Hiraeth: Tragedy in Four Acts16 min read

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Originally published in Reach for Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris, 2014)

“I fell,” said the cyborg, and for a moment his audience stood astounded, waiting for the larger speech, the longer explanation. None came. “I fell,” he said once, and spoke no further.

“Did you not plan—?” A voice interrupted the heavy silence, courageous with curiosity. “Did you not mean to do this?”

“I wandered,” the cyborg said. “I rambled and things happened and here I am.”

The audience murmured, baffled but not dismayed. They would find sense in this yet.

With some effort, the cyborg thought to the days of his own curiosity and thirst for the new and undiscovered. He looked at the seeking expressions of his audience and tried to be helpful. “I was born on the Moon. That was where it began.”

They brightened, as if a general sigh of relief had lifted chins, puffed out chests and raised the level of oxygen in the chamber. He smiled to see them happier and strove to continue the effect. “That was how it began. I was of the first generation born on the Moon. And I fell.”


“How do you manage, how does anyone manage to fall hard enough to hurt themselves on the Moon?” his father nagged. His mother said nothing, but the tight press of her lips showed she was slightly nauseated. Both parents had been out on a research mission when he fell and failed to avoid certain unfortunately-placed shards of plastic, and now the damage had been done in more ways than one.

The doctor tried to speak reassuring words, but impatience made his voice provokingly supercilious. “Janik will recover fully. Visual implants are a very wise choice at his age. He can upgrade the components as he gets older, and then settle on a permanent replacement when he is an adult.”

“Why not let his own regenerated eyes be the permanent replacement.” his father accused.

The doctor shrugged. “There have been complications with regeneration at lunar gravity. You were both absent, so I was left to take responsibility. I believe I made the best medical decision.”

Janik’s mother gazed sadly at him. He had not yet looked in a mirror, but he knew what cyborg eyes were like—grey, alien and cold. She was looking at him as if he had become a changeling.

“We could go back to Earth. They don’t have any complications with regeneration, do they?”

The doctor took the trouble to give an empathic blink of his own mech-grey eyes and pitched his tone to something softer and kinder. “There are other complications on Earth, as you know.”

Lunar gravity might keep falling objects from smashing in a satisfying fashion, but it did not prevent the smash of objects swung sideways into a wall. Janik’s father destroyed one of the lamps on the doctor’s desk and was about to reach for the second when the doctor unfroze from his paralysis of disbelieving horror and seized his arm in a gentle but implacable grip. His fury disintegrated into choked, desolate sobs.

Janik’s mother was mortified. “Please forgive him. It’s the hiraeth. It’s getting worse.”

“Of course,” murmured the doctor, his sympathy now completely unfeigned. “I’ll administer a tranquilliser.”

Janik was too young to understand what this all meant, but in later years when he replayed the data in the long-memory of his eyes, things became much clearer.


There were three stages of hiraeth, each named for the location of greatest prevalence. It was no coincidence that hardship correlated with severity, but without a definite cause, guessing and superstition overtook logic and rational thought.

Lunar delusion was the least severe. Colonists lasted fifteen to twenty years before symptoms became noticeable. Some theorised that the visual reassurance of Earthrise, and its promise of proximity, delayed full onset of the syndrome. Others were more pragmatic, pointing out that the lunar colonies were the best-designed in the system with colonists who had developed a range of societal and personal adaptations to uniquely lunar hardships. Martian madness had an earlier onset, perhaps seven years or so, but could be put off for as long as ten years by living in the underground habitats that mimicked Earth.

Janik had the opportunity to personally observe the long melancholy and sudden manias of lunar delusion. His parents separated. His father returned to Earth, disappearing years later in the confusion of the Food Wars of America Minor. His mother eventually suffered from a milder version of the condition, but took care not to skip her encephalic adjustments and so would survive quite peaceably, if not lucidly, into her twelfth decade. Perhaps these experiences influenced him to avoid Mars as simply another version of the Moon, with the potential for the same pitfalls. Or perhaps it made him reckless and determined to seize his own brand of insanity before the universe could force it on him. Whatever the reasons, he upgraded his eyes, enhanced his limbs with a range of organic bionics, and applied to work off the debt for all his augmentation in the Rare Earth Division of CyborgAssist.

