They lived under the Node. It wasn't uncomfortable, but it wasn't comfortable either. It was a place with just enough and just not enough to be feasible. Supplies were dropped in every three cycles. There was time to go hungry if you didn't plan everything right. They'd made every mistake once, rarely twice. There was no excuse for making a mistake twice.
Their daughter Sakari was an infant when they arrived. Now she ran through the compound, investigating, deconstructing, imagining. They felt bad about isolating her more than isolating themselves, they'd had time to prepare themselves for changes. She had only ever known this. She had friends in the Well during the connection periods, but it wasn't the same. If they'd been fair, they said, they wouldn't have had a child at all. Not for a life like this. But then, the Node would need someone after they were gone.
In the mornings sunlight outlined the triangular Node set on top of the stone precipice, casting a deep and frozen shadow across their home. They would rise from their sleeping pit and make hot beverage. Then one of them would begin the long climb up to the Node. The ladder, carved directly into the stone, was set at a steep angle rather than being set vertically. This helped, somewhat. There were safety hooks every tenth rung, using them was imperative in the windy season. Without using the hooks falling to your death was statistically probable over time.
Once inside the small room in the Node, large enough for a single person, he or she would check the settings and the connectivity. Was there flow? Good. Was everything pointed where it should be? Good. Adjustments would need to be made. Without these constant minor tweaks, the Node would fail and the Well would break down. From the top of the Node a constant stream of relay between worlds was handed off down the line, where other men and women at other Nodes made their own adjustments.
A long time ago many people left Aok. This was not their world, they said. We must return to our home, they said. They wanted to return to the way things were, or how they believed things were for their distant ancestors, and they believed in the old stories, they thought all these things were true. After they left there was disruption. Things changed — with fewer people there were hard times. There was famine. Those that stayed learned new ways of doing everything, and they learned ways to make and use tools better, and they started to look into the sky — not the way those that left had, but in a way that eased their hunger, that the ocean above them was a place to hunt.
As they went to other worlds, they built up systems of communication that spanned the great distances and the great amount of time. There were corners in these worlds, and on Aok, where if you made signals, if you made noises, they would echo into the other corners of those other worlds, without having to wait the time of an entire life, or hundreds of lives. So Nodes were placed in these corners, and signals were generated across all the worlds, echoing through all the Nodes, so that their people knew what has happened across space.
Then one day they heard something new, something they did not recognize. It was in a language that sounded a little like their own, but it was different enough. However they did recognize the tone — it asked if there was anyone out there, if anyone was listening. They responded, as best and as simply as they could. And that was how they started talking to Ebyx, to the people that left Aok a long time ago.
When Sakari grew old enough she began to help her parents maintain the Node. She would climb the long ladder up to the little room, and as she slowly worked the knobs she would turn the output up, so that the flow of voices would fill the space around her. Her father became ill, and was unable to continue working. Her mother helped her care for him, but her mother was getting older too and the ladder was becoming difficult and dangerous. The weather was worse. Soon she knew she would be the only one left keeping the Node open. She enjoyed it. She could request a replacement, but she didn't think she would. It might be a lonely life, but she thought it had a beauty to it, this place, austere and brutal and windy. Besides, these days, what other choices did she have? The scientists all agreed that Aok would eventually be uninhabitable. She could leave for another world. But there would be no coming back. Even if she could come back, there would be nothing left here for people. Travel between worlds could take a lifetime. She could stay and keep the Node, once the Nodes went out so too would the conversations between stars. At least for a while, until the Well was redone. This, too, would take lifetimes.
She connected one star to another, like threading a needle, plugging distant voices into each another. She might recognize an operator or two, but a lot of the chatter was from Compilers who gathered data about their neighboring worlds. Ebyx was the strangest. It was the newest in the Well, and the hardest to understand. She talked with one operator from Ebyx regularly, an operator named Liv. She was funny without knowing it, she was funny because she was so serious and so earnest. Sakari would ask her all about Ebyx, what was it like there, what was life like. Liv told her about her family's farm and the small towns. It didn't have big cities like other worlds. What were the animals like? Sakari would ask. Aok didn't have many animals left. There were lots of birds, Liv said, and she had pets and the farm had lots of animals. Liv told her about her parents and how they helped her to go to school so she could be an operator. Liv was considered gifted. Being an operator was something special on Ebyx, and Liv was part of the first group. The training had very strict requirements. While on Aok there had been operators for a thousand years, it was considered an antique profession, even quaint.
