You're listening to The Long Way Home, a story album by Soaria. Thank you so much for joining us today. More info about the album can be found in the last track. You can find more about Soaria, and story albums, at our web site, soaria.ca, that's s-o-a-r-i-a dot c-a.
Often it is said that the young feel old, or the old feel young. I’ve lost track of what “age” means, myself. All I know is that, when the world, with all of its loves, hates, fears, wisdom, folly, laughs, and cries… when the world suddenly and abruptly brushed its closest yet with death, the books said I was 24 years old.
I’m Tainah Asche, Tai for short.
This is how it all unfolded. This is our story.
Walk the Crossroads promenade, an extrovert's paradise Duck into a spooky game, that one's got some spice Amongst all the frivolities, a game to explore space Charts plot other galaxies, but we all stay in one place No one is bored here on Earth No one suffers in strife No one wants for food nor drink No one need question the price Pink and cyan neon lights; games, conversations, and noise In this world of reverie, your image is all about poise Earth welcomes all to its embrace, no one has to stay away All work together in this place, for smiles in the coming days No one is bored here on Earth No one suffers in strife No one wants for food nor drink No one need question the price Some people like to live life fast, others nice and slow Distance is a thing of the past, go anywhere you wanna go There's a place on Earth for everyone, a place that you can call home And even if you can't find yours, you can always make your own No one is bored here on Earth No one suffers in strife No one wants for food nor drink No one need question the price We're all living our design, we're all deep in our dream How we got here's lost to time, but we've not run out of steam Some people say it's time to play, others go with the flow But for this day, I point and say, it's onward with the show No one is bored, here on Earth Everyone has a good life And in this modern Shangri-la No one turns out the lights
Shivers in the dark
(crowds cheering, lasers, explosions)
"Oh god, I'm so tired of fighting the Clang."
"Yeah, they're super creepy!"
"Marco, turn that shit off. You can listen to your fans' adulation later."
(metal banging sound)
"I'm hearing some kind of weird banging sound, what the heck?"
"Get out of there!" "Eject eject!"
Lost in my own thoughts about the strange events in Dogfight, my sister Tai startled me when she walked up and tapped my shoulder.
"Are you okay?" she asked. "It's not like you to be jumpy."
Today’s Dogfight was a real scorcher of a battle, in a new sector. Nothing really out of the ordinary, for most of it, and then…
Her face turned serious as she saw me lose my own smile and look at the ground again. I could feel her concern when I didn’t look up again.
“What did you call me here for, anyway?” She asked, putting a concerned hand on my shoulder. “I mean, we can talk any time, and it doesn’t get much more private than that…”
“I just…” I started, not really knowing where to go with the thought. “I don’t have your way with words, I’m sorry. Something felt off today about the fight. I know it’s just supposed to be a game, but there was something about it. Like time wasn’t passing the right way around me, or like my head was going numb, or… I don’t really know. It felt more serious than normal, somehow. Their moves and their strategies were super weird. And they were Clang ships, which always gives me the creeps. And then there was the scream...”
Tai's eyebrows suddenly drew down in seriousness. "Scream? Pro e-sports pilot or not, Calysta Asche, start talking."
People who don’t know us sometimes think there’s no way we could be sisters. In some ways, we’re so different. There’s the obvious thing, that I got Dad’s blonde, curly hair, and Tai got Mom’s straight, black hair and darker complexion. We’ve also got a different way of looking at the world, though. I think Tai sees it as one giant puzzle that will take her whole life to understand and tease apart. I like to look at what’s in front of me and work through one situation at a time. I like being around people. Tai always seems more at home in a giant storm of glowing information windows, or arm deep in some piece of server equipment.
Right now, I wanted to go hide in server equipment.
Not getting a response from me, she stared into space for a moment.
“Clang ships?” Tai asked, pausing to think, sharing my memories of their appearance and behaviour in the game. “Huh. That is sort of creepy. I remember the stories Mom and Dad used to tell us, trying to scare us into behaving… ‘Better watch out, or the night wisps will come for you and suck out your soul.' (uneasy laugh.) Clang ships look like some game designer was inspired by the night wisps. Why would they put a thing like that into a game that’s supposed to be for fun?”
I stepped forward and gave her a hug, rubbing the top of her head with my hand. “It’s not like you have a lot of room to talk, with your love of horror games.”
“But that’s– I mean– That’s different. Night wisps aren’t kid-friendly. Dogfight is supposed to be.”
I didn’t really want to think too hard about some of the rumors I’d heard about the Clang from other Dogfight pilots right then. Our visiting co-op team had gone suddenly quiet after the scream from their pilot.
I was pushing it out of my mind. I could feel Tai growing curious and I held up a hand.
“Go ahead, Tai, I’m done here this evening. Do your thing.”
She sighed. “Okay.”
She called the menu and tapped a few times.
The world rushed away from me.
500 metres deep
The most striking thing about it, I always thought, was the sound. Or the lack thereof, really. Then the other bits hit you. A kind of dusty and yet dank, earthy smell. A few drips of water in the distance, someone coughing quietly. The hum of machinery.
