by N.A. Ratnayake
Saveen has been selected out of many candidates to become the Storyteller, a person who will represent humanity to an unnamed entity via the Swirl, an orbital interface in spacetime. The task is mentally taxing and estranging, and he must also undergo various biotech enhancements that come with ethical and emotional costs. Meanwhile, humanity has some hard questions to answer about its past, and the future it is creating for itself. When the Swirl is activated, all does not go according to plan… and Saveen learns that the role we play in history may not be the one we intended.
The story is copyright 2021 by Nalin A. Ratnayake. The cover art is copyright 2022 by Patricia Revolinsky.
Saveen floats in the broadcast chamber at the center of Anpo Station. His breath is shallow as tries not to think about his sweaty palms. He knows that thinking about them will only make things worse.
A transparent cupola looks homeward, back at the Earth over three hundred thousand kilometers below. Another looks outward, up at the moon filling the bulk of the view. In between the stars and the heavens is the large disk of the space station Anpo, extending tens of kilometers in radius and spinning with enormous rotational energy, imparted by ion engines along the rim — engines that have been quietly accelerating Anpo’s rotation to incredible speeds over the course of a decade.
The energy contained in the rotating mass cannot yet be so much as sipped; its tremendous energy content is for the main event – a Swirl in spacetime – and has been meticulously apportioned. In a few hours, this giant wheel in the sky, named for the Lakota god of the Dawn, will enable a single critical moment, decades in the making. For now, Saveen resumes his controlled breathing – and waits for the signal to proceed.
The Rabbi gazed thoughtfully at the bodhi tree through the window of the conference room while the Cardinal continued his briefing. A ten-year-old boy meditated under the tree, oblivious to the few mosquitoes and fruit flies that occasionally buzzed around his head in the muggy blanket of a tropical afternoon. The Imam and the Bhikkhuni sat off to one side.
“Their progress has been, to say the least, rapid,” the Cardinal said, clearing his throat for the fifth time in ten minutes. “But we really must make the planned accelerations. The engineers report to me that the new bio-chip is ready.”
The Imam frowned. “Saveen’s norepinephrine and serotonin levels are already naturally well-managed by his body, as with the other children. Or they would not have been chosen for this, yes? So I still must object to this procedure.”
The Cardinal stroked his chin and rolled his eyes. “But we have such limited time, my friend. The latest report shows that the implant has been quite thoroughly tested clinically, and the candidate that acclimates to it most rapidly —”
“Bah. Thoroughly is relative. And I know there are many candidates in development —” here he waved at the dormitory building on the other side of the courtyard where Saveen and the other selected children lived “—but I maintain that Saveen is exceptional. That boy’s Empathy Capacity Index was phenomenal before we added one gram of enhancement. What if there are long term effects? Look at his progress so far! In just seven years, he has learned more than most people will in their lifetimes.”
The Cardinal’s mouth opened as he inhaled and widened his eyes but the Rabbi interrupted him.
“The concern is a valid one, my dear Cardinal,” she said, hanging a moment too long on the dear. The Rabbi turned from the window and took a seat next to her colleague. “But, Imam, you exaggerate Saveen’s exceptionalness. All of the candidates’ genetic makeup and early upbringing, for whatever reason, happened to make them receptive to the kind of intense program we have put them through. And the small changes we’ve applied to Saveen have worked very well indeed to develop empathy capacity. But who knows if that is what will serve best?”
“The Swirl will be the first chance for humanity to tell our story to a species from another world,” said the Imam, rising from his seat. “Our story. And empathy is what drives all stories. Saveen is the choice.”
The Cardinal turned to face the Imam, his already red face reddening. “But he is weak willed! And for the thousandth time, we cannot assume — !”
“I think that Saveen’s predilection for empathy does make him exceptionally well-suited for the task.” The Bhikkhuni now gazed out at the bodhi tree, at Saveen underneath and the jungle and mountains stretching into mist beyond. “However, he is also sensitive to fear. And because we have been sensitive to his fear, we have avoided asking an unavoidable question.”
The Cardinal shook his head, “We have been attending to every detail, I can assure you.”
The Bhikkhuni stared right at him. “Does Saveen know what might happen to him in the Swirl?”
“Now now now, not even our best physicists and philosophers understand the answer to that question, and besides —”
“Does. He. Know? The answer is no, he does not. And neither do the others.”
