1950 words · 10 min read
All that remained was the date of her birthday according to the solar calendar of Alte Welt. Since Sophie left him for another man, Ethan had moved to Neue Welt, where each year was twenty days shorter and each day was twenty minutes longer. After just few Neue Welt days, he could no longer convert dates and times from the Alte Welt clock to the new one, and vice versa. It wasn’t until when he heard the video message from an old friend Jimmy–with a twenty minutes delay in transmission (anything resembling a phone call between Alte Welt and Neue Welt was impossible)–that another of his good friend in Alte Welt died did he attempt to figure out what day it was back there, a task he failed. At that, his android made the calculation for him and then informed him that he left Alte Welt exactly five years ago.
He booked a flight back to Alte Welt, hoping to attend his Adam’s funeral and stay there for a week or two to visit his old friends and families, only to be reminded by his android that the flight would take him almost a year–six months from Neue Welt to the wormhole, five seconds through the wormhole, and another six months back to his home planet–long enough to turn his old friend’s body into a pile of rotten meat buried under the ground, and the return trip would take another year, which meant his colleagues at his job would have to wait two years and two weeks in Alte Welt time before he would show up again, so long a time that they would probably have given up waiting and passed his job to someone else. And that calculation had not even taken into account the positions and orbits of the planets, which, at times, made the distance between the two planets too long that he might have to wait for anywhere between half a year to a full year for the planets to align correctly.
When he left the Alte Welt, he abandoned everything in order to escape the agony Sophie caused: he was mad at Sophie leaving him; he was consumed by guilt and paralysed by his inability to fix his life; and he wished to start over in places where no one knew who he was, what he had done, and how much he despised himself. He wish he had never been born and he could be reborn. Now, on his way to the spaceport fifty miles from the city, alone in his cramped driverless car, he realised that undertaking this lengthy round-trip meant he had to give up Neue Welt and restart his former self. That thought gave him a start, and he would keep on wondering why he had made such careless decision, even though he did want to go back. Or did he? He didn’t know even as he was strapped into his seat in the spacecraft.
He slept for one whole year inside a coffin on the spacecraft for an entire year, during which he could sense and think of nothing, except on some occasions when he seemed to see something in front of him, or hear something in his ears. When he was waken up by the stewardess a day prior to landing, he thought about those images and sounds, then decided that the sleeping machine inside the coffin had fed those things into his mind.
Like entertainment system on a normal plane.
The spacecraft now on the ground of Alte Welt was only a small portion of what took off from the Neue Welt. The spacecraft now seemed so much as tall that he could see the ground from the window clearly. A year of sleeping had weakened his strength, and he felt even weaker in this landing than when he landed on Neue Welt, which was surprising, for Neue Welt was supposed to be five percent more massive than the Alte Welt, which meant its gravity should be stronger.
Is that a sign of getting old? Well, my good friend has died…
The ground crew climbed a steep flight of stairs to the cabin and helped Ethan down the stairs while two other people rushed to him and put a blanket around him. They led him to the medical inspection station, where a doctor in white gown injected a few shots of different liquid to his arm and gave him a sugary drink. Soon, his strength returned, and he was able to walk by himself to the border control, baggage claim, and through the arrival hall, where Jimmy had been waiting for his good old friend. After they embraced, Ethan noticed that his old friend seemed to have aged more than he had.
“I’m so glad to see you again,” Jimmy said as they sat on the seats of the car.
“Yeah,” Ethan replied without much enthusiasm.
“I thought I would never see you again man!”
That was the point of my leaving. You were not meant to see me ever again.
Getting no response, Jimmy turned to the window and wondered why his friend behaved like that. It was as if he had no desire to return, and that he were already regretting it. Meanwhile, Ethan felt the awkwardness of his own presence in a place he hated so much, a place where every of his misfortunes happened. The once familiar roads and buildings and landscapes around him now became reminders of why he left, and he had almost forgotten the reason he had returned–the death of his old friend.
“It’s unbelievable that Adam died so young,” Ethan said after a long silence.
“Yes. His kid is so small, like four.”
“I didn’t know he had kids.”
“Just one, yeah. She was born a year or two after you left. Have you talked to him since you left.”
“That’s a shame.”
