Science Fiction Romance interstellar travel


By James Van Pelt
Jul 5, 2019 · 3,739 words · 14 minutes

Lovely hands

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash.

From the author: "There's no beauty on a starship" claims a Custodian on the Starship Resurrection. Too little room on board, too much metal and sterile surfaces, but she has a job to do and a crew to care for, and maybe, just maybe a glimpse of the divine is still possible when least expected.

There is no beauty in a starship.  Nothing obvious, anyway.  A cold efficacy in the numbers, certainly.  An aesthetic satisfaction in the way the hull rounds our lives, the curved corridors, the rhythm in waking, working, then sleeping again, the long cryonic near-death.  But no beauty.  Out the ports, frosted emptiness.  Twelve-hundred years of interstellar erosion scars the view.  Not a star visible.  Not even perfect blackness.  All we have is the half-million-ton ship filled with frozen genetic material, farming equipment and us, the Custodians, slumbering through the implacable distance, fleeing despair, pursuing a slim chance or none.  My own artistic attempts fail.  No comeliness motivates the creative temperament in the metal, sturdy shapes.

Not that there aren’t problems to solve.  It isn’t just engineering taking us to new worlds.  Trust the hardware, they said, and the software too, but not the peopleware.  Although we are awake for only two weeks every hundred years, when we reach Zeta Riticula after 4,000 years we will have lived over a year and a half.  We were picked partially for good genes, long lives and patience, for our willingness to wait, but it would be unreasonable to expect there wouldn’t be disagreement, grudges, relationships.  So there are protocols for law enforcement, for therapy, for on-board marriages even.  Everyone has certification beyond their specialty.  We have doctors, counselors, a pastor, and me, a keeper of the peace.  You can’t go to the stars without people.  What would be the point?  But I don’t like it.

What the engineers didn’t plan on were William and MaryJo.

Their romance must have festered long before I noticed.  After six months aboard The Resurrection, lived in two week snatches, MaryJo developed cryogenic phobia.  Some do.  It should be no different from sleeping and waking, but you know you’re lying in a chamber filled with cooled gasses, and your body is corpse still.  No test can detect a life’s thread, while the finest balancing act biotechnology provides keeps you teetering above the abyss.  It hurts too.  Before you lose consciousness, the cold pierces, and when you wake . . . well . . . it’s like razored ice everywhere.  For a second, you feel it.  Then it’s gone.  Tolerable discomfort.  It’s efficient.  A small price to pay for interstellar distance.

Occasionally, Custodians can’t take it.  They refuse to enter the pods.  Nobody can make them.  It’s sad.  Peopleware.  As far as the other sleepers are concerned, it’s suicide.  For the phobic, they lead a full life--as full as wandering around the Resurrection can be--alone, greeting each crew as they wake for their custodial duties, pursuing whatever studies or hobbies intrigue them, until they meet us again, if they live, a hundred years later.  Our bios are good, and we’re long-lived anyway–we’ve progressed from the traditional three score and ten--but a hundred-and-twenty-five years is pretty much the limit.  No one makes it through two cycles.

William, a tall, olive-skinned physical-fitness buff rushed by me.  He was stripped to the waist–-clothing is optional on board–-a scowl in his eyes.  I’m the peacekeeper, so I dropped the ion engine reports and followed him down the corridor.  The living area is small.  Fifty crew members work on top each other, so disagreement is inevitable.  It’s a long trip any way you look at it, even when you skip fifty-two-hundred weeks for every two you are awake.  As far as we were concerned, we’d spent six months in confinement, and there were twelve to go.  Psychological testing can give us the most compatible crew in the world, but human nature is human nature.  Someone is going to blow sometime.

I passed other Custodians, some sitting at their stations, checking repair records, fine tuning the Resurrection.  Hardly any human artifact lasts 4,000 years.  The ship would be built and rebuilt dozens of times before we arrived to colonize the new star system.  The hull had to be recoated; the automated routines checked and reestablished; the few moving parts replaced; the computers themselves, eventually, needed a complete overhaul.  For us the trip so far had been six months, but the ship had been moving forward for over 1,200 years.  One old ship, a quarter-million fertilized ova, and four fifty-member crews, one of whom woke every twenty-five years.  Quadruple redundancy.  Four sets of workstations.  Four sets of living quarters.  If we had to, we could all be awake at the same time.  Colonial equipment filled the holds, while the amazing computers did most the work, striving toward a distant star.

William lost me at a split in the corridor.  I don’t think he knew I was following, but he strode forward so angry that people moved out of his way, and they all stopped me.  “What’s going on with William?”  “Do you think you should say something?”