The room was silent. No one averted their eyes from the question, but all felt a shared twinge of shame.
The Rabbi spoke first. “We have been shying away from stories of death and other worlds until they are older, and less likely to be personally influenced by them. But… perhaps that has grown into an excuse.”
The Imam wrinkled his brown face into a gruff expression of caring. His voice was quiet. “I admit to my fear. I fear for them. I fear that in confessing my fear to them, their own fear will multiply and we will lose them from this endeavor.”
The Cardinal put a hand on his colleague’s shoulder. “We can explain to the candidates what we are doing first, and only for those who agree, install the neural enhancement.”
“Yes,” said the Bhikkhuni. “And then, we should tell them that they may die.”
“Or find themselves somewhere far worse,” the Rabbi muttered.
The Imam finally nodded in agreement. “If one of them truly comprehends that fear, and masters it… then perhaps we will have our answer.”
As the appointed time approaches, Anpo is on the night side of the Earth, and the gray shadow of the moon lurks in a darkness rimmed with brilliant stars. Saveen stops counting breaths and looks upward toward the outer solar system, and as he gazes upon the heavens, the pressure of the moment momentarily subsides.
There is deception in scale, he thinks. Here on Earth, his has been on the short list of names known the world over. But against the backdrop of all this vastness, he wonders if the differences between him and any other human who has ever lived — indeed any life that has evolved on Earth, period — even matter at all.
“We are so good at deception,” he says, to no one in particular. Though the comm is not transmitting right now, he wonders if others can hear him anyway.
Soon, the precise moment of occultation will occur, and the moment for which Saveen has been training and studying and living his entire life will be upon him. He remembers this fact, and then immediately tries not to think about what might lie beyond that moment. Frustrated, his heart rate quickens once again. He tries chanting to calm himself and fumbles the first few words of the Media Vita. He tries again.
“Media vita in morte sumus, quem quaerimus adjutorem…”
Saveen loses himself in the hymn and feels better. He manages to begin the Mangala Sutta, and the sing-sing drone of the Pali words remind him of home, where the sounds of the Dhamma would call out from the temples every morning before dawn.
Saveen hadn’t been home in fourteen years. Coconut trees swayed in the sweltering humid heat of the day. Dirty lorries rumbled and spat oily smoke. Four lanes of cars made use of two lanes of physical road, and all manner of traffic darted in and out of the larger vehicles like flies on elephants — the motorbikes buzzing like mosquitoes in the heat, the three-wheeler taxis and rusted bicycles and oxen and fruit sellers and monkeys and fishmongers swarming in their daily business.
“Amma!” Saveen exclaimed, and his mother came to the front door, a plate of roti in hand, to see what the matter was. He saw Amma’s eyes well with tears as she saw who it was. By this time Thattha had come out of the house in his slippers, waving the newspaper he had no doubt just been reading. It was the kind with large, perfectly square pages that grew soft in the humid air.
Saveen ran forward, away from his UN escorts, and embraced his parents. Amma held him for a long time. Thattha didn’t seem to know quite what to do with the upwelling of emotion and settled for awkwardly patting Saveen’s head and asking him abruptly how he’d been. He wished he could turn the empathy augmentation off, but the Committee had specifically instructed him not to.
The family had tea on the porch, all seven of them — Saveen met two siblings he didn’t know he had, and an uncle and auntie who were staying with the family temporarily. Tea merged into lunch, because of course he had to stay for lunch. They all strove to be a family, like they had been told a family should be, but at best he was like the distant relative who had moved abroad long ago.
They smiled and asked questions about his work. He asked his new siblings about school, but he could sense that they were too star struck to respond coherently. The elders asked him about politics and the economy and the children asked about the space station.
The uncle seemed to think Saveen would be a well of local knowledge. Would the government open new schools to accommodate the influx of families? With universal basic income, were there enough consumer goods to go around? The auntie wondered if jobs that required her engineering degree would open up locally due to the Project.
But Saveen knew very little of these things. He longed for some kind of special connection, to really know their lives and who they were. He could sense that they felt the same. But try as he might to maneuver the minefield of emotions around him, all he could summon himself were nostalgia and flashes of childhood memory.
Mentally, he kicked himself for expecting more. Of course it would be like this. How could someone like me have a family, a real family? Four hours later, Saveen left with his entourage. The smell of diesel mingled with the scent of curried lentils and garlic, and it lingered in his mind with thoughts of home.
