Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Midway

It’s not unusual to hear music in a spaceport arrival lounge. After all, if aliens didn’t enjoy music, I’d never have been able to travel.

But this sounded familiar. Disturbingly familiar. Standing in line, I felt a sinking sensation as the tune wound its way to its conclusion. It was The Beatles. Millions of light years from Earth and I was listening to The Beatles.

How did I feel?

For nearly fifteen years now, I’ve been the first. The first human to step onto whichever planet I’ve arrived at, the first to breath the alien air, the first to make contact with yet another alien race. Today that run was broken. Someone had been here before me.

So how did I feel? Confused? Angry? A little scared, even?

All those things. But if I’m honest, I also felt relieved.

• • • •

Of the billions of planets in the galaxy, there are only a small percentage that have the right conditions for humans to visit. Of those, a still smaller percentage support life we can interact with. By that I mean life that comes in individual organic bodies, that isn’t a hive mind, or a cloud of gas, or electrical potentials in a crystal matrix. I mean the sort of life that travels by faster-than-light ships and understands the concept of trade in intellectual property.

Fortunately, there are so many planets in the galaxy that even a fraction of a fraction of a percentage still leaves a vast number for travellers such as myself to visit.

Explorers, adventurers, individuals. We head out on unique paths: It would be bad manners to choose a path that intersects with a fellow traveller.

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine someone blew on the dandelion Earth. We’re the expanding cloud of seeds, drifting through the wonders of the universe.

We expose ourselves to the experiences of the galaxy, we trade the accumulated culture of millennia that we carry in the memory of our consoles. Poetry, literature, music, images, movies, mathematics: all scanned and digitised, ready to be shared. In short, we trade the achievements of Earth for food, accommodation and onward travel.

Why do we do it?

Let me tell you something. The first humans who travelled into space were scientists. Twelve white men. They went to the moon, walked around, collected rocks and measured things. Then they came back home. What did we learn about the moon from that?

Nothing.

We should have sent poets and writers and artists to the moon, people who could communicate what it was really like to be there. We should have sent people like us. The travellers. We head to the galaxy core to bathe in a field of light and radiation, or we travel outwards to the rim, to stand at the edge of emptiness. We post our experiences to our streams so that those back at home can appreciate the alien.

That’s how I’ve lived for nearly thirty years. For the last fifteen of those years, I’ve been at the cutting edge of an expanding bubble of human space. Everything I’ve seen has been fresh, everything I’ve experienced, original.

Until today.

It’s ironic. A few weeks ago I passed my fiftieth birthday, alone in a cabin on just another alien ship travelling between the stars. I reached the midpoint of my life at the midpoint of the journey, and it gave me pause.

The halfway point of life. It’s a sobering thought. The decision point: Go onward, or turn around and return to Earth. For weeks I’d been wondering if I’d ever see another human again. I’d been wondering whether to go on into the unknown, or to return home.

Now the decision had been taken from me. Home had come to me, here in this spaceport.

• • • •

“Hey Earth Guy! Come talk to me!”

The words were spoken by a fungus-covered biped sitting at one of the many bars that filled the deliberately circuitous route from arrivals to the transport interchange.

“Hey! I know you can hear me, Earth Guy!”

Some people are of the opinion that, just because they recognise your species, they have a monopoly on your time. I don’t share that opinion. I kept on walking, tried to blend in with the other passengers, hoping that the strange creature didn’t call out to them instead.

“Earth Guy! Where are your manners? Come on! Talk to me! You are travel a long way from home! I got some news for you! You speak to me, I tell you a secret! Something you want to know!”

Of course he had a secret. They always do. Everyone thinks they have a story or a secret or some piece of knowledge no one else has. That’s how they convince themselves they’re special.

Not me. I am different. There’s no one like me for light years. I’ve traded my way across the galaxy on the basis of my uniqueness. It’s only in the past few years I have begun to realise that anyone could have done what I’ve done. Just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Something gave way inside me and I ended up taking a seat next to the creature. Not too close. The fungus that covered his chitinous skin smelled unpleasant.

“That’s it!” he said, obviously delighted. “You sit here. Sit here with Rexel. We have a drink! This far from home, how many people know how to have a drink and a chat?”

“Not many,” I said.

“So you buy me a drink and I tell you a secret.”

I ordered two Andromedan spirits, a drink they serve across the galaxy that is neither a spirit nor Andromedan.

The barthing placed two porous clay bowls before us. Rexel had no hands. I watched as he reached out with two arms ending in fungus-covered spoons that stuck to the bowl. He lifted it into the air and sniffed. I did the same.

