The Ceres Solution
by Bob Shaw



The whole universe lies before us—a billion galaxies frozen in flight.

The focus narrows.

Now we see a single galaxy, beautiful but unremarkable, a conglomerate of a billion burning orbs. Now we observe a single sun; now a planet; a continent; a sunlit hillside. A creature moves on that hillside—slowly, painfully, without grace.

He is a member of his planet’s dominant species, but immature and sickly. Name: Denny Hargate. Age: twelve years. Illness: multiple peripheral neuritis. Prognosis: not good.

Is this, we may ask, a random sampling? What reason could there be for singling out this insignificant being whose worldline is destined to be so pitifully brief?

What reason indeed?

We must decide for ourselves…

The handgrips of the duralloy crutches had become buttery with sweat.

Denny paused for a moment, wondering if it really had been a mistake for him to try reaching Cotter’s Edge alone, and with his own silence the sloping meadow seemed to come to life. The rustling of the dry grasses, endlessly multiplied, gave him the sense of being adrift on a murmurous ocean. He closed his eyes, rejecting the surrounding multi-hued brilliance, and reviewed the morning’s inconclusive skirmish with his mother.

Twice he had nailed her, with neat verbal sniper-shots which would have silenced anybody but his mother for days. During the night there had again been dreams of being able to walk and run, and he had allowed himself to be completely deceived by them, with the result that the awakening had been very bad. The illusions and memories had been persuasive, though, and when he rose and saw the brightness of the day he had made a genuine attempt to stand. Perhaps, on such a morning, the universe would have relented a little. He had commanded his thighs to stiffen and lock the knee joints into useful rigidity, but there had been an immediate sagging when he ha’d attempted to move forward without the crutches. Obviously the universe was not going to play ball.

“How are you this morning, Denny?” his mother had said. Her voice, as always, had been light and casual, masking the fact that she was really asking if a miracle had occurred.

“Better than I would have thought possible,” he had replied, smiling and waited until a naive hope appeared in her eyes. “I do believe my dandruff is going to clear up altogether.”

Denny snorted with triumph as he recalled the way in which Kay Hargate had turned away from him, her face wan and introspective. Later, when he was preparing to go out, she had watched him struggling into his bomber jacket and had asked if he would not be wearing an overcoat. “I’m going to wear my overcoat,” he had said, “but I always find it’s best to put it on last. Any other arrangement looks plain silly.” Again, she had reacted like someone struck in the face and he had wondered if it would mean an end to the hovering nearby, the continual solicitude and damned stupid questions, but the respite had lasted only a minute. She had even tried adjusting his collar as he headed for the door, and that had been the final annoyance which had decided him that he was going all the way out to Cotter’s Edge, to visit the secret place.

As he stood swaying slightly in the centre of the pasture the decision began to appear childish. Getting out of the Greenways housing development and across the near-derelict interstate highway had been easy enough, but the strip of woodland for which he was aiming was more than a kilometre from the road and it was uphill most of the way. The effort needed for driving the crutches through the long grass had tired him out. Perspiring freely beneath his layers of clothing, Denny opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on the trees which plumed the crest ahead. They were etched in all the optimistic colours of April, picked out against a wind-busy sky in which there was a constant shifting of sunlight and rearrangement of white and blue, light grey and dark grey. It had been on a similar morning, two years earlier, that he had discovered the secret place and now he could feel it calling to him.

Denny tightened his lips and began moving forward again. Ten minutes later he was entering a stand of field maples. The ground here was covered with dry leaves and he found he could progress with comparative ease. He skirted a rocky outcrop which marked the crest of the ridge and began the gradual descent towards the concealed clearing which was his destination. The air already seemed alive, possessed of a tingling sense of imminence.

Denny had been in the literate stream at Carsewell Junior and some of the classic children’s books he had read had acquainted him with the notion that there might be “special places”, secluded natural nooks which could be recognised only by young people and towards which they felt a strange attraction. He had never expected to find one in the real world, however, and might have doubted his instincts had not the other ten-year-olds in the party been similarly affected. The four of them, two boys and two girls, had sat in the brown silence of the clearing for the best part of an hour, experiencing a rapport which was profound, vaguely sexual and—as far as Denny was concerned—deeply thrilling. But later, when he had tried referring to the incident, the others had joshed him with unexpected fierceness. It was as though they had all taken part in something shameful, something which was best forgotten.

