AN OFFICIAL VISIT
The clear morning made me glad I had bought an apartment with a sea view. >From my two big windows I can look up and down the coastline, whilst closed-circuit cameras enable me to pick out any detail and project an enlarged image of it onto the side wall of my room.
Yesterday afternoon I watched boys diving from a floating platform, and today looking north across miles of steel blue water I could see a line of distant hills bathed in golden sunlight. I lingered, gazing at them for a few minutes before setting the apartment's automatic systems to take care of everything for me until my return in six weeks time.
From everywhere in Gay City you can see the space station's tethers rising up from their ground anchorages, eventually disappearing high in the stratosphere. Long transporter tubes run up beside them carrying the shuttle vehicles for passengers and freight. Far above the point at which the tethers and tubes disappear from sight, the vast geo-stationary satellite is visible as a pinhead of light only when the sun illuminates it. Within the space station complex are the science and astronomy research centre, an advanced materials manufacturing complex, the military installation, and a holiday theme park; it is the hub of the space transport network with services to every international airport on the planet surface.
I was heading for a meeting at the Office for Science which, conveniently, was to take place at the space station. I regularly do six week tours of duty in the research centre, but today's meeting was about something special. Like so many others, I came to Gay City as a refugee. The suggestion had been made by a member of the Supreme Council that I go on an official visit to my country of birth. I was reluctant to return. I am very distantly related to the despised president of my ex-country, and this is I guessed was the real reason for me being asked to go. When I was expelled I was in fear for my life. I am now settled and content in Gay City; and have tried hard to put the past behind me, although perhaps I will never entirely shake off the sense of being a late entrant here who did not, like most, come entirely from choice.
Since my last trip to the space station there has been amazing progress with the construction of the latest extension to the holiday complex, a huge doughnut shaped structure. Everyone in Gay City is encouraged to visit the space station, to gaze from the viewing galleries at our blue planet beneath its white clouds, and to study our solar system and the stars and nebulae beyond. The complex also offers more worldly forms of entertainment, including gambling houses, fairground rides and a red light district. Space tourism has become more and more popular, not just among Gay City's population, but also among people of the friendly hetero states, where armed gangs, pollution and disease are ever more prevalent . The current advertising campaign describes going away from these social problems to the station as 'rising up into the heavens above, to a place that is a real heaven'.
At the meeting the chairman passed around a late additional note which turned out to be a draft itinerary for my proposed trip to my birth place. He apologised for springing it on me and said that, although he was aware of my reluctance, he had been working on the assumption that despite my feelings I could be persuaded to go. My continuing debt to Gay City for providing me with a place of safety and a new chance in life was something that did not have to have spelled out to me.
I made a final show of reluctance. 'There are thousands of exiles from my unhappy country who came to Gay City as refugees during the persecution. I am sure there are others who are more suitable.'
'Yes but how many would you say are more qualified to undertake this visit? As a biophysicist you will have a good understanding of the extensive medical research which has cost the state so much of its wealth. The epidemics which swept it six years ago, spread as sabotage by aggressive hostile neighbours, caused millions of fatalities. Yet the strains of virus responsible were eradicated. I doubt if current medical technology here could resist a similar onslaught.' As before my objections were countered with new reasons why I should be the one to go.
Gay City, its population swollen by recent immigration, prospers through international trade and tourism. Economic relations have been established with many hetero states, the only preconditions being that they do not persecute lesbians and gays, and that there is mutual economic advantage. In recent years the state where I was born had been seeking to become a trading partner, offering also co-operation in research and development projects. The laws which outlawed homosexuals had been rescinded, and a new era of tolerance and equality had, the government claimed, begun.
As economic weakness made the state increasingly vulnerable to its bellicose neighbours, desperation was thought to be behind this apparent change of heart. Gay City's military strength is considerable. Our space station has an arsenal of weapons so powerful that we are a valuable ally to any friendly nation that comes under threat from its neighbours. With the end of legal sanctions against gays in my mother country, the door was now open to friendly relations. Diplomatic contacts had already become warmer, and future business and scientific co-operation was being discussed. More tolerant laws had yet to bring an end to persecution by the auathorities, but unofficial contact had been made with a small group of homosexuals who ran an underground newsletter called 'Otherwise...'.
