In looking back at the long history of the ideas that led to Asylum and Mirage, I went back to a 1985 work, “33,” five loosely connected vignettes composed in the hope of fueling new novel ideas. “33,” so titled because it was thirty-three typewritten pages, proved to be a constructive warm-up for another novel, Parts I and II, a failure in itself but which in turn sparked concepts that eventually went into Asylum and Mirage.
To update “33” for a PDF I gave the story the kind of attention an editor would give to a manuscript that was good but needed some work, leaving the MS. in its own voice but in better shape. For a cover, I searched for my art from that era and was captivated by the only painting I did in 1984, “Last Page of the Last Journal.”
Here’s the first section, followed by a link to the whole story. The third section, “The Business Partners,” was the basis for a scene in Asylum and Mirage.
Chapter 1. Jupiter
“It’s certain,” Ming said, looking at the instruments they’d gotten from the ship and hauled into the tiny shelter. “We passed directly through the worst of Jupiter’s radiation belts. No wonder our minds are short-circuiting. We may have only hours left. Maybe even less.”
“God, how do you know?” Billy whispered. His voice came through the intercom speaker by Ming’s ears in perfectly modulated stereo, just like listening to the FM.
“Jupiter’s radiation belts have 400,000 times the lethal dose for a human being, that’s how I know,” Ming replied. “And you have to admit, our minds are the first things that are going.”
“I know. I feel altered … weird …” Billy said in awe.
Ming saw himself reflected in Billy’s mirrored visor. Ming wore a suit identical to Billy’s except for the blue helmet that marked him as an Administrator. Billy wore the bright red helmet of Astronaut. Ming chuckled.
“Huh? What’s so funny?”
Ming laughed. “Damn, this is exactly like listening to the radio! You sound like some sort of disc jockey!”
“Really? Is that so funny?”
“No, what I was actually laughing at was how quickly your training has evaporated under the stress here,” Ming said. “You should be telling me about the nature of Jupiter’s radiation field. I just picked that one figure out of my memory. You knew when we were thrown into the belts what the rad level would be.”
“Huh, I guess you’re right. Still, I can’t be expected to be on top of it all the time.”
Ming smiled, then realized that Billy couldn’t see the smile and so the communication was useless. The whole thing was like the radio, or talking on the phone. Ming looked around. Even now the instruments were showing a dangerously high level of radiation. Somehow Billy had sighted and tracked a small chunk of rock not half a kilometer long that was tracing an unstable polar orbit around Jupiter, most likely some asteroid fragment captured by the planet’s immense gravity. They were so close to Jupiter that they could clearly see the most minute details of the wind-whipped cloud patterns on the surface. Jupiter filled the entire sky. There was nothing but Jupiter. When Ming shut his eyes, the brilliance even through the visor was so overpowering that the effect was like standing on earth at noon on a cloudless day, drenched in sunlight and blue sky. Everything was blue.
Billy had chosen the rock for a landing–or perhaps more accurately, to tether the ship to, as either of them could leap right off this moonlet into the void with little difficulty–both to rest the overheated engines and to hopefully secure some more of the metals and ore that the Synthesizer ran on. “We could probably take off any time,” he said. “Wanna give it a try?”
Ming shrugged. “Sure. Any time.” He opened his eyes, squinted, and took in the painfully overexposed but somehow welcome light blast from the planet below. “On the other hand, we could sit here in the tent for a while.”
Billy’s red helmet swung around to survey the tiny little tent made of plastic and aluminum tubing that was supposed to shield them from the radiation sleet but which was doing no good, Ming knew. “What do you mean … for a little while?”
“I mean, why not just wait here to die?” This Billy was so dimwitted at times.
“Huh,” Billy replied. “I’m not so sure but that I wouldn’t like to try to make a run for it.”
“We can, if you want,” Ming said. “But we both know we won’t get far. Too much radiation, Billy. We both know it.”
“We could sort of think of this rock as our home. Our special place. This is a magnificent place, really.”
“I know, I was thinking the same thing, you know.” Billy paused. “You know, Ming, I wouldn’t normally say this to an Administrator, but–”
“Forget it,” Ming said. “I’m not really an Administrator. Not really.”
“I … I know what you mean. I’m not really an Astronaut. I mean, I’ve been doing it for years now, but … you know?”
“Damn, I can really talk to you, man! You listen. That’s amazing!”
“Yeah. So what were you about to say?”
“Well, I mean, I hardly know you, man, and I want to apologize. I mean, when they first assigned you to my ship, I thought: God, this guy’s gonna be the death of me. I mean, I felt from the beginning we wouldn’t get along.”
“And we didn’t, not at first. It took us weeks to get used to the other.”
“That’s right,” Billy said. “Well, I can hardly imagine how it happened, but I suppose I’ve always known I would end up … here, dying, here. Or rather: living here, I’m alive. That’s all that matters.”
“I know. I feel the same way. This experience–this entire experience. To be so cut off–from everything.”
“Even though we know we could blast off in the Shepherd at any time.”
“Right! But instead, deep down inside, we both realize we want to just sit here and take everything in.”
Billy leaned back and swiveled his helmet at Jupiter. “Yeah! We take everything in!”
“And–and this becomes–the high point–the absolute peak of our lives!” Ming cried, so overcome with emotion that he reached out and patted Billy’s oxygen pack.
“I knew you were going to say that! But it’s true!” Billy said. “It’s true! This is the sum of everything we’ve ever lived for! This vista! This realization! The very thoughts we’re thinking are dangerous, but we’ve been brought here to think them!”
“We are fundamentally, forever changed, Billy! Consider that!”
“We’re altered. This is the end of everything! God, it’s an honor to share this with you, Ming!”
“Billy, you will always be my closest and deepest friend … forever.”
“I know … I know …” Billy choked. “The same goes for me. I can’t believe it. God, Ming, we’re going telepathic. It’s amazing. I see so much in you.”
“I know. I see it in you as well.” But Ming had to pull back for a moment. Billy was slumped on his back, helmet lolling. Ming could easily read the disrupted patterns of Billy’s brain. The patterns Billy had accumulated throughout his life were indeed breaking down, but did that imply mere insanity? Or was Billy closer to the truth than he’d ever been? It had to be the latter, for Ming himself was closer to the truth than he had ever been, and he knew Billy was sharing the experience fully. Ming threw his head back and took in the full blaze of Jupiter and its streaming clouds. The asteroid must have entered a zone of higher radiation, because Ming felt his mental patterns slashing recklessly apart. The entire structure of his brain was coming apart. Jupiter was coming apart. He shared it all with Billy.
Billy was moaning and rocking on the hard rock so violently that Ming, fearing that Billy might inadvertently reach escape velocity, put a fat silver paw out and steadied the disintegrating astronaut. “Ming–” Billy gasped. “You’re right. This changes us–forever–fundamentally.” Billy coughed, and then stopped moving.
“And you will be changed fundamentally when you awake as well,” Ming said, settling back in the tent, heart surging with excitement and love for his own life, his own record of experience in this universe. And now Ming had to prepare himself to go under, to go underground, to enter the tunnel on faith alone, faith alone that the process of dissolution would in fact lead to a completely new awakening and a climbing out of the tunnel. For deep underground the tunnel widens into a plaza with grottoes and archways and vaults filled with indescribable and kind beings, and they exist to teach us the meaning of trust. All children discover this when they learn how to go to sleep.
copyright 2023 by Michael D. Smith