3470 words, short story
The Urashima Effect
2014 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award Finalist
Leo Aoki awoke with a shudder in the cold green bubble of the ship, nauseated and convinced that he was suffocating. He shoved his way out of the sleep spindle, found his balance, ran his hands through his sweaty hair, checked his bones: all unbroken. Well, then. There was a snaking black tube cuffed to the wall, its other end pointing into the black vacuum of space. He pulled it off its hooks and vomited into it, miserably and gracelessly. The ship’s drivers continued their deep soft hum, unperturbed.
Mission command had advised him against looking outside until he had adjusted to life in the cramped quarters of his bubble. It would unnerve him, they said. Unman him, they meant. It was better not to taste unadulterated loneliness for the first time immediately after opening one's eyes and throwing up. On prior exploratory flights, several astronauts emerging from their long suspension had suffered heart attacks or gone mad, too delicate to withstand the double shock of loneliness and life in deep space.
Leo opened the six portholes orthogonal to the ship’s trajectory and stared out into a perfectly empty, perfectly dark sky. Blackness as pure and rich as squid ink looked through the portholes at him. He felt small and cold and very much alone.
He had to climb a thin ladder to reach the upper window, the one that faced forward to Ryugu-jo. It opened onto what looked, at first, like a globular cluster, a fistful of diamonds dumped onto a bolt of black velvet. He was looking at all the stars and galaxies that surrounded the ship, gathered by aberration into a glittering disc eight degrees across. It was a strange, beautiful, thoroughly unpleasant sight.
He clambered down again and screwed shut the lower portholes. He did not want the darkness looking in. It frayed his soul. He went to the monitor and played a game of chess to steady his nerves. The system informed him that he had been asleep for three years. The ship had arrived at its maximum travel speed of .997c, and soon it would flip its orientation and decelerate until they reached their target, Ryugu-jo in the Alpha Lyrae system. His wife, a prominent astrophysicist, had discovered and named the planet in graduate school. Leo lost his bishops, then his rooks, one after another, then the game. The ship’s computer was polite about his loss.
Thinking of Esther, he brought up and played the recording she had made for him before departure. They were all required to have sixty hours of audio recordings by family and friends for viewing on the last leg of their journey, to keep them sane and functional in their isolation. He had made a recording for her, too. He had told her he loved her in every possible way for five hours, filled three hours with good jokes and one hour with bad, and he had sung to her and read aloud to her, crouched over the microphone, imagining her face as she listened to him in perfect solitude, surrounded by darkness, flying toward him.
When her voice floated crisply into his ear, he felt his clenched muscles relax, as they always did when he was with her.
“Leo,” she said. He could hear her smile. “You’ll be up by now. I hope it wasn’t too bad. They say it’s usually horrible. Your hair’s probably a mess. I know you’ll look stunning anyway.”
He had to stop to gulp down water from a tube. The nearness of her voice, like a touch on his skin, sparked a few tears. They had met in graduate school in Berkeley, both hyphenated Americans with a preponderance of Japanese in front of the dash. He had preferred solitude as a student, working out alone his pale theorems on a blackboard, but she had insisted on the importance of family dinners, friends, colleagues, collaboration, a vast net of relationships drawn around her own lively, glimmering insights. He was fifth-generation, with great-grandparents who were interned at Heart Mountain; she was third-generation and inquisitive and knowledgeable about the cultural inheritance he had never claimed. He was in physics, a different department, but they had taken classes together and she had always scored near the top. She had fascinated him.
“First I will tell you the story of Urashima Taro.”
“Long ago in a dusty fishing village near Edo there lived a fisherman whose name was Urashima Taro. His hands were hard and cracked from work and his skin was brown from sun, but he was a sweet, kind man who worked all day and dreamed strange dreams at night. Like you, in some ways. He fished to feed himself and his elderly parents as well, and the sea always provided them with enough to get by.
“One day he heard a few of the village children screaming with laughter. He went over to see what had excited them so, and found them kicking a small turtle back and forth.
“ ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Urashima exclaimed.
“ ‘The turtle is ours,’ the children said. ‘We caught it. We’ll do what we wish with it.’
“ ‘Let me buy it from you,’ Urashima said, and as he spoke he took coins from his belt and held them out. ‘Can’t you find something better than that turtle to play with?’
“The children looked at each other. Then one of them gave Urashima the turtle and took the coins, and they ran off together, happy to have gotten the better part of the deal.
“Urashima took the frightened turtle, which was no bigger than one of his spread hands, and of a beautiful mottled green-brown color, down to the water. ‘There you go,’ he said, putting it back into the sea. ‘Be safe, and be careful, and don’t let them catch you again. I might not be around next time.’
“The turtle rowed off, and Urashima went to fish.”
Leo forced himself to stop the recording there. He would ration her voice like water in a desert to get through the impossibly long stretches of darkness. The computer indicated a list of maintenance tasks that were not urgent but that had waited until he had awoken, and he went down the list, accomplishing what he could.
After a week, it became easier to live in the narrow green bubble with a jewel-pile of stars above his head. Tubes for all his physical needs were lashed to the walls around him. The computer was loaded with a decent-sized library, a handful of mindless games, a month’s worth of music, and software for data analysis, although any research he did on the ship would take another twenty-five years to transmit to Earth, which was plenty of time for another researcher to work out and publish the same conclusions independently.
He inspected the folded equipment in the bottom sections of the ship, self-extending solar panels and self-assembling buildings with crystalline panes and honeycombed layers, all of it intact despite the rigors of the journey. He cleaned the retracting landers and triple-checked the fuel tank and fuel lines. He played sixteen games of chess and won eight of them, five games of Go, four hours of Snake, and four hours of Tetris, and he read through a significant chunk of the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as two drab spy thrillers and a romance novel. He supposed that he had earned a few more minutes of Esther’s voice.
“The next day,” she said softly into his ear, “Urashima was out fishing in his boat when he heard someone call his name. He looked everywhere but the other boats were out of sight.
“ ‘Urashima,’ someone said. ‘Urashima!’
“Then he looked down and saw an enormous brown turtle, its face deeply wrinkled with wisdom.
“ ‘Sir,’ Urashima said. ‘Are you calling my name?’
“ ‘I am,’ the turtle said. ‘Yesterday you rescued a small turtle from children who would have killed it. The turtle was the Sea-King’s daughter. Out of gratitude she sends me to invite you to her father’s palace at the bottom of the sea.’
“Smiling, he said to the turtle, ‘That is very kind of her, and it is good of you to invite me on your mistress’s behalf, but how should I go to a palace at the bottom of the sea?’
“ ‘A very simple matter,’ the turtle said. ‘Climb onto my back and I will take you there.’
“So Urashima, wondering at his own boldness, climbed onto the turtle’s back and held tight to the slick hard plates. They plunged down together into the sea, leaving behind the boat, the creamy waves of the surface, and the sun. Deeper and deeper they swam, past dazzling silver fish and jelly-eyed squid. Urashima watched everything pass with astonishment.
“Deep in the black-blue depths of the sea, where kelp grew in thick forests and monstrous fish hunted their prey with lanterns, the turtle turned his creased face to Urashima and said, ‘Look ahead, we are approaching the Palace of the Sea King.’
“Urashima peered through the water. He saw first the graceful slopes of roofs like a bird about to take flight, and then a high, imposing gate of coral carved over with poetry.
“ ‘O!’ he said. ‘It is a beautiful place.’ And then, still full of amazement, he began to feel ashamed of his fisherman’s clothes.”
Leo stopped the recording and wiped the water from his eyes. Esther was following him on another flight, the Delta Aquarid, scheduled to launch two years after his. It would be a long wait. He would land and build a suitable home and laboratory for them on the arid, glistening plains of Ryugu-jo. Then he would stand in his suit under the alien stars, looking for a brightening light.
