Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

Short Story: Long Way Gone

Long Way Gone

by

David L Clements

(c) 2015

 

Last memory of Earth: pinpricks at the back of my neck, a spreading cold as the machine delves into my brain, making a copy of my mind.

First memory of the new planet: waking beneath crisp white sheets, bed comfortable, gentle sunshine leaking through flimsy cotton curtains, relaxed drowsiness, dozing back to sleep. Like a long lazy weekend morning.

+

Anne? Where’s Anne? She should be here!

At least that’s what I thought.

Where is she? Why will nobody tell me? Why don’t they know anything about her?

+

You wouldn’t think you were on another world – the city is just like home. The streets look like the ones I left, the people look the same, wear the same clothes, have the same conversations. We even get the same vids, beamed down the gamma-ray link just like the people – all copies sent from home. It’s as if I never left.

We can’t send anything back, or even talk to Earth. The conversation would take decades thanks to the speed of light. But we can still see what’s happening there, all the news, sports, gossip and everything else. We just can’t affect it.

If only Anne were here.

They say I’ll get over her. There’s a whole new planet to get used to. It’s just a new city at the moment, but we’ll spread, given time.

They offered me counseling, someone to talk to if I was feeling bad. Someone to call if I need to. I told them I wouldn’t need it, that I’d be okay. After all, they can’t replace Anne. She’s the only one that could make any difference.

+

They gave me a job. It was what I was expecting, studying the local vegetation, but I was meant to be doing it with Anne. That’s how we met, and that’s how we meant to continue.

I work in a lab inside the city, on samples brought from outside. I could help with sample collection outside if I wanted to, but my real skills are in the lab. Staying in the city is fine with me. It makes it easier to hide unnoticed in the crowds, and there’s nobody checking on me when I just stay in my room.

+

Our life was studying life itself, but there were no new discoveries to be made on Earth. All the challenges were among the stars. So we decided to get ourselves copied and send ourselves to wherever the uploads were establishing colonies for normal people, spreading humanity and its smarter upload children across the galaxy.

They launch nanomachines to planets around other stars, which build other, bigger machines. Eventually they build receivers for Earth’s gamma-ray transmitters, and then the information allowing people to be copied is sent. By then the nanomachines have built cities for the people to live in, along with everything else we need.

We’re all just information. Genes to build bodies and brainscans to build minds. And a simple scan is all you need to join the colonies. You stay behind and the new you heads to distant space and time, light years away, never able to come home.

It was an adventure, but a safe one. Anne and I would go together to a new world, make a new place for ourselves, but also stay at home and be together there.

I got to be the one who went, while a different me stayed home.

Stayed with Anne.

I hope he gave her hell for what she did to me.

+

What is this place? It isn’t real, just something squirted down a laser as bits, then reconstituted from pre-digested gloop – the kind of thing you load into the house kitchen. What comes out might look like real food, but it isn’t. It’s just a copy.

This whole place is just a copy.

And so am I.

What’s the point of doing the same things I did before? Why bother?

The only things that are different are the plants I’m studying. They’re interesting, but they don’t make up for everything else.

There has to be something different. Something better.

+

Anne left a message.

She has abandoned me on Earth as well. She hasn’t been copied, which she says is a cowardly, limiting thing. Instead she’s uploaded, had her mind expanded a thousand fold. Why should she bother to study life on other planets when she can spawn a hundred different artificial ecologies every day? She says she still cares for me, but that I’ve been holding her back all this time, having her do all the social things that I didn’t do for myself. At first she thought it was fun, that she was broadening my horizons, making me a better person. But eventually she realized she was still doing all the work, that she was being used as a crutch and that I would never grow while she was around.

Without her, she says, I’ll have to grow. This way we can both do better, will no longer hold each other back.

But I’m not doing better without her. I need her to make me whole, to make everything work. Without her I’m just an imperfect copy of myself. Incomplete. Flawed. No point.