“Oh, that’s good!” said Rexel, his fungus covering shimmering orange. I blinked, trying to figure out if the effect was real or just the spirit playing games with my vision.

“So what’s the secret?” I asked.

Rexel looked around, as if he expected others to be listening. No one was. We were in the anonymous region of the spacelines, the impersonal corridors that accommodate every species without quite suiting any. The lighting is always a little too bright, the atmosphere antiseptic.

“I like aliens,” said Rexel. “I was study them at university. Maybe I travel the galaxy too. Maybe I go towards Earth.”

I shrugged. “That’s a plan.”

“Build on known knowledge, not have to discover new places. My way is depth not breadth.”

“Good for you. So what do you know?”

“I know humans. I know about you. You are male.”

“You’re very perceptive,” I said, carefully.

“I see human who visit this place before you. I know where that human go.”

I feigned boredom.

“I’m not sure what that’s got to do with me,” I said. “I travel alone.”

“All the time?” said Rexel. “I think you are interested. I know about humans. About sex drive.”

I gazed into my bowl, trying to conceal my quickening interest. The Andromedan spirit was pale blue, a white vapour rolled across the surface.

Rexel chattered on.

“This human who came through here. She are female. That interest you, I think. A human woman! When was the last time you see a woman?”

Twelve years ago.

“You want to see a woman again?”

And that was the thing. I just didn’t know.

• • • •

Let me explain.

There’s a story that goes round the streams claiming that the universe is much smaller than we thought. So what? you might say. Well, there’s another theory that the universe enfolds itself, that if you travel for long enough in one direction, you get back to where you started.

It’s a story that’s often told amongst those of us heading outwards.

Here’s another story. In this one, they’re developing a new sort of FTL drive. One that’s much, much faster than the one we currently use. That drive is almost built, they say. Ships are due to come leaping through the galaxy. Sometime soon they’ll appear out here at the edge of the expansion.

You can hear the edge of desperation in the voices of the people who repeat those stories. Those people are regretting their journey but don’t want to admit it, least of all to themselves. I met many people like that in the first years of my journey; I resolved there and then never to turn out like them. I would go on, or I would return home, but whatever I did, I would make a definite decision. I wouldn’t travel on saying I believed one thing, secretly hoping for something else to be the case.

And yet, here I was at the midway of my life and, guess what? Hey presto! Another human had appeared. Not just another human, but a woman.

I wanted to see her, yes. But for what reason? Was this a way of dipping my toe in the water of human company again?

“Where did she go?” I asked.

“Ah! You pay!” he said.

“I have nothing to pay,” I answered. “My world’s culture is here already. I have enough credit to travel on to one more planet. Maybe two. I need to sell my culture soon, or I’ll be stranded.”

“You have something to pay. I’m . . . what’s the word . . .?” Rexel tilted his head, checking something, somehow. “Anthropologist. We mate, you and me. That’s how you pay.”

He gazed at me.

“This make you uncomfortable?”

It didn’t make me uncomfortable.

First, don’t be fooled by the pronouns. The translator on my console was hit by some archaic upgrade a few planets back which caused it to default to he/him. This was an alien. Sex and gender rarely equate with human forms.

Second, when dealing with anthropologists, you’ll find it’s not the plumbing so much as the ritual, the courtship, that interests them.

Anyway, why go into space if not to experience the other?

That wasn’t the reason for my silence.

No. The reason was that by asking the woman’s whereabouts, I’d made a choice. I’d already taken a step towards Earth. Despite my recent doubts, I’d lived this way for fifteen years. It was a big step to go off chasing another human.

And there was a risk, too. The risk of bitter disappointment. It was attractive, the thought of listening to a woman’s voice. A woman who had travelled like me. She would understand. However different we were, we’d both be part of the same jigsaw puzzle. I ached for that.

But what if Rexel had got it wrong? I heard of someone who travelled six months only to find themselves in an alien museum displaying a copy of the Venus de Milo.

I should have thought about it. It was too big a decision to make after a bowl of spirit. But my mouth seemed to speak for me.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

• • • •

And so I mated with Rexel. Like I said, it’s not the sex, it’s not even the foreplay, though you’d be surprised how far you can go with some races.

Of course, if you read my stream, you’d know all about this.

I wonder how many people really read my stream?

Anyway, I did it, and it was enjoyable. It nearly always is. And when we’d finished, Rexel gave me a location. Another planet. I used some of my rapidly depleting credit to buy a ticket on to the next place . . .

• • • •

Another three weeks spent on an FTL ship, travelling to yet another planet.

