Roger knows Helena lost her family and her friends when she married him. So far she’s never seemed to doubt her choice, but war is hell on marriages, especially when you lose.
As a veteran on the wrong side, Roger can either go through reeducation—a program which will likely destroy his mind—or he and Helena can hide among the asteroids and half broken space stations of their defeated land, waiting for the day when he is caught and executed.
Determined to remain together at all costs, they choose a third way–a dangerous five year journey into the future. Things start to go wrong when, against long odds, Helena finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. With limited resources and no way to shorten their trip, they make due, working every moment to find what they need to survive. Faced with an increasingly desperate plight, it may be their hope which runs out before their supplies.
Brody: Hope Unconquered
A Pax Imperium Short Story
First Published in The Unted States of America
Copyright © 2012 Erik R. Wecks
All Rights Reserved.
Thank you to all my beta readers, who put up with much inferior versions of this story, and helped me make it what it has become. A special thank you to Brian McLaughlin from GeekDad and Jim Pivarski from Coffee-shop Physics for assisting me with my neophyte physics questions. A great deal of credit for you being able to read this without cringing at my atrocious grammar and punctuation goes to Jonathan Liu, who also copy edits so ably for GeekDad. We all look much better for his tireless work. Thank you, Jonathan. Finally, thank you to my family for reminding me they prefer the man I am when I write than the man I was when I made more money.
Dedicated to JRR Tolkien,
who taught me that despair is a true enemy of our humanity.
“There were moments when I didn’t know how much consumables we had, whether we could make it back or not. But in a situation like that, there is only one thing you can do. You just keep going, and you just keep thinking up where you can get more consumables. So that is exactly what we did.”
— Jim Lovell, Commander, Apollo 13
Month 4, Ship’s Time: Athenian Ministry of Defense Wormhole Gate Placement Mission D102
Roger sat head down, elbows on his knees, hands in his hair, eyes closed. He always noticed the ship’s lighter gravity when he closed his eyes. He rubbed his eyes with his fingertips, trying not to think about what was going on in the room next to him.
“Mr. Gillian,” Roger’s head jerked up toward the ceiling. Somehow he always associated the ceiling with the slightly feminine voice of the on-board AI. “I was unable to terminate Dr. Porter’s pregnancy. She is asking for you to come in. Please do so. She needs to be comforted.”
Month 2, Ship’s Time
Roger’s first sensation after two months of drug-induced sleep had been of gagging on the feeding tube stuck down his throat. Only semi-conscious, he barely noticed as the AI removed the offending tube. At the same moment the high-G protection gel that surrounded him began to recede. By the time Roger felt himself waking up, his memories of the indignities of hibernation had already receded to a distant corner of his unconscious mind. He was left with a vague sense of unease and a strong desire for a shower. He lay naked on top of a newly formed gel mattress.
The AI greeted him, “Good morning, Mr. Gillian. All ship functions are normal, and our voyage is on schedule. Within the last week, we finished the high-G phase of our acceleration curve. We are now finishing off our acceleration to .995% of the speed of light at a lower G-force. The shower is located through the door behind you. Please be careful as you attempt to walk; gravity is currently set at .69 standard-G but will be diminishing throughout the day to our cruising gravity of .45 standard-G.” Roger opened his eyes and stretched his lanky six-foot frame.
The walk to the door of the shower room proved uneventful. Except, the door startled Roger when it retracted into the wall with a gentle “swoosh.” Then he remembered that force fields were never used on relativistic voyages due to energy concerns. He scratched little bits of gel from the back of his curly brown hair and stumbled forward.
The shower was already running. The right corner of his mouth twitched upward in a grin. His eyes twinkled slightly, but he remained silent. The steam parted to reveal the naked form of his wife, Helena Porter, rinsing her straight, blonde hair. Pushing hair back out of her face, she opened her eyes and saw him staring at her.
From the moment he met her, Roger appreciated Helena’s attitude toward herself. It spoke to him of someone comfortable in her own skin, imperfections and all. As in all things, she tended not to be swayed by the breezes of popular opinion. Although not overly stunning, this willingness to accept herself as created was something Roger had always found deeply attractive in his wife. Average in height and build, she was fit and healthy but not skinny. Most of the time, she wore very little cosmetics, if any at all. Also, she consistently shunned all beauty kits, self-enhancements, and procedures, and although it was considered bad form for a professional woman in their home country, she had a tendency to let her body hair grow as it would. She might trim some here or remove some there but only as a matter of whimsy. From the first moment he saw her, she felt comfortable and genuine to Roger–a clear contrast in his eyes to the average Athenian woman. To others less comfortable with themselves, she seemed brash, aloof, and even arrogant.
Helena smiled and looked him over. With a quick nod of her head and a glance down, she met the look in his eye and said, “Glad to see you’re still in working order.” She paused while Roger’s grin broke into a full smile. “Come here,” she said and reached out toward him.
Month 4, Ship’s Time
The door to the tiny infirmary, no bigger than a walk-in closet, opened with the familiar swoosh. Roger stepped through into the sterile military-gray room. The multi-tooled claw of the auto-surgeon sat perched above the patient bed. Folded on its robotic arm, it looked like a type of exotic bird talon waiting to strike. The bed’s stirrups were still deployed. Helena sat on the floor in the corner behind the bed, wrapped only in the paper-thin surgical gown, arms around her knees, weeping.
Seeing his wife, Roger’s initial frustration melted. He still knew what had to be done. There was no choice. Helena’s pregnancy had to end, but there was no way he was going to be able to convince her to get back on that table right now.
“Oh, baby-doll,” he said, sitting down beside her. He pulled her head to his chest and said, “Just cry. It’s OK, just cry.”
“We left Athena so that things like this wouldn’t happen to us!” Helena began to pound on the floor with one of her hands. “This is why we left, why we tore ourselves away from everything we knew and left forever! It’s not fair! If we wanted to go through this, we could have just stayed home, gone through reeducation, and starved with the rest of them!” Helena stopped pounding on the floor, wiped her nose with one hand, and sniffed loudly as she burst out sobbing again.
“I know, baby. I know.” Roger felt inadequate and helpless as he often did when his wife was upset. “Don’t cry, honey. It will be OK. We’re going to be fine.” Helena just leaned into his chest and sobbed harder.
July, Pax Imperium Year 328: One Month Before Launch
Roger looked down at the over-patterned carpet as he slowly wandered down the corridor leading to their nondescript apartment on the 215th floor of a modest housing block. The lethargic walk didn’t fit Roger’s lean muscular frame. Unlike many other veterans, Roger hadn’t let himself go after he came home. The fact that he almost didn’t come home and that he had put six months of work into getting functional again gave Roger an appreciation for hard work and the value of fitness. Not that recovery had been perfect. The small limp which had been a part of his walk for almost the last decade became unnoticeable as he lethargically shuffled to his door.
