Art Pact 222 - Sunrise


There's something about the way the light comes in in the morning that makes the place seem almost sinister. The sun doesn't rise here, it creeps up. It comes up in fits and starts, moving when you're not looking so that the shadows seem inconsistent from one moment to the next, daggers of darkness that shrink past you but feel as though they might leap forward again, piercing you with a sudden thrust. They are pitch black, even in the middle of the morning, so that you feel that stepping into one might send you tumbling into an endless abyss.

The trees are deciduous here, so that in autumn they are nothing but dark silhouettes grasping greedily at the sky. Even with their leaves they seem oddly twisted, strangely out of place in the ground that is, after all, the only home they have ever known, but shorn of that covering of decency you can see instantly how this planet has changed them, how the welcoming shelter of the same trees on Earth is not a faculty that has carried over. Perhaps they themselves can sense how far they are away from their native Sun, that by stretching and grabbing at the sky they might be able to snatch down a little bit of their ancestor's air, but the effort has warped them into something that those rolling green plains of the old world would reject in a fit of terror. In the town I was born in the hills of Uzbekistan, I felt sad walking a tarmac'd road, because it was better to walk in the shade of the trees and feel the coolness and life that lived in the scrubs and forests. Here, though, I cheer each road as it is laid. To kill off these terrible plants and replace them with something sterile seems like a kindness, removing the last bit of poisonous hope so that an accepting despair can settling in its place. I walk the roads here a lot, and whenever a referendum comes up to increase the road network, I vote for it immediately and enthusiastically.

But even the rocks here are no defence against the alienness of the place. Before the terraforming the planet's original atmosphere worked on them for millions, billions of years. They have weathered strangely, surface stones covered with odd pits and grooves and other structures that make them seem at one moment natural, at the next artificial. Our human propensity to see faces in inanimate objects is a special curse here. One sees faces in the rocks frequently, and a mythology has grown up around them - the elder race, the adults call them, to the children they are the stone eyes. Not a day goes by when I don't see a stone eye out of the corner of my eye. I freeze, my blood running like ice in my veins, but when I turn to look I discover that I am (of course) mistaken, that a collection of rubble has fooled me into thinking that I am being watched. Of course we are all being watched here - the satellites send back a continuous feed of us whenever we are outside buildings. It should make us feel safe, to know that no harm can come to us without someone being alerted to the place and circumstances of our troubles, but instead the knowledge simply sits in one's mind, uncomfortably seeping into the subconscious so that it is an easy step from knowing that one is being watched by a perfectly explainable electronic eye to believing that there are other eyes - possibly hostile, but certainly alien - hidden in the unfamiliar landscape.

You might ask how it is that anyone ever comes here, knowing all of this. Surely people have seen pictures, vids? Heard stories? True, all true. I had seen plenty of images of the surface, of daily life here, yet I still came. No photo can show you the way the morning light stalks up on you like a spider, no video can capture the horrid faces in the rocks, no story can explain quite what torture it is to hold your hand against an oak tree that does not want to be where it is, that is straining with a malevolent spirit to scratch at the heavens. Even this - I write with a sense of hopelessness, because I know deep down that what I should be doing is discouraging anyone else from following me, but my words are inadequate to that task. Just reading it back, that first sentence about the way the light comes, it seems more romantic to me than horrible. Who would not want to witness that strange dawn? I have failed in my task if I cannot even convince myself of a truth that is buried deep in the bones of me after all these years here. A story rings false, a word is too clumsy a grain to record the exact horror of being so far from home in a place that is so nearly recognisable but which at every turn presents an aspect unlike that which one is expecting. People will continue to come here, some because of economic necessity, some because like the trees my honest description of the discomfort they will experience will be twisted by the language I use into a kind of seduction. Those will be the most tragic, because they will soon realise that I have somehow deceived them, that what my words promise is far from the truth, but they will be unable to call me to account. Reading back at what they had found so tempting before they will see the stark truth of the matter in these words - that I have thrown all my muscles into the task of convincing them to stay on Earth, on safe, reliable Earth, among the trees that are relaxed and benign, walking on rocks that have been weathered by the air and the water in predictable ways, where the eyes that watch them from the landscape are our birds, our mammals, our insects.

They will understand at that moment.

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