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HOMEBOUND - 1st Prize Winner - LittleStar CISB Short Story Competition ‘HOME’

April, 2017
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HOMEBOUND

 

Light. Darkness. False light in absence of the true. Thought is a sovereign hallucinogen. Alternating strobes. Black white bands sear vision. Cones and rods. Ocular mechanics. Organics. Flesh. Body. Embodied. Serendipity. Spiritual syzygy. It’s a matter of perspective. Lightyears in an instant. The usual irony. A bloody tang. But it only seems that way.

 

Feels so lonely without the clamor of other minds. Your own mind is scattered fragmented monadic.

 

Thought by thought, build it back together.

 

***

 

Essa, could you turn on the lights? Little things first, questions then answers. Language brings your mind afire, stimulates your fresh, tender neurons. You’ve been woken because it’s time.

“Certainly,” she replies, and you hear her. Actually hear her. Ears. Aural reckoning. Bony labyrinth, bristling with ossicles. How crude—no, how elegant. They’re a miracle of biology. Is she Mother? No, that’s memory, not reality.

Soft yellow bloom all around as your sleeping pod hums a soothing morning melody. Morning writ metaphorically, for a spaceship doesn’t experience day/night cycles. Beautiful seeing real light expose your surroundings, which aren’t much right now, admittedly. Ethereal, amniotic space. Like you’re being born all over again, for the first time. Mouth. You open it and suck in air, feeling it flood into your lungs. First breath of the babe before the first primal scream.

Ah. But there’s your mistake. It’s all wet and liquid. Not air at all.

Drain the pod. Not ready to speak with your mouth yet. Your throat is slime-slicked and raw.

“As you wish,” says Essa, her voice coming out of hidden speakers, smooth and perfectly humanlike. You’re still lying down, so you take the opportunity to feel your body. Now that you have one again. The opaque, oxygenated fluid sluices away underneath your feet, leaving the surface of the sleeping pod transparent. You feel the minute adjustments made in your eyes, your pupils dilating to take in your dim surroundings, lit only by the warm light emanating from somewhere above your head. Small room, a closet really. A womb.

Back in the natural world, the so-called “real”, not a simulation. Remember: Essa—the starship, not the AI—is a spinal column sixty kilometers long and forty kilometers wide, around which a ring structure revolves; the ring is seventy kilometers in circumference, for comparison; thirty-kilometer long transit corridors connect to the central spine’s hollow interior—

Breathless for an instant. Then a rushing against your ears. Air fills the pod—pure oxygen poses a fire hazard, so it’s a standard atmosphere mix, twenty one percent oxygen, seventy eight percent nitrogen, several other gases at below one percent. Standard! Breathing is like a dream; air sacs in your chest contract and expand to fuel your body with O2.

Numbers. Statistics. Data. Anchor points for reality. You repeat all of it to yourself like a mantra, exercising your cognitive muscles. Are your memories in order? Both seamless downloading and uploading are asymptotic impossibilities, so you ask Essa to prepare a diagnostics scan to assess your neural integrity. It will take a while, so as you wait, you take in what’s before you—and it strikes any thoughts of data clean out of your head.

Directly in front of/above/below you—everything is relative without terra firma—is a window, giving you an uninterrupted view of the vast, starry reaches of space. All that came before you and will persist long after you are gone. A hundred billion stars in this galaxy alone, veritable godheads of holy flame; each illuminates its own planetary entourage. Spread out across the universe—such expansive madness of stimulation excitement ecstasy of sight, the cosmos a macrocosmic brain a mesh an endless corridor of luminous void! You sit aboard the ring, facing outwards, and as it spins, generating a light artificial gravity, so too does the tapestry of the stars tilt from floor to ceiling, ever changing. Dizzying sight. It takes your breath away, as soon as it came.

It’s been more than a million years since you last looked upon this particular array. The constellations you memorized in a past life are long gone, having shifted beyond recognition. But the very stars are still there, though some have dimmed. Look—there’s Polaris, Vega, Sirius, Betelgeuse… old names with staying power. You’re surprised that you can remember them.

Then. A flash on the left side of the window. Essa, is that…?

“Yes. We are approaching our destination. We have woken you up to allow you time to adjust to your body, June, but it will be four weeks until we arrive into orbital distance, whereupon we shall enter into high geosynchronous orbit at approximately thirty five thousand and eight hundred kilometers above surface.”

Acknowledged.

“Neuroimage integrity scan complete. Indicative of roughly ninety nine point eight six percent neural integrity, largely in select portions of the cerebellum correlated with fine motor skills, which is classified as ‘negligible loss’. Consequently, you may experience motor dysfunction for the next few days as you rebuild those neural pathways.”

Negligible loss, huh. A gain as far as you’re concerned. You raise your hand in front of your eyes and flex, watching its reflection in the glass. Complex mechanisms, elegant whole of blood, muscle, bone. A complex machine. Such new experiences, yet so old in nature. You’re a child again. Isn’t that what someone hypothesized? Return to the origin results in regression to infancy? Pseudo-psychology. But flesh does have its charms.

Then. There it is in the window again. Pale blue flash.