A chime interrupts Saveen’s chanting, but the memory lingers.
He sees a small green light flash in his peripheral vision. He touches the light with his gaze and the comm implant chimes again in acknowledgment. The light morphs into letters: LINK/AUTO. A smooth, lightly-accented female voice fills his auditory cortex and a familiar face appears in the top right of his vision.
“Anpo Station, Earth-1 Beijing mission control. Comm check, how do you hear?”
Saveen smiles. “Earth-1, Anpo, I hear you just fine. Good morning Mei. How am I coming through?”
“Five by five, all clear. Good morning Saveen. How are you feeling? We were looking at your biometrics here…”
“I was a little nervous just now, but I think I will be fine. The breathing protocols help.”
“Thirty-two wonder kids to choose from and the Committee ends up picking the one with stage fright.”
“That’s not funny, Mei.”
“Sorry, sorry. Okay, Ops would like to begin inertial damping. Please audibly confirm.”
Saveen glances up at the displays hovering above and to the left of him. “My straps are in and everything looks green. I confirm ready for sequence.”
“Thank you Anpo. Ops will handle it, and we will advise before initiating Swirl. Stand by. Earth-1 out.”
The chamber falls silent except for the faint hum of the electronics. Saveen has forgotten where he was in the Mangala Sutta. He starts again from the beginning.
“Evam me suttam ekam samayam Bhaghava…”
Danaya slipped one umber-brown hand into his, her other swinging a cloth bag as they walked along the beach under a clear night sky. They were alone with the sound of the waves. She didn’t speak and there was a faraway look in her eyes, her dreadlocks swaying in the night air as they walked. Saveen looked at her sideways and let the silence continue for a few more slow paces.
“Off somewhere else?” he teased. “What’s wrong, beautiful? You aren’t telling me something.”
Her body returned to the moment with a smile, but her eyes told Saveen that the soul behind them was still not quite back on the beach.
Saveen stopped walking and tugged her around to face him. She didn’t meet his eyes.
“Danaya? Tell me what’s wrong?”
When she finally spoke, he could hear the slightest trace of the Ethiopian accent that had charmed him when they had first met by uttering such beautiful physics theorems as if they were poetry.
“You shouldn’t love me,” she said.
A rock formed in his gut. The beautiful warm night suddenly felt dark and lonely.
“What… Why would you…? Of course I do.”
Danaya set the bag down and looked up at him. She ran her fingers through his hair, eventually rubbing the slowly fading scars on the sides of his head. Saveen saw her questioning look and felt unfairness welling up within him.
“The limbic implants enhance my emotional perception and depth of feeling. They don’t change the fact that I have the feeling in the first place, Dani. I love you.”
She dropped her hands to his waist and pulled him close. “I don’t know. I just wonder sometimes, that’s all. This is all so new. Not just to me, to everyone. Sometimes I want to know everything for sure, and then I ask myself, how do we know anything in life is genuine?”
Saveen shifted uncomfortably and turned away toward the night sea, a tightness in his chest. In the distance the wave energy rigs winked their operating lights. He thought of the sustainable fish farms they had toured earlier, suspended in between the rigs like large, blue Mardis Gras lanterns.
“Do you think the fish wonder if they are in a bowl?”
Danaya kept her hands on him and wrapped him in a hug from behind. “I’m sorry. I want to talk about this but I don’t know how to.”
Saveen took her arms in his and stroked her hands. “I understand. It’s — I just wonder that too sometimes. If I’m — if I’m, you know, with all this — a real person.” Danaya turned him around and he tried to hide his wet eyes but she smiled and held him. Saveen tensed at first but she persisted until his shoulders relaxed. A tear escaped as she gave him a peck on the cheek and looked at him.
“You’re real, Storyteller. I just wish I understood more, that’s all.”
Saveen held her close. “You know more than me, Dani. I have no idea how the Swirl works or what goes on under the skin of the station. You’re the physicist.”
“I know enough, love. I said I wish I understood more. You tell me about it, but I… I just can’t. I don’t think anyone who’s not undergoing the training can possibly understand.”
“We’re not freaks or something Dani, we’re still human. That’s the whole point, right? To represent what it means to be human?”
