Light and color—these things, above all others, saturate my senses as I step into the radiance of two suns over the broad grandeur of the Avenue of Unity. No human hand raised these pillars, no human brain fathomed their symmetry nor imagined their fabulous adornment, and this is what makes them so special.
In the human speech, we call this planet Khlorifane, which is as near as our limited vocal chords can come to the original, an infinitely richer sound made by the larynx of the Mindrasti, whose world this is. Their names, and all the exotic words that have entered our vocabulary, are the merest shadows of the originals, deep in meaning and a euphonious beauty our limitations will never approach. But we can admire. Oh, we can admire.
There are those who have immersed themselves in the ways of the alien peoples of this vast and teeming galaxy: emissaries of humankind, whether formal or casual, who have gone out into the universe and taken the spirit of humanity to the stars. They live and travel among races far older—but not always wiser—than ourselves, and in their journeys have brought together species and civilizations which might otherwise never have known the other existed.
I am proud to be among them—a wanderer, endlessly seeking the next experience, the next sight, the next flavor. I began my odyssey many years ago, it seems, though I cannot remember exactly when I left the terraformed comfort of Utopia—my homeworld far away, where the Near Heavens become the Middle Stars, radiating outward from the homeworlds of the human species. I have lived with the Belchasians and the Maranites, walked with the shadowy Sendaaki, heard vaguely of mysterious beings called the Vlorff.
But on Khlorifane, my senses are submerged in exotica beyond all previous experience. I barely remember my journey here aboard a merchant vessel, now docked at a tower over the city, and I luxuriate in the spectral output of two suns. The resonance of their frequencies seems to flow into me like a source of life essence itself.
The Mindrasti are tall, iron-gray beings of six limbs, their national attire a simple cloak decorated with infinite patternings in reflective metallic foils. They tower over me, nearly three meters high, and I listen as their voices fill the wide avenue leading to the great halls of government. I close my eyes and hear speech richer than a symphonic score, open my eyes and behold columns of crystal marching toward an edifice of blue metal reaching to the golden sky.
Who am I?
I seem to have lost recollection of my identity, and wonder for a moment if the overloading of sensory input is affecting my brain. Perhaps the light of these suns speaks to my synapses in unknown ways, but I feel completely at peace, a member of a vast community of peoples as I walk among a hundred species in this cosmopolis. Tall, elegant Belchasians, with their blue-marble skin and perfect poise, are the only people I recognize amid a strolling panoply of morphology and design.
The end of day is nearing. I find a junction in the streets where vehicles like transparent bubbles of crystal glide by soundlessly, their occupants seemingly seated in meditation. I take a seat upon a viewing stand where citizens gather to watch the suns set. Only on a world of both sensualism and appreciation of the universal aesthetics would a society enshrine such homage to the daily reality, and races without number gather with the Mindrasti to watch. Chitin consorts with tentacles, fur with wings, as a menagerie of the sentient share silence while the double star fades behind clouds toward the far horizon. The golden sky deepens through russets and oranges into a cascade of colors which speak more deeply to the human mind than it can consciously grasp.
Red becomes crimson, becomes burgundy and magenta, deepening insensibly toward purple and finally, the indigo of a night populated by tens of thousands of stars. The city lights are kept dim throughout the spectacle. A whole world stands in awe, sighs with both an appreciation and a longing, a needing, to feel this and many other sensations of grace. Not until the stars shine out in frosty majesty—the galactic arm from horizon to zenith—do the lights come up and the city resume its evening business.
At my side, a great Mindrastian bends gently toward me, lays one of the lower pair of hand-like organs on my shoulder, and whispers through a translation device. “Your heart does you credit, traveler-from-afar. All kindred souls are welcome here. I know you must go, but be not long, for more homes than one await.”
I look up into the hard-to-decipher features under the robe’s hood, and reply with my heart, a bow, and a smile, not knowing if these gestures mean anything to this kindly presence. But when I sit down again and inhale the myriad aromas of strangeness that abound upon this world, I feel a sense of having come full circle, of having found my place, and I am loathe the take one step more.
The room smells bad: dust and dry food, body odor and stale tobacco.
I hate this place, as I hate my life in it. When I open my eyes, it takes all my willpower to turn over and breathe the cool air wafting from the ventilator grill.
My apartment is half the volume of a packing case for ship parts. A light strip blinks on as I trip a motion sensor, and the newsfeed lights on the entertainment wall. I groan and pass a hand across my face as the true horror of my existence canons into me. It’s not that I don’t know this place; It’s that I know it too well.