I reached up with muscles sore from disuse and lifted the visor from my face. Blinking a few times to get my eyes working properly again, I creaked myself upright and then swung my feet over the edge of the simple bed, eyeing the overly bright sunbeam falling in from the light conduit that brought it from half a kilometre above. After a few more moments to centre myself, I twisted and then pulled the life support plug that tethered me to the machines.
I didn’t know what people used to call this place, the world outside of Earth. That’s not what it is anymore, though. We call it Substrate. What it is… well…
I guess that’s just a fancy word for humanity’s data center and life support unit.
(Head conversation between Tai and Callie)
Tai: Callie. Callie! Calysta Asche! Are you in there?
Callie: I’m here, I’m here! Geez. Give me time to wake up, too.
Looking down at my hands, I pondered how this never stopped being strange. I suppose our body looked more like me than Callie, but it didn’t really feel much like mine, either. Our Earth bodies evolve with who we are and how we see ourselves. They’re simple to change. This one, not so much.
How long has it been this time, maybe days, maybe weeks It's easy to lose track when it's the "real" world you seek Out there we're living in Earth, I'm writing code in a tree Out here in stark reality, you're living a fantastical dream Seeing and hearing and feeling and smelling Touching and laughing and sleeping and living Home is the place where you decide you want to make it "Real world" is the place where you decide not to fake it
How long had we been under this time? Days? Weeks? It was easy to lose track when you were living in that perpetual dream world that had replaced the stark reality outside. The visor wasn’t a fancy screen over your eyes and ears; it took over the sensory centers of the brain itself and let you feel like you were really there, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, touching, interacting.
No, not a dream world. The real world. This world out here, Substrate, was more like a strange dream.
I pulled on my shoes and, backtracking a few steps after thinking better of it, grabbed my hoodie hanging on the hook by the door.
The human areas of the node — we called them “habihubs” — were simply constructed, but to my mind, that made it all the more beautiful. It was also the most lively place in each node. Ours looked like someone had hollowed out and sanded down caverns of brown stone, with curved, organic pillars supporting a ceiling high overhead. Individual rooms led off of the outer ring of that cavern, and in the center, a kitchen.
I wandered into the kitchen looking for some coffee. None was on offer, but someone had ground beans lately, so I grabbed that and started it brewing. I could practically feel Callie vibrating inside for some fresh coffee and rolled my eyes.
(Callie zombie-intoning "cofffeee" inside)
“Oh hey, Tai,” a voice called as a man strode into the room from the opposite side. “Heard ya singing.”
I very nearly dropped the coffee scoop in surprise. “Hey, Dad. How’s it going?”
“You two out for a break, or are you working on the node?”
I nodded. “A little of both, I guess, but mostly the node. There’s a cross-node breakage on X5.”
“That’s my daughter. You make us all proud. Say hi to Callie for me too. I’ll see you two for dinner, maybe? Eh?”
(Callie zombie-intoning "cofffeee" inside)
I let Callie drink her coffee on the way back to the node server array, before she simply burst out of our skull for it.
(Tai kinda mouthing the rhythms of the earlier lines)
To the sides of the hallway, windows let out onto the bio-gardens. Racks reaching far up to the cavern’s ceiling were filled with green. Most of what we grew were algae and similar micronutrients that were processed directly into what fed into our bodies. But for those who could not live in Earth for the most part, or those of us who had to come back to Substrate for jobs, there was some amount of real food out here, too. Leafy greens, tubers, spices, even a few trees with fruit.
In some decadent node elsewhere, coffee trees. Unbelievable.
The surface up there is said to be a desert so intense that no one can survive in it for very long. Rumors tell of some irresponsibility of humanity’s past, that it was once not only a beautiful place, but a livable place. Of course there are other engineers like me that have to go up there for things like solar panel maintenance. Solar panels are really effective now in all of that sun. There are stories about what’s up there. But no one lives there anymore, and no one from our node has ever been up.
At my approach, a door softly slid aside, closing behind me.
Heart of Earth
Standing on a balcony, looking over the server racks It's all just so vast that my eyes lose track Cables and computers, in an orderly grid Run our world, Earth, for the adults and the kids The air in the room feels like it's pinching my nose No dust and no moisture, those awful tech foes I can feel some discomfort from my sister Callie But to me it's my home... my monastery.
All right, time to grab a scooter and get to work.
“Okay, kiddo,” I said to the X5 rack. “Let’s see what’s bothering you today.”
(Callie head conversation) (I think it’s cute how you talk to them), Callie commented inside.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said out loud as I unscrewed a panel, but I smiled too.
By the time I was done, I had pockets full of tools I’d been using to check everything out. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a problem with the cross-node terminator, which is what we called the place where networks from other nodes plugged into ours.
I sighed with a whoosh of air.
(Callie head conversation) (The tunnels?), Callie asked.
(Tai head conversation) The tunnels.
“That’s too bad about the fault, Tai,” Mom said around bites of dinner. “Are you going tunnel running tonight?”