The universe, however, would not be denied. Miner’s folie, a condition common to the asteroid belt, was harder to diagnose and more of a challenge to analyse. Should one blame mere distance, or the attempt to make a home in the extreme and unplanetary environment of a floating rock? Was it the innate instability of the risk-taking brain that brought entrepreneurs and adventurers to the asteroid pits and mines? Were both internal and external causes at play? The miner colonies were too small, too scattered and too poorly documented to offer any solid answers. Janik watched, recorded and replayed, once more looking for clarity but initially finding none.

When the miner’s version of hiraeth finally seized him, he spent a week oscillating between debilitating panic and euphoric destructiveness. Both states sent adrenaline rushing through his body and brain; the difference lay only in the sound of the scream, from the discontented moan to the heart-piercing shriek. His workmates strapped him down under a bubble of armoured glass, sun-side on bare ground, so that he felt pressed between the weight of lens-sharpened light and the burden of alien rock. The crude exposure worked for a while, but by his second relapse, his superiors were worried enough to give an ultimatum. Either leave the Belt and go home (to the uncertainties of Earth politics, to the dwindling will and population of the Moon—which was home?) or submit to an experimental brain implant that would monitor and regulate his mental equilibrium.

He chose the latter.

When he went to the medical centre for a consultation before the implant operation, he had a pleasant shock.


He could not even remember the man’s name, but he felt a recognition so strong it was almost like seeing family, like encountering some rarely-seen, distant cousin. It was a trivial bond made more precious by the pangs of hiraeth.

The doctor offered no name, but merely stared at him with that intensity that Janik had used himself when tracking the visual files in his memory. “Yes. Got it. The boy whose eyes I replaced when I was working on the Moon. I see you’ve stayed cyborg?”

“Yes,” Janik replied briefly, his enthusiasm checked by the doctor’s coolness.

“Good choice, good choice,” the doctor said, nodding gravely. Janik noted with a glance the grey eyes of old, and the new additions—breastplate extending into an arm augmentation, partial skull plate with ear transplant, and goodness knew what else might be lying beneath the skin that moved and shone with slippery, non-organic ease.

“I have made hiraeth my speciality,” the doctor explained, “and I have become more and more convinced that the only remedy is through the augmentation and modification of the human body.”

Janik was distracted from his personal issues. “How so?”

The doctor’s certainty faltered. He waved his hand in a manner that might have been apologetic or even self-deprecating. “There is so much superstition attached to the syndrome, but why not, when it is such a creation of the mind? The less human we believe ourselves to be, the less we yearn towards a vision of a perfected Earth. Cyborgs have shown themselves to be the most resistant to hiraeth’s effects.”

Janik was reminded, with some shame, of his own shortcomings. The doctor saw and tried to be kind. “You must not be so hard on yourself. You lasted six years in the Belt without contracting the folie, well within the statistical range for cyborgs with your level of augmentation. But if you hope to last longer, the only solution is to expand and upgrade your cerebral implants.”

“I’ve dodged the brain stuff,” Janik admitted. “It’s a chancy fix, and I don’t want to be like some of my workmates, dragging on with obsolete mech because they’re too poor or too scared to get an upgrade.”

“Oh, there’s no worry where this implant is concerned. It’s a new approach; the template is adaptable without need for surgical intrusion. We only have to change the command insert and the implant grows or dies off as required.”

“Sounds human—even better than human,” Janik laughed.

The doctor’s face brightened. “Yes, yes! You understand perfectly! So you give your consent?”

A little thrill of fear fluttered in the pit of his stomach, but Janik shivered and shook it off. “Of course!”


