Returnal

Returnal

“Do you think the sky looks bluer? I’ll bet the aerosol count is down. Maybe they’ve finally got around to filtering that shit they used to call fresh air.” Ron Parke gave me a sideways look, waiting for me to jump in. His short black hair was newly trimmed and he’d swapped his company overalls for a white shirt and tie. He looked like he was ready for church, or a job interview, although I knew he had something much more important than that ahead of him. I stayed quiet and left him to it. Over the years I’d learned his theories superceded any facts.

“Or maybe there’s less industry now.” His eyes flicked back to the window. “Most people were fabbing things for themselves when we left. Do you remember those crazy little assemblers? No wonder they don’t need factories. Down there, I bet everyone’s a coder or designer and no one knows how to nail two planks of wood together any more.”

Our shuttle was hovering just outside the vast clifftop hangar of the Korobase corporation in San Francisco. We’d been waiting to dock for about thirty minutes with no explanations and no apologies, just the automatic welcome a nav beacon had sent on the way in. Everyone was getting nervous. Fifty years had passed since the last time we had docked on Earth.

Hazel cracked first. “Who makes the assemblers then?”

“Exactly,” Ron said, looking smug. “They probably build themselves. I bet they’ve overrun us and that’s why we’re stuck out here. I hope you know assembly language.”

More groans. Then a brief smile appeared on Hazel’s face. “I’ve heard about Assembler, it’s ancient. I’d just finished graduate studies, and my grandmother gave me a seed about it. That was just before I joined the Titan”.

A nervous look returned to her face. I tried to catch her eye, but she’d fixed inwardly on something by then and didn’t notice me; her pupils were just a fraction smaller than you’d expect and her eyes were looking slightly upwards. I knew the gesture, a subtle ‘do not disturb’. Perhaps she was examining the seed she mentioned, unpacking it in her mind in her own unique way. On board the ship she ran a lot of popular sims, from storm surfing on Titan to twentieth century London, and I almost knew her better virtually than in the real. Only a few hours ago we’d blinked in to my home sim, a labyrinthine Victorian bookshop with red leather chairs and ladders to the top shelves, to talk about the landing and our plans on Earth. But for now I was left to my own thoughts, tiny and unreliable next to hers.

I couldn’t tell if the sky was bluer or not, but the air was certainly very clear and the horizon was a sharp, craggy line in every direction. I savoured the detail, the moreish delight that my eyes could zoom in forever and there’d always be more to see. Outside, the nearby hills were a radiant, fresh green with rocky tops. You could make out every windswept peak, every fold and gully where the rain had gathered and coursed, as if a heavy blanket had settled over some gigantic form; the skeleton of the Earth, still in bed. I carefully followed every twist and dip in my head as if running a trail over the hills as we waited, and waited.

My name is Oram. I was born the day the first research ship left Earth. My daughter was born the day it came back. All the wise words of the astronomers had been true. The catalyst the Earth craved was out there, plentiful, concentrated in small zones by gravitational and magnetic fields that had been just right for billions of years. So the trawlers were conceived, a fleet of twenty five, to go and harvest these obscure particles so the lights would never go out back home. Watching the live debrief of those pioneers and holding my daughter in my arms, hearing the first call for a crew to work on the new starships, I realised I’d be seeing more of my great-grandchildren than of her. Not because of a fascination with the stars, and not because of duty or disillusionment. I wanted the future.

The Titan George was the fifth trawler to leave Earth. Speeding out there on the coat tails of photons, it was a five year mission for the men and women on the trawler but a fifty year wait for the ten billion left on Earth. When you got back your inheritance was there waiting for you. Magnificent pay, of course, and a little fame. But for me it was something else. As a child I fell in love with the story of a famous mathematician who was asked, ‘if you fell asleep and woke up a hundred years later, what would be the first thing you’d want to know?’. His immediate response, forgetting all about his family, war and property, was ‘has anyone proved the Riemann hypothesis yet?’. In that story I saw a vision of myself, chasing answers through time. If fifty years wasn’t enough, I would come back in another fifty, and another, reeling in mysteries like high flying kites. My inheritance was knowledge.

But for this to happen I knew that, one day, I’d have to say goodbye to my daughter; her father, the comet. I’d say goodbye to a child and return to a grown woman. At first I tried to stay close, visiting her school, answering and encouraging every question. But I began to feel haunted; her future self already looking through those eyes, a ghost in her fingers picking up toys, stark premonitions in her sudden, childish insights. An old family saying came back to me, ‘you have to swing the axe to chop the wood’. So I became ice, ready to hurl myself into a distant, unreachable orbit.

