Nobody will ever truly understand this note, she thought as she wrote.
It was hundreds of years ago, on a red brown and golden planet very far away, a place where she had once picked flowers swaying in the warm autumn breezes under rains of golden leaves. A place where she had stood with her back to an oak tree, kissing a boy for the sake of kissing him. And she kept kissing him. Only him, forever; but forever ended all too soon.
What a traitor her body had been, and woe of woes, how willingly her soul had become an accomplice to the crime. She traced out her note on a piece of paper, drawing letters with tranquil yet determined movements of an ink-pen:
“You will know when your heart breaks by the immense sense of relief. Broken hearts stop hurting. In the moment before it happens you may think you will die from pain, but what eventually dies is the pain itself, and nothing can ever hurt you again. Suddenly even death seems less intimidating: Once you’ve learned that after the heart there is no heartache you can't help but wonder about the rest of you as well. Perhaps death simply means not having to be yourself anymore”
How did that saying go? “When I was a child I thought like a child”
And so she left her home on Fernis. She entrusted her modest funds and belongings to the care of the Terra Echelon, and booked sleeper passage for a centuries-long journey to a seed world. Her two requests were that she be transported to the furthest and newest seed planet possible, and that she be turned into a man during the journey, physically and mentally.
There was little farewell drama. On a sunny autumn afternoon, she hugged her parents and thanked them for everything. There was little emotion; they were all cried out. They knew they would never see her again. She couldn’t pity them though: If only their hearts could truly break they would be as free as she now was; they would understand.
“I spoke like a child, I played like a child”
There were no bags and no memorabilia to bring along, even the clothes that she wore that day were provided by the Space Transit Authority. Everything else that belonged to her had been removed respectfully but efficiently from her parents’ home, and reclaimed by Global Management.
Her parents had been especially upset when a favourite childhood companion, a teddy bear that they had bought for her when she had been a baby, had to be removed as well. The teddy bear had been very understanding though, and for once ended up comforting the parents. It would have to leave them, it said, but the cherished memories of their friendship never would: It would send them a beautifully curated archive of all its memories over the years, which they could keep forever.
“But now that I am a man I put away such childish things”
Such thoughts on this grey wintry morning. The breeze along his bare shoulders and neck chilled his skin, but the giant concrete slabs stretching out in the distance felt warm, steady, and reassuring underneath his bare feet. The sky was shrouded by the open underbelly of the anchored intersystem carrier, hovering silently and serenely over Reception City, blanketing the visible sky almost all the way to the horizon. Swarms of Industrials were busy flying up and down from compartments deep within the superstructure, harvesting grape-like clusters of Crystalblock pods that were filled with the hibernating bodies of centuries-old travelers.
He looked past his chest and arms to the toes on his flat wide feet, felt the side of his waist, registered the weighty yet sleepy sensation in his crotch. His thighs felt thin and compact and his shoulders tall. He looked at the back of his hands, a light fuzz of hair swayed by the cold breeze. He ran over the rough texture of his angular jaw with his hand. He traced his temples and forehead with his fingers and gently brushed the tip of his sharp nose with his palm. Finally he ran his fingers through his short hair, and felt the muscular back of his neck.
It didn't feel weird, it didn't feel new. He couldn't quite remember being a girl. He remembered the girl that had left Fernis, and everything about her, but he was not that girl. He was the person that girl had wanted to become, like a fictional character gifted with the memories and experiences of his long-dead author. And it was OK. Almost everything she had been would still be a part of him.
The Assistant that approached had a kindly face. Engineered to project a parental mixture of sweetness and authority, she had assumed the appearance of a woman who may have recently become a grandmother, although her knowing and patient demeanor suggested a wisdom of an even more advanced age.
- "How are you feeling” she asked, without a question mark.
He didn't want to speak, he was afraid to let go of his moment of arrival. He remembered how the long-dead girl had feared he would become susceptible to manipulation by women. But this was an Assistant, and she was sweet, old and motherly, not seductive. A woman nonetheless though. Why had they assigned a female Assistant?
- “Have you decided on a name” she asked after a moment, with her head tilted slightly to one side. Her long white hair rustled in the chilly breeze.
- "I am a bit cold" he replied.
- “You won't be for long” she said in a soothing tone. “Your body is still acclimating itself to the atmosphere and environment, and you yourself have been through many changes. Your journey was a long one but now, here you are!” she smiled.
He thought he would say something trite like “Thanks” or “Great to be here” but the utterance just rolled back inside him. Everyone he had ever known was dead. He knew this mentally, but it had only just now begun to register emotionally.
Mom and Dad, and the orchards where children ran and played with their Carers. Those children were dead and their children too. There was no home to return to, and his only link to the past was a memory of a girl with no heart.
