An extract from Port Starlight, a short story collection (work in progress)
‘It was above Anchorage IV, in a garden in the curtilage of the Comptroller’s Villa, that I met Lord Strange. It was evening, warm and windless, and a gentle blue glow was over the gardens; red running lights winked out in the dark like summer stars. The retention wall was lost to sight in a haze that made everything indistinct, as if fate were ensuring that our meeting-place would not be found, and our talk remain undisturbed. There were five or six of us gathered there, sitting around the veranda rather as we do tonight, and I don’t remember all the names or faces, for it was he who held all my attention.
‘Captain Tallis I know was there, the commander of the Corona, which had recently returned from one of its long sojourns Beyond; and there was a senior clerk in the Port Authority; a retired naval officer named De Santos; and most remarkably (perhaps), a Dominion of the Solaurian Host, whose cathedral had lately translated into the Starlight Roads. I didn’t have much to say in such impressive company, but you can be sure I was listening, trying to remember something that would help understand the man, to somehow fix this wanderer in my mind’s eye.
‘“I am leaving on the Skyline packet in the morning,” he announced. This was after the coffee cups had been cleared by servitors belonging to the General Staff, and a hookah had been installed in the middle of the veranda. Lord Strange, I recall, smoked an old wooden pipe stuffed with tobacco leaves – a relic from another world. Though he dressed unobtrusively, there was always, no matter what he said or did, that air of otherness about him.
‘“Where are you bound?” asked Captain Tallis.
‘“I cannot say.”
‘De Santos spoke next, giving voice to a thought which had probably been in all our minds – certainly mine. He was big, muscular, moustachioed, with the pallor of a navy man of long service. He could have told extraordinary stories himself; but he was there to listen to Lord Strange, as were we all.
‘“You never told us, my Lord, what happened at your journey’s end, in the Hall of Seeing,” he said.
‘There was a murmur from the men and women around the veranda. The Dominion pulsed softly, revealing Lord Strange’s thoughtful face, limning his recumbent form with ethereal white. It is the image of him that remains most presently to me from that night. Mostly, his story came disembodied from the dusk.
‘He had told us over dinner the tale of how, long before he had ever found Port Starlight, being pursued by the hounds of Gloriana, he had breached the secret way that led beyond the confines of the Earth (he always called it “the Earth”, never Terra or Mundus Prime); and how he had crossed that terrible threshold, passing through dangers which he had at that time scarcely comprehended, and stood at last after strange adventures in the mighty mirrored Hall in Chiron’s heart: Chiron, that mystic world which plied its course between the gas giants, leaving a shining trail of dust and ice along its dark and wandering way – lost now in dark reaches, far from any sun. Naturally it was the place that such a man had come to. What, I thought, could have been more fitting?
‘Lord Strange spoke quietly, lounging on a plush velvet chaise and occasionally puffing tobacco-smoke up into the night. He was the very picture of ease, yet a tautness was always visible in his body which meant one could never forget that this was a man capable of sudden violence.
‘“For hours,” he said, “I ran through the Hall’s winding galleries, wishing to stop before each new scene, spurred on only by the promise of more and greater wonders. I saw worlds and times innumerable, beauty, majesty and terror to their fullest extents. There were worlds populated by creatures of forms beyond reckoning, and ways stranger than madness itself – to my young and ignorant eyes, I mean, saving your reverence, friends!”
‘We all laughed tolerantly, except the Dominion (Solaurians are, I think, incapable of laughter). When Lord Strange first came among us, he had been often dismayed by the variety of beings and the manifold ways of living that we have here; but, being a gentleman, he accustomed himself to it swiftly.
‘“These prospects of Creation’s immensity were staggering enough; but when I beheld the worlds that never were, methought I was wrapt in a dream. Worlds where I was the King of Man, and the heads of Gloriana and the thrice-damned Cecil upon spikes above my gatehouse; worlds where Greave was the renegade, and I the bloody persecutor; worlds where I died an infant in the cradle, or was never born at all.
