The Fourteenth Year
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.
Heather knocked sharply again on the white door; this time she tried four smart taps in a neat rhythm. Adding some variety to her knocking might perhaps aid her sanity, as might ceasing to shout at the doors altogether. Firmly, she knocked four times on the next door, and then on the remaining six, which were arranged at regular intervals along a predictably white corridor. At the last, she tried once again to shake or rattle the matt white doorhandle; as usual it held firm, robustly unmovable. She took a deep breath, then walked back past her own open door and into the incongruously carpeted living room.
That she would awaken in this environment, this artificial apartment with its kitchen, bathroom, running water and perfectly normal gravity, had been conveyed to her before she had been injected with the anaesthetic which was to precede her travelling coma. Whether it was all physically real, as it certainly felt it to be as she leaned back now on a comfortable chair, upholstered in palest ivory, or whether it was some kind of simulation, she did not know. One did not ask. But her understanding, confirmed by her host, had been that she would become conscious at the same time as the rest of her team, and that this would happen only when the ship neared its destination.
Constant bright light and no access to even the simplest technology made it difficult to measure time, but her sleep patterns, surprisingly intact, implied that several days had passed since she had first left her room, alone and disorientated. There had been no sound from the others’ rooms, no sound at all save for a predictable, unchanging mechanical hum, comforting at first. There had been no communication of any kind from her hosts either; but that was, she considered, somewhat to be expected.
There were no exterior doors; she had searched for them everywhere with a tense thoroughness. A single large window was placed over the dining table, which was now messy with the remains of Heather’s meals. Through or behind the window was more whiteness, different in kind from the everyday texture and colour of the human-friendly décor; a milky, mother-of pearl translucence. No movement, no scale; even if the aperture were really to show some kind of exterior view, she could have perceived neither anyway, lacking any focal point or detail to provide perspective.
Perhaps it was just a wall. She observed the enigma impassively, dredging her memory again for scraps of knowledge about physics. Heather, like all the team, was not a scientist in the old sense of the word, but at best a polymath, a reader. She spent her free hours at home devouring everything of interest in any field which she might find in the arbitrary medley of books and articles which floated around the new, curtailed internet, or were preserved on mouldy, valuable paper. She now no longer knew what she would have specialised in, if such a thing had been possible.
For Heather’s grandparents, the idea of studying at school, gaining a degree, focussing a natural intelligence and curiosity like hers into real, useful expertise, was something they could still recall and explain, and thus for Heather’s generation it was not yet quite impossible to envisage. There were, however, no schools now on Earth. In the thirteen years of accelerating famine, displacement and war which had begun in earnest after the third failure of the Asian monsoon, such things had become an irrelevance. For nine years the monsoon had not returned, leaving half the planet barren and desiccated by drought. By this time new diseases in addition to starvation had the cut back the remainder of human societies so savagely that few cities still possessed a functioning health system, let alone formal education.
Yet her scattered and random knowledge and what some saw as a brittle, youthful enthusiasm had won her a place here. Along with the other six candidates she had accepted her nomination, once proffered, without hesitation, although not of course without misgivings. She sighed, a tiny insignificant sound in a place surrounded by distances beyond imagination.
The possibilities behind Heather’s solitary return to consciousness and its disturbing uneventfulness were becoming jumbled in her mind, on this third day, with the question of what exactly was implied by the ‘view’ from the window. A malfunctioning ship, a faulty medical support, a star ship somehow lost; lost where?
Probabilities; there were not so quite so many of them which might explain her uncomfortable solitude that she could have taken any refuge in what had become known as the fourth Saren Equation. That monstrosity of maths was about possibility and likelihood too, on a much bigger scale.
Anything she could imagine outside was, however, just as hard to encompass, a jarring contrast to the little false earth-like home in which she was trapped. The journey was, she understood, to have taken fourteen earth years - another coincidence. What if this was still the first of those years? She felt rather sick. The re-hydrated food had been exotically delicious; she had rather gorged herself, before the unnerving idea of rationing against a long time trapped here, alone, had intruded upon her feast.
Standing again, she approached the window cautiously, skirting around the table and ignoring the slovenly jumble of leftovers. Tentatively, she touched the transparent substance with an outstretched finger.
It was of the same neutral temperature and texture as the rest of the habitat. What the Saren created was always neat, precise, perfectly adapted to its use. As a committed sloppy person, Heather sometimes considered that this irritating perfectionism was the one thing which might have pushed her towards those of her society who openly resented the Saren. Those who still fiercely proposed that they, it , was in various ways actually hostile to mankind, a toxic Samaritan, having various sinister designs. (No-one really knew whether the Saren was a single entity or a multitude of individuals, but the alien presence was usually referred to in the singular, which might still encompass the idea of a herd or flock of some kind.) There were a surprising number of these people who were very extreme in their viewpoints, veering into irrationality, discrediting by their very hysteria those who wished to ask serious questions.
