Spacehopper


Red Sky at Night…

“Are you certain this date of birth is correct, Mr Crichton?”

“Yes.”

The concierge blinked. 2007-04-26. Over three thousand standard years ago.

“I’m a starhopper,” Crichton said.

“Oh.” The concierge scanned the ident against the reader—to her relief, it didn’t complain at the inordinate age of the man before her. (It made sense, once you looked closely: the heavy, muted colours in his clothes; the uneven colouring of his hair from repeated freezing and thawing; the wrinkles around the corners of his eyes.) “You must get that all the time,” she said.

“Yeah.” Mr John Crichton, chronological age three thousand, two hundred and nineteen years, was clearly not one for saying much.

“You’ll be sharing this evening. He’s one of our permanent residents, he’s really nice, don’t worry.” The receptionist applied the room key code to John’s ident. “It’s room nine, just along the pier and up the ramp. If you need any help, or if you want room service, just use the terminal.”

“Thank you.”

“Enjoy your stay!” the receptionist called.

John took his bag along the pier (this was a strange hotel—more like a series of glass beach-huts) and slapped his ident card against the reader on room 9. He found his room-mate immediately, splayed in one of the hammocks, stark-naked and playing some kind of game on a computer.

He looked back behind him. Even the walls of these hotel-hut-cabin things were transparent. John swallowed, turning back as the roommate looked up and noticed him.

“You must be John,” the man said (about thirty? It was impossible to tell—people aged differently on different worlds.) “Pleased to meet you.”

The greeting custom was thankfully nothing more than a simple handshake: John had been to planets where you were expected to give someone a full kiss on making their acquaintance.

“My name’s Red Dustlight Over Aldrin Bay In Twilight From Thunder Point.”

John raised his eyebrow.

“Everyone calls me Dust,” Dust continued. “Did you have a good journey in?”

“I feel like shit,” he replied. (It was Dust’s turn to raise an eyebrow.) “Do you know where I can have a shower around here?”

“There’s a wet room over there, if you want it.” Dust pointed to a lit square in the centre of the room: no surrounding walls, no screens.

“I’ll pass, thanks,” John said, dropping his bag and heading for the sink—something he, at least, recognised and understood. The spigot started automatically. “I’m kinda new to this. I’ve just come in on a barge.”

“I see. Welcome to Vera.”

John ignored him as he fumbled to unbutton his shirt, and filled his mouth with the ice-cold fluid from the faucet.

“If it helps,” Dust continued, slowly, “most people round here don’t bother with showers.”

“Right.” John pulled the undershirt over his head, and glared at himself in the mirror, dejected; his torso was covered with the worst acne he’d had since he was a teenager.

“Best thing to do,” Dust said, clambering back into his hammock, “is to go for a swim in the morning.”

“I haven’t swum in years.”

Dust sighed. Crichton climbed into his own hammock, clumsily, still dressed from the waist down. “Aren’t you going to take those off?” Dust asked, staring at his crumpled, mud-stained trousers.

“No.”

Dust locked his hands behind his head, and turned his attention to the sky, and trying to sleep.

Silence in the Library

John felt terrible.

He’d finally showered in the morning, after Dust had cleared out of the room to give him some semblance of privacy, so there was no greasiness in his hair to distract him from the chesty cough or the red and swollen tonsils.

It seemed Dust hadn’t been kidding about the swimming ritual, at least: he had been woken at five a.m. by the gentle, percussive thump of people plunging into the bay from a cliff-edge.

John dressed in the least tatty clothes he had (grey shirt, grey jeans, grey everything) and trudged through the town. It was a small place—and the only settlement on Vera, so what you saw was what you got—and consisted simply of a public plaza with a twelve straight roads radiating outwards.

The weather was grey: misty, tempestuous grey. John felt chilled to the bone (the effect of the maritime climate, he supposed) and the clothes were no good. The wind was biting, buffeting them and soaking them through with rainwater.

