Science Fiction space travel nuclear war epic

The Long Way Home

By James Van Pelt
May 21, 2020 · 5,895 words · 22 minutes

Photo by NASA via Unsplash.

From the author: Mankind's record of achievements is contradictory. On one hand the species reaches for the stars, but on the other it rushes to destroy itself. Which of the two urges will prevail? If we could look at our complete history, which story remains? "The Long Way Home" gives one answer. Gardner Dozois chose it to include in The Year's Best Science Fiction.

Marisa kept her back to the door, holding it closed. “Another few minutes and they will have made the jump. You can go home then.”

“The war has started,” said Jacqueline, the telemetry control engineer. Her face glowed red with panic. “I don’t matter. The mission is over. They made the jump four hours ago.”

Marisa swallowed. If Jacqueline grabbed her, there would be little she could do. The woman outweighed her by thirty pounds, and there were no security forces to help. “Jacqueline, we’ve come so far.”

The bigger woman raised her fist. Marisa tensed but didn’t move. Her hands trembled behind her. For a moment, Jacqueline’s fist quivered in the air. Beyond her, the last of the mission control crew watched. Most of the stations were empty. The remaining engineers’ faces registered no expression. They were too tired to react, but Marisa knew they wanted to leave just as badly.

Then Jacqueline dropped her hand to her side. Her eyes closed. “I don’t make a difference,” she whispered.

Marisa released a held breath. “We’re part of mankind’s greatest moment. There’s nothing you can do out there.” She nodded her head toward the door. “We can’t stop what’s happening, but we can be witnesses to this. There’s hope still.”

Several monitors displayed a United States map and a Florida one inset in the corner. Both showed bright yellow blotches. “Areas of lost communication” the key read underneath. Major cities across the country; most of the south-western coast and north-eastern seaboard, glowed bright yellow. In Florida, yellow sunbursts blotted out Miami and Jacksonville. As she watched, another one appeared on Tampa. She glanced at Mission Control’s ceiling and the half-dozen skylights. At any moment the ceiling could peel away, awash in nuclear light. She expected it, expected it much earlier, but she’d stayed at her station, recording the four-hour old signals from the Advent as it sped toward the solar system’s edge, already beyond Neptune’s orbit.  Would she have any warning? Would there be an instant before the end that she would be aware that it had happened?

 Jacqueline sat heavily at her console, and Marisa returned to her station. The data looked good, but it had looked good from the beginning six years earlier when the massive ship ponderously moved out of orbit, all 14,400 passengers hale and hearty. There had been deaths on board, of course. They expected that. Undetected medical conditions. Two homicides. Two suicides, but no major incidents with the ship itself. The hardware performed perfectly, and now, only a few minutes from when the synchronized generators along the ship’s perimeter powered up to send the Advent into juxtaspace, Mission Control really was redundant. Jacqueline was right.

The room smelled of old coffee and sweat. Many of the controllers had been at their stations for twenty hours or more. As time grew short, they split their attention between their stations and the ubiquitous news displays. A scrolling text readout under the graphics listed unbelievable numbers: estimated dead, radiation readings, cities lost.

Marisa toggled her display. She wanted readouts on the juxtaengines. Mankind was going to the stars at last, even if there might be no Earth to return to if they could duplicate the ship to bring them back. “It’s easy, having no family,” she said under her breath, which wasn’t quite true. Her grown son lived in Oceanside, a long commute from southern L.A., but they only talked on the phone at Christmas now. She had to check his photograph to remind himself of what he looked like. A station over, an engineer had his head down on his keyboard, and he sobbed.

Dr. Smalley was the only controller who appeared occupied. He flicked through screen after screen of medical data. The heartbeats of the entire crew drew tiny lines across his display. He looked at Marisa. “We won’t know what happens when the shift happens. What will their bodies go through? What a pity they can’t signal through the jump.”

“If they make the jump at all,” moaned Jacqueline.

“We’ll know in three minutes,” said Marisa. “Regardless of what happens here, we will have saved ourselves.”

Dimly, through mission control’s thick walls, sirens wailed up and down. The building vibrated, sending a coffee cup off a table’s edge and to the floor.

