Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

Beyond the Heliopause

As soon as the recorded message pinged in her peripheral vision, she accepted and listened to the call on her cochlear implant. “Suzanne, I need to see you. It’s urgent. I . . . well, I’ll tell you when I see you. All my love.”

She was in a borrowed apartment in Paris, finishing a piece about corruption in the European Parliament. She rounded the story off with a couple of vox pops and some infographics, squirted the file to her editor in London, and then forwarded it to her street team to get the social buzz going.

Folding her screen away, she sat back and replayed her father’s message, but she didn’t pick up anything new from his words or tone. Then she booked a seat on the noon flight from Orly to Stansted and took a taxi to the airport. She would be in the sleepy Suffolk village of Little Tinningham, if all went well, before the early December sunset.

Her father had sounded weary. If the call had been from anyone else she would have replied instantly, but her father hated his days to be interrupted by “importunate calls,” as he called them—even from loved ones.

She wondered why he needed to see her so urgently.

• • • •

Suzanne looked away from the window as the jet took off. Across the aisle she saw a big, silver-haired man in his forties, and for a second she thought it was Charles. She even wondered what her ex-husband was doing back on Earth when the man turned to speak to the hostess and she realised her mistake. She felt a surge of relief, sat back, and closed her eyes as the take-off forced her back into the seat.

She summoned a retinal menu and selected a news channel. Thoughts of Charles made her wonder how the Heliopause Project was progressing. Two years ago there had been nothing else on the science and technology newsfeeds but the joint Europe-US mission to send a scientific research station out beyond the orbit of Pluto—to map the vast universe beyond, as the pop-hacks termed the project. Since then, the news had dried up.

Sometimes, in her more paranoid moments, Suzanne wondered whether Charles had used the project as an excuse to leave her. He’d been offered the directorship of the mission: An offer too good to refuse, he’d told her, and almost off-handedly added, “And anyway, you and me . . . our relationship . . . it was never going anywhere—”

“‘Never going anywhere’? My God. We’re married . . . Doesn’t that mean a damned thing to you? I love you, Charles!”

He’d smiled his insufferably arrogant smile and said, “No, Su, you just think you do.”

And so he walked out of her life forever.

• • • •

Stansted was as busy as Orly, but a few minutes after taking a taxi from the airport—as they left the A120 and took a B road north to Suffolk—she was staring out across open fields and peaceful villages consisting of clusters of thatched cottages. She tried to visit her father every month and, as always, it was like going back in time to an earlier, more innocent age. She could forget the modern world, the ceaseless influx of information, forget the space race that saw the superpowers staking claim after claim to chunks of Mars, Venus, and individual asteroids—switch off her implant and for two days at a time enjoy the company of her father. He was nearing ninety, and she knew that her visits would one day end.

She wondered if these trips were nothing more than a reversion to her childhood, a reaction to her husband’s leaving her. When she had been with Charles, her visits had been far less frequent, but then, when he left, they had saved her sanity. Her father’s company and the village where she had grown up were a refuge, a haven of familiarity and reassurance in a brash and complex world.

Half an hour after leaving Stansted, Little Tinningham appeared through the mist, a collection of ghostly houses, a church steeple, and, next to it, her father’s rambling thatched house. An orange light showed in a small downstairs window, and she knew he’d have a log fire blazing.

She paid the driver and hurried inside.

• • • •

Over a dinner of minestrone soup followed by roast beef, prepared by her father’s housekeeper, he asked her about her work. She told him about the recent conferences she’d attended and the corruption piece she’d finished that day.

Her father was a tall, perilously thin man, stooped and grey. His dog collar, which he still wore even though he’d retired as a Church of England rector twenty years ago, hung loose on his wattled neck. Suzanne thought he looked ill since her last visit, and lacked energy. He ate a small meal slowly, without appetite.

He suggested a brandy after dinner and they sat in the front room before the roaring fire. This was Suzanne’s favourite room in the house. She imagined the previous inhabitants warming themselves here on long winter’s nights: Elizabethans, Stuarts, and Georgians . . . right up to the present day. The house was over five hundred years old and the sense of history in the air was like a physical presence.