A large blue tote box followed him down the hall, hovering a few inches off the floor. His stomach clenched, and his head hurt from stress, but rather than working on the problem, his consciousness fled from all coherent thought. He slid his key three times through the reader on his door before he remembered that after the last bread riot the landlord had installed a retinal scanner to go with the reader. Roger scanned his key again and looked into the reader. A familiar “thwop” sound announced success as the force-field disappeared, and he entered his apartment. He threw his jacket on the ottoman and sat back into his favorite chair. When Helena arrived home six hours later, she found him still sitting in his chair and nearly catatonic.
“They want me to go through reeducation.”
“What? You can’t! You aren’t in the military. Besides, you had a medical discharge. There must be some mistake.”
Roger shook his head. “There’s no mistake. The nets announced it about five minutes before the ‘invitation’ arrived. I had just put on my intraspace cap and entered the virt. lab when the damn thing just walked right through the encryption–straight through the wall. It didn’t even bother to knock. A holi imperial guard announced that all veterans of the war–even those discharged–are now included in the reeducation program. I am required to report to Muster Point Charlie promptly at midday one standard week from today. I’ll be gone six months.”
“I don’t even understand why the Korpis are insisting on the reeducation. The war ended almost a decade ago. Don’t they understand they won? What do they think we are going to do, bite their ankles? Apparently starving us isn’t enough.”
Roger ignored Helena’s rising temper, interrupted, and pointed at the tote now on the ground in the corner of the room. “After the announcement, I was told not to come back to work. I just packed my office and came home.”
Helena stopped in mid-rant. She began to involuntarily shake her head. “You’re a member of the civil service. They can’t just fire you! You have to contact the C.S. Guild.”
Helena’s failure to grasp the finality of his situation began to bring life back to Roger. “Like hell they can’t! Not after that reeducated mechanic took out half his apartment block when he blew himself up. No one wants the re-eds around, and the government certainly isn’t going to let one work on top secret weapon systems and engines. Re-eds aren’t safe, and you know it. Suicides, murders, abuse–they’re all messed up, and that’s the point, isn’t it? The Korpis know they have to keep punishing us for losing a war they started, because they know if they let us off the mat, even for a moment, we’d be right back at their throats. They beat us, but they didn’t break us. So for them, the war still goes on. Well, I won’t let them bring it to you. I contacted a legal counselor this afternoon. I want you to divorce me.”
Helena paused. Her eyes narrowed, and she started speaking at almost a whisper, each word becoming louder. “I will do no such thing, Roger Gillian, and you will never say such a thing again!” Helena was now shouting at Roger, strands of blond hair falling out of the clip that held it high on her head. “You listen to me, soldier. A decade ago, I married you before you went off to war. All of my friends told me I was a fool, and my family practically disowned me. Then I grieved when news came that the Calliope had been lost with all hands.” Her finger visibly shook with rage as she pointed it at him and spit out her next words. “Then, after I had given up, word arrives that you had been rescued a week after your ship was spaced. By all rights brought back from beyond the grave, and I stood at your side for six months as you recovered. How dare you! After all of that, how dare you let a little thing like this get between us! I’ll be damned if I let the bastard Korpis take you away from me. Not now! Not after the war. And not after all of that! We will find a way out of this. Do you hear me?”
Roger resented every time Helena brought up what he had put her through nearly a decade ago. However, the intervening years had never gotten him any closer to a coherent response. Helena had trumps, but the situation had its advantages. There was never a second in which Roger doubted her love for him or her loyalty. He shrugged his shoulders. “So what are we going to do?”
Month 4, Ship’s Time
After she quit crying, Helena had retired to their quarters for a nap. Roger sat with both hands around his bowl of soup, trying to keep his anxiety in check as he discussed matters with the now clearly inadequate AI. “OK, Vox, let’s walk through it one more time. You’re sure she’s pregnant?”
“There is over a 99.99% probability Dr. Porter is pregnant.”
“And why is there no medical protocol if a woman becomes pregnant while on a gate deployment trip?”
“There is no protocol for pregnancy because your birth control methods had a one in six billion chance of failure over a five-year time-frame. I am not programmed for medical contingencies deemed to be less likely than one in ten million.”
They had been over this ground before, but Roger wanted to hear it again. “So how is it that you decided we needed to terminate the pregnancy?”
“My conclusion rests upon the fact there are only two hibernation chambers on the ship, Mr. Gillian. While my onboard gravity generators are able to create an environment suitable for healthy fetal development and growth, a child could not survive the two months of high-G deceleration from our cruising speed of over .99% of the speed of light. Only the two mass-bending chambers allow for such a quick acceleration-deceleration curve.”
Roger’s training as a physics tech gave him the answer to his next question before he asked. “So what happens if we just decelerate more slowly to create one standard G or maybe 1.5Gs?”
“That is a possibility but would extend our journey time by at least ten months, most likely 12 to 14 months based on energy reserves. While resources in ship stores could possibly allow for three individuals to survive a regular journey with strict food rationing, extending your five-year journey by 12 or more months and adding a child does not make survival likely.”
“OK. What if Helena and I took turns using the hibernation chambers throughout the trip?”
“That is not possible for two different reasons. First, there is simply not enough energy available to use one of the mass-bending chambers for the next five years. Second, the human body is not designed to tolerate that kind of long-term hibernation. Both you and Doctor Porter would face a severe drop in intelligence quotient, as well as a strong possibility of death.”
“And that brings us back to your conclusion that we need to terminate the pregnancy.” Roger felt his head begin to pound.
“That would be the safest course. However, based on my analysis of Dr. Porter’s brain activity, I am unable to terminate Dr. Porter’s pregnancy without creating considerable mental and emotional trauma. My programming does not allow me to create such trauma, unless a human being is in immediate danger of losing his or her life.”
“So what is your suggestion then?”
“Unfortunately, Mr. Gillian, this kind of decision is beyond my abilities, as it cannot be solely determined by reason. Neither choice creates a desirable outcome. This is why Athenian gate command still requires two human beings to travel on gate-building missions.”
Roger smiled grimly and said to no one in particular, “If there weren’t two human beings on this trip, there wouldn’t be any problem.”
The computer answered unbidden. “Duly noted, Mr. Gillian.”
Roger scooted his chair away from the table and his now empty bowl of soup.
March, Pax Imperium Year 319: 9 Years Before Launch
Helena’s shoes clicked ever so slowly across the polished white stone floor. Ten-meter, blue columns paraded silently down the walls of the oversize foyer in the apartment tower they hurried to leave. The gold leaf that overlaid the pomegranates on the capitals of the columns denoted the income and status necessary to obtain an apartment in the building. Like almost all recently built structures, the elite 100-story building followed the neo-nationalist aesthetic, omni-present since the start of the war with Unity Corporation. Even their own building had recently installed blue and white bunting in the lobby. Prominently displayed on one wall of the foyer, a plaque declared that this particular building had actually been opened by a member of the royal family. Helena had told Roger there was a six-year waiting list.