“Maybe if we’d spent the money here, where it could do some good, we’d never come to this,” said Jacqueline. “We bankrupted the planet for this mission.”

Dr. Smalley studied the heartbeats from the ship. “They’re excited. Everyone’s pulse is high. Look, I can see everything that’s happening in their bodies.” He waved a hand at his display. “Their individual transmitters give me more information than if I had them hooked up in a hospital. I wish I was with them.”

“Everyone wishes they were with them,” said Marisa.

Jacqueline said, “Don’t you have a word for it, Doctor, when the patient’s condition is fatal, so you decide to try something unproven to save her? That’s what we’re doing here, aren’t we? Humanity is dying, so we try this theoretical treatment.”

The countdown clock on the wall showed less than two minutes. The floor shook again, much sharper this time.

“Please, a few more seconds,” Marisa said to no one.

So much history happening around her: the first colonial expedition to another star system, and the long-feared global nuclear conflict. The victor had to be the explorers. The names passed through her head: Goddard, Von Braun, Armstrong and the rest of them. It was a way to shut out the death dealers knocking at the door.

“It’s an experiment,” said Jacqueline, edging on hysteria. “We’ve never sent a ship even a tenth this big. We’ve never tied multiple juxtaengines together. What if their fields interact? Instead of sending the ship in one piece, it could tear it apart.”

“It’s too expensive to try out,” Marisa snapped. “It’s all or nothing.”

“You’ve been listening to the defeatists,” said Dr. Smalley. “The theory is perfect. The math is perfect. In an instant, they will be hundreds of light years from our problems.”

Marisa clutched the edge of her monitor. The countdown timer clicked to under a minute. I’m a representative of mankind, she thought. For everyone who has ever wanted to go to the stars, I stand for them. She wished she could see the night sky.

Dr. Smalley hunched toward his computer as if he were trying to climb right through. Jacqueline stared at the television screens with their yellow-specked maps. The images wavered, then turned to grey fuzz. She pressed her knuckles to her mouth.

“Ten seconds,” said Marisa. “All systems in the green.”

The countdown ticker marched down. Marisa remembered a childhood filled with stories of space, the movies and books set in the universe’s grand theater, not the tiny stage lit by a single sun. If only she could have gone too, she could have missed the messy ending mankind had made for itself. The first bombs exploded yesterday morning. Over breakfast, she’d thought it was a hoax. No way people could be so stupid. But the reports continued in, and it wasn’t a joke, not in the least.  

Eyes toward their readouts, the control engineers monitored Advent’s last signals. Already at near solar-escape velocity, the Advent would leap out of the solar system, riding the unlikely physics of juxtaspace.

“,” someone said. Marisa’s screen flipped to the NO SIGNAL message. Analysis indicated the ship had gone. A ragged and weak cheer came from the few engineers in the room.

“She’s made the jump,” Marisa said. She envisioned the Advent obscured in a burst of light as the strange energies from the juxtaengines parted space, allowing the giant ship its trans-light speed journey. For a moment, the space program existed all on its own, separate from the news broadcasts and progress reports, far from the “Areas of lost communication.”

“No,” said Dr. Smalley. “There should be no telemetry now. They’re gone.” He touched his fingers to his monitor. Marisa moved to where she could see what he saw. The heart beats on his screen still registered. Brain waves still recorded their spiky paths. He flicked from one screenful of medical transmissions to the next.

“How is that possible?” said Marisa. Jacqueline stood beside her. Other engineers left their stations to crowd behind Smalley’s chair.

“They’re getting weaker,” said Jacqueline.

“No, no, no,” said Smalley. His fingers tapped a quick command on his keyboard. A similar display with names and readouts appeared on the screen, but this one showed no activity in the medical area.

“What is that?” asked Marisa. How could there be transmissions? The Advent was beyond communication now. They’d never know if she reached her destination. Light speed and relativity created a barrier as imposing as death itself.

“It’s their respiration,” said Smalley, his voice computer-calm. “They’re not breathing.” He switched back to the heartbeats. Many of the readouts now showed nothing. A few blinked their pulses slowly, and then those stopped too. Smalley tapped through screen after screen.  Every pulse was now zero. Every brain scan showed a flat line.