“I don’t know.  Let me get to him, and I’ll tell you.”  I went a few steps up one path before realizing it would take me to cryogenics.  Unlikely he’d be going there.  Nothing but chilled crew members and our long-sleep pods.  The other passage led to the gym and dining room.  If he was searching for someone–and he looked like a man on a mission–that’s where he’d go.  That’s where she’d be, waiting for him, ready to give him the news.

I’d known three cycles ago she was refusing cryonics, just as I knew about their relationship a month out (our time).  The fitness profiles go by my station.  They exercised in the gym together.  I’d passed them holding hands, his dark complexion a pleasant contrast to her china-pale skin.  I’d come upon them in a junction in a corridor, William half-bent at the waist, Maryjo on her toes, their lips just touching.  I should have seen the emotional explosion ahead.

When I got to the cafeteria, he’d found her.  They sat across from each other at a narrow table, foreheads together, staring at their clasped fists between them.  I leaned against a wall, arms crossed, watching.  He could do anything, anything at all, but I knew what he wouldn’t do–he wouldn’t join her.  He was a fanatic.  Zeta Riticula or bust for him.  It was in his profile.  He would choose to see the trip to the end, to be a part of the settlement.  He had the lowest predicted bailout numbers in the crew.  William would row the Resurrection there if he had to.

So I watched them, cool metal against my back.  I smelled vegetable soup.  Coffee.  An outside crew sat at the room’s other end, getting ready to go out.  Eating big.  They’d spend a ten-hour shift checking hull plate, supervising maintenance bots, spreading nanonite paint that burrowed into the ship’s skin, remaking it.  They ignored the couple.

I keyed my wristcom, arranged to cover their work.  William cried.  Tears glistened on his cheeks.  Maryjo whispered, dropped her head so her hair covered her face.  What was she telling him?  There was nothing to say.  She’d refused the pod.  William would go to sleep, and when he awoke, she’d be ancient or dead.  I stepped closer.

“It’s not my fault,” she said.  Where’s the fault?  The ship would move on without her, but she would move on without William.

“You have to go,” he said.  His hands shook, holding hers.  His elbows bore down on the table; his knuckles turned white, gripping her, and she grimaced but didn’t pull away.  The crew at the other end left.  Maybe they knew what was going on too.  Maryjo was saying goodbye to us.  She was dead in a way already.  Tomorrow we slept in the pods.  The day after that the Maryjo we knew would be gone.  Maybe she’d write us novels as a phobic several cycles ago did.  Fifty-four books before he died while we dreamed slow dreams.  I read a couple.  Not bad, considering.  Maybe she’d paint–we had supplies for it–I dabbled in my rec time, a landscape or two.  Of course, she might wander alone through the ship for a year, then climb into a pod to join us, a year older, a little wiser.  No phobic had done that so far.  No vision of their future motivated them strongly enough to sleep again.

I saw reason for hope, but William didn’t.  He looked into her eyes as if searching for the answer.  What he saw offered no compromise.  She was staying.

“I can’t,” she said, but William already knew.  His shoulders collapsed.  All emotion drained from him, the anger, the passion.  It leaked away.  He kissed her hands between his own.  I knew I could go back to my station.  There was no need for me here, and I had more figures to check.  The engines had to stay steady in their work, processing air, keeping us warm throwing us outward faster and faster.  Our distance to go was indescribable–it would take 4,000 years–but it could take 40,000 if we didn’t slowly accelerate every day until the turnaround point.  The engines had to work.  The people didn’t.  We’d get there if the people didn’t mess it up.

At my station I finalized the ion thruster numbers.  They were good–the engines were good.  Techs had gone over them inch by inch.  Another twenty-five years of steady thrust until the next crew woke up to check them again.  I knew the numbers were fine, just as they’d been fine a week ago, but I had a job to do.  What saves us is efficiency.  Work keeps our minds off the pods, off the hundreds of years we’d already traveled and the thousands we had left.  I studied my cubical.  On the walls I’d stuck postcards from Earth: Monterey Bay’s south beach; a Dogwood tree in the spring, a waterfall tumbling behind it; a sunset in the Tyrolean Alps.  By my desk light they generated no magic.  I stared at the Alps for a long time, willing them to come alive for a second, but they didn’t.  No beauty, as I said, in a starship.  Even lovely pictures offer no transcendent moments.  I didn’t go to bed that night.  For the next hundred years, I’d sleep, and that seemed enough.

I didn’t see the final goodbyes.  Maryjo didn’t come to the closing.  The technicians helped me into position.  When we were secure, they’d help each other into their pods.  The last one would climb in by himself.  It was doable–going to sleep without help–but it was easier with aid.  There were sensors to attach, adjustments to be made.  William climbed in five pods down from mine, a fragile neutrality in his face.  He didn’t talk as they hooked him up.  Was he waiting for her to come?  How did they spend their last night together?  During my melancholy the night before, I hadn’t checked.  I told myself it didn’t matter to me.  The crisis had passed in the cafeteria.  Besides, numbers had to be refined and verified.  My counterpart on the next crew twenty-five years from now had to have clear figures to work from. 

