They’re living in a time-slowed capsule environment while the planet is terraformed around them.
Even at this rate, it’s going to take years. The view out of the windows is the main form of entertainment.
Sometimes there’s a rain storm that lasts a million years – the volcanic rocks are so hot that the rain hits them and turns immediately to water vapour again, coalescing back into heavy hot clouds— for the moment, the atmosphere is liquid.
They dissociate, and it really feels like being underwater. Being outside time is like a kind of silence, a deafness to something. They feel like it’s all just a coda to an interstice of passion. When time stopped because they were only occupied with love. And they lifted the voile and outside civilizations rose and fell like time-lapse, and no one understood them as they flew silently in space.
Now they are really in a bubble, genuinely flying and genuinely silent.
Probably everyone is experiencing psychological trauma – the horror before they left; the strangeness of being here.
If you can slow time, why make them spend years waiting for the terraforming to be finished? It had been thought that it would be good for the children, to see their new planet being formed. Something about knowing where you came from. Something about understanding the eons that go into making that delicate ecosystem and how narrow is the band of life. Something about not making the same horrible mistakes again. The other reason, which they didn’t really talk about, was because they wanted to hide in a tiny sealed space, where nothing could get in or out.
–Imagine what we would look like to someone out there. If anyone was out there. Living but never moving. Our storms last a million years, too. That argument about the coffee, for example. The moment when I shouted at you and threw down the pot. Someone could live and die out there and that’s the only expression they’d ever see on my face.
6 years in, there is a breach – time starts to get in through the hole. It takes a while to notice, but it’s true, time has been getting in through the hole.
—Or has it been getting out? Have we got too much time now or not enough?
—Shut up, this isn’t a thought experiment. What are we going to do?!
They consult the archive – all the information for what to do when the terraforming is finished. All the information for dealing with a plentiful utopian virgin planet; for negotiating those difficulties. Nothing about what happens if time gets in, time gets out.
There can be no breach without a time breach, can there? Maybe you just can’t control time – maybe it always evens up, like pressure in the ears.
They can’t help getting philosophical; there’s not enough science.
The idea of going out there is pretty disgusting. The idea of there being anything out there but clean, new cells. You can think that you are damaging an ecosystem, but eventually it will show you you are nothing. Some part of it will grow which means you cannot, and this had attacked them from the inside. Quarantine.
They start to think about all those other Families, on other planets, serving the same time. Had any of them had a time breach? All at once they realise they’re not expected to make it – not them in particular. A billion pods on a billion planets – humanity’s children are become a vast litter, a swarm; only one pod has to make it through the winter. They see humanity for the vast selfish organ it has always been, catering only to itself as the revenant mutant strip of a germ that is able to copy itself into the void.
What if the readings are wrong and it’s immediate death just to go out there? What if something gets them and the whole infection-horror plays itself out again? Could they maybe just stay here and hope it gets better? In or out? Is it better to be the people who go and try and fail; or the people who stay and fear but live longer?
The glass bubble. How perfectly desperate.
They will all go outside. They have to go outside. Sooner or later; and the longer they wait the sooner the later becomes. Besides, no one wants to be one of the few again, being begged to help and being unable to help.
They agree to monitor conditions for a week, taking two-hour watches to observe every detail possible, to work out what’s out there. To try and know as much as they can from inside.
Maps are drawn and estimations made. Nothing can be tested.
They die, don’t they? They have to die. How could they not? They know when they go through the time-lock, in its bathos of cleanliness and security, the only real option is that they die out there; the other is that they come back to their broken bubble to die here instead, slowly.
The atmosphere is breathable, has been for ages – that’s not the problem. Mostly the problem is that none of them know much about the machine they’re living in or what it’s supposed to do.
They’ve studied the archive; the collective conversation of humanity that they thought would accrete forever, but is now preserved. Sealed glass. Each Family might be adding to it, but it can no longer be shared. They think about all the iterations of this once living document; each in a bubble on a ball in a vacuum.
They’ve tried to read about it; the plans for terraforming, the process. What is supposed to happen. They also find what is not supposed to be happened upon. The latency; The expectation of grand failure.
Like a survival troupe like never before; like the pioneers in the west; or Ice Age nomads; or the first out of Africa – except more like refugees, with death at their heels. If they succeed they will have been pioneers. My family came from the shtetlekh with nothing, you know. Stories that only happen because the person telling them survived.
From the moment they step out it is into their destiny. From inside, the whole thing lasts around a minute.
Never were they so aware how kind the Earth had been; take a million habitable systems and just see if your mother’s own recipe is not better.
From inside it would have looked like a patch of silent scrawling. Over on the left, not far from the pod, while everything continued to change at close to its previous rate, this frenetic patch quivered and struggled.
It looked like toil, but it often looked like joy. They got years; some of them got natural death.
It was never going to last long, however you looked at it. They built things and depicted things. They ate things, and sometimes they were poison. It took a few years to decide something had made them infertile. This world had taken one look at them and said, ok, but just this once.
So they got no birth, though they got at least the opportunity to try. They got fires in the evenings, and stories, and times when all they knew was that they were alive and that was ok. Towards the end of a minute, someone who had been the youngest became the oldest and the last, and then ceased to be anything at all.
After that there was silence, and the planet was truly beautiful, and it didn’t mind at all that no one ever said so.
Heli Clarke is a writer who is currently living and working in Paris.