Marisa’s hands rested on the back of Smalley’s chair. She could feel him shaking through her fingers. “Check their body temperatures,” she said.

He raised his head as if to look back at her. Then he shrugged in understanding. The new display showed core temperatures. As they watched, the numbers clicked down.

“Is it an anomaly?” asked someone. “Are we getting their signals from juxtaspace?”

“The ship blew up,” said Jacquline.

Marisa said, “No. We would have received telemetry for that.” She held Smalley’s chair now so she wouldn’t collapse. “It’s their real signals from our space.” Her face felt cold and her feet numb. A part of her knew she was within an instant of collapsing. “The Advent left, but it didn’t take them.”

Jacqueline said, “Worst case scenario. It was a possibility that the multiple engines wouldn’t work the same way as single ones. We dumped everyone into space.” Her voice cracked.

“They’re dead,” said Marisa as the room slowly swooped to her right. I’m falling, she thought. What would a telescope see if it could see that far? After the flash of light? Would it see 14,400 bodies tumbling? What other parts of the ship didn’t go?

Her head hit the floor, but it didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt, and she was curiously aware of meaningless details: how the tiled floor beneath her felt gritty, how ridiculous the engineers looked staring down at her. Then, oddly, how their faces began to darken. What a curious phenomenon, she thought. The fraction of a second before she knew no more, she realized that their faces hadn’t darkened. It was the skylights above them. They’d gone brilliantly bright. Surface of the sun bright.

We’re not going to the stars, she thought, as the heat of a thousand stars blasted through the ceiling. She would have cried if she had had the time.

Who has died like this? So sudden, the walls shimmered. Then they were gone. The air burst away, much of the ships innards remained, but twisted and ruptured. Torn into parts. The stars swirl around us, and all the eyes see. We all see what we all see, but there isn’t a “we” to talk about, just a group consciousness. The 14,400 brains frozen in moments, the neurons firing micro-charges across the supercool gaps. And we continue outward, held together loosely by our tiny gravities, sometimes touching, drifting apart, but never too far. Pluto passed in hardly a thought, and then we were beyond, into the Oort cloud, but who would know it? The sun glimmered behind us, a brighter spot among the other spots, but mostly it was black and oh so cold  Time progressed even if we couldn’t measure it. Was it days already, or years, or centuries? Out we traveled. Out and out.

Jonathan shifted the backpack’s weight on his shoulders as he tramped down the slope toward Encinitas, then rubbed his hands together against the cold. He’d left his cart filled with trade goods in Leucadia, and it felt good not to be pulling its weight behind him. The sun had set in garish red an hour earlier, and all that guided his footsteps was the well-worn path and the waves’ steady pounding on the shore to his right. No moon yet, although its diffuse light wouldn’t help much anyway. When he’d crested the last hill, though, he’d seen the tiny lights of Encinitas’ windows and knew he was close.

He whistled a tune to himself, keeping rhythm with his steps. The harvest was in, and it looked like it would be a good one this year for Encinitas. They’d wired two more greenhouses with grow-lights in the spring, and managed to scare up enough seed for a full planting. For the first time they might even have an excess. If he could broker a deal with the folks in Oceanside, who lost part of their crop with leaf blight, it could be a profitable winter.

A snatch of music came through the ocean sound. Jonathan smiled. Ray Hansen’s daughter, Felitia, would be there. Last year she’d danced with him twice, and he imagined her hand lingered as they passed from partner to partner, but she was too young to court then. Not this year, though. It was going to be a good night. Even the icy cold ocean breeze smelled clean. Not so dead. Not like when he was a boy and everyone called it the “stinking sea.”

He slowed down. The gate across the path should be coming soon. It stopped the flock of goats from wandering off during the summer. In the winter, of course, they were kept in the barns so they wouldn’t freeze. Yes, Encinitas was a rich community to be able to grow enough to feed livestock. Felitia would be a good match for him. She was strong and lively, and her father would certainly welcome him warmly if he was a part of the family. Goat’s milk with every meal! He licked his lips, thinking of the cheese that was a part of the harvest celebration.

But what if she didn’t want him?

