Some time ago, I wrote this for Neil Armstrong.
When the last man had walked on the moon and had descended back to his own wandering star, it seemed that something stirred in the quiet and the deep, awakening cautiously in a hibernating cave.
Its eyes opened into the dark and it stared into it, trying to work out if it was meant to see anything or if it was blind; if the darkness was all there was. It tried to remember where it was, if it was anywhere at all, or if it was nowhere. Then it tried to remember what it was, if it had a name. It searched back to the beginning, to its own beginning, if in fact it had begun at all, and with painful slowness, it realised – a realisation that took a long time to sink into the depths of its sleepy mind – that it didn’t have a name. There had never been anyone to name it.
It waited in the dark, to see what would happen next, if anything, or if it should itself begin something. It became aware that it was cramped and uncomfortable, that walls of rock were pressing in on it. Slowly and carefully, it shifted itself, testing to see how much it could move. An avalanche of dust slid off its back, thick, grey and choking. It coughed, a sound that could be heard on the surface of the moon if only someone had been there to hear it. But on the surface, there was only the sigh of space on endless fields of dust and rock and mountain and, everywhere, circles: big and small, massive and minute, broken and whole, jagged and smooth; craters that had lain undisturbed for eons on a world inert and dead, loved only from a distance when it glowed golden in the sky of another world.
And on that world, they didn’t hear the creature cough, they didn’t see it take its first steps, the first it had taken for billions of years. There was no one to see it emerge from its deep, dark cave. No one to see it stand blinking. No one to realise what it was, as darkness cleared from its eyes, nor that it was, and always had been.
From the mouth of its cave, the shape of an immediate world formed, a shape both cruel and beautiful, bleak rock against fathomless black, the edge of things cutting sharply into its eyes. A distant memory, a first and only memory, floated softly into its mind but the memory itself was hardly more than darkness stirred and too soon it settled again so that the mysteriousness of its beginnings receded into inaccessibility. Whatever the memory was, it wasn’t going to present itself again. It wasn’t going to remember. It didn’t have a name. It didn’t know who it was. But it was here and it was alive. Blackness was not all there was. There was also greyness. There was dust.
The cave seemed to be buried in a sea of dust, because all it seemed to see was dust, whole oceans of it, thick and grey and untouched, and it seemed to the creature that it was at the bottom of the ocean because thrown up all around it were walls, high walls, impenetrable ranges of mountains that pierced the blackness of space. It looked into space itself, up and further up and still further until it saw that the vast bowl of blackness above its head glittered everywhere with light. It was an ancient light, almost as ancient as the creature itself, their origins equally distant, their origins equally mysterious. But it was beautiful. The universe swept in great swathes across the sky. It reflected in the depths of the creature’s eyes, eyes that had been shut and were now newly opened; eyes that were full of stars.
It sat back down in the dust, overwhelmed by the beauty of the universe, but aware also of its terrible distances, its unfathomable coldness. There was no apparent life in it; nothing could be seen to be moving, except the stars themselves. It seemed to the creature that because it could see no one else, there was no one else out there; it was alone. And because it couldn’t see itself, it couldn’t know what it was.
It tried to look down at itself, at its feet, but they were grey, like the dust. It walked around in the dust, following its own footprints, feeling the weight of its body, feeling inside it a crying, clutching coldness. It ventured into its surrounds, leaving behind it the cave, leaving behind it fresh footprints, thinking to leave behind it the coldness that lay inside it. But the coldness didn’t move. It was a coldness like the stars. It was a coldness of distance. It was the coldness of loneliness.
There was only one thing it could do. It had to find someone else. It could not be all. It could not be the sum total of livingness, of existence. It could not be all that thought in the universe. There had to be other thought. There had to be others. The creature could not know this for sure, only that if it did not look, it would not find, and then it could not know and not knowing was the mystery of itself, which it could not bear.
So it ran its eyes along the crater edge, carefully noting every sharp peak, every dark shadow, every hollow of blackness. It was using logic when it thought that there had to be some way out of the crater. It stopped, suddenly, when it saw a change in the darkness. Seeping in along the horizon was an unexpected brightness, a lightness like a new day. The creature, without a second thought, trotted towards it, feeling the weight of its body growing lighter, skipping past the giant boulders that were like small mountains themselves, then running across the regolith where it had lain undisturbed for billions of years. Its footprints lay deep in the sharp, powdery dust, the solid shadow that lay within the depressions beginning to shift, gradually, with exquisite slowness, deepening and lengthening visibly as the light in the sky rose as the sun.
There was no way through. The boulders that thwarted it were of immense size and it could not get across them. The crater walls were just that – walls – and the creature was the wrong shape, whatever shape that was, to negotiate them. It seemed that it had no grace. It had only weight and it was conscious that it was a tremendous weight, dragging along with it, extraneous to itself and a burden it couldn’t leave behind. High between the tight, mean crevices, its body would twist and turn, trying to find a way, only to slide back down again in avalanches of dust and pebbles and sharp painful stone. The dust made it cough again and it began to hate it. Containing no life, it signified death. It rose up in puffs and refused to fall back. It was an irritation and an abrasion. It was an ocean through which it could not swim.
So it walked, hunting for a gap, an easier way through, some way to cross the mountains, an escape from the crater where it had lain in its cave, asleep, unknown to the universe and to itself. The sun continued to rise, bringing with it an unprotected heat. The shadows, once long and pronounced, highlighting in fine detail the landscape that swept down to the bottom of the creature’s crater, began to shorten. The creature stopped for a moment and looked down. It saw going on for miles its footprints. It had wound its way along almost the entire length of the crater, scarring the walls where it had tried to climb them and failed. The sun was almost directly overhead. Too bright to look at, the creature was aware of it as something that gave tremendous heat, that its body should have been burning, that the radiation should have been killing. The distant memories stirred again.
Aware of its clumsiness, its apparent inability to correctly determine height, length, depth with any scientific accuracy, it pursued its course around the crater. It would keep going, it thought, until it had found a way. Then it would be free and it would know and it would no longer be alone. It experienced hope and the feeling spurred it on, nosing through the stale, grey world, looking everywhere, hunting everywhere, peering even into the darkest cavities in case there were other caves, harbouring others like it that it didn’t know about, others that might still be asleep. The memories twisted and turned but still it couldn’t access them. Eventually, it thought, it might remember. Eventually.
But then, as the sun began to sink again towards a distant horizon, it experienced a surge of desperation. Too much time had passed. It had taken too long. The darkness was going to return and then it would have no chance of escape. It would not be able to see with enough clarity a route through or across the crater’s edge. It made one wild, last attempt, scrabbling through debris, slipping and sliding but persisting, persisting until the sun was already setting, shadows stretching out like long black fingers to claw at it. Frantically, it clawed at the wall but it was too sheer and it felt its spine twist as it fell back. It kept falling and falling, all the way back down, sliding in a rush of dust so thick that its clouds smothered it, blinded it, making it cough and cough and cough.