During a lull in the conversation—her father had been bringing her up to date on the doings of various villagers, and for a time he had seemed his old, animated self—she sipped her brandy and asked, “You said you wanted to see me urgently. Is something . . .” She had been about to say “wrong,” but she paused and her father interrupted.

“I know you don’t believe, Suzanne.” He smiled. “What did you once say? That you haven’t a spiritual bone in your body?”

“I’ve always been impressed that you never tried to make me believe. Never. I respect you for that, you know?”

He sighed. His fingers, curled around his brandy glass, seemed as white as bone. His eyes regarded the flames. “Well, you were right.”

She blinked at the discontinuity in the conversation. “About?”

“About the idea of a God. There really is nothing . . . nothing . . . is there?” His gaze remained on the dancing flames.

Suzanne felt sick. Her father’s faith had been his rock, his foundation. She could not imagine how he might exist without it.

“What makes you say that?”

He lifted his gaze from the fire and looked at her. “I’ve lost my faith, Suzanne. I look back and think of all the years I believed. I wonder what sustained me. I wonder why I believed, what gave me faith. It was an inner conviction, something as elemental within me as my . . . as my lifeblood. And it is as if that lifeblood, that faith, has suddenly drained away, leaving nothing. A terrible emptiness.”

He looked back at the fire, gripping his glass tightly.

She felt tears sting her eyes. She shook her head. “But why, so suddenly?”

He gave a weary smile. “But it wasn’t sudden, Suzanne. It happened years ago, little by little, a gnawing doubt. The diagnosis . . .”

The word pierced her like an arrow. “‘Diagnosis’?”

He drew a heavy sigh. “I’m old, Suzanne. We can’t expect to live forever. They found a tumour during my last check-up.” He tapped his balding skull. “Up here. Inoperable. They give me three to six months. I’m sorry, Suzanne. I . . . I didn’t want to tell you, but that wouldn’t have been fair, would it?”

She set her glass aside, rose and crossed to the settee where he sat. She held his hand in silence, words beyond her. She felt his old bones, his frailty, smelled his old man odour.

She gripped his hand and said, “Perhaps the tumour—”

He laughed. “What? Do you think the tumour might be responsible for my loss of faith? You know better than that. Anyway, according to the specialist, it’s only been there for a year at most. My doubt began long before that.”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, and wondered if she was referring to his illness or his doubt.

“I really believed the whole Christian offering, you know? The reward of Heaven for the virtuous. Now . . .” He sighed. “Now, it feels like a weight has lifted, being able to say these things aloud.”

“It’s been your life,” said Suzanne. “Don’t you miss it?”

“Some,” he said. “Do you know what I miss most? The notion that we were created for some purpose . . . That all this—” he gave a brief wave of the hand, a simple gesture which conveyed so much more “—is not for nothing.”

She had no answer to that. She sat gripping her father’s hand and stared into the flames.

• • • •

The following morning, the glow on the beamed ceiling of her bedroom told her that the forecast snow had fallen during the night.

She slipped out of bed and stood before the tiny mullioned window. She looked out over a landscape transformed, softened. Snow covered the lane and the rolling fields beyond, relieved only where vertical surfaces resisted its attention and showed black: tree trunks and stone walls. A dazzling sun hung low in the east.

She would have breakfast and then go for a long walk.

Her father was already up, and it was as if their conversation of the night before had never occurred. He was bright and alert over toast and coffee, chattering away about the Christmas Lights committee, of which he was chairman.

After breakfast she asked him if he was up to a hike, but he held up an old hardback book, a detective novel dating from the last century. “Mrs. Humphries has built a fire. I’ll spend the morning reading, Suzanne.”

She wrapped up well and set off. The morning was bitter cold but bright; frost had created a crust on the snow and thick panes like shattered glass over puddles in the lane. She climbed a stile and set off over the rising meadow opposite her father’s house. The snow was a virgin expanse, not yet marred by footprints.

Fifteen minutes later, at the crest of the rise, she turned and stared down at the village nestling, impossibly tranquil, in the fold of the hills. She pictured her father in his chair by the fire, rug over his lap, absorbed in his whodunit.

Tears found tracks down her cheeks, stinging in the freezing wind. She dashed them away with the back of her gloved hand and set off again.