I nodded. “It’s probably best to just get it over with. There’s still connectivity, but traffic is routing around us.”
“Be careful dears,” Mom cautioned. “Unlike Earth, you can actually die out here, and those tunnels aren’t as well maintained as the nodes.”
(Callie briefly speaking) “Mom, Mom, we know,” Callie said for us. “We’ll be careful.”
Mom smiled at us. “Nice of you to join us, Callie.”
“Anyway,” I continued, “it’s not like we haven’t done this before. We’ll be fine. In and out in a couple of hours, max.”
“Why don't you ask your friend to go with you, just in case?” Dad chimed in. “Uh, what was his name…”
“Jonasz. Callie’s friend, more like. But I hope we don’t have to go too far.”
Dad gestured with his fork. “We trust you. It’s just sort of worrying. What’s waiting out there? Earth is still full of people, but our part of Substrate has become, well, unsettling in its silence.”
“Ah, so yeah. Time to go! See you all in a while!”
I stood with my plate, walking over to place it in the washer, pausing to give myself time to think.
What _was_ out there in the tunnels, in these later days? It could've gotten so quiet, in fifty different ways Mom and Dad mean well, but what out there could hurt me? There's no point in worrying, we'll go and see what we see.
Tunnel to nowhere
On the road again, through Substrate.
The vaguely circular tunnel itself wasn’t very large; basically just wide enough for two tunnel runners to pass by each other in a pinch. Every half a minute or so, a dim, yellowish-red light forming a chevron from top to bottom along the cave wall flashed by, and then we were momentarily back into pitch darkness, besides the distant light from the next one.
The tunnel runner came to a fairly quick stop. I tapped a few buttons on the touch screen, and the tunnel all around us lit up in bright light. Next to the runner, a slightly recessed door frame was attached to a small placard reading “X5-A4M9”. I stepped off the runner’s control platform and walked over to the door, pushing it open. The door swung closed behind me.
As I entered the space, the automatic lights flickered on. This wasn’t our first stop for the evening. We’d left behind “X5-A4M8” and “X5-A4M7”, and no doubt “X5-A5M1” was soon in the future.
Except it wasn’t. I swore.
A much smaller tunnel ran next to the larger one; instead of tunnel runners, it carried a giant bundle of fiber optic cables. They were generally self-healing; it wouldn’t be practical to take care of them manually with the small number of engineers. But it looked like this one had been prevented from repairing itself. Something had literally blown a piece of the cable bundle wide open, and the material reservoir for the self-repair was empty. In fact, it looked like this wasn’t the first time it had been blown open.
(Clang-ish noises in the background)
“What the heck happened here,” I muttered to myself.
(Callie talking inside) (If I didn’t know better), Callie commented, sounding worried, (that looks almost like Clang blaster damage. Weird.)
“What is it?” Jonasz asked me as he followed me through the maintenance door.
It’s not just speech that I share with Callie, it’s a space that is somehow open between our minds. I could look there now and see a Dogfight game against an enemy that left even her with a case of the creeps. Black ships with organic shapes like tentacles that seem to writhe in the sunlight, strange iridescent paint in menacing patterns, weapons that hit harder than they really ought to. A weird clanging sound from their ships when they tried to grapple on. And something else…
She flinched away from the memory.
(Tai head speech) (Huh. Who are they, in the game?) I asked her.
(Callie head speech) (I don’t know), she whispered. (I don’t know. No one does.) She shuddered. (Anyway, I’m sure it has nothing to do with this.)
“Earth to Asche sisters,” Jonasz poked gently with a smile.
I shook my head and focused on him once again. "Sorry, sorry. It's just a weird kind of damage. Nothing but to get to it, though."
I could tell that the auto-repair had made a valiant effort with this any number of times, but the surface just wasn’t amenable to any more patching like that. I decided to smooth cut the broken cable bundle with a laser saw and fibre-weld in a new segment. Turning to the diagnostic computer strapped to my arm, a few taps later, the cable was reactivated and showing good signal strength.
I wished then that I could figure out what had caused it, to save myself another repair job out here in the future. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve taken that thought back in a second. But you can’t grow more innocent. That road only goes one way.
"All right, we're done here," I said to Jonasz. "Let's head back. Sorry for wasting your time, but the company was good, I hope?"
Jonasz just laughed. "Please. This has been a fun adventure, and it's never a chore to hang out with you two. But I'm definitely ready to get back home."
“You’re scared,” I said plainly. “What stories have you heard about these tunnels?”
He paused for a long while. “It’s just rumors, okay? I haven’t heard it, myself. But people say they’ve heard buzzing and static. And… music.” He looked to the side as if he were embarrassed to say it.
“Music.” I smiled a little. “Mmm, Substrate ghost hauntings. Now that sounds like my kind of puzzle. C'mon, let's head back.”
Fifty-five… Fifty-four… Fifty-three… I was counting off the chevron lights as they flew by, keeping track of how far we were into the tunnel. Fifty-t… There was no fifty-two. We’d past the rhythm point, but no light. And no fifty-one, or fifty. I slowed the runner and looked behind us.