At the bottom of the crater it lay, fallen. Its body was sprawled in an ungainly heap. The dust was choking and needle sharp. The last of the sun’s rays splintered like diamonds and the temperature began to crash. A haze hung in the air, dust that was drifting back, blurring all the hard edges so that the moon, from space, looked as if it had a smudge on its surface. The creature lay unmoving, body smarting with pain and disappointment, and from a closed eye, a tear rolled and dripped into the dust. It was a single tear, lone and fat, and it lay alone in the surface of the moon, all water there was that was alive.
The stars wheeled overhead. The coldness of space and all its poisons closed around the creature. It might have been dead except that its eyes were open and it was staring into the darkness. “Who am I,” it might have wondered, or, “why am I.” But it didn’t wonder anything. It wanted only to escape. If it could not find a way across the crater wall, then it would make one. It would dig. It didn’t matter how long it took.
So it stood up and it stretched. Its body ached in places so it stretched more. It stretched its spine and it felt its body stretch wider and wider and freer and freer, stretching as if it was going to stretch apart, except that it felt light. It felt airy. It tried to look over its shoulder but its body was awkward. It looked down at its feet and then it looked sideways. It looked behind it and saw, at last, on the ground on either side of it, its body stretched into jagged sheets of lightness. It took a step and then another, feeling how light it was, how unlike the dragging weight it thought was its bane. And then its feet lifted off the ground and it was flying.
In seconds it was soaring across the crater wall. Freedom was suddenly the easiest thing in the world. On wings of elation, the creature flew across the terminator into the sunshine. It flew high and the craters, the endless collection of craters, contracted beneath it so that the world seemed stamped with circles of dust. The mountains flattened. The features blurred until there was nothing but grey. Its thoughts were wild with fancy. It thought it could keep flying, that it could fly into space, away from the world, to other worlds, to others. It lifted up and up into the blackness of star-pricked space but a memory pierced it and suddenly it was falling again. It dive-bombed, then pulled up in time, and landed in a skid of dust and debris.
It couldn’t leave. An invisible thread held it. The creature was tethered to the world. Freedom was suddenly a fleeting thing. Taking flight once more, it chanced to see its shadow moving across the ground, distorted by rocks and boulders, then foreshortened so that its shaped seemed grotesque. But then, over a sea of dust, it saw itself. It saw its wings, immense structures that spread lightly from its body, spreading out on either side of it so that its body seemed small. Flying lower, it saw it had a tail and that every part of its body was spiked: its head, its back, its tail, its claws. And its wings, spiked and lethal-looking. It twisted in the sunlight, trying to see as much of itself as it could, the shadows in the dust revealing every part of it until a memory spiked its mind. It knew what it was. It was a dragon.
At a time of day it thought might be called mid-morning, it chanced to look up from its shadow and the revelation of itself, and saw in the sky something other than stars. It saw rising a half-circle in colours that were at first bewildering. No grey. No dust. No craters. It was nothing like its own world. It stared at it, looking up from the dust where it sat, the curve of its world a grey line against the black of space, and above that line, the distant horizon, the sphere of swirling blue and white, colours which suggested themselves to the dragon, at once correct and wrong. It wasn’t just blue and white. It was beautiful. It was alive.
Feeling more alive itself, the dragon continued to fly, marvelling at its grace in the air, but never moving so far that it could not see the other world. It realised that the world it itself inhabited always kept the same face to the blue and white world, so that its cave was forever turned away. If there was anyone on the new world, they could not know of the dragon. They could not have seen it. It began to wonder if the new world was also populated, if there was also a dragon there, waking in its own darkness, and for brief moments, it envied it, because the other dragon would be waking in a world of blue and white, of serenity and beauty, while its own world was a grey and abandoned ball of dust.
Then it began to find strange signs. It found things for which it had no names but were clearly not part of the moon. There was a tall thin thing with a flat two dimensional thing coming off it, decorated with stars and stripes. There were metallic-looking objects, varying in size. There were things that looked like garbage and there were bags of shit. The dragon had to walk to find these things. Only once did it spot something from the air and once it found it, it began to find others that were similar. It thought they were creatures, like itself, but they were smaller and seemed more metallic and there was nothing about them that suggested they could fly. It batted one and it crumpled, as if it had only been made of tin foil.
Reason came to it and before it could destroy any more of the metal creature, it flew away and landed on a high peak, where it sat and stared at the new world for a long time, its tail coiled around a boulder, its wings folded so that it was once again a creature of awkward weight. From the new world, others had come. They had visited the dragon’s dusty grey world and they had left behind things they had thought had no value or were of great importance, like the curved silver plates. They had on them engraved images of what was obviously their own world. The dragon recognised the green shapes that drifted beneath the clouds. They had descended from the shifting swirls of white and left behind a calling card. But they had not found the dragon.
They had left their footprints and their machines and their abandoned desire for exploration. They had come, they had seen and they had found nothing. There was only structure: rock and dust and crater. No life. If only they had looked a little harder. If only they had cared more and not chained themselves to politics and finances. If they could only have believed in something beyond acceptable expectations, then perhaps the moon might not have been lost to them. In an attempt to connect with these lost visitors, the dragon tried to find life for them. It hunted and it searched. It inspected the machines and wondered if they could be used to communicate to the new world. It did not try again to leave its own world. The tether that kept it there tugged sharply at it, even while it flew with freedom over the mountain ranges and the dark seas of dust.
At last the tether pulled it down and it sank from its sky, tired of flying, tired of thinking, wearying of its hunt for life on a world it knew was not to be found. It sat down in the dust and hung its head down. Light was falling on it in golden streams from the beautiful blue companion, now dark as it lay across the sun, blocking out all warmth. Within the coldness inside it was growing a hardness, a bitterness, a sense of loss it could taste, acrid and dry, like the dust of its dead world. It was alone. It had not been discovered. There had only been disappointment.
It could not see the others on the blue world but it knew they must be there. It yearned to see them. It wished for their return. With endless longing it stared at the swirl of clouds, convincing itself that another dragon lived there, a companion, like the worlds were companions, but even while its belief grew strong and unwavering, there was no connection. It might believe another dragon was there but it could not sense it. There was no trace of it. If it had ever lived, it must now be lost. It was gone. It was dead.