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that these ships are my true home. The passenger ships with their retail areas selling standardised artefacts of sanitised cultures. The food decks with their shape-coded buffets. The endless corridors where so many species share the same space without really mingling.

There’s a feeling of stasis, being a passenger on a ship. Everyone is busy but you. Security, entertainment, controllers, helpers: They all have their role. Passengers have nothing to do but sleep and eat and walk the corridors and socialise.

I’d given up on socialising on ships years ago. There was nothing to be learnt in space. Species on their home worlds are interesting. On a ship, even the most alien creature is just another traveller.

I stayed in my quarters and fretted. I’d committed to looking for the woman. I tried to prepare myself for disappointment. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care. Whether I saw her or not, I would continue with my travels.

Or maybe return home.

I found myself flicking through some of the Earth texts on my console. Odd, I’d travelled so far and yet I’d never really looked at the culture I carried with me.

One of the texts really grabbed my attention. It was a description of Hell: to be removed an infinite distance from God. The farther out you go, the harder it is to go back. You spend eternity convincing yourself you’re moving in the right direction.

• • • •

At last we made planetfall. My screen showed an uninspiring view of wide marshes, gray with birds. I’ve posted to my stream many times about the importance of not being put off by your first sight of a planet. Spaceports are often set in desolate regions, places where little damage is caused should things go wrong.

I felt a sense of excitement I hadn’t had in years. The sense was heightened when I left the ship. This was an old-fashioned spaceport: I had disembarked outside, into the elements, stood between the glass wall of the arrivals lounge and the artificial world of the ship’s interior. Caught in an untamed strip of the world with the wind gusting rain over me.

I smiled. The weather was invigorating. I felt like a traveller again, felt the thrill of arrival, of a new world to explore.

According to my console, the planet was named Kâffk’k, and the spaceport I’d landed at was in the country of Ké, near the city of UAff’k. I’d long given up caring. Those alien names sound so exotic, but they invariably turn out to mean River Port or Three Hills or West Bridge.

Even so, this planet was charmingly rustic. The arrivals lounge was small. It was decorated in gray slate and clear panes of what looked to be real glass. The merchants were all local; there were none of the familiar retail chains that made one place in the galaxy just the same as any other.

The dominant species of this world reminded me of hairy anteaters. They had an alarming habit of rearing up on their hind legs to look at you with their disturbingly human brown eyes. Their long, incredibly sensitive tongues were used in place of hands to manipulate objects. I saw one of them crouching on all fours by an open inspection panel in a wall, tongue flickering back and forth as it fixed some fault.

It took me some time to find the government trading post. It was located in a transparent dome down a gravel path some distance from the arrivals lounge. Rain pattered on the roof of the dome as I handed across my console.

“Thank you,” said the Trading Official. “Just give me a moment.”

“You speak English!” I said. I couldn’t remember the last time I heard someone speak an Earth language. In space, everyone communicates in Brevo. Rexel had spoken Brevo.

“I don’t speak English,” said the alien. “It’s enough that you do. We’re a telepathic race.”

“Oh. So, have you encountered humans before?” Had it seen the woman, in other words?

It fixed me with one of its liquid brown eyes.

“One thing we value above all else on Kâffk’k is privacy.”

“I’m sorry.”

It interfaced its console with mine. I watched as it read what it found there.

“Fifty-five percent of your culture is known to us. Fifteen percent is of no interest. We would be willing to buy the remaining thirty percent.”

“Go for it,” I said.

My console interfaced with the alien’s as it ran the Fair Exchange software. I gave my consent to the transaction and watched with satisfaction as my credit level took on a more healthy appearance.

“I’m looking for another human,” I said. “I was told she was on this planet.”

“As I said, we respect privacy on this world.”

“Oh.”

I waited. There would be a way. There always was.

“If people want to be found, they travel to the UAff’k gardens.”

“The UAff’k gardens? How do I get there?”

“Take the fanboat to UAff’k. Someone there will give you directions.”

• • • •

Kâffk’k turned out to be a really rather beautiful planet. The inhabitants liked their privacy, and that turned out to be a good thing. They kept their towns and cities small, they tucked them away amongst the surrounding landscape, they hid them amongst the large polished boulders that littered the planet. I wasn’t sure if the boulders were natural or carefully crafted. Either way, they looked rather spectacular, especially when the setting sun cast long shadows across the land.

The boulders were impressive; the trees, however, were something else. Evolution fills niches in similar ways on each world. Kâffk’k trees had hairy leaves and polished bark and were quietly wonderful. The inhabitants were rightly proud of their trees.

