The Unchanging, the Temporary
The tension in the pub rose as the asteroid A-583 flickered onto the giant LCD screen, a lump of grey rock spiralling serenely atop a canvas of black space. A timer appeared at the bottom of the screen, counting down, with the caption: ETA to impact, 0.092LC.
Hassan sat on his father Suleiman’s shoulders, almost touching the bright red banner hanging overhead to commemorate the Frag Party. A-583 was his old home, declared inhospitable as of thirty of its Light Cycles ago. The Relocation had been hasty, and most of the refugees were given a moment’s notice to pack their belongings before the Escape Vessels took off. Suleiman squinted at the screen and made out patches of colour: the green of fake grass and the red of housing brick – the debris signifying that people once lived there.
As the numbers continued ticking down, more and more people flocked closer to the screen, and the crowd jostled with restless energy. Hassan tapped his father on his head and asked to be set down. Now on his feet, the young boy barely came up to Suleiman’s waist. Hassan balled his fists at his temples at the commotion.
‘Hassan, what’s the matter?’ his father asked. ‘Last night you were begging to come to Frag Day. I even had to convince the owner to let you in. Usually they don’t allow children in here.’
‘I don’t feel well,’ the boy replied. He swallowed, before looking up. He was not old enough to articulate exactly what his feelings were, but he felt the looming apprehension all the same. ‘Please don’t make me watch the collision.’
Suleiman worried about how pitiful his son looked in this moment, with his black hair unkempt and his arms and legs too skinny for a boy of his age.
But before he could answer, the pub fell silent. All heads turned towards the screen, the timer now displaying zero. Hassan crouched, with his head in his hands. Suleiman’s own breath was tightening.
But nothing happened – A-583 continued spiralling, the space around it was as black and featureless as it had ever been.
Some exhaled. Others returned to nursing their drinks.
Hassan uncovered his eyes, confused at the lack of commotion. His gaze crossed the screen by accident. He was the first to see the second rock, porous like a sponge, tumble in from the right side of the frame. The collision object shot forward, giving the pub attendants no warning.
When the two rocks met, it was as if time momentarily froze. The asteroids connected, wavered, and shook, before A-583 cracked and broke in two. The smaller half of it was rocked with torque, spinning rapidly out of view. The larger half lingered in the frame, shedding parts of its mass slowly.
Some members in the pub cheered, toasting and draining their glasses. Most had become accustomed to the ritual, but there were still always a few whose stoic demeanour broke. Those people, who perhaps had been split apart from friends, or who left behind accumulations of memories, were those for whom the decaying rock on display symbolised the irreversible seal on their losses.
Hassan watched the moment of destruction, transfixed. It was the second time he had seen a Fragmentation that he could remember. The first, he had not yet started school. But it had been a big incident, one that he carried with him. He had been old enough to understand that he was watching his old home, the place where he was born, cease to exist.
The first time, he had lost everything. He did not know any better. But this time was different. His father, an Assessor, had told him five and a half days in advance that an Evacuation Notice would soon be broadcast. Usually, people find out with at most three days left, before they needed to leave. The Statisticians would wait for the very last minute to ensure the most correct estimate for collision time (and even then, they could get it wrong by considerable margins). The Councillors could take up time splitting the colony members into appropriate destinations too – by law they were to keep family units together, but otherwise it was up to their whim on which neighbours or friends were relocated to the same destination, and which would end up far apart.
Hassan had furiously set himself to work in those last few hours, making sketches of every room in their old house, every place he had loved to visit, wrote journal entries for every fond and repulsive moment, everything worth remembering. Everything was stored in a hardcover journal his father had bought for him, to be revisited by a future self, to prove that he had a past, a place where he came from.
But Hassan had come to learn that memories were, by their nature, fragile objects – and once they were made solid, whether by words or drawings, they only served to remind him that the past was irretrievable. No matter how well he remembered the house he had loved, he could not go back there. It was what he, as with everyone else, had to learn to live with, in the age of the Relocation.