Her father was eighty-nine; he’d had a long, rewarding life. But, she realised later as she rounded the wood where she’d played as a girl, and approached the village from the east, it was not his imminent death she was mourning as much as the announcement of his lost faith.

He should have been able to go in peace, she thought, comforted by the belief in an omnipotent Creator in Whom he had believed all his life. And yes, she was very aware of the irony in a humanist mourning the loss of another’s belief.

As she turned into Church Lane, she saw a big black Lexus pulled up outside her father’s house.

Two tall figures, garbed in black suits, stood on either side of the car and stared at her as she approached.

Confused, she thought at first that something had happened to her father. She hurried up the lane, then realised that she was wrong. These men were nothing to do with the medical profession.

“Ms. Lingard?” one of them enquired as she approached. “Ms. Suzanne Lingard?”

“Yes?” She stopped in the lane, staring from one man to the other. “What is it?”

“You’re offline. We’ve been trying to contact you.”

“Who are you?”

“We’re with the Heliopause Project,” said the man to her right.

Her heart thudded as if her blood had turned to molasses. “And?”

“And we have an urgent communiqué,” said the man to her left.

Urgent. That word again. “From . . .?” she asked, but she knew very well who it was from. What she wanted to know was why?

“If there is somewhere we could be private?”

She showed them into the house, past the room where her father would be reading and into the library. The men stood before the empty hearth and one of them said, “If you could reconnect to the ’net, Ms. Lingard?”

She did so, her peripheral vision pinging with a dozen missed calls. She silenced them, dismissed the retinal menu, and stared at the men.

“Very well.”

“We’ll be waiting outside the room,” one of them said. “This is for your information only.” He nodded, and a figure appeared before Suzanne.

She moved to the table, reached out to steady herself. She noticed the men slip from the room; the door clicked shut behind them.

Her ex-husband stood before her, only the slight pixilation at his extremities belying the fact of his physical presence. He had aged; his hair was greyer, his face a little heavier. He’d never been one to mask his imperfections with virtual overlays; she’d give him that.

For a second she thought that this was a real-time interactive communiqué, then realised her mistake. The distance would have made that impossible.

If he were still beyond the heliopause . . .

He spoke, and she was relieved to see that it was a recording.

“Su, I hope you’re well, and I hope you’ll hear me out and not shut this down or walk out . . . though I’d fully understand if you did. I’m sorry for what I did, back then. The thing is, I’d like to make amends.” He raised a hand. “Hear me out,” he went on, anticipating her reaction. She pulled out a chair, dropped into it, and stared at her ex-husband’s avatar.

“I’m beyond Pluto on the research vessel. I won’t beat about the bush. We’ve found something. Something big.” He smiled, as if his words were ironic. “It will change everything—everything we know about everything. I’d like you to come out and meet me here. I’ll show you what we’ve found, and then you can break it to the world. I’ve cleared this with our backers, and they’ve conducted all the requisite security checks on you.” He smiled. “I know it’ll never really make up for what I did, Su, but it’s the only way I can think of to apologise.”

He waited a second, then went on. “You’d leave right away, with Jeffries and Usher, for the spacefield at Utrecht. From there you’d take a shuttle to orbit, and then a cruiser out to the heliopause. Journey time, a little under a week. I’d show you around here for a day, maybe two, then you’d return with your scoop. After that . . . well, you’d be in demand, let me assure you of that.” He laughed. “I hope you accept. Just tell Jeffries and Usher, and you can be on your way.” He lifted a hand. “Goodbye, Su.”

His image vanished. She heard a discreet cough behind her. She’d never even heard the pair enter the room.

She stared at them.

The Heliopause Project had found something, something big.

“Well, Ms. Lingard?”

“I need a little time to talk this over with my father.”

“We can give you thirty minutes, but the schedule is tight.”

She brushed past them, hurried along the warped passage to the front room, knocked and entered.

Her father looked up, smiled, and laid aside his detective novel. “Is something wrong?” he asked, his smile faltering.

She knelt before him, took his hand and said, “Something’s happened out there, with the Heliopause Project. I just had a call from Charles. He wants me to go out there, report on it.”

She explained what Charles had said.

For a fraction of a second she saw fear in his eyes. “For how long?”

“A little over two weeks.”