The operation went smoothly. Recovery time took only a day and within the week Janik was eager to return to work.

“Patience,” the doctor advised. “What you feel now is merely the excitement of a new augmentation. It will soon wear off and the hiraeth will take over once more. Only later, when the implant begins to extend and self-calibrate, will you truly begin to feel the cure.”

Janik obediently returned to his isolation bubble and waited for the hiraeth. When it came, with all attendant palpitations, perspirations, alarums and excursions, curiosity kept a part of his mind sufficiently free to observe as the implant started its work. It was like watching a master builder construct a high, thick wall that curved around to make an enclosure, then arched over and under to make a sphere, and within the sphere, made quiet at last, was all the yearning, screaming hollowness of hiraeth.

Naturally, he was incredibly happy, but not as happy as the doctor. “Isn’t this amazing?” he all but sang as he pointed out to Janik the mysteries of several medical scans arrayed on a luminous wall. “Do you see how the filaments have rooted with no rejection whatsoever?”

Janik smiled uncertainly at the images flitting past the doctor’s fingers. There was only one thing he understood, and he clung to it. “Rejection?”

A mere moment’s pause, long enough for a fist to clench convulsively with enough force to make knuckles crack, and the doctor was answering. “A side effect of earlier versions of the implant. No need to worry: your lunar origins and your early exposure to cyborg augmentation greatly improved your tolerance for this procedure.”

Janik glanced at the still-clenched fist resting over the glow of the medical scans, and continued to look worried.

“I assure you, I am delighted with the results, so much so that I plan to replace my present skull implant with one identical to the model you are presently pioneering.”

Janik blinked. Of course.

“Yes,” the doctor murmured. “I have been fleeing hiraeth for many years now. I hope this will be the final step.”


The doctor moved on, travelling from asteroid to asteroid to other mining stations farther out in the Belt. In time, follow-up assessments were no longer needed and Janik gradually lost touch. There were plenty of other things to distract him. CyborgAssist became CyborgAdvance, and then simply CA. The Martian branch downsized in the wake of the failure of the Terraform Project, pulling all human and cyborg personnel and leaving only robots and remote systems to maintain a presence on the planet. Directives from the lunar headquarters arrived with increasing sluggishness, until at last news came that the lunar colony had also been declared a failure. Scientists still lived and worked on the Moon, but the days of true settlement and Moon-born children were over. The CA office on Vesta took over the mining stations, thus making CA the first truly autonomous extraterrestrial corporate entity in the solar system.

It was a landmark occasion. It was also the spur for a fresh surge of hiraeth.

Information about Earth was scarce. Extraterrestrial colonial dreams had been severely tempered, and most of the first wave pioneers had returned to face the task of salvaging their first (and now perhaps only) home. No-one knew whether they were succeeding, but the majority of the non-cyborg and minimally augmented humans quit CA and also fled to Earth, beaten at last by a quirk of psychology or spirit that no-one fully understood. Janik remained unaffected, a walking advertisement for brain augmentation. CA shrewdly upped the price for the implant, causing several of Janik’s workmates to be stuck in a debt extension that was unlikely to expire before they did.

Some of the lunar-born children, too young and too alien to be deterred by the first faint stirrings of hiraeth, went in the opposite direction—beyond the Belt. Janik began to hear tales about the moons of Jupiter, distant planetoids beyond Neptune, and roving space-stations with solar wings sailing in the vastness between the dwarf planets of the outer reaches. He encountered a few outbound pilots during his assignment with CA security. They always needed supplies and always had news to share, and CA policy was to be friendly as long as they were not trying to pilfer company resources.

Lee was not the first unaugmented traveller he had met, but she was the most aggressively so. Her second-in-command and sole travelling companion was pure robot and bore all the accessories that could have made her life easier: broad-spectrum vision, direct data access, communications add-ons—the works. She didn’t even have the smallest of brain implants, something which had become standard for all those seeking to delay or reduce hiraeth.