If the planet was beautiful, then the UAff’k gardens were sublime. My console informed me they had been cultivated for thousands of years, that the landscape and stone and vegetation had been carefully shaped over the centuries to achieve an aspect most pleasing to the native eye. It was certainly pleasing to the human eye.

I followed paths made of patterned stone slabs that were laid throughout the forest seemingly at random. The garden was peaceful, but I felt a growing sense of frustration. How was I supposed to find anyone here? The place seemed vast. I could wander for weeks without seeing anyone.

There were sleeping platforms hidden around the garden. As evening approached, I would choose one on which to spend the night. Sometimes I would come across a Kâffk’k family curled around each other and I would back away, hands raised in apology. Mostly though, the platforms were empty and I would curl up in a heat field and sleep, dreaming of Earth.

Dreaming of women.

• • • •

I woke up to a cold morning. The nearby ponds were covered in patterns of ice. The fern patterns were the same as the ones back on Earth.

Someone was standing before me, reared up on their hind legs, big brown eyes gazing at me. A youth. You pick up a sense about these things. It seemed more eager, more interested in me than an adult would be.

“May I read your mind?” he said. He. That was the gender he assigned himself in my thoughts.

“You’re asking permission?” I wondered.

“Of course.”

“You’ll know all my thoughts, all my memories?”

“No. I see your speech centres only.”

“Then you’re reading my mind, surely?”

“I am. But I will stop if you wish me to.”

I laughed.

“No, go on. I’m assuming there’s nothing much to see in my speech centres anyway.”

“Nothing for you to be embarrassed about.”

“Good. So. What can I do for you?”

“You’re a traveller. I want to be a traveller, too.”

That was me once.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to see new places. I want to tell people here about them. I’ve been reading your stream, I’ve been reading your impressions of my planet. It’s . . . interesting. You have a different perspective.”

“A different perspective?” I said. I could hear the bitterness in my voice. “So what? There are billions of people out there. Trillions. The last thing we need is another perspective.”

The creature swayed. He seemed shocked.

“How can you say that? I read your stream, it helped me to understand what it was to be human.”

“Really?”

I didn’t want to say that I didn’t think I was the best person to comment on what it was to be human. Not now. I’m so far from home, so removed from human company.

Despite his promise to the contrary, the creature appeared to be picking up on my thoughts.

“You seem angry to see me,” he said.

“I’m not angry at you. I’m angry at myself. You have a lovely home world. Why would you want to leave it?”

“For the same reason you left your home world, I imagine.”

“That was then,” I said, suddenly drained of all energy. “I’m so tired of this. All of this travelling, and to what end? What have I achieved?”

“You’ve seen the universe!”

“No. I’ve seen just a little bit of the galaxy. And not even all of that. Just the parts of it where people fly spaceships, where they welcome aliens, where they are not only similar enough to us to breathe air and eat food, but similar enough to have the concept of tourist.”

“I don’t understand.”

I shook my head.

“I do. Listen, there are too many people like me, all unique and all boring because of it. Don’t do it. Stay here. Raise a family. Do something useful with your life.”

“How can you say that? You didn’t stay at home!”

“I wish I had. I wish I had someone tell me the same when I was your age. No, you’ve done me a favour. You’ve helped me to decide. I’ve had enough. I’m going back.”

“Going back where?”

“Back home. Back to Earth.”

“Why?”

“Because if I don’t turn around now, I’ll never get there. It took me thirty years to get out here. It will take me another thirty years to get back.”

I looked over his shoulder, and I froze.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

• • • •

She was standing in the trees, watching me.

I swallowed. I didn’t realise it would be like this. I didn’t realise just how huge a thing it would be. Another human. So familiar, and so different.

She was coming forward. Walking into the clearing.

“You realise it only reflects back your thoughts?” she said. “You’re not really having a conversation with the creature. You’re having a conversation with yourself.”

The sound of her voice. The way she walked. The shape of her face, the curve of the back of her neck, the slenderness of her wrists. I drank it all in. She must have felt it, too. Her pupils were dilated, she couldn’t keep the look of happy eagerness from her face. When was the last time she’d seen a man, I wondered?

We stared at each other. She reached out and touched my chin, rasped the prickle of my beard. I closed my eyes. I’d hidden from myself how much I’d missed that, the touch of a human hand.

We lay on the platform and made love. Why not? We’d neither of us seen another human for so long. It was just so right to touch and feel and to do something we were made to do. To be with someone who was part of the same jigsaw.

But only once. That was enough. If we’d cared for human contact that much, we’d never have left Earth.

We talked. She was ten years older than me, and she’d set off from Earth ten years ahead of me.

