Mythaxis

Beyond the Sky


Liam Baldwin


The Only Way Out?

The colony was on a small island in a large, slowly flowing river. The colony was on the island because that is where the matter-transmitter was, and the matter-transmitter was on the island because the starship that had bought it from Earth had put it there. This wasn't an accident: the ship’s limited A.I. had been told to look for such a place. Islands, the thinking behind its programming went, were defensible, had a ready supply of water, and were, possibly, on an easily navigable, and easily explorable route from any coast to deep into the interior.

Alvi, Emma, and Jenny were not on the island. Alvi, Emma, and Jenny were on a boat some ten, slow and cautious week's travel downriver. For the past five weeks they had been in unexplored territory. The colony had been on the planet for eighteen years and they were further away from it than any of the colonists had yet ventured into the planet's vast, seemingly endless, untouched jungle.

Emma was just tidying up the reception desk, preparing to go off shift, to go home, when the system crashed. All the screens before her froze for a second and then blanked. She stared at them for a moment unable to comprehend. One system going down she could understand - but all of them? She keyed in her login and tried to reboot. Nothing happened. She switched to the other console and tried again. Dead.

Behind her the doors leading through to the Emigration rooms swooshed open and Celia, her relief, came through. “What’s happened?” asked Celia. “The desk in room seven twenty-three is down.”

“I know,” said Emma. “I think they’re all down. The whole system looks like it has crashed.”

“Don’t be silly.” Celia nudged Emma aside and typed at the unresponsive keyboard and then, just as Emma had done, tried again at the other. Celia looked at the screens in disbelief and then looked at Emma. “It can’t be the whole system. The whole system can’t just die like this….”

Emma came to the stern of the wide, raft-like boat and handed Alvi a sandwich. “Enjoy it,” she said. “That’s the last of the meat. It’s fish from now on unless you want to go ashore and do some hunting.” She took the tiller from him as he ate.

“Thanks,” he said as he finished. He wiped crumbs off his hands. “I needed that. Did you take the salinity readings?”

“Yes,” she said. “Still the same.”

“I don’t know why we bother," he said. “A river this size is bound to push fresh water out into any ocean far faster than sea water can contaminate it. Not that I think there is any sea. I think this damn river just goes on forever. One of these days we’re going to come round a bend and see the colony again.”

Emma laughed. “That’s impossible.”

“No, I’m serious. This river is like one of Esher’s staircases. It goes round and round and never gets anywhere. Any one bit looks perfectly rational and real, but follow it around long enough and you impossibly get back where you started.” He made a wide gesture. “The River Escher!”

Jenny came up from the cramped cabin below deck. “Who’s Escher?” she asked.

“An artist,” said Emma. “He drew impossible buildings and optical tricks. Fascinating stuff.”

“Oh," said Jenny, losing interest. "From Earth?”

“Yes. Twentieth century. I’ve got some of his pictures in books back home. I’ll show you them when we get back if you want.”

Jenny made a non-committal grunt of thanks. She was sixteen years old and had never seen Earth, and she never would; it was impossible, the matter-transmitter on the island only worked one way. That was how the colonies were populated. Long range drone ships took years to reach possible new Earths, their only cargo a quantum entangled matter-transmitter. Once a new habitable planet had been found, the matter-transmitter was deployed and its twin back on earth un-crated. At first, simple machines were sent through. The simple machines built a larger matter-transmitter, then the complex machines were sent through - then the colonists. It was a one way trip. Each colonist arrived on alien soil and at the same time never left Earth. The matter-transmitters duplicated them sending atom perfect copies instantaneously across the light years while the originals went back to their normal lives. Emma had worked in an Emigration Centre sending volunteers to the colonies until one day, finally overcome by curiosity, she had Emigrated herself. And then three months later she had done it again. On the fifth attempt she found herself here. It was irrational. She knew that the previous Emigrations had worked and that somewhere out there, on distant planets under other alien suns, were other copies of herself but until she had stepped out from the Emigration machine herself, stepped out onto this alien planet, she hadn't really believed it worked. She also knew that at the moment she was arriving here the Emma she had left behind back on Earth still had the same burning curiosity to see another world. Who knows how many times she had Emigrated since.

