The Return

2,348 words
Reading time 7 minutes 50 seconds
There was something different. It did not bother him in the slightest – nothing did in this world – but he had to maintain a professional curiosity.
“Perform a Level D check on all systems,” he intoned evenly.
Six years, alone, hurtling through space in “The Wedge” had left him indifferent to just about everything. He had expected – and indeed had hoped – to be killed on the mission, as he had been informed that ‘there was a high chance of mission fatality.’ Now, it was over, and he would have to return to the accursed planet from which he had fled; this was his only worry – to be returned to live on Earth again.
“All checks complete and all functions are matching and at Green Level 1.”
Nayr smiled to himself; Mech’s voice had somehow altered.
“Has your voice changed at all, Mech?” he asked.
“Yes, Nayr.”
“Why has your voice changed, Mech?”
“My voice was programmed to become more human when we are within a tenth of an Earth year of program completion,” replied the computer.
Nayr felt a frown wrinkling his forehead; the mission was coming to an end and his world was about to be shaken to its core.
“There is no choice; it must be Nayr,” said the Blue One. The Owl Committee had gone through all the candidates for the mission and by a process of exclusion, Nayr alone remained. Yet, somehow, they were all so sad to send him on this most dangerous exploration; the truth is that they had all developed a certain – and very unprofessional – fondness for their selection, and to send him into such danger was not without pain.
“He will cope,” began the Golden One. “He will be medicated, continuously monitored, and the medication will be adjusted; there will be no pain.”
“And the torment of being alone for six earth years?”
asked Green.
White frowned. “He will have no reminders of Earth or people; all will be gradually made un-human. The colours inside his vessel will go grey; the voice of Mech will gradually become totally robotic. He will feel no anguish in that regard; he will not miss human contact.”
“And let us not forget the importance of this mission; if we are to advance our understanding of space-time-insertions, it is essential that it is undertaken. Also remember that he will only have lost four years of his normal life… if he returns,” added Black.
Blue still looked sad.
“And if he does return, what are the chances of him leading a normal life?”
“Every precaution possible has been taken; on his return, his craft will slowly be re-humanised – colours, smells, even the voice of Mech will prepare him to meet people once again.”
The Owl Committee sat in silence; they had done their best. They knew they had made the right decision.
Everyone thought that Nayr had been insanely brave to take on the mission and there had been a number of protests against the project going ahead in any form. People could not imagine how anyone could endure six years of solitary isolation with such a high risk of death. Nayr smiled: he alone knew the truth.
He had misled the ‘expert committees’ on many of the tests so as to present himself as the perfect candidate. Only he knew how much he wanted to leave the planet he truly detested; a planet so overflowing with selfishness, hatred, greed and atrocity that he would have preferred to leave for 100 years. Then, maybe, he would have come back to something better. But here he was, returning alive, and having cheated death he must now face Earth reality once more.
As the mission was coming to an end, he became increasingly apprehensive day-by-day as the environment inside “The Wedge” changed and became more humanized. He had no ideas, no plan, no hope; just a blank sheet of paper and a pen that might not even work.
The crowds cheered and there were banners welcoming him home; he was truly the returning hero. The interviews for the media were very well orchestrated and kept short, but the whole world could see that this was an altered human; his face showed no expressions, and his voice was mechanical and dull rather like the voice of his only travelling companion – Mech! His eyes had no sparkle and even his gait was robotic. In spite of the immense gratitude and admiration that they all felt, this was a difficult man to truly like or relate to.
After the interviews, he was taken to a quiet annex where he sat alone in silence.
Eventually, the door opened and in walked a figure in a medical uniform:
“My name is Lesley; I am a psychologist. I will be helping you to re-acclimatise to life on earth.”
Nayr stared nonplussed.
“I will be available every moment of night and day to help you. Tonight we will be taken to a place in the countryside which is very quiet. The skies are clear and you will be able to see the stars.”
He watched the figure move towards him, detached, unmoved and with no curiosity.
“Will you come with me please, Nayr.”
Nayr followed like the automaton he was; he had no other agenda.
In the back of the transport vehicle, the psychologist’s eyes were riveted on Nayr’s face as he looked out of the window. Nayr had been, at first, slightly disturbed and then irritated by the novel complexities as he looked through the window. Finally, in frustration, he drew down the blind.
“Are you feeling well?” asked the psychologist.
After a long pause, he answered. “I think I might be …. hungry?”
During all those years hurtling through the cosmos, there had been no such thing as hunger. Food was given at precise intervals; this was a new sensation for Nayr.
“Of course, of course,” said Lesley with some embarrassment, and pressing a switch instructed the driver to stop the vehicle at the next available eating place.
“We will stop somewhere very shortly.”
“Wait here, and I will go and get us some food,” said Lesley, apologising that there was nowhere rather more private.
Several people came and stared, recognising him from his pictures and some from his interviews, but Nayr just stared blankly into space.
Lesley returned with a tray, full of assorted food and Nayr began to eat.
“What is this food?” he asked.
“This is chicken, grilled; it is the speciality here.”
“You mean it is the flesh of another creature?” queried Nayr with a tremble in his voice.
Nayr pushed the plate away with some agitation.
“I cannot eat a fellow Earth-creature; we share this Earth together… it would be wrong.”
The psychologist quickly disappeared and returned with a tray of fruit. Nayr ate very slowly and with great curiosity: there was never any time pressure in The Wedge.
