Martin Vopěnka: Nová planeta (New planet)
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
Section One, Part One (Zone of the Elect)
The door opened onto dad’s long workroom, which at first sight resembled a corridor, but Dan knew there were several working alcoves in it. Today dad was sitting in an armchair at the far end with his back turned towards Dan, though he was clearly aware of his son‘s presence. And as Dan approached he became increasingly aware with each step of his cherished figure: his shoulders, hair, arms… all the imponderables that turned this being into his dear dad. He quietly came up close.
”Look here…” Dad held out his hand and drew Dan up to him. ”I might actually choose this planet as a transit point.”
Just for transit? Dan thought disappointedly. He had hoped that dad would manage to discover a destination planet, a future home for them. ”Transit? Why transit?” he asked out loud, gazing at the screen in front of him, which did not, however, indicate any celestial body, just some kind of coloured blotches and lines.
”Because from our terrestrial New Planet it’s just the right distance.”
”So why don’t we just settle it then?”
”It’s gravitational field is too weak to form a stable atmosphere. It’s too small. But it is 370 light years away from us, so that is just right. And…it is beautiful. Look…” Dad pointed to one of the coloured lines. ”…at this. Water in a liquid state. It orbits its sun in the habitable zone, so we can start to consider G819 again.”
Dan had already heard the term G819 from dad. It was one of the planets that came into consideration as the final destination. It was actually the closest of them all, and yet it was still too far. ”And how far is G819?” he asked, mostly because he knew it would make dad happy.
And dad really did come to life. ”From us it’s 779 light years away. But from this little planet it’s 465 light years. Combined it’s just a bit more, but not much. It’s almost on the way.”
”So are we on our way?” Dan rejoiced.
Dad turned towards him indulgently: ”What are you on about? It won’t happen for at least a hundred years. I have told you.”
”So I might live to see it?”
”You might, my chosen one.” He stroked Dan’s face and placed a kiss full of expectation on his forehead.
”And dad…” Dan wanted to ask about something he often thought about, but in the end he did not dare.
”Oh, it’s nothing.”
”What do you mean, nothing? You want to ask something, so ask!”
Dan decided to after all: ”So are we on Earth, or aren’t we?”
”I’ve already explained. We’re on New Planet.”
”But you also said that New Planet orbits the same sun as Old Planet.”
”Yes, you’re right. We are located in the same place in the universe.”
”Meaning we haven’t left Earth yet?”
”Yes, physically we have not yet left Earth’s gravitational field. But…we have left. We have closed the door behind us. There’s no way back. We’ve set out on a journey of no return. Our path now only leads forward. There…” Dad nodded towards the screen in front of him.
When he came back from the spa, mum was already sitting in a different armchair and the naturalness had returned to her body. Even her face was no longer so taut. ”So what have you learnt then?”
He described the entire visualization lesson, recalling Willy Gates and the creation of New Planet, while looking into his mother‘s face from a step away and comparing her unwittingly to Karla. She did not have a single wrinkle and her complexion glowed softly with a mysterious moistness. Her chin was not as elongated, but broader, and her nose was stronger. Overall her head was rounder, which was brought out even more by her short hair. He stood very close, but did not touch her.
Mum seemed pleased. She sat opposite him and drew him up towards her. ”Dan, that is exactly it. We have to break out of this circle. That‘s what it’s all about here. But we’re only half way there. We might be able to produce animal tissue to eat our fill, but why do we have to do that in the first place?”
This question intrigued Dan. He considered the need to eat to be the biggest time-waster of all – even bigger than the need to sleep. An annoying obligation.
Mum continued: ”Because we are still always in our physical bodies. We are imprisoned in them and dependent on them. Your grandfather hit his head on an angular object and died as a result. Do you understand? Because of a fault in his legs his entire mind perished.” Mum warmed to her theme and did not notice that she was holding Dan round the waist, which was very unusual for her. ”Getting to another planet is fine, but what will it do for us? What will it do for you and me if by that time our bodies have long given out? Our objective, Daniel, must be life without bodies. Our soul, our existence, independent of flesh, stomachs and intestines… We have to enter virtual reality and change it into reality: enmesh with it, become part of it, become its inhabitants. Mum gave Daniel a good shake: ”Do you understand? Do you understand me? Dan? Do you understand?”
Part Two (Journey of the Dead), Part Three (Old Planet)
Chapter 18, Chapter 1
Everybody gathered around something that looked like a hollowed-out bed. Ruben kept a slight distance, feigning disinterest and standing at the rear.
”Stretch out here,” Tadeáš pointed. ”I have to wrap you in a sliding bag.”