The loss of the dead companion made the dragon well with sadness. Tears fell into the dust, not just one, but many. They ran from its eyes and fell at its feet, while overhead the serene blue world whirled around with the sun shining on it, whirling as if it was dancing, oblivious to all that lay above its cloud layer, to anything or anyone that may have been watching. The dragon cried and was filled with long series that all began “if only.” If only it had woken sooner. If only it had been found. If only it could leave the grey world and fly to the blue one. If only they would come back. If only the companion dragon was still there.
If only it was more dragonish.
The thought was a startling one. It looked up from its tears as on the horizon the glow of twilight hung after the sun’s descent and for some long minutes, rays fanned out, bands of light and dark against which nearby boulders stood out dark and imposing. A memory stirred, at first very weak and faint, but strengthening as the dragon began to recognise with certainty that it was true. It was a dragon, it knew, so it followed that it should be doing more dragonish things. Like breathing fire, hoarding treasure, protecting fortresses…and whatever else it was that dragon’s did. It wracked at the single memory but there was nothing else in it, no indication of what dragonish things it could be doing.
Because it was the most obvious, it tried first to breathe fire. It tried until its throat hurt and the dust made it cough. It thought perhaps that it might lack fuel and looked around for something suitable, but there was only rocks. So it chewed the rocks. They cracked and tasted dusty and made no difference to the harsh breath the dragon ejected. With its mouth sore and its teeth hurting, it put aside the fire idea and hunted instead for treasure. It knew before it had begun how futile a hope this was. There was nothing on moon. No world could be more devoid of interest. Nothing could be more dull and grey. The dragon itself was like the moon, its colour grey, its outlook dulled by disappointment and loneliness. It was a failure as a dragon. It had no talent, no beauty, nothing of the exotic. It thought about these things as it hunted and scrabbled about in the dust and dug holes. It even returned to its cave and dug there, thinking perhaps it had already hoarded all there was to hoard, that all the treasure that could be found had already been found and lay glittering in heaps in long lost caverns. It tried to imagine what the treasure might be like. It would gleam. It would be golden. The gems would be of every colour. It would be unimaginably beautiful because treasure, to be treasure, must be beautiful. But for the dragon, the most beautiful thing there could be was the blue and white world, the unreachable land of enchantment and perpetual joy. There was no other treasure. The caves were empty.
It flung itself from the entrance in a fury. The word failure hammered at it. And the damned dust was everywhere, making it sneeze. It sneezed enormously and from its nostrils, it ejected with great force a bubble. It floated off and then popped. And immediately, everything changed. The dragon detected a freshness. It sneezed again. The freshness was unmistakable. It was air.
That was why the footprint-makers had left. That was why they had left their machines. That was why their world was beautiful and blue. Their world had clouds. Their world had air. There was no air on the dragon’s world, no atmosphere, nothing growing, nothing alive. It did not need such things itself. It had no idea of its own structure or its function, only that it was different. Its thoughts travelled at light speed in every direction. It saw the answer and it saw a vast array of futures. It saw all the possibilities at once. It only had to chose. It only had to sneeze.
But sneezes are hard to force and the dragon, no matter how much it rolled in the dust, could not summon another sneeze. It had failed even before it had begun. It had found its talent and its talent was worthless. It could not sneeze an entire atmosphere on the moon. The terrible weariness and sadness and loneliness overcame it once more and it sat down and sighed. The freshness rushed from it. Shocked, it scrambled to its feet. It sighed again. And again. It breathed hard, blowing. Then it breathed normally. Then it just breathed without thinking about it. Until now, it hadn’t. Because it hadn’t been alive. It hadn’t discovered its true self. It hadn’t discovered its dragonish thing, the magic thing it could do.
So it breathed and it breathed and it blew and it blew and the freshness rushed from it until the vacuum became bright and shiny and when the sun shone, the world seemed softer. The dragon breathed while it flew and soon it was picking up air currents, coasting on them, gliding effortlessly across the crags and gullies. Clouds began to form, clouds that were at first wild and stormy, racing across the sky, slashing the surface with hard sheets of rain and lightning, the winds churning up pillars of mud. Terrified, the dragon escaped the storms, but thunder rumbled above it in open skies and black clouds would rise up in seconds to hurl down again their hard rain and hail on violent winds.
The moon was thrashed. The dragon tried to hold its breath but it was too late. There was weather and it could not be stopped. Rain lashed on the scales of its back, making it tingle. It thought it might be changing, that it would develop colour, but it stayed grey and dark and uninteresting. When the sun came out between the ferocious storms, it was warm on its back. It felt pleasant. Now, thought the dragon, surely now; now I’m a creature of interest, a real dragon, a dragonish dragon of magic. But it wasn’t. It was grey, like the pools of mud, like the mountains, like the shadows. On drier ground, it hunkered, morose, tears running down like the passing rain and splashing at its feet. It had made air but the air had made vicious clouds that had rained too hard and the rain had turned everything to mud. It was no longer on a world of dust but one of swamps.
Its tears splashed again at its feet and it looked down, surprised. It thought it had stopped crying. How many tears could it have? How miserable could it be? There were waves at its feet, small waves, ripples of blue. A lake had formed, stretching out across a deep-lying plain. Where his first tears had fallen, a sea had grown. It was vast and pale, silvery blue, reflecting the sky. The dragon blew gently on the water and waves rose and swept towards the shore, where they fell on silver-grey beaches. It blew again, harder, with its magical breath, and green shoots began to creep from the water onto the land. They shot up into the golden air and the rain that fell on them was more gentle. Storms flickered over the mountains but in the valleys, the rain was light between the trees.
The dragon walked in the woods, hearing the song of the rain, the breezes that scattered the canopy of leaves, so that sun shone through them and glittered on the ponds. The diamond gleam of the water was everywhere, the sapphire lakes and seas and pools, the emerald forests and peridot pastures, the ruby-red flowers that nodded in the breeze: these were the jewels of the moon. This was the treasure. The dragon stood on a swathe of bright green moon-grass – grass that was studded with enchanted daisies that glowed gently in the dark – and looked out at the companion world. Would they come back?
The first spaceship landed on a green lawn, crushing beneath its landing gear the small, magical flowers that grew there. After an initial burst of activity, the ship went quiet and showed no signs of life. It seemed to be taking a breath. It seemed to be considering the unfamiliar environment, testing it and speculating on its validity. But then, at last, a door slid open and an astronaut climbed down the ladder. He was wearing a self-contained pressure suit, his features hidden by the gold reflection of his helmet. He stood on the grass and did nothing. He didn’t move. He seemed to be looking, carefully, at everything. The words he had been primed to speak upon landing had died on his lips.
Voices spoke with a drawn-out seriousness in his ears, vowels that were prolonged inside his head. A question hung on every sentence, questions that waited with intense patience for answers. Information flashed on his screen, the readouts a constant scroll. The voices became more urgent. He took a step, then several more. A light breeze was blowing across the grass. The eeriness of the place stopped him. It had an untouched quality, an unbreathed look, a landscape untainted, the deep mysteriousness of it a magical thing, a real magic, something profoundly unexplained.
