The Voyage of the White Cloud—Chapter One
 
Fiercely plies the shaft of this my paddle, 
Named Kautu ki te rangi
To the heavens raise it, to the skies uplift it. 
It guides to the distant horizon, 
To the horizon that seems to draw near, 
To the horizon that instils fear, 
To the horizon that causes dread, 
The horizon of unknown power, 
Bounded by sacred restrictions. 
Along this unknown course, 
Our ship must brave the waves below, 
Our ship must fight the storms above. 
This course must be followed, 
By chief and priest and crew, 
But place our trust in Rehua
And through him we’ll reach the land of Light. 
O Rongo-and-Tane, we raise our offerings.
- Sir Peter Buck Te Rangi Hiroa, The Coming of the Maori, p. 48

Part One — Reverse Thrust


"Here We Are"

These are the end times. 

All of us who make this journey — our revered ancestors, our cherished decedents — we are all blessed to be a part of this, the most exciting time for our people since our evolutionary beginnings. It is the nature of humanity to explore. It is the nature of humanity to expand. We are born in tentative steps on two feet. We are born among the stars. 

#

Susanne sat three rows back from Reverend Hue and let his words wash over her. She often didn’t exactly pay attention in the service, but she never felt like she was missing anything. She always left those services just as refreshed, just as enlightened as she did those times when she hung on every phrase. Maybe it was the stillness, the ability to just sit and not feel like she had to do anything that was what drew her to the services. Whatever it was, she always felt imbued by the spirit of joy when she stepped out of the small meeting room, regardless of the sermon.

She’d explained it to Lila, her teaching partner at the school, that it was simply being present, with the other followers and the Reverend, that was the act of worship for her. Lila had looked skeptical, but she was skeptical of everything to do with Susanne’s faith. That was fine. Susanne wasn’t out to convert anyone. The object of her adoration required no believers. 

#

Here we are, taking our first steps as a new species. We see a fallen branch, perceive a use for it, make new connections in our brains. We take a step toward our destiny.

Millions of years away, here we are, taking our first steps on a new world, a new home for our species. We take another step toward our destiny. What transpires in between? Nothing more nor less than the wonders and horrors of all that humanity can be. 

Here we are, caring for the weakest of us all. Here we are, murdering our neighbours. Here we are, building the first rocket to the moon. Here we are, burning villages of children. As it has happened, so it happens now and will happen always. We can never be free from history. We can choose only the manner in which we shall play our parts. 

#

Susanne floated weightless in the spherical padded room in the centre of the ship. She hugged her knees to her chest, as compact a ball as she could be. She didn’t cry, but she felt like she might. She was seventeen and had just received the notice from the Academy that she’d been accepted into academic training. It was everything she’d hoped for.

But when she saw the notice, her mother hugging her, saying, “I’m so proud of you, honey,” Susanne had felt her heart drop. How had she ever thought she could do this? Teaching other people? When she couldn’t even understand a simple poem?

It had been years since she’d failed that literature class, so long that the Academy hadn’t even considered it in their assessment. But Susanne remembered: she had failed. Images of the exam questions burned the inside of her eyelids as she floated, the word Failure ringing in her ears. Even if no one else knew, she always would remember.

#

“Don’t you feel a bit—” Lila asked one lunch break, “naïve?”

“What do you mean?” Susanne asked.

“You know,” Lila said, looking sheepish but determined, “gods. Religion. It’s all a bit — backward, don’t you think?”

“I don’t worship gods,” Susanne said, a smile growing on her face. “And as for religion, I don’t know. I guess you could call it that. From what I’ve read about them, I thought religions were about controlling people, making them conform to some code. There’s nothing like that at our services. It’s about how we relate to reality, not what we do in it.”

Lila frowned. “If it doesn’t tell you how to behave, then what’s it for?”

“I guess it’s like some of the more esoteric branches of philosophy. Epistemology, maybe, or theoretical physics. We’re thinking about the fundamental nature of reality and our place in it.” She picked up her sandwich. “None of those things dictate whether I eat this now or save it for later, but they still inform my understanding of the universe.”

Lila narrowed her eyes. She and Susanne had taught together for nearly a decade and Susanne appreciated her colleague’s attempt to reconcile her faith with her analytical mind. “Okay,” Lila said. “I’ll concede that it’s not certain that you’ve been brainwashed. For now.”

“Phew,” Susanne drew her hand across her forehead exaggeratedly. “Now, can we talk about what we’re going to do about helping Min to understand linear algebra?”

#

It is the dawn of a new age. It is always the dawn of a new age. Every second redraws the past into a new shape. It is always armageddon for history. These are the end times. This is the new age. Every moment, every breath, is the first and is the last. There is no beginning and no ending. Only that which we perceive. But our senses are limited and distorted. Our eyes capture the view we see upside down and our brains have to correct the image. We adjust to make prefect sense of our imperfect senses. 

We remember something, we call it past. We imagine something to come, we call it future. But what is now? Now can never be described, can never be held, because there is no now. There is no past, no future, no time. No time but all time.

#

She was certain he was staring at her. Not just him, but the entire class. She could feel their eyes on her skin, their mockery palpable in the small room. When Susanne found the courage to look up from her tablet, she saw only a classroom full of her fellow students looking forward at their lecturer, but she was sure that moments earlier they’d all been looking at her.

She was such a fool. Of course, Malik Ahmed was attractive; anyone with eyes could see that. And that voice — it was like it reached deep inside her every time he spoke. That she ever thought she’d have a chance with him was patently ridiculous. She could feel the sweat pooling in her armpits, just as it had all those months previously when she’d asked him to go with her to the revival of Rich Ibarra’s final play, Sunspots. And when he’d agreed, she must have looked so absurd with her stupid grin. How could she not have known?