Outside on the street there was a sudden flurry of movement. A brief burst of sirens and flashing lights. An aerial fire tender settled down into the street directly opposite the doors. Civilian cars raced to get out of the way of the massive vehicle before it touched down. Another of the giant red and yellow vehicles descended onto the other side of the street. Fire fighters, fully equipped, leapt down from the machines and started deploying equipment. Another smaller vehicle arrived and landed near the first. The passenger, a woman in a dark, military uniform covered in gold braid, got out and flashed ID at the nearest fireman, then had a brief word with the fireman’s superior officer. She pointed at the Emigration reception doors, then gesticulated off to the sides, up and down the street. She was issuing orders, orders that she obviously expected the senior fireman to obey without question.

“Emma?” Celia was holding onto Emma’s arm. “What the hell is going on?”

“I don’t know.” said Emma. She leaned forward and tried her login again. It was the only thing she could think to do. The automatic doors opened and closed again, there was a brief burst of the cacophony of sirens and shouted orders from outside and then muted silence. ID in hand, the military officer was approaching the desk.

“Estain, Emigration, Military Liaison,” she said crisply. “What’s the situation here?”

“I’ve no idea,” said Emma. “The board's dead and….”

“How many people on duty?” The woman asked.

“Just us two.”

“Any clients?”

Emma and Celia exchanged glances.

“No.”

“No one since about three hours ago.” added Emma.

“So, as far as you two are aware, the building is secure and you are the only occupants?”

Again Emma and Celia glanced at one another. “Yes, just the two of us.” said Emma, “Look what’s all this about? Is there a fire or…?”

Estain glanced down at the console, inserted a keycard into the desk's maintenance access hatch and opened it. “If you’ve got any personal items in your lockers you want to keep," she said over her shoulder "you have about three minutes to rescue them.” She pressed another keycard into a slot inside the maintenance panel and typed a code on the numpad. The screen on the desk came to life again. It showed an interface Emma had never seen before. Estain sat herself before Emma's keyboard and entered information into a dialogue. “Two and a half minutes!” she said, without looking up.

Jenny alternated between being fascinated by the mother planet and total disinterest. Today was obviously one of her disinterested days. Jenny was tall, tanned and utterly at home on this planet in a way than none of the first generation colonists could quite fathom. The rhythms of her body comfortable with the twenty hour day and five hundred day year in a way that none of the Earth-born colonists could match. Jenny had been the first child born in the colony. She was ten years old when Emma had arrived and Jenny had adopted her as a surrogate mother; moving in with Emma whenever she felt she needed a break from her real parents. Jenny may have been the first child born on the planet but she wasn’t the last. The population of the colony was growing. Soon it would be too large for the island and there were conflicting ideas about what to do about the situation. Some colonists wanted to expand onto the nearby shore, some wanted to set up a totally separate colony further away. For the most part it was the youngsters, those born on the planet, who wanted to move away. Alvi, Emma, and Jenny were looking for a possible new home.

Emma opened her drawer, took out the picture of her husband Alvi holding their daughter Francesca and shoved it in her bag. Celia seemed to be emptying a vast number of lipsticks and nail varnishes into her pockets.

“How much further are we going to go on?” asked Alvi. “I know a lot of the youngsters back on the island want to be as far away from us wrinklies as you can get but we’ve been out here – what? Fifteen weeks?”

“Ten.”

“Either way, it’s far too far away to set up a daughter colony.”

“You told me you went to Mars when you left home for the first time - that’s another planet!” said Jenny with adolescent finality.

“I know, but…” Alvi floundered on the impossibility of explaining to Jenny, who had never known the highly urbanised, intricate mechanism of Earth society, that the complex transport infrastructure of the Solar System meant it was more relevant to talk about time between destinations rather than distances. It was, for instance, sometimes faster to get from Earth to Mars than it was to get to any of the habitats on the dark side of the moon which didn’t have expensive landing facilities, but which, if measured purely in kilometres, were far closer.