The library was at the centre of the town, and was like none he had ever seen: a radial cathedral, with no reception desk, no “silence, please” signs and not even particularly well-lit. The ceiling was glass, yet the complex was mostly underground, with the odd sliver of grey light leaking through into the alcoves.

This library looked more like some bizarre restaurant or café built in an underground station. There were books, and there were computer terminals—yes, in transparent circular booths that the people were congregated around—but there was noise. John could hear animated conversations he was having trouble understanding (it was Anglish, but with an unfamiliar accent, and the Verans spoke with an odd cadence) and there was the smell, too—food.

Dust had told John to meet him here at two p.m., on a twenty-three hour clock: he had arrived at 1:58 p.m., but Red Dustlight Over Aldrin Bay In Twilight From Thunder Point was nowhere to be seen.

He found an empty booth, and picked up his phone from his pocket. This thing was ancient, by now—three thousand years in varying amounts of stasis—but solid-state electronics, properly hardened and looked after, never needed replacing, and a good standard, set by the UN Institute for Space’s Colonial Service some three thousand years ago, meant that bit rot wasn’t that much of a problem.

Vera was one of the few colony worlds not founded by a governmental organisation or registered company, instead being colonised in 5038 C.E. by a loose interstellar collective of scientists and philosophers as part of a charitable venture.

Vera’s populace is mostly Western European, North American and West Indian in origin, and as such Anglish is the primary language. Core tenets of Vera’s society are the pursuit of knowledge, improvement of self and others, and the sharing of experiences: creativity, communication and loyalty are highly valued, although many Verans are sceptical of outsiders.

“How old’s that phone?”

John jumped. “Jesus, Dust.” Red Dustlight Over Aldrin Bay In Twilight From Thunder Point had slipped into the seat opposite him on the table without so much as a sound.

He was wearing clothes, which was a change: Verans seemed to wear tight-fitting, monotoned t-shirts and long johns outside their homes, with heavy, colourful cloaks on the outside. (Dust’s was a deep red, of course.)

It’s like a bloody cult, John thought.

“Three thousand years,” he said, in answer to Dust’s question. “Give or take a few hundred. Standard years,” he added.

“Wow.” Dust picked up the phone without asking, testing its weight in his hand, turning it over.

“Be careful with that,” John snapped.

Dust handed it back. “That thing’s three thousand years old,” he repeated.

“A little older than me.”

The Veran surveyed him up and down, and John felt more than a little uncomfortable. He wondered if the colonists on Vera understood the idea of an ‘awkward silence.’ He momentarily wondered if Dust was weighing him up physically, and imagining having sex with him.

“I guess it’s a long story to tell,” Dust said, returning to eye contact.

“You can say that.” John forced a smile. “I’m outta here on Tuesday. Getting back to Barnard’s Star station.”

“And how long does that take?”

“From here? Ninety years, give or take.” John swallowed, sitting up in his seat. “Then it’s twenty years back to Earth. Back home.”

“Hmm.” Dust had been looking through him and beyond. Something else they seemed not to grasp: retaining eye contact when speaking to you. “You’re from Earth?”

“Yep.”

“Is it as beautiful as they say it is? As it is in the pictures?” asked Dust, his eyes drifting back and his face tightening with interest.

John thought back to his childhood on Earth, back in England: Southend Pier, smartphones, trains into London. It had been beautiful, yes—but how much would be left now? The pier would have decayed, crumbled into the sea, and for all he knew the phone he’d just let Dust examine might be the last operational one of its kind.

“I’m not sure,” said he. “It’s been a long time.”

Dust nodded. (That still meant ‘yes,’ at least.) “Very long time,” he agreed.