Memories of my homeland are inevitably bitter. Some years before my expulsion the state made homosexuality a crime, and imprisonment and public humiliation became commonplace. There were frequent reports of ill treatment in custody. My lover was killed by police during a raid on a gay disco. In one of the more vigourous purges I myself was taken from my laboratory, repeatedly beaten during protracted interrogations and, without a trial, to my relief since I feared a worse fate, expelled by order of the security minister.
As head of state my great uncle had authorised the persecution. Now he is old and sick, and increasingly isolated in his palace., The day to day affairs of the state in the hands of appointed ministers. He has not been seen in public for decades, and would have died long ago were it not for the first class medical team he assembled to keep him alive. Reports of the ravages of age occasionally leak out. The last, from someone with access to his secretive circle of courtiers at the palace, was that he survived in some sort of special tank, his body sustained by numerous tubes and electrodes, his voice coming from a hidden electronic source somewhere near his head, but without his lips making the slightest movement.
Despite my unhappy memories, of course I agreed to go. What was being asked of me could be accomplished in a single day. I was to visit several research centres, the main power generation plant, and perhaps briefly meet my great uncle. Everything would be very low key, the trip being just one small step towards a greater level of contact between two nations.
A month later I settled into my seat on the space plane and looked through the briefing material prepared for my visit. There was far more than I could easily take in. Tables of figures showed a decline in population across all age groups as epidemics of viruses, persecution of minorities and emigration had slashed numbers to a fraction of what they were fifty years ago. There were tables of economic statistics; maps showing industrial plant, military installations and other important buildings; and pages and pages of text covering every aspect of the state's domestic and foreign affairs. Enemies were thought to be making plans for invasion, but a footnote assured me that nothing was imminent and that I would be perfectly safe. Half an hour before we were due to land the space plane began to decelerate in thickening atmosphere, and I put my papers away and strapped myself in.
I was met at the airport by a quiet spoken woman who introduced herself as one of my great uncle's personal assistants. She escorted me through airport security and to a waiting limousine. I tried to take in as much as possible of my surroundings through the tinted windows. The outlying area through which we passed was shabby, and on the streets there were few signs of life. In more prosperous states vehicles whiz along, levitated above special tracks, their wheels needing to touch the road surface only in side turnings where the tracks run out; but there was nothing of that sort here, or if there was it was not working. The few vehicles I saw on the road were old fashioned and looked worn.
The journey from the airport can not have been more than fifteen miles. We arrived at the palace gates and stopped. My escort told me: 'There will be a few minutes delay during security checks, then we will go on into the palace.' I looked at the car's control panel, which showed elaborate checks being run. Every scrap of data about the two occupants and the nature of what I had brought with me was being transferred from the car to the palace computer, Every touch of the vehicle's controls during the journey, every sound inside or out, and every passenger movement was assessed and analyzed for anything that might be suspicious. Twenty minutes passed before we were allowed to proceed.
Then, for only the second time in my life, I saw the public rooms of the palace, an art deco masterpiece of elegant angled shapes and sweeping planes. Gilt, stained glass, and hand-dyed fabrics were used to give an air of opulence and comfort. I was allowed to enjoy the period atmosphere for only a few minutes before being ushered through to a new wing of the complex. In a large comfortably furnished room I was introduced to an attractive young man, Rostan, who was to be my official guide. I looked at him in astonishment as his appearance stirred memories and emotions which had long ago been subdued. He was the double of my lover from the days before my expulsion nearly thirty years ago. His face, his figure, his colouring, everything except his age was the same. He looked about twenty, younger than my lover had been when he was killed during the police raid. It must have been obvious that I was staring at him. I looked round, saw that we were alone and said: 'You look amazingly like someone I used to know.'
