Some lead a life of mild content . . .
Around me as I flew, the evening sky of Wunderland was full of light. Alpha Centauri B was so brilliant in its time as to cast its own sharp shadows at dusk and to fill the air with color, yet at an average of 25 AUs easily distant enough to be looked at with the naked eye.
There too was the red jewel of Proxima and the diffuse, braided lines of the Serpent Swarm. There, a routine sight in this system, was the sliding and flash of meteors, plus a couple of fair-sized moons and other smaller satellites, natural and artificial. There were other points of light that were in fact potato-shaped stony worldlets of various sizes, some carrying loads of instruments, the axled wheels of the old spacestation, the squares and rhomboids of advertising signs (hardly used now—they proved unpopular and counterproductive), high aircraft and spacecraft, and, higher still and parked in their plodding orbits, the old slowboats that had brought the original colonists.
The towns and city too had their high points of light, not because population pressure in a limited space had forced them upward—Wunderland's chief cities were still quite small—but because .61 Earth gravity made for both high but easily conquerable hills and a few relatively inexpensive architectural flights of fancy.
Wunderland. Humanity's first interstellar colony was well-named, I thought, watching the landscape pass below me, high crests and ridges still lit by the rays of setting Alpha Centauri A, mountainsides glowing. I had seen pictures of Earth, and understood again the delight our ancestors must have felt in their first days and nights on this new world.
Not a new thought but still a good one. With its towering hills and mountains, sparkling seas and lush life, its forests, parklands and savannahs where the red-gold of the local vegetation now mixed with the green of Earth plants, its brilliant sky, a gravity that gave good health, good looks (if we exercised hard) and long life, it was impossible to imagine a more wonderful place. Someone had once compared it to the valleys of Malacandra in C. S. Lewis's ancient fantasy Out of the Silent Planet , and noted how Lewis, even if his Mars was a billion years or so behind the times, had anticipated the effects of low gravity on waves. The frustrations of my personal life could be seen in their proper perspective as I flew over that glorious landscape, under those stars.
I have often remembered the details of that night, and the contentment I did not then know I felt. In fact, I was relieved to be getting away for a few hours from my own thoughts and from the political intrigues and pressures that were becoming more and more obvious between Herrenmanner and Prolevolk on the one hand, and Teuties and Tommies on the other, with the déclassé jumping about on the edges.
Because of the frequency of meteor impacts, our fathers had been wary of building near the coast, but we had a good meteor guard force now, with sensors and big rock-blasting lasers mounted in spacecraft and also on the ground, and Circle Bay Monastery stood on a headland, high on the rim of an old crater.
To the west a wide swath of open parklike country swept down to merge with the outer marshes of Grossgeister Swamp. There were ponds and limestone caves, some with odd populations descended from sea creatures washed inland by ancient tsunamis. To the south-east were hills and, seeming far away but still just visible from the air, the diffuse glow of Munchen against the sky. As the night deepened the lights of scattered hamlets and farms were spilled beads rolling to the horizon. A sudden bright plume of orange smoke climbing starwards indicated a takeoff from Munchen spaceport. It had, I thought, been unusually busy lately.
Munchen had been called New Munchen immediately after its settlement, and its river the New Donau, but the prefixes had fallen out of use. The other Munchen and Donau were more than four light-years away, and there was little chance of confusing them.
There was the outline of the monastery ahead, dark walls and lighted windows, growing larger as the autopilot shifted into descent.
I brought my car down in the monastery courtyard. The abbot was waiting for me, visible from a distance as a spot of red light. He had taught me at school, and I had used the monastery as a base for collecting expeditions in the past. We knew one another well.
"That's where it was seen," said the abbot when I alighted and we had exchanged greetings. "It vanished down there." He gestured with his cigar to a grove of red Wunderland trees near the outlying margin of the swamp, dark in the night shadows.
"Did you watch the area?"
"Not continuously, I'm afraid. We thought the best thing was to call you. We kept an eye on the trees during the day, but there doesn't seem to be anything there now. Unless it's good at hiding. But it would have to be good. Some of the brothers aren't bad hunters."
I scanned the grove with my nitesite. There were a few dull red points in the dark of the trees showing the body heat of small animals. Nothing much bigger than a large rat or perhaps a Beam's beast, but some of the Wunderland reptiloids, even the big ones, were cold when resting. So close to the swamp, it was as well to be respectful of what might be out after dark.