He smiled. Relieved, she thought. He gripped her hand. “And do you want to go?”

Did she want to see Charles again, he meant.

She hesitated, then nodded.

“Then go, Suzanne. It’s an opportunity you’d be a fool to pass up.”

“I’ll come straight back to you,” she said. “You’ll be the first person I’ll tell about what I find, I promise.”

He echoed her words. “It will change everything we know about everything . . .” he said.

She lifted her father’s frail hand and kissed his fingers.

• • • •

She started to dripfeed the story from the shuttle flight to Utrecht, warning her networks and street team that she was going to have some downtime for the next couple of weeks, and hinting that Christmas was going to bring something big this year.

Her editor called almost immediately, wanting to know what was going on. “I don’t know,” she told her. “Something big is all I can say. You just have to trust me, like you did with Jencke, okay?” The Jencke story had won her the first of her European Press Awards, six years ago, and it was guaranteed to win pretty much any argument with her editor on the rare occasion she felt the need to wheel it out. “Could you get Nikki to cover for me?”

“Nikki’s on a break to finish her new documentary,” said her editor. “Seems like everyone wants a long Christmas this year.”

• • • •

There was only one other person waiting in the executive lounge at Utrecht when Suzanne arrived, escorted by Jeffries and Usher.

“Nikki? Is that you? I thought you had a documentary to edit?”

Suzanne?”

The women approached each other, kissed cheeks and hugged, then stepped back like wary animals.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Nikki asked. She was short, with spiky dark hair and cheeks that tended to pinkness like those of a china doll. “I thought I had an exclusive . . .”

“You’re not the only one,” said Suzanne. The two of them went back years together, both at the forefront of the new journalism that harnessed the power of the networks, riding the waves of viral news-chatter, seeding and feeding stories as they went. “Herding the waves,” Nikki had termed it, way back.

A new arrival interrupted their reunion.

“Chinwag,” whispered Nikki, as if Suzanne wouldn’t recognise the young journalist who went by that name online.

Right now, she desperately regretted signing an agreement that had included a comms blackout for the duration of this trip. If Nikki, Suzanne, and Chinwag were here, then there must be others, and the ’nets would be buzzing with rumours about their absence.

She thought back to the message from Charles, and cursed the way she’d weakened like some simpering fool in response to his request. He’d said nothing about exclusivity. He’d just implied it, while laying heavy emphasis on this being a personal thing, a way for him to make up for his bastard past.

It was a job. She should just remind herself of that. A pretty damned big job, if this little gathering was anything to go by.

She could live with that.

• • • •

“So what’s it all about? Why us? What have they found?”

The same questions, over and over again. That kind of repeated speculation would have been bad enough in the best of circumstances, but in such claustrophobic confines it was the verbal equivalent of the Chinese water torture.

Suzanne cut herself off from the chatter as much as possible, after the first few rounds had been enough to confirm that not one of the journalists squeezed into this cruiser had the faintest idea what was really going on.

The worst of it was all the hanging around and the slow acceleration out of orbit; she was thankful that much of the journey would be spent under sedation in a gel bunk, to protect them all from the heavy acceleration.

She’d gone zero-gee before, so she knew what to expect. She knew the tiredness and nausea would pass, and that eventually she’d regain the knack of controlling the exaggerated movements of her limbs. And she knew that she would even get accustomed to the lack of personal space and boundaries, the touch and smells of so many others in such close confines.

She tried not to dwell on how she might react when she met Charles again. He had been the one man, other than her father, who could break through her barriers. He could be infuriating and charming in the same breath, but he was also rarely less than interesting.

Perhaps that was it. Perhaps their relationship had always been destined to break under the strain. She had been drawn to him for the same reasons she was drawn to journalism: She wanted to be inspired, she wanted to see things she had never seen before. Charles had intrigued and fascinated her, and he would not have been Charles if he’d turned down the opportunity to lead a mission to travel farther than any human being had gone before.

Like a comet drawn to the sun, his trajectory must always pull him away again.

• • • •

At the research station, there was a different, almost minty freshness to the air, which Suzanne knew was only in contrast to the rank air of the cruiser. There was room to move around, places where the only sounds were the mechanical, physical sounds of the station: the hum of pipes and fans, unidentifiable clunks and thuds and whistles and background hiss. There was a viewing area that showed them real-time views from outside, the sun merely a bright star from this far out.

