I clung to her leg like a cowering koala. Crouched at her feet I was passive, self protective. The other woman talked to her only. She was proposing to me through my wife. She wanted me to become her betrothed. I listened as the women stood facing each other until the proposal was over. When they were through and in agreement my wife graciously looked down at me for any response I might have. I looked up at her and silently nodded, then nuzzled the apex of her jeans in appreciation, wishing I could do more through the heavy cloth material. I was ecstatic.
I had two wives now. My future had become very secure or at least more secure than most men in this colony. Both my wives were of stature, influential, certified fertile. My record of impregnation assured not only financial security and social status but prodigy, an essential yet deficient resource in our community.
We call our colony Proxb, among the first wave of the extra solar colonies of Earth. All of the existing space colonies were established concurrently and remotely, without direct human presence. After hundreds of years of robotic preparation and encapsulated terraforming, the primogenitor human genomes (our ancestors) were transmitted and incubated here. Life is difficult here in comparison to what we know of life on Earth, but we are making progress. We have regular contact with Earth although, since it is light years away, communication takes almost a decade for a response to a transmitted message. Unlike humans on Earth, the lack of a magnetic field and adequate atmosphere means we are subject to heavy ion radiation. Even though we have a protective dome and spend much of our time in the subsurface lava tubes, this radiation has caused a low rate of fertility and a societal urgency for childbirth resulting in our matriarchic society.
Following the engagement formalities, I went out alone for a night walk. Most others in the colony were, by that hour, asleep. I continued to find myself in that intoxicating matrimonial bliss as I stood outside in the gardens and mused upon the Golden Star. Since the nights here are 14 Earth days long, there was no urgency to my rapturous diversions. It is not uncommon for the sensitive male Proxbian to gaze beyond the transparent dome at this brightest of stars and find inspiration. Unmarked hours may have easily transpired, my mind floating about through limitless space in a self-sanctified detachment. I did not question my good fortune but felt entitled and justly rewarded. From reading Earth stories, I imagined my feelings could be compared to an Earthling having just inherited a great deal of money and being freed from the concerns of financial constraint and necessary employment.
As I watched the sky I found my solitary escape somehow being subtly intruded upon, and I began to grow strangely disconcerted. On such a night I should feel nothing but unbridled joy. Yet I was gradually aware of something being amiss. I then realized that the Golden Star, which held my attention, was dimming and brightening. This, everyone knew, was inconceivable as the constancy of this star has been the traditional subject of our songs and poems. Eventually the steady light returned though I remained concerned that this might be an ill omen or portend something of importance. I continued watching and eventually there was another light near the Golden Star, in very close proximity to it. In fact, the only way I could differentiate the two lights was by their colors. The new light was whiter, near blue. I watched in wonder now wishing someone were with me who could corroborate my observation and with whom I might discuss this unprecedented occurrence.
I quickly walked home and went down inside the tube. I told my wife, but she was preoccupied and dismissive of my information. “It is likely nothing. You are just being overly excited with all the commotion tonight,” she told me. Yet I found her words failed to dispel my concerns. I could not rest. Throughout the night I checked the sky periodically. The white light was gone now, and all seemed back to normal which led me to doubt my earlier observations. But between light napping I kept returning and I eventually saw a gray speck where none had been before. With subsequent visits I noticed it grew in size and finally resolved itself into an unnatural object, a ship. I had never seen a space ship before except in pictures. Our colony never had the resources to build one and we were much too far from Earth for a Tellurian ship to ever make the journey. I did not know what to do but watch in wonder as this vessel of unknown origin now appeared to be quickly approaching our planet.
Although concerned about the increased ion exposure outside of the lava tubes, I waited until the ship landed not far from the dome. I moved toward it, to the nearest edge of the enclosure and watched as bipeds similar to myself exited the ship and walked directly toward the dome. As our dome is only a few kilometers in diameter it was relatively easy for me to go to the airlock that they approached. Seeing that they appeared to be humans and unarmed, I allowed the two astronauts access. Once inside they removed their helmets breathing deeply of our atmosphere. At first, they seemed distraught though as they recovered they greeted me enthusiastically, relieved and appreciative for my presence and for admitting them inside. I was immediately impressed with their stature and strident demeanor. This I found confusing for although they appeared to be males they comported themselves more like the women in our colony.
I also was not expecting them to speak in the language English. “We are sorry to surprise you like this, but we were in big trouble out there. I think our ship took a hit from a micro meteoroid. Our cabin pressure quickly dropped. This colony was our only possible sanctuary close by,” the darker-faced one told me. Though they both had faces that showed richly pigmented skin, it was the darker one who initially spoke. I noticed his name printed on his space suit. It was Singh.
