“Come home, son,” he says. “It’s time to come home.”
His voice sounds tinny, like he’s talking through a phone, which is ridiculous. We haven’t needed phones to communicate for decades. And besides, he’s standing right next to me. Only he isn’t. Because I’m gone, soaring, gliding, banking on the wind—and yes, there’s wind there, in the between spaces, in the void. A wind that blows all your careful calculations aside, like storm and chance always have for sailor and landsman alike.
“Come home,” he pleads, but I can no longer hear nor heed.
I’m in the wind.
I stand on the deck of the Adventure Galley, three-hundred tons and thirty-two guns, with a commission from the king to hunt pirates wherever they sail. But frankly, those of us before the mast are mostly pirates ourselves. And having been paid nothing for near a year, the pirate life is calling us like to set our fingers a-tingle. We’ve just taken two small prizes, but still the Captain won’t split the plunder till we attack Jack Culliford, whose Mocha Frigate—definitely and defiantly a pirate vessel—is moored nearby. But we’ve been drinking with him and his men on St. Mary’s for a week now and like them a league more than the Captain.
“I’d rather fire two guns into him,” Joe Palmer says, meaning the Captain, “then one into Culliford.” He’s cutting open a bale of eastern silks with a long dagger still bloody from taking the prizes.
“Ten guns,” Doc Brandinham mutters. For a medical man, he has more hate in him than most murderers I’ve known.
We rip into the bale like wolves into a sheep’s carcass. I grab a swath of something brightly orange that I think I’ll sew into trousers and a sash. It will go with the green shoes I got off that Spanish urca near six years gone.
But then a pistol shot sounds and we turn to see the Captain and most of the officers on the forecastle, all armed and dour. And the Captain is the dourest of the lot, six foot and Scottish and never smiled his whole life, most like.
“Hold there, you dogs!” he calls, and we nearly do, such is the pure power of the man.
But Palmer proves himself a different sort than the rest of us who tend to blow with the strongest breeze. He stands tall and tells the Captain we’ll put it to a vote. “For this is no Navy boat, ruled by the yardarm and the lash.” We take up the cry, “A vote! A vote!” and the Captain has no choice. In the end, we not only vote to split the loot immediately but near a hundred of us go over to Culliford, leaving the Captain with only a handful of men. That ain’t enough to defend the Adventure Galley, and we strip it of all the guns and supplies we can carry. We’d take the Captain, too, and have some fun with him, but he’s locked himself in his cabin with over forty loaded pistols.
We’ve all seen him shoot. There’s none that will go first through that door. Not second, third, nor any after, most like.
As I step onto the deck of the Mocha Frigate, I hear that siren voice on the wind.
Come home, son.
A part of me thinks I’ve gone mad, hearing voices in my head. But another part awakens and knows what to do.
I leap into the wind.
In the between space, I am myself for a moment—my complete self, not the half-me of the real—though I have no memory before the void. I am whole, yet still a blank canvas. I must paint something on it. The wind howls around me, time and circumstance and infinite possibility. I fly upward, outward, down and in, dodging thermals and drafts till I find the pulsing strand of a fellow traveler. Hang tight to the thread. Let it pull me back in.
I feel like I’m on horseback for a second, but that’s ridiculous. The Mustang I’m riding is a plane. My plane, though not really, because like me, it’s entirely the property of the United States Air Force.
Keep your mind on the mission, I tell myself, even though officially the mission is over and my squadron and I are heading home. The mission isn’t over till we’re all on the ground.
What with my daydreaming about horses, I’ve gotten separated from the other planes in my squadron, so I’m all alone when I see them: five Messerschmitts a mile away, crossing in front of me in loose formation. I could let them go—they haven’t seen me—but the brass didn’t send me up here to share the sky. They sent me to claim it. So I climb high, then dive to engage, knowing that no Messerschmitt can match my Mustang, and even if there are five of them and one of me, I’ve got to be at least ten times the pilot of any of them. And besides, I have the sun at my back; they won’t even see me coming.
