Fiction: 'Saga's Children' by E.J. Swift
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware - perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place - she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.
We knew her only once, on Ceres.
You will have heard of what happened on Ceres.
Ours is one of many versions of Saga’s story. Widely distributed are a number of official biographies, and you can easily find another few dozen from less reputable sources. She is the subject of documentaries and immersion, avatars and educational curricula. We were not consulted in their production. But then, we did not know her; we only knew her contradictions, of which there were many. One small but significant example: she renounced her European passport in order to gain Chinese citizenship, yet she gave each of us a traditionally Scandinavian name.
We can say for certain that Saga was born in Umeå, Sweden, where in winter the darkness lies low and thick and heavy and the snow crunches underfoot with that particular sound heard only on Earth. Ulla, the oldest of us, remembers Umeå snow. She remembers the flakes falling on her head and the cold tingling sensation as they melted through her hair into her scalp. At least, this is what she says, and so we agree that this is how it was.
We know that Saga grew up in Umeå with a single mother. The biographies depict her as an exceptionally clever child, excelling in the fields of science and mathematics. A solitary creature. Decisive. Sure. In some editions, Saga herself is quoted:
It was when I saw the lights for the first time, the Aurora Borealis. The most beautiful thing on Earth. But it wasn’t on Earth. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be.
So she did what every child who wishes to be an astronaut must do. Saga taught herself Mandarin.
By age sixteen she was fluent. She applied to the most prestigious university in Beijing to study astro-engineering, and graduated with the top marks in her year. She was promptly accepted as a trainee astronaut in the Chinese Solar System Administration, a move almost unheard of for Europeans, and especially at such a young age. From there her career took off in meteoric fashion. News of her escapades was celebrated across worlds. She mapped the Martian planet. She led the first missions to Jupiter’s moons.
The biographies are less interested in Saga’s domestic life, if we can refer to it as such, and even between us we are not entirely settled on the details. We were raised by our fathers and grandmother. We knew Saga only through occasional communications from the outer planets, and nothing of one another’s existence. She sent us the debris of space. In our bedrooms we stored asteroid crystals and jars of red dust from Mars. We dreamed of Saga sailing through the stars, tailed by comets.
In her transmissions, she would tell each of us the same thing.
She loved us.
We must work hard.
Her hologram, flickering gently the way we imagined ghosts might, would flood us with bewilderment. We wanted to touch her, but when we put our fingertips to hers, there was nothing but air.
Since we found one another, we have spent many hours puzzling over the mystery of our existence. We do not mean this in an existential manner, although of course we ask those questions as much as the next human being. The mystery we share is something more personal. We would like to know why Saga chose to create us at all.
Ulla’s conception must have been an accident – still early in her career, it was not a good time for Saga to have a child, and an abortion would have been more practical. Ulla was born in Umeå (or says she was, as she says she remembers snow. But her father brought her up in Beijing, where, we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time) but the greater question is why she was born at all. Could Saga have been unaware of her predicament until it was too late? How had she failed to take precautions?
Five years later, Per appeared on the Moon colony. He may have been intended, although a relationship with his father was not. (Nonetheless Per’s father did his best until Per reached sixteen, upon which date his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.) Per grew up among space farers. Pilgrims, adventurers, criminals on the run, ambassadors, colonists and writers: all passed through Moon and recounted their tales whilst Per, in his first paid job, served them cups of mulled moonshine.
None of us are astronauts, but we have travelled. It is true that much of our journeying was done before we were born. Ulla went to the Moon and back, the size of a fingernail. Per went as far as Mars, and felt its heavy gravity pulling him down against the lining of Saga’s womb. Signy, we believe, was conceived on a ship orbiting Europa under Jupiter’s yellow gaze, and later returned to Earth and entrusted to the care of Saga’s mother in Sweden. Signy is the only one of us to have known our grandmother.
It was in the year preceding Ceres that we learned the truth. Saga had recorded a transmission on Mars where she was readying for her latest expedition to the dwarf planet, which at that time was being prepared as a mining centre for the asteroid belt. Ceres would cement China’s wealth and fund the Republic’s empire for a long time to come. We had a hazy awareness of these events, but if we are honest, we did not tend to pay much attention to the expansion. You have to understand that it was a painful thing, to consider the world our mother had chosen over us. Most of the time we preferred not to think of other worlds at all. We were trying to live our lives as unobtrusively as we could, and avoid people discovering the identity of our mother.
Of course, we couldn’t help our dreams.
We were to discover that we have very different lives. Per is a shuttle engineer – we assume he inherited most of Saga’s genes. Ulla teaches the old Earth art of yoga and works primarily with pregnant women. Signy is employed by the Earth Restoration Commission and travels to blighted patches of ocean or forestry. We thought it interesting that we had each taken a restorative, vocational pathway. We were feeling for one another’s personalities, on that first night.