And now we were back again, three missions later; not as heroes especially, just regular returnals.

The pilot appeared at the doorway, a young woman with meticulous eyes who seemed to take in everything while focussing on nothing. Her smile was a straight line at best, and her tone of voice carried a fading optimism, like flat lemonade. “Still no word. The captain is in contact with the base, but he’s not saying what the hold up is. We were all set to dock, then I got a command to freeze position here. Can’t go anywhere right now, not even back to the Titan.”

A brief gust of wind shook us around. “Are we patched in to the Titan’s net?” asked Hazel, hoping to be able to blink in to one of her sims.

“Only for ship comms. No personal access.” Hazel slumped back into her seat. “Didn’t any of you bring a bo-ok?” the pilot asked, exaggerating the ‘oo’ as if trying to get a foreign word right.

“No. What’s a bo-ok anyway?” griped Hazel.

Ron and I exchanged weary glances but didn’t say anything. Unlike most of us, Hazel had only been on the Titan for one mission. She’d joined us about one hundred years on from the time Ron and I had first left Earth and by that stage, I had learned, books were the kind of thing only archaeologists knew about. Even in my time books were becoming rare; they were treated as prestigious gifts, not exactly for reading, more like valuable tokens. But we still knew about them, what they represented, what they had once been. By Hazel’s era they’d long since fallen out of use, like tools for disestablished jobs; instead they ‘grew’ understanding, literally, in their fertile augmented minds. The pilot disappeared, and an apprehensive silence returned.

You’d think after five years on a ‘desert island in a can’ everyone would be screaming to get off, but it wasn’t like that. If only five years had passed on Earth, the same length of time that we had experienced, then there might have been people hijacking shuttles to get home. They would have something to go back to. But we all knew there’d be little of our old world left when we returned to Earth. We had all grieved, cried, and rehabilitated ourselves as the decades passed on Earth.

I imagined a mountain range pushing rapidly upwards while my back was turned. On the other side was a valley with my old life in it, my old loves; but the mountains had grown so high while we were away they were now insurmountable. When we returned to Earth orbit it was like reaching base camp for mountains we could never climb. My legs knee deep in snow, I could only stare at the sheer walls of rock and ice that blocked half the sky and had sprung seemingly from nowhere. After three missions the mountains had grown higher than ever. You cannot go over the mountains, but you can accept their devastating beauty.

And, in the most unspoken of ways, we had all prepared a nest in the deepest part of ourselves to which we could retreat if ever there was no Earth to go back to. There was no shortage of possibilities: asteroids, viruses, a war. But, so far, Earth had endured. As long as the Korobase fleet kept coming back the ever expanding bubble of humankind would stay inflated. The corporation ensured the stability of a hundred nations. If ever ten billion people suddenly had to fight for their share of resources to stay alive…

“I hope it’s not a biohazard thing,” said Ron. “Did you guys all wash your boots?”.

“Of course we did,” said Hazel, making me jump. The ‘do not disturb’ sign had come down without me noticing. “You can’t even step off the ship without being ionized.”

“I doubt it’s that”, I said. “If it was, we’d have been sent back to the ship instead of being held here. This is more like being corralled.”

Ron stared at me thoughtfully, almost accusingly, as if I’d hit on something that he might want to chase up. Ron and I had joined the Titan on its first mission, both as engineers. But by now he was the centre of something like a dynasty back on Earth. Everything he earned from the corporation went to his family; in to long term investments that accrued surely and smugly with every decade. He was expecting to step off the shuttle into a celebration; his family, distant descendants anyway, ready to welcome back the returnal son. Ron would spend the next eight months living like a king.

“Where will you go first when we land?” I asked Hazel. “Will you take your missions obs to the university?”

She pushed her long black hair away from her face. “I might. We learned things about Vega,” she said uncertainly. “But will they want to hear from outsiders like us?”

“Of course,” I said. Ron raised an eyebrow at me.

But I couldn’t know, nobody knew.

We’d received our preliminary debrief three weeks ago, as we’d slowed down past Saturn and our first Earth comms had come through. The Korobase corporation still controlled the supply of catalyst. The Mars research station now had one thousand inhabitants. The arctic had begun to refreeze in winter. But it was all big picture stuff. It didn’t tell us what to expect when we stepped onto the street for the first time, how to acclimatise, or even if we could. Was there any place for us? I had felt constantly patronised on my previous return, as if a one hundred year old relic could have nothing to say; a trivial outsider, somehow inconvenient.

“Two weeks of intense debriefing to look forward to first,” said Ron with a careless grin. “You have fifty years of history and a whole new pop culture to learn”.