“Sounds good to me.” said Emma. “I think we should think about turning back too. I don’t think we‘re going to find anything better that that last place.”

“Another island?” said Jenny. "What's wrong with the shore? We should be exploring the shore!"

“The return journey should be shorter,” said Alvi, sidestepping a familiar argument. “With no detours up tributaries and no mapping to do, we should be back in around three weeks.”

“Sounds about right,” agreed Emma. “The current’s slow this time of year and we do want to start back before the rains come."

"No bloody salinity tests to do either.” added Alvi.

“One more day?” But Jenny knew she was outvoted.

“We’ll carry on till nightfall and set off back in the morning,” said Emma handing the tiller back to Alvi. Jenny went off to sulk in the prow.

“You must be wondering what is happening?” said Estain without looking up from her work. “This is all I am allowed to tell you. About eighty years ago military long range observers spotted seven objects heading towards Earth. The objects are artificial, three kilometres long, travelling very fast, decelerating, and for the past eighty years, have ignored every attempt we have made to contact whatever is steering them. Two years after we discovered them we started the Emigration program. Three days ago the objects changed course. and, unless they change course again, should be in Earth orbit in twenty-four hours.”

Emma started to say something but, before she could speak, the liaison officer held up a finger as a warning not to interrupt. A few more keystrokes and she was finished. She turned. “And now,” she said with the tone of voice that suggested a job well done, “I would suggest we get the hell out of here before the place explodes.”

Jenny sat on the edge of the boat, watching the dense jungle slide slowly past. In return, nesting birds, lethargic in the midday sun, watched her from branches of giant trees. In the perpetual near-seasonless summer of the jungle, some of the trees were flowering, while others were heavy with fruit. Occasionally a mudfish, startled by the strange alien thing gliding down its river, would struggle back into the water with a slap. Sudden ripples disturbing the still waters. A cloud of floating, feathery, airborne seeds drifted by.

Alvi came to the side of the boat with a bucket in his hand. He lowered it into the water. It tipped and filled.

"Alvi?" Jenny said.

"Mmm?"

"Why are you here?" she said. "I mean, I'm here because I was born here, but..." she hesitated. "What's your excuse? Why did you Emigrate?"

Alvi sat, happy to take a break from the tedium of routine water sampling. In all the time they had been on the planet they had yet to discover a single water-borne pathogen but the search for dangers never ceased. Alvi pondered Jenny's question for a moment. It was a question he had often asked himself. The answer changed.

"All sorts of reasons," he said. "I can't remember the exact one that made me do it. I was bored with what I was. Needed to prove to myself I could do something with my life, scared I was never going to... Maybe I was running away. All of them. None of them. Take your pick. I don't know any more. I just hope I got what I wanted out of doing it."

"You got me," said Emma, joining them. "And the baby."

Alvi patted Emma's belly. Four months pregnant and just starting to show. "I know and I love you both," he said. "I wouldn't go back even if I could. I'm talking about the other me. The me who didn't come here. The me that walked out of the Emigration Centre and went home. I wonder if he got what he wanted from my coming here."

"I always felt good about it," said Emma.

Jenny laughed. "That's what amazes me about you," she said. "You can happily live with the fact that there are different... 'yous' out there. All those different versions of you, right now, all over the sky. Dozens of them. Doesn't it feel weird? Knowing that somewhere out there there are dozens of copies of you having totally different lives."

"I don't know about dozens," said Emma. "But at least four."

"And me," said Alvi. "I could have volunteered again, and so could you. She's right; there might well be dozens of us out there."

Emma kissed Alvi on the nose. "Dozens of Alvis and Emmas," she said. "And dozens of babies too."

"But they'd all be unique," said Jenny. "Like me. The babies are all unique. We've all got millions of brothers and sisters we'll never see but we're all unique." She stood up abruptly. The boat rocked slightly. "Don't you ever think of that?"