Saga had contrived for the transmission to reach us at the same moment across our locations of Moon Colony, Tianjin and the Indian Ocean. It arrived with Per over breakfast: spinach and eggs; he always has them poached. Ulla received it when she returned home from an intensive Bikram class: she had been working on her own practice that day, and her mind was still revolving through salutations. Signy was the last to view it, from the cabin of a ship, which despite Signy’s best efforts smelled of stale sweat and salt, as did her clothes.
The transmission was short. Saga was in uniform, with the rén arrow and crane wings of the CSSA logo visible at her collarbone. There was nothing to suggest where in the solar system she might be, but we were shortly to find out.
Quite calmly, Saga delivered her revelation. It is time for you to find one another, she said. She knew where we were, which surprised us. She also knew what we did, which surprised us more. She invited us to join her next year on the space station orbiting Ceres, from where she would be leading an anniversary expedition down to the surface. (She did not clarify the nature of the anniversary, but later we learned that the first space probe to Ceres had been sent by NASA, several centuries ago in 2015, when NASA was still a guiding force.)
What did we feel, watching Saga’s transmission?
We were bewildered by her. What did she mean by telling us we were multiple? She had thrown our lives into turmoil – how could we not hate her a little for it?
Were we angry? Yes, we suppose we were angry too, although we did not admit to anger when we united, not at first.
We were in awe. Saga inspired awe. She inspired admiration. Listening to her low hypnotic voice throwing our lives into turmoil, we could only gaze upon the famous eyes the colour of an ocean on a stormy day (as the biographies describe them), and feel ourselves slowly losing oxygen, or perhaps we were injected with oxygen, high on it, at once starved and sated, propelled into a delirious state that made us not ourselves, or more purely ourselves than ever before. Our heartbeats quickened. We sweated minerals. Our mouths were dry but we wanted to break down and sob. We wanted carpets and cushions to soak up our tears.
Saga wanted us there. She did say this; our memories are united on this point. Saga wanted us to witness the expedition to Ceres. She was excited to have us there, together.
(Later, when we reflected upon the transmission, we realised that she did not say the word together. But she was excited to see us there. Have us or see us? Does it make a difference? We think it does.)
There was no question of not going. We had some concerns – the political climate being somewhat unstable, since the revolution on Mars, and rumours of possible war – but this was not enough to deter us.
We quit our jobs or took extended leave. We met our new siblings on the Moon. Per was there and it made sense to travel together, even if we would be in suspended sleep. At first we assumed we would want to ride out the long journey, using the time to get to know one another, but Per explained that would not be possible: ships were not equipped to entertain passengers, and hibernation was cheaper and actually far more comfortable. We understood, but we felt a little strange when he used that word, passengers. Perhaps we had been thinking of ourselves as being like Saga, as though we had absorbed something of her spirit after all, but we were not astronauts. We would be civilians, not even emigrants, largely a nuisance, and only undertaking the journey because Saga Wärmedal had ordered it and footed the bill.
It was when we saw the cost of our trip that we realized the extent of Saga’s influence.
In the week before the flight we talked about ourselves and about Saga. We compared our fathers and our bone structures and the colours of our irises. Signy had Saga’s nose. Ulla did not, but she might have done, before she changed it. Per and Ulla had inherited her broad shoulders, we decided, plucking up images. We knew when we finally saw her in person we would be studying every detail, comparing her physique with our own, adjusting the swing of our step a little, to match hers.
We agreed that there were things that must be said to Saga. We would be calm: we would not air our grievances like a committee, but we would ensure that Saga understood what we wanted to tell her. It was difficult to find a common language to describe our loneliness. Signy favoured metaphors. She was poisoned, she said. She was a bird whose migrational compass had been distorted and who no longer knew where to fly, and so flew everywhere, unable to find home. She was a penguin in the Antarctic gone mad, one of those ones that wandered inexplicably out into the ice sheets, where nothing awaited them but starvation.
We considered Signy’s metaphors and felt that the penguin was not quite right. Penguins were too close to comedy, and this was a sad, unfortunate matter. We agreed that Signy should not mention the penguin. The bird, we said, was a better analogy.
Per talked pragmatically about the events of his life. His partner had left him. She said he did not know how to love her, or even what love was. It was she who pointed towards his peculiar childhood. Brought up amongst adults, she said he had never been innocent. It was his mother’s fault, she said. His mother had plucked out his heart and hurled it among the stars, and the stars were cold things, whatever people said. Love to his mother meant a word travelled through a vacuum, uttered by a hologram. How could that be love?
Now there was another woman in Per’s life, a slender girl from Mars, but Per feared it would go the same way.