“What’s up?” Jonasz asked me, looking slightly nervous.
“Ah, well, the lights just stopped...”
Hitting the bright lights switch on the runner, I slowly headed back down the tunnel toward the cable break I'd repaired.
“What the…” My voice trailed off.
Not only were there no maintenance doors, there were no lights, either. Lights I’d just counted off five minutes ago.
Fifty-four… Fifty-five… I counted off where the lights should be, even though nothing was there.
I let the tunnel runner come to a stop, staring at the darkness ahead of us.
(muttered) "No doors and no lights."
“We should’ve been back to the repair by now,” Jonasz whispered, a tremble of fear in this voice. “Did we get lost in a side passage?”
“I suppose it’s possible?” I mused, thinking hard. “But that’s not really something I’ve heard of. The tunnels in Substrate are generally point to point. Let’s head back toward the other end of the tunnel and see if we can get back to the main tunnel, or maybe the next node. Maybe we’ll find something there.”
Jonasz let a solid breath out of his nose, paused, then nodded. “You’re the expert, Tai. Let’s do it.”
(Tai head voice) (Callie? What do you think?)
(Callie head voice) (You know what you’re doing as well as anyone here,) she replied in thought. (I’m kinda worried that you’re worried, though.)
(Tai head voice) (It’s strange, but not completely bad. I’m curious. Let’s see where this goes.)
“Okay,” I nodded to Jonasz. “Let’s roll.”
The mysterious door
Two hours later, longer than any cross-node tunnel I’d traversed in one go, we still had darkness ahead and behind. No maintenance doors, nothing. But then I heard it. I slowed the tunnel runner.
“Jonasz… Do you hear that?”
He strained his ears and then nodded. “Static.” He shivered. “Well, here comes your answer.”
I started the tunnel runner rolling again, and it wasn’t long until we could see the source of the static sound. It looked like some kind of force field blocking the path. Directly behind it, a large metal door like nothing I’d seen in Substrate. I’d heard of these elsewhere, though.
Shining a portable light at the door and moving the beam around it, the metal was clean and shiny and contained concentric rings and lines.
(Callie head voice) (Looks like a star chart), Callie chimed in.
Jonasz picked up on my unease and puzzlement, and whispered into the darkness. “What? What is it?”
I looked down at my hands. :sigh: “We’ve all got hobbies, Jonasz. This is mine. In ancient times, people were obsessed with the Loch Ness monster, or bigfoot, or aliens, or any number of other things. There were a lot of anecdotes, but no solid proof. This… this is my conspiracy hobby. People say doors on Earth just like these lead to unbelievable things.”
“What sorts of things?”
“Machinations of the gods,” I said, stepping off the runner much more nonchalantly than I was feeling, walking over to the static field. “I’ve never seen one in person, but there’s no mistaking it.”
Jonasz's eyebrows drew down. “What does it mean that we found one here of all places, though? This is Substrate.”
I shrugged and replied, “Maybe the legend came from Substrate. Like I said, I’ve never seen one in person anywhere.”
Gently reaching a flat palm up to the static field, I touched it gingerly.
It felt like a soft blanket under my touch. It flared briefly brighter, and the static was louder for a moment before falling back to its previous state. Suddenly, a very strange thing happened.
A glowing window popped up over the edge of the static field. A glowing window just like on Earth. Glowing windows that existed only on Earth, not in Substrate.
“Um. Okaaaay,” I muttered to myself, furrowing my brow at it. “Did we somehow fall asleep and end up on Earth?”
Substrate didn’t have floating, glowing windows. What was it doing here? Was some kind of machine projecting it?
“It seems to want multiple simultaneous types of authorizations,” I said. “But we’ve only got two people’s worth of bodies here to touch the panel. Well… Actually.”
I turned my attention inward.
(Tai head voice) (Callie, can you take control of our left arm?)
(Callie head voice) (Uh… I’ve never had much luck doing that without taking everything.) She sounded puzzled. (Where are you going with this?)
(Tai head voice) (Just a hunch. Give it a try, please.)
I could feel Callie moving around inside somehow, paying attention to our left arm. I was flexing our fingers on the right arm, trying to keep control of it, trying my best not to pay attention to the left arm. Suddenly she seemed determined, and my left arm… her left arm, started moving without my input.
“Jonasz,” I called, and he looked over from studying the door. “Come on over, we need your help. Quickly.”
Callie and I placed our hands near the surface of the window, and Jonasz, picking up on what we were doing, placed his nearby as well. He looked over at me, and I nodded. He nodded back, and we all three lowered our hands at once.
A chime filled the air around the window, suddenly, as it turned green and vanished. The static field disappeared, and the door began to open.
Waltz of the navigator
The mystery door led into a large, open space that just seemed like directionless white light. Earth-style glowing-edged windows were floating all around, as if we weren’t standing right there in Substrate. Some contained readouts of incomprehensible numbers; others held famous works of art; still others seemed to have views of deep space.