Sakari assumed everything they said was monitored — it didn't matter to her. This is the way new Nodes are in the Well, they're always shy. And authorities are paranoid. As time went on, they'd get used to the sounds, the dialog would fit them as they fit the dialog, Ebyx would find out who they were or who they were becoming.
Her parents passed away. Her mother died soon after her father. She threw the ashes, mixed together, into the wind. For the next few years she went up and down the ladder, she kept the Node running and she heard the voices across dozens of worlds. But she looked forward to hearing Liv the most. What would it be like to meet? They talked about it as she and Liv became closer. Of course it was impossible to meet — if Sakari left Aok when she arrived on Ebyx Liv would be long dead. But they would talk about it occasionally, what if it were possible.
Sometimes it was lonely for Sakari. The weather grew more violent. Now the trips up the ladder were always dangerous. She had to be careful, if anything happened there was no one to save her. More people left Aok all the time. She imagined them, perhaps a hundred years from now, they would land somewhere, somewhere new to live, maybe not as cold. Liv said Ebyx was warm, that it used to be cold but now there were deserts and jungles and lots of farmland. Sakari wondered if she would be able to live somewhere warm.
A year later the scientists declared an evacuation of Aok. She would have to leave. The Nodes on Aok would be shut down. There was a plan for the Well to compensate, they believed they could keep the gateways open if they juggled things the right way. Sakari wondered how true this was. She was upset, not necessarily because she'd have to leave Aok, but because it meant she would no longer be able to talk to Liv. There would be a final, terrible conversation, knowing that she would be asleep for the rest of Liv's lifetime. Liv got very quiet when Sakari told her this.
"When do you have to leave?" she asked.
"Within the next year, the last ship leaves in a year", Sakari said.
They talked more than they ever had. One day Liv was excited, she told Sakari about work that scientists were doing in the Well.
"They call it a Return, they use a Node to transfer the essence of someone, they transfer their self, their mind, into a simulacrum at the other end. Several people have already done it."
"To Ebyx?" Sakari asked.
"No, not here yet. Our simulacra aren't very advanced yet. Not like other places. And I guess we're considered pretty backwards, I don't know who would want to give up their body to come here. Keep in mind for a long time they had very strict laws here about certain kinds of technology. But all of that is changing."
Sakari didn't know what to do. She didn't know where to go. None of the other worlds interested her much, and Ebyx didn't interest her if Liv wasn't there. There was also — and all travelers knew this — a certain gamble. The world you decided to go to, when you began your journey, may not match the world you arrive at. In that time there could be natural, political, or cultural upheaval. She felt like her future was a dangerous void, a landscape of pure ambiguity. Any decision would help. She avoided talking to Liv for a couple of weeks.
She was preoccupied with the possibilities, or the lack them. She could disobey the order to evacuate, she could stay here, live out the rest of her life in the demise of Aok's biosphere. But the Node wouldn't be connected anymore. She would live in complete silence and likely starve to death. In one way this was the most concrete path, but it was also the most concretely terrifying. If she simply picked a world that seemed nice, she'd arrive in a place she didn't know, and she didn't know what she would do with the rest of her life. The place might have some aspect of its culture she finds repellent. She might be unable to acclimate to certain customs. She would no longer he herself, she would be a new person.
She didn't really need her body anyway. So she would leave, now that her parents were gone, she would Return to Ebyx. She told Liv that she'd decided and Liv was excited. There was work to do, preparations to be made, it would take several months.
On the day of the Return she bid goodbye to the freezing, howling wind, and climbed up the impossibly cold rungs of the ladder to the little room in the Node. She turned on the heater and checked the dials. This is where her body would stay. As the evacuation ended and the power failed, her body, the remains anyway, would be buried in ice. She'd been given detailed instructions about what to do, what to plug in, how to set things up, this would take hours. Then she would talk to a couple of scientists on other worlds, to check that she'd done everything correctly. She wasn't nervous anymore.
It was a deep and dreamless sleep.
When Sakari woke up she tasted metal. She wasn't cold or hot — she felt smooth, she felt symmetrical. Liv stood over her, looking down, her face wrinkling into a smile. "Hello", Liv said.