The Orrery

By Elana Gomel


Walking from Mars to Jupiter takes me about 15 minutes. It is the scariest part of the journey because this is where the maze becomes totally dark and the wasps begin to buzz around me. I call them wasps but perhaps they are meteorites. So far none have touched me. 

But when I exit the maze, there is blood on my nightie. I creep into the bathroom to clean up, hoping that Mark won’t hear. But I forgot to tell Christie not to turn on the lights. So she does, the traitor! Our darling smart-house, programmed to cradle us in her capacious womb. But something must have gone wrong in her programming because she hates me. Maybe not Mark but me definitely.

Did she put up the orrery as a trap? 

Even if she did, it is too late to escape it now. 

Lights blaze in the passage. Mark comes into the bathroom. 

'Veera,' he says, mispronouncing my name, as always. I know, it is not his fault. Few people speak Russian nowadays. But my name is all I have left of my heritage of ashes.

'You’re bleeding,' he says.

My skin appears unbroken and yet there are drops of blood condensing between my breasts like perspiration and slowly crawling down my stomach. 

'It can’t go on,' he says after a pause.

'It won’t. After I solve the maze…'

'There is no maze!' 

We’ve been around this corner too many times but now he seems determined to prove me wrong. He practically drags me back to the living room where the orrery is gently humming to itself.

The virtual model of the Solar System bathes the room in a soft multicoloured light: Mercury, dotted with mine domes, shines like steel; Venus, next to terraform, is golden and brown; Earth is reassuringly blue; Mars winks with the soft pastels of its newly acquired atmosphere; Jupiter, where the wasps almost got me, is like a striped beach ball; the ice giants are accompanied by a mob of busy satellites; the Kuiper belt bodies twinkle like a handful of confetti.

Lies, all lies!

I swipe at the orrery, breaking the virtual Earth into fragments of light. 

'It’s not true!' I cry. 'It’s a lie, Mark. There is no terraforming on Mars. There are no mine colonies on Mercury and in the asteroid belt. There are no science stations on Charon, Triton, and Europa. There is no Moon City.'

'So what is there?' he asks with that martyred expression that used to drive me nuts. Now I just don’t care.

'I don’t know. When I solve the maze…'

He does not listen. 

When it started, I tried to explain it to my husband. I really did. I used to love him – I think. Or maybe I was grateful to him. Not everyone would marry a refugee from the greatest environmental disaster in human history. After Russia had disappeared in a cloud of poisonous smoke belched by the suddenly awakening Ural volcanoes, Russian immigrants were not welcomed anywhere. People are afraid of bad luck as if it is a contagious disease. 

But I am not sick, even though I am Russian. I am not sick, my headaches, bleedings and bruises notwithstanding. I know I may die but I am not desperate or numb. I just have to solve the maze.

I did not plan on having a multidimensional maze in my living room, of course. I just wanted to get a better idea of the world I was living in. Or supposed to be living in – I no longer know the difference. 

The web was buzzing with the beginning of Mars-Two stage and a stream of 3D images swirled by me as I was in the kitchen, cooking dinner, waiting for Mark to come home. The images were giving me a headache, so I ordered Christie to put them on a flat screen. The planets, revolving on a diagram, were as pretty as Christmas lights. I suddenly realised I had a very hazy idea of the distances involved. I didn’t even know the right order of the planets. I was feeling virtuous and decided to educate myself.

I asked Christie to show me the Solar System.

This was when she created the virtual orrery: a 3D model of the System. It was so pretty that I decided to keep it for a while as a decoration. But even then, looking at it, I felt uneasy. There was something wrong with this toy universe. And as I tried to follow the movements of the planets I thought I saw a grid of dark lines crisscrossing the space between the pastel-coloured spheres. It looked as if they were tangled in a spider web. I blinked and the web was gone. I asked Christie about it and she said it was a visual illusion. Of course. What else would she say?
That night I first entered the maze. I was not asleep, nor was I awake. Later I found the description of the hypnagogic state on the web – the interval between wakefulness and sleep when the mind creates lucid images of bizarre and impossible situations. My time in the maze is like this, even though I remember it much better than people are supposed to remember the hypnagogic state before they plunge into deep sleep. The thing is, I am no longer sure whether I am falling asleep or waking up.

The maze is a labyrinth of tunnels knotted together like a handful of spaghetti with no respect for geometry. I suspect that it is non-Euclidean (how do I know this word? I must have looked it up). Some parts of it are dark; some flooded with brassy light. In some places I can walk on the ceiling. There are grasping hands growing on the walls like moss. In the dark places, there are invisible creatures I call wasps. 