Suleiman was not a good influence, either. Too sentimental and too empathetic, and old enough to remember the sedentary lifestyle of Earth, Suleiman had made a promise to give his son a gift each time the two Relocated, to help with the adjustment. Now in the pub, swaying gently with his weeping son held close with his right arm, Suleiman tapped his breast pocket to feel that the small package was still there. A memento, for Hassan, wrapped in some old newspaper.
The father and son wedged their way out of the bar before the commiseration got rowdy. It was the 11th Light Cycle on A-921: soon, the sun would spin out of sight, and darkness would fall upon the Habitation Dome. The walk home was done in silence, and Hassan tried to quell his anxieties by focusing on the sound of his father’s leather shoes clacking against the steel staircase down towards the Residential Area.
A block away from their home, Suleiman felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see Ms. Edelweiss, the teacher at Hassan’s school, waiting gingerly.
‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you two,’ she said.
Suleiman tried to stifle a pang of guilt. ‘Sorry my son wasn’t in class today. He… the fragmentation…’
The teacher waved away Suleiman’s worries with an open hand.
‘No that’s no problem at all, I completely understand,’ she reassured, before brushing a strand of hair out of her face. Her look suddenly became serious. ‘Actually, there’s a different issue I needed to speak to you about.’
‘Please don’t tell him,’ Hassan blurted out, surprising both adults.
Ms. Edelweiss crouched down to meet Hassan’s eye level.
‘It’s no good to keep secrets, Hassan. And if you tell the truth, I can help you get it back.’
The boy held his head down, as if avoiding his teacher’s gaze would make him invisible. Then, turning his head away from his father, Hassan said: ‘A girl at school took the journal you gave me.’
The teacher reached out her arm to touch Hassan’s shoulder. ‘Thank you for being honest. Is this also why you didn’t want to be at school today?’
Hassan gave a weak nod in reply. Ms. Edelweiss gave his shoulder one last gentle pat before she stood back up to face Suleiman.
‘I was wondering if you wanted to meet the mother of the girl who took Hassan’s journal. Her name is Carla. She and her daughter Mira are good folk, but they’ve been doing it rough with Relocations lately… Maybe some company would do them well?’
Suleiman glanced back down at his son. ‘What do you think?’
‘Mira will bring along your diary, too,’ added Ms. Edelweiss.
Hassan mustered another nod.
‘I should really be getting him home,’ Suleiman sighed. ‘The little one’s had a stressful day. Can you let Carla know that we’ll be free next week? Hopefully we can work this trifle between the kids out.’
Ms. Edelweiss bade the two farewell with a bright smile as they continued down the red steel staircase. Soon, Suleiman and Hassan had arrived back at their newly assigned residence. It was a blocky grey building, which at least from the exterior looked identical to their abode on A-583. But, unlocking the door and heading inside, the pair contended with the remarkable emptiness of their home.
Aside from a plain plastic dining table and two chairs, there was only an empty bookshelf for furniture. Two sleeping mats lay rolled across the floor. A single lightbulb swung from the ceiling, casting a warm orange glow on the pair’s humble quarters. Hassan yawned. It was almost the second Dark Cycle, almost his usual bedtime.
‘Hassan,’ whispered Suleiman, kneeling down and taking his son’s hand. ‘You did well today. There were some grown men in that pub who were crying but you stayed strong. I think you deserve this.’
Suleiman took out the little rectangular package from inside his coat.
‘My team had one extra, so I asked them if I could take it for you.’
Hassan unwrapped the package to find a small silver watch: a circle with twelve notches in its circumference, and three protruding arms, one which was quickly overtaking the other two.
‘It’s a True Clock,’ said Suleiman. ‘It measures time, but relative to Earth’s revolutions around its axis. We use True Time at work, so that we have a standard between each asteroid.’
Hassan was taught by his father that once the small hand had completed two revolutions, it meant the Earth had spun around once. It was like the Light Cycles and Dark Cycles of the asteroids, which were measured by a windup device called a Kikuno clock and changed with every Relocation.