She should have been more bowled over by all this, she knew. For all that she was blasé about being an orbital veteran, this was way more than mere orbital: This was “we’ve almost left the Solar System.”

All of this should have had far more impact.

But there was Charles, hanging in the viewing gallery to greet the new arrivals, and she was pitched back two years, to when they’d been together. She hated that response. She was not that weak, dependent kind of woman.

you and me . . . our relationship . . . it was never going anywhere

Cameras always add a few pounds. When he’d messaged her he’d looked as if he was carrying a bit more weight, but no, he’d looked after himself out here. You had to; it was all part of the discipline.

There was something about him, though. Something that had changed. A change more significant than the greying at his temples.

“Su.”

He ignored the rest of them, focused only on Suzanne. There was something in his eyes. Fear. Was he scared of how she would treat him?

Then he snapped his attention into a broader focus, gave that charismatic smile of his and spread his arms, welcoming the dozen journalists who had just emerged not-at-all fresh from the cruiser.

“Welcome,” he said. “We really are pleased to have you join us.”

From this point on, everything he said was for public consumption. They would be recording him with retinal cams, sub-voking their own commentaries into storage, all ready for when the media blackout was lifted.

“I know you’ve all been speculating about the reason for this strange invitation,” he went on. “You’re wondering why a multi-billion euro project like this wouldn’t already have a communications plan in place, why we would scrap all that and turn to you guys instead. And I know you’re all going to be incredibly frustrated when I refuse to tell you.”

There was an immediate surge of grumbling voices. All this way, for . . . well, for what?

Suzanne held back. She knew Charles’ ways, and she had seen him smiling as he delivered that message.

He raised his hands for silence, and went on, “If I was going to merely tell you, there would have been no need to bring you out here. We’re going to show you, instead. We’re going to give you twenty minutes to freshen up and then we’re going to show you why you’re here. We’re going to show you the discovery of a lifetime. Of any lifetime. And then we’re going to ask you to go back to Earth and do all you can to prepare the ground for the breaking of this story. Because when this is made public, we have no way of anticipating the response. You’re here because you’re the best, and you have networks and street teams where elements of this story can be seeded and spread so that people are, in some way, at least, prepared.”

Only now did Suzanne recognise that look in his eye, the subtext to all of this. Only now did she see that it was fear.

• • • •

They filed into one of the station’s shuttles, a couple of the less experienced guests in danger of turning the process into a game of zero-gee billiards. Threading her way through the bodies, Suzanne managed to snag herself into a seat up front next to Charles.

“No windows on these things, but you could have rigged up some viewscreens so we could see outside if you wanted us to. What’s going on, Charles? The only time I’ve seen you looking more scared than this was when you were reciting your vows.” A low blow, but she could have delivered better if she hadn’t been holding back. Two years’ worth of better.

He put a hand on hers, where it rested on her knee, and that surprised her so much she let it lie. He really was on edge. She tried not to take too much comfort in his touch.

“You don’t know how much I want to tell you, Su. How much I want to say. Something like this . . . well, it stops you in your tracks. Makes you reassess your life, everything.”

“It must be big if it’s made you realise what a bastard you were.”

The look in his eyes. It was as if she’d just kicked a puppy.

“Why can’t you tell me?”

A long silence, then: “I . . . Hell, Su, there just aren’t the words for it. That’s why you guys are here. There just aren’t the words.”

As the shuttle pulled away from the station, briefly pressing them back into their seats, Charles raised a hand for the attention of the other passengers. “This will just be a short hop,” he said. “So don’t make yourselves too comfortable.” There were a few grunts and chuckles in response: Nobody was ever going to get comfortable in the cramped passenger hold of one of these tiny crates.

“We are now approaching the heliopause, a notional boundary line where the force of the solar wind is counter-balanced by that of the stellar winds of our neighbouring stars. A bow wave, if you like, as our home star ploughs through the interstellar medium.”

“So what are we looking out for?” Chinwag asked.

“According to theory and the most recent readings before this expedition, there should be a number of measurable effects, including changes in the magnetic field and an increased level of cosmic radiation. None of these should affect us within this shuttle.”