But most importantly, there are signs. They blink into existence at random, glowing in the air. They are planetary names. If I follow the sign that says 'Mars', for example, I will eventually find myself at a door with a screen set into it. I can touch the screen and see the surface of the planet: the harsh iron-oxide red, the stark corrugated desert. There are no traces of the terraforming you see on the web. I know I can step through that door – and suffocate. The rest of the planets are the same: lifeless, wild, untamed. 

I go to bed, a wadded towel between my breasts to soak up the bleeding. This is not the first time the maze inflicted an injury on me. I believe this is a goad they – whoever they are – use to force me to solve their puzzle. I’m not a heroine like my Russian forebears are supposed to have been. If I could I would just drug myself up until the maze went away. But it is making clear that if I refuse to solve it, I will die. And if I solve it incorrectly, I’ll die too. 

Mark is breathing quietly by my side. But I know he is not asleep. Finally he breaks the silence. ’Do you really believe that all the governments in the world are in on this conspiracy? All the governments, all the multinationals, stock exchanges…'

'Why not? How can you trust anything you see on the web?'

'Forget the web, just walk outside. You haven’t done so in ages! Why did you stop looking for a job?'

'Did I ever start?'

'Of course!'

'What job?'

'You’re a secretary…'

'Who needs secretaries nowadays?'

'Somebody does or you wouldn’t be getting interviews!' His voice sounds petulant and unfamiliar.

'I don’t remember ever being interviewed for a job!'

And it’s true. I suddenly realise I have a picture of myself sitting in somebody’s office, being asked questions, receiving a noncommittal smile and handshake. But it is just a picture, like something I might have seen or read about.

'What do you do?' I suddenly blurt out. I know the answer, of course. But I want to hear him say it.

'Come on!' he says exasperatedly. 'You know perfectly well that I am a broker! Without my salary we wouldn’t be able to afford a smart-house!'

Yes, I know that. But I also know that in a world of high-frequency trading brokers are as obsolete as secretaries are in a world of smart networks. 

'Who are you?' I ask.

'What?!' He sits up, his face a mask of disgust. 'Veera, you’re sick!'

The Anglo way he pronounces my name renders it meaningless. But in Russian my name, Vera, means faith. Faith and perseverance.

And then I’m up and running into the living room. The orrery is revolving in the dark, sending kaleidoscope reflections onto the walls.

I never entered the maze fully awake before. I do it now, easily. As I tear through the Kuiper belt, reality snaps and I’m padding through the tunnels, their impossible curves making my mind hurt. The signs flash before me: Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter, Io…

How could I not have realised before that they are all in Russian?

I wave them aside like annoying insects, looking for the one sign I know I have to follow. The one I have never seen before. But it’ll appear.

And here it is: Zemlya. Earth.

I follow the sign and find myself before a door with a screen set into it. I touch the screen and stare, open-mouthed, at what it shows. And then I push the door and walk out into the darkness.

It is our living room, just as I have left it except there is no orrery and the overhead light does not come on. The windows that used to open onto the cheerful small-town street are now rectangles of dull blackness. 

'Mark?' I whisper. 

'There is no Mark,' Christie says.

'Christie? So it’s you?'

'No, I’m just the interface.'

'Who is on the other side?'

'Aliens.'

'Where from?'

'The Solar System. It is densely populated. Only not by humans.'

'How many humans are left?'

'Five hundred.'

'And the rest?'

'Gone.'

I am not even shocked. I lived with the sense of loss my entire life. Or what I thought was my life.

'So, Russia, the Ural volcanoes…'

'It wasn’t just Russia.'

'And my memories?'

'A cushion to prevent shock. A post-traumatic cure.' 

'What is happening to me?'

'The orrery is a tool to rewire your brain. Otherwise communication is impossible.'

'Communication with whom?'

'You’ll see.'

I stand up and walk to the front door. I have memories of walking through this door countless times but they are fading away, dissolving like wisps of coloured fog.

There is a screen on the door that had never been there before. I touch it and it scrolls the names of planets in an unfamiliar language. It is neither English nor Russian but I understand it.

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune…

I have to choose. I touch one name and the door opens.


Elana Gomel is the author of five non-fiction books and of numerous articles on subjects ranging from science fiction and fantasy to posthumanism and Victorian literature. Her story 'The Farm' was included in 2015 Apex Book of World Science Fiction. Her fantasy stories appeared in New Horizons, Aoife’s Kiss, Bewildering Stories, Timeless Tales, The Singularity, Dark Fire and several anthologies. Her fantasy novel A Tale of Three Cities was published by Dark Quest Books in 2013. @ElanaGomel


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