Everywhere the astronaut looked was saturated green, a weird green, a green with a strange blue under-colour, like aquatic plants. The trees and distant woodlands had the same ultramarine quality and far-off forests disappeared into a misty rain, soft blues and greens like a smudged watercolour. Above, the sky was clear and bright, recognisably blue. Along the horizon, there was a greenish haze, as if the dark, sleeping greens breathed green into the air. It was unmistakably alien, yet so familiar. It could have been a lost part of Earth, an overlooked Eden, one that had been adapted to two-week days and two-week nights.
The astronaut reached down to touch the grass but got no sensation of it through his glove. Then he did something that he wasn’t supposed to, that was a risk to both life and career and would affect his status on future missions. In the stillness of the newborn day, he reached for his helmet, unfixed it and pulled it off. The voices sounded furiously in his earpiece, then stopped. He dropped the helmet on the grass. He took a breath. “Jesus,” he whispered, utterly and overwhelmingly moved by what he was seeing. “What happened to the moon?”
It was a question that everyone had asked as they frantically built their rockets, every telescope on the planet turned to the blue and green orb that floated in the sky, watching the weather whorl furiously across its surface, then ease into effortless summer. A Saturn V rocket was taken out of its museum and dusted off. The Ares V rocket went frantically into production as the Constellation programme was reinstated. Proton and Soyuz were on the launch pad, Shenzhou was already on the way. Space planes were back on the drawing board along with several others, private enterprise suddenly and considerably more enterprising, while the markets were flooded with potential moon products. Projects were proposed and proposals were put to endless committees. Religions changed course.
The effect of the changing moon was monumental. Science, philosophy and politics veered into unknown territory, like an unmanned moon buggy, wildly out of control, the world that lay beyond the horizon a terrifying unknown. There was no question of not going back, no single moment of doubt, no time that was wasted before that astronaut came at last to a much-anticipated standstill on the moon grass and asked the question that everyone had asked – everyone who had looked up one clear night and puzzled over the new fuzziness of the moon that gave way so quickly to its riotous landscape of greens and blues and creamy cloud. Its landscape of life.
What happened to the moon?
Suddenly everyone was going to the moon. They went to breath the air because air that clean and that heady existed nowhere on Earth. They went as scientists and prospectors. International treaties were drawn up overnight. Laws were passed with emphasis on preservation, conservation and pollution. The list of moon rules became a strenuous read. They didn’t want to make the same mistakes. They didn’t want to ruin this beautiful jewel that hung in their skies. They did not want to continue being the kind of Men they had always been, destructive, arrogant and corrosively corrupt. The new moon, it seemed, had inspired loftier ideals, a resurrection of spirit, of self-awareness and philosophic discourse; it was a second coming, of sorts, for mankind.
But the dragon couldn’t know any of this. It saw only how little the Men were, that the footprints he had found on the dusty surface, long gone, were disproportionate to their size. It thought that if it showed itself, it would frighten them away and more than anything, it didn’t want them to leave, even if it meant hiding from them. It hid in the mountains were it snowed and it flew only in thunder storms, invisible in the dark grey of the clouds, but the rockets kept coming and the population grew and soon there was nowhere to go where it would not be seen. The satellites inspected everything, making it harder and harder for the dragon to hide. There was a constant stream of traffic between the two worlds. The domed moon bases that had been futuristically proposed were built, but under blue skies and gentle weather systems, with trees for shade and long nights when stars pricked the skies in an infinite quantity. The dragon crept away, unseen, unknown, its existence unsuspected.
There was talk of renaming the moon. They called it Paradise. They called it the Garden of Eden, plucked from the earth and hurled into the sky, abandoned and left to die until such time as the cry for redemption and salvation became too loud: God had heard them…or aliens. Scientists studied intently the metamorphosis of the moon, but they couldn’t understand it. All scientific principles had been defied. No explanation could be given for the spontaneous invigoration of a dead and inhospitable world. The ground itself was transformed, from dust to soil. There was air and water where before there had been none. There was evolution on a scale that should have taken millions of years. Most miraculously of all, there was gravity. Not much more of it, but enough to make life more comfortable. It was the air, they said, the ignorant who didn’t know anything about planetary sciences: the air was thick and heavy and held the body down. But even the ignorant had to concede that they didn’t know where the air had come from.
The dragon heard all these questions, their concepts reaching it on an uncluttered wavelength, a sensory understanding of their bewilderment. It wanted to join them to tell them. It wanted to explain how it had happened. It wanted to talk to them and it wanted to be friends. It imagined their admiration and their wonder but admiration and wonder were not things it wanted. It wanted only to rid itself of the cold, empty loneliness that sat like a stone in its chest. But it could not be done. It had tried and it had failed.
It crawled away, back to its cave. The crater in which it lay was dark when it returned, but it was a beautiful dark, the sounds of aircraft and spacecraft and machine distantly muffled so that all lay quiet. Pools of cool water lay near the cave entrance. It was here, the dragon thought, that its first tear had fallen into the dust, here where the first water must have formed. It stopped on the edge and bent its head to taste it and then tasted the fresh grass that grew beside it. There were small white flowers growing between the stones, the magical moon daisies that peeped out in the long dark nights, faintly phosphorescent so that the dragon could easily find its way home. Hidden, it lay in the dark, while Men from Earth built science stations and rocket platforms. They built tourist attractions on the nearside and observatories on the far side. There was talk of going to Mars. Colonisation was back on the agenda.
The economy on Earth changed gear and a multitude of probes were launched into the solar system. It was less about basic survival than it was about creating a future for Mankind. Exploration became a rapid-growth industry. While ships were being built on the moon, Ganymede began to show the first signs of green fuzziness, signs that were recognised as indication of transformation. Titan was next, its chemistry undergoing a most radical change with the dissociation of nitrogen and methane. It was no longer poisoned sleet that fell from poisonous clouds, no longer a killing cold on the surface: no longer a disappointingly uninhabitable world.
More and more moons were beginning to bud and while metamorphosis was carefully mapped, with many making – often incorrect – predictions, selection was random. The tiny, irregular moons of Mars were skipped as were all the bodies in the asteroid belt. Probes were sent to many of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, workhorse probes that chugged out information that would once have been fantastical. All four Galilean moons developed and four of Saturn’s, but it was Uranus that would eventually support the most habitable moons, five of them: Titania, Oberon, Umbrial, Ariel and Miranda. Distanced from the sun so that it was barely a pinprick of light in the sky, they glowed with an impossible heat. Triton was the last moon to flower, the last to be reached by probe, the last to be reach – eventually, in decades to come – by Man. With its similarity to Pluto, it was believed that the planetoid would also develop, which lead to a hypothesis that life could develop spontaneously on other planets as well, such as Mars. But all hypotheses were put aside when on the shores of a great lake on Enceladus a probe revealed the first dragon.
