Then, the Martian extended his long arm across the table, placing a hand upon my shoulder reassuringly. “Take heart, Lamont. It won’t always be like this.”
5 January, 1999.
Aboard the United Space Ship Westward.
The atomic engines are rumbling beneath my feet as they pull us away from the planet, out toward the edge of the system where, in a month or so, we can make another jump across the interstellar wilderness. I should have been on the command deck to witness as we left orbit, so that I could describe the scene, but I find myself still unwilling to return. I will, soon. When there is a little more distance between us and that world of bones. Between this planet and the next, there is plenty of time. Time for debriefings and meetings and inquiries and reports. Time enough, perhaps, for a little reflection, if one should choose to indulge.
The consensus for now was to leave. Being unsuitable for colonization, with little in the way of obvious natural resources, the difficulties with native life do not warrant the trouble and expense of another expedition. We have left a beacon, a radio satellite the size of a cricket ball, as a marker for future ships that may choose to visit. This was done against the explicite wishes of Captain Carter, who, as far as he is concerned, promised that we would never return. I was present at that conference. It was awkward, to say the least.
There was a palpable tension that followed the senior staff as they left the conference room that morning. I stayed behind to finish some notes, and for some reason Phobos stayed also, sitting in that strange way he does, with his limbs folded up like a schoolmaster visiting a fort made by children.
“What a mess,” I found myself blurting—or something to that effect.
“Do you think so?” Phobos responded mildly, in his strangely high voice.
“Don’t you?” I asked. “We have the power, thanks to you, to fly across the stars and plant our flag wherever we please. But it seems obvious that we’re completely unprepared for what we might find out here. This planet was nothing like we expected it to be, and all we have to show for our time spent down there is a giant crater, a dead boy, a million questions and a bloody precious few answers.” I clamped my mouth shut then, surprised at my own outburst.
The Martian bowed his head philosophically, his eyes regarding me inscrutably in their deep sockets. “In my experience, there are never really any answers. Only better questions.”
“Here’s a better question, then,” I challenged him. “What the hell are we doing out here? Why, after we’ve made such blunders on our own world, have you given us the ability to inflict our incompetence on others?”
“As I understand it,” Phobos answered in soft, precise diction, “No child learns to walk without her share of bumps and bruises.” Then, he extended his long arm across the table, placing a hand upon my shoulder reassuringly. “Take heart, Lamont. It won’t always be like this.”
Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps a day will come when mankind leaves behind its fear, its arrogance, the insecurities that drive our mad ambitions. But what will have to happen between now and then? How many painful lessons, how many epiphanies, and how high the cost? It is, I think, our very dysfunctions that make us who we are, that push us relentlessly onward, chased by the ghost of our own mistakes and haunted by the sirens of our potential. What will we have become, in the midst of that long night, when we stride confidently between worlds, unhampered by fear of the unknown? With what alien minds will we find communion when we join the Martians in the deathless sleep of that ultimate achievement? With what strange eyes will we look down upon the stars?
Lamont leaned back in his chair, pulling the cigarette from his mouth and exhaling a slow puff of smoke that drifted inevitably toward the vent above his desk. Flexing tired fingers, he pinched the bridge of his nose, then craned his neck to glance up at the framed picture of Francis and Phobos above his desk, visualizing the mysterious object hidden behind it. Then, he stabbed the cigarette stub into an overfilled ashtray, leaned forward, and closed the cover of his stenograph.
End of Episode Two
Author’s Note: I hope you enjoyed With What Strange Eyes?, and if you did, I hope that you’ll leave a comment letting me know what you thought of the episode, and of Page of Pulp in general so far. Anything you’d like to see more of, or anything you’d like to change?
PoP will be taking a break next week while I focus on some “housekeeping” to improve the reading experience, especially for newcomers. The adventures of Westward and its crew will resume September 13 with Episode Three: Ziggurat.
Be seeing you,