The life of a tug-driver in the Kooh-i-nore Strike mine, deep in the outer asteroids of the angry star Shamash, is far from pleasant, and I was never meant to be here for three tours of duty. Debt does this to you, as does borrowing more than you can pay back, plus the sanctioning of wages to cover falling down on the job. Add them up and you realize you’re a slave for the company and not only will you never go home with pockets filled with the wages of hard, slogging labor…you’ll never go home at all.
Which is where the starburst blue comes in.
Lots of the guys use it, some for recreation, some for escape—more for escape, the longer they’re trapped here. When even hope of getting down to Susa—a miserable desert dustbowl of a planet but the only habitable one for ten lightyears—has flown, and all you see ahead is shift after endless shift, trapped in a steel can and no way out, the blue gets real attractive. And it’s not cheap. Eventually you make a choice, hoard dwindling savings or blow them on blue. One smooth, cool dive into the world of blue-dreams, and you know where you’d rather be.
How I’ve tried—tried to rationalize my self-loathing as a drug addict. It’s an alien drug, so it’s their fault. It’s the only relief from intolerable surroundings, so it’s the system’s fault. It’s the inevitable result of being in the wrong place, so it’s life’s fault. Anyone’s but my own. A tear of bitter, near-hysterical anguish rolls down my face into the pillow.
The digital clock tells me 50 minutes to shift. I close my eyes and remember the glorious sunset of Khlorifane, a dream so real, it lingers before my waking eyes, and remember the kindness of the towering gray being. A world of community and warmth, of beauty and inclusion, might without savagery, sophistication without disdain. Could there really be such a world somewhere? Surely there must be better ways of being than the human one, so filled with the baggage of its predatory past. I don’t know, but I can’t make myself leave my foul habitat. I can’t put one foot before the other again. Not one more shift. I don’t want to. I can’t.
I turn to my drawers and take out the small, unmarked bottle, unscrew the cap, and roll the last two translucent blue spheres into my palm. It’s too soon, I know. Especially for a double dose. The dream-freedom in my palm, this time, means the freedom of the grave: shrink-wrapped in plastic and ejected from the station to drift forever in the Shamash system.
Who cares? I think blankly. Certainly not me. If this is the only way I can cheat the bastards of a slave drone, then so be it.
Feeling cold inside and wanting only to dive back into the luminous dreamworld of comfort, I place both capsules in my mouth and swallow.
A cool breeze from the wastes caresses my face as I look into the coming daylight. The Orion Arm pales as a silver-green sky flushes gently with the return of the twin suns. I have spent the night in gentle rest and am more refreshed than I remember ever being. The air is sweet, the day will be glorious, and I am eager for all it will hold.
A quiet regret lurks somewhere at the back of my mind—this place of wonders will not endure, and when I fall asleep here, it will be for the last time. But I cannot quite remember why and shrug it off with impatience. I rise from my seat at the intersection and walk briskly along the great avenue of crystal columns resonating with a wondrous thrumming in the dawn wind.
The vast city slowly awakens and all I desire is to immerse myself in sensation, as if with an urgent need. But I am surprised when a figure I recognize steps into the street. It is the Mindrastian who spoke to me at sunset, and I bow a greeting as he (she? it?) produces the translator.
“Welcome, traveler-from-afar,” the device says. “It is well that you found your way back to us.”
“I can’t recall quite where I’ve been,” I say softly, “but I’m glad to be back. In all the universe, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
“Then you are home.” The towering figure in the robe gestures with both left hands and turns to escort me on a street leading into the rising sun.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“It matters not. This is a broad world and you have much to learn. Best to make your start.”
“In my world, they say heaven never lasts,” I whisper, wondering where those words came from in my now near-delirium. “I’m afraid. I regret I can’t experience all there is to know.”
“Who can?” is the philosophic response. “But do not fear. All who reach us as you have are damaged beings, and disoriented at first. It is enough that you have found your way.”
I stop and look up at the strange features against the brightening morning sky. “Then…this is more than a dream?”
“Khlorifane is whatever you need it to be. And you have made your choice. You cannot go back.”
“Back?” I wonder, back to what? A hazy impression of gray metal and black space comes to me: cold and poverty, bad smells and an unutterable sadness. Why should I ever go back? “Show me,” I whisper, gesturing at the road ahead, and am happy to take one of the proffered hand-like organs, and walk with the alien into the new day of the two suns.
—Mike Adamson holds a PhD in archaeology from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, Mike returned to study and secured degrees in both marine biology and archaeology. Mike currently teaches with South Australia’s Colleges of Tertiary and Further Education, is a passionate photographer, a master-level hobbyist and journalist for international magazines. Mike’s work has appeared in Helios Quarterly, The Martian Wave, and Phantaxis.