"Well, I'm not going in there now."
"Of course not. But you'll take a drop of wine?"
The monks of Circle Bay Headland made their own wine in the old way. It was famous and expensive and part of the reason I had not waited and flown out in the morning. The abbot was a good host, and the guest rooms were comfortable in an old-fashioned style. We crossed the wide lawn of the courtyard to his study.
"Something like a big cat, you said. Who saw it?"
"Three of the Brothers. Peter, Joachim, and John. They'd been fishing in the marshes. They wrote down their impressions separately, as you asked. All emphasized cat."
I knew them quite well. Brother John was a trained reptiloid handler and had come collecting with me; the others were horticulturists with a good bit of botany and a good deal more zoology than most, even by the standards of an educated and intellectually curious community that lived largely by farming on what was still a comparatively new world with two competing and adjusting biosystems. All intelligent and reliable men.
"And it was how big? Not a tigripard?"
"No. Not a tigripard. It was big, bigger than a man, bigger than an Earth tiger, as far as I know, and far bulkier, and they said it ran differently. Sometimes on four legs, undulating like an Earth weasel, sometimes—and this is odd—on two legs. Nothing that they recognized as either a local or an Earth creature."
"And it didn't attack them."
"No. But it was plainly a carnivore. They didn't get to see it for long, but they said there was no mistaking the teeth and the limbs."
"And nothing local, you say?"
Some of the bigger Wunderland animals, like gagrumpers, were—appropriately for Alpha Centauri A's planet—centauroid in form, but they generally went about in herds and with all six legs on the ground. In any case, gagrumpers were herbivores and placid unless threatened. And as far as large animals go, even creatures as evolved as humans can generally tell herbivores from carnivores instinctively at a glance. It's deep in our genes.
"Everything we know about evolution says such a creature wouldn't evolve in this ecology," I said. "Predators don't grow bigger than they need, and the native prey-animals all around here are quite small. If there was anything big enough to jump on adult gagrumpers, we'd know about it by now . . . we'd have seen anything really big long ago. On Earth nothing preyed on elephants, at least not healthy ones."
"I know. But you said the native prey-animals. We've introduced equids and cows and sheep and pigs. That might attract visitors from farther afield. What's in the hills and the forests? You haven't got the whole planet classified yet, have you?"
Wunderland is smaller than Earth but a good deal bigger than Mars. The last I heard, even the surviving vestiges of Martian life had had their mysteries. "I might say: 'Give us a chance!' It is a whole planet!" I told him.
"And things can grow bigger in water, can't they? We've got both the sea and the swamp not far away . . . But they're sure this was not a water dweller. I told you I had something odd for you."
Something odd. It gave me a sudden queer shiver. Sometimes we remembered that, if Wunderland was wonderful, we were also still alien intruders upon it.
"The cat aspect is strange, certainly," I said, "Even a tigripard isn't very catlike. But this sounds more like the persistence of an Earthside myth than anything else. Many wild places on Earth had legends of solitary, wild giant cats that had no business being there—there were sightings, even photographs, of the Beast of Bodmin in England for centuries." Cryptozoology was one aspect of Earth history I had to know something about—the habits of a lot of Wunderland's fauna might be described as cryptic.
"They were probably actually big wild dogs that had turned sheep-killers, plus sightings of domestic cats that had gone feral and bred a bit bigger than normal, or surviving Felis sylvestris wildcats. Maybe there were one or two big felines that had escaped from captivity. But it would be odd to find the same legend here. And they are sure it wasn't a tigripard? They can be quite dangerous enough!"
"No. It was the first thing I asked them. They are quite sure. I don't want to overreact, but I thought it could be something special—which can mean specially dangerous."
"If it's unknown, it could be dangerous. What looks more harmless than a Beam's beast? They caused a lot of casualties before we got the measure of them."
We passed under an arched doorway, through an enclosed space I had learned was called the Garth, through another arch with a brass-bound wooden door in a lower wall and entered the abbot's book-lined study.
The Catholic Church, like some of the Protestant denominations, had been supported on Wunderland by a large and wealthy congregation once, including some of the Nineteen Families. The monastery buildings had some extravagant architectural follies from those days, including sections of battlemented wall and a high tower that could have come from Neuschwanstein. The monks' private quarters were austere while eschewing extremes, but the abbot had to be something of a politician now, and entertain. As the church's support declined, paradoxically, he had to show influential visitors more than a modicum of comfort.