‘“All this and more was I shown; but, how hard soever I tried, the crystal screens would not yield to me. The husks of the Moon-creatures lay strewn around the galleries, already turning to dust. Those simple, crawling things had gone onward – but I, the first man to enter Chiron’s Hall, could not find the way!”
‘He stopped to smoke, conscious of the way we hung on his words. He was the most genuine of men, but a performer, too. Out of all of us, it was the Dominion who broke the expectant silence. Not as surprising as you might think: they’re impatient creatures, for all their near-eternity of life, and they don’t like being trifled with. If you’ve never heard a Solaurian speak, they sound like distant, inhuman choirs singing a descant; no discernible feeling or intonation – but you could tell the Dominion was curious.
‘How then did you escape the Hall of Seeing?
‘“By the only possible route: the very same way that I had come. Yes – no matter how I beat upon them, or caressed their silken surfaces, or shouted vain pleas into the silence, the images in the crystal depths remained no more than visions in a looking-glass. When at last hunger and thirst drove me, I went, cursing, back down the immaterial corridor to the lunar cavern I had left; and thence, back to the Earth, there to face the pursuit I dared to hope I had evaded. For they had not forgotten me, no.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Not they.”
‘“So how did you overcome them?” the Authority clerk wondered.
‘“With guidance from Providence, and unexpected allies – but that is another story. My journey between worlds ended in Chiron; its portals defeated me. In the Hall of Seeing I thought to find my freedom. But the escape it seemed to offer was illusory.”
‘There was a heavy silence as we pondered the end of this tale, with its unexpected and unfamiliar note of failure. He had waited until the last night before confessing this to us, and only after we pushed him. Was that his pride? Or some deeper humility?
‘“Many have reached Port Starlight through the Hall of Seeing,” I put in at last, “but to enter the Hall, only to depart, and arrive here later by other means – none have ever done so before, if I’m not mistaken.” (Of course, I knew quite well I was not mistaken; for, as you know, I am a most eager chronicler of the histories of all the Time-lost and the Star-cast who shelter within our harbour’s bourne).
‘“And I have never heard of anyone who could not pass through Chiron’s portals,” Tallis said.
‘Neither had I, and still never have – and as to the meaning of that, I neither know, nor would dare to hazard a guess. Whether Lord Strange knew what his failure in those far-off days had signified, I cannot tell. I might have asked him later, but fate (as it often does) intervened.
‘After an interlude of reflective silence, De Santos – apparently addressing the whole company, but looking at the Dominion from the corners of his eyes – asked whether any of us knew what could explain the increased military traffic between the Imperial heart-worlds and the border regions, which was causing some consternation at the Admiralty; and at that, our Solaurian guest unfurled its wings, wider than the mossy stone bench on which it sat, and beat them once with a noise like canvas snapping in a sudden wind.
‘News has reached us from the Most Beloved Star. The Sunset Bound is no longer silent, as it has been for three hundred sun-times. We believe that the ruler of that place will come forth once again.
‘Its words, or the throbs of light which glowed in time with them, made the expression on Lord Strange’s face shift strangely.
‘“I am glad you spoke of it.”
‘He rose, and strode across to the edge of the pool of light the Dominion cast around us. The staff had quenched the lamps inside the villa, and the night’s darkness was deep. He gazed a while out into that concealing veil, black as ink, before speaking again.
‘“It has long been in my mind to go to the Sunset Bound.”
‘“You would be making your last journey. None returns who ever ventures there.” The murmur came from Captain Tallis. I looked at her. She was swirling a dark spirit around her glass, and, though she had spoken softly, there was a hard sadness in her eyes that made me sombre. Our other companions voiced similar thoughts.
‘But then Lord Strange turned back to us and smiled, it seemed to me, like one victorious in a game of chance: flushed with happiness, even pride; yet diffident; reluctant to cause offence by acknowledging too enthusiastically the fact of his improbable good fortune, and fearful of relying upon that fortune too long.
