Happy Halloween, everyone. If you’re looking for a good book to curl up with by the fire on a chilly evening, The ALECS Quartet has been out for a month. Join Darren Lee as he reunites with love, death, memory, and betrayal light-years from Earth, in the inhospitable desert of Elard. Scroll down for an excerpt to whet your appetite.
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Don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
– Constantine Cavafy
“The God Abandons Antony”
Perhaps our only sickness is to desire a truth which we cannot bear rather than to rest content with the fictions we manufacture out of each other.
– Lawrence Durrell
Clea (The Alexandria Quartet, Book 4)
My footsteps echoed under the high ceiling of the spaceport’s arrivals gate. Plastic shrouds wrapped all but one of the interview stations. At the last open interview station, the guard’s frizzy hair and long ears reminded me of Nesbitt, Juliette’s husband. I held out my ALECS passport and let the guard take a fingertip scraping and a retina scan to confirm my identity.
After a few seconds, the machine gonged and a green light glowed on its panel, sequencing of my DNA complete. The guard gestured at a gray plastic frame, two meters fifty tall, one meter fifty wide, thirty centimeters thick. Under the center of the frame, bee-striped lines marked the outlines of feet.
”Stand there until released,” the guard said.
I raised an eyebrow at the frame, then at him. “Brain activity scanners are voluntary at any ALECS arrival or departure point.”
”The rules have changed. Stand there until released.”
He set his fists on his hips. The gesture set a crease into the ALECS patch on the guard’s blue sleeve. Under the patch, no doubt, lay the logo of United Sodalities of the Galaxy. I could waste time with his superiors, arguing protocols they knew and disregarded, with little hope of evading the scanner. Or I could comply. In one inhalation I planned my thoughts, then did as he bade.
The guard moved around the frame and faced me. Motors spun up and fans whirred in the plastic frame as he scowled at my passport. “What’s the purpose of your visit, Mr. Lee?”
I let slide his willful refusal to use my honorific. “The Way in the West has sent me to supervise the withdrawal of its personnel and assets from Elard, according to the Indigenous Autonomous Council’s decree.” A sense of purpose filled in behind my eyes. Sadness at our mission’s end hung from it like icicles. He would expect the scanner to pick up both those feelings.
It helped I felt them.
His scowl shifted targets to my face. “Is that your sole purpose?”
”I might look up some old colleagues,” I said. Stolen hours with Juliette returned from memory and touched my inner senses. The glow of afternoon sun flooding the opacity of the window near my narrow bed. The texture of her kisses. The grinding of our pelvises against each other. The public trysts, in her jitney, that one in the women’s restroom at the café on Gregory Dialogus Street, sneaking out with disheveled hair and untucked shirts only to find Purcell waiting for us—
Mustn’t think about Purcell—
”Step forward,” the guard said. He snapped shut my passport and held it out, pinched between his thumb and forefinger. “Your papers are in order. I cannot deny you admittance. But here’s some advice. The rules you might remember from your previous stay, when the ALECS administrators ruled the human settlement and the wishes of our native brethren were ignored, they’ve changed. The natives have decided your doctrines are false. We abide by those wishes. You’d be wise to do the same, Mr. Lee.”
I took the passport from him, lifted my shoulders, and turned away. I had a month on Elard to learn her secrets. Secrets I had missed on my posting here decades prior.
The planet’s secrets. Not Juliette’s.
Outside the arrivals gate, a robotic flatbed cart waited with my suitcases. Its front structure bore shoulders and head, eyes level with my chest. A smile formed on its cartoonish features when I approached. “A jitney waits for you outside,” it said.
I trickled my hands over the barely-visible seal in the uppermost suitcase. Cool to the touch. No sign of forced entry by the security guards. “Follow.”
My heels clacked and the cart’s tires whispered on the tile floor. I alone had arrived today. The only other sounds and motions on the concourse came from cleaning robots. Chairs and tables gleamed in the glow of lighted ceiling panels and waited for passengers never to come. A cleaning robot, the size of a tiny dog, clung on gecko-like feet to a poster saying The United Sodalities of the Galaxy and the Indigenous Autonomous Council Welcome You to Elard. A lighted strip in the frame above the poster glinted on the robot’s carapace. With a raspy sound, the robot licked the face of the Sodalities’s local operations director. An augmented reality server pushed his name to the video screens in my contact lenses. Vainqueur. A name I’d never heard before.