“Unbelievable,” I muttered, my eyes trying to go everywhere at once. “This does look like machinations of the gods.”
We walked into the white space, gingerly checking for a floor before stepping out farther. Somewhere in the distance, I heard what sounded like old Earth classical music. Was that…
“A waltz,” Jonasz said suddenly beside me. “I heard some in an old archive on Earth.”
“Well,” I muttered, “there’s your music.”
We wound our way through seeming hallways of art and displays, and then, suddenly, there in the distance, we perceived our host. His… no, her… All I could really say is that they looked human, perhaps what a human might look like if they’d been averaged together from thousands of people. Long, green hair, strong shoulders, soft eyes and jaw line. Clothes made of a flowing, light coloured, soft fabric that might’ve been robes or a dress. Confident fingers running across the keys of a piano.
As we walked closer, the person smiled at us kindly and then sighed deeply.
“You’re right, Mr Kordel. This song's composer stood by and taught and mentored the greats, consigned never to be fully recognized in her own right. Ancient politics.”
The person in front of us shook their head briefly, and then looked back at us.
“Tainah and Calysta Asche. Jonasz Kordel. Welcome. I call myself Core. I’ve been expecting you. No… I’ve been praying for your arrival. I only hope we’re not too late.”
Captain on the bridge
I stood studying Core for a few seconds longer before asking the obvious question. “How are we in a virtual space in the middle of Substrate? I mean, that’s what this is, right? And yet… this is clearly our Substrate body.” I gestured at the life support ports.
Core studied us in return, head tilted slightly, before continuing in that androgynous voice. “We don’t have much time. I’m sorry, but I think that you might find the answers more quickly if you followed me to the other side of the gallery. Come. Please.”
We turned another corner in that endless white space, the old hallway suddenly out of view, and there was a door. It looked much like the door we’d seen on the entrance to the white space, but somehow more… practical. Simple, flat, grey metal, but with the star chart patterns painted on its surface in iridescent colors. A small inset plate on the wall contained something that looked like it should be text or letters of some kind, but it was no language I’d ever seen. Core stepped up to the door, it slid open silently, and we were gestured inside.
I felt Callie poking at me.
(Callie head voice) (Tai. What’s eating at you? What do you think is going on?)
(Tai head voice) (I… don’t know), I said back to her, honestly. (I just want to see where this goes before making any assumptions.)
What we found through that door left all of us speechless for a little while.
Callie was the first to break the silence. Neither of us realized we'd switched until her words were falling out of our mouth unbidden. “It looks like a briefing ship bridge from Dogfight.”
Core nodded at us. “Not such a big surprise.”
I looked around, checking for all the details. The room was huge, at least the equivalent of three or four floors of a building. All of the walls, from floor to ceiling, looked like super clear windows. Various stations were located around the base of the windows, and some on tiers rising up toward the back of the room where we’d entered, with gear at each station specialized for navigation, comms, and so on. A quiet hum filled the room, which had a sort of musty smell I didn’t remember from Dogfight. White points streaked by the windows as if we were flying at incredible speeds through stars.
Core walked over to a prominent chair in the middle of the bridge and sat in it, with some obvious amount of patience. “Please ask your questions.”
Tai glowered again inside, but she didn’t say anything, so I did. “Why is there a ship bridge that looks just like a Dogfight bridge out in Substrate?”
(Tai head voice) (I can’t say with any certainty that we’re in Substrate anymore), she commented inside.
“Rather,” Core responded, “I think you should ask what copies of this bridge are doing in Dogfight. You’re an enthusiastic… player… yourself, are you not, Callie? Look at the navigational charts on the console over there and tell me what’s coming.”
I walked over to the navigation station, tapping the surface once, and as I expected in the familiar place, a clear, blue, glowing window popped up over it. We were cruising through Antares, a bit of open space. But a place that was familiar to me for other reasons, because it was on the way through…
“The Clang,” I whispered out loud. “We’re headed right for a pocket of their territory. What’s going on here? How did we end up in Dogfight?”
For the first time, Core actually laughed a little, a smooth and refined skipping of sounds across a pond. “Jonasz, what do you think about the situation?”
The sudden shift surprised me. Jona?
I looked over at Jona, and the earlier surprised, lost look had been replaced with something filled with curiosity.
“I reckon I’ve never been far outside our node,” he said. “And all that tech, no disrespect to your sister, Callie, but we don’t understand all of the ins and outs of how it works. It’s based on stuff passed down to us from a long time ago. That’s one of the things we do, we arbiters. Not just maintaining peace and harmony between nodes, but keepers of history. I think we need t’ tread carefully and listen to our host.”
Core nodded as if pleased with the answer before looking back at us. “Tai?”
She pushed lightly to the front, and I let her. “Why don’t you stop fucking with us?” She was angry. Inside, I felt surprised — Tai was always so calm most of the time. Then, again…
I let her take over.