“So what are we looking for?” the journalist repeated.

“If I could just beg your patience for a few more minutes,” Charles said, and would say no more.

The end of the shuttle hop was marked with a jolt and a muffled, metallic clank.

Charles had held her hand for the whole fifteen minutes, but now he released his grip and pushed away from his seat’s retainers. Twisting in mid-air, he caught himself against the forward bulkhead and looked around the gathered journalists.

That same scared look again.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press,” he said. “I am about to say the first of many sentences I never imagined myself saying. Ladies and gentlemen, we have just landed on the heliopause.”

• • • •

The babble of voices showed no sign of dying down as the journalists bombarded Charles with questions. Even when Charles spoke, the noise barely eased. “Please,” he said. “If you would follow me to the airlock. We’re going outside.”

The journalists exchanged glances. Chinwag said, “Did I hear that right? Outside?”

Charles said, “That’s right. We’re going outside.”

“But aren’t we going to suit up?”

Charles smiled to himself and indicated the airlock.

There was only room for four at a time in the lock, and Charles made sure that Suzanne was among the three to join him. On one wall someone had placed a handwritten sign with a big arrow and the word “DOWN.”

Just as she was puzzling over this, and wondering why they didn’t have to wear suits, the outer door hissed open and Charles took her hand and tugged her out—and instantly the meaning of the sign became clear.

Out here . . . outside the damned shuttle . . . there was a down.

She fell, expecting to hurt herself. Instead she landed on all fours on a grey, sponge-like substance. She looked around her in wonder. They were in a tunnel a little wider than the shuttle.

Charles helped her to her feet, studying her reactions. “We’re here,” he said. “Inside the heliopause.”

“That’s another one of those sentences you didn’t think you’d ever say, right?”

“What is it?” That was Nikki, climbing to her feet. She clearly hadn’t understood the notice and had been taken by surprise by the up and down after the zero-gee of the station.

The other journalist, a guy Suzanne vaguely recognised from his online avatar, stayed quiet, as if struck dumb.

“What is this place?” asked Nikki, more forcefully this time.

“It’s what it looks like,” said Charles. “A tunnel. A tunnel through the heliopause.”

The tunnel was about five metres high and wide, with a flat floor and arched walls and ceiling, as if a horse’s hoof had been pushed through the ’pause’s spongy material.

The airlock had cycled again as they spoke, and another batch of four tumbled from the shuttle. When all twelve were out, along with four members of Charles’ team, the project’s director stood before them.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am sorry that we couldn’t have prepared you for this. But how do you prepare people for the inconceivable?” He gave a soft laugh then, before continuing. “Well, that’s why you’re here. All the communications plans in the world couldn’t prepare us. Telling you is not enough. We had to bring you here and show you, and then it’s down to you to work out with us how on Earth we break this to the rest of the human race.”

Voices rose again the moment he paused for breath. As he waved back towards the shuttle, heads turned and the babble eased. “We have just passed through an airlock. It was encrypted, but my team is good: We worked out how to get through. It was a little easier than expected. My own view is that we were meant to find our way through. If we’ve reached this point, maybe we’re smart enough to be entrusted with what lies beyond. If you’d care to follow me, we have a short hike, and then you will see what only a few before you have seen.”

“But . . . but what is this?”

“It’s a shell,” Charles said. “A great shell around the solar system. It’s clearly an artificial construct. Like the skin around a bubble or balloon; a Dyson sphere, if you like. We don’t know what it’s made of, but we believe that the heliopause itself possesses some form of sentience: enough to constantly manipulate what we could see and measure from Earth. Enough to cast the illusion of the universe as we have understood it up until very recently.”

None of this, Suzanne thought, could be real.

She stood there, trying to let at least some of it sink in. The universe . . . an illusion. A smart shield around the solar system, manipulating their view of what lay beyond.

“So, Charles,” she said, and somehow her small voice cut through the jabber and everyone turned to look at her. “If everything up until now has been some clever kind of illusion . . . if we’ve grown up isolated from the real universe . . . then what is out there? What’s beyond the heliopause?”

• • • •

Bubbles.