The ostentatious glory of the foyer bore witness to the exclusivity of the party they had just fled. Roger felt the tension in Helena through the arm he gripped as they walked. He reached forward with his cane. His gait always felt painfully slow. But, knowing how much both he and Helena wanted to get away, tonight it felt positively glacial. She caught his eye. Suppressed laughter twitched at the corner of her mouth, making her eyes sparkle. Roger covered his own amusement with a cough.
Helena held open the door in front of him. Roger took a breath of the moist evening air. Although it was dark, it was still hot. The walk home would be especially long at his current pace. The door closed behind him, and Helena firmly took his arm, allowing the appearance that he was leading her, while in reality she supported him.
Safe on the street, Helena laughed as she said, “Roger, I can’t believe you told the deputy mayor you thought the war was lost before it even started.”
Now free of the oppressive building, Roger slowed to a more sustainable pace. “Well, what can I say, my dear? When you spend a week in an escape capsule, floating amongst the debris of three million dead, half-delirious with an almost-severed leg, you have some time to think about these things. I guess they learned that I am not their war hero to be paraded around like a trophy.”
He stepped out into the pedestrian mall, light traffic zipping in layers above their heads. “It’s really steamy tonight, and I’m going slowly. Do you want to get a taxi?”
Helena leaned her head on his shoulder. “No, Roger, I don’t want to get a taxi. I don’t mind how slowly you walk. Just let me know if you get tired.” Then she bit his ear and whispered, “The wine has made me a little tipsy. Just get me ready with a little conversation, and when we get home, I will redefine the word steamy.”
The young soldier had only been cleared for full spousal duty that afternoon by his doctor. His reconstructed heart seemed to be functioning well. Yet with the impending party at the deputy mayor’s apartment, there had only been time for a quick exchange of DNA between the young couple. Roger thought for a moment and realized the pent-up tension he felt with Helena probably led to some of his choice words at the party. His impatience for time alone with his wife hadn’t made it any more enjoyable to be there. “Now how is that comment supposed to keep me walking at a sustainable pace?” he said, with mock frustration.
“Discipline, soldier, discipline.” She took her hand from his arm, put it around his waist, and let it wander downward just a little.
Looking for a way to distract his wife, Roger quipped dryly, “I had the doctor remove my birth control at my physical this afternoon. I felt it was my patriotic duty.” Helena’s hand instantly jerked upward.
Mission accomplished, thought Roger.
“You did not. Did you?”
He grinned mischievously at his wife. “Aw, come on, you saw all those women sporting their naked patriotic bellies tonight. Don’t you want to join them?”
“Not tonight, Roger Gillian! In fact, I think we are both agreed that never is the only good time to add a pooping and crying machine to this relationship. The lifestyle of a junior aspiring professor in comp. sci. and a newly minted government civi. physics technician doesn’t exactly lend itself to parenthood. Nope! Tonight, I don’t want any stray data packets getting in the way of our future. I just want to expunge a little pent-up frustration. Remember, I have been conscious for the last six months while you had the luxury of forgetting most of it in a semi-coma. Besides, I don’t do stretch marks.” Her hand started down again.
“Fair enough, Helena Porter, but if you keep grabbing my butt, we are going to have to get that cab.”
Month 4, Ship’s Time
Roger climbed the narrow spiral stair that ran through the small living quarters of their ship like a spine. During acceleration and deceleration, the gravity on the ship was created by the engines. In fact, some energy was usually spent to counteract the gravity from the engines. Because of this, the crew compartment was laid out as a series of small circular decks located one on top of another. Most decks had a short corridor–really only a landing for the stair–with a couple of rooms, one located on either side of the ship. On the other hand, the command deck occupied the whole top deck of the stack. Here there were no walls, only a poly-carbon dome that they could opaque as they desired. When deciding how to outfit the ship, there had been no question that their quarters would be located on the command deck. Space travel gave an unparalleled view of the galaxy of which both he and Helena rarely tired.
As he entered, Roger was surprised to see lights on. Helena sat dressed at the command terminal, reading intensely. Roger wasn’t quite sure how to approach her, so he simply sat down at the console beside her and waited, staring out at the universe that surrounded them.
Without looking up from what she was reading, she said, “I think we can do it.”
Roger’s stomach tied itself in a tighter knot. “Do what?”
“I think we can keep the baby.”
Roger rubbed his forehead, closed his eyes and said, “That’s what I was afraid you were thinking.” Looking downward at the console in front of him, he continued. “Honey, it really isn’t possible. We’ve been over the numbers several times. There just isn’t any way. You know there isn’t any way. To slow down at a standard G would require that we extend our journey by at least 12 months, and there are not enough stores to get three people through. Hell, honey, we would have a hard enough time feeding two people, let alone a third.”
Helena looked at him with a sympathetic nod, clearly anticipating these exact arguments, “That would be correct if the third person were an adult, but she won’t be. She will be a baby for most of the trip and then a toddler. They don’t eat that much. I think we can do it.”
Roger wasn’t sure if she was right or not, and he didn’t really care. A baby had not been part of the plan for this trip. “Helena, it just isn’t meant to be. You have to face facts. We don’t get paid if we don’t arrive on time. You understand that, don’t you? If we slow down early and arrive 12 months late, we show up 47 years in the future with outdated skills, no jobs, and no pay.” As the words were coming out of his mouth, Roger recognized this was not the right thing to say, but once down the path, he bravely soldiered on.
Helena smiled coolly. He hated it when she smiled while they fought. “Roger, you need to get something through your head. I am not going to terminate this pregnancy. I can’t. I never wanted to be pregnant. You and I know this wasn’t part of the plan, but neither was jumping 50 years into the future where we aren’t going to have careers anyway. Maybe this baby will make it worthwhile.”
“Helena, we aren’t going to get paid! How are we going to raise a kid if we are broke?” He realized this wouldn’t be strictly true, but he was beginning to feel desperate.
Helena breathed slowly through her nose, calming herself down. When she next spoke, there was nothing but maddening compassion in her eyes. She took his hands in hers, held them and looked into his eyes. “Roger, you know as well as I that we won’t be broke. All that land we bought before we left, it will be worth something when we get back. We will have plenty of money to get started again. I just can’t do it. I am not built for it. Some women can. That is their decision.”
She shrugged her shoulders and continued. “My conscience won’t let me end a life when deep down I know I would be doing it just because I am afraid. After you came back, I promised myself I would always live with hope. Hon, you don’t have any real choice in this matter.” Helena concluded with a finality in her tone that left Roger with few options.
For a split second, Roger was tempted to pull his hands away and become angry. Then the ugly truth dawned on him: he was afraid–afraid they would go hungry and die. Yet there was no way he could force Helena to do what he wanted. He felt helpless, alone, abandoned to a fate he didn’t choose or deserve.