I’m wrong about that last bit, but even that works out for me. The pilot panics when he spots my big horse screaming out of the sun and yanks his stick right, crashing into his neighbor. They punch out as their planes tumble smoking out of sight and now there’s only three to my one and I’m already stitching them with machine gunfire. I know how the hawk feels when he hits his prey in midair and I shout with the pure murderous joy of it.
Then another voice shouts Now! and the sun at my back is suddenly before me, bright and blinding. I think I must be hit and I pull on the stick to climb, escape, evade. But my hands find railings instead, and I sense I’m on my back. A shifting, pulsating hue fills my vision, that unnamable color you see on the backs of your eyelids when you shut off the light before sleep. I hear a voice—not the one that’s been calling me back, but the new one that shouted ‘Now!’ and it says nonsensical things about “temporal aspects of wormhole construction” and how it’s “so experimental even a genius like your son didn’t—doesn’t—quite understand the implications” and if “the negative mass infusion doesn’t work” then they weren’t sure what to do next.
I’m certain I understand even less than the voice does. But unlike them, I know what to do.
The negative mass infusion won’t help, though I don’t know why I’m certain of that. I have knowledge without understanding. And knowledge here—like reality—is as malleable and shifting as the void itself. Perhaps it’s because the problem isn’t with me, I think, but in the wormhole itself. But I no longer know what a wormhole is or why such an odd thought would occupy my mind when I should be concentrating on wind and wave.
I’ve been pulled back into the real.
I am asea, but land is in sight to the east. I man the long steering oar as my family tends to the two tattered sails, checks on the worn lashing that holds our hulls together, tuts and fusses over the youngest who has grown ill on the long voyage. I worry for him. He was born early and small and has been sickly his whole, short life.
“Rocks!” my oldest son calls out, and points ahead and to the left where the color of the water changes and gives clue to what lies underneath. I’m certain the rocks are deep enough to cause no harm to our shallow-drafting boat, and I think—not for the first time—that he has always been more warrior than sailor. But I don’t call him out for his error. If there is fighting to be done when we land, it is he who will lead it; I want none doubting his competence.
Instead, I pull hard on the steering oar and lead us around the deep rocks and towards the new island we’ve found that we will make our own.
Make our home.
Home. Come home.
The void is the ultimate unknown. There is no certainty here. Maybe that’s why I keep dropping back into the real. Though I’m not me there, I am at least certain of who I am. That’s probably why I flee the voice so strongly. Whoever it’s calling to, it’s not the me in the real. It calls to the me in the void. And if I ever knew who that was, I don’t now. In between, I am movement without form, thought without action, consciousness without self. I am nothing and everything. I am alone and I am legion. The wind howls and I howl with it, riding it screaming back into the real.
So light she can barely feel it, I knick the horse with my blade. But it’s enough to make the blood flow. I catch it in my bowl and mix it with mare’s milk and raw oats. It is all I’ll eat for a thousand miles. But I am a horseman of empire, and weathered hardships that would break grown men of the corrupt East or the barbarian West before I’d even left my mother’s tent.
Father Sky stretches wide and blue above me and I am alone beneath it.
Except for the voice.
My horse knickers nervously at something it can’t see. I reach down to pat its neck but before my hand lands…
The count reaches zero and the big engines fire. Three planets worth of force pushes me back in my seat, but I know soon enough there’ll be no weight at all. The sky outside the tiny window turns from blue to black and the earth’s forces release me.
Come home, I hear, so I release, too.
The plane is just a gas tank and wings. But there’s no room for anything else if you want to cross two thousand miles of water and make it home alive.
Come home, son, I hear in my head, which surprises me for I am definitely no one’s son.
But the part of me that is hears and takes the controls.