'I know. He and I are related. People say I look very much like him.'
'You look exactly like him. He would be much older of course. Did you know him?'
'No, I was born after he died. I am sorry seeing me has... caused you distress. It would have been better if they had sent someone else to accompany you.'
'No, not distress, I was so taken aback I can't...' I picked up my papers and jerked my mind back to business. 'My itinerary says that we should start with a tour of the palace's medical centre.'
A big modern extension to the original art deco buildings accommodated my great uncle's personal medical suite. Everywhere the latest sophisticated equipment was in use by staff who were friendly, and eager to answer questions. If the state had economic problems, the presidential palace gave no sign of them. I met specialist medical teams responsible for each aspect of his health, his nervous system, cardiovascular system, organs, and so on. The number of people devoted to looking after him alone would have been enough to staff an entire hospital. I was told that treatments begun in the president's personal facility were transferred to the state medical research centre, where after further work they were made available to anyone who could afford them. The research undertaken to keep him alive was therefore not for his sole benefit, it was for the well being of the whole state, and brought in desperately needed foreign currency in fees earned abroad.
If the palace's medical suite was big, the state medical research centre was vast. Rostan took me through so many treatment rooms, operating theatres and laboratories that I lost count. I was shown new organs being grown from small groups of cells, destined to be surgically implanted. Microscopic tools were being made which when injected would scrape off the deposits from inside constricted blood vessels. In an isolation unit special viruses were being designed which would destroy other types of disease-causing virus and bacteria. On the middle platform of a tall unit housing a massive electron microscope we were able to speak without being overheard. 'The massive electro-magnetic fields right here, where we are now standing mean we can be fairly sure to escape surveillance devices. What do you think of it all?'
'I'm impressed. I can only make comparisons with Gay City's own research facilities, but for medical research this must be among the best on the planet, if not the best.'
Rostan undid the top two buttons of his shirt and pulled back his collar. Inside, written neatly and clearly in black ink, was the name of the gay newspaper I had been told of: 'Otherwise...'. He said: 'In high technology medicine we do lead in some major fields, but the vast majority of people cannot afford these treatments, they are available only to a privileged few. Public health also receives scant resources. Whilst the wealthy elite are living longer and longer, overall the population is in decline.'
'Is that the sort of thing you publish in your newsletter?'
His gentle smile made a pang of remembrance and regret surge through me. He answered calmly: 'No, not at all. The newsletter is described as underground because it does not come from one of the official publishing houses. Generally the contents are not controversial, more about where to go for fun, shopping or whatever, very chatty. I just want to make sure you don't get the impression that everything here is wonderful.'
'Is there a chance of my seeing anything of the city?'
'They won't let you go anywhere outside the approved areas. These are the palace, the airport, this research centre and, specially approved for you, the generating station. It would be a waste of time even to ask permission to go elsewhere. We might be able to look at a few public areas on the surveillance monitors though.'
After the medical research centre, where we had lunch, I was shown the geo-thermal generating station. Developed on the site of a disused mine the station now provides all the electrical energy needs of the state. Through transparent inspection panels I saw boiling water and clouds of steam gushing from a tunnel on their way to drive turbines. This one installation supplied all the power needed by the now shrunken population, but although environmentally sound the technology was outmoded by the standards of more advanced states. Gay City's space station could transmit the same amount of in microwave form to a receiving unit on the ground at a fraction of the cost. Dozens of hetero states are already supplied in this way.
When Rostan took me back into the palace complex I followed him on one of those curious twisty journeys you sometimes experience in old buildings, through some of the grand art deco rooms, down several floors in a lift, along a corridor, through some double doors, and finally into a room with about forty metre-long monitor screens taking up a whole wall. There were only three officers on duty at the time, and none looked up from what they were doing as we walked in. I recognised several landmarks, but most of the screens seemed to be showing fairly nondescript streets. 'Not many people about,' I observed.
