It was a soft, clear moonless night that found the two strolling slowly towards the timber that fringed the river. Earani turned her eyes upward. “It has changed very little, Alan, since I saw it last; see, there is the Red Planet. It must be a very old world now, and a very wise world. Do its people still call to yours, I wonder?”
“Call to us? How?”
“We used to talk to them once,” Earani replied. “It was they who first warned our world of the catastrophe impending, long before we would have been able to foretell it.”
“But how could they talk to you?” Dundas reiterated.
“Have you ever heard of coloured lights in the skies at either pole?” asked Earani.
“You mean auroras?”
“Perhaps. The lights I mean show at nights in masses of ever-changing colours, and appear generally at both North and South Poles. That was how the Red Planet spoke to us.”
“We have known them for many centuries,” answered Dundas; “but they have always been a mystery. But why do they show almost always at the poles where there are so few to see them? Perhaps if they had been more familiar we would have understood.”
“They used the Poles because of the long periods of darkness,” replied Earani. “Yes, it is strange to think that all these millions of years they have known of the overwhelming of the old world, and have been trying to mend the broken link in the chain. They knew a new race would be built up, and the time would come when someone would interpret their signals. Before long we will be able to answer them, and learn how they stand. But I fear it will be a sad story, for they were a great people, and they must be near the end now.”
They had come to the fallen tree that had been their resting place ever since the great night of their lives. For a long time they sat side by side in silence, for there was little need of words between them. It was Dundas who spoke first. “If the sky is unchanged, Earani, what of the earth?”
“That was in my mind at the moment, Alan,” she answered. “I wish I could make you see it here as I once saw it.” Then, after a pause, she went on: “It was on such a night as this in the long ago I stayed here with two others, waiting to hear our fate. Think, Alan. We were on the edge of a great valley, perhaps ten miles across, and through the valley ran a broad river to the sea. Even from where we sat we could trace its course, and all across the valley were dotted lights, and just behind us towered the black mass of the great sphere on its pedestal, nearly two thousand feet above us. But we thought very little of it. Our thoughts were turned to one light across the valley brighter than all the rest. The light came from the great council hall where they were making the final choice of those who would stay behind. Word had come that Andax had already been selected. There were two others still to be named, and we knew that of we three two would be chosen. Which two? For my part, I prayed that the lot would not fall to me. What the others thought as they waited there I do not know. One was the girl friend of my life. Alan, you say that I am beautiful; you should have seen her to know what beauty means.”
He laughed lightly, bending his lips to her hand. “I am well content, dear one.”
“But it is true, Alan,” she went on. “The other was her lover. Strange, was it not? They knew the world was on the verge of destruction, but they did not fear death, so they went together. They feared that one should be called on to stay behind when the other died. And so we three waited. There had been six left for final choice. Andax had been already chosen, as I told you before. Two others had been stood aside, and now the time must be near when the summons would come.
“It seemed so long in coming. I sat a little apart from the others, and every now and again I heard whispered hope pass between them. But the world seemed very still. Then I saw a tiny star separate itself from the lighted council hall, and I knew. Marnia, my friend, stood up and called to me, “He is coming, Earani,” and we watched the star grow brighter as it floated to us across the valley, until the messenger stood before us. He brought us the order to appear before the council. We three knew that the messenger had heard the decision, but we did not dare to question him. Together we sprang from the ground and followed him, flying with locked hands through the quiet darkness.
“I can never forget the scene in the council chamber. There were our greatest and wisest waiting our coming to take our stand before them. My mother was amongst them, and the sadness in her eyes is with me yet. I knew many of them personally, and the old president had been one of my first teachers. Of all the faces those two stood out, and one more. That one was Andax, standing beside the president’s dais smiling cynically at me. Then the names were announced, mine first, and my heart sank a little. I was proud to be chosen, but I knew then why the mother eyes were so sad. Then the next name, Marnia. I turned to her, but the agony in her eyes cut me to the heart. Her arm was flung about the lover who stood beside her, and she faced the council as though about to speak. But my voice was raised before she could find words, and I begged them to take the two and leave me. But the president shook his head. The council had finally decided that I must stay. Then it was that Marnia broke from her lover and flung herself on her knees before them all. No human heart could withstand the splendid appeal she made to wait the end and death together with the man she loved. And in the end they yielded and gave them freedom, and the choice of the council fell on one of the others who had been stood aside.”
“It was fine of them to grant her appeal,” said Dundas.