+

From my apartment, high in a city tower, I can see the forest, and see that it’s not what we left. It’s different, new. The leaves are the wrong shapes, and the green isn’t quite right. It’s a colour that goes well with the local sun, the green a little deeper, a little darker than what I’m used to, but the sun is a little brighter and a little bluer.

The colour of the leaves doesn’t come from chlorophyll, but from a different chemical, better matched to the bluer light from this sun. Our sun, the only one I’m going to see. I’m meant to be researching the metabolic pathways used by the local plants so I know all about this. But just looking at them, seeing how different they are from what I’m used to, gets to me every time. I’d like to walk into the forest and lose myself in the alien ecology, to die out there and become part of it.

                                        +

I can’t focus on work. Often I just sit in the lab, waiting for something to happen.

But nothing happens. I’m still me, Anne still isn’t here, and that isn’t going to change.

+

You don’t have to change what’s inside to be different.

I discovered this last night while trying to catch up on work in the lab. Work is going slowly and we’re having to do things by hand, the old fashioned way. It’s like being back at graduate school, in the lab I shared with Anne. It was where we met, where we got to know each other, and where we fell in love.

Thinking about Anne must have distracted me. I forgot where I was, and tried to pass a clean set of test tubes to her. But she wasn’t there. It fell to the floor and smashed. As I cleaned up the debris I sliced my finger open on a shard of glass.

I mopped the wound clean and sealed it with SkinGlue so there wasn’t a lot of blood, but afterwards I had a new little scar on my finger. That’s mine. It’s nothing to do with the other me on Earth. This is mine, uniquely.

And I’m going to treasure that.

+

It’s become a habit. But it makes me feel better, at least for a while. I never cut too deep, or make too serious a scar – nothing that SkinGlue can’t sort out.

My arms take the worst of it. They’re so accessible.

I started to do it at home after the lab accident, just a little slice when I felt things were piling up. But soon I was doing it at work. I tried to make it look accidental – a slip of a scalpel, a sliver of glass. But the marks on my forearms began to get noticeable, so I decided to wear long sleeves in spite of the tropical heat. I now keep a special scalpel in my desk, next to the alcohol and SkinGlue, ready whenever I need it.

And so I cut myself again and again. Enough to make me different, to show that I’m damaged, rejected goods, but never enough to actually hurt myself. I’m too much of a coward for that.

+

A woman I’d not seen before came into the lab today. She was tall, heavily built, and with long brown hair – nothing like Anne. She brought fresh samples from the jungle, so she’s someone who goes out of the city, working away from the copied human spaces. This piqued my interest for a few moments and I thought about speaking to her, but she was busy sorting through the samples and talking to the lab manager so I turned back to my work.

Not that she’d want to talk to me anyway.

I carried on cutting up a sample, ignored and insignificant.

Distracted, I slipped, and the scalpel sliced into the palm of my hand, blood trickling onto the bench. The ritual of cleaning the wound and sealing it shut was instinctive.

But a few moments later I became aware of someone standing behind me. I ignored them, but then an unfamiliar female voice spoke to me.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

I looked around, and was surprised to find the newcomer was talking to me.

“Yes,” I replied, wanting to get back to the anonymity of my work, but conscious she was staring at the fresh wound on my hand.

Quietly she reached down and pulled back the sleeve of my shirt, revealing several scars, fresh and healing.

I suddenly felt ashamed about what I was doing.

“What’s that?” she asked, appearing worried about me. “Are you hurt?”

Something gave way and I burst into tears.

+

We left the lab and went to a coffee bar, where we sat secluded in a booth and talked until long after the sun had set. She told me her name was Alice, and seemed genuinely interested in me, concerned for how I was feeling and what I was doing to myself. Nobody else on this planet had ever talked to me like a real person.

It made me feel a little better about things.

Afterwards, as she walked me home, I felt more at peace than I had since arriving.