Millions of kilometres away from Earth, the True Time was one of Suleiman’s only connections to humanity’s original planet: the distance was too far for communications, and there was no way of knowing how the people still on Earth were living their lives, or if there even were still people living on Earth at all. Suleiman glanced at the watch, saw that its indicator was set to AM, and thought about how the sun might just be rising on an Earth horizon in London, even though it was dark on A-921. He thought about how on A-583 it would have been light. And how time did not exist on A-583 anymore, now that it was in two pieces, and the habitation dome fractured and lost.
Late in the night Suleiman lay on his side silently. He heard Hassan crying. The father could not think of any comforting words, but all the same he stayed awake until at least the sixth Dark Cycle, when the cavernous room finally fell silent.
Hassan hadn’t seen Mira at school for almost a week after that day – and he had gotten used to the relative peace. There were only nineteen kids at his school, most of them as quiet as Hassan was. When Mira was around, it was like Ms. Edelweiss was a different person – her voice was louder, her demeanour was stricter and sometimes the whole class felt the brunt of it.
But when Mira was away sometimes the class just talked. Hassan liked those lessons the most: Ms. Edelweiss was old enough to remember the first asteroids which were colonised, and she told stories about how things had changed over time. It was reassuring in a way to hear about the hardships that previous generations went through, and the struggles which didn’t exist anymore. Like how early colonists didn’t have the same artificial gravity, and that occasionally people would get very sick because their homes were unfortunately built in the gaps of radiation shields.
‘We’re all very lucky to be here,’ Ms. Edelweiss had said to the class one time, even to Mira. ‘I’m so glad we were able to spend this time together.’
That day, walking home, Hassan stopped on the steep steel staircase and passed the time sitting on the highest step, looking out the top of the dome at the vastness of space. The sun was a tiny dot smaller than his fingernail held in front of his face, and Hassan took turns blocking out its light with his thumb, then his forefinger, then his ring finger, then his pinkie. He remembered Ms. Edelweiss saying that before on Earth, the Sun was so bright that it was harmful to look directly at it. Hassan traced the shimmering lines of reflective space dust, before realising that it was almost the tenth Light Cycle, and that he should be headed home.
‘Where have you been?’ yelled Suleiman as Hassan came back. It had only been half a Light Cycle later than normal, but Hassan had never seen his father as angry. ‘Don’t you remember that Relocations can happen at any time? What if that siren had rung, and I didn’t know where you were?’
‘But it’s only been five days since our last one.’
‘We can never know.’ Suleiman sighed, calming down. ‘At work we try our best but it’s too hard to predict. This asteroid has been inhabited for almost 200 days now, since before we got here. We need to live as if an emergency could happen at any time.’
Hassan recognised his father’s seriousness. He usually liked it when his father talked about work at the Statisticians’ offices, but there were times too when Suleiman would come back home angry, or sullen, or defeated.
That was Suleiman’s mood a few days later, when Carla and Mira visited.
Dinner was delivered halfway through the first Dark Cycle as usual. They ate and talked about school, the asteroid, work. Carla was a Horticulturist at the Greenhouse Dome, which meant that she had unusual work hours – some shifts at dawn, others at dusk, others in the middle of the Dark Cycle. And after they ate, Carla and Suleiman continued talking while the two children sat outside to play marbles.
Hassan’s marble set was cobbled together from the things he collected – anything which could be round and rolled. He had four real marbles, one bright red in the shape of Mars. As well he used a few peach pits, a bottlecap, and what he thought was a plastic oxygen molecule from a school science set. All junk that he stowed in his pockets when he left the last asteroid.
The two played in silence. Mira was better than Hassan expected, knocking out a few of the heavy peach pits with the bottle cap.
After a while, Hassan mustered up his courage to ask.
‘Hey Mira, do you think I could have my things back?’
Mira fumbled around in her coat and found the tattered book.
‘I’m not ready to apologise yet,’ said Mira. ‘I hope you’re okay with that.’
Hassan hadn’t done anything wrong, so he was confused at this. But he was never one to raise an argument. He heard strains of the conversation taking place indoors.
‘Mira has witnessed more Relocations than most kids her age … when she was six, after she had started school and made some friends. We were unfortunate … taken to a new colony where we knew no one. I took her to the Frag Party because I wanted her … she couldn’t watch. It was too much.’