'We could look at Republic Square, that's always busy.' Rostan went over to one of the control desks, the top of which showed a map of the city, and he touched some red arrows marking the location of several cameras. As he did so the screens nearest us immediately changed to display pictures of the square, and Rostan showed me how to adjust the direction and field of view so that I could zoom in on anything which caught my eye. Republic Square was dilapidated, the paintwork peeling from the main buildings and half the windows boarded up. Beggars hung around the fountain in the centre. Hundreds of people in small groups meandered around, oddly aimless and dejected. A queue ran from the door of the civic hall to a corner of the square and on out of sight down a side street.
'What's are they queuing for?' I asked.
'Travel documents. People queue for days to get them.' Next he showed me views of the main shopping areas, but the story was much the same, none of the life or vigour of the city which I remembered, just more crumbling buildings, dejected people, queues and beggars. In a second shopping area some old battered cars juddered along, a few people shuffled over littered pavements and children scavenged for food among piles of rubbish.
One of the guards came over. 'Do you have authorisation to be in here?'
Rostan produced his identity card and said: 'I am accompanying a diplomat who is to see the president in person this evening. Of course if special permission is needed, I can obtain it from the president's secretariat.' The bluff worked, and the guard returned to his desk to watch another block of security screens.
Rostan switched over to cameras on a long jetty stretching out into the sea. I recognised it as the disused oil and gas jetty, from the days when the state used to import fuel. He said: 'It might prove a suitable embarkation point if a large number of gay people needed to leave, if there were an invasion, or a return to persecutions. There are no real sea defences nowadays, not so far as I know. '
'Let's hope it won't come to that.'
My final engagement was my first ever meeting with my great uncle. I was due to see him for about an hour, and readily accepted the suggestion that I should freshen up. Rostan took me back to the room where I had first met him and showed me the adjoining private bathroom. I decided I had time to use the electro-mist shower, a recent development equipped with special nozzles that quickly fill the cubicle with a mist of very fine droplets of fluid. The controls look complicated, but I find that if they are all set about half way at the start only small adjustments, if any at all, are needed later. Each droplet of fluid carries a minute electrical charge, much too small to cause a shock, and at first as the mist envelops you all you notice is that your hairs stand on end. Then magnetic fields swirl the mist around you, increasing the collision of the minute droplets with your skin. Your whole skin surface begins to tingle delightfully. Metal studs on the floor prevent any cumulative build up of static, sometimes causing the soles of your feet to tickle or making them itchy; if this happens you scratch your feet on the studs or adjust the shower controls downwards. Jets of ordinary hot water can be turned on when you have had enough of the tingling sensation of want to finish off with an ordinary shower.
When I stepped out from the invigorating pleasures of the shower, Rostan was at my side holding a warm towel. 'How was it?' he asked as he began to pat me dry, gently brushing himself against me.
Gay City's manual for official visits gives very clear instructions on sex. It advises that in most of the hetero states gay sex is totally or partially against the law, and that in some it is punishable by death. 'Total abstention from sexual activities with others is therefore the only course which does not involve risk. If there is a need for occasional relief, use of the small adaptor supplied with the personal communication unit is recommended.' I have tried the adaptor; you position it not against any erogenous zone but at the back of your head and switch on. You experience spasms of intense sexual pleasure, but it is somehow difficult to equate these with any sexual act because you cannot locate exactly where in the body the stimulation is taking place, until at last orgasm brings the promised 'relief.' The adaptors are supplied only for longer trips than my single day's visit.
Rostan proceeded to help dry me in a way which clearly showed he was not following Gay City's instructions on official visits and sex. I did not resist. He was so much the lover I had lost all those years ago, brought back to life. We made love like strangers though, unable to anticipate each other's movements, or the familiar reassurance of long term partner's caresses.
My mood after detumescence, calmer and a little pre-occupied, probably made the eventual meeting with my great uncle less difficult. No formal ritual or elaborate courtesies preceded our discussions. I was ushered into the receiving room by Rostan, who quickly said goodbye and left.