Danaya sat down carefully and buried her toes in the cool sand. She tugged on Saveen’s arm and so he sat down next to her. She leaned her head on his shoulder and the scent of her hair mixed with the saltiness of the sea. She was quiet for a long time before she spoke. “I always keep talking around it, Saveen. The problem is time.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Swirl is being designed to use an enormous amount of stored energy to create a tachyon-entanglement field. It will wrap you in a… spacetime bubble of sorts… allow you to communicate on equal time scales with… them.”
Saveen nodded. “And then I can begin the Story. It’ll be dangerous, but we’ve known this. What is it you’re upset about?”
“After you tell the Story… I can’t…No one can. No one can guarantee when you’ll be.”
Saveen memories flashed back to the garden by the bodhi tree, when the Spiritual Council had first explained the radical possibilities of death to a ten-year-old boy. He felt the strong urge to active an emotional suppressor but overruled it. “Danaya, are you just worried about the fall? I’ll be ejected from Anpo into a lower orbit, and the recovery craft will be waiting —”
“Don’t coddle me, Saveen. It’s not where you’ll be. It’s when. Or if you’ll even ‘be’ at all.” Danaya’s face was tear-stained now. “I’m not supposed to talk to you about that. Don’t tell anyone I told you that. But I just… I hate knowing that I’m building a machine that might take you away from me forever.”
Saveen breathed in more of her scent and felt his own toes crawl into the sand next to hers. He looked up at the stars and it felt ludicrous not to be happy in that moment. His chest felt tight and closed.
“I’m not sure I want this,” he said. “To be the Storyteller, I mean. I’m not sure I ever have.”
“But you may be the best person for it, Saveen. And if you are, then we need you.”
Saveen stared at her, then as the weight of what she said washed over him. She didn’t meet his eyes.
“I want you to promise me something, that maybe I don’t have the right to ask.” He closed his mouth but couldn’t acknowledge her in the tumult of the moment. She continued. “Don’t ever use your hormone regulators to think about this moment. Process it as you normally would.”
A wave of sudden anger and betrayal slapped him in the face. No. They wouldn’t do that. He stumbled over his words. “Were you… the romance, the heartbreak… was all this… just something the Committee…?”
She finally looked up at him. “Saveen. Please believe me. I fell for you on my own. It was only after we started becoming involved that the Committee began… well, making suggestions. I didn’t do everything they asked, only if I thought it made sense. I honestly do love you. It wasn’t a show. I just hate feeling so distant from you all the time, and knowing what’s ahead… I don’t want it any more. But there’s no normal way to tell you that, given who we are, who you are. I’m sorry. I have to go.”
She stood up and walked away into the night. He looked up and saw the bright dot in front of the moon. Even at this distance, Anpo Station was discernible with the naked eye.
In the turmoil of emotion within him, he couldn’t decide what hurt more: that Danaya had just left him or that the Committee had been interfering in his personal life behind his back. Though logically he knew better, it was hard not to feel either revelation as betrayal.
Saveen rejected the urge to artificially suppress the maelstrom within him. Instead, he buried his hands in the sand to either side of where he sat. His fingers curled around a wet rock buried in the beach, which he yanked out into the night air.
He held it up to inspect it. When behind the rock he caught a glimpse of Anpo again, his emotions overtook him. Saveen clenched his teeth and threw the stone as hard as he could towards the station in the sky. A hot burn of despair rocketed up within him, but alas, the projectile fell short of orbital velocity as of course he knew it would. He heard it plunk into the ocean, and the sound of the waves swallowed it up in the night.
Saveen glances back toward the night side of the Earth while the inertial straps tighten around him. Over the radio, family and friends express their love and final admonishments. They are tearful, proud, excited, and anxious. No one mentions that Saveen may not return from this task. They’ve all, at least outwardly, made their peace with that years ago. Saveen’s face tingles and burns with the thought — he isn’t quite sure he’s made his own peace with it.
But the chime sounds, and time is up. They quickly say their goodbyes for now. The link is returned to mission control and Mei’s face once again fills the comm screen.
“Anpo, Earth-1. We are green and triple-checked. We are beginning the final countdown.” A timer on his main display begins decrementing from five minutes.
“Anpo, countdown acknowledged.”