The ten-second silent, shameless stare that followed made John sweat a little. Red Dustlight Over Aldrin Bay In Twilight From Thunder Point’s face was unremarkable—as was to be expected from someone living in such a small colony, inter-breeding had led everyone to tend to the same light chocolate skin tone and Afro-European facial structure. His hair was uncoloured, an earthy brownish colour with flecks of ochre.

Heck, everyone here looked less horrible than John did. Slender and tall where John was squat and covered in spots and blemishes. He changed his mind about Dust checking him out.

Dust broke the silence by tapping against one of the screens. A waiter appeared with a tremendous platter of noodles in a yellowish brine that smelled suspiciously like chicken, and laid it on the table before them. A big bowl—big enough to share. Everything in John’s consciousness sank. Sharing food. I hope I don’t give him a disease.

“You said it was a long story,” Dust said, passing him a fork. “I’ve got plenty of time.”

John turned some of the noodles on the fork. He wasn’t in the mood to spill his life out—he still felt like crap—but Dust’s expression radiated a kind of passive curiosity that he couldn’t bring himself to find irritating.

He chewed on the noodles, and swallowed before starting.

“There was a girl I fancied in college who went on to do an orbital dynamics course,” John began, trying not to cough into the bowl.

Man in the Middle

By some astonishing cosmological convenience, Vera’s day was only around an hour shorter than Earth normal. That meant you could keep the calendar mostly synchronised with Earth’s, with an additional ‘leap day’ every twenty-four days: a sort of regular bank holiday for the colony.

This one, between Monday and the Tuesday when John was due to ship out—leap-Monday, L11 May—was clear.

He had woken on time, and spent most of the day walking. Wandering around the little town, down the cliff path to the bay, across the causeway to the lighthouse on the little island. Had it not been for the uniformly beautiful men and women strutting around in brightly-coloured cloaks, and the slight variation in the tint of the sun, John might have confused it with the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. (The sand felt the same under his feet.)

He sat on the beach as the sun set, resting his phone beside him on the sand. Solar panels up—fresh ones, installed at his last stop on Grande Caffè Latte—to squeeze some extra power into the battery.

Three thousand years. This was May, so his three thousand, one hundred and twenty ninth birthday was less than a month ago. Christ. He felt old, genuinely: John reckoned the phone and the clothes on his back constituted the last tangible vestiges of his youth.

And by now, the phone was held together by chance, fractured plastic and gaffer tape, and the clothes were wearing thin.

Two hundred more, he thought, rising and stowing the phone (at 40% charge) in his pocket, bracing it against the hole that was forming. Two more jumps, two hundred more years, back to Earth.

He yawned, and opened his eyes: it was nearing sunset now, and the sky was turning orange. Behind him—he supposed he must have fallen asleep—there was a congregation of people around a small bonfire, recently kindled. Their cloaks were off, spread across the ground like oversized post-its; a few adolescents, bony, naked, laughing, were sprinting for the outgoing tide.

“Are you John?”

John jumped. It was not Dust, this time; a middle-aged lady was behind him, equally slender, a good head taller than he was, her hair more white than grey or black. Her cloak was an odd, pearlescent purple, and there was a brooch too: a seven pointed star, silverish.

“Yes.” He smiled, trying to conceal his infuriation with people in this place seeming not to have any concept of personal space. “I don’t think we’ve met?”

“I’m the Sheriff,” the woman said, offering her hand. “Evening Windchill Watching Over Ruby’s Cascade, at your service.”

At your service. Sounds like The Hobbit. Wasn’t it the Shirriff too in that? “How did you know who I am?”

“We’re a regular interchange point for starhoppers,” explained the Sheriff.

“I know that.”

“We check the manifests on the way through,” the Sheriff said, “and your name stuck out. We’ve never had someone from Earth before.”

“Really?” It seemed impossible—but Vera had only been colonised ninety-eight years ago, and barges came through around two every month. It did make sense.