Well, I wasn't sorry for it. The monastery's past generations of abbots or whoever had made these rooms had managed to combine comfort with a rare feeling of stepping into an almost museum-exhibit-like past. But it was part of a still-working institution with a life, a poetry, if you like, that no museum can achieve.
I was glad there was such a place on Wunderland, where every human structure was relatively new. There was an antique open fire burning in what the abbot had told me was called a "grate," old chairs that one wouldn't want to sit on for long but which reminded one of how our ancestors sat, as well as comfortable modern ones, a really ancient ornate "clockwork" clock, a shelf of antique-looking paper books in red and gold beside the computers, a crystal decanter on a side table. It seemed odd to talk of unknown dangers in such surroundings.
"You have weapons?"
"A few." He waved around the room: "You know we like old things. There are a couple of antique shotguns we use as fowling pieces, and the collecting guns." A ginger kitten jumped onto his knee as he sat, kneading the folds of his robe and purring raucously as he stroked it.
"Also, of course, we need them when we have to kill a badly injured animal or one of our own beasts for meat. We're old-fashioned in just about all ways, you know."
"I remember the first time you fed me meat from an animal you killed," I said. "It took me a bit of getting used to. A useful accomplishment for a biologist on field trips, though." We both laughed at the memory of my rush to the bathroom the first time I saw—and then realized—what was on my plate. "Sometimes I thought you were toughening me up deliberately."
"I was." There was something different in his voice for a moment that snagged my attention. Then he resumed his usual slightly pedagogical manner. Perhaps one's old teacher never quite gets beyond teaching, I thought.
"I've said it is part of the churches' duty not to move with the times, though not all the secular brethren agree with me. Oh yes, and we've got some modern strakkakers in case we encounter dangerous creatures like Beam's beasts or tigripards at the sheep . . .
"Or, between you and me," he continued, "in case we are attacked by humans, who could be much more dangerous. We've got a few bits and pieces in the Treasury and round about that might tempt thieves." The clockwork clock, I thought, must be just about beyond price for some rich collector. But who would know how to maintain such a thing?
"Using strakkakers against thieves sounds pretty draconian!" The strakkaker's blizzard of glass needles would turn a man into an anatomist's instant diagram. Even police only carried them in emergencies.
"We wouldn't, not in the first instance. But if anyone broke in, we might have to defend ourselves. The Papacy has always taken the long view about weapons technology. It was the Bull Romanus Pontifex that gave the charter to the age of European exploration." He loved to lecture, I knew. When I was a child he had spent a lot of time with me after school and guided me towards my career. "It was a pope who tried to ban the crossbow. And it was a pope who tried to ban the sale of the noisy, inefficient stone-throwers called cannon to Africans in 1481. We knew they wouldn't stay at that state. But the ban didn't stick and the Moorish pirates were using them in galleys to dominate the western Mediterranean not much later. . . ." He took a sip of wine. "We're aware our isolation could make us vulnerable."
"It's an isolation a lot of people would envy. I know I often do."
The abbot laughed. "I'm well aware of it. We're short of monastic vocations, but there's a long waiting list of people wanting to come on temporary retreats here. A lot of people seem to get something out of a retreat. But they want the tranquillity without the discipline—or without the religion at all . . . without the religion at all," he repeated, and the laugh went out of his voice. We were both silent for a slightly awkward moment. "They'd better make the most of it while it lasts," he added.
"I thought you were planning to be here forever."
"That's what I'd like, but I have to look at the demography. Christianity is dying on this world, as it is on Earth. Life's too easy for most people to feel the need of a religion . . . a little mild pseudo-Buddhism among some of the urban young, perhaps. But we've talked church history before."
I nodded. On Earth, when people mentioned the Holy Office today, it was generally a slang reference to one of the more secretive departments of ARM, Earth's technological police. Was I right in a vague notion that about the time the last slowboat-load of colonists left Earth, senior church figures had been taking up day jobs? Did it matter? Earth was a long way away. We Masons, who were required only to believe in a Supreme Being, and had a life of our own in our lodges, had an easier job surviving on the whole, but we too had had our lean years.
"I love coming here," I said. "I could never be one for the discipline of the monastic order, but a furlough among all this is pure contentment." He filled our glasses from the sparkling crystal decanter. The wine shone ruby in the firelight. Perhaps my too obvious appreciation of this luxury touched a nerve.
