We are the last chance. The last opportunity to change our past. That sounds ambitious when you look around and everyone is still sucking their thumbs. We’ll grow younger than our parents.
A SHORT STORY
We’re here, on this spaceship of our childhood, to become our own ancestors.
Sixty kids shot into space. We are the last chance. The last opportunity to change our past and save everyone’s future.
That sounds ambitious when you look around and everyone is still sucking their thumbs. But on board we’ll grow up and will fix the big mess we’ve left behind.
This is a spaceship of hope.
This is time travelling. We’re going back in time through space, but not the way you'd imagine. Those old two-dimensional movies where you speed up on a road long enough and you find yourself running with dinosaurs. That only happens in sci-fi movies. That’s not how it all works. Time travel takes time. You travel for one year to go back three.
We’re going back when everything started, when things could still be fixed, ninety years ago. This is a thirty-year trip.
We’ll grow younger than our parents.
Here, on this spaceship, there are no sharp edges. Everything is all rounded and smooth. Safety measure. Kids are waddling around and struggling to keep their balance, nobody wants tiny heads cracked open.
Every time Rita tries to run, she falls face down. Rita has these cat-yellow eyes that look into your soul. Feline eyes. She falls and hits her knees on the floor and starts whining.
She cries for a kiss on her invisible bruise. But there are no adults here. We’re all only kids and robots. Rita, nose on the floor and all the other kids around laugh. Infant sense of humour.
Jimmy is slamming his head on the wall, metallic clink-clink echoing in the spaceship. When he sees Rita knocked down he slides his squeaky trainers and gives her his hand. Tiny red lumps popping on his forehead, Jimmy says, “You ok?”
Every night Mrs Seven tells us all to get ready for bed. Mrs Seven is one of the dozens of robots on board. These robots have no names. They’re all numbered from one to whatever. They look like our parents but are not our parents. They just borrowed their faces.
Creating the illusion of being at home. Made-up carbon-fibre love.
Robots wiping poop and serving lukewarm milk. If we ask for a goodnight story, they play the recorded voice of our parents. Once-upon-a-time stories we’ve listened to so many times but we never have enough. The recorded voices of our parents says, “Good night sweetie.” But there’s no goodnight kiss. And we fall asleep with teardrops cutting through our cheeks.
We sleep, we wake up, we live one year at a time. Then we are frozen-up dead for another year. That saves oxygen and energy and growing-up melodrama. In the end, this trip is all about saving.
Every year we lie down in these avocado-shaped capsules too big for our bodies. These hollandaise-sauce-coloured refrigerators. Space neutral colour. Black or wood grain looked too much like a coffin. Nobody’s dying here.
Mrs Eight says, “We’ll see you next year.” She says, “Don’t grow too big.”
They shut the lid on top of us and the light goes off. And we’re turn into frozen tiny beef steaks.
That’s cryogenics brought to the next level.
You shiver like your first summer swim in the ocean. Few seconds and you’re an ice lolly. It’s like dying but being alive.
We come back one year later. Resurrected. We defrost a little older. A little bigger.
Every time we come out of the refrigerators the first thing I do, I sneak in the pilot cabin and I peer out at Mr One from behind the door. He sits on the captain seat, facing the infinity of the universe flickering fast in front of him. Mr One is my father but not my father. He just borrowed his face.
We defrost and robots check our vitals. We change our soggy clothes. One year frozen up, and the first thing you do when you step out is you wet yourself.
On board we go to class. Lessons where we learn about our parents’ disastrous past, which is going to be our future.
This is advanced history. For time travellers only.
Mrs Five says, “You’ll become your parents’ grandparents.”
Jimmy blows a raspberry and Rita says, “That sounds like incest to me. Am I the only one?” But nobody in class seems to care.
Mrs Five says, “The big giant mess your parents found themselves in was irreversible.” And from the back row, both his feet on his desk and arms folded on his chest, Jimmy says, “Irresponsible is the right word.”
Rita says, “They screwed up, that’s what that means.”
This is a perfect copy of a real world, except we’re not orbiting around a giant burning star. When this trip is over, we won’t remember any of this.
We eat lyophilised food we don’t want to eat, we grow a bit lonely every year.
Then we defrost again all wet and I run to the pilot cabin. My dad who’s not my dad hasn’t aged one bit. Then I walk back to the Main Hall. These floors are clean and shiny, you can see beneath your own skirt. Self-perving.
These are the years we all start exploring our bodies. Hoping this artificial gravity won’t give us an extra arm or wonky knees.
In the corridor back from the cabin there are drops of blood on the floor. Mr Nine is cleaning it, following the smeared blood. That’s crime scene that looks like art.
Blood on canvas, galaxy museum.
The blood leads to Rita leaving a trail of drops behind her. She’s limping all the way to the Main Hall. Holding her stomach with both arms she says, “What in the damn hell?”