“Yes,” answered Earani: “I feared they would not, but the President was a descendant of the old doctor, and his heart was in the right place, and his voice was raised for them. Oh, but I was glad, for their sakes.”
“And what happened then, beloved?” asked Alan.
“Then before we left that night we three who were chosen took the solemn oath of obedience to the charge that was laid upon us. That we should not swerve or flinch from the duties laid down for us should the time ever come when we should wake to the world again. That no thought of self or lust of power should turn us from teaching the laws and truths of our race to the race to come. Our lives were held and dedicated to that one sacred trust.
“It seemed to me that night, when those vows were taken, that I was a being apart. None could foresee where that event would lead us. We had all for a long time been trained to the duties that would be ours; but I never realised before the solemnity of it all until I heard the charge laid on us by the president before he gave us the final benediction of the race that was to die. For myself, I felt no shadow of fear, but a terrible sorrow caught my heart to think that our world and all I loved upon it must so surely perish utterly. When I left the council hall that night with my mother, Marnia was waiting for me with her lover, and begged that I would permit her to be with me until the time came.”
“Had you long to wait, dear heart?” asked Alan, moved by the sorrow in her voice.
“Two days, Alan, just two days. You see, towards the end they feared that the blow might fall sooner than they expected. The three great spheres were ready for us, and delay might spell disaster. On the third day I surrendered myself to the council, and at the hour of noon we left the council hall and flew across the valley to the sphere that was to be my living tomb. I remember now how the sight of the valley touched me as we went. The air was thronged by countless thousands waiting to see us pass, and, as we floated slowly through, the sound of their voices raised in greeting and farewell echoed like thunder from the hills. And at the doorway of the sphere stood Andax. As we passed he held out his hand to me. ‘Sister and comrade — to our next meeting’; and he raised my hand to his lips, and for once the cynical smile had gone. ‘To our next meeting, Andax. I shall not be the one to fail you.’ He laughed. ‘The council could not have chosen better. Are you content?’ I smiled up at him as I turned to enter the doorway. ‘Ask me that when we meet again,’ I said; and the last I heard was his laughter as we went down the stairway.”
“He didn’t seem to worry much, but it must have been a terrible ordeal for you, Earani?” said Dundas.
“Oh, to Andax it was a splendid experiment. If it failed, well, he died, and that was the end of it. If it succeeded, he would have a new world to play with. Could one of his breed ask for a better fate? No. I dare say that Andax gave not a single thought of regret for the world he was so soon to leave; beyond that, he would not be there to study its destruction as it happened.”
“And you?” asked Dundas.
“I felt no fear for myself,” Earani went on. “Death was nothing. But it was heart-breaking to leave behind so much and so many I loved. There were very few with me at the end — my mother and Marnia, and the President of the Council, with two or three others, who were to complete the work and close my sleeping place. The couch was ready for me, and we had said our farewells. All was done swiftly. Just as I was stepping to the couch Marnia took a flower from her hair and placed it in my hand. It was a blossom of the Earani, ‘the flower of life,’ that gave me my name. It was called so because it remained fresh and fragrant for many years after it had been plucked from its stem. As I lay down she smiled on me through her tears, and closed my fingers over the blossom. ‘Keep the flower in your hand, beloved, and when next your eyes are opened look first at it, and if it is faded then you will know that we, too, have gone.’ Then she stood aside, and I took from my mother’s hand the draught that brought oblivion. I can just remember her bending over me as I sank back, and I could feel Marnia throw the robes across my feet, and then darkness fell ——”
“And that was all until you woke and saw us there beside you? Were you not frightened then?” asked Dundas.
She passed her arm about his neck and pressed her face to his tenderly. “No, I was not afraid. At first I could not grasp it all. You remember how I looked at my hand. There was nothing left of the blossom but a dark stain on my palm. I could not realise it, for at the time it seemed but an hour since Marnia had placed it there. But the truth was driven home when I found that one sphere was wrecked, and when those dials in the cabinet told me how long I had waited for my waking.”
“And still you did not fear, brave one?”
“When I looked into your eyes as you spoke to me, Alan, I knew that I had nothing to fear from you, and perhaps —” She paused.
“And perhaps?” he asked.
“I won’t tell you,” she laughed. “It would only make you conceited.” But tell him she did in the end, and before they parted at the homestead that night, and a sweeter confession never fell from woman’s lips.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 346-353
[Editor: Changed “there is the red Planet” to “there is the Red Planet” (in line with the capitalisation of the phrase in the same chapter); “North and South Pole” to “North and South Poles”.]