"We're not a very disciplined society, are we? Not a very tough one," he said. "Also," he went on, "there's this political trouble. How much do you know about that?"
"Not much. But more than I want to. We've got a whole world—a whole system—thinly settled. Huge tracts of land still for the taking, huge tracts still unexplored from the ground, if it comes to that. Habitable asteroids, Centauri B close by, even the Proxima system to settle if we want to live in bubbles under a red sky. What reason is there for us to fight?"
"The reason that we're human. It's not just Herrenmanner and Prolevolk. Teuties and Tommies fought systematically on Earth once, you know."
"I've heard about it," I said. "I don't know the details."
"Not many do now. Earth is censoring its history in a big way, and though we did bring some records of our own there seems no reason for us to advertise the story of Earth's past. . . ."
"It's not likely to come to fighting again, anyway. Not in this century. We aren't savages."
"Not in the old sense, I grant you," he said. "Not wars and armies and so forth." We both laughed at the absurd image. "But there are other forms of violence. Just lately . . . people have disappeared, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"Just what I say. Von Frowein, a senior councillor. He went on a camping holiday a couple of weeks ago and never came back."
"Didn't they search for him?"
"Yes, and they didn't find anything. He had the usual telltale beacon on him, standard equipment for lone campers, and there wasn't a peep out of it—as if it had been deliberately smashed. It gave me a nasty feeling when I learned about that. And there have been others. The police think we are seeing some organized murders—political murders."
"How do you know these things?"
"I'm not just an abbot, you know. I'm also a bishop—a priest in the secular sense. I hear confessions and . . . other things. My monks can retire from the world. I can't." He got up, pushing the kitten gently onto the padded arm of his chair, and began to pace the room.
"Did you ever read Saki?" he asked, looking at me with a sudden curious expression, "An old Earth writer. A heathen, as far as I can gather, but he had a hand for verses:
"Some lead a life of mild content:
Content may fall, as well as pride.
The Frog who hugged his lowly ditch
Was much disgruntled when it dried.
"He didn't write them as poetry, but as literary artifacts in a short story. Still, they can set one on a certain train of thought." I knew enough of his manner of rhetoric to know that when he spoke again it would be to quote something he had picked for a reason.
"You are not on the road to Hell,
You tell me with fanatic glee:
Vain boaster, what shall that avail,
If Hell is on the road to thee?"
Did he let that last line linger in the air between us for a moment? His glance turned to the blank faces of his computers, and in the soft lighting I seemed to catch something strange there. But it passed. "We—the church, that is—have survived by being ultra-orthodox, archaically conservative," he said musingly. "Heresy comes too easily if you give it a chance, especially when it takes the fastest message four and a half years to travel between us and Rome. And heresy means disintegration.
"We know our own history. The church very nearly died of tolerance once. Space travel and the scientism that went with it looked like killing us, but it may have been the saving of us instead. We religious weren't backward in getting into Space, you know. The first religious figure to set foot on a new world was an Episcopal lay preacher named Buzz Aldrin.
"As for us, there's a stained-glass window in our chapel with a likeness of Father George Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory, who applied for astronaut training in the 1960s. His Provincial is said to have muttered, 'If I let you become an astronaut, George, every priest will want to.' He had a point there. A priest, Georges Lemaitre, first postulated the Big Bang. No, we've never been hostile to space and space travel, far from it. But perhaps that renewal was a miracle, an unlooked-for one, like almost all real miracles."
"You believe in miracles?"
"But not actually?"
"We've been here a long time. And I'm not young. The faith flickers sometimes. But you can't cross space without feeling the vastness of the Creation and the insignificance of mankind compared to whatever made it.
"Also," he said after a moment, "conservatism justifies my own comfort."
"It's a good life cut off from the world, you mean?"
"Yes. Not so much better here as it might be on Earth, I suppose. Wunderland still has plenty of room. That's partly how I justify it and don't think I'm just a fat selfish old man. We are keeping something alive."
He fell silent again. I nodded.
"The Church didn't only come to Wunderland to minister to the people here," he said suddenly, "though of course that would have been more than reason enough. Some hoped we would renew ourselves. I know some say we're in the pockets of the Nineteen Families, but we came here independently—at very considerable cost. I'm told it almost bankrupted the Vatican. It had to be done, particularly as we knew our . . . competitors . . . were aboard the original slowboats."
"What? You mean the Protestants?"