Social pressures exerted by his friends had prevented him returning to the clearing as often as he would have liked; then had come his illness and the drastic reduction of his mobility, but he had made a number of visits to the secret place and had always been rewarded, though not necessarily in ways he understood. There was a silence there that was somehow articulate, a solitude without loneliness. The outside world was reduced in importance until it was no more than a bright diorama, partially glimpsed through the screens of vegetation, and that was one of the secret place’s principal charms. Denny liked the idea that life was merely a shadow-play, that he was not going to miss out on much.

He carefully negotiated an area where roots patterned the ground like upraised veins, ducked his head to enter the clearing proper, and came to a halt—numb with shock—as he saw the auburn-haired young woman who stood there. She spun to face him, apparently as surprised as he, and for a long ringing moment he was transfixed. The girl appeared to be about twenty, was dressed in a simple bottle-green jacket and knee-length skirt, and was flawlessly beautiful in a way that Denny had not known was possible for any human being. He experienced a pang of reverence, the only immediate reaction of which he was capable, then saw the change in her eyes as she assimilated the fact that he was crippled. The sequence was a familiar one to him—concern, pity, diplomatic cheeriness—and he hated it all the more because she was unlike any girl he had ever seen and everything about their meeting should have been different.

“Hello,” she said in a low and unaccented voice. “Lovely morning, isn’t it?”

Denny turned his head, insolently, assessing the morning like a prospective buyer. “It’s all right.”

“You don’t seem too sure about that.” She smiled a challenge, and merely looking at her filled Denny with a sense of loss. Life was not a shadow-play, after all.

“I have to go now,” he muttered, beginning his laborious turning manoeuvre.

The girl started forward. “You don’t have to leave on my account.”

Denny gave her what he hoped was an obscene leer. “You don’t know what I came here to do.”

Then he was fleeing, lurching away through the trees, gasping with the effort needed to move quickly and keep his balance on the uneven ground. That was a good one, he thought vindictively. You don’t know what I came here to do. Bet that shook her up a bit. When are they going to learn that I’m not a&133;? The tip of his left crutch slid off the rounded surface of a root and skidded sideways before jamming beneath another. Pain encircled his ribcage. He teetered wildly, realised he was fighting a losing battle and went into a semi-controlled fall which stretched him face downwards on the blanket of dead leaves. The disturbed humus smelled of mushrooms.

“Please,” he whispered, “don’t let her know.”

He lay quite still and listened for any sound which could indicate that the girl had seen or heard his fall and was coming to investigate, but the woodland remained quiet. The silence seemed to intensify with each passing second, and for the first time since the start of the odd little encounter Denny found himself thinking rationally. Surprise and resentment over the girl’s presence in his sanctum had diverted his thoughts from the question of why she had been there at all. He was certain she did not live in Carsewell, but even if she happened to be a visiting relative of the Reigh family, owners of most of the surrounding farmland, what had drawn her to that particular spot in the wood? Was it possible that although grown up she felt an affinity for the place? Perhaps she had been there as a child, and he was the intruder…

Denny gathered the crutches closer to him and raised himself up on them, thankful for the strength of his arms. He brushed some dried leaves off his clothing and looked in the direction of the clearing, his face warming with embarrassment as he recalled the way he had spoken to the girl. In addition to being rude he had been utterly stupid—she had been friendly, and by making the proper responses he could have extended, perhaps indefinitely, the privilege of looking at her. The sensible thing to do would be to go back and apologise, but that called for social graces he had not yet acquired. Besides, could any apology be adequate, and would she even be interested in hearing it?

He stood for a time, frowning, his body and the two duralloy supports in delicate equilibrium, then went slowly in the direction of the clearing. Doubts about what he was proposing to do caused him to move with unconscious stealth. He paused, disturbed by a sudden voyeuristic thrill, as he reached a vantage point from which he could see most of the secret place. There was the spring which in wet weather became the source of a noisy brook, there was the mossy limestone shelf which formed a natural armchair, there was the overturned stump whose roots were at exactly the right height to double as the control levers in a nuclear submarine or spaceship. And, in the centre of it all, there stood the girl, the incredibly beautiful girl.