‘“Pardon me, my friends,” he said, “but I will go to the lightless realms. What have I to fear from outer darkness, who have outridden the Wild Hunt? I, who have returned alive from the Garden of the Hesperides, and stood before the face of God Himself?”
‘There was nothing we could say in contradiction. Which of us could presume to say that that decision was too lightly made? Yet I wonder still whether only I, or whether the rest of the company, too – perhaps even the inscrutable Dominion – were leaving secret doubts unspoken in that moment.
‘Lord Strange bowed, and excused himself, saying he had to pray before embarking (a quaint custom of his, preserved from olden times). He walked out of the light, back through the invisible garden to the Comptroller’s house, leaving us to doubt in silence for ever more. I never saw him again.’
The speaker paused to drink deeply from his glass of Archalian wine, a rare luxury, at which I had been looking with mild envy until the conversation took its present turn and drove all such petty considerations from my mind. At the mention of Lord Strange I had stirred from my postprandial torpor, as if a cold breath out of the deep gulfs of time had wafted over us where we sat and dispelled the sleepy haze. Naturally, I had listened with keen attention to this remembrance of the adventurer I have always so bitterly regretted not meeting, engrammatising every detail of my dining companion’s narration for future study.
How mysterious it is, that procedure of destiny which brings men of sympathy together! Why only tonight, after so many years haunting the verandas, galleries and cloisters of the Port Authority, the Esplanade, Admiralty Node and the Anchorages – everywhere I could think of, in fact, where voyagers and statesmen gather and intelligence of past times and distant places is exchanged; why only tonight had I encountered this gentleman whose name I did not know, who it seemed could give me fresh hope in my quest for knowledge? Such questions are purely rhetorical, of course; for there is no reason or pattern to it all. I might as well ask, why did this fascination grip me in the first place – this longing for strangeness and the uncertain? That is rather easier to answer, I suppose.
I was anxious to put questions to the man who had been speaking. Little red fires were winking into life as the company lit cigars and began to settle in for the remainder of the night; there followed a certain amount of business with servitors and lighters, refreshing of glasses and clearing of plates, and I took the opportunity and went over to him. He was rather louchely dressed, sporting a burgundy velveteen frock coat and loose silk cravat, though otherwise in the ordinary garb of an Authority man of no obvious eminence. It struck me that he was overdue for a burn – he inclined towards stoutness, even portliness. Either he lacked the means to present himself properly (hardly likely), focussed too intensely upon his work or recreation (a kindred spirit?), or his aesthetic taste could only be described as radical.
‘Sir,’ I began, not concealing my eagerness, ‘I let slip the opportunity to introduce myself earlier, as dinner was about to begin. I am Andaman Karjakin, of Skyforth on the Inner Ring. Your reminiscence of Lord Strange was of special fascination to me. I would be grateful if we could discuss it further.’
‘Good evening,’ was his reply. ‘How pleasant to meet a fellow student of history.’ He did not offer to exchange cards.
I detected a certain irony in his words, and steeled myself to be as courteous as my impatience would allow.
‘May I learn your name, sir?’
‘Philidor,’ he said. ‘Philidor Cotten.’
So this was the famous Archivist! My heart beat a little faster at the thought. Immediately it made sense that he should be wary of encouraging me. Doubtless many cranks and enthusiasts pestered him daily.
‘It is an honour,’ I bowed. ‘The subject of Lord Strange and his voyage to the Sunset Bound has fascinated me for some years. I had no idea you had met him.’
‘Only once, as I said. If you wish to pursue the subject further, you will learn nothing more from me than you have heard already tonight.’
‘What about the other members of your company? The Solaurian Dominion is above such things, I expect, but perhaps Captain Tallis or the other officer you mentioned, De Santos, might indulge me? Should I contact them, do you think?’