“You’re also the oldest on record,” the Sheriff continued. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” It took a few seconds for that to sink in, and it had no effect on doing so. John knew he was old: he didn’t need a congratulatory telegram, less still a fucking medal to confirm the fact. Biologically, he was probably still in his early fifties. Probably. Three thousand years in cryonic suspension was nothing more than the result of blind luck and tenacity in acquiring transfer tickets.

“We were wondering if you’d join us.” Sheriff Windchill—John had forgotten the rest of her name—gestured towards the bonfire. “This is a tremendous opportunity. We’re privileged to be in your presence, someone with such a wide breadth of experience and—”

“I’m not a relic,” John said, realising as he did so that he was spitting the words with impetuousness.

Sheriff Windchill stopped, and flushed a little with embarrassment; John felt himself doing the same. If my mother could see me now…

“Quite. I’m sorry.”

“No,” John cut in. “No apology necessary. I’m just tired. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll leave you be.” The Sheriff turned away, her cloak billowing in the breeze, and strode back to the fire.

John felt chilly again. Evening Windchill. Heh. Appropriate. Yellow was becoming orange, and the wind was cooling.

He followed the Sheriff after less than thirty seconds.

Red Sky in the Morning…

The colours and the patterns of the cloaks made for easy identification. He could see Dust from a minute’s walk away, cloak billowing behind him, staring out over the bay.

(For some reason, John was reminded of a mufti day, in year four at school. Some charity or another, and he’d fundraised by dressing as Batman. God, that was a long time ago.)

“Morning,” he said. Dust turned to face him, seeming surprised.

“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, thank you.” For the first time in days. “It’s a nice view.”

“Yes.” Dust’s attention turned back to the approaching sunrise. “My mother brought me here for my Welcoming.”

Welcoming. Some kind of baptism… of course. Red Dustlight Over Aldrin Bay In Twilight From Thunder Point. “I see,” John smiled. Morning nautical twilight. And this is Thunder Point.

“I have to say goodbye today,” he continued.

“Now?”

“No. I’m getting the eleven sixteen train.” John peered to the north—beyond the bay, he could just make out the lights of the spaceport in the distance, and the double sliver of railway track connecting it to the town.

“It’s good you’re going back to Earth,” Dust mused, furling his cloak and slipping it over his neck. “Not long now.”

“Yeah.” Last night—in between the farewells, and the stories—they had found the Solar system in a spotting scope. Earth was there, somewhere in that smudged collection of pixels. Home.

“Can you take this back home, please?” Dust asked, passing John his cloak, and a crumpled collection of underclothes. (He’d undressed, quickly, and was now stretching at the cliff-edge.)

John folded the bundle in his hands. He looked down, and across—he could hear people diving in already. 6 a.m.

“Actually…” he thought, opening his mouth but not saying it. Actually what?

He looked up in time to see Dust leap from the cliff-edge, and a thump a few seconds later. He was still there—a tiny, naked figure against the deep blue-green—but John had forgotten what he was going to say.

It took him five minutes to walk back to the hotel (or the hostel, or whatever the hell it was: everything here defied classification.) John stuffed Dust’s clothes back underneath his hammock, and sat in his own.

His case, bruised, scuffed, was packed tightly. His phone was in there, too, turned off, and memory cleared out again—judicious use of compression and ruthless discarding of duplicates had squeezed out a few extra megabytes of space for camera storage.

Maybe he’d show people when he got back to Earth.

Sod it. He stripped off his thinning shirt, socks and jeans, and strode out from the hotel in his boxer shorts.

Here, John Crichton looked anonymous: no inconspicuous clothes bar the underwear to differentiate him; no outlandish hair or skin colour; the acne was even getting better.

He broke from the slow trickle of naked bodies to Thunder Point, down the path to the cove. John did not stop as he waded into the water, and began moving his arms.

When in Rome, the old maxim went, do as the Romans do.

Until he accidentally swallowed his first mouthful of sea water, John had no objection to doing as the Verans did.