Janik asked why. She looked both embarrassed and defiant. “What’s the point of it if there isn’t a bit of hiraeth to fight against?”

Janik revised his view. Not merely an adventurer to the farthest distance, but an endurance enthusiast sprinting outwards as fast as she could before hiraeth stopped her, like a diver pushing to the limit of her lungs. He touched the smooth walls of the sealed pearl of hiraeth that his brain still kept, a habit that had started out of anxiety as he looked for cracks in the protection, but was now a soothing tic, like caressing a prayer bead.

“And then what?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“Back to Earth, perhaps?” he suggested. “What is it like there?”

He should not have asked. Everything in the Belt was under watch; his own eyes were complicit as his on-duty data was owned by CA and could be requisitioned as needed. The crooked smile she gave him told him she knew it well.

“So many stories from so many sources! Earth has fallen. Earth is recovering. Earth is in a new age, back from the brink of disaster and on the path to becoming a paradise. But then again, CA is bankrupt and obsolete. CA is the only surviving tech company. The CA cyborgs represent the last bastion of humanity in the solar system. It all depends on who you talk to, doesn’t it? You’re strange. I’ve never heard of a CA cyborg asking about Earth. Would you go back to Earth?”

Janik lowered his head. It disturbed him that the more augmentation-addicted his workmates became, the harder it was to hold a conversation with them that did not involve work and CA. It disturbed him even more that this was now common knowledge beyond the Belt. Fortunately his communicator buzzed and gave him reason to avoid replying. He excused himself and went to the neutral ground of the entrance hatch to take the routine communication.

The roster computer spoke as courteously as usual, but this time it sounded almost apologetic that the news was not good. “CA3546 Janik, report for transfer to Pit N75A within the next 172 kiloseconds.”

He froze. He was being sent to one of the most dangerous pits, located on a fragmenting asteroid with a hot core, and subject to unpredictable seismic activity. He protested.

“All cyborgs above level five are cleared for Pit N75A,” the soothing voice of the roster computer told him. “Resuscitation and reboot in case of demise will be provided free of charge.”

“I’m an early adopter level seven,” he tried to explain. “No chance of resuscitation. When I die, I die.”

The roster fell silent as it carried out a search on his personnel files. “Level seven early adoption is resuscitation compliant when CA-approved command inserts are employed—”

“I was the first,” he insisted, growing impatient. “There were no CA-approved command inserts back then. I use the prototype.”

Another pause, shorter than the first, then the roster said, “Please update using this cycle’s CA-approved level seven command insert and report for duty at Pit N75A within 172 kiloseconds of reboot. Cost of command insert is ¢@ 85,000 which will be deducted from your wages over the next 0.317 gigaseconds.”

Exasperated, he scanned the update files attached to the final communication, but what he saw made him pause. The most recent command insert depended on the changes made via a previous insert’s commands, which was in turn tied to an earlier update. Janik calculated that he would have to endure five cycles of updates totalling ¢@ 297,6700, which would shift his debt period from one decade to nearly four.

Caveat emptor, especially when buying from CA.

He hopped back into Lee’s control room. “Quick,” he said. “Can you take me with you? I can pay—proper minerals, not CA currency—and I can be useful.”

Lee considered swiftly, but from the mischief growing in her eyes and the smile that twitched up the corner of her mouth he could see that she had already decided. Lucky for him that he had piqued her interest, asking about Earth. “You’ll have to shut down so they can’t detect you.”

He thought about explaining again about his prototype implant and how it was distinct from the rest of CA, but time was short and he merely nodded.

“Go to cargo—you’ll find a life-support module there. Settle in.”

Janik did so, stopping just long enough to compose a time-delayed resignation note that would reach CA in approximately 0.317 gigaseconds, by which time he hoped to be far beyond any CA branch office or outpost on the outer fringes of the Belt. Then he sealed the cover and let the long sleep bury him and his pearl together.


Waking up was not what he expected.