‘You should familiarise yourself with the Archive, young man. The Corona was lost about thirteen hundred years ago. It did not return from a mission to the hinterland, and the Admiralty officially recorded it as missing. As for De Santos, I am unaware what became of him. It should be easy enough to find out.’
His remark concerning the Archive stung, needless to say, for there are few more assiduous in seeking out the memorials of past time than I; but I confess that I have not made a study of shipping manifests, which are both too voluminous and too quotidian ever to have attracted me. I suppose that, to the true-born archivist, such as I take Philidor to be, all records are alike in fascination.
‘Thank you, sir,’ I said. ‘However, there is one thing you omitted from your tale which I cannot refrain from asking about now. I wish to know what it was that Lord Strange sought in the lightless realms. I gather that he did not say, but surely your acquaintance with him enables you to guess?’
‘I cannot guess. Consider the provenance of the man, and contrast it with the world he found. A creature from dimmest prehistory, a world lower than the most primitive of our colonies, plunged into an era without superstition, without ignorance, without the ancient suppositions, the delusions, and even the fears which sustained life before the galaxies became our possession. How should I know what drove him? Perhaps he went mad. It wouldn’t be surprising. Perhaps he was mad already! Neither would that.’
‘No-one ever thought to check?’
‘What business was it of ours? Would you trouble to psychoanalyse a colonist?’
‘Perhaps not, but –’
‘His frame of reference was too different from ours for us to know with any certainty what he hoped to achieve by any given course of action.’
‘But you suspect! Don’t you? You hypothesise, I should say.’
He was silent a moment, and his lip curled as if he were repressing a troublesome thought.
‘I suppose’ – he said slowly, and with reluctance – ‘that he sought that which cannot be found.’
‘What do you mean?’
He said nothing, contemplating the distant lights of the orbital nodes, their rhythmic flashes illuminating his face, but revealing nothing of his thoughts.
‘The truth, Karjakin,’ said one of our closest neighbours on the veranda, smiling at me. We exchanged cards. His name was Pandit Wolff.
‘Lesser breeds in the Empire’s fringes – and our own hinterland is no exception,’ he continued, ‘cannot make do with the truths preserved by the learned Philidor and his bondmen in the Starlight Archives, or any other such compendium. All too often, they (and not all, I grant, but some) insist upon obtruding outmoded concepts: religion and philosophy, soul and spirit. Life beyond the physical.
‘We believe – as, I’m sure, do you, young man – that the cosmic mystery has been solved: the only higher truth is that there is none. And before you interject, Dr Howells, I know that it is statistically uncertain whether we shall continue after death in some sense as resonance patterns in the UHM field; but that uncertainty is an inherent feature of the hypothesis as the field is beyond the observability threshold. That is quite different from a religious mystery, the whole point of which is that it can be discovered and transmitted to the elect, and which generally involves some element of personal salvation – does it not?’
‘Generally speaking,’ confirmed Philidor with a nod, coming out of his reverie.
‘Personal salvation,’ Pandit repeated with grim satisfaction. ‘The promise of eternal life. Horrible, is it not? But to the barbarian mind, infinitely seductive. It can provoke them to do the most astonishing things.’
A navy captain whom I had already recognised from news broadcasts as Morales Tan, an elderly and rather wizened woman, spoke up.
‘I saw it for myself on 6A when I was a young officer,’ she said. ‘Fanaticism of that kind was behind a scheme by separatists there which our ship, the Dyson, was sent to settle. Journey time was twelve years. By the time we got there, a cult had taken over the government and imposed its taboos and strictures – not eating meat, monogamy, you know the sort of thing. They had a metaphysical belief system as well, which was behind all the commotion. These people called themselves the Tyborites, after their leader, a man named Tybor who claimed to have magical powers. They said Tybor would fight a great battle, win, but die in the process, and that he would then do something or other, and everyone who died would come back and live happily ever after, including Tybor. They really believed this. Among colonists, a dash of charisma can do wonders for a charlatan!’
