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Echoes of an Alien Sky
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They were walking among the ruins of what had been a major metropolis on the western side of Europe. It had not been devastated by war or buried by time, but decayed gradually into a broken landscape of overgrown concrete and remnants of walls, among which jagged pinnacles of concrete and twisted steel clawed their way skyward like fingers in the final spasms of somebody drowning. In his mind, Kyal tried to picture the city of life and lights that once had been, as he had seen in the images gleaned from faded Terran prints. Moving through the avenues of crumbled paving and mounds of rubble, he almost expected to see ghosts rising of the crowds who had flocked in thousands along boulevards of busy stores and the impossible congestion of mass-produced automobiles that anyone from schoolchildren to geriatrics had driven in the carnival of carefree mayhem that was their way of living. But all that disturbed the silence of the encroaching trees and weeds were birds and the movements of other curious animal life, evidently devoid of fear of humans.

In front of them was part of an immense steel arch that had once formed the base of a tower of girders and latticework dominating the city, now lying scattered and corroding amid the undergrowth of surrounding trees.

"So what was the attraction in coming to Earth?" Kyal asked. "A change from life's regular, boring routine? You hear that a lot from women. I suppose it's understandable in a way."

Lorili gave him a reproachful look. "Life doesn't get boring. People let themselves get bored. I've never found it short of interesting things. . . But very well, yes, I suppose there might be some truth in that. Mother was the traditional image, shaping her life to her own choosing: a few friends and activities outside the home that she pottered around with, but firstly dedicated to the family."

"She was the one who gave you the katek, right?" Lorili was still wearing it, tucked inside her sweater. It was warmer here, and they had come without jackets. They had found their way the previous day to a small experimental farm by the river upstream from the ruins, where colonists were trying to recreate the strains of domesticated grass that had supplied much of the Terran diet. Such food was unknown on Venus. The main vegetable foods there were tubers, fruits, and various legumes.

"Yes. . . ." Lorili hesitated. "There was another reason too. You ought to know, I suppose. I was involved in one of those relationships that can make you lose all common sense and reason until it all goes wrong. Have you ever been in that situation? Is it the same with men?"

"I know the kind of thing you mean," Kyal said. He wasn't sure how to answer the direct question. He had married at a fairly early age, soon after graduating. But the meeting of minds that followed hadn't lived up to the promise that seemed implied from the meetings of epidermises, and after a few years they had agreed to call it a day. Since then he had tended to focus mostly on his work. Typical engineer, he supposed. "What went wrong?" he asked.

"Oh. . . ." Lorili jerked her head briefly, as if shaking of the remnants of a bad dream. "He was tyrannical . . . one of those control fanatics who has to prove he can make you do everything his way, even when it doesn't matter. He was the one who got me involved with the Progressives. I was intrigued and infatuated with the idea, but I confused it with the person. He wouldn't let it go when I said it was over. It was a bad time all-round. When the Institute offered me a place to come here and study Terran biochemistry, I took it."

Kyal waited, but she didn't volunteer any more. He didn't want to press. "What does your dad do?" he asked.

"Did. He's retired now. A solid and respectable ex-maintenance administrator of roads and bridges. He goes to his club on Froileday, plays hegely with the same friends every other weekend, thinks the Progessives will be the ruin of all of us, and has unshakable confidence that Vizek arranged everything the way it is for reasons that will work out for the best in the end. And before you ask, one older sister, who's a teacher. A brother the same age--they're twins--a hydrocarbons extraction engineer. He spends his time in appalling places in the Smog Belt, building plants and sinking pipes. And a younger brother who's a musician. He plays a full-key polychord. He would love to have seen that Terran instrument back at Rhombus that you told me about." Lorili turned, spreading her arms. "And there it is, potted: the wild, exciting saga of the Hilivars of Korbisan."

They had come to the scene of some workings that had evidently been going on earlier, around the opening to a shaft that had been cleared beneath fallen masonry and dead trees. A sign with an explanatory caption left by the archeologists marked it as an entrance to the Paris Metro system.