It was only for a moment, but you know it. Even after what we did and what we failed to do, still it remains. Even after what was left of it was abandoned. A seed, an egg, a pebble, a husk. A home. The image of that dot seems to awaken something primal in you. Overly sentimental, perhaps, but that is humanity, flawed and destructive in its blindness. Relic ancestry of homo sapiens, then homo celestis, then more, nameless, superseding taxonomy, passing into the realm of megastructure, living architecture, always possessing that fatal flaw of emotion, until perhaps transcending to concept, God, sentient personification of hubris, or, then—?

But enough. There it is.

Earth.

“Wow.” Baby’s first words.

 

***

 

You were once an artist, or so you like to think. According to your predigital memory, the remembrances of the flesh-you: you were once a part of the team that designed the first exosolar ship, what came to be Essa. Some of the other engineers joked about how it was like leaving home all over again.

You were the last of the first-generation exoterres to be uploaded, but the first to die fleshwise, and from cardiac arrest, of all things. Strange feeling, looking at images of your own dead body. Stranger still to be in one again, carefully cultivated from a preserved zygote during the long journey home—an XY-differentiated, ‘male’ body this time, interestingly. You wonder what the flesh-you did in their final days. Regret the impossibility of seamless transfer? Reconcile with the doomed Earth, in its anthropogenic death spasms? You’ll never know. But that was sixty million years ago. You’re hardly human anymore. But humanity is something else.

This new thing you decided as a community. Divested of the chains of flesh-separation, it was easier. Still not without sacrifice, but no one who fought tooth and nail to disagree for the sake of contrarianism. It was a complex discussion, an incalculable deliberation. For a group like you, however, who lived largely, if not entirely, in a world adjacent to the ‘real’, the stakes were not as high as they might have been otherwise. Even if they had, this desire, this common impulse, would perhaps have overrided them: to return home.

You free yourself from the wombspace, feeling invisible strands connecting your discrete, disparate anatomy into a gestalt body-awareness. Eyes ears mouth nose arms legs lungs heart mind memory. Add that all up and you get an embodied “I”, so different from a quantum brain state, where everything never seems to truly cohere.

As Essa cautioned, you’re a little rusty hopping around in the low-g environment. Your limbs flail about as though with minds of their own. Into the ring’s main corridor you go, ouroboric antechamber, in a fraction of Earth’s gravity, then into the ring-spine transitway. Before you see anyone you can already hear oohing and ahhing, the sounds echoing passageway. You pass through a broad, circular airlock, and then you’re hit with another majestic sight.

The spine’s been prepared by the exoterres over the last several centuries, terraformed into a lush, verdant biome crawling with immensely old species, cloned out of extinction. Essa’s rotation generates an outwards gravitational pull against the walls of the massive cylinder. A herd of African elephants stride by the airlock door, snorting at you. Gazelles graze across the curved savannah. Far behind them, you glimpse an arboreal canopy, thick green above root-twisted trunks. A flock of birds, their plumage a deep blue, flit beside than above you, soaring in a vertiginous arc towards the opposite side of the spine, several kilometers away, slightly obscured by the cloudy weather system that exists in the cylinder’s hollow center. No up and down, only in and out.

The oohing and ahhing you heard is coming from your left, downstream. Near a winding river that loops around the cylinder, a group is gathered. Bipedal, recognizably primate. Are they…? You approach, and their oohs and ahhs morph into language. Your thoughts run into one another. When you were digital, time was malleable; you could speed yourself up or slow yourself down, experiment with experiencing reality in different ways. Not anymore. They all crowd around you, faces alien, strange as your own, the language they speak just barely comprehensible. Is there something wrong with you? Did the download fail?

No. No. These are the people you know. These are the minds with whom you have melded for millennia. You know them well. They’re all touching you, touching each other, nude and new and ready to experience it all again, burbling and babbling. Language not as information but phatic, spoken for the joy of it. They don’t mind your silence, they simply revel in their own verbosity. A common thread emerges out of their words. No one person says it, but it coalesces in your mind. They are saying with all their many words: “Hello—hello—welcome back—welcome home—we will be home soon—soon.”

A people and a planet, a home and a home.

They fill you in with all the details. Recognizable human civilization is gone—intercepted radio signals indicate that there might still be pockets of sentience but it’s unlikely to be homo sapiens—an asteroid is due to strike Earth in another three million years with ninety-eight percent certainty—biodiversity has fully recovered from the Anthropocene extinction of the twenty-first century—global vegetation, which is abundant in levels not seen since the sixteenth century, trends towards the blue more than green, suggesting adaptation to a shift in the sun’s electromagnetic spectrum, widespread mutagenic alterations to chlorophyll or a third, unknown cause—and more and more—the world’s always changing, falling towards the time’s event horizon, the future…

You don’t really know what it will be like, standing atop Earth’s surface, the dirt and dust. You could have left forever, but you’ve chosen to return. Out of curiosity, out of duty, out of nature. When all is said and done, what more is there?

You kneel and stroke the grass, pull it taut and reach your face in, smelling the soil. This is a dream; Earth will be real. Even though you abandoned it so long ago, there still may be a chance for you to reconcile against the pressure and warmth of its tectonic embrace.

Nothing resists gravity for long before returning to the point of origin.

 

By Michael Chau, 

Western Academy of Beijing

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