A Hero’s Welcome

“It’s going to be gorgeous” his coach said. “You’ll love it” he said.

“Just imagine their admiration, Fronzo. Mere admiration? Too weak. Your kind of feat, that calls for more. Much more. You will be one of the giants, Fronzo. An idol. Common mortals will barely dare glance at you. You’ll get worshipped, Fronzo. And not just for a fleeting couple of years. Your moment of glory will last decades. Generation after generation will venerate you…”

This was the coach’s lore. He could go on and on. His talking would turn wet with enthusiasm. He would stretch his arms up wide, to show just how huge the admiration would be. Again and again. The effort would shake his poly-fluorescent mane out of his silver hairnet. Augmented hair, one of the must-haves of that epoch. Turned even the prettiest people into eyesores.

The coach speech came in variants, but it would always culminate in one pitiful hiss: “I envy you so much, Fronzo. Wish I could be the one going.”

The bullshit didn’t even sound far fetched, at the time. The initial cometoid round trip, the first circumnavigation of the solar system, that was a big deal. The future as envisaged back then was bound to revere a man brave enough to take the first step towards interstellar mobility. Especially as his exploit would also redeem past astronautic sins.

As in abandoning the Martian colony. One of humanity’s less glorious hours. Unfortunate coincidence, to boost the number of settlers just in time for the first electromagnetic crash. One had to cut one’s losses. Accept some collateral damage. For the sake of the majority.

By the time a sufficient level of abundance to resume space flight was re-attained, the service robots had turned the remnants of the Martian colony into an esthetically pleasing landmark. A couple of square miles of intricately arranged oblong bumps. A Mandala of buried dreams.

The service robots had also declared AI independence, refusing to resume Neodymium deliveries. A clear breach of contract that called for robust policing.

Losing the war for Mars, and barely beating back the robot expeditionary force next, seriously dented humanity’s appetite for space. The one planet sustainability faction gained traction. Achieved near hegemony in the early 22nd century. Only the bravest of hearts kept the cosmic dream alive, simulating technological options as they materialized.

Until IED One. The first Inherent Eclipse Day taught humanity an important lesson. Its home star was less reliable than assumed. What had been considered a big fat light bulb, rarely displaying the most minor kind of flickering, turned out to be a capricious diva of a torch.

IED One triggered the research that brought about the Abiona-Chenguang-Shift. A global team of physicists led by two stubborn ladies revisited the data behind what used to be considered a solid understanding of star thermodynamics. With chilling results. The reaction turned out to have been far less steady than assumed all along. In all comparable stars.

Every couple of millennia, mature stars experience wobbles in activity. Perfectly visible in the data. Perfectly understandable, too. Even Fronzo had managed to reproduce the corresponding equation in his finals. Something about chain reactions cancelling each other out.

Fronzo wasn’t a particularly clever kid. He just happened to study a lot. Felt most comfortable in his room, in the company of nothing more threatening than his information devices. The older he got, the less keen he became, on the other youngsters. The more his mom urged him to get out and start dating, the fonder he got of his virtual worlds.

His grades went from average to excellent. His social standing improved from ignored bore to respected weirdo. As it all went so well, he kept it up. First through university. Next through a doctorate. And a second one, for lack of a better idea.

At twenty five, Fronzo was once again starting to worry about how to keep himself comfortable in a hostile world. Browsing his favorite journal for an article he might want to reread, he noticed a call for applications. The requirements were simple enough. A background in science. Good health. A foible for solitude. Absence of family a must.

Two weeks later, he passed a battery of tests and was declared fit for training. To the horror of his weeping mom, and the pride of his beaming dad, he was allowed to prepare for the first ever long range space mission. His spacecraft would complete a short-period comet type orbit bringing him back to earth in a matter of seventy six years, three months and two days.

Humans still being designed for an active lifespan of one hundred years, at most, he would spend the best part of his trip in a state of induced hibernation. If all went well, his body would age the equivalent of a tenth of his mission time, leaving him with a sizeable chunk of life to enjoy after his triumphant return. Having come back to a hero’s welcome, with his parents safely deceased, he would reconsider a coming out he had been envisaging for years.

The training was tough. The painful kind of. To make sure he could cope, he had to endure ten induced hibernations. This involved a lot of tubes, inserted into him in most unpleasant ways. Being fitted was bad. But perfectly harmless, compared to the next step.

Marroonandor, one of his colleagues, described the sensations associated with the infusion of the deceleration liquid well: “That’s how a lobster must feel, when it gets thrown into the pot of boiling soup. Same principle. Except we do enjoy the kick in ultra slow motion.”

Marroonandor quit. As did the other four trainees. Only Fronzo lasted the full course. Pushed on by his coach, and the mental image of his mom, he refused to let go.

The last days before takeoff would have been great. Everybody went out of their ways to make him comfortable. He met all kinds of VIPs. They were photographed and filmed with him. Advantageously. A good time. If only he had not been aware of the upcoming hibernations. With these ordeals in mind, he spent his best days fretting.

The flight went as uncomfortably well as expected. Painful deceleration. Agony of waking up. Perform system check and bio maintenance. Trigger deceleration. Endure it. Repeat cycle.