‘That is a familiar pattern,’ Philidor interjected. ‘The idea of the dying and reborn god is very ancient. A common recurrence in the earliest myths. It is often associated with the concept of sacrificial kingship.’
‘Is that so? Well, we arrived at 6A eventually, and this bunch was in charge when we got there. It was a few of their lifetimes since a Habitat ship had been to the system, and maybe they’d forgotten what civilisation entails. Finzi Saravanan was in command of the Dyson then. An excellent captain, one of the best. I could tell you stories about her, let me tell you! Once –’
‘Tell us of 6A first,’ I interjected, surprising even myself by interrupting. Tan goggled at me through the monocle she wore, but, to my relief, rather than taking offence, she seemed flattered to be actively solicited to tell a story.
‘Oh, yes, that’s a good one too,’ she said, generously. ‘Well, there we were at 6A. Someone had to talk some sense into the colonists, and they chose me. My natural gift for diplomacy, I suppose! I went down and spoke with the separatist representatives in a remote location – some kind of summer residence for a dignitary, I believe, in a mountain range. When they realised I wouldn’t accede to their terms, what do you think? They set off a hydrogen bomb which had been shielded from detection. Blew up the whole mountain! The representatives had been avatars, you see. My shifter protected me, but I had to walk twenty miles across country before I could re-establish contact with the ship because of the radiation saturation. Most inconvenient. In the meantime, they had attacked the Dyson with a satellite laser platform, hoping to destroy it, I suppose, but the platform had been dealt with.’
‘How exciting it must be to serve in the colonies!’ laughed another of the guests. There was a general murmur of approval, the Outer Ring nobility feeling their jaded palates stirred, for once, by this tall tale.
‘It wasn’t all laughs at the time, I’ll tell you! All the decades on shipboard got wearing, even with the smoke and cryo. On top of that, to be blown up on arrival! Can laugh about it now, of course. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we were contacted by a rationalist group of colonists which had been driven into hiding, and helped them beat the Tyborites, who retreated to one of their holy places once the civil war turned against them. Well, they turned pretty savage once they realised they were losing, fought a few battles to the last fanatic, and the rationalists asked the captain to intervene directly with the Dyson to save lives – the cult members were well entrenched in their fortress complex, you see. Finzi thought it would help to keep the new lot sweet, so we razed the complex as a goodwill gesture. Not much left of the Tyborites after that. I would’ve liked to ask them what they thought about their man not coming back on a cloud of glory with the happily-ever-after.’
‘Perhaps they got what they sought, as well as what they deserved,’ said Philidor quietly. There was a surprised silence as every guest turned to look at him. After a moment he became aware of their consternation and chuckled, embarrassed.
‘Oblivion, I meant,’ he said. ‘Naturally I did not mean –!’
There was a ripple of laughter.
‘You mean, they desired destruction? Not salvation at all?’ I asked him, intrigued.
‘Either they were confused, or I am!’ exclaimed the genial Pandit.
‘Any two such absolute concepts exist in a necessary relation. From the perspective of believers, there is no contradiction. But that is not what I meant.’
Philidor paused, and I thought he would lapse into that introverted silence again; but he voiced the thought which had been troubling him.
‘I fear that for some men, oblivion itself is what is desired. You mentioned the threshold of observation. Some men seek to go beyond it, driven by a primal impulse to dissolve in a cloud of unknowing. They crave what they cannot have: a life unobserved, undocumented, unrecorded. It is certainty they reject. Certain knowledge is something they cannot live with.’
To my surprise, he turned to me.
‘I think that is what the Sunset Bound represents, to such a one as Lord Strange.’
The conversation around the table moved on, but I did not listen as Morales Tan began recounting another story of her service with Captain Saravanan. Instead, I remained, as so often, wrapt in thoughts of Lord Strange, and his last, cryptic journey. For all their polite, high-minded condescension, these great ones had only fired and tempered my longing.
It was that very night that I resolved I would follow him. I, too, would seek the Sunset Bound.