It was not, for example, one of this rebellious minority who had, in one of the Saren’s first communications with selected humans, asked the question which had resulted in the Second Saren Equation being shown to the human world. Of all the possible times for an alien intelligence to arrive on Earth, why the coincidence? Why had they arrived when humanity was dying out, and most needed help? Help had certainly been given, although Heather was aware that her species had not been the sole recipient. Neither had it, on the whole, been very grateful. The timing had always resulted, equation aside, in a specialised flood of paranoid theories. Perhaps it was the Saren itself which had kick-started the crash of the weather systems, sown the viruses….
With seeming nonchalance - almost certainly a perception of mankind’s which had no relevance to the Saren’s consciousness whatsoever - it or they had first imparted the uncomfortable information that it had been studying the earth and its life forms for a very long time, and so had unsurprisingly intervened at the point where one species was causing havoc. The question, it had pointed out, had more to do with the probability of their discovering this fascinating planet at all, given the size and age of the universe, and of the apparent unlikihood, given that the earth itself was billions of years old, of them stumbling along by luck during those few years in which life had evolved.
At this point, typically for the Saren, who possibly liked playing with their specimens’ decimal number system, an elegant string of very large numbers had come up on the screen. Factoring in the probability that the Saren ‘s very active search for inhabited planets would be successful, the equation proved somehow that the very enormity of all the distance, the withering timespans necessarily involved made their arrival in fact more, not less, probable. As if given such parameters as the age of a universe, such vast scope, anything at all could happen.
Most people could make little sense of the fourth equation. Many thought the Saren probably had an entirely different perspective on time, perhaps as an oak tree might have in comparison with an ant; some suggested that the entity might have the ability, somehow, not merely to understand probability, but to manipulate it.
Some also thought that it was capable not merely of flippancy, but of a condescending kind of humour. By the time Heather was born, people had begun to get used to the Saren, in something of the same way that in Heather’s grandparents’ time they had quickly become familiar with the names of new diseases, situations previously unthinkable passing quite effortlessly out of the realms of fiction into a humdrum normality
It was a normal activity now, speculation upon all those things left unexplained by that or those upon whom everyone was now, for the time being, still dependent. The stranger/ s who had provided for the basic needs of mankind’s remaining numbers, less than a million, and whose very arrival had put an abrupt halt to the war. Coincidence or not, and aloof as it could be for most if the time, Saren rule – for that is inevitably what it was – had become the framework in which people lived their lives, now rather simplified, with a necessary focus on agriculture.
This ‘normal’ life was a far cry from this pristine apartment which was, Heather had been told, part of a starship. In which she would wake up with her team. Each had been interviewed by the Saren’s representative, and asked why they should want to take up its sudden invitation -in response to further grumbling about self-determination, it had conveyed a rather startling request for a small number of human volunteers to physically visit what the Saren had described, ambiguously, as its base. Hassan in room three, the only one of the team with whom Heather had spent much time, had talked about the future of his species, of the necessity for it to develop again, with the knowledge needed to avoid a fall back into ignorance, into a situation where the same mistakes could be made again. His main field of interest was in complexity theory, just the kind of abstraction which would be completely forgotten by mankind in a generation of two of basic living. But, he pointed out, there is nothing like a complete crash of planetary weather systems to remind people of the important concept of feedback loops. It was all very interesting, and Hassan was personable, almost relaxed given the situation in which they had met.
Heather’s plea, if that is what it had been, was quite different; at once subjective and wholly impersonal. She had for some months been reading as widely as she could about evolution, natural selection, and found a fascination in the concepts behind earth’s marvellous array of interconnected living things; the coldly inevitable mechanisms which had given rise to all those forms which Darwin had described as beautiful. There was nothing of the practical in Heather’s request either; it had in fact nothing to do with mankind’s advancement, with herself, or even with the Saren. The Saren’s evolution was only of interest to her in the context that she wanted to know about evolution away from earth, from the only place in which it had yet been studied. Her pure curiosity was perhaps an example of just the kind of passive receptivity which exasperated her partner, Recila. Recila had not wanted Heather’s application to be successful, and yet, surprisingly, it had been, and now she was very far away from their sometimes-loving home.