”Is this where the corpses lie down?” Dan asked and he suddenly felt like laughing – especially when he saw Tadeáš’s features stiffening. ”Seriously though?” he choked with laughter. ”Do they lie down here?”
He was seized again and again for several minutes by fits of laughter. At length he calmed down and obediently lay down. He saw his brothers bending over him, and he thought that even if it wasn’t such an amazing ride after all he must never tell them that, so as not to spoil their enjoyment. So in a while I shall go, he thought. He remembered Francesco, who had taken over for him at home, and dad, whom he would have so liked to talk to about the boundary – the real boundary of New Planet, which he had seen. He also remembered mum and wished her happiness. Most of all he wished he was home.
He would have happily given up the trip. But now it couldn‘t be stopped. The sliding bag enveloped him from head to foot. Tadeáš had taken so long to fasten up the closure that Dan began to feel like nothing but an object, like a toy entirely at the mercy of those bent over him. Fortunately they were people he trusted.
”Ready then!” Tadeáš finally stood up straight. Last of all he adjusted his adhesive hood. ”Daniel, are you ready to set out on the journey of the dead?”
”Father will be open-mouthed,” Áron said nonsensically – nonsensically because dad would never get to know about this journey.
Daniel quickly looked at Ruben, his gaze coming to rest on his eyes. They were unusually dilated and tried to hurriedly express something. An awful lot; madly, right this moment. At this moment, however, the couchette rose and Dan started to slide from it into the tunnel – slowly at first, but then picking up speed. He caught Tadeáš’s cry from behind: ”Enjoy! It’s our present for you! You did always think you were something greater.”
The ride slowed down and now he was just moving along a slope, but the movement was never-ending. Then he did come to a stop with a gentle bump against something soft. So had it turned out okay? Nothing the matter? Was he alive? At last he dared to open his eyes a little, but what he saw only confirmed the foreboding he had read in Ruben’s eyes. Panic and anxiety seized him. All around him was an immense unknown and yet somehow familiar world.
Imprisoned in the sliding bag that was meant to protect him from the harmful friction, he could now barely move. For a time he tried to make himself believe that he had merely flown out over the planetary roof, so that everything was as it should be. But twenty seconds had long passed. With all his strength he shut his eyelids tight, but even then too much light pierced his eyes. He was dazzled.
The perceptions that assailed his senses, accustomed to the virtual world inside, were too much. His brain did not manage to take them all in. Dan found the stench, for example, to be of a pungency, heaviness and awfulness that was hitherto quite inconceivable to him.
Or the buzzing: omnipresent, reminiscent of a school outing to an Old Planet forest. Something small settled on his face, and he couldn’t swish it away, as his hands were shut tight in the bag.
It struck him that he should long have been back at his brothers’, and that they were surely frantic he wasn’t there with them yet. But this was just a mental flash among all the other jostling perceptions: the unpleasant smell, the light, the buzzing and the revolting tactile sensations. Also, the image that he only briefly glimpsed before he had to screw up his eyes, and which persisted in his mind like a rather vague and imprecise memory: no elevator, no roof, no elevator tube, no boundary. The only boundary seemed to be the slope on which he lay and along which he had slid down. Also, the pressure of something soft that his legs had bumped up against. He mustered up his courage, screwed up his eyelids and opened his eyes to a narrow crack. This time his gaze was not caught by the immensity of the space, which had previously terrified him, but it settled on the closest objects – those which he was leaning against, which were… recumbent figures in white bags: a great pile of figures below him. He glimpsed hair, waving in the wind – and Dan felt this previously unknown sensation in his face – the breeze – to be quite different; it was much softer and more changeable than the stream of air that he could have himself fanned by, for example, in the movement chamber. Then he saw the figure’s face a little lower, except it wasn’t a face, just an open jaw full of teeth and empty sockets instead of eyes. Flies flew all around, occasionally forming a dense cloud, which even shielded the source of penetrating light that prevented Dan from seeing more.
So far he had been lying on his back. From that position he was unable to see much, and what was more, the flies were settling on his face – crawling into his nose and his eyes, and even trying to get into his mouth. They were repulsive. With all his strength he resisted and tried to release his hands. He could move them a little, but not enough. After several vain and exhausting attempts he had to give up, but he did manage to roll over onto his side and shake his head, sending the flies on their way for at least some time.
Dan had never seen a corpse before, but he knew plenty about human anatomy from tuition programmes. What he saw when he rolled over on his side was a smooth slope slanting away into the distance. And beneath it a pile of dead bodies in various states of decomposition in white bags torn in various ways. He also now saw a flock of black birds and realized that just a while ago he had heard their cawing.