Ulla explained that she was obsessed with pregnancy, but would never be able to have children. It was not that she was infertile – this was a thing in her head. Ulla had seen a therapist, once a week, for the past three years. She told the therapist about our mother, the astronaut, who was without doubt the origin of this affliction. She told the therapist that the idea of bearing her own child was at once abhorrent and the only thing she wanted in life. She did not need a partner; she would happily purchase the requisite DNA. But something was holding her back. She taught yoga for pregnant women, gazing at their swollen bellies. She dandled the babies of friends, and without exception the babies fell in love with her, laughing and squealing with delight, but after handing them back to their parents Ulla would run out of the house or the playgroup or the coffee shop, and breathe in and out of a panic bag, paralysed for hours in the grip of terrible attacks.
Despite our disparate lives, we had found something in common: a series of disastrous relationships. We agreed that Saga had cost us love in our adult lives. We were dysfunctional. We would tell her this.
We were welcomed to the orbiting station above Ceres by a CSSA official. He did not mention Saga, which we thought strange, but invited us to a viewing platform from where we could see the dwarf planet drifting softly below. He brought refreshments, and there he left us. We surveyed Ceres with dubious eyes, knowing this sphere of rock and water was the latest thing to have a hold over our mother. Down there was her version of love. We saw a white planet, a cream planet, a planet with pale lemon sorbet swirls. We saw veined marble; we saw old polished bone. We pointed out to one another the dark spots where smaller asteroids had crashed into the planet’s surface. We pontificated aloud that Saga’s mission would be dangerous, whatever it was. We theorised on likely locations for the mining base. We knew nothing, but believed that we must say something. We had to reassure ourselves of our right to be aboard. We were passengers. We were nervous.
She entered the viewing platform alone. Our mother, the astronaut, in our sights for the first time since our births. There was the tall, lean figure, there were the eyes the colour of an ocean on a stormy day, flecked with recklessness, just like the documentaries said.
As soon as she appeared we knew we had been right to be nervous.
It was clear that Saga was not expecting us. She recognized us in the way that we might recognize a celebrity from a photograph –disorientation, followed by slow comprehension. She looked shocked. Yes, we agreed afterwards that she looked shocked. She said:
What are you doing here?
It was a horrible moment. Taken aback, we rushed to explain. The invitation - the transmission! We had replied. Had she not received our replies? We did not like to say, had she not paid for our flights, arranged for our stay, organized all of this?
Gradually the shock faded from her face. Of course, of course. She smiled. But we were thrown, obviously, by this peculiar greeting.
Struck by a terrible shyness, we felt our tongues grow huge and clumsy. How should we introduce ourselves, how should we greet her? We had agreed before that we would address her as Saga, but now alternate possibilities ran through our heads: mamma, mǔqīn, mom. We were stunned by the lean, stark beauty of her face. Her youthfulness shocked us, although we knew, we had read, that she had had no restorative work or even enhancements, as many of the astronauts did, to make them faster, sharper, better. We wondered if she were real; we wondered if she might live forever.
We wondered why she had born us and what we were doing there, but all the things we had planned to say evaporated.
Saga spoke in Mandarin, although Signy swears there was a moment when we all digressed into Scandi.
She said our names.
Ulla, Per, Signy. Look at you! I’m so happy you could come.
(But that moment of shock?)
She asked us questions. She wanted to know about our little, insignificant lives, and all we wanted to know was her, her inner life, her private thoughts. Alone in her ship in the outback of space, did Saga ask the questions we all asked? Did Saga wonder where she came from, if there was a god? We wanted to know, but did not dare to ask.
We did our best to make ourselves interesting; gave her the answers we thought she wanted to hear. The evening passed too quickly. Over dinner, Saga told us about the mission. She told us Ceres would become the most important mining station in the solar system, a source of water and fuel for travellers back to Earth and out to Jupiter and Saturn. We watched the way she held her chopsticks, scooping up noodles with easy elegance. We mirrored her gestures. We were offered wine, but Saga took only water. Her storm-at-sea eyes surveyed us, smiling. We thought she was pleased, and this gave us a feeling of warm satisfaction.
The next day we watched her descend to Ceres. She had her own ship, and it was built, she had told us, to her exact specifications. She gave us some technical details that we did not understand.
We watched Saga’s ship land, and the others of the mission followed. Saga appeared first on the surface link. We watched her suited figure lope across the surface of the planet. In the low gravity she appeared like a mythical being gliding over her territory. The expedition team were to meet with another team stationed on the surface. They had been drilling for samples for some months, and would perform the extractions today. Big results were expected.
Before the astronauts could reach the drilling station, the transmission cut out. There was confusion in the room: what had happened to the link? An engineer came and tried to fix it. She could not get a picture. We watched, silently, hoping everyone would forget we were there, but of course they did not. After a few minutes we were told that there had been a technical mishap (nothing to worry about, only the connection) and were escorted firmly from the room.