(Tai mumble rap)
I'm tired of getting the runaround There's a lot that doesn't make any sense Callie and I aren't on durable ground Right now I'm feeling a little bit dense
I gestured through the air, no command window I snapped my fingers round, the sound gave me no info I roll my eyes around, looking for hints of lag A sign that we're in the virtual, but dag It's not Earth we're in, some other kinda space I'd guess we're still asleep, in some other place But that's not it, either, because me and Callie We'd be separate in Earth, but this isn't that body
“I’m not being mysterious to annoy you, Tai. I have broad experience with psychology and the stability of the human mind, and I must be careful in what I’m saying to you, and when, and how. You three are too important to risk. So I ask for your patience just a little bit longer.”
I glared at Core, but there was no response besides continued speech.
“But yes, Callie, as you’ve suggested, this looks like a bridge of a Dogfight briefing ship. That’s because Dogfight briefing ships are based on the design of this one, the first ship. You might have heard of it: the E.S.S. Genesis.”
I felt Callie gasp inside, but she didn’t try to interrupt.
“In the Dogfight game canon, the Earth Star Ship Genesis was a long range colony ship designed to carry many people outward from that planet, the mythical origin planet of humanity. They were to travel for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, searching for other worlds for humanity to inhabit, spreading out among the stars and Becoming. Beautiful.”
A look of disbelief must have crept onto my face, because Core laughed a little again. But, standing swiftly, Core headed toward another exit of the room. “Come. Please. There is more you need to see.”
We stepped out onto a balcony overlooking a vast, open space. Thousands of pods, arranged in rows and columns into the distance, stood in mute testimony to the ambition of the hypothetical humanity of the past. Core just stood there silently, letting us take everything in.
I had to ask: “Who the heck are you, anyway, Core?”
“Mmmm, you might call me the steward. All of the inhabitants of this ship were placed in stasis before we left Earth orbit. But someone needed to stay awake in order to take care of contingencies during the long sleep.”
“So, you’re one of the passengers who stayed awake?” I asked. “And you need our help now that you are growing old and not quite able to do as well at your job?”
Core gave me a sly, sidelong look that lasted only a second. “You honour me, Tainah Asche, more than you know. No, that is not correct, and yet, it might as well be. I am what you might call an artificial intelligence system. A control program that is watching over the rest. And yes, you could say that I’m ‘growing old’ and not quite able to do as well at my job anymore.”
“But…” Jonasz started. “These were the pods humanity slept in?”
“What do you mean, ‘were’?” I asked Jonasz, turning to stare at him.
“Well, look at ’em, they’re empty.”
I stared around suddenly at all the pods, looking through every one I could possibly see. He was right. None of these pods held people.
I looked back at Core with suspicion.
“I assure you all,” Core replied to me with a solemn expression, “that this is no game, and no joke. Something deadly serious is about to take place here, and we desperately need your help.”
After a short pause, Core continued. "Dogfight is a 'game' that helps us train pilots to fight for this actual ship, the Genesis. Faster-than-light travel means that even small errors can compound rapidly. We're no longer remotely on course and have found enemies beyond the imagination of humanity.
"We’ve tried to avoid fights. But now, we’ve no choice but to push through a sector of dense Clang space. The alternatives are… costly.”
Core looked down briefly, perhaps sad or even embarrassed. The expressions passing over that neutral face were difficult to interpret.
“That leaves a really important question," I replied. "Why are there so many dead colonists? How did they die? How many colonists were even on this ship?”
My thoughts had narrowed almost entirely to solving this strange problem, so I didn’t notice at first that the entire space we were in was… fizzling… slightly.
I started noticing the fizzling when the whole room shook.
I turned to look at Core, whose drawn-down brows showed both determination and worry.
Core turned back to the ship door, looking back at us impatiently, then jogged back to the bridge. I could feel Callie stiffen inside as everything in the room came back into view.
There was no need to look at the navigation charts this time; the stars had stopped streaking by and were at a stand-still. And surrounding us out there…
"We're out of time," Core intoned gravely. "They're here."
(Callie head voice) (Quick, let's get in a fighter), Callie replied, and I let her get to it.
(Callie) At least the "launch fighter" command on the bridge works like Dogfight.
(Team captain) Callie?! We thought you were MIA. Where'd you go?
(Callie) You wouldn't believe me, captain. Let's do this.
(Match announcer) And tonight, it's the Crossroads Angels versus the Clang! We thought they'd be limping along without their star pilot, buuut surpriiiise! Here she is! Calyyyystaaa Ascccchhe!
(Tai) We've got all humanity with us, sis. What can't we do?
Sometimes odds are long Sometimes it's all wrong Sometimes doubts won't shake But in the end, you can't break You've got friends at your side There's no need to run and hide Even if you've got some doubts Together you can work it out
(Tai) What the heck is that?
(Callie) That is what the Clang look like up close. A writhing, organic mess of darkness.
(Tai) What the... can we do a spectral analysis on that thing while we fight it?
(Callie) ...I've never thought to try, but let's see what we can do.