She yells, “I’m bleeding.” Her hands are an impressionist painting full of red dots, dots, dots everywhere on her blue space-girl pyjamas. Her legs, all sticky and red. And she starts crying.
Looking at her, Jimmy says, “And that’s how puberty hit the spaceship.”
“Shit,” Rita says. And her mum who’s not her mum takes her to the infirmary.
One year and we're back in the refrigerator capsules. Before they freeze our guts again Rita's sobbing with her bottom lip shaking. She says, “I don’t want to.” And Mrs Five says, “I’m afraid you have to.”
And Rita ducks her head between her knees. She’ll be frozen up snowball shape. Jimmy jumps out of his refrigerator. Naked feet flopping on the floor, he sneaks by Rita lying down and he starts saying, “Once upon a time…”
Half-way through the story, Rita’s asleep and Jimmy slides a lock of hair behind her ear.
They shut the lids and the light goes off.
We defrost a bit older, a little grumpier. And the big timer display hanging on the Main Hall says a hundred and seven days, six hours to go.
It’s a countdown. The only problem is that it’s all a lie.
Defrosted kids are standing in the hall chin up. Looking at the counter, a kid says, “Wait, what happened?” Another one squeezes her eyes with her knuckles, “Geez, how long did we sleep?”
When he jumped off the refrigerator, Jimmy was pounding his head on the unbreakable glass. Raving his head against the universe outside. Everything is infrangible here.
Then he went to the gym, stole the football and he ran through the corridor. Jimmy, the little frantic mouse running in this maze with no exits. In the Main Hall he kicked the ball on the countdown display. Again, and again. If you try hard enough, nothing is really indestructible. At the fourth kick straight on the counter display the year number went off. Before he hit the counter it said eighteen.
Eighteen years, a hundred and seven days, six hours to go.
Ripping us off of eighteen years of our lives. Moving the clock forward doesn’t make you move any faster.
“I wanted to break something,” Jimmy said. “I wanted to feel in control again. Just for once.”
Then Mr Seventeen fixes the countdown and the display shows the full time again. For a few hours this trip was much shorter.
Mrs Five is trying to fix Jimmy. Everyone’s trying to fix everybody here. Robots fixing us trying to fix the past. But humans are so much harder to fix when they break.
Mrs Five tells Jimmy, “Channel your emotions.”
The week after, Jimmy is building little wooden boat models with thousands of little pieces. “I like boats,” he says. “I think miss the ocean, but I can’t even remember it.” With his hands covered in glue and his head down, building a main mast.
Jimmy says, it’s like being nostalgic for something you haven’t lost yet.
And I know what he means.
Then Mrs Five says we should all go to the Remembrance Room.
And Rita’s walking around holding toilet tissue roll in her hands. “How the hell there’s never toilet paper in this damn spaceship,” she says.
In the Remembrance Room we sit down on velvet red chairs and the whole room goes dark. We watch a 5D clip. A 360-degree screen that goes all around the room with scenes of the world we left behind. The before and after. One of those long documentaries with heartbreaking clips from all around the planet. It shows our big plan of salvation. Why we’re all here.
The video says, “You’re our hope. Our only hope.”
No pressure everyone.
In a way, everyone here want to be a hero. But I mean, who isn’t?
We defrost again with shoes that don’t fit any more and thick hair where nothing grew before. Jimmy’s started growing a beard.
There’s no alcohol on board, but Rita says she’s close to reproducing fermentation in her bathroom. Jimmy’s into wood models, Rita’s got into chemistry. She says, “If we are lucky enough, in a few months, we'll get illegal distilled booze on board.”
Put together a group of people in a small space long enough and what you get is the same world history going in a loop. The society progress that breaks and snaps, folding onto itself. The endless spiral of historical cycles.
Years go by and we defrost a little angrier. The melting ice cream versions of ourselves.
The refrigerator trick is for damage control. Reducing the time we stay alive and interact with each other. In the end it's all about prevention.
Kids that aren’t kids any more. Some of us are growing so big we have to bend our knees to fit in the refrigerators. And Jimmy’s beard is so long now he has to ruffle it off his crotch before he takes a piss. He dresses only in pink. Trying to become invisible, he says. Fully pink, like one of those old ribbons you hang on your door to tell the world your daughter’s born. Jimmy and his camouflage.
He says, “Can you still see me?” Pieces of wood are glued to his fingertips. He pulls a seventeenth-century vessel out of his beard and moves it in the air, swishing a storm.
Rita says, “Unfortunately yes.” She shakes her head and leaves him in his imaginary world.
The display time goes down a few more years and outside the spaceship stars hang still and bright around us. From a distance far enough any moving object looks still.
I run and check Mr One, and count the same wrinkles on his face. Ageing older than your parents makes you feel you’re wasting your whole life.