Then a picture flashed through his mind: a gorgeous twenty-something Helena, dressed smartly in black, wiping tears from her eyes–front and center in mourning the loss of the Calliope at his funeral. He wouldn’t be rescued until a day later. As far as he had been able to find, the image, which he discovered a year after his recovery, had been headline material on at least three international news nets. He couldn’t imagine what she had been through.
“Alright, we’ll try,” Roger said, in a barely audible whisper.
July, Pax Imperium Year 328: Two Weeks Before Launch
Helena was right: there really weren’t any good choices. Roger knew it, but he couldn’t keep himself from thinking there had to be a better way. Here at least they knew what they were up against. Who said the future would be better? Who knows? The Great Empire War had lasted over 300 years. The war they were trying to leave behind clearly wasn’t over. It seemed all too likely the war they were fleeing could have turned hot again fifty years from now. What good would it do to jump forward into a war?
The plain gray walls and bad lighting of the Ministry of Defense building didn’t help his mood at all. The wall color seemed designed to leave all the room’s occupants looking half dead. The lighting accentuated the hollow eyes and the sallow skin of the MoD legal counselor and his assistant who sat across the conference table from Roger, Helena, and their counselor. Roger took just a small amount of pleasure that the Korpi’s intolerable reparations were finally taking a toll on the MoD. After a decade, even they couldn’t escape. Of course, the suffering at the MoD was nothing like the suffering of the average Athenian. The capital police alone had shot dead 400 rioters this month. That didn’t even consider the rest of the planet. In the 70-odd major systems that made up the kingdom, it was slightly better or worse depending on where you went. The provinces, the asteroids, and the backwater stations seemed to be doing the best right now. In those places, a thriving black market allowed most residents to avoid hunger.
In his left hand, Roger held the tablet with the MoD contract he was to sign. A simple press of his right thumb, and he and Helena would agree to go on a gate-building journey which would take them nearly 40 light years past the edge of known space, to an unexplored system which held the promise of at least two potentially habitable worlds. The laws of physics didn’t exactly make it easy to travel such ridiculous distances. The universe was stingy about giving up its secrets.
Each gate-building trip required two willing participants who agreed to travel at speeds very near the speed of light over great distances. On arrival, gate builders set up a new gate in the target system, established a wormhole back to the system they left, and, if so desired, returned to civilization through the gate they just established. The only catch was the little problem of time dilation. Gate builders were well paid, but, for Roger and Helena, agreeing to a gate-building mission was agreeing to a one-way ticket 47 years into the future. Even though they planned to simply return home when their voyage was done, this bothered Roger. Now that it had come down to it, Roger wasn’t so sure the trip was the right decision to make. Roger still held his right thumb above the DNA signature collector, ready to sign.
Helena had cashed in all her chits with the MoD and about three other agencies to get them assigned to this trip. It didn’t hurt that the admiralty had ignored her graduate research on the Korpis’ guidance and propulsion systems leading up to the war. Helena had argued the Korpis were much farther along than anyone at the MoD had believed. Of course, in the post-war era, she had been lauded in the press and by some in the palace for her foresight, but she always remained a bit of a thorn in the side of the brass at MoD, a constant reminder of the inefficiencies of a bureaucracy. A trip to the future would be a convenient means to silence her. It also meant the effective end of Helena’s career. When they came home her research would be 45 years out of date. There was really no way for her to recover from that.
Roger’s mind snapped back to the present. He put the tablet down and looked apologetically at the MoD counselor. “If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to talk with Helena for a minute before I do this.”
The MoD counselor smiled. Roger read just the smallest hint of irritation in his eyes.
“Of course. We will be just outside.”
Roger saw the same hint of irritation as Helena shrugged slightly to the MoD official and gave him a weak smile.
“Would you like me to wait outside as well?” Roger’s legal counsel asked.
“No, please don’t. I want you to stay.” Roger shook his head.
As the force field came on, Helena asked with restrained irritation, “Roger, what is this about?”
“Helena, what about going to the provinces? No one is starving in the provinces. We could go find a home on an asteroid somewhere or on a station. We could get lost for a while, just until this reeducation thing with the Korpis dies down.”
Helena pinched her lips together. Their legal counselor, a friend of her father’s, patted her hand and answered for her. “Roger, you and I both know that won’t work. The provinces may not be starving, but they are full of bounty hunters. And many people there would be happy to turn in a former soldier for the bounty they will put on your head. After all, the provinces blame the capital for the war. If you get caught, Roger, you won’t go through reeducation. You will be executed. There were three of them carried out this week by Korpi peace monitors. You don’t want to do that to Helena, do you?” Roger knew after all she had been through for you was implied. Helena’s family had never approved of their relationship. She and her mother were still barely on speaking terms.
“Yes, but how do we know the future will be any better? How do you know we’ll be able to get back? What if something goes wrong?”
“You don’t. It might, and you don’t have many choices,” said the counselor matter-of-factly, beginning to show irritation with Roger.
Helena looked startled and interrupted him before he could go any further. “We aren’t going to the future because we know it will be better.” Helena stood and came and sat on the other side of Roger, taking the legal counselor out from between them. She sat close to him and looked in his eyes. “We are going because if we sign this contract, you get an MoD exemption from the re-ed program. They don’t have many of these, Roger, and I had to pull every favor I had in the book to get one. You understand this only works because you happen to be a ship tech with a physics research background, and I am a computer science Ph.D.?
“If we go to the provinces, someday someone will find you, and then I will lose you. If we go to the future, we go together. Staying together has been the one value that has guided us more than any other. I won’t lose you, Roger. I don’t want to take the risk of the provinces. I would rather risk the future together.”
Lowering his tone he said, “What if I run to the provinces, by myself?”
“Roger!” Helena no longer held back her irritation.
“But what if something happens, Helena? What if we get stuck out there?”
She looked directly into his eyes. “Then we will be together, Roger. That is what this is all about. Even if something does happen, we will be together.”
She continued in a lighter tone. “Besides, nothing is going to happen. They do these gate delivery missions all the time. They practically launch one a week. We’ll simply fly out, place the gate near the edge of the system where it’s supposed to be, activate it, and arrive home a few minutes later through the wormhole we created. It will be easy.”
Roger nodded and picked up the tablet. Nothing was ever easy, he thought. About the only thing he hated more than weighing the risks of a situation was actually taking his chances with them. He pushed his thumb down on the DNA collector and passed it to the counselor and his wife to witness.
Month 4, Ship’s Time
Helena queried the computer. “Vox, what is the minimum gravity necessary for healthy fetal development?”
“Proper fetal development can take place between .25 standard G and 1.5 standard G. However, optimal development takes place at between .3 standard G and 1.2 standard G.”
Roger and Helena sat knee to knee at the small fold down table in the tiny mess hall. Most often they ate on the command deck, only using this space to prepare food. Today however, they were using this kitchen as a cramped study area to determine how they were going to bring a baby into the world while traveling at .995C, with no means to stop and inadequate food supplies.
