1. Within the Circles of the World
Alvin never failed to be awed by the sight that now spread under his feet. He had been trained to carry out his tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, given the risks of even the most trivial routine maintenance mission outside the Station, but for a few seconds he paused in his spacewalk to take in the illuminated crescent that spanned before him. The blue and white were almost blinding in their richness against the dark firmament.
Then he looked beyond the planet. For a handful of heartbeats he enjoyed the view that few could claim to have seen with their very eyes: the glory of the starred sky undimmed by the Earth's veil.
Right underneath him the giant jewelled mosaic of clustered lights outlined the contours of inhabited land and competed in radiance with the distant stars. In his current position he could easily make out the profiles of Southern India and Sri Lanka, studded in diamond-like sparks.
From up there, the Earth still seemed beautiful, serene, perfect, unlike the overcrowded, polluted planet it had become. Old archive pictures had shown him how there had once existed large patches of vivid emerald, now shrunk to tiny specks; jungles and forests had been all but replaced by the dull brown and ochre of encroaching deserts and wastelands.
The silence and solemnity of space was highly conducive to all sorts of philosophic ruminations. In Alvin's mind there was no doubt that mankind might have already reached the point of no return, from which their planet, too exploited, wounded, and marred beyond salvation would be unable to recover. He shook his head inside the helmet that separated him from vacuum and death and forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand.
Suddenly, the Evening Star, Venus, which on this particular day was precursor of dawn, flared like a beacon. How can it be? It should not be visible yet. Further to the North Orion, the Hunter of the Sky, seemed to pulse crimson as in response.
Alvin blinked hard, stunned. He tried to persuade himself that a trick of the light, perhaps glare on the helmet visor, had cheated his eyes or that he had imagined it all. But deep within he was certain that he had witnessed a sign of some kind.
Resolutely he waved it all aside. This was hardly the time or place to muse about such strange phenomena. Cautiously he anchored himself to the mast of the antenna in need of repairs and radioed Station Control to check in. Then he set the robots to work. While supervising their progress, he decided he would not mention what he had seen. If he was thought to suffer from hallucinations he would be grounded and assigned to mindless administrative tasks.
As the station orbited the Earth, dawn broke over the curve of the planet and bathed him in glorious daylight. Before making his way back to the triple hatch through which he would enter the station, he swept his eyes around him one last time. To the North-East and below his position, over the Caribbean, he noticed what he could only describe as a huge translucent, slightly glimmering mist, definitely far above where clouds should end. He looked again more carefully, puzzled.
The strange haze seemed to flicker, as though it would soon melt in the rays of the glaring sun. Mesmerised, he watched. Only a week before he had been commanded to take longer rests between shifts. He had obeyed the doctor's orders. Now he was certain that this was no trick of a sleep-deprived mind. Nevertheless he doubted his eyes, and cursed his inability to rub them.
Then he realised that each flicker made the glowing fog slightly more visible. Like a mirage congealing into matter.
After several seconds of hesitation, he finally radioed Control and asked if there were any reports of large debris or perhaps an unreported satellite in the area, even though regulations forbid such proximity. The answer from his colleagues was negative on both counts; he was about to sign off when he was startled by warning beeps through the transmitter.
All instruments had begun to give strange readings, well off the accepted tolerance levels, suggesting the presence of a huge mass in the vicinity. Everything seemed to indicate the impossible, that somehow it had materialised out of nothingness. Alvin was summoned into the safety of the Station at once, as part of the emergency protocol that dealt with a potential collision.
But Alvin was in no hurry to obey the command, and instead turned down the volume of his radio headphones. Whatever it was: mirage, solar disturbance, hallucination or alien spaceship with sinister intentions to invade Earth, it was rapidly gaining in detail and losing its transparency, though the strange silver radiance had not diminished.
All of a sudden, the vision became sharp and clear to his eyes. Alvin was awed at the splendour and beauty of the revealed panorama, impossibly perched between Earth and sky, defying all laws of nature, or at least those that were known and understood to mankind. But he purposefully chose not to question the feasibility of what was before him. Instead he suspended all disbelief, as he did when he immersed himself in a virtual reality game during his leisure time, and studied every minute detail of the scene before him.
First of all, he noticed the city, its spires and towers glimmering in iridescent hues, as if made of mother of pearl. Below them, he admired magnificent buildings of white stone, gardens, courtyards and squares in which, he somehow knew, people would be gathering to look up anxiously at the sky.
Alvin could no longer recognise any familiar coastlines underneath the path of the Station. Instead, as it hurtled Eastwards on its orbit, he found himself floating over wooded hills, green pastures, forests and lakes. Beyond the city stood an immense range of snow-peaked mountains. Through a gap he espied white shores; beyond, in the distance, an island with a white tower on a sapphire sea made his heart long for the cry of seagulls.
He found himself weeping at the sight. 'Who are you? What are you?' he cried silently. There was something familiar about this alien country; he knew he had seen this peaceful land of fairy before, if only with the eyes of his imagination.
A sudden memory triggered in his mind, of winter nights when his grandfather used to read to him wondrous bedtime stories about swords and dragons, brilliant jewels and evil rings of power that would twist the will of men. About the blissful land of the Elves across the Sea, where they lived with the gods. Invisible lands of legend, taken into the realm of hidden things to shield them from those who in vain sought immortality.
Alvin forced himself to remember, and the name popped into his head. Aman.
He smiled in wonder while the radio crackled and urged him to enter the Station. Then the hair on his nape prickled in warning and reluctantly he took his eyes of the lands of Aman.
Out of the West a Shadow was rising. Alvin watched in fascination as tendrils of inky darkness slowly began to swallow the stars, one by one.
Alvin: From a medieval form of the Old English name ÆLlfwine ("elf-friend").
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.