He slowed even more. What wasn’t to want about him? He was twenty, and a businessman, but it wasn’t like he was around all the time to charm her, and a year was a long time. Maybe she didn’t want to travel from village to village, carrying trade goods. And she was a bookish girl. People talked about her, Jonathan knew. That was part of her charm. He buried his hands under his armpits. Did it seem unusually cold suddenly, or was it fear that made him shiver?

The gate rattled in the breeze, which saved him bumping into it. Fingers stiff, he unlatched it. Clearly now, the music lilted from over the hill. He hurried, full of hope and dread.

“Jonathan, you are welcome,” said Ray Hansen at the door. Hansen looked older than the last time Jonathan had seen him, but he’d always seemed old. He might be forty, which was really getting up in years, Jonathan thought. Beyond, the long tables filled with seedling plants had been pushed to the wall. Everyone in the village seemed to be there. The Yamishitas and Coogans. The Taylors and Van Guys. The Washingtons and Laffertys. Over a hundred people filled the room. Jonathan smiled. “I’ve come to see your daughter, sir.”

The older man smiled wanly. “You’ll need to talk to her about that.”

Jonathan wondered if Hansen was sick. He seemed much thinner than Jonathan remembered him. Probably the blood disease, he thought. Lots of folks got the blood disease.

The band struck up a reel, and couples formed into squares for the next dance. The caller took his place on the stage. Felitia, in a plain, cotton dress sat on the edge of a table at the far end of the long room, swinging her feet slowly beneath her. Jonathan edged along the dance floor. The music drove the dancers to faster and faster twirls, hands changing hands, heads tossing. He apologized when a woman bumped him, but she was gone so fast he doubted she heard.

Felitia watched him as he made the last few yards, her blues eyes steady, her blonde hair tied primly back. Was she glad to see him? Surely she knew why he was there. He had left her notes every time he passed through Encinitas, and her replies that he retrieved the next trip were chatty enough, but noncommittal. She could have been writing her brother for all the passion he found in them.

He sat next to her without saying anything. Now that she was beside him, the speech he’d practiced sounded phony and ridiculous. The villagers rested when the music ended, talking quietly to themselves. On the makeshift stage, the band tuned their instruments. The two guitarists compared notes, while the trumpet player discreetly blew the spit out of his horn.

“This is nice,” said Jonathan. He winced. Even that sounded stupid.

“Yes.” Her hands were together in her lap. “How were the roads?”

The band started another tune, and soon the crowd wove through the familiar patterns.

“Fine, I guess.” Jonathan decided that the best move would be to leave the room. It was one thing to think grand thoughts while pulling his cart down the sea-shore roads, but it was quite another to confront her in the flesh. “I did good business in Oceanside.”

“It must be interesting, seeing all those places.”

Jonathan swelled. “Oh, yes. I’ve been even further north than that, you know. I even went to San Clemente once. A few of the buildings still stand. I wanted to press on to Los Angeles, but you know how cautious the old folks are. ”

She looked sideways at him.

He cleared his throat. “Just along the beach. Nothing inland, of course. It’s ice from the Santa Ana mountains almost to the sea, but they say the snow field is retreating. It’s getting warmer, they say.”

Felitia sighed. “The dust went up; the dust will go down. I don’t know if I believe it. They can call it ‘nuclear winter,’ but it’s more like nuclear eternity to me.” She watched the dancers, her face lost and vulnerable. “Encinitas seems so small.”

Jonathan gripped the table’s edge. What he wanted to ask was on the tip of his tongue. Everything else sounded trivial, but the timing wasn’t right. He couldn’t just blurt it out. A thought came to him, and with relief he said, “I brought you a present.” He slung his backpack off his shoulders and set it between them. Felitia peered inside when he opened it.

“Books!” She clapped her hands.

He dug through the volumes. “There’s one I thought you might like especially.” At the bottom he found it. “We need to go outside so I can give it to you.” He tried to swallow but couldn’t. Nothing he’d ever done before felt so bold.

She held his hand as they walked away from the dancers. Her fingers nestled softly in his.

Felitia put on a coat and picked up a storm lamp before they went out the back door. The flame flickered before settling into a steady glow.

“What is it?”

Wind pushed against his face, tasting of salt. It could snow tonight, he thought. First snow of the season. He pulled the book out of his jacket and handed it to her. “Here’s as far as you can get from Encinitas.”