“Vox, discuss options for maintaining .36 standard Gs for the next 9 months.”
“Proper neuron development in an infant brain requires at least .2G for at least two years after birth, Dr. Porter.”
“Thank you, Vox. Please develop plans to maintain the lowest optimal gravity for childhood development for at least the next two years and nine months while successfully completing our voyage. Then calculate the estimated energy savings”
While Helena discussed options with the computer, Roger found himself eyeing the protein bar on the shelf behind her but decided against it. Ever since he had agreed to try to formulate a plan with Helena to bring their child into the world, Roger found himself rationing what he ate. His stomach growled.
The computer interrupted. “Dr. Porter, I have estimated the energy savings.”
“All right, Vox, let’s hear it.”
“There would be savings of between 18 to 20% of energy resources.”
Roger asked, “Does that allow us enough resources for deceleration at tolerable G levels?”
“It does, Mr. Gillian, but I am afraid that it would still lead to a journey 12 months longer than anticipated. My calculations indicate that survival would be difficult at best with such an extension of our journey.”
Roger gave the protein bar another glance and put it out of his mind.
Helena spoke up. “Thank you, Vox. Plan to establish the minimal necessary gravity for optimal fetal development and childhood development following birth. Then recalculate for a non-injurious deceleration to our destination.”
“You are welcome, Dr. Porter. I will make the necessary preparations.”
Roger glanced at the ceiling, “Why do you thank that thing?” he asked. “It’s not like it’s alive.”
“Isn’t it? It has four times as many connections in its brain as you do.”
This was old ground for Roger and Helena, who had debated AI before.
“It’s not the number of connections, Helena. It’s how you use them and under what circumstances they developed. These are lab-grown and don’t develop from hard-won personal experience. Just because you gave it connections doesn’t make it alive. It doesn’t have feelings.”
“Who says so, Roger? Adaptive computing technology has been around for 500 years. It adapted independently to my decision to say thank you. It responded appropriately. As far as I am concerned, if it can make decisions on its own, it’s alive.”
Roger shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
Helena smiled back at him. “It sure is good to see you smiling again.”
“Well, I still think we’re going to starve.”
Helena nodded. “It is going to get tight. No doubt about it, but we can do it.”
October, Pax Imperium Year 318: 10 Years Before Launch
Truth be told, Roger remembered more about the week he spent alone, bloodied and dying in an escape capsule, than he did about the months which followed. His consciousness seemed determined not to give up. Then, once he was rescued by the Imperial Mercy Corps, it fled and locked away much of what happened in the months that followed. The next vague memory he thought was real was of Helena holding his hand and talking earnestly to him. He couldn’t understand or remember a thing she said, but he did remember the pressure of her hand, the sound of her voice, and her face looking at him. It still came back to him in his dreams–an anchor in a world of uncertainty.
Month 13, Ship’s Time
Helena gripped Roger’s hand so tightly her fingernails drew blood, and she screamed. Roger watched with somewhat detached amusement. Nothing anyone could have told him would have prepared him for the unfolding events of the last few hours.
Actually, as he thought about it, nothing could have prepared him for the last few months of changes in his life. Watching the naked belly of his wife move as his son rolled over in her womb stirred in him a sense of wonder he was unprepared for. But the revelations of his wife’s pregnancy paled in comparison to what he was witnessing at this moment in time. Roger was not a religious man, but he felt sure that the universe itself listened with pinpoint clarity and sacred awe to the woman who now drew blood from his hands.
For the last few hours, Helena had paced the ship as her pain increased, bearing up under each contraction with an unnatural grace. Then, about an hour before, things slowly changed. Helena began to focus. Hearing little of what he said, she started to groan, sing, and sway with each change in pressure. Her loose-fitting clothing came off, and she faced her task in her bare skin.
Roger stood by in fearful wonder, unnoticed for a while, and then she turned to him. “Hold my hands, Roger. Look me in the eye.” So now Roger sat on the examining table, as his wife stood at the end. She looked in his eyes, drew blood from his hand, and screamed, almost singing with the pain. Clearly, thought Roger, here is a goddess, something from beyond, an Earth Mother if there ever was such a thing.
“Roger, I am going to push now. Our baby is coming.” Without even waiting until she had finished the sentence, Roger watched Helena bear down, squatting a little toward the floor. The claw, which for the last few months had been their guide to the health of their son, dropped languidly from the ceiling as the computer, which had been monitoring the situation, decided it needed a closer look.
“Dr. Porter, I am going to check and make sure that you are ready to be pushing…”
“Stay the fuck out of there,” Helena screamed. “Don’t touch me, you damn machine.”
“As you request, Dr. Porter.” Vox retreated quickly.
Helena again felt the urge to push, squatting somewhat as she did so. “Oh, Roger, the pressure is unbelievable, but he is moving. I can feel him moving. I want to see him come out, Roger! I want to see your boy. You need to catch him, Roger! Don’t let his first touch in this world be a machine; you must catch him.”
Roger nodded. “All right, anything you want.” He was too much in awe to argue, even though he was terrified that he might drop his child. He got off the table. Helena turned, using the extended stirrups like push-up bars–squatting, bearing down, and grunting with each urge–in between efforts, resting her back on the edge of the bed. Soon, Roger could see the head of his son beginning to protrude from between Helena’s legs.
“I can see him, Helena. I can see him. Keep going, honey! Keep going. Don’t stop.” Roger could hear the wonder in his own voice.
“I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, Roger Gillian,” Helena gasped before squatting and grunting again. In a few more pushes their son’s head suddenly burst forth, and Roger, expecting the rest to fall out easily, touched his child for the first time. Helena bent forward to see her child and with one more push, brought a new baby boy into the world.
Roger held his son, who took a deep breath through purple lips and began to scream. He looked at his wife in awe. “You’re a superhero. You know that? You’re amazing!” The left side of Helena’s mouth twitched upward in a grin as the computer dared to intervene.
“Dr. Porter, let’s get you lying down, may we? That way I can better attend to you and your child.” Helena only nodded as the bed she leaned against lowered itself so that she could lie back on it.
October, Pax Imperium Year 318: 10 Years Before Launch
When she first saw him, he looked worse than she had anticipated. His face was so puffy she honestly didn’t recognize him. But that is what happens when you lie on the floor of an escape pod for a standard week with a mostly severed leg, a collapsed lung, a couple of punctures in your heart, and who knows how many other wounds the doctors didn’t tell her about. They still wouldn’t let her in the room when they changed the dressings on his abdomen. Helena was smart enough to know that meant something had torn through his guts as well.
She still felt sick when she thought about it. How had he gotten himself to the escape pod? she wondered. Mercifully, about the only thing that didn’t seem to be damaged was his brain. He had signs of a concussion and some minor swelling but no indications of permanent damage. Nothing would be known for sure until he returned to consciousness.
Helena stood holding the bed rail, looking at the partially reconstructed body of her husband.