The tiny moon was as bright as a marble skimming across the glitter of Saturn’s E-ring, a warm and sultry world celebrated by the fantastic fountains at its south pole. From dense forests, thick mists rose and the lakes lay dark and deep. The dragon was as deep and blue as the water, its wings, when spread, veined with gold and white, like lapis lazuli. It was a magnificent creature, one out of legend and fantasy, enormous considering the diminutive size of the moon. It turned an eye on the probe and a silence fell, on Earth, on Luna, on low-orbit mission control stations. The eye, as deep as night, blinked. The dragon was alive.
On the moon, in its cave, the Luna dragon lifted its head as it sensed the slow stirrings of the other dragons, the moon dragons, the ones that would breathe life into their small dead worlds. Concepts passed between them, tentatively at first, as if it was necessary to recall an ancient communication device, until an understanding grew and a link was forged. The moon dragon felt threads of hope creep into its darkness, threads of light reaching into its lonely despair and for a while, it was no longer alone.
The water dragons of Ganymede, Europa and Enceladus were first to emerge and the images they pressed on the dragon of Luna were of twilight dreaming, tranquil depths and deep blue skies, saturated with ozone. The Europan dragon swam in its oceans, rising out at times to land on the island mats, living, growing structures that would one day support cities. It was an active dragon, constantly moving, persisting in its search to improve its world, while the dragon on Enceladus was content to walk its endless night shores. It was the dragon on Ganymede, like the other water dragons a sensitive, soulful creature, who suggested that they attempt to stir their memories, that the past contained secrets that would reveal their origin, their purpose, and the reason for the existence of Man. But the Luna dragon shied away from this, suspecting that there were some secrets better left in the dark. The link between the four dragons thinned and while the Luna dragon could still hear them, it was no longer part of the group. It was itself not a water dragon. It was only grey.
There were two air dragons, the one on Titan easily explainable, but the other was on Iapetus which crushed the theory that dragon type matched moon composition. There was nothing airy about Iapetus. It had no atmosphere, it was primarily made of ice and rock and it bore a long history of speculation about its black/white halves. The air dragons were a paler blue than the water dragons, like the sky on a winter’s afternoon, drained and delicate, but they were slightly bigger, their wings more immense, their desire to fly an almost constant one. The mountains on Iapetus, the soaring peaks along the equatorial ridge, were filled with the long flights of the dragon, flights that were captured on film and had dragonologists everywhere in fainting fits of delight.
On Io, a fire dragon pulled the moon into a less eccentric orbit, circularizing it through tidal dissipation. The volcanoes settled down into permanent inactivity, their walls thick with forest that could have been there for millions of years. Tall mountains pierced stormy black clouds. It was the only fire dragon to appear and this gave the dragon on Luna hope; if neither fitted into any other group, then perhaps they could start a group themselves. But the Io dragon was a loner, a ferocious red-gold creature, spiky and silent, intent on making habitable its difficult, unfriendly moon. It had no time for discussion, no patience for the dreaminess of conceptual communication, no patience for dreams.
All five Uranus moons produced stone dragons that seemed at first similar to the Luna dragon – grey, clumsy on the ground, less forthcoming – while on Callisto, a similar stone dragon was seen to be drifting across the plains of Valhalla, once an impact basin, now a vast savannah mysteriously warm. But the Luna dragon could forge no link. The Luna dragon tried repeatedly and failed to bond with them. When the dragons of Mimas and Triton were revealed, the Luna dragon was convinced they would also be stone dragons. Alone in the dark of its cave, it continued to ache with loneliness. It imagined the friendliness of the water and air dragons, imagined their ability to communicate with the Earthmen, to pass to them their dreaming concepts.
It imagined also that these dragons were more dragonish, more magical, their beauty a gauge for innate ability. The fire dragon was extraordinary. It was said that it could breathe fire but probe data showed it more likely the dragon had consumed fire in order to transform its world. The stone dragons had chewed rock while the water dragons – more correctly ice dragons – had performed a function that could only be described as blowing bubbles. In its cave, the Luna dragon thought back to its own creative process. What had it done? It had sneezed.
Memories of dust made it cry. Its tears fell to the cave floor and went hard, glittering like diamonds in the dark. All it had to do, it knew, was emerge from its cave, approach one of the moon bases, introduce itself to the people there and it would no longer be lonely. There was no need for it to hide away. They were probably looking for it, wondering why their own moon dragon had yet to appear when contact had already been made with so many of the others. It shouldn’t have been hard to find a living creature of substantial size, but all the dragons shared a common trait: they were indistinguishable from the rock or ice or gas that had bound them. The Luna dragon could not be found and the other dragons, if they could locate it with any accuracy, weren’t saying.
From one of the moon cities, a ground shuttle skimmed across the surface, picking up speed as it crossed the terminator to the far side. Dark clouds hung overhead, a gathering rainstorm, but the sun could be seen on the horizon, setting with immense slowness, lighting up the shuttle as it flew into the intense dark of night space. For the pilot, it was hard to imagine that he was even on the moon. The moon itself seemed to have disappeared and instead of glowing bright and gold when it was full, it shimmered green and blue beneath slow-moving whirls weather. It was a different world, a second world. A companion. The pilot still could not believe – thought he was here and flying over it and seeing it all with his own eyes – that he had lived to see this.
The clouds around the shuttled thickened and began to let fall a light rain on a deep, dark, dreaming lake. The shuttle flew over it, dropping down and landing on a lawn pressed with a daisy-like flower that seemed to glow in the dark. It was a darkness that could not be more absolute. There were no signs of nearby life. The observatories were shuttered in the forests and on the hills, waiting for the weather to clear. There were few plans to build cities on this side of the moon; it wasn’t that it was less suitable but the land that lay between the forests and the hills was already supporting some kind of wild cereal grass that was edible. It was the moon bread that was going to save the starving nations. It had already been said that the moon had saved the world.
These thoughts and others passed through the pilot’s mind. He sat and stared at the lake for a very long time, relishing the quiet, the lack of humanity. He’d had to come a very long way to get away and didn’t mind waiting a few minutes more; finally the rain began to lift. The shuttle door slid open and onto the grass stepped the pilot, a pilot who had once been an astronaut and was now a very old astronaut, wearing a flight suit considerably less bulky than the ones he’d been used to, back when the moon had been an alien and hostile place, dead and dusty and considerably less interesting.