"You know, maybe you shouldn't dismiss it all too lightly," Kyal said. "The Terrans had all this, yet look how they ended. We may have had less of a world to work with, but our ways of getting along with each other seem to make more out of what there is. It wasn't through people like your control fanatic forcing his own ways on everyone else. It was people like your folks all doing what they did as well as they were able, because they knew they all depended on each other."

Lorili was nodding before Kyal finished speaking. "I wasn't meaning to sound unappreciative of things like that. Just making the point that doing things the way they've always been done, for no other reason, can stop you finding a better way. . . . But how about you? I'm familiar with the name but not the family history. Are there any other Reens?"

"A few cousins and such, but I was an only son," Kyal answered. "There's even less to tell a story about, really. The usual student stuff--physics, and then propulsion engineering. An attempt at marriage soon after that showed me I wasn't very good at it. Some work with space contractors that involved a few flights. Accepted by the International Academy of Space Sciences. Then here--the first time truly off-planet."

"Isn't your mother alive either?"

"No. she died less than two years before Jarnor did. They were very close and devoted. I often think that had something to do with his going downhill as rapidly as he did."

"My father would say Vizek works for what's best," Lorili said.

They moved on, away from the shaft opening. A brown four-legged creature with white patches and large eyes, that had come out from some greenery to investigate them from a distance, changed its mind and retreated. Kyal glanced at Lorili curiously.

"Is there anything you don't ask questions about?" he asked her.

"It's supposed to be a healthy sign. Why?"

"Even the Great Scheme of Being that we play a part in?"

Lorili took a few seconds to compose a reply. "I think the Terran theory is interesting," was the most she would concede.

"How does that go? You mean this business about matter assembling itself into living things accidentally?" Personally, he thought it was preposterous, but he left it at that. He didn't want to sound like another control freak.

"The possibility that purpose might be an illusion projected by the intelligent beholder," Lorili replied. "What if they were right, and in time, everything will turn out to be explainable in purely natural terms?"

"Doesn't it sound more like another case of faith in something they'd already made their minds up about?" Kyal suggested. He knew the Progressives were attracted to the idea.

"I didn't take it seriously until more of the Terran science was translated," Lorili answered. "They had it all figured out. It was fresh and exciting, like the air here. A whole new way of looking at something, that showed just how stifled we've let ourselves become, bogged down in old ideas."

As an electromagnetic space propulsion specialist Kyal didn't feel so bogged down in old ideas compared to Terrans, but he let it pass. He'd looked at some of the Terrans' arguments too, but been unimpressed. It was common knowledge that all living organisms possessed a limited capacity to adapt to stress and change--given the nature of real-world environments, they would hardly have been viable otherwise. But the whole Terran theory was based on hypothetical extrapolations of the principle that strained credulity and had never been observed in attempts to accelerate the process experimentally. But once they had settled on the dogma that only a naturalistic explanation was permissible, it was the only theory they had.

"So if life results from a selected series of accidents, how do we and Terrans come to resemble each other so closely?" Kyal asked. It was one of the standard criticisms. "Not even Progressive naturalists could accept that amount of coincidence from two different, isolated biosystems, surely." Traditionalists had no problem with it. Maybe it was even to be expected. Having produced a system that worked well enough in one place, why would Vizek do things any differently in another?

"Suppose we're not two isolated biosystems, the way it's assumed," Lorili replied.

"How else could it be?"

"Suppose we're genetically related ancestrally."

That was a new one for Kyal. "How?" he asked her again. "The time scales don't match. The Terrans were extinct long before there was life on Venus."

"Oh, I didn't mean as direct ancestors. But evolved from the same genetic codes. Organic material is detected everywhere you look in space. There are many mechanisms that could transfer it from one body to another. I meant that Venusians and Terrans could both have originated from the same seed material somehow."

"Hm. . . ." Kyal had to think about it. Lorili stopped to pick a luxurious, bell-shaped flower of yellow and purple growing among some leaves and grass, and held it up admiringly.

"Isn't it gorgeous? . . . And oh, the scent! Try it."

"But if that's the case, and you're still selecting accidents, wouldn't you expect them to have diverged more?" Kyal asked finally.

"I don't know. Maybe that's what we should be researching instead of making our minds up about in advance." She stole an amused look at him. "Who's doing it now?"

 
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