three lesser stars of the cluster. So the criterion of what is utodammp-worthy is not that it has to revolve about one of the Triple Suns. Now we ask —"
But the Cosmopolitan, who was a better speaker than a listener, as befitted a utod in his position, cut his companion short.
"Let us ask no more, friend. I just observed that it seemed a bit unholy of us. I didn't mean any criticism. But we are setting a precedent." He scratched his grorg judicially.
With great tolerance, the third Politan (whose name was Blue Lugug) said, "I agree with every word you say, Cosmopolitan. But we do not know if we are setting a precedent. Our history is so long that it may be that many and many a crew branched out into the star-realm and there, on some far planet, set up a new swamp to the glory of utodammp. Why, if we look around, we may even find utods established here."
"You persuade me utterly; in the Revolution Age, such a thing could easily have happened," said the Cosmopolitan, in relief. Stretching out all six of his limbs, he waved them ceremonially to include ground and sky. "I pronounce all this to be land belonging to the Triple Suns. Let defecation commence."
They were happy. They grew even happier. And who could not be happy? With ease and fertility at hand, they were at home.
The mauve sun disappeared in disgrace, and almost at once a snowball-bright satellite wearing a rakish halo of dust sprang out of the horizon and rose swiftly above them. Used to great changes of temperature, the eight utods did not mind the increasing cold of night. In their newly-built wallow, they wallowed. Their sixteen attendant grorgs wallowed with them, clinging with sucker fingers tenaciously to their hosts when the utods submerged beneath the mud.
Slowly they imbibed the feel of the new world. It lapped at their bodies, yielded up meanings incapable of translation into their terms.
In the sky overhead gleamed the Home Ouster, six stars arranged in the shape — or so the least intellectual of the priestling claimed — of one of the grails that swam the tempestuous seas of Smeksmer.
"We needn't have worried," said the Cosmopolitan happily. "The Triple Suns are still shining on us here. We needn't hurry back at all. Perhaps at the end of the week we'll plant a few ammp seeds and then move homewards."
"... Or at the end of the week after next," said the third Politan, comfortable in his mud bath.
To complete their contentment, the Cosmopolitan gave them a brief religious address. They lay and listened to the web of his discourse as it was spun out of his eight orifices. He pointed out how the ammp trees and the utods were dependent upon each other, how the yield of the one depended on the yield of the other. He dwelt on the significances of the word "yield" before going on to point out how both the trees and the utods (both being the manifestations of one spirit) depended on the light yield that poured from whichever of the Triple Suns they moved about This light was the droppings of the suns, which made it a little absurd as well as miraculous. They should never forget any of them, that they also partook of the absurd as well as the miraculous. They must never get exalted or puffed up; for were not even their gods formed in the divine shape of a turdling?
The third Politan much enjoyed this monologue. What is most familiar is most reassuring.
He lay with only the tip of one snout showing above the bubbling surface of the mud, and spoke in his submerged voice, through his ockpu orifices. With one of his unsubmerged eyes, he gazed across at the dark bulk of their star-realm-ark, beautifully bulbous and black against the sky. Ah, life was good and rich, even so far away from beloved Dapdrof. Come next esod, he'd really have to change sex and become a mother; he owed it to his line; but even that ... well as he'd often heard his mother say, to a pleasant mind all was pleasant. He thought lovingly of his mother, and leant against her. He was as fond of her as ever since she had changed sex and become a Sacred Cosmopolitan.
Then he squealed through all orifices.
Behind the ark, lights were flashing.
The third Politan pointed this out to his companions. They all looked where he indicated.
Not lights only. A continuous growling noise.
Not only one light. Four round sources of light, cutting through the dark, and a fifth light that moved about restlessly, like a fumbling limb. It came to rest on the ark.
"I suggest that a life form is approaching," said one of the priestlings. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Dark Light Years by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1964 Brian Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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