I shut my eyes when the lid came down.  I’m not cryophobic, but it’s hard in those last minutes.  The imagination does its wondrous job.  A hundred years!  Disaster could happen.  The ship could fail.  Equipment could seize up.  A thousand tiny things could kill me in my sleep.   And what was the difference between this and death?  I remembered what I always remembered just before I went to sleep: when I woke up the last time it was to a lingering memory that I’d been dreaming for the whole hundred years, and the dream had been a nightmare.

I followed William again after we awoke.  He shook the sensors off his arms.  Slapped them to the ground.  This would be the other rough time.  A minute ago he’d shut his eyes and Maryjo was a young woman, his love.  They’d held hands and he’d kissed her.  The skin had been smooth, as his was now, and their hearts had beat in heady rhythm.  A minute ago for him, but most her life would have passed if she hadn’t bested the phobia, if she still lived.

He wouldn’t lose me this time.  I hustled after.  He was blind to my presence.  To the cafeteria.  It was empty.  To the gym.  No sign.  To her workstation.  Nothing.  He grew more frantic.  Pushed by me without seeing.  Past the gardens.  Through the infirmary, through the labs, through the rec room. There wasn’t much ship to search.  I followed into the living quarters.  At her apartment, he paused.  She could be dead within.  Maybe dead for years.  I touched his arm, and he jumped.  He genuinely didn’t know I had been there.  He took a shaky breath, then opened her door. 

I entered behind him, and we stood silent for a moment. 

“Why don’t you check the records?”

He sat on the edge of her empty bed, reached across the bare desk, and turned on her station.  I was glad to see it come to life–there’s always the suspicion it won’t.

“She’s not dead,” he said.  The screen flashed results.  “She’s in my room.”

Seconds later, he held her.  Maryjo had grown small in the years, and her hair had thinned, losing all color.  Her eyes were rheumy, her knuckles huge and arthritic, but she rose from the bed when the door opened.  She met him in the middle.  William murmured in her ear, and she squeezed him back.  Her arms shook as they held him.  No wonder; she was one-hundred and twenty-four years old.

“I should have stayed with you,” he said.

Her voice had vigor, even if her body had thinned away.  “I couldn’t go to the pod then.  When I changed my mind, I was old, and you were. . . .”  She traced a finger along his firm, unwrinkled cheek.

And they both were crying.

Finally, she said, “I missed you.”

William gathered her like a child, sat on his bed.  “I missed you too.”

And I thought about the hundred years of dreams I couldn’t remember.  What had William dreamed in his time?  Could he bring the images up?  Was there regret even in sleep?

I left them.  Walked the long corridor to my station.  I’d forgotten to store the postcards, and the other crews had left them up.  The color had faded.  All that remained of the Alps was a yellowed shape provoking no memory.  I leaned with one hand against a bulkhead staring at it.  No reason to be upset, really, the cards had lasted 1,300 years.  I sat, called up the figures.  Did my job.  Efficiency is the key word. Being busy keeps one sane.  Progress reports distracted me and repair programs and the notes from the other engineers.  At first I worked my work, and I tried not to think about William and Maryjo.

The reports crossed my station anyway.  William abandoned his station.  He spent every waking hour with Maryjo.  I’d glance at the monitors and see them sitting in the cafeteria, heads bent in conversation, his fingers resting on her wrist.  Sometimes it was if there was no age difference.  She’d speak to him, then pause, waiting for his reaction, just as she had a hundred years earlier.  If it weren’t for their differences, I’d say they were young lovers.  They remade themselves in the first week.  In the second week the tenor of their talks changed.  He became more vehement.  I didn’t eavesdrop.  I could have.  My job allows me.  But they were no danger to the ship or anyone else.  He must be saying goodbye again, I guessed.  She wouldn’t live to see the next crew awake.  Her days were running out.  William must have seen this time as a second life for them.  She had changed on the outside, but her spirit remained.

The monitors showed all.  I didn’t want to see, but I had to.  I tried to stay away.  Painted instead.  My station displayed the Alps, Monterey Bay, Dogwood trees with waterfalls running to mist behind them.  But my paintings remained flat.  The ship offered no relief.  Not one beautiful image.  They should have known, on Earth that is, I would not be happy in the ship.  Eighteen months without a mountain to climb or a stream to fish in.  Maybe that’s why they chose me: they knew I would always return to the pod.  The idea of growing old in this falling barrel, this sterile cage, sickened me.  If I could keep taking the long sleep, I would again walk on land, a sky above me and not a ceiling.  Zeta Riticula held the promise.