Thousands of them. Millions of them. Each with a slightly oily sheen against the darkness of the void.

Like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Each bubble, another solar system, shut off like their own.

“Nobody could have ever conceived of something like this,” Charles said, standing at her shoulder. They had walked for longer than the shuttle flight had taken, maybe two kilometres, Suzanne guessed. Now they gathered on some kind of viewing platform, a clear blister on the outside of the heliopause. It was as if this had all been set up for them, as if this moment had been orchestrated by some greater intelligence. A rite of passage. Already, the story was shaping in her head, as Charles had known it must.

“I’m so sorry, Su,” he said, and for long seconds she was confused at his abrupt change in tack. “I was a bastard,” he went on. “Worse: a calculated bastard. Back then, I had to make a choice and I chose this. We didn’t know what we’d find back then, of course. Only that it would be world-shattering. Ever since Voyager 1 hit the heliopause back in 2013, we knew things must be very different to what we had, until then, understood. That’s why we had to come out here to see for ourselves, just as the creators of this shell must have intended.”

“You chose this.” How could he not?

“We didn’t know what we’d find. We didn’t know if we’d ever return.”

And so he had been brutal. He had chosen to break her heart rather than leave her pining for a distant love who may never come home.

“You bastard.”

“I know.” He reached down and took her hand once again, and she decided to let him, for now.

• • • •

The journalists talked. They talked so much it hurt, and still they continued, buzzing with speculations and ideas for how to handle this astonishing news. There would be official announcements, of course. Even as the team of journalists headed back to Earth, governments and international agencies were planning how to break the news. But nothing would happen until the ground had been prepared with countless seedings across the ’net. All of those invited out to the heliopause were skilled in this, the new journalism. It was about managing the chatter, herding the waves; it was about building speculation and rumour and discussion until they went viral, and then the extraordinary would appear to be the inevitable when the news finally broke.

But first . . . First, Suzanne had a promise to keep.

• • • •

The snow had gone now, and the soft Suffolk landscape was blurred with a steady drizzle. Shutting down her implant, she lost touch with the buzz. As always, it felt like an amputation, particularly at a time like this. In the back seat of the taxi, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

She recalled what Charles had said, before she’d boarded the shuttle home. He was returning to Earth in a couple of months, and he wanted to see her again. Suzanne had been too stunned by his words to work out how she felt about his request; she’d prevaricated, said she needed time to think it over.

But before she made that decision, she had another to consider. She opened her eyes and stared out across the lawn of her father’s house, to where a light glowed in the living room window.

She wondered how far the disease might have progressed in this short space of time?

“I said ‘We’re here.’”

The driver.

“One minute?” she said, and closed her eyes again. She had promised her father she would tell him first, but now she was filled with doubt. How would he take the news? Would it be the final nail in the coffin of his faith?

But then . . . a phrase Charles had used came back to her. That’s why we had to come out here to see for ourselves, just as the creators of this shell must have intended.

There may be no one Creator, but there really was so much more than just this.

She might never be able to renew her father’s faith, but she knew that she would reawaken his sense of wonder.

“Okay,” she told the driver. “Thank you. I’m ready now.”

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Keith Brooke

Keith Brooke

Keith Brooke is the author of fourteen novels, six collections, and over 70 short stories; his most recent SF novel alt.human (published in the US as Harmony) was shortlisted for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award. He is also the editor of Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the Sub-genres of Science Fiction, an academic exploration of SF from the perspectives of a dozen top authors in the field. Writing as Nick Gifford, his teen fiction is published by Puffin, with one novel also optioned for the movies by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s Caveman Films. His story “War 3.01”, published in Lightspeed in 2012, is shortlisted for the 2015 Seiun Award.

Eric Brown

Eric Brown

Eric Brown has lived in Australia, India, and Greece. He began writing when he was fifteen and sold his first short story to Interzone in 1986. He has won the British Science Fiction Award twice for his short stories and has published over fifty books. His latest include the crime novel Murder at the Loch and the science fiction novel Jani and the Great Pursuit. He has also written a dozen books for children and over a hundred and thirty short stories. He writes a monthly science fiction review column for the Guardian newspaper. He lives in Cockburnspath, Scotland, and his website can be found at: ericbrown.co.uk.