“You know, he wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for his compression suit and the EMNs,” a doctor said conversationally as he examined Roger’s chest. The doctor was one of a group of 7 or 8 women and men who seemed to appear randomly throughout Helena’s watches at Roger’s bedside. She thought this dark-haired and olive-skinned guy had something to do with the heart. He always seemed eager to make some kind of connection with her. In her current mood, his persistent smile grated. Helena wanted to be left alone in her grief. “The emergency medical nanites injected by the compression suit had the two heart punctures sewn up in under 30 minutes. We believe that is a record. They did a damn fine job.”
Helena gave the doctor a blank stare for three beats as his words worked their way through her grief. “Oh” was the only word that escaped the flood of her thoughts.
The doctor appeared to be irritated with her lack of enthusiasm for this miracle of medical technology. “It saved his life, you know. He couldn’t really circulate his own blood until they were done.”
Helena just nodded and tried to put on a smile. The effort was pitiful.
The doctor’s smile missed half a beat. He looked at her with a clinical eye for a moment, started to speak, and then returned to his chart, silent for the rest of his check of Roger.
Helena returned to her vigil, a tear streaking down her left cheek. Sometime after the doctor left, there was a gentle knock on the field. Helena looked up. A small, elderly man stood waiting for permission to enter. His white collar and black shirt gave him away as a chaplain. The red cloth belt tied around his waist denoted him as a member of the Apollonian Catholic Church, the sect favored by the Athenian crown.
At almost any other moment in her life Helena would have been more likely to act with anger at this intrusion from unwanted and unasked-for religion. There really wasn’t any call for it. Here was a purveyor of disease, the source of an illness, weakness. Priests and chaplains were people who preyed on others when they were at their most vulnerable, their weakest. It was a vulture’s job, picking over dead bones. Yet here she was weak, vulnerable, and alone, desperately in need of someone to talk to, with no will to resist religious sorcery.
Thwop. The force field snapped open. The sorcerer cast his first spell, a smile. Helena didn’t respond. She simply looked back at her husband, quiet tears running down her cheeks. She felt vulnerable and hated herself for the weakness that allowed this man to have any say in that vulnerability. He nodded, approached the bed rail, put his hands upon it, and looked down. They stood that way for some time.
The vulture again tested the readiness of its kill. “I hear that there has been quite a miracle in this room.”
“So they say.”
“Dr. Karmy said you didn’t seem too happy about it. He was concerned about you.”
“Well, he needn’t have been. I am fine.”
“You know, when I was a younger priest, I did a funeral for a seven-year-old once who had wandered out to a pond by her home to swim. Well, after some time, a group of trees, big trees, Athenian sequoias, you know, came wandering over the hill and found the pond. They surrounded the whole thing and waded into it to drink. Well, when the little girl didn’t come home that evening, the parents assumed the worst. They got out a search party and went after the trees. By the time they found them, they had rejoined the main forest group. There was no way to separate out the group that had been at the pond and have a good look. They searched for a week and couldn’t find a thing.
“Then one of the searchers found one of her shoes. The shoe looked like it had been processed by one of the trees and spit out. That was it for me. There was the evidence I needed. Sequoias have unintentionally killed unwary adults when they are on the move. I figured it was obvious what had happened to the kid. The parents wanted to keep looking, but, being young and foolish, I pushed. I argued they needed to face facts, move on. So we held a funeral.
“Three days later, a krettle farmer goes out to check his buckets in the main forest, and there is this little girl sitting on the edge, just outside the trees, hungry, exhausted, missing her shoes, but alive. Needless to say, the parents were absolutely overjoyed. No one in my congregation held it against me. (If you’ve ever been around a parish, you know what kind of miracle that was.) Everyone just wanted to celebrate the return of this child.
“The problem was, I held it against me. How could I have doubted? How could I have given up on just chance, on her will to live, on God? How many hours sooner would this little girl have been found if her parents had continued to look? Why was I prone to believe so thoroughly in catastrophes but not in miracles? For a while, the whole thing put me into a real funk. It took a while for me to forgive myself. But that experience changed me. I decided that I would believe in miracles just as much as I believed in catastrophes and quit predicting either.”
Helena nodded quickly. She understood how the old priest had felt, and the lump in her throat denied her the ability to speak. Her doubt and fears felt cynical. If she and Roger had a future together, she promised herself she would live without cynicism. She would hope from that moment forward, even if it were a fool’s hope, a blind hope. The priest put his hand on her arm, and for a while they didn’t speak as Helena cried tears that finally broke the dam of her sense of guilt.
He is an expert picker of bones, thought Helena.
Month 17, Ship’s Time
Helena woke to her milk letting down before Brody began to cry this sleep cycle. For a couple of minutes, she lay in the dark listening to his movements and enjoying Roger’s arm draped around her middle. Then, having compassion on her husband, she slipped out of his arms and walked around the bed to pick up her infant son before he woke his father with a cry. One of the many things she appreciated about Roger was his eagerness to participate with Brody. Roger insisted that the makeshift cradle that he had constructed be placed on his side of their bed. Coming back to her side, she propped her back against the clear wall of the dome that made up the roof of their quarters on the command deck. For once, four-month-old Brody attached himself correctly. The now-familiar feeling of Brody’s eager sucking subsided after a couple of minutes, and both of them settled in for a comfortable mid–sleep cycle feeding. Helena breathed deeply.
Above her head, the galactic center spread out as an incredible ribbon of blue and violet light. How many human beings had ever seen the galaxy blue-shifted by near–light speed travel in this way? Maybe a few thousand of the five hundred billion living in the galaxy today. Helena never tired of looking at it. In the first few months of their journey, the colored ribbon brought with it a sense of perspective. She was small, unimportant in herself. There was a Zen-like quality to this thought for Helena. It reminded the fiery, ambitious, professor of computer science why she had thrown all her success away for a relationship, for a man.
Roger rolled over in his sleep, looking for the warm body of his partner. Finding her sitting up, he put his arms over her leg and his head on her thigh. Helena reached her left hand down to stroke his hair.
Tonight, like many nights since the birth of Brody, a blue-shifted galactic center did not bring with it the contentment and rest that it used to. There was fear there as well. Helena sighed, looked down, and found the eyes of her son waiting for her. She smiled. She desperately wanted him to feel secure. But how could she give him a security that she herself did not possess? Where had she led them?
How had she dared to bring this life into the world knowing that her actions only threatened to take it again in a few short years? What right did she have to be so callous? Her choice hadn’t been just her own. That would have been easy in comparison to the weight and guilt she felt now. It wasn’t just herself she had condemned to starvation and ruin, it was also her child, her husband. There is always hope, a voice whispered in her head. Yes, but that isn’t the problem, is it, Helena? she thought. The problem is that you have no right to take risks based on blind optimism for anyone but you. You have no right to risk them. Yet the deed is done, Helena Porter. Now you have to live with it. If this goes badly, which by all rights it will, how will you forgive yourself?