“You could come with me to London,” I said to Hazel. “We could go back and see if Point Never is still there, the vertical gardens, remember? Going back might give you a sense of… return. Close the loop”.

Hazel stared at me, and laughed. “You make it sound so easy. Did you do that on your first return? ‘Close the loop’?”.

I hadn’t. I didn’t see my life as a series of loops, although that’s how it was for some, like Ron. One end was anchored to somewhere or something on Earth, the rest of the loop circled a vast tract of interstellar space in which, psychological theory said, the mind was adrift, but safely tethered.

“The first time I came back the first thing I did was ask my way to a library”. Ron laughed and shook his head, but I continued without giving him any attention. “A symbolic request, because I knew no libraries would exist. There were none even in my day, but they knew what I needed. They set up a tutor for me at the university, paid for by the corporation, and I spent two months there asking questions, then six months traveling around Europe to let the answers sink in before I returned to the Titan.” It had been beautiful, exhilarating, all my hopes bursting in to colour at last. I felt like I had clamboured over the shoulders of my peers, reaching higher than any of them, like a giant. But no one had solved the Riemann hypothesis, and I was left feeling eager to return to the Titan.

“Didn’t you even find out what happened to your daughter?” asked Ron, screwing his face up in disapproval.

“Yes, of course.” I shot Ron an irritated look. He was taking the opportunity to needle me again. “My granddaughter came and found me. Her mother died at fifty so I never got to see my daughter again.” I paused to visualise the mountains. The immutable, immense barrier that held everything back. “But I’d already said goodbye when we left on our first mission.”

“To a ten year old. You said goodbye to a ten year old,” responded Ron with scorn.

“She was well provided for.” Old, very old feelings of guilt started to tumble down on me like loose rocks.

“Did she look familiar?” asked Hazel. “When you met your granddaughter.”

There had been rain and I was hurrying through the university gates before it came back. I ignored her at first, standing next to the security desk tapping away at the visitor board, but when I looked again I noticed she was calling up my name. When she faced me it was like being handed a gift with your eyes closed. A sudden acceptance without knowing what you had been given. A familiar shape resolving itself through unfamiliar means. She had come from London with a gift from her late mother, a cherished book that had been pledged to me. It encapsulated a whole lifetime of reading we had not shared.

Suddenly I realised that perhaps I had been tethered to something all along. But it is very difficult to think about people back on Earth while you are away. You imagine them working so hard, trying to get through fifty years of life while you go through five. That means they’re doing everything ten times as fast, and if you think about it that means they only have one minute to do something that takes you ten, like eating breakfast or listening to a song. Then a year goes by in roughly a month. Kids can go through five or six different hobbies and grow two inches in such a time. I decided not to go along with this line of visualisation in my therapy, and I know Hazel rejected it too. I preferred the idea of the mountains, and the unreachable Shangri-la beyond them.

But Ron embraced it. Every week he sat down with the therapist to talk about everything that had happened on Earth, or at least the alternative Earth in his head. Actual transmissions from Earth were rare. No one ever got any personal news from back home. But Ron maintained his own version of events, and as usual with Ron facts were unnecessary. During our second mission he decided an old school buddy called Gary had died. In his mind he’d carried his friend through old age, and although time was kind to him (of course, only a psychopath would envisage a painful life for their friends), he had to die eventually. Ron wore a black armband for three days, an old fashioned gesture of mourning, then centred his attention on Gary’s family. What would they do with their lives? Ron would envisage that instead. When we returned from our second mission he went to visit Gary’s three sons and his old friend’s memorial in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city where there were still marble angels. Of course Gary had died, no one would still be alive at a hundred and forty, but Ron had already dealt with it in his own time and while visiting the family picked up what he needed to get through his next mission on the Titan.

An hour had passed. Ron’s eyes settled on Hazel. “Why did you decide to join the Titan anyway?” he asked abruptly. “You were only, what, thirty when we left? Was there really nothing better for a well educated girl to do than leave everything behind for a bleak five years on a trawler, without even knowing what she’d come back to?”

“It’s not bleak. Have you even been into one of my sims?”

“No. That doesn’t count as life,” said Ron, sniffing. “If you actually spent some time in the real world, you’d understand the rest of us better.”

Hazel glared angrily at Ron. “If it’s not life then what is it?”

“Chasing tails. Denial. You cope with life out there by retreating into fantasy worlds.”

“Along with a lot of other people. We’re a community. It’s how we all cope,” responded Hazel.

“But why did you come?”