There was a faint cheering in his ears. His eyes were open, but his sight was blurred. He was standing up, but leaning against a wall. His head felt too full. He had never experienced a hangover—no cyborg would, given their basic antitoxin functions—but he imagined it would feel like this: uncalibrated, out of focus, and off-balance.

“Congratulations!” The word was strangely pronounced and stilted, as if voiced by a bad translation programme, but the emotion was genuinely cheerful.

He fought his sluggish senses and tried to remember his own name. “What?” His lips moved; no sound came out.

“You are the first human to overcome hiraeth long enough to sail out of the solar system! That we know of! That we have been able to communicate with! Congratulations!”

Slowly he absorbed what was happening. He was still in the life support module, but gravity pulled at his feet, making him lean slightly against the lid. His sight was blurred because the light mist activated to raise the module’s humidity was mostly spraying into his face. His head felt full because … His consciousness blossomed, making him aware of the strangeness that was the inside of his skull. His implant had been … busy. He felt less like Sleeping Beauty and more like the thorny, overgrown wood. And where was his pearl?

The mist subsided, the air cleared. A small dip of motion outside the module caught his attention. It was a hovering sphere, about the size of a human head, made of some dark metal with irregular, illuminated chips pitting the surface. It looked like a hallucination.

“Oh,” it said in disappointment. “It’s only an old cyborg.”

It sounded like a hallucination too.

“No, it’s not,” it argued with itself. “See the readings? The implant’s still an overlay, not an integrant.”

He was scanning his own brain even as they spoke. The implant had run wild and was now twisted past pruning and partly tangled into the mechanism of the life support module. He went deeper … hoping, yearning. There was the hiraeth, kept safely alive and buzzing behind thinning walls.

Meanwhile, the sphere was speaking excitedly in a language he could not understand. He waited patiently for it to notice him again.

“We’re not sure that you’re human,” it said at last, “but whatever you are you’re more than just a cyborg and everyone should know about this!”

“The pilot. She’s human.” He guessed, but he needed confirmation.

“You are the only one alive on this ship,” the sphere said sadly.

He wondered what could have happened to Lee that she had not even tried to wake him. Perhaps the ship’s records had some information. He tried to access the central data system but was distracted by a strange noise. The sphere was giggling. “This is so exciting!”

In the blink of an eye, his view of the cargo area changed. A small group of spheres crowded above, spilling light which coalesced into various images, a patchwork that stitched together into an audience of human figures represented by half-sized holograms. None was cyborg as far as he could see, but some had robot familiars perched on shoulders or wrists. All faces were turned avidly to him. The central data system came online with a sudden burst of output, flooding his already taxed brain with names and titles and dates and places. He bit his lip against rising nausea and tried to organise the deluge, but only ended up feeling as groggy and uncoordinated as when he first woke.

“Have a little respect.” Two children, slender as lunar-born and dark as Earth-raised, stood beneath the original sphere and chided their elders. “Remember he’s human and needs time to adjust.”

The intrusion stopped suddenly and was replaced by a gentle probing.

“No,” someone countered. “He is a cyborg, but a very odd one. He still holds hiraeth within.”

Murmurs of interest and disbelief. “Impossible.” “Augmentation is a dead end for humanity.” “But imagine—a human cyborg with hiraeth? He could tesser farther and faster than any of us and always have a beacon to navigate home!”

“Hush,” said a voice reverently. “He is crying.”

Of course he was crying. The stress of waking, the burden of information, the shock of communicating with others after so long … it all came together in an incredible pressure that pushed at the thinnest part of the wall, cracked the containment, and let hiraeth leak through. His implant was overloading and his other augmentations were slowly beginning to malfunction.

He did not have much time.

The babble quieted and a sole voice took over. “Our apologies. We have so many questions, but perhaps we should let you speak. Tell us, how did you come to be such a unique cyborg?”

My name is Janik. I once had eyes that truly cried, not these imitations. I once feared hiraeth, then I grew to love it, and now it will kill me.

He began as best he could. “I fell.”

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