After the right turn, they reached the house where Ethan used to live, a house typical of that suburban area: white external walls, rooftops were covered by solar panel. After five years of abandonment, the air inside was stale, the floor and furniture were covered in dust, the corners of the interior walls host a number of spider webs, and the leftover foodstuff inside the now-defunct refrigerator was rotten and emitting a foul smell that crept through the small crack at the refrigerator door.
“You have a long day, my friend,” Jimmy said while covering his nose.
On a coffee table in the living room, a dust-covered photo frame remained standing, and the two people on the photograph remained visible through a layer of dust that, for some unknown reason, was somewhat thinner than other parts of the house. Ethan picked up the photo and held it a while, then put that back to the table, with the photograph facing down to the table. Behind him, Jimmy was witnessing his act without making a sound.
Ethan and Jimmy got back to the car and went on a half-hour journey in silence to the cemetery where Adam’s body rested. Ethan was embarrassed by his unnaturalness in the presence of Jimmy, who, together with Adam, was one of his best friends. Returning to Alte Welt was a bad idea, and the next flight back to the Neue Welt would not take off for at least another six months. He had to break ice that should have been broken when he was still a kid.
As they then stood in front of Adam’s grave, they both had the urge to be the first to break the deadening silence while hoping that the other would break it first. After ten minutes of staring at the marble gravestone, Jimmy started first.
“Are you free tomorrow?”
“I suppose I am,” Ethan said hesitantly.
“It’s my sister wedding.”
“Yes, and I want to invite you to come over.”
Ethan had never attended other people’s wedding since Sophie left him despite endless amount of invitations from his new acquaintances in Neue Welt. The mere thought of a wedding often drove him to the edge, and he couldn’t even bear passing by other people’s wedding. As the meaning of marriage had long reduced, in his mind, to a contract regarding a transaction that either side could default on at some point in the future, there was nothing great and sacred about it, and that rendered the ritual of wedding itself largely pointless and a waste of everyone’s time.
Wedding was just a performance. A performance of a ritual. A ritual.
When he arrived at the reception, Jimmy held his arm and took him to Rachel and her new husband and introduced him to them, and he finally saw her up close in her most beautiful and joyous moment. She greeted him warmly and told him how surprised she was to see him, and her husband likewise greeted him warmly. Embarrassed at first, Ethan collected himself and congratulated the couple.
“You are the first one I know who has been to the Neue Welt and then come back,” she said.
Her new husband and everyone around them were delighted, for none of them knew much about the Neue Welt other than a few photographs they had seen on the news once in a while. None of them had been there, and none of them came from there. Before long, they gathered around Ethan, asked him everything about the Neue Welt, and listened to his stories intently. He spoke of the wonder of the new planet, the incomprehensible distance between the two planets, and the technological miracle of maintaining the wormhole that cut short the journey.
“Without the wormhole, it would take a thousand years for light to get there.”
His audience listened as if they were kids gathering around a wise old man, an oracle, telling some fantastic fairy tales, but only Ethan knew what his life in that distant planet was actually about: he escaped the pain of loss, but he stumbled into loneliness; he was once in love, and became incapable of falling in love; he was surrounded by friends, and he became surrounded by strangers; he used to care about people around him, and then he became interested in nothing. People saw miracles in his adventure, he saw agony in his flight from his own world.
By night fall, Ethan had become the celebrity. Everyone smiled at him, everyone wanted to snap a picture with him, and everyone wanted to talk to him. Rachel brought her friend Ruth to him, and said she wanted to talk to him. Ruth seemed shy at first, and was indignant that Rachel brought her to him in such a manner, though when she was left alone with Ethan, her indignation turned into curiosity and admiration.
“Why did you leave the earth?” she asked.
“Well, it’s complicated.”
“To look for something new?”
“That’s a very positive way of putting it.”
“It’s very brave of you.”
“why do you say that?”
“To give up everything, friends, families, career. There has to be something worth chasing after in the New Planet.”
“To me, no, not really. I am not a scientist, an explorer, a prospector, or an adventurer. It was an escape.”
The android band now played a slow and mellow dance music. Ethan and Ruth began dancing to the melody of tender love while drawing each other closer together. In his ear, she whispered:
“How long will you be staying in this planet?”
He realised something: he returned because this was what he longed for.
“I think I may never go back to the Neue Welt.”
Only then, he remembered that it was Sophie’s birthday.