Her arms were by her sides and her face was tilted up to the light, eyes closed as though in prayer. The vertical illumination emphasised her breasts, created a triangular shadow at the juncture of torso and thighs. Denny’s cheeks and forehead tingled hotly as, without warning, the girl’s sheer sexual allure began to flow over him. He held his breath, fascinated and at the same time wildly afraid, as the conviction stole over him that he was about to witness something secret and sacred, something he had no right to see and which was therefore totally irresistible.

The girl raised her right hand and traced a complex curve in the air. And vanished.

The disappearance was instantaneous, complete and magical. Denny, whose gaze had not wavered, gave a tremulous sigh. He waited in the same place for more than an hour, not daring to advance into the clearing, and only when the strain on his shoulders and legs became unbearable did he accept that he would not see the girl return. Not on that day, anyway, and perhaps never. He turned his back on the place and—with frequent stops for rest—made his way out of the wood and down the sloping pasture towards the buckled and weed-infested strip of the old interstate highway. His progress became slower and more painful as the minutes passed, and by the time he reached the Greenways security fence his narrow face was pale with exhaustion.

The gate opened in response to the coded signal broadcast by his identity disc. Denny passed through, grateful to be back on firm pavement, and turned left to go along the perimeter path to J Precinct. It would have been quicker to head straight through the shopping area, but his toes were now dragging noisily on the ground with each forward swing and he knew he would have attracted more attention than usual. When he turned the corner in J-12 he saw that his mother was waiting at the door of their ground-level apartment. She was dressed for going out—it was the day of her smoke-sculpture class in the community centre—and he realised she had waited until he returned home. He squared his shoulders and did his best to approach her in his normal manner, but Kay Hargate was not deceived.

“Oh, Denny!” Her eyes, sombre with concern, traced a zigzag course down his body as she moved back to let him enter the apartment. “Where have you been?”

“Just out. Nowhere special.” He tried unsuccessfully to take evasive action as she reached out and plucked something from his coat. It was a dead leaf, looking like a scrap of dark leather.

“Not Cotter’s Edge,” she said. “You haven’t been away up there again.”

“If you say I haven’t—then I haven’t. “Denny lowered himself into an armchair and lay back, yielding to his fatigue. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to float in a sea of after-images.

“Is everything all right?” his mother asked, and a troubled quality in her voice told him she had once again performed her own kind of miracle, one which was almost as awe-inspiring as being able to vanish into nothingness. “Did anything happen while you were out there?”

He briefly considered telling the truth, weighed up the consequences, then decided that life was difficult enough as it was. “Happen?” He injected a note of mild surprise into his voice. “What could have happened?”

Chapter One

Gretana ty Iltha had devised a technique for dealing with mirrors.

She knew the location of every reflective surface in her own home, in her friends’ houses and in her place of work, and before glancing at them she invariably made certain preparations. First, and most importantly, she drew in her upper lip to help disguise the fact that it was easily as full as the lower. The mouth was a principal focal point in the Mollanian culture of perfection, and for that reason its proportions had to conform very closely to those of the Lucent Ideal. Gretana also made sure that she only saw herself in three-quarter profile, a flattering angle which minimised the excessive flare of her nostrils and the projection of her ears. Finally, she always widened her eyes as far as was possible without giving herself an expression of perpetual astonishment.

With all those precautions taken she could look into a mirror and see an image which, although far from beautiful, did not necessarily inspire a pang of pity or self-revulsion. Some of her other physical flaws—being a little below ideal height and having an unacceptable shade of pigment in her hair—were more intractable, but she had come to accept that nothing could be done about them. There had been times in her fourth and fifth decades, just at the beginning of womanhood, when she had briefly considered rebelling against her active upbringing. As a member of the passive classes she would have been free to increase her height by wearing built-up shoes and to modify her whole appearance through the use of cosmetics, but—and her commonsense had always asserted itself in good time—the sacrifices would have been too great. A counterfeit beauty, a spurious conformity to the Lucent Ideal, would have been poor compensation for loss of the right to serve.