But he’d met her at the play and they’d both enjoyed it; she blathered on about how much she loved Sunspots, that Ibarra was the only contemporary playwright whose work she felt she understood. Even as she talked she knew she was making a fool of herself, but Malik suggested a drink afterwards and Susanne felt her stomach flip. She’d felt like the hero of a love story, as if something portentous and magical were happening as they found a small table in a dark corner of the pub. And then he’d been funny and charming as they talked about the play and she was laughing and barely hearing him talk as she concocted a scheme to get rid of her roommate for an evening then— It was as if the ship stopped spinning for a moment, when her distracted ear picked up the words. My boyfriend.

“He hates theatre. I was so glad you asked me. Who wants to go alone; the best part is talking about it afterward, don’t you think?” Something inside Susanne broke when he put his hand on hers, saying, “When you’re in a relationship, it’s easy to forget how important it is to have other friends.”

She knew it must have shown on her face — the disappointment, her breaking heart. She forced a smile and agreed, then went back to talking about the play. But he had to have known. Had to have later told everyone he knew, laughing at her desire, her blindness. She wanted to crawl out an airlock.

She’d managed to stop thinking about it. Not forget, of course, but not dwell on it either. Until she’d walked into the new class and there he was. Smiling at her as if nothing ever happened, but her shame and embarrassment covered her like a smothering blanket.  

#

“I know you’re tired of talking about it,” Lila said, “but I can’t help it. I’m curious. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I’d never have guessed that you were an adherent.”

“It’s okay,” Susanne said. “I’m not ashamed or anything.”

“I know.” Lila managed to look embarrassed. “So, did you grow up with these ideas. Your mother, was she a believer?”

Susanne laughed. “Not at all. She still thinks I’m just a little bit crazy. Really, there’s nothing you can say about this that she hasn’t already said, and then some. No, I came across these ideas when I was studying. I was working on ship’s history, some of the less pleasant parts. The bad decisions, the unfair practices. I read a few references to this belief system and I was intrigued. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and everything I read made me want to know more. I discovered that the ideas never died out, that there were some small pockets of adherents still. So I went to a service.”

“You knew you believed just by reading about it?”

“Of course not,” Susanne said. “I was just curious. Kind of like you, I guess.” She smiled at her friend, whose face reddened slightly. “At first it was just research, but I met some of the people, made some friends. So I kept going. Then I found that I liked the feeling of having a half-hour where you could be still, where you could be quiet and just think about things. I liked spending time with other people who were interested in these ideas. And it doesn’t hurt that the reverend has a spectacular speaking voice.”

Lila grinned. “You are a sucker for nice voices.”

Susanne nodded. “I can’t deny that the delivery is enjoyable. But in the end it’s the message that keeps me coming back. After all, Reverend Hue is part of the Portside Theatre troupe. If I just wanted to listen to him talk, I could go to a play.”

#

This is the beginning of a journey. We are almost at our destination. It is a never-ending journey. Many of us feel, in our everyday moments, like there is among us some great sense of completeness, a conclusion, an accomplishment. That we are in the midst of finishing a grand endeavour, and that while we will not see the fruits of our struggles, our grandchildren will be as the heroes of history are to us — the pioneers of a new world, a new future for humanity. 

For some of us, this gives us a feeling of pride in our accomplishments, a sense of closure to a mission undertaken generations ago. But for some, it is a difficult thing to know that a goal we and our forebears worked and sacrificed for is so close yet unattainable for us personally. For others, the very real future of change is frightening. We imagine failure-state scenarios, we worry that our lives and those of so many others may have been spent in service of a futile mission. After all, the hard part of flying is landing.

To all of us who cannot help but dream of the end of this journey, whether that dream is a joy or a nightmare, I invite you to join with me in quiet contemplation. I invite you to imagine physical reality as words in a sentence. Each word is complete, the letters are all there. When we read, we provide the sequence, we feel that one. word. comes. before. the. next. But all those words, all those letters, are in there in the sentence. They exist always. It is only us, our act of reading, which makes them become ordered, which makes them sequential. 

In this story, our reading is like time. Time which moves though our reality, imposing order. Here we are, in this service, in year eight hundred and forty-three of the White Cloud. And here we are, building our first raft to journey across an ocean into a new unknown future. And here we are, expanding across the planet of new Earth, making it into a home for us and our descendants. Here we are - in the past. Here we are - in the future. Here we are. Always. We are here.

#

Susanne’s attention came back to Reverend Hue’s words. It had been a few weeks since Lila had last asked her about her beliefs. For a while Susanne had thought that she might come to a service, maybe even join the community. But Lila had stopped asking and Susanne guessed the moment passed, and that something else caught Lila’s seemingly insatiable curiosity. It didn’t matter.

Her mind caught on the words she’d thought — the moment passed. That was the point of it all, wasn’t it? The moment never passes, not really. For so much of her life Susanne always felt trapped by history — not just the academic history of humanity, but also the personal history of her own life — as if past events were brambles which could attach themselves to your leg and never let go. Her memories, her hopes, they always seemed to walk beside her, their influence often stronger than anything tangible.

It was her great weakness, the aspect of her personality which pained her and nearly made her give up on herself. Her obsession with things gone by, with an imagined future. So, as soon as she read about the idea that everything exists outside of time, it profoundly resonated with her. Time as we see it is an illusion — our senses are flawed. 

The last time they’d talked about it, Lila had asked her if it was like believing that everything was pre-destined. That if everything already exists, then there is no free will. 

“It’s actually the opposite of fate,” she’d answered. “We like to think that our past made us what we are, that who I am today is the sum of my experiences up to now. But if we believe that our past exists simultaneously with our present and our future, then in every moment we are creating ourselves originally. If we are a point, then we are free.”


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