By Ishi Shen
To lovers of history, the hidden and the arcane,
I give you the story of Minerva, recorded for posterity.
I was born on the human constructed planet called Minerva. Nowadays astro-construction seems just ordinary, but Minerva was the first of its kind. My parents signed up to the all-American adverts, the promise of a new life, all made possible through our ever growing grasp of the fundamentals of physics. A planet that was literally held together by a clever combination of string theory and magnetism. No, you won’t have heard of it. It isn’t on any maps. Be patient, I’ll get to that part.
The history of the planet determined how its culture developed. Unlike Mars, first populated by the military, and growing into an autocracy designed to meet the needs of the population, or the hippy population of Saturn’s orbital, Titan, descended from scientists, or even from those middle of the road non-pioneering but non-felonious folks left on Earth, the inhabitants of Minerva were forward thinking, all-modern, high flying business people. Minerva quickly became a centre for commerce, seguing naturally into luxury tourism.
Aged about ten, I discovered that I did not belong on Minerva. I did not fit in and the usual path was locked to me. Your typical Minervan ten year old was industrious, ambitious and entrepreneurial. I was a loner, dreamy and artistic. Many of the over-achieving Minervan younglings played musical instruments as a hobby, but by age ten I knew that for me it was more than a hobby. I was a musician; I could feel it in my bones. My instrument was the flat, stringed Sundari and I was approaching the level of a master.
Coupled with my incongruous personal gifts was an uneasy sense that the whole of the Minervan economy was based on sand. The money changing hands was a pointless, circular motion that was no longer representing value. It was a facsimile of a functioning Earth country, lacking the creative core. This sense grew throughout my early life, and one day, when I was seventeen years old, my unusual habits saved me from the destruction of that society. Let me tell you about it. It started with a book.
I had few friends on Minerva. I did not join clubs, or schemes. I listened to the orchestral tours that came from Earth, Saturn and elsewhere and I visited bookshops. Bookshops seemed to be the one area of Minervan life that touched on the cultural. At the front of every shop, of course, were economics textbooks, and biographies of millionaires. Yet even these topics had more substance in book form than those espoused by the cardboard cut outs I met in daily life. And when you ventured to the back of the more enlightened shops, it was literally as if you were transported to another planet.
In the best shop, the beautifully named “Secrets of Learning”, a tangled and darkened interior contained books from Saturn, the outer colonies and elsewhere in the inhabited Galaxy. Yet my favourite books, by a long way, were the ancient, the truly ancient tomes from Old Earth. There were books about long forgotten wars, and strategies for how to win them. There were crumbling picture books of archaic artworks. I longed to buy every single book of music that had not been heard for centuries, to take the books home and live surrounded by them, to transpose the music to play on the Sundari and in my own musical way awaken the dead.
The books on Old Earth religions were separated off from the others. This was the section in which I most often hid to read the books without buying and take away the secrets of the ancients without parting with money that I did not possess. In these books I learned of the beauty of the verse in the Gita, the moving stories of the humans chosen as messengers for the gods and the calm serenity of the Buddha. I learned too of the dark side of religion, referred to as craft or magic although I could never uncover any practical tips in this area that I could combine with my music to wreak destruction on Minerva.
The book that changed my life was a large, dusty volume, hidden at the back of a shelf as if drawn to the shadows. The leather binding was faded, worn-through in places and hanging away from the spine. Even looking at just the exposed edge, in the darkness, the disintegrating gold leaf indicated that it was an important book, a highly regarded one. I consider all books to have a power that comes from the knowledge contained inside and I feel keen anticipation of this when regarding them. This book went further. It seemed to have an actual physical power. My hand was drawn to it as if by a magnet and I was, somehow, surprised as I closed my fingers on it that they did not sizzle and burn. The name remained partially visible in gold leaf but yet it made no sense to me: N_C_O_OMI_ON. The pages inside were made of soft vellum. Although the pages were worn and several were missing, the dark black ink, unfaded unlike the gold leaf on the binding, looked as if the words had been scorched into the skin.