Two days before the shift ended, I asked the medic what he’d learned about Maryjo’s health.  He said, “She’s remarkably strong.  If she takes care of herself, she might go another ten years.  There are precedents.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t think she will, though.  I get the impression that all that kept her going was to see William again.  When he goes off shift . . .”  He shrugged.

Taking a late dinner, I sat next to them in the cafeteria.  William raised his chin when I came in, but didn’t speak to me.  Maryjo hunched in the seat next to him.  Their dinner plates were untouched.  It was if I’d interrupted a long dialogue.  For a moment I considered leaving, but there was no point.  Whose feelings would I be protecting?

They turned toward each other, eventually, and resumed their talk.  Their voices murmured, mostly William’s.  It rose and fell like a distant soloist, his words indecipherable, but the tone relentlessly intense, pleading.  From the corner of my eye, I watched.  He gripped her arm, moved his head close, talking, always talking.  He reached some crescendo, his words broke into coherence.  “I only want to be with you,” he said, then stopped.  For so long it had rumbled on, I paused in mid bite.  The silence in the cafeteria rang.  Then, she nodded to him.  She agreed.  To what, I didn’t know, but I was there at the end of their long debate, and whatever it was, he won.

William sat back, stretched.  He faced me and smiled.  I smiled back, wondering what sad mini-drama I’d missed.

With just a day left, I began a new painting.  Fruitless, really.  I didn’t call an image from the vaults; I composed from memory, but there wasn’t time.  Like all art, the idea fled before me, eluded my brushes, seeped away from the canvas.  Beauty’s memory existed, but memory is not enough–we need these wells renewed, and without them the hunger for unutterable moments eats away at us.  I yearned for more.  My painting wouldn’t hold it.  It was just colorful dabs, as all art is–dabs of reminiscence.  Interesting in some ways on its own, the soul’s shadow in a weak, echoey reflection, but not enough.  We need renewal.  I found nothing in the corridors, nothing in the Custodians’ pale, preoccupied faces.

On the last hour, the paints were put away.  My station tidied once again.  My perishables were stored for their hundred-year wait.  I rested on my bed frame, my hands on the solid metal anchored in the ship’s walls and imagined the engines, hum through my hands, or Custodians’ footfalls shaking the ship, but there was silence.  The engines don’t hum–no devices move within them but the super-accelerated particles pushing the Resurrection to slowly greater and greater speed, and even when you stand next to the reactors, there’s no sound. 

When the signal came to repod, I trod toward the sleep bay.  I arrived late so I wouldn’t have to see William and Maryjo’s parting.  Hopefully, he would be asleep already.  But when I got there, William wasn’t there.  Maryjo was.  The technician patted her hand as he fastened the last sensor.  She smiled up at him, a warm, old face.

I didn’t have time to ask.  I was late, and the technicians wanted to get me ready so they could sleep themselves.  As I was fastened in, finally, I said, “Where is William?  Why is Maryjo in a pod?”

The tech shrugged.  “I don’t know the whole story.  William refused.  Maryjo requested a spot.”  He leaned in close, “She’s very, very old.  She might not be able to take the stress, but she has a right.”  He lifted my arm, rolled me a little to the side so he could fasten a sensor to my ribs.  “It’ll be an interesting experiment.”

The pod shell came down, cutting off the light.  As the rising cold swept over me, I wondered what it meant, and then, for an instant, all was pain.

William lived too.  When I awoke, he was waiting by Maryjo’s pod, a hunched and withered man.  No juice left in him.  A technician checked her pod’s readout, entered commands on the touchpad, then stood back.  The pod’s grey hood rose.  William leaned over the edge.  For a long time he stood in the pose.  I couldn’t see into her pod, and I wasn’t unfastened yet.  Then a hand appeared from within, fell on William’s hand, and he held it. 

The two weeks passed quickly.  Half the engines were due to be pulled and refurbished.  Careful calculations had to be made.  All the ship’s structural elements needed reassessment.  I almost didn’t see William and Maryjo until the shift had ended.  I was walking from the gym to my station.  For once there was too much to do–I’d hardly had a moment to think about my postcards, about the painting.  So my figures and schedules filled my head.  For once I barely noticed the artless, grey metal in the hallways, the harried Custodians too busy to talk.  I had to work.

Then I turned a corner, and there they were, William and Maryjo.  They faced each other, he still a head taller, she looking up.  William lowered himself–she rose on her toes–and they kissed.

She said, “We have so little time together.”

I froze.  I couldn’t go on.

He looked at me, just for a second, then pulled her close.  “No,” he said.  “We have the rest of our lives, all of it.”  And they tottered away, their arms around each other.

When I went to the pod the next day, I knew, I knew what I must paint when I awoke, and it would be beautiful.

This story originally appeared in Analog.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."