Technically, the return was a simple teleportation from one point in space to another; the immersion was the real challenge. I came back the same day our first astronaut went into space, and there was no fanfare or welcome back committee. Not that I would have expect any of my old friends, or relatives to be alive after so many years. Maybe my grand grandchildren are still alive… but I never tried to find them, a completely new life was waiting for me. I arrived in the railway station of a small, remote town. “There is too much technology around the planet, your own and the one of the watchers,” my friend from space told me. With no cries, my mind already acknowledged the reality from the moment they asked me to return, still a faint hinge of disappointment lingered inside. To be honest it was more a push than an ask, but in the end, I agreed with their estimation of a black future, without being sure what a sleeper cell like me could do to stop it. There was no one outside the train station building, and a howling wind was carrying my perfect cover – the desert dust – in big waves that shortened the visual range to less than two meters. I appeared from nowhere, in a way that was acceptable for both sides: the people who left me when my old Gate friend, Houston, closed the channel, and the people around the station, who acknowledged my ghostly apparition from a tourbillon of dust. A few minutes later, settled comfortably, inside the old building, I opened my purse, checking my documents, after scanning the folks around – they were already cleaned by a scouting team that was still in the railway station, but old habits die hard. The girl in my identity card was still a stranger to me, and the card too. There were no such cards when I left, no need to attach arid numbers to people. One, six, seven… I am not one-six-seven … I am… No, I am no longer that person. I still am… It looked a bit like my former me; maybe it would even trick some of my old friends, but not me. And of course, I had no friends still alive. They did not want to take any risk, and I had to agree, my former me was a well-known political figure. I am history, I laughed inside, a bitter angry laugh. You are Zina, the name on the card told me. From now on, this is my name: Zina Tiati. And this is my planet again. I just fooled myself; my ‘new’ planet had almost nothing in common with my ‘old’ planet. They just happened to share the same place in space and a common history, before they split apart.
Anger mounted inside me, pushing my reverie away, and with a jerky gesture I threw the hat away, on the floor of my room. Why are you punishing the hat? Who should I punish? Me? I took the hat and gently put it back on the wall, caressing the soft silk. It’s not your fault… But neither is mine.
The train comes in the railway station – with a delay that was already expected because of the great storm – and whistles, slowing down, pulling me out from my memories. Blurred by a grey hallo of smoke, it stops in the right place, a half visible, screeching, metallic snake. Its last long huff, resembling a human sigh, sets the lethargic people in a clepsydra’s sand type of motion: the crowd is strangled in the door and expands after passing through it. The odor of burned coal impregnates our nostrils, when the first passenger to be opens the door of the hall. I was not sleeping, just dreaming with large open eyes. Everything around has a dream like shape: a cloud of steam goes in the wind shaping the dust in a mist that is both solid and vapors. It irritates our lungs and eyes, and the people in the station speed up. They are not running, just pacing faster. In small towns, appearance matters, and they do not want to be seen running for the train: better coughing than losing face. My escort nods with relief, and I jump in the train with the eagerness of a real nineteen years old. Like my appearance… I smile with the detachment of a stranger who does not belong to the place, undaunted of what people would say, behind my ephemeral passage. The discreet nod of two descending people reminds me to behave properly, yet they were just signaling that the train is safe – no local hunters, and most special, no Travelers waiting for me. As in a game, I go in the train through the farthest door, from my place. This gives me the opportunity to memorize the many faces of all the people traveling in the wagon. Our team already checked them, but from now, I am on my own, and I need to know who is mounting at each stop. The train starts, and while sitting, I acknowledge Armin’s discreet farewell sign. It looks as if trying to stop his hat flying in the wind, and I answer with the innocent sign of cleaning my window from an inexistent dust that was stopping me to see the outside ghosts slowly disappearing in the mist, as the train gains speed. I am alone… Indeed, I am alone in way that never happened before. I know no one here…
For two days, I change several trains, running in a large circle, around the city that holds the university where I am going to learn things that I already know, at a level they only dream. Like a fox, I have to make my traces intersect, if the hunters are after me. In the long nights, I am able to steal some short periods of sleep between watches, in a decrepit hotel that has the advantage of being far from any other building. In the back, there is a cliff that no one can climb, and the unique access road is visible from my room. The wind blasts into the old window, and some dust is still floating around, two hundred miles from the desert. With the morning, I take the next train – the last one.
Walking slowly, I try to recognize the architecture of the old buildings. It looks like… “Are you new here?” The voice is a bit amused, and turning, I see three young boys pretending not took look too obviously at me. They are not boys… They are older than you. I wish… Then they are older than Zina. I chose a green dress for that day; it was something new to me to go to the university, as new as riding the first train. But I have no hat… Hats are old fashioned, and I have to look like a modern teenager student. I nod leisurely, in a mute answer, as if barely noticing them, and walk further at a slower pace. Now, let’s see what is in your minds. They choose not to bother me further.
“We don’t have many girls looking for electronics. The secretary’s eyes are still deep in my papers when talking to me. What’s wrong with electronics? I have more knowledge than all the teachers together. Better keep this hidden. He is a thin, white haired man, having a dull, bureaucratic face, an old, bored man waiting for his retirement.
“How many are they?”
“Only one. You. Ladies should look for easier courses.”
You should look for retirement. “Do you…” I try to make him feel bad. He interrupts me with a sign of his hand. You are used to this…
“Electronic is not for girls. I don’t know how the dean signed your admission.” Neither does he, I smile inside.
With a sigh, I close my new session of old memories, going to sleep.