We went to the viewing platform and stood about aimlessly. Ceres hung, mute and ghostly against her velvet backdrop. This was how we came to witness Saga’s exit.
We saw a pinpoint of fire, small but distinct on the surface of the pale planet. A brief flare, there then vanished.
We saw a ship emerging from near the point of flare. It grew steadily larger, catching flecks of sunlight, like the carapace of a golden insect. Although there were no identifying markers, we knew, we sensed that it was Saga. We turned to one another, pointing.
Was that an explosion?
It must be–
We watched the lone ship orbit the planet several times, gaining velocity. It was then that we realized what was happening. Saga was preparing to leave. Her ship made one final circuit, before it shot away in the direction of the outer solar system.
We stared without comprehension. On Ceres, a cloud bloomed where the fire had been. Saga was gone.
At first there was media attention. People wanted to interview us. Our pictures were broadcast: Saga’s children, said the captions. Witnesses to her final farewell. That was what they called it, the media. Saga’s final farewell. We thought it wrong: it implied she had said goodbye before, and this was not the case, and she had not said goodbye now, not to us. Saga became a rebel. She had thwarted the CSSA, and some even believed she had caused the explosion, which was the result of unstable gases released by the drilling. There was a warrant for her arrest. Interplanetary outrage was so great that the CSSA backtracked and declared themselves Saga’s eternal ally, and wished her safe travels, wherever she was going. Later it was announced that the whole thing had been a set-up: Saga had been dispatched on a secret mission, known only to the Republic of China. Mars made a bold statement: the truth was that Saga had defected. She was working for another planet now. She was an agent, a double-agent, a triple-agent.
The solar system held its breath, anticipating a dramatic return. Months passed. There was no sign of Saga.
Next the experts appeared. Doctors and psychiatrists spoke to Saga’s colleagues and analysed her state of mind. Fellow astronauts agreed: yes, she had been distracted, yes, there had been lapses. She had fallen prey to star sickness, said the doctors. It happened sometimes, to astronauts. She had been consumed by a kind of madness.
We thought of Signy’s penguins in the Antarctic. Had Saga gone the wrong way?
Our opinions were sought, and discarded (we had little to say). The frenzy passed more quickly than we expected. We are less interesting; not so photogenic as our mother. We lack the thing which makes her magnetic, the reckless spark in the storm-sea eyes. We did not know enough to make a story.
We returned to our old lives on Earth and Moon. Once a year we met. We talked about Saga, speculated as to her whereabouts. We did not believe she was dead. We were not sure if she had gone mad.
Every few years there was a new rumour or sighting. Her ship had been spied upon Dione. The wreckage of her ship had been found in the asteroid belt, and a human spacesuit was drifting through the skies. But no, Saga herself had been witnessed in the embassy on Europa. We examined these theories, shared our musings late into the nights.
The years passed.
Now we are sept-and-octogenarians, unavoidably middle-aged. We have partnered, we have separated, some of us have children, some of us have money. We have weathered breakdowns and crises. We have dreamed.
We are wiser, enough to know that what we know is nothing. We can seek but we may not find.
We decided to return to Ceres. The colony is fully established now, an independent civilisation. Its population increases steadily. There is provision for tourists.
This time we take a shuttle down to the planet surface. Still a little wobbly with the after-effects of hibernation, we support one another, steadying elbows, watching our steps. We are amused by the low gravity, find ourselves acting like children. Even Per wishes to see how high he can jump. After a night to acclimatize, we are taken on a tour of the capital, before we suit up and board a surface transport out to the mining station. The constructions loom as we approach. The machinery is colossal. Our guide, a tall young man with thin, bird-like arms, is deferential and eager to please. He knows our mother’s name, of course. He shows us the plaque. The letters are glittering minerals which he tells us are from the mines. He says, proudly, that Ceres is the largest supplier of fuel in the solar system.
The plaque says:
This marks the last known flight of Saga Wärmedal.
We ask him for some time alone. He nods respectfully. We stand around the plaque. We suppose this is what we have come to see. We remember her ship, streaking away like a comet. This is the last place that she was seen. We think that she was never really seen.
There is a place on Earth beneath the Siberian permafrost, where those who died in the gulags of the twentieth century are said to be buried. With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever. It is said that their descendants still search for bones. There are women who go out day after day with ice picks and radars, their boots crunching on the new fallen snow with that particular sound, heard only on Earth.
They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.
E. J. Swift is the author of Osiris, Cataveiro and Tamaruq, the The Osiris Project trilogy. Her short fiction has been published in Interzone magazine, and appears in anthologies including The Best British Fiction 2013, The Lowest Heaven and Irregularity. When not writing, she is kept busy as a slave to cats and an aficionado of the trapeze.
"Saga's Children" was first published in The Lowest Heaven (Jurassic London, 2013). (Amazon US / Amazon UK / Barnes & Noble)