But was she? Heather wondered again whether she had moved at all; perhaps all this was just a test, a mock up, to see how well the candidates responded to stress. It was one explanation. She glowered at the milky window, trying once more to imagine distance, movement. It had not been explained how far they were travelling, a rather sickening thought now. But travelling in a coma suggested that a long span of time was involved; it seemed, then, that no warp drives, wormholes or other fanciful ways to break the legal photon speed limit were to be involved.
If she was travelling through space, the milky window gave no feeling of distance, but she thought this a limited, perhaps sentimental concept anyway, even on the earth’s comprehensible surface. The dome she had grown up in was not a prison, people were free to travel, but with no mechanised transport they did not get very far. That there existed countries, continents, strange cities, tropical places, was something of which she was well aware. As a child she had sometimes tried to imagine the act of walking to them; the distance to the clearing outside where weddings were held in the summer, multiplied by a perhaps a thousand, or two thousand, but still possible in stages, right from where she stood. This exercise was meant to make them seem real, but it never did.
But they had always been real… the reverie ended at once with the reality of a high mechanical shriek, filling the cabin, and a sudden and absolute darkness. She staggered against the table, although the gravity had not, yet, changed, and automatically looked back at the window. In the dark, the creamy opalescent whorls glowed brightly but remained otherwise the same.
Carefully, she backed away from the window and groped behind her for the entrance to the corridor, for the handle of the first door. She tried to turn it and swore quietly into the blackness as the door remained locked fast, immovable. Her mind shying away from the new sound, the appalling darkness, she found herself sweating, her strained imagination finally envisioning the corpses left in failed life-support bubbles behind the doors. She began consciously to breath in slow gulps, to control her panic. Within minutes this exercise began to feel farcical and she acknowledged that it was, then, having a slight effect; still in reality she frantically wanted the company of Hassan, or of any of the other humans. Fumbling along the doors in the blackness, she instead concentrated painfully upon images of home, so close in subjective time; the stultifying routine of the communal farm, Recila’s laughter, complicit and close as in the short evenings they mocked the people with whom they were obliged to pull up weeds, stuff grain into bags and haul sacks of rice.
The high pitched sound ceased abruptly and was replaced by a deep, continuously throbbing boom, no louder than a human voice but terrifying because it was unknown, and was accompanied by a feeling, now, of some kind of motion.
Something in her inner ears was telling her that she was moving forwards, although she still stood frozen in the doorway to the living room. Yet ‘forwards’ in deep space was not even a concept that made any sense to her scared, galloping mind.
‘Hassan?’ Her voice sounded odd and tentative against the profound, arboreal noise. It vibrated through her body. Experimentally, she looked away from the doors and back toward the window. Streaks of colour were snaking through the whiteness, like veins in cheese, somehow three-dimensional, patternings of red, amber and cerise.
‘Saren!’ Suddenly furious with her enforced ignorance, she shouted defiantly into the now eerie eddish gloom of the living room, trying to match her voice at the same time to the solemn pitch of the cabin’s new sound. Trying not to sound petrified, like some animal brought back in a cage on a seagoing ship, for Europeans to marvel at. Indignation; the Saren, whatever it was, was surely powerful, efficient; it did not design machines which went wrong.
There was of course no answer. The window’s coloured patterns were thickening, twining together, the white beginning to disappear altogether as more streaks of vermillion and an intense purple slithered into the spaces left by the other red colours. Fractal, each tiny part of the gathering, dense weave a copy of the whole window, orderly but never still as new threads flickered constantly into life.
Heather took her hand off Hassan’s door handle and walked slowly back into the living room, watching the beauty unfold, rigidly transfixed.
Something drew her eyes to a tiny area near the centre of the window, a miniature mobile copy of the whole pattern of colours; a vivid network of threads, some almost too fine to see. It sometimes seemed, to the half-educated like Heather, that the kind of enigmas which the old religions had looked for in the distant, empty skies had been in the end been surpassed, just before her time, by the secrets and challenges hidden deep down in small-scale things. It was an odd thought to have come to her now, in extremis. The hard-to-make-out patch of twining colour had drawn her eye, however, because it was changing in a different way than the other threads; some of them were imperfect, moving at an oblique to the rest. At first just a little surprisingly flaw, then the new direction of the streaks was spreading along their branches, changing their nature. The space began to fill up again with new colours, bright mauve, yellow gold…
This had taken only minutes, the remarkable change, whatever it was, still exerting such a fascination that she had been barely conscious of the lights slowly turning themselves back on in the living room. Albeit muted, different from the bland brightness which she had previously endured. If nothing else, the limbo of the last few days was definitively over.
She glanced around questioningly, her anger and resentment unabated but controlled now, alert and waiting.