“At first I just travelled outwards,” she said. “And then, ten years ago, when I was about your age, I started to think to myself, what’s the point?”

She smiled as she saw my expression. “You feel the same?”

I nodded.

“I was on a planet,” she said. “I’d just traded my culture for credit, and it suddenly came to me, all this time I’d been looking at the new, I’d never really sampled the old. I’d carried the culture of Earth across the galaxy on my console, and I’d never thought to look at it myself.”

Her words hit me like a blow to the stomach. I’d done the same. Only a couple of weeks ago, on the ship, I’d done the same.

She was gazing up into the gray sky.

“That night, I listened to some music. Something completely at random. At first I thought I’d made a mistake, that I was playing something from some alien planet I’d visited.”

She hummed something to herself. Then she spoke.

“It sounded so odd. I looked at my console. It wasn’t alien. I was listening to something from Earth. Music played on a koto, tuned to the Insen scale. Have you heard it? No? And then suddenly, I felt cast adrift. The music. Only five notes in the scale, and yet there was so much depth. So much there. I understood something then. All this travelling and I’d only touched the surface. I’d only seen the skin: the wonders, the architecture, the spectacles. I’d never seen the little things. The houses, the families, the sick, the elderly. I’d never encountered the human side of being alien. Do you understand what I mean?”

I did.

“I’ve been thinking the same,” I said. “That’s what made my mind up. That’s why I’m going back.”

“Really?” she said. “I didn’t.”

I sat up. Swung my legs over the side of the platform.

“Why not?”

She remained lying there, hands behind her head. She smiled.

“I remembered the old joke,” she said, “and I thought, well, if I were to start my life again, I wouldn’t start it from here. You know, like the man asking for directions?”

“I don’t know the joke,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter.” She sat up. She hugged her legs with her arms. “But it occurred to me that I was where I was, and I’d done what I’d done.”

She pushed me, indicated that she wanted me to move so she could get off the platform. She stepped out into the clearing and stretched her hands into the air. I watched her as slowly, she turned around in a circle.

When she was facing me once more she dropped her hands and smiled.

“And this is what I’m going to keep on doing,” she said. “I can’t start again, but I can make this work. You can trade in your car or you can fix it up and turn it into a classic. I think the second option is the better choice. That’s what I’ve been doing. Come on.”

She held out a hand. I took it, and it felt warm and dry. She pulled me to my feet.

“Everyone loses confidence half way through a project,” she said. “It’s only natural. But this was right when you started and it’s right now. You’re more that person you wanted to be now than you were at the beginning.”

“But . . .”

“No buts.” She wagged her finger at me. “I’m not saying we’re perfect. Of course we’re not. But fixing the faults and admitting the mistakes is the brave thing, not giving up and starting again. You’re in danger of sinking into bitterness and cynicism. Why? You’re out here where no human has ever been.”

She laughed. She was still holding my hand. I didn’t want her to let go.

“Well, apart from me. But in a week’s time we’ll both be moving on again. You left Earth. It was the right decision at the time. You enjoyed what you were doing.”

She squeezed my hand, a sixty-year-old woman on a far-away planet, and she seemed so full of life. So human.

“Dreams die,” she said. “Reinvigorate them. The start is the easy part, it’s always harder halfway through, that’s when it’s more important to keep going. You’re midway in your life, caught between nothing and nothing. Move from believing in something to looking for it. That’s what drove you out here, looking for fulfilment.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Everyone wants fulfilment.”

“Exactly,” she said. “And they find it by loving deeply or by standing in awe before the universe. Well, you chose the latter. So go on! You can choose to journey inwards or outwards. You and me, we chose outwards. So follow that path to the end!”

She was smiling at me, watching me as I processed what she had said.

I was holding her hand, her liver-spotted hand that had travelled all the way across the Galaxy to find my hand and those two things fitted together perfectly. Soon we would let go and move apart. I would travel on alone. And then what? I thought of dying on some alien world.

Then I thought of dying on Earth. What was the difference?

It was the life before that mattered, not the brief moment of extinction.

Tony Ballantyne

Tony Ballantyne

Tony Ballantyne is the author of the acclaimed Penrose and Recursion series of novels as well as many short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world. He has been nominated for the BSFA and Philip K Dick awards.

Dream Paris, a follow up to the critically acclaimed Dream London, was published in September 2015.

He is currently getting back to his SF roots by writing a space opera. Due to popular demand, he has also recently begun working on a series of short stories set in the Recursion universe.

He lives in Oldham, near Manchester. Find out more at tonyballantyne.com.