I am a traveler, a soldier, an explorer, a refugee. I am men and women, good and bad. I immigrate and invade. I colonize and cohabitate. I row dragon ships and dugouts, captain masted ships and steamboats. I pilot planes powered by props, jets, atoms. I point solar sails toward the center of our system and let them carry me to the outer rim.
And all the while, the voice chases me, harries me, calls me to come home.
Why? When I have all of creation to explore? And all of time to do it in?
I leap. And leap. And leap again.
Bound for the Northwest Passage on a ship called Terror, I finally take a stand.
Come home, the voice says.
Instead of leaping, I find my own voice and answer.
Come home, the voice says again, louder and more insistent.
No. I will not come home. I will stay in this body, in this time. I will stay and I will live and explore and discover, And only when I am ready will I move on.
Come home, the voice says a third time, and I can hear the finality in it as well as an overwhelming sadness.
No, I answer. And the voice is silent.
Months later, as I lie freezing and my shipmates consider whether my emaciated body holds enough meat for them to survive on, I try to leap. But in shutting out the voice, I find I have shut out my access to the void. I am trapped. With a sudden clarity, I realize that a journey is defined by its endpoints, and to never return is to never have traveled. I should have gone home. Or made one. Instead, I’ve chosen to die in the ice, a weary ghost in a body not my own.
Though my vision fades as the cold takes my strength, I can hear the Terror’s cook sharpening his deboning knife.
I awake in darkness. But not total. Light from a half-moon shines through a window and I see I’m in a hospital bed. An older man slouches in a chair next to me. His face is relaxed in sleep but I can see where stress has etched lines into it deeper than age has. He shares my features: wide-spaced eyes, prominent chin, a nose that’s looks like its been broken but never was.
“Father,” I try to say, but there are tubes in my throat so I merely grunt and gag. He does not awaken. I try to reach for him, but my arms are too weak to do more than twitch. I stare at the thinness of them in the moonlight and realize how long I must have lain here. I imagine a mechanical construction that could assist me in rehab. AI-assisted creations to twitch muscles even while resting. I know nothing of medicine, so it needs input from that field, and it lacks the necessary detail for a prototype, but I can already see the beginning of a blueprint for the device in my mind. It is a line of reasoning that friends and colleagues have often remarked on, telling me, “You were born an engineer.”
And suddenly I know who I am.
I am an engineer. A brilliant one. And I am trying to create a wormhole that can be used for interstellar transportation.
No, not trying. I did create one.
We’ve always known it was theoretically possible, but no one had successfully created one until my team finally had.
‘Successfully’ might not be the right word.
The wormhole had stayed in existence for less than a nanosecond and had sent my consciousness into the void.
But we did it!
My enthusiasm lasts as long as it takes for me to catch sight of my wasted arms again. Feel the tube deep in my throat. Sense the aching loss when I reach for the void and cannot find it.
“Come home,” the voice says, only it’s not in my head now. It comes from my father who has awoken and leans forward to touch my shriveled hand. I grunt in reply and his head snaps up. His eyes meet mine and fill with tears. “Son,” he says. “You’re back.”
I nod weakly, but it’s mostly to reassure him. I’m not so certain I’ve returned. The weight of a thousand lives presses on my chest and the howl of the abyssal wind echoes in my head. I cannot reach the void. If I could, I’m certain I’d leap into it and let the winds carry me away. Storm and chance have put their mark on me, and simply returning home won’t remove it. I know now why soldiers go back to war and shipwrecked sailors return to the sea. Just as you bring a part of your home with you when you travel, you bring a part of the world back with you when you return. I fear man’s state is to never be whole no matter where he travels or settles, no matter what joys or tragedies he experiences on the way.
I grasp my father’s hand as hard as I can—which is almost not at all—and ground myself in the calloused reality of an old man’s palm against my own.
Still, I hear waves breaking on rocks, and the gunshot crack of canvas stretched suddenly taut to catch the wind.