He read several classic novels and philosophical texts to pass the next few days and exercised on the stringy, wiry contraption collapsed into one wall. The long hibernation had melted the muscle from him and congealed the quick currents of his mind, but he had to be alert, intelligent, and at his peak physical condition when he arrived. He was supposed to be disciplined. He was not supposed to replay his wife’s voice over and over, with longing and anxiousness. So he selected his parents’ recordings.
“Your mother and I are proud of you. I know we said goodbye already, but please know that you have been everything we could have expected of you. We will be watching for your signal if we’re still around.”
“Leo? You must be awake now. And hungry. Remember to eat well and dress warm. You used to work for days without eating. You can’t do that now.”
He bowed his head. Their voices echoing in the ship’s green bubble made their absences as heavy and palpable as river stones. He had said goodbye exuberantly, distracted by other preparations. Shivering, he flicked to his wife.
“—But the turtle said, ‘You must not worry, Urashima Taro.’ And the high, gleaming gates, each fashioned out of one single fan of coral, parted to let them pass.
“Within, robed fish bowed to welcome them, murmuring their greetings to the turtle and their welcome to Urashima Taro. He passed through gilded halls where water-light flickered on the walls, past lark-voiced women covered in scales and scarlet octopi and crabs with furious faces on their backs, into a chamber that shimmered like the interior of an abalone.
“There, on two thrones, sat the Dragon King and his daughter Otohime, who was lovelier than moonlight on water. She came down from her throne and said to Urashima, ‘I was the little turtle you saved yesterday, and I am grateful. I am yours if you will have me.’
“Urashima assented, of course, and all of them were led to the banquet laid out in his honor. Then began what were the happiest three years of his life, in which each day was better than the last.
“Toward the end of the three years, though, he began thinking melancholy thoughts about his aged parents on land. How were they getting by without their son? They ought to know how fortunate he was.
“He told Otohime about his wish to see his parents again, and her face grew long and sad. She tried to dissuade him, but he became more and more desirous of seeing his parents and his home.
“ ‘Please, let me go,’ he said. ‘For a few days only, and then I will come back to you and spend the rest of my life here in peace and contentment.’
“Sorrowfully, Otohime made arrangements for his return. At the last, she placed in his hands a small box tied with silk. ‘Take this with you,’ she said. ‘It will keep you safe, only you must be careful never to open it.’
“Urashima promised to obey. The great brown turtle who had first brought him to the Palace of the Sea King again gave him his back to sit upon, and soon they came to the shore near his village.
“But what had happened?
“Urashima found himself in an unfamiliar place. He recognized some features of the shoreline, but the houses were all different and crowded together. He could not find his old home.
“Distraught, he asked a passerby if he knew where his parents might be living. The young man, not unsympathetic, took Urashima to his own grandmother, whose knowledge was vast. The old woman looked up at him hesitantly when he put his question to her.
“ ‘I have heard of two people with those names,’ she told him. ‘They had a son named Urashima who drowned on a clear day. Only his empty boat was found. But that was hundreds of years ago, when this town was a scattering of fishing huts by the sea.’
“Urashima left with fear and confusion in his heart. He was utterly lost in the strange town, and could not tell where the turtle had brought him to shore. Nor did he know how to return to the Palace of the Sea King, because he had forgotten to ask.
“ ‘After some time, though, he remembered the box that Otohime had given him, which he had promised not to open. Because he could think of nothing else, he untied the silken cord that held it shut.
“An enormous white cloud blew out of the box and enveloped him. All his years overtook him at once. His hair went white as snow and his skin drooped and folded. His bones gave way. And there Urashima died.
“Time dilation is also called the Urashima Effect, after the legend,” Esther said conversationally into his ear. “I have told you this story so you would have time to calm down and clear your mind after awakening, and so that it would be easier for you to understand what I have to say. If I know you, you’ve saved up my recording for several days. You’ve been eating well and exercising. You should be physically and mentally stable by now. You are strong enough to hear what I have to say.