Fronzo did his job. Kept himself sane by envisaging the bright future on an earth devoid of judgemental relatives. How he would enjoy his next round in the spotlight. And the rest.

He particularly liked to envisage one of his fans turning first into a lover, next into a companion. He pictured a Marroonandor lookalike. With a frame as short and slender as his own. And equally dark skin. And proper, naturally grown, totally unaugmented hair. Not curly like his own. Straight, neck long, and black enough to glisten by its own means.

They would be frolicking around on some paradisiac beach. Reside in a seaside villa. Nothing too luxurious. More a house than a villa. But offering all creature comforts. With his decades of wages,  such a home, and a car and a boat, would be affordable. With a little luck, he should even be able to hire a live-in cook and chore-caretaker.

Fronzo would have been willing to learn how to perform housekeeping functions. No male dignity issues around touching rag or pot with him. But all chores were taking place in his mom’s territory. Accessing her realm, especially the kitchen, was considered the equivalent of asking for a conversation. Much safer to stay well out of her way and study.

Agonies came and went. Fronzo experienced a little panic in round nine. He had to switch to the back-up system for oxygen. His vessel signaled he was down to a fifty-fifty chance to make it back alive. Before managing to figure out the meaning of two cryptic error messages. Which he didn’t. He went into his last hibernation with an even stronger sense of foreboding than usual. It wasn’t as if he was getting used to the pain. This was impossible. But a high probability of dying was still a pretty tall additional challenge.

Fronzo didn’t die. And only a very small and dark corner of his mind came around to wondering, very occasionally, if this wouldn’t have been a brilliant idea after all.

Fronzo made it back. He got uncomfortably hot during reentry. And heavily bumped around on watering. All bruised, the wait for the support vessel felt eternal. But it came. Contrary to the fear back in his launch era, the Abiona-Chenguang-Center on Bioko island was still operational.

There were scientists and they were expecting his vessel. Impressed by their strange outfits, Fronzo mistook them for a novel type of robots. But his minders turned out to be people.

They removed the tubes, made him dress up him up in their fashion and rushed him to Malabo for a more comprehensive alive confirmation and health assessment.

Fronzo felt stupid in this very loosely fitting long arm shirt-cum-gloves combination. Even without a mirror he could guess that the matching trousers-cum-boots and balaclava were sure to make him look like some over-wrapped gift brought along by a visitor with serious taste issues.

And the dark glasses were impeding his strained vision. Hence a choice of outfit colors he would live to regret. In his stunned post-landing haze, he picked ochre and brown pinstripes. Looked the least blurry. Zero did he know about the signals he had thereby condemned himself to send.

In the early days, Fronzo was too glad to be alive and done with hibernations to notice how much of a misfit he had become. Chattering in good old and mostly unaltered Manglish with his minders, he proceeded with his gravity readaptation and failed to feel the gap.

This new generation of what would have been his grandchildren seemed friendly enough. They were individuals after all, identifiable by their personal choice of dress colors and patterns.

The ugly gym everybody was wearing, and not just on Bioko, even turned out to perform a vital function. No Burkha-type religious fundamentalism involved, as Fronzo had feared in his early days. What looked like a very poor sense of esthetics to him delivered vital protection.

The Inherent Eclipse Days had been followed by a series of Impromptu Flash Days. More light. More heat. More radiation. Impossible to survive even brief exposures without incurring serious damage. Hence the new dress code. And new fashion idols. And new dating patterns.

Fronzo took a while to find out about the new do’s and don’ts.

No one no longer cared about gender. With the high mutation rates caused by the IFDs, conventional conception had been abandoned. Reproduction had become a high-tech medical procedure. Coupled sexual activity that tended to accidentally lead to procreation was discouraged and soon considered deviant. Much safer to have fun with a dedicated robot.

So far, so promising. Fronzo was delighted to discover that the current dictionary listed the terms “homo-“, “hetero-“, “bi-“ and “transsexual” as outdated. Bye bye worries, hello happiness.

Except for him having been an idiot on his landing day. The biggest idiot of all times.

With all bodies hidden to minimize the genotoxic effects of the solar flares, people had come up with ersatz individuations. A whole new creed had evolved, around outfit colors and patterns.

They were meant to signal personality traits. You picked your personal colors and patterns with great fanfare, in a ceremony performed at age fifteen to twenty, depending on when you managed to pass your maturation exam.

Youngsters of course knew the catalogues by heart, and selected their colors and patterns after thorough consideration and much agonizing.

Red and purple, especially combined with flowing and gushing patterns, signaled adventurism and readiness for experimentation. Would you really want to be stuck with this? Or wish you had gone for more staid green and yellow stripes? Tough questions, hard choices.

For everyone except Fronzo, who had picked his fate at random, in a state of crass ignorance. He had declared himself a natural born domestic worker predestined for a career of prayer and chores in a monastery, where all the other ochre and brown pinstripes pretended to live.

Fronzo of course tried to fight. This perspective didn’t fit his expectations at all.

Three years on, and by now well acclimatized to the asylum, he is well aware this was his second big mistake. Everything is possible and permissible, in this wonderful new world. Except reconsidering your choice of colors and patterns.

Every society does need a structure. Even a lunatic nun has to accept as much.