As we wandered the empty streets, Alice pointed to the sky.

“You see that?” she said.

“What, the stars?”

“Yes,” she replied, nodding. “Nobody but us has seen a sky like that. I don’t know how far we are from Earth, but it’s far enough that the sky is very different. We have new constellations.”

“That’ll be bad news for the astrologers.”

She laughed. “Not many here. But the sky is yours, not something anyone similar to you, back on Earth or elsewhere, can see. You’re you, not that other person. This sky proves it.”

When I got home, she asked if I was going to be all right, and I said yes. For the first time in weeks I felt unique enough not to be tempted to make more scars.

+

It didn’t last. If she had come back the next day or later that week it would have helped. But she didn’t. She was back two weeks later. By then I gone back to wielding the knife.

I was in the lab, alone while the others had gone out for lunch, trying to catch up as usual. She apologized for being away, and asked me how I’d been. I hovered between fobbing her off and telling her the truth, split between the moments we’d shared, and the mask I’d been forced to put back on.

She could tell I was hiding something. Gently she reached down and pulled back my left sleeve, revealing the marks that showed what I’d done.

“You know this can’t go on. Eventually you’re going to hurt yourself seriously.” She was calm and quiet, firm, but reassuring. I looked away.

“It’s the only thing that makes me feel better… different from… him… the other one.”

She looked at me for a few moments.

“It’s this place,” she said, looking at the lab. “This whole fake edifice we’ve built – or had built for us. This is too much like home… No – not home, because we don’t live on Earth any more. It reminds us of what we were, not of what we are.” There was anger in her voice.

I looked away, down at the desk. “But that’s what I am. A bad copy of something somewhere else.”

“We may have started as copies, but as soon as we got here this place changed us, made itself our new home, and us new people. You’ve seen the sky, the plants, even the colour of daylight is different.”

“So what should I do? Spend all day looking at plants through binoculars, and all night looking up at the sky? Is that what you do?”

She was silent for a moment, her lips pressed together in thought. Her eyes failed to meet mine when I looked at her.

“Maybe I’ve said too much… But maybe not… How much do you want to change, to be really different from who you were? It might not be easy. You’d have to give up all of this,” she gestured at the lab, at the city outside the windows.

I smiled, a wry grin. She smiled back, knowing there was nothing here that I valued.

But any change, whatever she was suggesting, would be another leap into the unknown, just like coming here.

“I guess this isn’t something you can tell me about?”

She shook her head. “Of course I can, but you probably won’t believe me. You see, I don’t just visit the forest. I mostly live there, and there are others, refugees from this city, who live there too. It’s not easy. We have none of the facilities you have here,” her eyes looked away for a moment, then back, right at me, pinning me with the intensity of her gaze. “But I can tell you it’s better than what you have now, though it’s not what’s been planned for us, not something the people who run this place meant us to do.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t decide.

She looked around as if expecting someone to come through the door and arrest us.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon so you can think about it. But the sooner you make a move, the better you’ll feel.” She scribbled a number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “When you’ve made up your mind, call me,” she said.

And with that she turned and left.

+

I couldn’t sleep that night.

Not that I ever slept well, thinking about how things might have been different if Anne were here. But this night I was kept awake by something different. The chance of something new, the possibility of making a choice that might change things, that might change me.

I finally drifted into a disturbed sleep as the possibilities orbited my mind.

In the morning, as I opened the curtains, I felt a little different.

The city’s skyscrapers gleamed in the blue morning sun. Beyond them, past the automated industrial sectors, rose the alien forest, filled with turquoise leaves, dark trunks and multicoloured blooms. It looked so much more interesting than the city, like a place where you could leave behind the past and become something new.

I had made a decision. While this was another jump into the unknown, I was going to follow Alice into the forest.

I lifted my phone and called the number she had left.

“Hello?” I said as the call was answered. “It’s Mark. We need to talk.”