I walk in the Remembrance Room and in the dark are Jimmy and Rita slow dancing in the middle of the room. On the screen scenes from the catastrophic world we’ve left behind. Their hands clasped above their shoulder and the other behind each other’s waist. Jimmy and Rita shift their weight from one foot to the other, following the invisible waves of the spaceship. Surrounded by the film of a real world. In this ship everything is made up. The oxygen we breathe, the relationship we have.
Our memories will be gone before we can remember them.
When we defrost again some of us are going grey, someone’s getting bald. Some of us have eye bags you could deflate with a needle.
By now, most of the people we knew should be all fertiliser. Dust to dust.
Some kids who are no longer kids are sick in bed. Maybe space travel viruses, we don’t know. Some, we haven’t seen them in a while. The spaceship is full of garbage. Whoever had to clean up forgot to do it.
Mrs Five and Mrs Eight are sitting on the floor. Sprawled like naked mannequins. They’re switched off. The dead faces of our dead parents.
Jimmy’s dyed his beard bright pink. It’s like a hairy condom hanging off his face. He’s what’s left of his eyes in a cloud of cotton candy. Jimmy looks so tired he can’t keep his balance straight. All around the spaceship there are boat models. Boats in the Main Hall, boats in all the corridors, boats everywhere. Jimmy colonising the spaceship one vessel at a time.
Then we are in the corridor. Jimmy, Rita and I, looking through the giant glass ring that runs around the whole ship. The infinite dark of the universe freckled with stars outside. Rita’s hair longer than her hips.
She’s stretching her cheeks all the way down to her mouth. Eyes egg-shaped. Space facelifting. Rita says, “Dammit.” She says, “I look like my mum.”
With this artificial light we’ve all lost our skin colour. That cream you spread all over your face when you wake up, that’s the closest you got to slow down time.
Holding a pirate vessel model, Jimmy says, “These walls are so slick they can’t hold a spit.”
We’re all growing up.
“We’re not getting any younger,” I say.
Behind the glass glowing starts dying far far away. And in the reflection I look less like myself and more like Mr One. More like my father.
Rita’s touching her breasts. She lifts them up and drops them bouncing. She says, “Artificial gravity’s pulling my boobs down.”
Jimmy says, look. He gargles, shakes his Adam’s apple and spits a green and yellow lump on the wall. Little slimy alien. Jimmy’s spit falls straight on the floor. “Told you,” Jimmy says.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” says Rita.
And then the Main Hall turns red and white and red again. It’s all flickering red lights everywhere. Rita looks at Jimmy who looks at me.
With the red lights Jimmy’s pink clothes make him part of the furniture. Jimmy’s getting invisible. The voice on the speaker says, “Attention please.”
The voice, we call her Big Mama. Rita thinks that’s her mum, but Jimmy says it’s more like a frog that swallowed a frog that swallowed a moth.
“To all the children on board. Attention please.”
We’re all facial hair and blowing breasts. We’re not children any more. The problem with technology is that no matter how hard you try, there’ll always be flaws. Nobody updated the system to call us for what we are now. Women and men, grown-ups in space.
Big Mama says, “Approaching planet Earth.” She says, “Please, go back to your seats.”
The display countdown in the Main Hall says five minutes. Five minutes to go.
And we’re all looking outside.
From the spaceship the Earth is crystal blue like we’ve never seen it before. Ocean and land, and mountains and green. This is the live version of what we saw on the Remembrance Room video. This is how our planet used to be. Before all the blue turned into an enormous white floating island.
“Good Lord,” Jimmy says.
The blue reflects on the big screen glass. Some of us wipe our tears off with a sleeve. Grown-ups crying and sniffling.
Thirty years, and it was all for this.
Rita says, “That’s beautiful.”
Earth, the way we left it, was all white. A big giant golf ball floating in space. Continents eaten by the oceans covered in plastic and garbage. All covered in a big giant snotty spit.
When things get out of control you can blame the past or try to fix it.
“So now what?” somebody says.
If this doesn’t work, there’s no plan B. Unless we want to send our great grandchildren on another journey like this.
“We’ll sort it out,” Jimmy says. “One way or another.”
And Rita says, “Sounds great. Can we have a decent burger first?”
Before we land, gas will fill the spaceship. We’ll all lose our memories. All those years on the spaceship, all those classes, all those videos will be gone. Planting seeds in our heads. We’ll start afresh.
What really matters here is subconscious.
All those thoughts you have, your instinct, those voices in your head, don’t take all the credit for it. Somebody somewhere worked on those for you.
Before going to his seat Jimmy goes next to Rita and says, “Hey.”
Rita tries to tell him to go back to his seat. But he bends down and kisses her. Jimmy, eyes closed. Their lips squeezed into one single mouth.
“You waited thirty years for this?” Rita says.