Saveen thinks of his mentor. Bhikkhuni would simply tell him that all things, even the most terrifying of moments, will pass like everything else — and that this truth was all the more reason to savor each moment fully, even the terrifying ones. He thinks of the love he had once shared with Danaya in the face of his life’s own unavoidable estrangement. And he thinks of his parents — how their stories merged to become his story which merged with Danaya’s and that of everyone from whom he had learned and grown. It was all one story, wasn’t it? A shared story humanity had ignored for so long, and in so doing, mired itself in suffering. And yet there were all the human beings he loves and been loved by. The thought calms him, focuses him. Yes — for them, he can.
“It’s all you now Saveen,” says Mei. “The whole team has confidence in you. Break a leg. We’ll leave you to your thoughts until the twenty-second final alert. Earth-1 out.”
Saveen swallows and manages a thin smile.
“Please,” said Saveen, leaning against the guardrail. “Drop the doctor. Saveen is fine. Tell me about the project. It looks amazing.” He gazed out across the expanse of the Mojave Desert and felt the first beads of sweat forming under his arms in the 115-degree heat of a summer day. Far below and away, black dots flecked with green shimmered, the nearer ones revealing themselves to be Joshua trees.
Jamal shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks. His sizable frame pivoted away and faced the desert with the younger man. “Well, you got the reports I guess. The arrays are a combination of photo-voltaic and solar-thermal, linked in with the wind turbines. Extends almost clear out to Nevada. Forty-eight-point-two billion kilowatt-hours in a good summer month.”
“You use a hydro-capacitor system?”
“Yeah, well, so when there’s wind blowing and sun shining, which is a lot here you know, the power drives the big pumps that bring water down from the north and the Midwest, and then we pump it up the mountains.” A dark, calloused hand waved at the ridge line to the south, with what looked like a thick bundle of dark grey metal drinking straws clamped to the side of it. “When electricity demand goes up, the valves let down the right amount of water flow through the turbines over there and out to the reservoir.”
“That really can’t be better than batteries, can it?”
“No,” he said, then started ticking reasons off his fingers, “But they’re expensive. They need a crap ton of precious metals. And, they’re in short supply. So…” He made a weighing gesture with both hands. “To be honest, I prefer the geothermal stuff, not sure how I ended up out here. Used to work the coal mines back East. But this is where they needed people.”
Saveen nodded at that. I guess we all go where we’re needed now.
Jamal continued. “And so then you can see out there, the huge substation near Phelan? Phelan’s the small town over there. So, that substation hooks us to the new pan-North-American grid. Midwest, East, and Canada send us water, and we get them off coal and gas. Guess I’m out of a job, into a job.”
“Relative sustainable economic advantage.”
“Yeeeeah, well. Whatever you call it. Anyways, I’m supposed to give you a tour of the control center whenever you’d like, and you can meet the engineers too.”
“In a minute, if you don’t mind. I want to enjoy this view. I’ve only ever seen it in vid streams. Besides, I can tell that you enjoy the view too.” Saveen smiled at the older man.
Jamal fell silent and bit the corner of his lower lip. He didn’t respond, and instead looked out at the desert until the silence became uncomfortable. Saveen didn’t have to think very hard to guess at what the other man was thinking. It’s always the same.
“You want to ask about me. How I feel, what it’s like. That’s okay, you can.”
To Saveen’s surprise, Jamal shook his head and let out a nervous chuckle. “Heh. No. I read plenty of sci-fi growing up.” He glanced over and shot a look at the myriad implants and monitors attached to or embedded in Saveen. Each by itself was designed to be as subtle as possible, but the sheer number made it difficult to mask that he was definitely not what most people would call normal.
“Nothing that they’ve done to you,” Jamal said, “At least, that I know of mind you, surprises me one bit. To be honest, I thought we’d all have ‘em by now.”
The matter-of-fact statement surprised Saveen. Most people wanted nothing to do with the strange devices that made him something strange, different.
“Then what — ?”
“What I wanna know is, do you really think we’d’ve ever done all this if we weren’t damn sure someone was watching?”
Saveen felt off-balance, as if he’d been asked a question of a test that hadn’t been in the review material. He had misread Jamal, made assumptions, and now felt silly about it.
“The United Nations established the Interfaith Council on —”
“Oh come on now, don’t play me like that,” Jamal said. He started to roll his eyes then looked like he thought better of it. “Sorry, no disrespect intended now. I’m just saying, I wanna know what you think. Not the party line.”