“This food is beautiful – so beautiful. On my journey, there was none like this. Why would anyone kill fellow creatures when there is such food?”
“Thank you, Nayr, for telling me this; please tell me all your thoughts. I will always be nearby, and it will help us to understand you if you speak more.”
In the peace of the countryside, Nayr did not feel so overwhelmed and each day he seemed more and more at ease and able to express his thoughts. He had an immense knowledge of the Scientific World, having spent so many hours engaged in ‘voluntary education’ on The Wedge, but was continually surprised by the smallest of everyday things. He would often become transfixed for many minutes looking at something quite commonplace.
“What are you staring at, Nayr?”
“It is the green of the grass and the leaves,” he replied, finally lifting his head and looking into the professional’s eyes, “In space, there is no green, yet it is the miracle of chlorophyll green which allowed life on earth to continue… it is so beautiful,” he added with a genuine awe in his voice.
They sat together by a stream and again Nayr seemed a million miles away, entranced by the running water and the sound he had not heard for so many years. He dipped his hand into the water and pulled out a black beetle.
“This is one of the Coleoptera; their front wings are hardened into a protective shell that shields their abdomens and their rear wings; they are so successful that there are probably a million or more species of beetles… but most of all they are beautiful. I feel privileged to hold this child of evolution in my own hand.” He gently returned the creature to the water; he seemed totally oblivious to the garbage and junk which had been dumped in the stream.
“What would you have me speak about, Lesley?” he asked, remembering the request.
There was a pause: “My assignment is to understand you and to help you to adjust to life here; but the way you describe things helps me see the world in a new and beautiful way. What I don’t understand, however, is with your love of all that is earthly, why did you leave to go on such a distant mission?”
Nayr paused and gave a wry smile.
“The prospect of death did not bother me, and if it were not I that went, then it would be some other. Before I left, Earth had no charms for me and I truly loathed what humans had done to the planet and to each other. Though I had not lost a friend or family member through violence, so many people had, and I cared about each and every one of them too!”
They followed the stream as it descended down a small hill and into a lake.
“And now?” asked Lesley.
He thought for a moment.
“Now I know I was wrong; there is no evil, just blindness, silliness, and misunderstanding. The world is so beautiful I am humbled by its wonders. Now I see the world through new eyes; I studied and learned so much whilst on my mission, yet only now can I truly appreciate it in all its glory.”
The lake stretched out before them and Nayr stared with curiosity at it.
“I wonder if I can still swim?” he said, walking towards the water. He jumped in and was soon swimming in the cold water and shouted through chattering teeth, “I remember, Lesley I remember how to swim! Come and join me!”
“Water is so beautiful,” he said later, “Our Earth is the planet of beautiful water.”
“Let me help; you must be frozen!” said Lesley in alarm.
Nayr laughed:
“It was my choice to share my body with the lake, not the fault of the lake: I rejoice in sharing its coldness!” He seemed elated by the experience.
Each day, Nayr made new rediscoveries; each day he thrilled in some new small miracle of nature from the greenness of grass to the perfume of a flower. Each day, Lesley learned to see the beautiful world through the eyes of the stranger. Gradually, Nayr learned to speak more freely and spoke of all his reasons for volunteering for the mission. But now things were completely changed; now he could truly love every blade of grass, every leaf and every petal…his absence had opened his eyes.
“How long will you stay with me?” he asked.
“I am commissioned to stay with you for three months, but I will stay with you for as long as you need me.”
“What if I needed you indefinitely?” he added with a slight choke in his voice.
It was now night and the sky was clear and the full moon shone upon the lake.
“I have seen the stars from my craft, but here these are the most beautiful,” he said. There was wonder in his voice. “Every man who has ever lived has looked upwards and seen this order of the heavens.”
“May I hold you?” he asked.
They moved closer.
“I feel so very close to you; you are very beautiful” he said flatly.
The therapist laughed in disbelief:
“But Nyar, you find everything so full of beauty and wonder: you love everything!”
“Yes and I do love you too.” He paused for a moment and then continued:
“I have read many stories of Love while on my journey and I believe that I truly love you.”
“But, Nayr, you love everything and everybody.” The two moved together and gently held each other.
“I wasn’t sure from studying your notes if you preferred men or women,” Lesley continued.
Nyar looked puzzled and thought for a long time:
“If a human is truly beautiful there is no difference; the joy is to be close to the person you see in their true entity,” he finally explained.
In the moonlight Lesley could see their reflection on the surface of the lake as they sat together holdings hands. Somehow forgetting age, the thinning hair and the old and wrinkled skin, the old aching joints ceased their pains as the therapist dared for just a few minutes to see themself through the client’s eyes. How the therapist had missed contact with clients in retirement – those moments when which they received far more than they gave. Is that why one had volunteered to help Nyar and give up some of the last precious months of life to help someone in great need.
And though fully clothed the two sat in naked innocence under the timeless skies.

Bernard Shevlin
Notes for the Nerd Readers:
1. “The Wedge”. This was the name given to the space craft because of its shape – perfect for the speed excesses of the mission.
2. “The Owl Committee”. So-called because of their being selected for their wisdom, but also because they often worked late into the night on urgent decision-making. These were elite decision-makers who preserved their anonymity by having colours instead of names.
This story was written to help a patient.