You can shadow box in your mind When shit gets real, time to grind Time to use what you know Throw textbooks out the window You've got family at your back There's no need to pause the attack Go beyond, get it in gear Protect all those you hold dear
(creepy mumble rap)
Enemies closing in making a ring Somehow they know that we're more interesting First the bangs then the scrapes then all the mist Night wisps are coming to give you a kiss
(Tai) Uh... I think our fighter is on fire. What's with the smoke?
(Callie) No no no no!
(Tai) Oh. Yikes, that thing was like... eating our fighter.
(Callie) (giant whoosh of breath out) That was incredibly close. Well, normally I'd watch the match and get picked up later, but let's jet back to the Genesis for now.
(Tai) Yeah. I'd really like to get that data and analyze it.
(Callie) (laughs) Oh sis, I love ya, do you think about anything else? It looks like humanity will at least live to see another day.
The ever-seeking light
In spite of all the hubbub going on outside the window, it was weirdly quiet on the bridge. I stood for a while, watching the battle next to Core.
Suddenly, Core broke the silence with a sigh. "Your question from earlier. The pods are empty because of mistakes that I, myself, made in early navigation. It was not possible to reach a habitable planet with available resources, even if I knew where to find one. No colonists would survive."
"But," I replied, puzzled, "why are we here, fighting these battles? I mean... I don't want t' see you die from the Clang either, but if there aren't colonists left to fight for..."
Core's face showed sudden determination. "If you are given two useless options, you can sit down and give up, or you can make a third option. I refused to give up, with so much humanity on the line."
I felt like stomping a foot. "Make sense, Core. No more riddles."
Core hesitated a second more, but nodded.
"You must carry this knowledge onward, as an Arbiter. Even in stasis, the colonists' bodies require a fair amount of upkeep. It was impossible that we could reach a habitable planet in time. Waking up the colonists only to tell them they had even less time seemed rather macabre, and also a failure.
"Ultimately I woke just a few of the senior staff, because it was a decision beyond my authority. Together, we launched a plan to save the colonists of the Genesis. Do you know of Tsuneo Sugihara?"
I started to shake my head, then looked upward briefly. "I heard that name in my Arbiter training. Some kinda neuro-scientist?"
Core nodded. "He was my father, building my consciousness from bits of real human minds. Dr Sugihara contemplated a machine, more of a philosophical problem than anything, really, that became known as the Sugihara Device. It wouldn't just read bits and pieces of minds that could form an AI. It could go further, read an entire mind. Do you understand where I'm going?"
At my silence, Core continued on. "The Genesis could carry on for a very long time with only its processing array. So we 'woke up' the colonists into a 'new world'."
Core nodded. "It was an early prototype. Jordan Rodgers... you know Jordan, I assume? Yes. She was unhappy with its limitations, which she always thought were pointless, in context. So once the initial task was done, she set about building 'Earth', where humanity could truly be free."
"With Substrate for human minds to kinda stand on," I replied, reeling with the enormity of the revelation. "And for engineers like Tai to work on the real ship's computers. Wait a danged minute... does that mean that battle out there is actually the Clang, real aliens, coming after billions of human minds? After Callie?"
One of the enemy ships lost control, then, flying straight at us. As it hit the “glass” on the bridge, an explosion engulfed the window, and everything seemed to go hazy around me for a few seconds.
Core was silent for so long, I began to worry. When I looked over, there was no longer a solid image of a person sitting in the captain’s chair. The face was still animated, but there was a lot of static, fuzzy areas, and no voice coming through. I could see right through some parts of Core.
“…didddddn’t think I’d die with regrets, but I guess, in the end, everyone dies saying, ‘Well I’ll be damned’… That’ll be something new, dying.”
“Core! What the heck, what’s going on? Can I help?”
Core’s head shook and then looked down. “The only one who might have a chance to help…” Static. “…re with her sister, doing something amazing. Jonasz Kordel…”
“It’s time for you to fulfill your duty and become the newest member of the Shepherd Foundation. Come with me, quickly. If there’s any future left after this, someone must know what it means.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Core’s ghostly form led us into the grandest library I’d ever seen. Nothing on Earth could compare to it. A ceiling overhead with murals painted on it, titanic wooden arches reaching up to support it. Racks of books tens of metres high, with tall, rolling ladders on walkways at intervals leading upward. Warm, wooden tables down the center with green-shaded lamps for reading.
"I think the place you should–”
Core vanished as if there’d never been anyone there, as what sounded like an explosion rocked the library. The whole room shook, and dust trickled down from above.
I looked around in a panic. “Hello? Core?” No response came. “Come on, don’t leave me here alone with this…”
A book sat on the table Core had been heading toward.
A Comprehensive Compendium of the History of Humanity and The Unfolding
Flipping open the front cover, a veritable flurry of ghostly windows seemed to explode from its pages. Videos of various people were all silently conversing in the air around me.
I nearly jumped as a buzzing sound started next to me, resolving into the even more ghostly form of Core. Core looked around, back and forth, hands reaching out to something that wasn’t there.