The plan is we land with no memories and do our job. We become heroes. We’ll change people’s minds. The young ones, the old ones, everyone.
Jimmy says, “I’m sure we’ll meet again.” And goes back to his seat.
From the speaker, Big Mama says, “We’re approaching the atmosphere.” And gas spurts on the spaceship. Our seatbelts lock.
Everything starts vibrating. Red lights still flickering all over. We become an incandescent ball of fire flying through the atmosphere. We’re a meteorite.
Some of us are holding hands and gas fills the room. Nobody can see anything and from the speaker Big Mama says, “Planet Earth.”
Everything’s shaking. The spaceship is a boiling pan and Jimmy’s lost consciousness and Rita has her head sunk in the headrest and all the little kids that are not kids any more, they all passed out.
Big Mama says, “Year 2019.”
In front of us it’s all a bright blinding white light. And I shut my eyes.
Where I’m now is Oxford Circus. This is London’s busiest crossroads, except nothing is moving. Traffic is stuck. Commuters and people in dark suits and office dresses have all long faces. They walk away, all buses are delayed and cabs can’t find their way through.
There are thousands of people here. They’re singing, they’re dancing. This is like a music festival, but it’s not.
Me, I’m with my knees on the ground with a policeman who tells me, “Don’t move.” And I don’t.
There’s a pavement of people. So many arms and necks the street is a rainbow swallowing the asphalt.
They’ve all glued themselves. Glued to trains, shop windows. Hands glued to the underground carriages. This is all a giant sticky mess.
They’ve called policemen from all around the country to sort this out. They unstick protesters and haul them away, dragging them like dead bodies. People are getting handcuffed, and they smile. There are so many, it’s taking days to remove them all. There have been seven-hundred arrests so far. And still counting.
In the middle of the crossroads there’s this big pink boat. On the side, somebody’s written in big black letters: Tell the truth.
People are glued beneath the boat too. And on the deck there are dozens of them, holding signs, wearing sunglasses and singing.
This is our carnival of revolution.
Right at the stern of the pink boat there’s one guy standing, Peter-Pan pose ready to sail nowhere. The boat is stuck right in the middle of Oxford Circus. The ocean, the dark blue ocean we’re trying to save, is miles away.
Policemen are climbing up. They’ve started dismantling the mast. They’re trying to tow it away. And with two of them telling him to get down, the guy says, “We have more boats.” Then he’s on his knees next to me, joining the line of people getting arrested. He says, “What d’you think of my boat?”
The policeman says, “Don’t you move.”
People keep singing along. This is a peaceful protest. Everyone does their job. We’re doing ours.
The guy says, “Sure officer. Do what you have to do.”
Every cause is a good cause, until it affects you, your life. That’s when you start having second thoughts. We’re all positive when the life going tits up is not ours. Everyone is against carbon-dioxide emission until the car they shouldn’t drive is theirs. Sacrifice and pain are always better on somebody else.
The guy next to me is all unkempt beard and nice zen smile.
I say, I like the beard.
Looking at the boat being towed away, he says, “Me too. Never managed to grow one.”
Then he looks at me and says, “Have we ever met before?”
I say, no. I say, I don’t think so.
More people are dragged away, and more people join in. This is the osmosis of our generation. The guy tells me, this is happening everywhere. There are hundreds of thousands of people doing this all around the world.
He says he feels like he misses the world the way it is now. But it’s there. He says, “It’s like being nostalgic for something you haven’t lost yet.”
The historical cycle of life.
Then he stretches his hand out waiting for a handshake. “I’m Jimmy,” he says. “Nice to meet you.”
And when I grab his hand it’s all doughy and sweaty. Something squirts out of our handshake. Like extra ketchup in your double cheeseburger, but this is porcelain cream. Dirty white. Holding my hand Jimmy says, “I’m sorry mate.” And my hand is stuck. Our hands are glued. I say, it’s ok.
With his other hand Jimmy reaches a girl next to him. And he’s glued to her too. Then she holds someone else holding someone else and this is a chain of people stuck to each other. Then everyone is a human spiderweb that covers the crossroads. Spreading throughout the streets. Hands holding hands holding hands. All the way to Marble Arch. To Trafalgar Square. From down the road a girl says, “This environmentally friendly glue, right?”
We’re chained up to ourselves, glued to trains and buses. The whole city becoming one. Earth and people, all one. We are soil, we are trees, we are leaves. We are knitting the yarn of our future through the world using our bodies.
Jimmy says, “To move forward sometimes you need to stop.”
Chain of people glued to people glued to other people. This is happening here in London. It’s happening in Paris, Stockholm, New York City. This is the world, right here, right now. Everything will freeze and they’ll listen.
Somebody in the human chain says, “And now what?”
Jimmy smiles and says, “Now, we wait.” He says, “This is gonna work.”
And I say, I know it will.
I say, it has to.