But the only thing on the other end of the line was a machine taking messages, saying that Alice had been urgently called into the field and couldn’t answer my call.

+

There was no way I could leave without her. I didn’t know where to go, what to do. But something deeper than my fears pushed me on, a feeling that this was my moment, that if I didn’t leave now then I was stuck in this city forever.

I called in sick so it would be at least a day before anybody realized I wasn’t part of their world any more, packed some food, water and clothes into a rucksack, and walked towards the edge of the city.

I followed signposts for the industrial zone, intended to show maintenance crews where to go. Gradually the familiar buildings of the city, copies from what I was used to back on Earth, faded from the landscape, to be replaced by simple utilitarian blocks, fed by pipes and power cables.

After walking through these for an hour I realised that the easily readable signposts had disappeared, replaced by meaningless area designations and block numbers. I wandering for a while studying these numbers until I guessed that higher numbers meant buildings further from the city. With that information I set out at a faster pace, sure I would be able to reach the forest well before the sun set.

The service roads became narrower, and more twisted, pipework more common, and the buildings around me grew taller, cutting off my view of the forest. The roads started to take detours around buildings and larger sections of pipework, making it difficult to keep my sense of direction, and even the numerical signs became scarce.

After a long stop at a crossroads to drink water, take a comfort break, and to eat some food, I stood up, not entirely sure which direction I had been going in when I had stopped.

I was lost.

I walked along the road in one direction, unable to find anything familiar. I walked back to the crossroads and tried the other direction. Still nothing.

I dashed back, and tried the other branches of the junction in turn. All the industrial blocks looked the same, and, since they were meant to be serviced by machines, none of them had any distinguishing markings.

I was stuck, not knowing which way to turn. A failure once again.

I looked up at the sky, a dark perfect blue in all directions, marred only by the towers of the city a surprising distance away. I might as well go back to them, return to what now passed for my life, a failure at everything I tried.

But I wanted to leave the city, go away from those towers, not towards them.

If I kept them to my back, a reminder of all that I was leaving behind, I would, by necessity, be heading towards the forest.

I could do this, by myself, without Alice or Anne or anybody else to help me, just by turning my back on the city and keeping on, until I got to where I was going.

After that, the route was much easier. I didn’t have to worry about following a particular road, or looking for signposts or building numbers. I just kept the city at my back, turning around to check directions whenever I thought I was lost.

By the end of the day, as the bright blue sun was turning red in the sunset, I reached the final fence, the dark green forest visible just beyond.

The fence wasn’t tall, and its mesh was easy to climb. I soon reached the top, swung myself over and down the other side.

I brushed my hands on my trousers and inhaled the perfumed smell of the forest, now just a few hundred meters away.

As I took my first steps outside the city, a small group of people emerged from the forest. They waved, shouted happily and beckoned me closer.

I shook hands with them, all delighted to see me, and introduced myself. Alice had told them to expect me. They’d spotted me with binoculars and come out to find me and bring me home.

+

Three weeks later everything is different. Life outside the city isn’t easy, but it’s hard in a way that’s easier than living inside. I’m still learning, and learning so much. Part of it is the basics – harvesting the plants we can eat, cooking, which I was never any good at, planting and tending crops, many of which are from Earth. It’s hard physical work, but satisfying. I have friends, and we have our own little village hidden in the forest. We’re surrounded by life that amazes me every day.

I’m really me, now, not some fake copy set adrift by Anne. The old Mark, the one that stayed behind on Earth, wouldn’t understand any of this. He’d hate the mud and work, but then he’s shallow – a stay at home person, not someone working on the frontier, finding new places and ways to live.

There are more of us every day as the dissatisfied leak away from the city. We’re the real colonists. The ones left behind are just playing at being on an alien planet. But they’re just copies in a copied city, living off the leavings of Earth.

We don’t need that. We have something real.

We are something real.

END