Carla paused for a moment, and then continued. Her voice turned confident, the story becoming more rehearsed.
‘We lived there for 18 days before it too was declared terminal, and we were relocated again.’
‘That sounds like it must have been hard on her,’ Hassan heard his father say. He flicked the Mars marble to knock a peach-pit out of the circle.
‘Yes, so I apologise if that caused you trouble. She doesn’t mean it.’ Carla sighed. ‘She just… hasn’t discovered how best to express her feelings yet.’
Mira hit the ground with her fist. Hassan realised she had been listening too, and in one clean motion of her arm she swept the dusty circle clean and sent the marbles flying in all directions. While Hassan scrabbled to pick up his pieces, Mira knocked on the door, shouting at her mother.
‘I’ve won. Can we go now?’
‘Did you give Hassan back his journal?’ Carla replied.
‘And did you apologise?’
Carla chuckled. ‘You see, Suleiman? She’ll be okay. She’s just working things out.’
A few days later, Hassan found Mira waiting for him on the way to school.
‘Hey Hassan,’ she said, her teeth glinting in her smile.
Hassan greeted her with apprehension.
‘Remember when I said I would apologise? Well today is the day. We’re going to go on an adventure.’
Hassan took a step back.
‘Relax, you won’t get in trouble. I told Ms. Edelweiss where I wanted to take you, and she’s okay with it.’
Hassan could recognise that this was probably a lie, but he also saw an earnestness in Mira’s face. He followed her along the empty alleyways, down a few rows of steel staircases until they reached an archway carved into the rock of the asteroid.
‘I come here when things get difficult,’ said Mira.
‘What is this place?’
As they stepped further inside, Hassan noticed the faint smell of smoke. Ahead, the two joined a queue of people, waiting for something.
Mira led the way, talking half to herself. ‘It’s like exercising a muscle. You practise. You repeat. You get stronger.’
‘Losing,’ she said. The line inched forward, slowly. The pair followed. With each step the sensation of heat on their skin grew. ‘Saying goodbye to things. Except, not really saying goodbye.’
Mira cleared her throat in the smoke.
‘Just being okay with it all. What’s in your bag?’
Hassan unzipped his rucksack to take out a notebook, a tuft of dried grass in a clear plastic pouch, three peach pits, and a blunt pencil.
‘The stuff you stole, mostly.’
‘Look, I said I would apologise to you properly for that.’ She noticed Hassan shifting uncomfortably on the spot. ‘This is it. This is the colony furnace, where people go to discard things which don’t have value to them anymore. The carbon and heat energy is sent straight to the Greenhouse Dome, to help our crops grow.’
She grasped him by the chin, so that he was facing her.
‘I won’t force you to burn anything,’ she assured him. ‘It’s your choice.’
There was only one person in front of them now, a weathered old man who stood in front of the grate, deliberating.
‘Some folks always take forever,’ Mira said, a little too loudly. The old man coughed, glanced backwards, and left without discarding anything.
The two stepped forward, and stood in front of the chute, faintly emitting trails of smoke from what must have been an enormous inferno deep in the bowels of the asteroid. Now that they stared down its metallic throat, there was a rumbling sound too, from deep inside, like the hungry growl of a starved beast.
Hassan fumbled with his possessions. First the peach pits went down into the fire. Then the dried grass. He listened for something, anything, that might suggest that his possessions had hit the bottom, that they were gone. But only the crackling of flames remained.
‘How does it feel?’ asked Mira, watching Hassan’s deliberate movements.
‘It doesn’t feel different,’ said Hassan. ‘I don’t feel anything.’
‘That’s OK,’ Mira replied. ‘Not everyone does. Come on, there’s one more place I have to show you.’
‘Let’s go,’ she said, grabbing Hassan by the hand.
She pulled him down narrow streets and corridors until they arrived at an unlit staircase. Up three flights, they burst out onto a rooftop well above all those around it.