“If I think someone is watching us right now? You mean like the Listeners, the ones who reached out to Earth?”
“I’m saying it wrong.” Jamal gestured to the expanse of clean energy systems sweeping across the desert valley, and snorted. “Look at that. Half a century. We spent half a century dicking around from when we knew we should probably do this instead of solving the problem. We put ourselves on a train to destroy the whole damn planet and then blow the brakes up. Then, the little humans get this message from whomever. And now barely more than ten years from that point, we got all this.”
Saveen felt a sheen of sweat on his forehead. What Jamal was saying was the kind of thing the project had press secretaries for. He didn’t normally concern himself with the policy aspects, or the broader philosophical implications. He had a mission to do. This meeting was supposed to be a morale thing — show up, get the tour, be interested, pose for some photos, keep the public motivated. Jamal’s emotional state was reading as highly anxious, even despondent — hardly the outcome the Committee had intended.
He chose his words carefully, diplomatically. “I think it’s pretty amazing what we’ve accomplished in that short amount of time. You and your colleagues here should be proud of what you’ve built. It’s changing the world, it really is. I find it inspirational.”
“You’re right, it’s inspirational, in a way.” Jamal nodded and took a breath of hot desert air. “But it’s damn depressing too, don’t you think? That we were capable of this all along and just wouldn’t do it until we were too damn scared to do anything else?”
Saveen hadn’t thought about it that way. Certainly none of his mentors would have ever framed it like that, nor would have any of the promotional materials he had participated in. Jamal had a point, it just missed the big picture.
“You’re not wrong,” Saveen admitted. “But that’s not the whole of it. We could have fractured in the face of what happened, against the magnitude of the task before us. Instead we rose to it, and finally — yes, far too late to save ourselves decades, centuries, millennia of preventable suffering, but finally — figured out how to organize our societies around what needs doing. Things didn’t have to get better — they could easily have gotten worse. And yet here we are.”
Jamal chewed on that, slowly.
“Heavy shit,” he finally proclaimed.
Saveen snorted. “Yeah. Sometimes I wish I could just watch sports or something.”
At that, Jamal burst into a loud, hearty chuckle. Saveen thought that he looked almost relieved. The engineer composed himself and finally smiled back. “Well. Less heavy sounds damn nice. Dodgers are playing tonight. You know, the tour here won’t take more than a couple hours…”
Saveen smiled in return. “I won’t have time for the full game, they’ve got me flying out of LAX early to visit the new agro-domes near São Paulo. But sure, I’d love to for a few innings. Do you know a bar where we could watch it?”
They turned and headed towards the elevator into the main part of the building.
Jamal smirked. “Yeah, well. Three things in abundance here in the Mojave. Sun, wind, and dive bars.”
“Dive bars. Now if only I could convince the Committee that this was valid human experience worthy of capturing…”
“Oh hell, I know just the place. Five people at the bar is a full set of teeth and you don’t feel too bad spitting on the floor. Trust me, it’s a human experience.”
The elevator doors closed on their shared laughter. Across the Mojave, pumps rumbled and turbines waved their arms at the sky.
The countdown reaches zero. Tens of kilometers of advanced machinery tremble around him with coordinated exertion, and Saveen’s internal organs feel as if they have decided to re-arrange themselves. The Swirl is monstrous and wonderful all at the same time. As the rotational energy of the disk collapses into the vortex at the center, Nature counters with an opposing force — all things must balance after all. Saveen feels his whole universe warp in cosmic counter-torque and suddenly stage fright seems like an absurdly trivial thing.
The chamber at the center of Anpo Station glows white hot and then suddenly dark, as a minuscule point-rupture opens in spacetime. The energy of the Swirl collapses inward like water down the drain of a sink hooked to vacuum. The disk of Anpo is consumed in the Swirl, leaving nothing but the center chamber with Saveen inside, surrounded by the rupture. To him, it appears that he is wrapped on all sides by the surface of a dark ocean, infinitely deep and black, with a surface that ripples with glints of light.
What lies on the other side of that surface? If he pulled it aside, would he still see home far below him and the familiar stars above? Saveen wonders if he will survive long enough to find out.
The rupture is shimmering but stable as planned, and everything shows green on the chamber’s control panel. The Storyteller speaks, his words vibrating through the strings of space and time. “On behalf of humanity, at the appointed time, I am here to tell our story to the stars.” His voice is clear and strong, and it does not falter or waver.