“Listen, my love. You were put to sleep a few weeks before launch, and while you were asleep the US and Japan came to the brink of war. Two cyber attacks on a dam and a power plant were traced back to Ichigaya, and three American citizens were arrested in Seattle. There is talk about rounding up those with Japanese blood again.
“It was decided that the Delta Aquarid would not be launched. Not next year. Not ever. The Ryugu-jo collaboration has been scrapped as being too dangerous, given the rising tensions between the two countries. It will be replaced by a unilateral program that will not have the funding for my flight.
“But they decided that you would go anyway. To show our unfaltering national courage in the face of threats and our gracious commitment to peacetime cooperation.
“I protested. This was my project, after all. They would not listen. They refused to stop your launch, and they refused to continue mine. It was suggested that if I did not put national interests ahead of my personal desires that I and my family would be the first to be removed to internment camps.
“We knew that this was possible, but we did not think it likely.
“They say you will not awaken until three years from now. In those three years you will have traveled twelve point five light years, and thirteen years will have passed on Earth. Your parents may be dead by the time you are listening to this. I will be forty-nine. You, my love, you will be only thirty-six, traveling away from me at close to the speed of light.”
Leo had frozen as he listened.
“I do not know who I will be by the time you hear this,” she said. “Thirteen years is a long time.
“But right now, right now I am your wife. I love you, Leo. I am angry and afraid. I broke into your ship’s systems and altered these recordings so that you would know what happened, why I am not following you, and what your choices are. From the beginning these ships were designed for automatic evacuation in case of ship failure during suspension. Specifically, your sleep spindle is equipped with an independent propulsion system and its own fuel stores. I have modified the program slightly, so that if you choose to do so, you can eject from the main ship in your spindle. Enter the manual override silkbox to divert the main fuel supply to the spindle, and look for a release lever by the hatch. It will take you a very long time to return, twenty Earth years at least, but you can go back into deep sleep, and the spindle will bring you safely home.
“The impulse of the spindle’s disconnection will throw off the calculations for the ship’s landing. There is some margin for error, but the engineers never considered a late-flight evacuation. The ship and its equipment will crash on Ryugu-jo. There will be no habitat and no lab on the planet until another Earth government sees fit to send the next scientific expedition.
“I do not know if I will be alive when you come back. If I am, I will be old. My hair will be gray. I will not be the wife you left behind. I will not be the person you remember.
“But at this moment I love you. At this moment I say: when I am seventy years old, I will watch the sky for you.
“If you do not return,” Esther said, “if you choose to fly onward to Ryugu-jo and work there alone—I would understand. We have always both chased the sense of discovery. We have always been driven by the hunger for knowing new things. Your first communications will arrive on Earth fifty years after you’ve left, and your work will be groundbreaking, even if you never see its effects.
“My other audio logs are intact. I went and dug up all the records of your great-grandparents and your father’s side of the family. If you fly onward, I will tell you, in the rest of the time I have, about how your great-grandfather met your great-grandmother in Heart Mountain during the war. I will tell you about your family and the different places your parents grew up, and where your ancestors came from. I will grow roots for you, so that you are not adrift and alone in the dark. You will know where you came from. You will know where you are going.”
Her voice clicked off. Leo shut his eyes and saw the green ship and its precious cargo of instruments and electronics smashing into the dusty surface of Ryugu-jo. He thought of the lonely beacon he had been sent to build, which would beam back to Earth the things he had learned that no one else knew. He remembered precisely and vividly what it felt like to kiss Esther on her warm pink mouth.
He walked over to his sleep spindle, crouched, and ran his fingers along its smooth interior. They stopped on something that protruded from the wall, and he saw it then: a smooth silver bar barely extending into the sleeping space. If he typed in the command, if he climbed in and shut the hatch behind him, if he yanked on the lever—
The portholes all around him were dark and expressionless. Only the top window, pointing toward Alpha Lyrae, showed him a heap of converging stars.
They were traveling at .997c. He was thirty-six years old. It was only three years to Ryugu-jo.
Leo began another game of chess with the computer, and drew black.