I spent many days pouring over this book, which is peculiar considering that it was written in a language that I did not understand and was full of symbols that I could not comprehend. I leafed through it as if in a kind of mystical trance. I would study a single page for hours trying to find pronunciations for the words written there, trying to get a sense of what the chapter could refer to. The book contained pictures as well as words, but their meaning was not easier to glean. There were about a thousand pages in total and of these two hundred were illustrated.
I returned to the Secrets of Learning daily for a couple of weeks, leafing through the pages at random and stopping when something caught my attention. As I grew more used to the book the compulsion and strange sense of power diminished, as a pain does with aspirin. It was still there but I had become desensitised, part of it. Towards the end of the second week, my established pattern was disrupted by a page that held my gaze with an unexpected force. My interest can be readily explained by the fact that inside a book written in a foreign and probably dead tongue, in clear English alphabet, capitalised, MINERVA was written across the top of the page, and at the time I felt as if the book had guided me to the page, as if I had been meant to read it.
There were no words on this page and more illustration than average, in fact the page consisted of a tableau of several incomprehensible pictures. The first was a rough cityscape, constructed using a small number of hand drawn lines. At the time I instantly recognised the view from the small park behind the town hall across and down to the ocean, but now, looking back I think on balance that there were so few lines in the drawing it could have been taken for a representation of any modern city. A shooting star burned through the air above one of the tower blocks.
The second picture showed a classic invasion scene, a scene that could have been taken wholesale from the cover of a science fiction novel. Behind the (I assume) Minervan high rises, were a series of silvery saucer shaped discs that grew larger as they approached the foreground. At the very front of the picture, an opening could be seen in the largest disc from which reptilian creatures were emerging. They looked strong, mean and alert. There was no doubt that they were conquistadores.
The third panel in the triptych showed more of these snake like monsters, set amidst bodies of the natives strewn across the ground. This was an unsurprising sequence to follow the previous plate. What was surprising was a small gap amongst the aliens where a small girl could be seen playing a Sundari. It was not clear whether she was destined to join the bodies around her, yet the aspect of the creatures towards her seemed somehow less menacing.
Needless to say, I found this whole experience incredibly disturbing. I shut the book with a sharp snap, painfully audible in the quiet bookshop interior. I left the store and didn’t return.
Weeks passed, then months, then years. It wouldn’t be correct to say that I forgot the book, but the vividness of the memory faded. For a while, every month or so I would walk past the Secrets of Learning and visualise the book inside. Then the shop seemed to disappear from the physical street as gradually as it had faded from my interest. I hadn’t seen it close; there had been no Closing Down or Sale 50% Off signs in the windows at any point. The first time I missed it, I hadn’t been down this way for several weeks and I found I could no longer remember exactly where the shop had been. When I noticed its absence, I assumed it had been on a slightly different one of the densely packed streets. I assumed that I had mis-remembered. The next time I went that way I chose another path, but still no Secrets of Learning. In this meandering way, over the period of several months, I came to realise that the shop was no longer there. There remained not a trace of it.
As I am writing this now, what happened then, in the year of my 17th birthday, still seems unbelievable. The shooting star came and I saw it across from the park behind the town hall. As I caught the movement, the scene seemed to crystallise into the hand drawn picture I had witnessed many years before, like when you change the effect on a picture using a graphics package to render it as a drawing. I half cried out, and sank down to my knees.
I knew what to do. It was truly truly surreal to wait for the invasion. With one part of my brain I told myself that “waiting for the invasion” was not at all what I was doing, that I had a seen a star and it had reminded me of an old forgotten book. I pretended to shrug it off. Yet in another part of my mind I knew what was coming. I went down to the harbour with my Sundari and I played. I attracted a few coins from people who thought I was begging. I left them on the pavement.
The noise of the ships was terrible, but I kept playing. I don’t know how their weapons were made, but the combination of the visceral atmosphere of fear and the actual smell of burning flesh was unbelievable. But I kept playing and I was saved. I had been the girl in the last picture, as I had known all along.
And that is the story of Minerva. I know now, as will have been obvious to you from birth, the invading Gaozh were good people, talented musical people and I found my place amongst them even as a small, strangely-formed alien. You will know this because they are, of course, your people.
Natasha Laetana 4th August 2101 (old time), Sundari player and last Minervan.
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