“Where are you from?” I asked, looking down at the comparatively transparent skin of my arms.
They paused and briefly consulted each other with a furtive glance before speaking. “Earth,” the other one replied. They must have noticed a look of incredulity on my face, as I skeptically considered their response. Before I could speak he added, “Is there a place we could rest and get out of these suits?” They seemed fatigued, so we moved toward a nearby natural rock prominence that had been carved away to provide surfaces for the farm workers to rest.
“Please stay on the stone path,” I said. “All soil under the dome has either food already growing or is in seed. Although our population growth here has leveled off in recent generations, sufficient food production is still challenging. Those large, multistory structures over there are our aeroponic farms. You can detect the glow of the artificial light that is used to keep the plants alive during the night.”
Once seated they began removing more of their bulky space suits, as it is always warm and humid inside the dome. “Earth?” I asked, still perplexed by their answer. “That does not make sense to me. Earth is over 4.2 light years from here. No living thing can make such a journey.” At this point I noticed another man standing aside watching us. I knew him to be our quartermaster, the colony supply clerk. He must have also noticed the ship touch down.
Though they seemed to understand my question, they again seemed reluctant to answer. It was Singh who eventually responded. He looked at me as he spoke. “I know that you have a lot of questions. These will be all answered in time. But things are not what they seem. It may be difficult for you to assimilate what we could tell you. I think it best that we take it slow. Maybe now is not the best time to go into all this.”
Then the other, whose name I noticed was Varney, answered, “Understand that we have just narrowly escaped what had seemed a certain death. When the meteoroid struck our ship, it penetrated our crew cabin causing our atmosphere to quickly dissipate into space. If not for the close proximity of your colony we would have asphyxiated in space. We knew a colony was here, and we made for it in a desperate attempt to survive.”
I felt an immediate affinity to Varney. I am not sure why. Maybe because his eyes were pale like our own, but I think it was more. Yet his responses were succinct and impersonal unlike Singh’s. I wanted Varney to be friendlier, to reciprocate my impulsive feelings of fraternity. “Please excuse my persistence but it is quite unsettling that you are less than forthcoming about your origin. For you to have traveled here from Earth is untenable.”
Seeing my frustration, Singh spoke. “We hesitate because we know that this will come as a shock to you, but Earth is really not so very far away from here as you believe. We did come from Earth and we were just on a mission to refuel the Webb III Telescope which is orbiting beyond Earth’s moon at the L2 Earth/Sun Lagrange point. You can probably see it as a gold light in your sky.”
Varney continued, “OK. Let’s recap a bit.” He was sitting leaning forward looking at the ground in front of him. “Your colony, as you know, is one of three sister colonies. The others are on Wolf 1061c and Kapteyn b, which you know are several light years away from Earth. But Proxb, in fact, is located on the far side of the Earth’s moon where you never see Earth or directly receive its radio signals.” His words were clipped and his information factual, direct and less tactful considering the circumstances.
“But our messages take years to reach Earth. And just as long for their response to reach us,” I persisted. The supply clerk had cautiously moved closer and was listening now to what we said.
The astronauts were now partly liberated of their bulky protective suits, revealing seamless inner shirts that covered snugly from their neck to their waist, including arms. The clerk, who had gradually moved in closer, compulsively touched the exotic material of Varney’s inner shirt. Seeing him near the seated astronaut it was impossible not to notice the contrast in their physical bulk, the effect of our having adapted to a reduced gravity.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be telling you all this now,” Singh interjected. “Though I think as soon as anyone here noticed our ship this cat was out of the bag. Still, maybe it would be more prudent to brief someone in charge, maybe a government official. Have either of you official capacity?” Neither of us responded but at the suggestion the supply clerk ran off apparently to summon a government administress who might be better qualified to address this situation.
“What about the 4.24 year delay limiting our communication with Earth? It is undeniable?” I persisted.
“That latency had been artificially established by COLCOM. Your colony is like the ‘control’ in a double-blind study. Everything that was sent out to the extra solar colonies, including the initial human genetics, has been meticulously mirrored with yours. While the other colonies’ development is too remote to easily monitor, yours is accessible and right in our own planetary back yard. That is why you were kept insulated from any direct contact or visits from Earth. They needed your colony to be subject to the same variables as the others, so the radio delay was established and enforced.”
I might have appreciated the information Varney was freely sharing, but instead I began to feel anger, remembering our anxiety waiting to receive responses to our urgent messages. I recalled the years we endured, suffering through serious problems not only when the solution was intentionally withheld but when direct assistance was close by.