Brody’s eyes, which had been studying her face intently, looked just past the top of her head. Helena watched their focus change ever so slightly, and, for the first time in his life, Brody Gillian gazed with the minutest speck of comprehension on one small piece of the cosmos. His eyes widened and body stiffened. All interest in nursing ceased, and he let go of his mother’s nipple, leaving milk to drip from the corner of a mouth left open in wonder. Trying to see more, he arched his back, nearly knocking himself out of his mother’s arms and onto the sleeping head of his father below. Helena repositioned him so he could look up. Brody remained mesmerized. Then, after several minutes, he turned back to find his mother’s face. Passionate to see her comprehend his wonder, he stared back into her eyes again and used his whole body to smile.
“Yes, Brody, I see it. It is amazing, isn’t it?” his mother whispered.
Month 4, Ship’s Time
Helena nodded. “It is going to get tight. No doubt about it, but we can do it.”
Roger shook his head and reached behind her to grab off the shelf a stray protein bar he had been staring at. “No, Helena, it just won’t work. There is no way that conservation alone is going to get us through 12 extra months of flight time. That doesn’t even count all the time necessary to set up the gate. Helena, we have to find a source of food,” he said, putting the protein bar down in front of her.
“OK, Roger, what do you propose?”
Roger smiled. “Vox, name the base elements used in human nutrition.”
“The molecules used in human nutrition are composed chiefly of four elements: hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon, as well as various other elements in quite small proportions.”
“Thank you, computer.”
“You are welcome, Mr. Gillian.”
Helena grinned at Roger.
“What? No! It was just habit, honey. It talks. I am polite.”
Roger rolled his eyes. “Getting back to the topic at hand, it isn’t exactly like these elements are rare on this ship. We just have to figure out how to get them into a form we can use.”
Helena looked incredulously at Roger, “So we’re going to eat the ship?”
“Not to start, though I am not ruling it out if it came to it. The first thing we are going to do is recycle the food we already eat.”
Helena squinted and frowned. He can’t be serious, she thought. Even the thought of what Roger had suggested made her feel a little queasy.
Roger laughed. “That is not what I meant, Helena. We aren’t talking about the old reprocessing they did back in the sieges during the Imperial War 300 years ago. Nooooo.” He waved his hands in front of his face in disgust.
He continued, “Back in my soldier days, we had these matter converters we used for long black ops missions and isolated bases on things like asteroids and such. The idea was that soldiers, with few resources around them, could produce the nutrition they needed to survive. They break everything down to its component elements and then put it back together into food. Well, the particular one used by my unit was a very finicky model and kept breaking down. I must have taken that thing apart and put it back together 200 times. I could build one in my sleep.
“Once the thing is built, we recycle what comes out the back end and use it again. All the compounds are there, we just have to reorganize them into something we can eat. Of course, that takes energy, but I think you may have bought us enough with your idea about keeping the gravity low. So basically we let the matter converter put the energy back in by turning our waste into fats, sugars, and proteins we can process. Then we let our body take that energy all back out again. Along the way, we let the computer tell us what other minerals we need to add to the mix. Calcium could be a problem. I am not sure where we are going to get that, but just about everything else I think we can find a little here and a little there to use aboard the ship somewhere. We may be a little weak-boned by the time we get home, but I think we can live.”
Roger looked at Helena with a queer look in his eye. “You didn’t think I was going to agree to this without having at least a plan for how to make it work, did you?”
Month 29, Ship’s Time
“Brody, no! No, Brody!”
Helena looked up from the table in the galley and out the door across the landing toward the infirmary, which over the last year had become much more Roger’s lab and workshop than infirmary. Not that Helena had anything to say on that matter. The former galley was at least half computer lab at this point.
“Vox, what is taking place in the infirmary?”
“Mr. Brody picked up a rather dangerous tunable laser welder. By the time Mr. Gillian intervened, Mr. Brody had it in his mouth. Very dangerous.”
Helena smiled. Recently the computer had been spontaneously vocalizing its judgments, particularly regarding Brody. “Vox, feel free to let Mr. Gillian know when you see Brody engaging in dangerous activity.”
“In the past, Mr. Gillian seemed to become stressed and irritated when I did so. Recently, I have chosen to keep silent in order to avoid interfering with Mr. Gillian’s work, as it is important for your survival.”
Helena laughed, delighted with the computer’s train of thought, then said seriously, “Vox, Roger will get his work done whether he is stressed or not. Brody’s safety is more important, so go ahead and irritate him, OK?”
“Understood, Dr. Porter.”
Thinking again about Roger’s tone with Brody, Helena decided that maybe it was time for Dad to get a break. She stood and walked the corridor to the infirmary. Sticking her head around the corner, she saw sixteen-month-old Brody cruising along the lowest rack of Roger’s tool-shelf, looking for another weapon of potential destruction he could pick up.
Brody was so clearly Roger’s son. His wavy dark hair matched his father’s. But it was his grin that did the trick. Roger had this lopsided way of smiling that used only one side of his mouth. He didn’t really smile straight, unless there was some kind of camera floating near his face. It had only been a few short weeks after birth when the exact same look had passed across Brody’s face. Now it was an almost permanent feature whenever the toddler got time with his dad.
In the center of the room, on what at one time had been a bed on which she delivered a baby, stood the matter converter in mid-fabrication. Roger had a monocle-style microscope strapped over one eye and a micro laser welder in his hand. In the last year, the former medical claw had been methodically transformed into a fabricator’s assistant. Currently, it was engaged in laying out microscopic connections on a circuit board while Roger used the microscope and laser welder to put them in place.
Helena stepped in the room and scooped Brody up in her arms. He smiled and looked down at the shelf he had just left behind.
Pointing, he said, “Toos!”
Helena smiled at her son. “That’s right, honey, tools.”
Roger finished a couple more welds and then looked up at his wife.
“Tag,” she said. “I’m it.”
“Thanks. Little Munchkin is a bit of a handful today.” Roger walked around the table to his wife and child. He tickled Brody’s stomach with a thick gloved hand.
Brody giggled. “Top, Dada. Top!” he said with a smile.
The gloved hand reached around and gently cupped Helena’s rump. Roger pulled her in for a kiss. Brody leaned in and added his slobbery wet open mouth to the moment of intimacy.
Helena pulled back and wiped drool off her cheek. “OK, kiddo, we really need to teach you how to kiss,” she said.
Helena broached the next question carefully. Roger appeared to be in a good mood. “So how’s it going in here?”
Roger shrugged. “All right, I guess. It would help if I had, you know, some fabricating tools from, oh, say, 400 years ago. But I have to say, there is something enjoyable about building it by hand. You feel like you’re accomplishing something. I’m pretty sure I have all the parts I need. I just have a few bits to find. I think I’m still about six months away from completion, but I have a plan and know most of the major steps I need to take to get there. Even then, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it to work.”