She opened the book, a paperback edition of Peterson’s field guide to the stars and planets. By the storm lamp he could see a color print of the Cone Nebula, a red, clouded background with white blobs poking through.

“Oh, Jonathan. It’s beautiful.”

Their foreheads touched as they bent over the book.

She turned her face toward his. “My father told me about stars. He said he saw them when he was a boy, before the bad times.”

 Jonathan glanced up. “My dad said we were going to the stars. His mom helped launch the Advent.” The uniform black of the night sky greeted him, as indistinguishable as a cave interior. “He said the sky used to be blue, and the sun was as sharp-edged as a gold coin.”

He looked down. Felitia’s face was only an inch from his own. Without thinking about it, he leaned just enough to kiss her. She didn’t move away, and his question was answered before he asked it.

Later, holding her against him, he said, “They say when the dust clears, we’ll see the stars again.”

And on a calm night, four years later, after Ray Jr. had gone to sleep, Jonathan and Felitia stood outside their house in Oceanside.

“Can you see?” said Felitia. “Do you think that’s what I think it is?” She pointed to a spot in the sky.

One hand on her shoulder, Jonathan pulled her tight. “I think it is.”

A bright spot glimmered for a second. Another joined it.

They stayed outside until they both grew so cold they could hardly stand it.

We feel space. Neutrinos pass through like sparklers in the group body. Gravity heats our skin. We hear space, not through the frozen cells of our useless ears, but through the sensitive membrane of our group awareness. The stars chime like tiny bells. It has a taste, the vacuum does, dusty and metallic, and it doesn’t grow old. We go farther and farther and slower and slower, until we stop, not in equilibrium; the sun won. Gradually, we start back. Apogee past. The Oort cloud. The birthplace of comets. How many years have we gone away?

“Relying on the old knowledge is a mistake.” Professor Matsui faced the crowd of academics in the old New Berkeley lecture hall. The new New Berkeley hall wouldn’t be done until next year. After a hundred-a-twenty years of use, this one would be torn down. He would miss the old place. “We overemphasize recreating the world we know from the records, but we aren’t doing our own work. Where is our originality? Where is our cultural stamp on our scientific progress?” He was glad for the new public address system. His voice wasn’t nearly as strong as it had been when he was young.

Matsui watched Dr. Chesnutt, the Reclaimed Technologies chair. He appeared bored, his notebook unopened on his study desk. Languidly he raised his hand. “Point,” he said. “Would you have us throw away our ancestor’s best work? When we allocate money, should we assign more on your ‘original research’ that may yield nothing, or should we spend wisely, investigating what we know will work because it worked before? When we equal the achievements of the past, then it will make sense to invest in your programs. Until then, you divert valuable time and valuable funds.”

Pausing for a moment to scan the crowd, Matsui took a deep breath. Were the others with him or against him? The literature department was evenly split between the archivists and the creative writers. Biology, Sociology and Agriscience would lean toward him, as would Astronomy, but the engineers, mathematicians and physicists would cast their vote solidly with Chesnutt, and, as the former head of the School of Medicine, he had probably coerced everyone in the department to vote his way. “Obviously we must continue the good work of learning from the past, but if we throw all our effort, and funds, into that, we risk creating the same mistakes that destroyed their world. You pursue their wisdom without worrying about their folly. Will you follow them down the road that lead to nuclear annihilation?”

Chesnutt chuckled. “You can raise the ‘nuclear annihilation’ demon all you like. As you know, there is no agreement among historians about what caused the great die-off. The nuclear exchange may have been the last symptom of a much deeper problem. We will only avoid their fate if we learn from their triumphs.”

Heads nodded in the audience.

Matsui finished his speech, but he could tell Chesnutt had called in all his favors. It didn’t matter what value his arguments had, the Research Chair would not gain funding this year. He’d be lucky to hold his committee assignments.

After the meeting, Matsui left the lecture hall in a hurry. He didn’t want to deal with the false condolences. The bloodsuckers, he thought. They’ll be looking for strategies to make my loss an advantage for their departments in some way or another.

A breeze off the bay cut through his thin coat, sending a translucent veil of clouds across the night sky, and tossing the lights dangling from their poles.