"No," he said, with a sudden harsh bleakness in his voice that I had not heard before. "Not the proddys, who we've got on with fairly well for centuries now. And not you Masons either, by the way."
"You know about that?"
"Of course. And the church's anathema still holds, you damned syncretist! I also know most of you are well-intentioned, though if you'll forgive me saying so, some of you may in sober truth be playing with a hotter fire than you know. But I'm getting off the point: when we left Earth, some of us thought it would be for our own good as well as that of our new flock . . .
"We did renew ourselves, I think, for a while, but . . . Of course, I have to run this place in the world. I've some idea of the political stresses gathering now. But they are hardly enough to drive people back to the church."
Although machines and farming robots grew or manufactured most of our food, land which had appeared unlimited when the first colonists had arrived had made for a largely rural culture: a gentle, easy one unlike the hard work and bloody realities of farmers of ancient times, but one that kept us in touch with seasons and open spaces. Despite our heritage of space travel and our modern technology, it made us conservative in many ways—worse than conservative, according to some, though others applauded it. Cities had grown slowly and were still tiny compared to the megalopolises of Earth. But with the establishment of those cities, land values had changed. People had changed too.
The rural life was fine in theory for many but city life was more convenient and exciting in practice. When, after its long gestation as a mere landing field and administrative headquarters, Munchen had begun to look like a real city (it had taken many years for the permanent population to reach a thousand), it had begun attracting natural urbanites and had grown faster and faster. However good communications and virtual reality might be, people wanted to be close to things, and some people wanted to be close to other people. An ancient expression about "rural idiocy" had been resurrected.
The university had been one of the first people-magnets. Some students had wanted cafés and classrooms with other students rather than computer screens in solitary farmhouses. For an eighteen-year-old, the best VR communication with girlfriend or boyfriend lacks a certain something. The university population alone was more than twenty thousand now. Of course it was mainly science subjects that were studied, both pure and applied—the new mathematical transform alone had caused a whole new department to be set up—but there was a growing culture of the humanities as well. A colleague in the literature department had told me that a new poetic movement was writing of rural life with nostalgia. With an urban population growing rapidly, a growing business and professional class and stronger unions, the Nineteen Families were feeling their hegemony challenged as never before. Threat was making them tighten their grip. We still, if one looked at Earth history, had few police even for our population, but I wondered that night how long that situation was going to last.
The increasing political bickering seemed foolish and far away in that pleasant room.
"You won't go out to the people?"
"Do you mean us monks or the church as a whole? That's work for the secular orders. But the Church can't compromise too much on this world. We went that way once on Earth and nearly lost everything. Still, we've lasted twenty-four hundred years and more. Just. I have faith we'll survive. . . . Faith, after all, is my business. Mark you, without being too hypocritical, I do feel the absence of any sort of . . . test."
"Test? I don't understand."
"I'm not sure I do, either," he said. "Just that I sometimes know things are too comfortable here."
"I didn't know they could be too comfortable."
"It's not a material thing. Not necessarily."
I noticed now an unrepaired crack in the stonework behind the abbot's head. It looked deep and old. Through the window behind him I could see what I knew were the monks' living quarters. Half at least of the rooms were empty now and dark. There was a small pane of glassine missing in the window. I wondered if the old man's faith in their survival was misplaced and hoped it wasn't.
We were proud of our differences from Sol system's rather coldly technological order, from the Sol Belters and their descendants in our own Serpent Swarm, with their slightly inhuman efficiency, and from Earth's crowding and regimentation and its—albeit we were told, largely benevolent and inevitable—control. We esteemed a lot of our own archaisms, including a freedom that Earth would probably have considered anarchical, but were we doing enough to preserve them?
Wunderland, I thought again, would never be a dull world, but it would lose something special if it lost the monks and their quaint, kindly, old-fashioned ways. That thought, I realized, had a patronizing feel about it. This place was more than pleasant: in some odd way it was precious. The whole place was a relic, and in many ways a decadent one—the monks' simplicity was more complex and expensive than ordinary modern life. It would not weather a real storm, but it had charm, and in the world of Wunderland, young, expansive, ripe for the taking in a hundred ways, there were no real storms on the horizon.
I went to bed warmed by that splendid wine, which no chemist could duplicate, and despite the coarse, woven bedclothes, slept well as I always did there, with an herb- and flower-scented garden just beyond my open window. I did not, of course, know it was my world's last night.