He stood on the shores of the lake and felt how ancient it was. It was as if years were rolling off it, millions of years, years in which it had all lain untouched. It was true what they said: it was as if the moon had always been this way. If he hadn’t been here before, he might have thought – as some did – that they had been tricked. But he had been here. He had seen it. He had stood on a plain of dust and regolith and the Earth that he had seen rising had looked like this, like the moon. Evolution had occurred here on a scale that should have taken millions of years and though it hadn’t, it still felt that it must have done, that time had compressed, or that time was irrelevant.
The very old astronaut looked up at the clearing sky to the first stars appearing in the blanket of night. Once they had seemed unutterably far away, places that were impossible to reach. But then once the solar system had been a cold and unfriendly place. There had been nowhere for Man to go, nowhere to stretch his wings. The very old astronaut thought about these things. He thought about the changes he had seen, that changes that had brought him back here, but he didn’t think about them too deeply. He had done enough thinking in his lifetime. Too many people had asked too many questions. After his wife and all his friends and his fellow astronauts, the old ones, after they had died, all he had wanted was a little peace.
And in this dark, twilight place, there was plenty of it: its breezes stirred the forests that climbed the walls of what must once have been a crater and on the lake’s surface, ripples moved gently towards the shore and fell at the astronaut’s feet in tiny waves. The smell was of rich earth and fresh growth. The astronaut stood dreaming for a long time, breathing in the clean air. Small satellites orbited silently overhead; if he was aware of them, he ignored them. This was the quietest place in the world. In two worlds. In the world and its companion moon. It was hard to think of this place as a moon, hard to remember the footprints he had left in the dust, hard to reconcile the giant leaps he had made across the dusty surface, like a child bounding along in delight, with this ancient forest, so old it was almost prehistoric.
He listened to the breeze for a long time, listened to its sigh. The sighs were deep and long. And then, despite his age, still sharp, still exceptionally observant as he had been trained to be, trained to carry his own life and others in his hands, he realised the trees were still. All was calm. Something else was sighing, something that was not the wind. He took a torch into the trees, brushing through wet undergrowth, the raindrops glittering in the torchlight. It wasn’t a long way but the going was hard. He thought about turning back. He thought about contacting someone, someone in charge, perhaps, someone who knew better than he how to deal with what he thought he had found. But how could anyone know better? No one had made contact. There were no protocols to be followed. There were no rules. The search had been a futile one. They hadn’t found the dragon because it hadn’t wanted to be found.
He almost missed the cave. Its mouth was hidden by a thick creeper covered with exotic blooms. They were strongly perfumed and a strange blue colour, but then all the colours were strange; they were used to that. The very old astronaut pushed past them carefully and almost at once his torch lit up a cavern ceiling hundreds of feet high. He turned back to the mouth. It had seemed a very small cave when he had come in; now he was less sure. The floor was littered with pebbles and he skidded across them. They glittered with a spectacular brilliance in the torchlight. Intrigued by them, he bent down, taking care not to jerk his very old back, and picked one up. It looked like glass. No. It was diamond.
He followed the trail of glittering gems deeper in the cavern network, but it was never a difficult path. The ceiling was always high, the air always fresh, if damp. The diamonds grew thicker, the sighs louder, joined by the occasional sob. He was ankle-deep in diamonds when his torch picked out a hide of vast grey, bigger than he could ever have imagined, bigger than the dragons in children’s stories, bigger than fantasy dragons which were nothing more than winged lizards and always too small, too manageable, too fat; too ugly. The very old astronaut ran his torch across the dragon’s scaly hide, looking for its head. The sides were heaving with sobs. “Hello?” said the astronaut. “Hello?” And then he asked the question that people always ask, even when they know the answer is an emphatic “no.” “Are you all right?”
The dragon shifted. Diamonds scattered wildly. The astronaut tried to step back but suddenly a mirror dropped in front of him, a huge, round silver mirror, taller than he was, over six feet high, a massive mirror in which he saw his own tininess. At the centre of the mirror was a black circle. He was just trying to work out what it was when the entire mirror blinked. Jesus. It was the dragon’s eye. “Hello,” he said again, sounding more quavery than he had intended. The dragon made no sound but the sighing had stopped. “I’m sorry to disturb you,” he continued. “It’s just that…” But what could he say to the dragon? It was just that everyone wanted to meet it? It was just that everyone was amazed and overwhelmed and – sometimes – horrified that it had been dragons that had brought fifteen moons across the solar system to life? It was just that people wanted to talk to the dragons and ask them questions? And if this was true, which it was, then what questions should be asked first? How did you do it?
“Would you like to take a walk with me, outside, beside the lake? It’s a beautiful evening. The rain has cleared.” The eye didn’t move or blink again. It was fixed to the astronaut. An eye, by itself, was impossible to judge mood by; he couldn’t tell if the dragon was pleased to see him, or annoyed, or enraged. He hoped very much it wasn’t the latter. And why, he asked himself, far down deep inside himself because it was a question that was almost too frightening to contemplate, had the dragon been crying in the first place? Had it not intended to produce this world of beauty, of breathable air and liveable lands? He backed away, thinking to give the dragon space, but it was moving away. Shit, this was not what he had intended. He didn’t want to be the guy who had frightened the Luna dragon deeper into inaccessibility. The huge grey scaled hide moved past him in slow, awkward increments and he thought he smelled a freshness. There was air coming in but from a different entrance. And then he realised what the dragon was doing. He ran back the way he had come, slipping and sliding on the diamonds; it didn’t occur to him once to pick up a handful. He failed to see them as items of value. He could only think that he had found the dragon and that the dragon had responded to him.
He struggled through the forest back to the lake. When he reached it, he was panting with exertion. So much for his restful holiday on the moon. Scanning the forest, he could at first see no sign of movement, until he realised that the boulder that lay amongst the trees, a gigantic grey boulder, was in fact moving towards him with a slow grace. And then it lifted up into the air, effortless, its wings hundreds of feet wide. A very old, very used but very strong heart leapt joyfully to the very old astronaut’s throat. His eyes were fixed to the dragon, his head bent back, watching it glide over the lake, a creature of immense proportions, but more than that, of immense beauty.
It landed beside him, on the lake shore, in a space that seemed too small for it, but it tucked back its immense wings, curled in its tail and lowered its head to drink from the lake. The astronaut struggled to find something to say. What could he say that wouldn’t seem moronic. He wasn’t even sure that the dragon could understand him. But then it had taken up his invitation. It must understand. Did it speak? The dragon looked up and seemed to stare gloomily across the lake. An feeling of unutterable loneliness pressed on the astronaut. He almost felt himself break with the intensity of the emotion. “Why,” he burst out, “why do you think you are all alone? There are billions of people on Earth who want to see you, to meet you, to talk to you, to know you. Everyone has been speculating about you. They weren’t even sure if you existed. They couldn’t find you, for all their looking. They found all the other dragons, but they’re all very far away and we haven’t reached them yet. We wanted to find our dragon. Why were you hiding away? Did we do something wrong?”