Somewhere — below him? Behind him? Inside of him? — Ten billion human beings stand in tense wonder, and in his mind’s eye he can feel their energy willing him onward, to whatever lies ahead. The Storyteller wets his lips and centers himself, then blinks and draws a breath. Spacetime quivers gently, like a still pond at dawn feeling the first raindrop of a coming storm.
Saveen awoke to the bitter, wet cold of a north Atlantic winter and the acrid smell of smoke. In the distance he heard shouts and commotion, but all he could focus on for the moment was the fact that his cottage appeared to be on fire. He could not remember how he had come to own a cottage, nor could he think of a reason that it should be on fire. But somewhere, a part of him was sure that he was in a cottage, that it was his, and that it was on fire.
He leapt out of the swaddle of dirty blankets on the dirt floor that passed for a bed and startled a woman. He knew with a tinge of the love he had felt for Danaya (In another life? Another time? In a dream?) that this woman was his wife and that he loved her very much: Kalina. At his feet near where he slept was a rifle and he knew that it was loaded. Kalina looked up at him, her pale brow furrowed in fear but her blue eyes set and determined. She grabbed a woodcutting axe from the wall. He waved one hand in front of his face as he led her out, trying to keep low.
They were waiting. Five men in matte black had automatic rifles pointed at the two of them, while all around the village was burned and ransacked. There were horrible sounds and the smell of blood in the air. The lead man looked at them and grinned.
“A ty govorish’ po russki?” he asked. A faraway part of Saveen’s brain recognized the language as Russian, but in his current state he couldn’t process the words. He turned his head. Twenty yards behind him a truck was parked, with the blue and white flag of NATO prominently flown. Two soldiers in blue helmets and a journalist with a camera looked on at the carnage. Their guns were pointed downward.
Saveen looked down and saw a different body than his own. It was white-skinned, pudgy, and trembling. He didn’t know what to say.
Another of the five men spoke. This time the words were in broken Estonian, and they connected to meaning. “You come with us and fight and winning our side, or we kill you now.”
Saveen mutely shook his head, and a third man with a missing eye whipped his rifle butt up and in a wet, stinging flash, Saveen had dropped his own rifle and was on the ground tasting blood with his ears ringing. Kalina was struggling as one of the men tied her up on the ground. The third man now had her axe in his hand.
“One more time. Now you fight?” Saveen didn’t, couldn’t respond. Two of the other men pushed him down to his knees and pinned him by stepping on his calves while the last kept guard with his rifle. Saveen’s arms were held out by the iron grip of four hands, his own hands flailing. The man with the missing eye raised the axe high, and under it he could see Kalina being pulled away to a troop carrier vehicle painted plain matte black like the soldiers’ uniforms. A man barked orders in Russian out the window.
“Help!” Saveen cried to the NATO soldiers in Estonian. He didn’t remember ever learning Estonian, but he couldn’t process the discrepancy at the moment. “Help us please!”
The journalist snapped photo after photo as a NATO solider shook his head. “Our rules of engagement do not permit us to interfere.”
And in a hot place deep within himself, Saveen wanted nothing more than to kill, to bludgeon, and to burn. In that moment, obliviating the years of meditative and spiritual calm, Saveen could have murdered without hesitation.
The axe descended and his hands fell away like discarded ends of lumber.
Saveen screamed and tore at the empty space above his head. With non-existent hands he grabbed the invisible object he felt there and yanked.
Neuro-empathic connector cables and hormone drips ripped out of his cortex. The village winked out of existence and became a blurry, white room flecked with new splatters of blood.
Klaxons wailed and doctors rushed to him as a searing pain almost as deep as what he felt in his hands arced through his skull. In the moments before he passed out, his eyes caught those of the aged man before him, similarly wired with cables to his brain. The old man’s wrinkled face was contorted in a grimace, but his eyes both cried and smiled. He caressed Saveen’s face with scarred stumps.
“I am sorry that my suffering is now your suffering. It was so long ago now. But do you know, how it is terribly beautiful? You are me now in some way, yes? You understand me. You will tell my story, and you will know, it is the story of many in my country. Many, many, too many people have this story.”
Saveen looked wonderingly at his fingers before he blacked out.