“Wait, Professor,” called a voice.

He grimaced, then slowed his pace. Puffing, Leif Henderson, an assistant lecturer in Astronomy, joined him.

“Good speech, sir.”

“I’m afraid it was wasted.”

“I don’t think so. We’ve got a couple Chesnutt supporters in the department, but I can tell you the grad students aren’t interested in making their names in the field by rediscovering all of Jupiter’s moons. The younger ones want to do something new.”

Matsui pushed his hands deep into his pockets. Maybe he was getting too old for the back-stabbing politics of the University. “Chesnutt has a point. Old-Time learning casts a huge shadow. We may never be able to get out from under it, and it doesn’t help that whenever original research makes a discovery, the intellectual archeologists dig up some reference to show it’s been done before. There’s no impetus for innovation.”

Henderson matched Matsui’s steps. “But the Old Timers didn’t know everything. They didn’t conquer death. They didn’t master themselves.” The young man looked into the night sky. “They didn’t reach the stars. We should have been receiving the Advent’s signals for the last fifty years if they made it, or even more likely, they would have come back. They have had four-hundred years to recreate their engines.”

“I like to think they arrived, and we just haven’t built sensitive enough receivers, or maybe three-hundred and fifty light years is too far for the signal. What they have to wonder is why we haven’t contacted them, why we didn’t follow them. The world has gone silent.”

The sidewalk split in two in front of them. Astronomy and the physical science buildings were to the right. Administration was to the left. They paused at the junction.

Matsui looked down the familiar path. He’d walked that sidewalk his entire adult life, first as a student, then a graduate assistant, and finally as a professor. From his first day in the classroom he had valued creative thought. That is what the academy is about, he had argued. The Old Timers accomplished noble feats, but they are gone. We should make our own mistakes.

“The world is changing, Henderson. The population will be over one billion in a decade. We survived an extinction event four hundred years ago, so we missed being the last epoch’s dinosaurs. We fought our way out of the second dark ages. As a species, we must be fated for greatness, but we’re so damned stupid about achieving it.” He kicked at the ground bitterly.

Henderson stood quietly for a minute. In the distance, the surf pounded against the rocks. “It’s a pendulum, Professor. This year, Chesnutt won. He won’t always. If we’re going to push knowledge forward, we will escape our past. We’ll have to.”

Matsui said, “Not in my lifetime, son. It’s so frustrating, as a character, humanity has desires. It must. But what they are and how it will go about getting them will remain a mystery to me. There’s a big picture that I can’t see. Oh, if only there was a longer perspective, it would all make sense.”

Henderson didn’t reply.

“I’m sorry,” said Matsui. “I’m an old man who babbles a bit when it gets late at night. I wax philosophic. It used to take a couple pints of beer, but now cool night air and a bad budget meeting will do it. You’ll have to forgive me.”

Henderson shuffled his feet. “There’s a move in the department to name a comet after you.”

Suddenly, Matsui’s eyes filled with tears. He was glad the night hid them. “That would be nice, Henderson.”

Matsui left Henderson behind, but when Matsui reached the faculty housing, he didn’t stop. He kept going until he reached the bluff that overlooked the sea. Condensation dampened the rail protecting the edge of the low bluff, and it felt cold beneath his hands. Moonlight painted the surf’s spray a glowing white. He thought about moonlight on water, about starlight on water. Each wave pounding against the cliff shook the rail, and for a moment, he felt connected to it all, to the larger story that was mankind on the planet and the planet in the galaxy. It seemed as if he was feeling the universal pulse.

Much later, he returned to his cottage and his books. He was right. Chesnutt replaced him on the committees, but Matsui wasn’t unhappy. He remembered his hands on the rail, the moon like a distant searchlight, and the grander story that he was a part of.

Thoughts come slower, it seems, or events have sped ahead, and we want to sleep. Maybe we have spread out, our individual pieces, a long stream of bodies and ship parts, and odds and ends: books, blankets, tools, chairs, freeze dried foods, scraps of paper, the vast collection of miscellany that humanity thought to bring to a distant star. Or maybe the approaching sun has warmed us. The super-cool state that kept consciousness and connection possible is breaking down. But we know we are accelerating, diving deep into the system that gave us birth. It’s been a long trip, out and back, the 14,400. Our individual dreams forgotten, but the group one survived: to travel, to find our way out of the cave, to check over the next hill top. We feel an emotion as the last thoughts fail: something akin to happiness. We’re going home.