I Am a Starship

It took them around fifteen minutes to put you under, and another three hours to freeze you safely before being slung at a fraction of light-speed between stars. The barge was due to cast off at 6pm.

Dust walked with him to the railway station: a single platform, a machine that sold tickets, a clock. The train was already there (there was only one passenger train each day) and there were people loading themselves into the carriages: the same muted colours in their threads as John, the same weary faces—none as old as him, though.

“It’s been good to meet you,” said Dust, doing most of the work to lift the case into the luggage car. “You have a lot of good stories.”

“Thank you. I suppose I’ll be something to tell your grandchildren about…”

Dust remained smiling, but did not laugh: the joke was lost on him. John snorted—

“John!”

The interrupting voice was that of the Sheriff, holding a large paper parcel in her hands.

“Sheriff,” Dust said. “Do you need something?”

Her arms were extended—the parcel. For him.

“We thought to give you this as a token of our goodwill,” the Sheriff announced, as John took and unwrapped it. “The children loved hearing about your life last night.”

Heavy, loose-flowing cloth fell through his hands, knit with grey, blue and green.

“Wow,” said he, tossing the cloak over his shoulders and slipping his head into the hood. He’d never been given a leaving gift by the government before. “It’s beautiful.”

“I hope it reminds you of Vera,” Sheriff Windchill beamed. “We won’t be forgetting you.”

John caught sight of himself, reflected in the train window. The cloak only looked slightly less ridiculous than the Batman costume he’d worn as a nine year-old.

“Thank you,” he smiled. “I’ll keep—I’ll cherish it,” he added.

The Sheriff raised her right arm, and brought her cape over John’s shoulder—as the children yesterday had struggled to do. A Veran farewell custom, the guide on his phone had said, and a rather lovely one.

“A safe journey,” she said, “and clear skies.”

“Thank you,” John said, again, turning crimson with embarrassment.

The Sheriff shook his hand before striding away briskly. Something else about this place: everyone went around noiselessly, disappearing and reappearing like sprites, or fairies, or some strange video-game glitch.

John checked the clock. 11:06 a.m.

“I have to go,” Dust announced, suddenly. “I’m meeting my girlfriend in the library.”

His girlfriend—this was the first time Dust had mentioned a girlfriend, or a significant other of any kind. (There had been something in the guide about relationships on Vera being traditionally fluid.)

“Goodbye,” John said, reaching out to shake Red Dustlight Over Aldrin Bay In Twilight From Thunder Point’s hand.

He enveloped John in his cape, and grasped his hand tighter. “Clear skies,” he whispered.

They leaned a little closer. “Clear skies,” John agreed. “Have a good life, Dust.”

He was out of sight within fifteen seconds.

John boarded the train and found his seat. It sagged under his weight, feeling damp and over-used; the fabric was old, tired, threadbare, much like the shirt under his cloak.

The girl sat opposite him looked like a regular starhopper, too. If he’d been female, he might not have looked too different, thirty biological years ago—skinny, with invidious brown eyes.

She had her ticket out in front of her, and John followed suit. They still issued them on paper: it was one of the few things you couldn’t argue over, unlike a million and one smartcard, authentication mechanism and ticketing standards.

MOVE ONE---VERA to BARNARD'S STAR to EARTH(III)---J CRICHTON (NAMED BEARER ONLY.)

He traced the words with his fingers. Earth. If there was still an Earth to go to, and if it was still habitable.

A cloud passed, and Vera’s sun leaked in through the train window. J CRICHTON in a mono-spaced font. Cold. Impersonal.

John looked out of the window. The ocean glistened in the sunlight.

The kids last night—they’d been interested. Small children, teenagers, the odd mum and dad, they’d all listened. Listened to every word he’d said, and thanked him afterwards. A dozen good wishes for clear skies.

The skies were clear.

John Crichton breathed, he stood, and he and tore his starship ticket neatly in two.