"I don't think she'll mind," said Emma. "Do you, baby?"

"She?" asked Alvi. "She's a 'she' today, is she?"

"She feels like a 'she' today," said Emma patting her belly.

"So we won't be calling her Genghis then?"

"No! ...and we're not calling her Genghis if she's a boy either!" exclaimed Emma in mock horror.

"Elvis then!"

"No!"

"Toshiro?"

They both burst into laughter. A moment later Jenny joined them, her mood swinging back as it inevitably did when she was with them.

"I love you two," she said.

The laughter subsided and the three of them sat quietly for a while watching the seeds of the dandelion trees drifting overhead.

They anchored at sundown.

Later, when they had all eaten, locked everything down for the night, and Emma was already asleep, Alvi took a final tour round the deck. Jenny was sitting on a storage locker, looking up into the sky. From east to west a vast crescent of light, a whole arm of the galaxy, reached out across the darkness.

Jenny continued to stare upwards as Alvi approached.

"What do you think they get out of it?" she said.

"'They'? You mean Earth?" He paused. "I don't really know," he said slowly. "I've often wondered that myself. We can't communicate with them, can't tell them what we've found... I don't know."

"It must have cost Earth a lot to send you all out here," said Jenny. "All those people on all those planets. Must have cost a fortune. What does Earth get out of it all?"

"Why should they get anything?" said Alvi.

Jenny snorted. "Oh come on, Alvi. I've read the history books. Every time people have gone anywhere new it's because they want something. Something they can exploit, turn into cash. And whoever paid for them to go looking always expected some sort of return for their investment. Isabella didn't fund Columbus because she thought he was a nice man. She wanted the money and power that a short route to India could give her. No. I just can't see what's in it for Earth"

Alvi looked up, wondering for the thousandth time which of the stars out there was the Sun. The stars slowly turned in the cloudless sky and they watched them in silence. "Maybe they're not getting anything out of it," he said eventually. "Maybe the human race is doing something purely because it's the right thing to do. Maybe we've finally grown up." He shivered. "It's getting cold. I'm turning in. Coming?"

She shook her head. "I'll be down soon."

"Okay," he said. "Just don't forget to turn off the lights and activate the motion detectors before you do."

Still gazing upward Jenny murmured that she wouldn't forget.

"Night," said Alvi and went below.

When they woke in the morning, the lights were on, the motion detectors were off, and Jenny was gone. She'd left a note.

'Don't look for me. I'll be all right. Go home and I'll see you soon. Love Jenny'

She'd taken supplies, a share of the dried food, a rifle, and her survival pack.

Alvi and Emma spent three days looking for her. They found her trail and followed it. It led back inland, away from the river, deeper into the jungle. Totally unexplored country. On the third day they found a note pinned to a tree in a place where it was impossible for anyone following her trail to miss. 'I'll be all right. Look after the baby. Jenny.'

Emma read the note and cried. Alvi held her. After a while he said, "Come on. Let's go home," and they turned and went back the way they had come.

As they hurried through the doors into the night Emma had the absurd urge to lock the doors behind her. She couldn’t of course, there were no locks; Emigration was always open. Had always been open. When she reached the line of fire crew standing by their machines she turned. The lights were still on, and as she watched a ripple of muffled explosions shuddered the building. The air beyond the glass windows was suddenly opaque with smoke and dust. As she watched, flames burst through the building.

It was a scene played out all over the system, images of Emigration offices on fire were being carried on every news channel. Outside every Emigration office, fire crews and the office staff, bemused bystanders, and news crews watched as they were razed to the ground. Flames and sparks flew skyward between surrounding buildings as the delicate, intricate web of quantum entanglements that spread out across the universe shattered and evaporated, leaving no trace.

Earth’s children were alone now. Scattered across the sky and nothing could follow them to where they had been hidden. © Liam Baldwin 2012 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 12:26 Mon 27 Aug 2012
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