Captain Fremaria sat on a blanket with her husband on the hill overlooking the launch facility. The lights illuminating the ship had been turned off, but she knew crews were working within the enclosed scaffolding, fueling the engines, running through the last check lists, making sure it would be ready for the dawn liftoff.

“It’s just like another test flight, darling,” she said to her husband. “I’ve flown much less reliable crafts.” Her heart took a sudden leap as she thought about the mission. She could hear the rockets igniting in her head. Could she do it? The idea of climbing atop the thousands of pounds of propellant had never sounded so foolhardy as it did now. When she was training, the flight remained a theory, an abstraction, but with the ship so close and the schedule coming to its close, she felt like a condemned woman.

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “I just want to know that you’ll be safe. I need a sign.”

She sighed. “I wouldn’t mind one myself.” She did not have to climb aboard the ship. No one could force her to. In fact, she wouldn’t really be committed until ignition.

“It’s too much history.” He moved closer to her so his hand rested on hers. “Mankind returns to space after all these centuries. Everyone wants to know about the impact of this moment. Will we go to the moon next? Will we go to Mars? What will we find there of the old colonies?” He snorted derisively. “I just want to know that you will come back.”

Fremaria nodded her head, but he wasn’t looking at her. In three hours she would report to launch central, where they would begin preparing her for insertion into the craft that would carry her into orbit. The mission called for ten circuits around the earth, then a powerless drop back into the atmosphere, where she would fly the stubby-winged ship to a touchdown at Matsui Airbase.

“I won’t be that far away. If you could take the train straight up, you’d be there in a couple hours.”

Her husband chuckled, but it sounded forced.

For the first time in weeks, the wind was calm. Fremaria had watched the weather reports anxiously, but it looked like the launch take place in perfect conditions. Not a cloud marred the flawless night sky. The horizon line cut a ragged edge out of the inverted bowl of pristine stars.

“I’ve never seen it so clear,” said her husband.

A green light streaked across the sky.

“Make a wish,” said Fremaria.

“You know what it is.” He squeezed her hand.

Another meteor flamed above them, brighter than the first.

“That’s rare,” said Fremaria. “So close together.”

Before he could reply, a third and fourth appeared, traveling parallel courses.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

She arched her back to see the sky better. “There isn’t supposed to be a meteor shower now. The Leonids aren’t for another month.”

A spectacular meteor crossed half the sky before disappearing.

Fremaria leaned into her husband’s shoulder for support. For almost two hours the display continued, often times with multiple meteors visible at once, some so bright that they cast shadows. Then, the intensity dropped until the sky was quiet again.

“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Her husband asked. “Have you even ever heard of anything like that?”

“No.” She thought about the mysteries of space. “It’s a sign.”

He laughed. “I guess it might be.”

Fremaria glanced at her watch. “It’s time for me to go.” She brushed her pants after she stood. Her husband held her hand again, but her thoughts now were in the ship. She ran through the takeoff procedure. No mission went without a hitch. They would be depending on her to make corrections, to shake down the craft. A good flight: that was all she wanted, and then a next one and a next one. They began the walk down to the launch facility.

She thought about the centuries. The Advent was supposed to go to the stars. Had it made it? No one knew, but they were going again. Her flight would open the door again.

“Are you scared,” her husband asked.

Fremaria paused on the trail. The ship waited for her. She could see that they had cranked part of the scaffolding away from it. Soon it would stand alone, unencumbered. She would sit in the pilot’s chair listening to the countdown, prepared to take over from the automated controls if needed. What an experience the rocket’s thrust would be! What a joy to feel the weightlessness that awaited her! To break free. To take the first step to the long voyage out.

“I’m ready to go.”

A single meteor flickered into existence above them. It glowed brilliantly in its last moment. They watched its path until it vanished.

“They don’t last too long, do they?” he said.

Fremaria glanced at the ship, then back at the sky. “No, but they travel a long way first. There’s something to be said about making the long trip.”

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.

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."