My first impression was of a fairly old man dressed in an oddly designed suit of very heavy cloth. 'How did you find your attendant?' asked a deep disembodied voice coming from somewhere behind his chair, or rather throne. Things must have improved since he was seen some years ago in the tank.
'He was most helpful, excellent company.'
'I am glad you had some time together. He seemed familiar to you?' He was like a ventriloquist, his lips showing an odd trembling movement rather than shaping the sounds when he spoke.
'He is a related to my ex-lover, who was killed.'
'Yes, he believes himself to be related. That is what he has always been told. The truth is that he is a clone, a fact which I and very few others know.' The blotched worn face showed a trace of a smile. His strange eyes, somehow too round and too bright, watched intensely as his words worked their effect on me. Was my lover somehow alive again in the form of Rostan? Clone or relative, to Rostan I was just a stranger he would probably never meet again. I was struggling to find words: 'A clone?'
'Yes, during the persecution of gays, clones of many of those who died were produced. It was part of a research project. Small changes were made to the genes of the parent cells to see if sexual preference would be affected.' After a pause he continued: 'I regret all of that, all that happened. I was badly and deceitfully advised; dreadful things were done and you yourself were forced into exile. I am sorry for what you suffered. I was anxious to show you how much things have changed here.'
He stopped, waiting for me to respond. After the death and ruin of so many, did he really think a simple apology was all that was needed? I said sharply: 'The pasts is the past. I am glad the persecution has ended.'
'A great deal has changed here, as I hope Rostan has proved. Think also of what we have to offer. The medical treatments which have been developed here are far beyond anything which has been achieved elsewhere, even in Gay City. You have seen the research facility. The potential exists to produce entire new species able to survive in other regions of the universe where environmental conditions are very different to those on our own planet. Already life can be prolonged through tissue and organ regrowth, the main procedures which keep me alive. If work to regenerate an individual from a small number of specialised cells is successful, death may soon be a thing of the past. Our advances in these fields are major benefits which we would bring to our relationship with Gay City.'
'Yes Gay City is very interested in your research programmes. Certainly you have made a huge investment in the medical field. There are differences though. You have a declining population and concentrate resources on a few privileged individuals. Gay City's population is growing and there is more emphasis on medicine which will prove of wider benefit.'
'But surely for a few of your people, for the elite, long term preservation of life would be worthwhile. You could maintain access to the talents of your most gifted citizens.' He held his left arm out towards me. 'Look at this hand. Fifteen years ago it was withered by age, useless; but look now, the sense of touch has returned to my skin; there is blood flowing once more through my veins.'
He became very excited as he showed me his renewed hand. His breathing became erratic, speeding up briefly into shallow quick gasps, then faltering into drawn out suckings and blowings. As he moved his arm I glimpsed a series of tubes running beneath the oddly cut jacket, presumably part of his life support system. Behind him I heard a click as concealed doors swung open and one of his doctors appeared.
In his now faltering artificial voice he struggled not to loose his dignity altogether. He apologised for ending the interview so abruptly, and hoped that I would take good reports back to Gay City. He told me that I would always have a second home there, whenever I chose to return. The motorised chair or throne on which he sat began to move under him. It pulled him away from the table, turned him around, and conveyed him through the recently opened doors. At the back of the room or laboratory I could see a large tank like a great green glass coffin resting on a stand. Presumably he was in urgent need of some treatment or life support system not available from his chair. Within a minute the woman who had met me when I arrived at the airport was by my side.
On my way back to the space station I could think only of Rostan. He was a different individual, a different person, from my old lover, and I had no grounds to expect him to have further interest in me. Yet I badly wanted my future to include some form, any form, of contact with him, whether as a lover or as a friend. I wondered how difficult it would be for me to arrange another visit.
Later, when I looked down from the space station to the blue oceans of the planet far below, and later still when I looked out at the sea from my apartment, I could think only of the deserted jetty Rostan had shown me on the security screen, stretching out endlessly into a steel blue sea.
© Alan Keslian 2001