They could see the tiny yellow sun, its light was muted into a reddish hue from the tinted colony walls, slowly falling as the asteroid continued to spin. They were around the eighth Light Cycle, and the shadows they left were growing taller. In front of them lay the green mass of the Agriculture Capsule, gently glinting from the dew on freshly grown leaves. In the sunbeams, the misted water from hundreds of sprinkler rows shimmered in wavy rainbows across the spread of leafy green.
‘This is where my mum works,’ Mira said, pointing.
Hassan was taken aback by the beauty. He had never before seen something so organised and yet so wild. The spiralling movements of the sprinkler jets, with the infinitesimally complex ways the light dappled the leaves, weighed upon his understanding that he was now looking at all the food being grown for the entire colony.
‘I think this is so beautiful,’ said Mira. ‘Every colony has one, though it looks a little different. I come here whenever something stresses me out and I need to be alone.’
She pointed towards a sequenced tube leading out from the dome, running into the base of the Habitation Station.
‘That’s where the Station gets its oxygen and moisture from. The plants constantly regulate the air we breathe. And another of those tubes sends the carbon from the furnace back to nourish the plants. So if we left these systems alone, the food would continue to grow and grow on its own.’
Hassan knew about this – he had learned from his father that Relocations tend to factor in where abandoned colonies might orbit, since they could be used as emergency food sources even without any maintenance from humans.
Mira elbowed his shoulder, getting his attention again. ‘When I’m older, I can be a Horticulturist too. They don’t let anyone except for Horticulturists into these domes because they’re worried that the natural balance will be upset. But the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, for my whole life, was to run through the green fields, and feel the water on my face. Don’t you think it would feel so free? So real?’
Hassan thought about the prospect. He had never noticed before, but all the asteroids he remembered had been so dull and lifeless: all stone and concrete and steel and dust. Maybe they would keep a houseplant or two once they settled in, but he had never experienced anything on this scale. He wondered what it must feel like, to be at peace amongst so much life.
But soon the pair’s thoughts were cut short by the sound of a siren.
‘No!’ Mira shrieked. ‘A Relocation? Now?’
She grabbed Hassan by the cuff of his shirt.
‘Your dad should have known this was coming right? Why didn’t you tell me?’
’I… didn’t know…’ gasped Hassan. His head was spinning from the confusion. Suleiman hadn’t mentioned anything about potential collision events; nothing had been out of the ordinary. Seeing his uncertainty, Mira released him.
Voices were blaring across the Habitation Station loudspeakers now. ‘All residents head to the Evacuation Deck immediately. Do not make any detours. Do not gather your belongings.’
Hassan gained a burst of adrenaline. His hand caught Mira’s wrist in a monkey grip and immediately the pair were up, running. They had cleared the giant steel staircase and were almost at the Central Square when they spotted Suleiman, with Carla, in the opposite direction of the thickening crowd.
‘Hassan! This way!’ his father shouted, an aged voice cutting across the furore of the crowd. There was no anger, only fear.
Once Hassan and Mira caught up to their parents, they slowed down and moved along with the throng of people. None of the four spoke, holding in their questions, until Hassan broke the silence.
‘Dad, why are we evacuating? Did you know this was coming?’
‘No,’ replied Suleiman. ‘There’s not going to be a Fragmentation. But we recently discovered A-921 is terminal. We’ve got to leave for a safer home as soon as we can.’
‘Terminal?’ asked Mira.
‘Yes. Soon this Habitation Station will gravitate towards the outer regions of the asteroid belt,’ Suleiman explained. ‘A-921 will be too far away from other potential colonies. We’d be stuck here forever.’
At this, Mira’s pace slowed down, and she tugged at her mother’s arm to do the same. When Hassan glanced back, he saw that the two had stopped and were letting the crowd split past them.
‘Dad, we’ve got to go back.’
Suleiman glanced back to see Mira and Carla in conversation. ‘Hassan, we don’t have the time –’
‘It wouldn’t be right,’ said Hassan. Suleiman read the concern in his son’s face and nodded in agreement.