In the moment before the Storyteller can begin, the Swirl abruptly ends. The broadcast chamber disintegrates around him and Saveen is released into the singularity, with only his spacesuit to protect him from whatever lies beyond. He emerges from blackness into the soft blue-white glow of Earth below him. He could almost believe himself suspended in space, but ten thousand points of light in all directions like nearby stars rush upward and away like underwater bubbles, and he knows he is falling.
Ten thousand points in orbit? Are those all satellites? Spacecraft? Stations? Where did they all come from?
At first, he cannot speak through the sudden disorientation. He burns the stupor away with a quick burst of adrenaline from an implant and rifles through his mental emergency checklists.
“Earth-1, this is Storyteller. Earth-1, this is Storyteller. Commencing recovery protocol Bravo.”
He is halfway through the post-ejection protocol when the silence begins to gnaw at him. There is no sound on his suit radio, not even background static — and yet the lights on his comm panel insist that everything is functional.
“Earth-1, this is Storyteller. Come in please. I’ve been ejected from Anpo. I think the chamber was destroyed somehow. Doesn’t look like I have any orbital velocity, I’m just falling. Earth-1, come in.”
But he continues to hear nothing but silence.
His heartbeat in his ears, Saveen twists his body around in free fall to look down at the Earth and realizes that he can barely recognize it. Truly massive structures stretch across what would have been whole states, entire nations. Floating cities, visible from space, dot the oceans. Tiny black and silver dots dart through the atmosphere, forming long threads of movement between cities that web across the whole face of the planet.
The full impact of Danaya’s words back on the beach now hits him. I don’t know When you’ll be. Saveen takes a moment to be grateful for the spacesuit engineers who specialized in biological waste containment.
So this is it then, he thinks. I’ve failed. The Swirl didn’t last long enough. I never told the story. And now I’ve been spat out into another time or a parallel universe or who knows where or when… and no one knows I’m here, so I’m just going to fall until I burn up like a human meteorite.
Suddenly, images stream before him unbidden, though his eyes are squeezed shut. He opens his eyes, momentarily terrified.
In the corner of his vision, he sees a flash of light from one of the orbital stations beaming at him, tracking him as he falls. The visions appearing in his head seem to flow from it. A quick turn of his attention inward reveals that his neural implants are receiving data at a torrential rate, and he suddenly wonders if the communication beam might work in the other direction, too.
He rapidly reconfigures the implants in a best guess and wills a response at whatever is speaking to him. What are you?, he asks, Are you the Listeners? The ones who reached out to us?
As he sends his message, the orb of the Earth grows larger in Saveen’s view, and by now it fills his entire vision.
Whoever, or whatever, is on the other side of the connection sends feelings of acknowledgment. There are no words, only images and emotions that flash in sequence in his brain, and in stringing them together he sees humanity’s arc since the Swirl’s activation. The Storyteller never told his story, the images confirm — but that was never the point. In the act of accumulating the world’s stories, the world had to learn to listen. To reconcile different points of view and acknowledge each other’s suffering. And in building the Swirl, the world learned they could collaborate and build great things, incredible machines that would change the course of history.
In this future-past, those who were meant to receive the message never appeared, nor did they contact humanity again. Perhaps it was humanity itself that sent its own past a message to avoid a grimmer, self-destructive fate. In the fulfillment of their wishes, the original senders were overwritten by a new timeline, the one in which Saveen now finds himself. An unfortunately untestable hypothesis, even in the advanced age in which he finds himself — some things will remain a mystery.
Earth is impossibly large now in Saveen’s vision. He intuits, through the movement of the distant points of light, that spacecraft are scrambling to meet him. Yet he also gleans from the communication beam a frustrated sense of regret. It appears that even in this bright future he accidentally helped create, no one can reach him in time following his unexpected arrival. He senses their awe, sorrow, and gratitude.
It’s quite the story, he decides. His is the tale of a legendary figure who disappeared in a historic moment a thousand years in the distant past, only to reappear now like a mythic reincarnation, a shooting star in the night sky.
The first flames flicker at the edges of his faceplate, and Saveen now knows that his own story ends in fire. Perhaps his demise is even now being watched live by untold billions, an utterly unwitting influence on the course of human history for the second time in a millennium. Perhaps he can complete his mission after all.
A calm washes over him, and for the first time he can recall, Saveen does not feel afraid. He closes his eyes, focuses all thought on the beam of light, and begins.