It occurred to him that the universal funeral system must have had some serious breakdown. A breakdown whereby the bodies of the dead ended up here instead of heading into outer space to merge into it. A breakdown due to which he had ended up here too. But how was it possible they didn’t know about the breakdown up above?
It also occurred to him that now they would at least find out about the breakdown – his brothers would now have to discover it when he didn’t get back to them. In a while they would report it and rescue him.
Except Ruben’s eyes… No, he didn’t want to think about them. Instead of thinking, which he avoided, he was shaken by anger. So when would he be able to swat flies? Move normally? Get up and go?
But it was no good. And the awful stench made the air unbreathable. He choked on it and resisted. At times he thought he would suffocate. He remembered Francesco, who was sitting in his room, virtually superimposed over him, enjoying himself and suspecting nothing. Francesco was at his home and he…in this crazy, senseless place in the middle of a gigantic breakdown. Suddenly he caught himself shouting: ”Dad! Help! Dad!. He yelled with all his might until tears streamed from his eyes. ”Daaaad!” Then he remembered Ruben, who was closer. If nobody else then at least Ruben would come rushing to his aid. Honest Ruben. The trip through the tunnel only lasted a while. So Ruben had to be nearby. ”Ruben! Ruben! Help!”
A fly suddenly flew into his open mouth . Before he could do anything it had gone down his throat and he’d swallowed it. In alarm he closed his mouth tight. Never in his life could he have imagined anything as revolting as what he had just experienced. Anguish. Pure anguish. Powerlessness and despair.
Section Two, Part Nine (Escape)
Now it was dark. And out of this darkness Dan’s entire past life flashed by. He was heartened again by the small guileless boy who believed so much in the New Planet civilization. Some quite early memories even reemerged from when he was perhaps two or three years old. That was when he first noticed that Karla was living in their apartment. He didn’t want her there – he only wanted his mum. He was afraid of that sad, unkempt woman. ”Mum, send her away…?” he asked at the time. And mum answered as if she were angry at him, which he did not understand: ”Tell dad.”
Now he could not imagine living there – inside. Never experiencing the real wind, frost or rain… Here everything could be experienced, but only virtually. He could not tell where the difference lay. Virtual stimuli hit his nervous system directly, by-passing his body. Even if they managed to transfer the entire contents of his mind to a virtual network it would not be life. A virtual mind of that kind would not have anything to live by. Perhaps that‘s why at twenty-five he felt so old. Even if he lived hundreds of years on New Planet, his life would not be so fulfilled as in just thirteen years that he had spent beyond the planetary wall.
Of course, it also had its disadvantages, the worst of which was that he could die at any time. Like now. The gloom seemed to be gathering around his throat. At any moment steps might well sound along the corridor. They could drag him out and kill him.
Or then again the sound of steps might never be heard again. What if they catch Joniv? What would he do then? Would he stay there forever? Would he get out? Or give himself up to them?
He lost all sense of time. Sometimes he slept, but it was definitely not at night. The woolen blanket warmed him, so he seemed to fall into a deep sleep. Space ceased to be three-dimensional. And then on one occasion he found himself somewhere else. The darkness had changed into a glow and his heart was filled with love. Again he had the woman of his life beside him; a new woman. In his dream he did not see her, just sensed her. He felt responsible for the future of all the people. The children were learning to write and the reservoirs were filling with water. And the only thing that he missed was the feeling of absolute happiness, as he was not home.
He felt deeply affected by that dream. He would have liked to go back to it, but he no longer could.
When he then heard the sound of steps in the corridor it could only mean one of two possibilities: either rescue or the end.
Several seconds later and it was decided. ”Ready to go,” Joniv whispered.
They didn‘t wait around, and set off up the stairs. Dan had no idea if it was day or night, or how long he had been waiting. They walked in silence. ”Everything has been arranged,” Joniv reassured him in a whisper.
They got through the deserted corridors to the reservoir. Dan’s first view was of the starry sky. He was too overwhelmed to face it. It was just as unexpected as that time on the planetary roof.
Joniv thought that Dan was hesitating, so he reassured him: ”He thinks you’re gone. Jakun would just shrug his shoulders, but Sota is wild. They’re looking for you everywhere, but not here. We have our people under the slope.”
Dan was taken aback when he said ”our people”. Who were they? What kind of unknown power was this?
There was no time for stars or speculation. But then when they were going up the steep stairs, the space all around seemed so huge and the surface of the sea reflecting the heavens was so boundless that he felt he was again escaping to other worlds.