The dragon turned its eyes on the astronaut. A question pressed into him, silently, without any malevolence and the astronaut said, “oh.” He sat down on the grassy shore, feeling himself creak ever so slightly. “I don’t know. The dragons are impossible to find. Their existence can only be confirmed when they’re sighted visually. So there could be one on Earth, but no one has seen it. If there is one, then it has been hidden for a very long time. There are a lot of stories, though, but not the sort of stories anyone takes seriously…” His words died in his mouth. Dragons on Earth. The moon dragon had asked him if there were dragons on Earth. Decades ago, the answer would have been an emphatic “no” but that was before the other moon dragons had been spotted. Had there been dragons on Earth once? All those fairy tales and fantasy novels that sold in their millions: was it genetic memory? An inborn knowingness? “Should there be a dragon on Earth?” asked the astronaut. “Is that who you’re waiting for?”
But the dragon wasn’t waiting for anyone. It shifted slightly where it sat hunched, the images and concepts that pressed themselves into the astronaut filled with remembered loss and yearning. “Do you know how long you’ve been here?” Since the beginning. The beginning of the moon? Of the solar system’s creation? The creation of the universe? Of time? But time was irrelevant to the dragon and the astronaut couldn’t get a fix. The dragon had been asleep, it seemed, but it had been more than just sleeping, it had been dormant. “Were you aware of us when we walked on the moon? Did you know when we were here? I was one of them.” He didn’t say which one, the first, the last, one in-between, a name forgotten because all the others were dead. “I walked on the moon. I was a moonwalker and for a while, it seemed that was all I was. It wouldn’t let me go.”
He got an image of the footprints and the experiments they had left behind, the probes they had landed on the surface, the rubbish strewn everywhere, the plaques, now buried forever. So the dragon had known they had come. “I wish we had known you were here. It would have made such a difference. The world might have become a better place sooner.” The dragon turned away. The astronaut felt that he had said the wrong thing. It was bound to happen. He wasn’t any kind of communicator, always regarded as being too cool. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean that…actually, I don’t what I meant. Listen, you have to know that you are the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to the world I live on. You are the closest thing we have seen to a modern miracle. Actually, hell, I think you are a miracle, damn what everyone else says. You are a miracle. If you hadn’t come along, I don’t know what would have happened to us. We were on a one-way route to hell. Anyone who was trying to stop the damage, it was too little, too late. You changed everything and in such a short space of time, too. You’ve got to come with me. You’ve got to show yourself, let the world see you. They’ve been wanting to thank you, only they didn’t know you were here.”
He kept talking until more images were pressed into him, images that began to unravel the dragon’s mystery. It was shy. Painfully shy. It didn’t say so, didn’t use that concept, but the astronaut understood. From the Luna dragon, he got impressions of the other dragons, of the remote air dragons, of the water dragons who were locked in philosophical debate, of the distant stone dragons who didn’t think very much at all, and of the lone fire dragon, a dragon that conformed to Earth’s mythology: powerful, dangerous, self-serving, egotistical, operating in extremes to turn its hell-hole moon into something that was habitable. The Luna dragon couldn’t connect with these other dragons. It was frightened of the men from Earth it had invited back, but not frightened of them as monsters of destruction: frightened because it might hurt them.
The very old astronaut looked at the huge outline of the dragon against the dark sky and wondered how anything so enormous, yet so careful, so graceful and so utterly wonderful could worry about something that couldn’t happen. “You can’t hurt us,” said the astronaut. “You would be hurting us only if you never allowed us to see you. It would be more disappointing than you can imagine.” He thought about it for another moment. “Are you worried that you would hurt us physically? You mean like accidently step on us? Because we’re small?” He laughed. “But there are ways to avoid that. You could just fly overhead. If they knew you were coming, they would get the aircraft out the way. It isn’t a big deal. It can be done.”
He tried. He wanted to convince the dragon. At times it felt as if he was talking to a child and then he would have to stop himself because his words were patronising and condescending. He sounded just the way he didn’t want to sound: like someone who thought he knew everything and had every answer. He found himself lecturing like a boring old professor and had to bite his tongue to stop. This was the dragon, the magical creature that had created a living moon and he was giving it lessons on how not to be shy? He stood up and paced around on the shore. The situation in which he found himself was so strange as to be fantastic. It was almost unbelievable. Why had no one else found the dragon? Surely others had landed beside this lake? There wasn’t much of the moon that hadn’t been explored; despite the dense forestation of this particular crater, someone must have made a note of it. It was on the maps. Had no else heard the dragon cry?
The very old astronaut ran his hands over his very bald head. The answer was obvious to him the moment he asked it of himself and in that same moment, he began to see things differently, as if a new viewpoint was opening up to him. In the press tomorrow or the next day or next week or whenever it was they found out, because they would, they always did – his whole life had been spent avoiding the press – the headlines would say that it was him. He had found the dragon because he had been meant to find it. He had heard the dragon crying because he could do something about it.
But what? He was a hundred and thirty years old. He had never expected to live much beyond eighty and when he was eighty one, the last shuttle had flown back from the ISS on a July afternoon, carrying with it all the last hopes and dreams of a space society. The space programme had shut down, for all intents and purposes, and it seemed that Man was never going to get back to the moon or into deep space, much less another planet. Even low orbit was losing its charm. A hundred and thirty. Nobody lived to a hundred and thirty. Or nobody used to. They did now. People were healthier, medical breakthroughs were more frequent, so they lived longer. With so many old folk around, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the young people wanted to get away. They saw the newly habitable moons as a means of escape from very old Earth and its very old people. I am very old too. The very old astronaut jumped out his skin. The dragon’s words pressed into him like a thought that could have been his own except that it came from outside his head.
The dragon had its enormous eyes fixed on him. They were liquid, like silver. In the starlight, its vast hide of scales seemed to gleam as if it had been polished. The air around it shone with its own reflected light. The astronaut looked into those impossible eyes, so deep, so yearning, so terribly sad. “Are you worried about what people will think of you? Are you worried that they won’t like you?” It was possible he was shy himself but it wasn’t a word he could ever remember using to describe himself; words like “arrogant” and “standoffish” came to mind. “Hermit-like existence” was a phrase often thrown his way. “Unfriendly” was a word that came up most often of all. “Listen,” said the astronaut, but the dragon had already heard. It heard everything the little man had to say.