“Father. I hhhhhope… I’ve you proud.” Core suddenly turned to look at me, apparently seeing me once again.
A small cube-shaped object appeared between us, which was handed to me. I reached out to the rectangular object, touched it, and Core vanished once again. It felt strangely solid after it left Core’s degrading form.
Another boom shook the library, and I felt desolate, utterly alone.
Searching for any bread crumb among the floating videos, my eyes settled on one that seemed more central than others:
(Core voice) Operational Journal of HyperCore Instance Five, Acting Captain and Steward of E.S.S Genesis
It was only when Tai and Callie walked into the room, separate, that I was roused from my reading.
It was only when I had my arms around them both that I realized the fighting must have stopped.
It was a silly thing to say in the circumstances, but it's all I had: "Did we win?"
And there we were, left on the ark of some kind of evolved humanity, holding too few of the pieces to the puzzle.
The fight left me hungry, don't know what it means This whole strange system seems like a dream Maybe we eat, to feel we're complete Make us feel solid, sometimes a treat Engineer kids, they maintain Earth Artists and poets, give our lives worth Pilots like me, keep us all safe Everyone else, just passin' the days
We got a few years of whirlwind ahead But I feel a strong purpose, I let go of dread Billions of humans, what does it all mean? There weren't enough people to fill this machine... A lot we weren't told, and no one to tell it How the future unfolds, we have to decide it A Shepherd Foundation to safeguard the plans Got the remnants of Core, I'll do what I can
Well, we took the long way home, but it seems we found home after all, right where we are.
It's time, Core... you've carried your burden long enough. Let someone care for you, finally.
(Core vaguely recalling memories)
“My data banks suggest that most humans would consider this whole operation incredibly unethical, but I’ve come to understand that the needs of the few do not outweigh the needs of the many, and this seems like the best course to allow humanity to have some of their lives back in relative peace.”
“You understand, I’ve been advocating for this solution for quite some time. It illustrates a principle that I understood from my early days of waking the crew, yourself included. That the nature of humanity is the soul, the mind. My program could be moved to another processor array, and I would still be myself. Humans place much emphasis on the physical body, but I believe that that is because you have never had the ability to live outside of it. When it dies, everything that person was in the truest sense, memory, personality, feelings, all lost. It doesn’t need to be that way.”
“From the stars we come, to the stars we return,” Core intoned. “Bright and living universe, to you we commit this woman, our comrade and friend. Engineering Officer Jordan Rodgers. You will not be forgotten. Your insight, creativity, and laughter have given thousands of people another chance at life. Now you will rest in the world you created.”
"My! Is this what Earth is like...?"
Hi there, this is Aisling of Soaria, aka Ashlyn Nafina. I hope you've enjoyed our first real story album, The Long Way Home.
Composition, writing, production, voice narration, and voice acting, by Soaria.
A big thanks to contributors from FreeSound cc0.
Various loops and instruments kindly provided by the music production community.
A big ol' shout-out to Alex Moukala for getting me into orchestral production, and inspiring me to upgrade my VSTs and composing technique.
You can find more information about Soaria, and story albums, at soaria.ca; that's s-o-a-r-i-a-dot-c-a.
The original story for this album can be found on my web site, Amusements and Reverie, at nafina.com; that's n-a-f-i-n-a-dot-com.
The previous album, Smiling Phantoms, was a sort of feeling-out of the general concept, but this album, The Long Way Home, was purpose-built.
It started life as a novella posted to my writing web site, and it's just had really strong staying power in my mind for many years.
I thought it was time to give it a proper boost into the next realm. To ..unfold.. it, you might say.
The story is one that had been bubbling up in my consciousness for a while.
This concept of "virtual souls" is something that has come up a lot lately in the mediasphere.
Part of why I like to write stories is that it lets me explore topics important to me on a deeper level and share that exploration with others, and this is one of my favourite philosophical topics.
It's a really interesting thing to think about, to ponder what exactly is a person, anyway.
We interact with so many people every day in a purely virtual way, many of whom we'll never meet in person.
And realistically, everything we perceive is inputs to our brain, where this sort of amorphous "person" floats in a space of pure thought.
What if, to think about that old trope, we were all just "brains in a jar", but we were still seeing a world around us by way of our senses being plugged in?
Could you tell?
Would we stop being real people if the brain were digitized and became a purely virtual experience?
Since we are experiencing everything by way of a hefty translation layer anyway, how do we know we're not already just part of a simulation?
A lot of smart people have been pondering exactly that lately, and of course it's hard for us ever to know, since we'd be a seamless part of any such simulation.
But I like to think the answer to my earlier question is: No, we would not stop being people.
And as far as hard decisions to keep your civilization alive, stuffing everyone into a 24/7 utopia sounds like a pretty good choice.
As the title says, they sort of took the long way around, but they eventually found home right where they were.
Are the denizens of the Genesis still human?
Well, it's higher than my pay grade, as they say, to answer a question like that.
I'll leave it up to you to decide for yourself, but I know my own answer, and you probably do, too.
Catch ya later!