Once the two had pushed their way against the crowd to meet up with Mira and Carla, Suleiman stretched out his arms to guide the four towards an empty alley, where the crowd would not jostle them. Only the last stragglers were still heading towards the Evacuation Deck, most homes and buildings were now empty, with some lights still left on.
‘Carla, what’s the matter?’ asked Suleiman.
‘My daughter wants to stay,’ she said. ‘We’ve seen our share of terminal asteroids together. And we know we’ll be safe for long enough, maybe even a few years. But we won’t ever have to live through a Relocation again.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Suleiman. He thought of the potential dangers – the loss of communication with other colonies, the lack of structural maintenance on the Habitation Station, and the uncertainty of life alone, away from the rest of humanity. ‘Not many people decide to stay on terminal asteroids. It’s not a safe way of living at all.’
‘Yes, but I think she’s right,’ Carla replied. ‘We have enough resources to stay here for however long our lives end up being. And if A-921 gravitates into the outskirts of the asteroid belt then the risk of collisions are low.’
‘Hassan, you could stay with us,’ added Mira. ‘No more relocations, no more… no more losing! It’ll be a place to call our own.’
Suleiman looked down at his son. He knew how difficult it was to constantly adjust to Relocations, to these constant changes, and to the cycle of leaving everything behind. But to Suleiman’s surprise, Hassan shook his head.
‘Mira, that sounds wonderful, but I don’t think I could do that,’ he replied. ‘Dad, we should go. We won’t have much time to get onto the escape pods.’
The girl opened her mouth to protest, but Carla placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “Have a safe journey,” Mira said, avoiding Hassan’s eyes.
‘It’s a big ask,’ Carla added. ‘I think it’ll be the right choice for our family though. I wish you all the best, Suleiman.’
‘You should keep this.’ Hassan took the journal out of his rucksack and handed it to Mira, along with the broken pencil. ‘You can get it writing pretty easily using a knife.’
The father and son waved one last goodbye as they turned and hurried to the evacuation deck, the last stragglers in a rushing crowd.
‘You’re lucky that this asteroid is terminal,’ said a guard, as Hassan and Suleiman arrived at the Evacuation Deck. ‘There’s always a few people who decide to stay behind, so our pods can afford to wait.’
On the escape pod there were still a dozen vacant spaces. Suleiman and Hassan found a seat next to Ms. Edelweiss. Suleiman nudged his son.
‘Take out your watch.’
Hassan pulled the silver contraption out of his coat pocket – he hadn’t kept it in his rucksack at the furnace.
‘This flight to A-231 is going to be about 8 hours of True Time,’ Suleiman said. ‘You can use that to track how long the journey’s going to be.’
Hassan fiddled with the clasp and managed to get it onto his wrist. It fit very loosely and jangled as he moved his hand.
‘And, Hassan, why did you give your journal to Mira?’ asked Suleiman. ‘I thought you had sketched out our home from A-583 into that.’
‘I did,’ replied Hassan. ‘I… I don’t know.’
Hassan looked down at his knees before continuing.
‘I always thought that Relocations would get easier as I got older, and I had to do them more. But seeing Mira… It was never easier for her. I think I wanted the feeling of letting go of something for real this time.’
Suleiman sighed. “I wish I knew how it felt, Hassan. But sometimes if I try, I can still remember Earth. I dream about it. And in those dreams, it’s still home, the place we’ll get back to one day. And that thought makes waking up a little easier somehow. I can’t imagine what it must be like, for you. If this is all you’ve known.”
With a rumble the escape pod had signalled it was about to begin its launch sequence. Hassan set the timer on his watch, and gazed out of the pod window.
Outside, the expanse of the A-921 Habitation Station lay quiet and dark, but in the distance, he could barely make out the Greenhouse Dome. His mind went to the rows of leafy fields again. He could imagine Mira, laughing, as she sprinted across the green expanse as fast as she could, the fading sun dancing atop the sprinklers, casting rainbows all around her.
Harvey Liu is a prose writer from Sydney, Australia. He has recently completed a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. Whether writing about far-off worlds or familiar suburbs, his work is interested in the intersection between landscape and issues of economics. The Unchanging, the Temporary is his first published piece of fiction writing.