I don’t remember why I am here. I don’t know why I was locked in this world, why the other dragons were also locked away and I don’t know why we’ve all woken up now. There has to be a reason and I’m afraid that it’s not the reason you would hope to look for or find. We haven’t done this to make the solar system a better place for your people. We are not creators of paradise. I’m afraid that there is going to be a price to pay and that you will be the ones paying it. I’ve thought about it for a long time and I think we were locked away to prevent us from causing further destruction. I don’t think our purpose is creative at all.
“Is that what you remember?” asked the astronaut fiercely. “Do you know that for sure? Do you actually remember someone wrapping you up in a ball of stone, or wrapping yourself up, and going to sleep for millions of years because of your destructive nature? Or have you just decided this, are you using it as an excuse to hide away, are you trying to cover up the fact that, that – ” Shit, he had no idea what he was trying to say. If he had been picked to get this dragon out of its cave, then this was proof that he was the wrong guy. He had trouble relating to people, let alone mysterious world-creating dragons. “Do you think you did something once that was so bad you had to hide away from the universe for all time?”
The dragon heaved itself up and the astronaut thought it was going to fly away, but it settled itself again, more stiffly than before, moving its great head back and forth, sighs issuing from its great jaws, each sigh a faint mist that began to spread eerily across the lake. Yes. Yes, we did something. I did something. The astronaut relaxed. So that was it. He held back from pressing for more. The dragon itself was already trying to press on him its own memories but they were too dim to distinguish from the utter darkness of all the spaces that lay between the stars. Its memories were lost. It knew something lay at the heart of them, something that would bring horror if it was ever revealed, but the chances of revelation were slim if the memories could not be recovered.
“Don’t you think,” said the astronaut, “that you’ve made amends? Could you have created this world in an effort to seek forgiveness?” There were tears in the astronaut’s eyes. He was being asked to forgive the dragon and he wasn’t even sure why or what the dragon had done. The dragon didn’t even know what it had done. It was so long ago, surely it couldn’t possibly matter anymore. “Then will you come? Will you let them see you? Because I promise you, they will love you. They won’t mind if you’re shy or awkward or clumsy. They’ll get out the way if they think you’re going to step on them by mistake. None of that matters. They just want to tell you how much they love you. Isn’t that enough?”
If any of the dragons remembered, it was going to be the water dragons, and if they did recall the reason they had been locked away in stone, then it was possible they would keep it to themselves. They were looking for the truth of Man, but it was the truth of their own dreadful nature that was so carefully hidden in memories that remained obstinately black. It was possible that if they approached that truth, they would veer away from it, avoiding it as the horror of it was revealed. Who was there that could confront the awful things they had done. Who was there in existence that believed they could not be forgiven, that the harm they had done was irreparable. To whom could they turn for forgiveness and what difference did it make it they received it because in the end, the past could not be erased, the dead worlds could not be revived and the dead themselves could not be made to remember.
Across the Sea of Tranquillity, the Luna dragon flew, its wingspan so impressive that it could be seen as a dot even when it was still hundreds of miles away. Hardly more than a dot himself, the astronaut followed in his shuttle, his eyes fixed on the dragon far ahead of him, the way it glided, effortlessly, no heavy, leathery flap of wings the way fiction had depicted dragons, no ugly lizard-like features. When the sun shone on it, it gleamed silver and was blinding. It occurred to the astronaut, at last, that this dragon was unlike the others. This dragon was metallic. It was a metal dragon, the strongest of them all.
On a rocky outcrop, its claws digging in for purchase, the dragon landed. It was a silent shore, too rough, too wild to populate, but people had been here. It was aware that overhead, the satellites were shifting and redirecting themselves at it. On the sea itself, ships were turning its way. Aircraft were winging in its direction. Soon it was no longer going to be alone. People would come. They would want to touch it and talk to it. But for the moment, it was quiet. The astronaut had set down and was half-running, half-stumbling across the rocks, the sound of the sea deafening on the cliff walls.
He stood at last beside the dragon, close enough to touch its metallic hide. The sea smashed into the rocky cliffs, spray lifting high into the air, suspended like white lace in the sky before falling back again like rain. Somewhere in the distance, in a place unmarked, lay the spot where he had landed, drowned now by the sea. It was unbelievable how much it had changed. It was a new world. No. It was an old one, returned. The waves drew back and for a moment, like a breath being drawn, there was no sound. The very old astronaut felt the dragon’s thoughts press on his, but they were unfathomable thoughts, as if it was burying its mystery, or accepting it, just as it would have to accept that what it had done and that its armoured hide would protect it against everything except its own pain. The sea, briefly, was as tranquil as its name, until the spray lifted up again and rained down into the thunder of the waves, the thunder of the every nearby vehicle as they raced to reach the shore.
It was on another day, when the sun was shining through a series of summer afternoon clouds, that officials from Earth came and presented to the dragon of the moon its greatest accolade: the freedom of the solar system. The tether that held it bound to its prison was broken forever. The dragon stood in a meadow of poppies, not bright red ones but ones that were a strange shade of blue, tinted with an underwater secret, while butterflies danced in the air. Birds were singing and the evolutionists had to contain themselves from running off to discover when and how the birds had come. There were already fish in the sea and the first crop of moon wheat had been ground and baked into bread.
The dragon lowered its head and everyone held their breath. They saw themselves reflected in its eyes but it was a reflection of their souls and it occurred to them that perhaps they were not as well-scrubbed as they would have liked. The very old astronaut, who said very little and refused all interviews, stood at the dragon’s feet, its great shadow cast over him. The astronaut thought he might die on the moon. They were thoughts he couldn’t keep from the dragon but instead of dark images of death and loss, the dragon had commented succinctly. You have your own kind of immortality. The astronaut had yet to work out what this meant.
The Earth was rising in the sky, so pale its colours were almost lost. With its liquid eyes, the dragon glanced up at it and lifted up its head so suddenly that those present reared back instinctively. It was hard to feel safe in the presence of something so huge. But their fears diminished as pressed on them were feelings of desperate yearning and loss, of despair and loneliness. Their eyes all turned as one to the planet they had sprung from and in silence they stood and waited. Perhaps they believed another dragon would rise, one from the ice of the Arctic, breaking free from the glaciers to ascend into the open sky. Perhaps they imagined it would be gold, another metal dragon, golden like the sun, and like the sun, the birthplace of all life in the solar system, itself the originator of life, a creator that had been sent by God.
But then the moment of stillness on the moon passed and in the meadow of dreamy blue poppies, the Luna dragon of silver hue sat down and tried to answer the questions it was asked. The very old astronaut stayed with it until his one hundred and thirty years had gone on too long. He was the first man in the moon, the first cross on the ground. And understanding the immortality of Man, the dragon thought it had only a few years to wait before he came back.