- “We have kept all your memories, just as you requested” the Assistant said almost on cue, “although certain body-awareness related memory and imprints necessarily required adjustment, as your new gender and sexuality would interpret them as traumatic in their unprocessed form. They are still there of course, but they have been toned down in significance.”
He thought about her words: “Necessarily required.” Assistants were so good at knowing what was implied and what had to be explicitly requested by humans. They knew what you asked for, sometimes despite your words. And even then, they instinctively knew what was necessary: What could change, what should change and what could not, as good parents do.
Yet humanity had become so averse to change. The centuries rolled by, but time and history had slowly turned into a dirty word, almost a taboo. Nothing ever really changed, just a leisurely streamlining and refinement of an ever-expanding civilization through the millennia, humans safe and cared for, with the loving Assistants by their side tending to their every need. Nothing ever needed to change.
- "What do you call this planet?” he asked.
When the girl had left Fernis centuries ago this planet hadn’t even been charted let alone named. The carrier’s Magical had selected this seed planet during the flight. The crew of Assistants had navigated to it, terraformed a deployment zone, and were now off-boarding passengers at the prefabricated Reception City - which was essentially the lower part of the carrier’s hold, detached, lowered, and embedded onto the planet surface.
Even now, months into the deployment process, only a certain, albeit vast, landmass around Reception would actually be habitable. Beyond that only Industrials and sometimes Administratives would venture, gradually fabricating and pushing the human habitable boundary outwards, eventually claiming the entire planet. Only then would the Magical descend from the carrier to be repurposed as the planet’s Global Management node, at which point this world would receive its official Terra Echelon Rank.
- "Korin” she said, “We call this planet Korin. And what should we call you” she asked again with that characteristic lack of a question mark. But then, without waiting, she tilted her head the other way:
- "I know" she added with a faint knowing smile "that it is difficult to name oneself, but it is the burden of all true travelers.”
- “What do you mean?”
- “You haven’t completed your journey yet.”
He looked puzzled.
- ”True change and deep roots,” she went on, “both are such necessary parts of evolving. Your choice of a name is a fulcrum, a last step in your travels and a first step in placing new roots.”
Evolving. He focused. He didn't want any name that would evoke the girl's. But being named something unrelated to her name was what the girl would have wanted, and what he wanted was to be free of her, especially her wishes of how he would live his life or what he would be called. A paradox. He was here to evolve beyond her but he couldn't escape what in the end defined her, her desire for uprooting and change; he was that very desire personified. If her plan had been to escape herself, the future she chose had been tainted by her decision to start down that path in the first place.
And here I am, my own good son.
- “I would like to be called Jacob please”
The Assistant’s face brightened and she smiled, tilting her head slightly upwards. Her tone was warm but very deliberate, as she looked directly into his eyes.
- “Welcome to the Seed Planet of Korin, Jacob. Welcome home.”
- “Thank you”, Jacob said, and he felt a wave of powerful emotion move through him. He remembered how such intensity could have made the long-dead girl’s eyes fill with tears. His eyes did not betray so easily.
Yes, this was home, this was Jacob’s home. He didn’t need to solve existential paradoxes about purpose and identity to understand this. He was here and every possibility was ahead of him. A new planet!
- “I’ve just registered and cleared you for settlement. We’ll pass through Central to get you some warmer clothing, perhaps your first meal if you’re hungry. Then we can get started on picking a location and design for the first version of your home. We will also provide suggestions of other settlers that we think you’ll enjoy meeting and getting to know better in whatever town you decide to reside in. Your settler grant has been deposited to your adjusted funds so you can take it easy for a while, but rest assured, there will be no shortage of professions to eventually choose from, or even invent. We can’t wait to see what great things you will achieve in your new world.”
- “Sounds great!” he said. A new world, he thought. A whole new world!
- “Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked, and her tone suggested that she couldn’t help but break some unspoken rule against her better judgement.
- “Sure” he said, intrigued.
- “How do you like your body?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious.
He smiled at her, and he felt handsome smiling. He could feel her attention resting softly on his muscular chest. The wind didn’t feel so chilly anymore.
- “Yeah, it’s nice, you guys did an amazing job.” He almost wanted to laugh. He felt so good, so much in the present. He looked towards the horizon, beyond the night-sky shroud of the carrier above, into the bright sliver of cold grey sky.
- “You’ll certainly break a few hearts” the Assistant said admiringly, looking at him like a proud mother.
So there had once been an old planet called Fernis, he thought, such a long time ago and so far away. He would always honor the memory of the broken-hearted girl who once lived there. But he never had.
- “Yes,” he finally said, “it’s my turn.”
She offered her hand to lead him away, and they walked off in silence together.
She never mentioned it, but a long time ago she too had lived on a far away planet full of beautiful autumns and golden sunsets. She had once been a broken-hearted girl’s favorite teddybear.