My second return to Earth was when it all fell apart. Everything had accelerated and the fifty years we’d been away may as well have been five hundred. I tried to look for my answers again, but I’d reached the limit of what I could grasp. I tried, but the facts flowed towards me like waves over sand, dissipating and slinking back out to the ocean without even rolling over my toes. Knowledge had evolved beyond the ancient latin of mathematics that I knew, and had adapted to a new world of augmented minds and cloud intelligence. English and mathematics were coarse, colloquial tongues, fit for the everyday and gossip and pop. Beyond that, people passed around ‘seeds’ that could be formed in one mind and passed over the net to be grown elsewhere. Understanding the real truths of the day meant growing them, inwardly, like snowflakes emerging sixfold into space around a tiny nucleus.

But I couldn’t evolve to that level. The early stages of a tumour were found, probably induced by radiation from the years I had spent in space, but the required neurosurgery meant that augmentation was impossible afterwards. I was bound to a lower tier of existence, my true inheritance beyond reach as if another mountain range had sprung up.

“Hazel is my great granddaughter,” I said to Ron, quietly releasing five years of secrecy from a hidden jar, stolen pennies spilling all over the floor.

His eyes widened, and for a moment he had nothing to say. But he soon sifted the bones from my admission. “I assume something has gone unsaid to the corporation and to the captain.”

I nodded guiltily.

Unlike Ron, I had gone as far as I could. Knowledge had evolved in much stranger ways than wealth. While money would always be a one-dimensional concept, well within Ron’s grasp, my inheritance had already outstripped me.

But everything in space is tethered to something, although I’d tried to deny that when I first left Earth. Even a rock hurtling through interstellar space will eventually feel the distant pull of something, maybe a bigger rock, or even a black hole. I was a comet returning to its sun. I decided to follow the trail left by my granddaughter and went to London. Amidst the seething digital jungle and overcrowded streets, the torn sky of red alloy towers and pavements of crumbling stone, I found Hazel.

“Oram showed up the summer after I finished my advanced studies,” said Hazel. “My mother had described him; a cold presence in my family history, like a missing star.  But at that time I was… unhappy. After eight years of intense work I had been left with nothing but seeds that branched in hundreds of directions, all untapped and unexplored. It was an explosion of new territory, the inflation of empty space around a speck of knowledge on a scale that was… demoralising.”

Hazel fell quiet.

“Then you understand how I felt when I left.”

“I must have inherited something,” she replied. “A sense of incompleteness, perhaps; a hunger. I took Oram to Point Never. We hiked about halfway to the top, and he told me his idea for me to join the Titan. He sent an invitation my way, I don’t know how he did it, and it seemed like everything I needed at the time. A chance the leap over the problems I’d opened up for myself, although there was some opposition from my family.”

“You must have pulled a few strings for that to happen,” Ron said to me flatly.

“I wanted to help Hazel.”

“Not just that. You thought Hazel could step into your shoes, didn’t you?” said Ron. “You once said this was a one way mission, Oram, but in the end you couldn’t face up to that. You went back to look for a successor.”

Hazel was looking at Ron with a distasteful expression. “You make it sound like it’s all about Oram,” she said sternly. “But I came for my own reasons. It’s true I wanted to escape my own time in favour of another, like Oram. But I want to see if the seeds I left behind have… evolved.”

“Yes, and we’re back at last!” I said. “This is your chance Hazel.”

“But this is a trap, Oram,” said Ron. “You said before, everything is accelerating. One, maybe two missions and she’ll be obsolete too. You can’t hope to go on forever.”

“Leaving you the only true returnal, I suppose,” I said bitterly. “You and your riches.”

The wind outside was picking up and shaking us around a little with each gust. Tall pines on the hillside were waving back and forth in the wind, shaking their quills at us. Suddenly the intercom pinged into life.

“They just contacted us”, said the pilot. We all sat up eagerly. “We can dock in one hour.”

“Another hour?” exclaimed Ron. “Why the wait?”

“Security”, replied the pilot.

Her voice sounded firm, as if she wanted that to be final, but I could tell there was more. “What else did they say?”

There was no reply for a few seconds. Hazel looked at me expectantly, as if I might be hearing something she wasn’t. But I was hanging on the silence from the intercom as much as everyone else, waiting for answers.

The pilot suddenly appeared in our cabin again. “They’re waiting for lawyers to arrive. Oram, I’m sorry, they want to arrest you.”

All eyes turned on me, and the long silence of waiting we had all endured suddenly congealed into something else; a silence of horror, and pity. Now it would be my turn to die when the Titan left me behind, an ancient curiosity in a civilisation I had no hope of understanding. I only hoped that, finally, someone had put Riemann’s enduring conundrum to rest.

[Download the pdf version here. 106kb]

(Picture credit: Syd Mead)

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