A dozen paces further, a light had burned out over a poster with the ALECS logo and an array of smiling humans diverse in race, sex, and attire. Their puffed hair and narrow, starched lapels resembled decades-old images of the four of us on the soft synthleather couches in a back corner of the café. The Apostolic League of Earth Communities of Spirit. Many Manifestations, One Truth. Thick lines of dust marked the edges of the poster frame.
I rounded a last corner and entered the spaceport atrium. My footsteps echoed off the concrete walls and vast front windows. My pace remained constant but my heart sped up. Across kilometers of scrubby desert, the human settlement thrust its bony fingers toward the sky.
The most important three years of my life had been spent in and around those living buildings and the wide boulevards between them. I had been a callow boy, deluded by my recent diploma and my accepted application for an extrasolar posting into believing I was a man.
Three years of fruitless missionary work humbled my naive certainty in both The Way in the West’s teachings, and my own abilities to persuade the natives. Alien Lifeforms Extremely Contemptuous of Salvation, Purcell had said with his customary cynicism, and Nesbitt had narrowed his eyes.
A few months in Juliette’s close orbit demolished my masculine pretense of control over my surroundings and my emotions.
She lived still among those bony towers.
The doors to the loading zone parted to reveal a single jitney waiting along a hundred meters of curb. On its side, the ALECS logo, the white sun of the Transcendent pouring out the rainbow-colored waves of the different spiritual communities. A standard vehicle from the motor pool. The baking air desiccated me, pulled recollections of field work out of the depths of my memory. I shaded my eyes and squinted at the cloudless sky under noontime Elar. Quick steps to the jitney, and I sagged into the rear seat before ordering the air conditioning vents to aim themselves at me. I stepped down the windows’ opacity to give myself a sepia-tinged view of the spaceport and the landscape. Thumps came from the trunk as the robotic cart loaded my luggage.
Minutes later, the jitney hurried down the road toward the human settlement. Straight as a crow’s flight, the same low, mounded median of rocky soil and sparse Terran shrubs divided the two inbound lanes from the two outer. To the sides, new boundary fences ran parallel to the road, ten meters from the paved edges of the shoulders. Atop the barbed wire, concertina coils angled toward the road. In the old days, the ALECS concession stretched five kilometers to either side, marked by a fence a person could climb. Beyond the fences, rocky desert tufted by a few Elardian plants stretched to the edges of the plateau. The natives rarely strayed this far and high from the great narrow sea stretching halfway around the planet.
My thoughts turned to the hidden one of my purposes. Three days before I left Earth, my superiors sent me to Prague, where I met the executive committee of The Unneeded Hypothesis, Purcell’s sponsors.
We never learned his fate on Elard. In the decades since he disappeared, our leadership focused on more urgent matters. But our stature declined anyway, and our number of adherents has shrunk. Learning Purcell’s fate would be one of the last victories we could win. Now that the United Sodalities of the Galaxy has cajoled the natives into expelling the rest of us, our chance at even that victory is slipping away.
Three kilometers outside the window, across a city of midrise apartment buildings housing tens of thousands living mostly in virtual reality, gray-bellied clouds brushed the spires of St. Vitus’ Cathedral. Where do I come in? I asked.
The executive winced. We can’t afford to send an agent to Elard. Your superiors in Calgary agreed we could partially fund your trip if you do this for us.
Calgary didn’t tell me—
His eyes grew imploring. We ask for a pair of reasons. First, yes, our spiritual paths differ, but they are more consonant than any others. We both strive to see the universe as it is, yes? Unlike the USG, and the Universal Church of Christ, both telling pretty lies of the universe as it could be, if only the masses would bow down to the USG’s historical dialectic, or the UCC’s god.
All that is true. I knew the answer before I asked my next question. And the other reason?
In his reports, Purcell called you his friend….