“Your radio delay, of course, was the shortest possible,” Varney elaborated. “This colonial simulation presumed you to be part of the Alpha Centauri system. To make it any less so would have been the same as telling you exactly how far away you were from Earth. It would have affected your social and technical development and ruined your value as a test subject. Yet, having you nearby allowed us to monitor your development and to implement timely and effective adjustments to our procedures. It not only improved the conditions on the more remote colonies but possibly avoided their extinction. Only in this way could improvements and corrections be implemented without waiting decades for the actual results. Everything needed to be the same, even the fact that you believed you were isolated from direct contact with Earth.”
I suspect Singh noticed the effect this news had created in me. He again interjected, his intent obviously empathetic. I believe he was trying to reduce the impact of Varney’s revelations. “We did not purposely come here. In fact, we are here against orders.” His tone acknowledged his sensitivity to my distress. “We can appreciate your disbelief, but just now, right out there, our ship became suddenly and violently non-functional. Yet we were told to return to Earth taking an established circuitous route avoiding your detection rather than contaminate this scientific resource. Command understood the seriousness of our situation. They knew that following the authorized course would have resulted in our death.”
“We weighed the consequences against losing our lives. That coming here we would rip the lid off this secret compact. We tried to follow orders. I even set the navaputer as instructed, but once our cabin atmosphere dissipated and the suit supply became critical, your colony was our only refuge. We never consulted with Command. I alone overrode the computer course,” he said glancing at his companion. “Even at that, it was uncertain that we could make it here alive.”
Varney now spoke in concordant response, “There was no decision. Circumstances determined our options. The only sensible one,” he looked at Singh, “was to put down here and save ourselves. We will likely pay a severe price for this, but we will defend our actions. The extra solar colonies are now relatively stabilized. There have been ongoing discussions of termination of this test facility. Much has already been learned here and applied in the colonization program. The scientific usefulness of this colony has been waning. Our action likely only accelerated the inevitable obsolescence of this test platform.” When he stopped talking he briefly looked up at me.
Singh again took over. “I am sorry. I can only imagine how distressing our sudden intrusion has been for you. We are both sorry,” he said looking at his collaborator. “Though this was never our intent you may likely find yourselves released as COLCOM subjects and rejoined with Earth’s society sooner rather than later. This should improve your lives. Expand your possibilities. The changes may be stressful but ultimately rewarding.”
Discordant thoughts were buzzing inside my head. “This isn’t fair to us, you know. I am a notable member of this society. I have attained an enviable position here. I am finally somebody. I have worked hard for my accomplishments and recognition in this colony. All I have strove toward has just been realized and destroyed on the same night. Since you intruded, all is uncertainty and nothing will be the same again. We all know that low gravity colonials can never relocate and physically readjust to Earth.” I stopped. Suddenly self-conscious at my emotional outbreak, I considered apologizing, as my anxiety must have seemed petty compared to the hazards recently endured by these space travelers. But I did not because I was aware that something had changed.
I looked around and saw that others had gathered about and were watching us. The men looked on with detached curiosity while some women held tools and implements. These women moved forward with intent and confronted the astronauts. Though they were smaller in stature and strength than their Earthling counterparts, the look of our women was ominous and imminently menacing. The astronauts looked helpless, their legs still constrained by the bulky lower half of their space suits. The expressions of the defenseless intruders conveyed their comprehension of the dire situation into which they had inadvertently placed themselves. A wave of sickness engulfed me as this awkward but entirely civil encounter transformed into a violent and vicious display. I could no longer watch.
The resourceful bravery and decisive dominance of the superior Proxb women over the incapable Earthlings has since become ensconced and heralded as our official mythology. The damaged Earthling ship remains a solitary reminder. An inadvertent monument upon the vast wasteland outside the dome. Although we now know where we are in the local galaxy, our independence from Earth continues self-imposed. Our government’s intolerance of outside involvement is an established and enforced regulation in the solar system. No other Earth ships will be intentionally visiting our colony. For us the incident has become an example, a lesson to others. It has become our premier source of civic pride and the cause for an annual celebration by our community.
Yet I think often of that night and those godlike men and cannot now help feeling a profound sympathy for their untenable situation. They were victims of the same lie that we had been subjected to for generations and their lives were no more valued by the perpetuators than ours. Yet they brought to us a fresh and compelling spirit. What was there in their voices and eyes and looming presence became energizing and contagious.
Although it puts my social position at jeopardy, at secret meetings during extended lunar nights we covertly speak of those unfortunate Earthmen as if their action were a martyrdom. Our cabal has pledged to record and preserve a faithful account of all we remember about the encounter, a gospel for our descendants. We have come to recognize that the visitation revealed a societal duplicity, that this exposure has triggered a need for change that now requires our personal sacrifice and struggle. Our actions will hopefully result in the necessary societal adaptation to this new reality. Maybe one day we will prevail and rejoin our Earthly brethren in mutual friendship and peace.
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