Helena nodded. She wondered if the fear she saw in Roger’s eyes was mirrored in her own. Today his fear was buried deep, like a sleeping volcano, but it was ever present. How could it not be? thought Helena. She knew what she felt every time they opened a new package of food stores for dinner. Already the galley felt perilously empty and their voyage wasn’t even half done yet.
Helena stood on her tiptoes and whispered in Roger’s ear. “You’re my hero. I know you can do it.”
Month 21, Ship’s Time
Helena was sitting in the galley, walls lined with food. Suddenly her ears began to pop. Worry flooded her soul. “Brody? Brody, honey, where are you?” She ran. She looked in every compartment on the ship, coming last to their quarters. The door wouldn’t open, but there was a window in it she could see through. She didn’t remember the window being there previously. Inside, her infant son, wrapped tightly in his blankets, floated slowly upward to a gaping hole in the ceiling.
Helena pounded on the door. Vox answered her. “I am sorry, Dr. Porter, but I have had to seal off the command deck; we have had a hull breach.”
Helena startled awake. Tears came unwanted, and she shivered with fear. She whimpered quietly.
Roger rolled over. “Honey? Are you OK?”
“I had a nightmare. The same one,” Helena said.
“It’s been eight months since Brody was born, Helena. Don’t you think this postpartum stuff is done yet?”
“I don’t think this is postpartum hormones, Roger. This just comes with the territory right now,” answered Helena. I bet I wouldn’t have these nightmares if we were on solid ground. Or maybe I would just worry about predators and thieves. She brought her back close to his chest, “Roger, just hold me.”
Roger reached around her and cupped her covered breasts in his hands. She pressed her back into him and sank into his embrace, allowing his warm touch to sooth her soul.
Month 43, Ship’s Time
Helena felt her frustration instantly rise. Roger’s timing was impeccable. He had this habit–they had discussed it previously–of telling Helena bad news at the most inopportune times. Currently, Helena was still coming down from their intimate high, which had peaked only two minutes previously. They lay in their bed with Helena’s head on Roger’s bare chest, her hand gently playing in the hair on his abdomen. It was at this moment that dearest Roger decided it was appropriate to announce, “I have to take a walk outside.”
Roger squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead with his right hand. “Sorry! Timing, right?”
“Yes, Roger! Timing. But now that you’ve blown the mood anyway, why don’t you slowly repeat what you said, because I don’t think I could have heard you correctly.” Helena recognized the daggers in her words. She wasn’t leaving Roger much of a path forward, but she didn’t feel like tempering yet. She wanted him to sweat. How he responded next would likely determine how they looked back on their fourteenth anniversary.
Roger flinched a little, and Brody stirred in his bed across the room but did not wake. Clearly Roger understood his danger. “Why don’t we talk about this later? Sound good?”
Wrong answer, thought Helena. “No, I would like to talk about it now.” Her words were ice. This didn’t bode well. It might just be a fourteenth anniversary to remember.
Roger closed his eyes and sighed. He took one more long breath, then looked at her, and said with sincerity, “Helena, I’m so sorry. I wish I could take the words back. We shouldn’t be dealing with this right now. I have to take a walk outside to get some bits of ceramics for the matter converter.”
“Why can’t you get them from somewhere in the ship?”
Roger nodded. “I looked, honey. Vox and I have looked. It’s what I’ve been up to for the last three days. The only other place I could find them is in the life support system, but I don’t suppose there really is any point to building a matter converter if we are just going to die of air poisoning.”
“Well, look again,” Helena ordered.
Roger refused to take the bait, frustrating her even more. “Helena, you’re welcome to look. I don’t want to go out there. I just don’t think we have a choice.”
Helena finally considered what Roger was saying. “But Roger, if something goes wrong.” Helena put her leg over him and moved closer.
Roger wrapped her in a tighter hug. “Nothing’s going to go wrong, Helena. You’ll see. I’ve done it before.”
“Yes, but not at 99% of C.” Helena could hear the desperation creeping into her voice.
“Yeah, well, we have the plasma screen out in front of us which has worked for years. I mean, if anything had gotten through, we would have known about it before now, right?” Roger rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfully, “I guess we really wouldn’t have known about it since we would have been vaporized, but we’re still here, right?” Then he added with a mischievous grin, “Anyway, I’ve decided it isn’t really the ship that is moving at all. We have just slowed down to zero and revealed the truth that everything else travels at .99% of C all the time.”
Helena chuckled, despite herself, at this bit of humor and added another fear to the growing collection she kept in a far-off part of her consciousness. She moved up and kissed Roger. “Just be careful, OK?”
December 25th, Pax Imperium Year 318: 10 Years Before Launch
Helena had just turned away from his hospital bed for a second when it happened. She took a bite of her sandwich when she heard a gurgle and the sounds of Roger moving suddenly in his bed. Helena, who had just been telling the still very ill Roger about her day, looked back to see his face turning an awful bluish gray and panic in his eyes as he fought for a breath that would not come. Slowly, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, and his body began to tremor slightly.
“Roger!” Helena screamed.
The auto EMT rode out of the corner on its track along the ceiling, and a quiet buzzer began to ring outside the room.
Helena panicked. “I’m going to lose him! He’s gone! Not now! I can’t lose him now!”
Two nurses rushed into the room. One of them grabbed Helena none too gently by the shoulders and aimed her toward the door. “You. Outside. Now!” she said with more than determination.
Month 42, Ship’s Time
Stop watching him, Helena. She chided herself. He knows what he is doing. Helena had made a determined effort not to spend her morning watching Roger outside the ship. Nominally, she was supposed to be finishing up some code that would upgrade Vox’s decision-making core. However, in two hours she had only managed to open her source code repository and Vox’s decision-making backup. Most of that time she had spent watching the view from the shoulder cam on Roger’s compression suit and checking the stats to make sure he had enough air.
“Mama, read!” Brody dumped a data pad on her lap.
Now I understand why people introduce their children to intraspace so early. Helena chuckled at herself. She had always passed judgment on parents who plugged their children in and left their brains to stew on intraspace rot. She still thought what they did was terrible, but now at least she understood it. She was continuously exhausted, and this active little munchkin was clearly the problem. The last two years had provided one revelation after another and changed much of her thinking about children and parents. She tended to be a lot more sympathetic to the parents and a lot less sympathetic to the kids.
Helena looked down at Brody and smiled. I guess I might as well read to Brody. It’s not like I’m going to get any work done. Looking down she said, “All right, honey, I will read to you.” She grabbed the data pad just before it slid off her knees. Brody’s eyes flickered with joy, and his whole face smiled.
I need to do this more often, thought Helena. She slid off her chair onto the grating that made up the floor. Helena leaned back against the low cupboard that sat next to what had once been a galley table and now served as her desk. From this vantage point she could still keep an eye on the wall across from her desk on which she was projecting the feed from Roger’s cam. Brody crawled up and leaned back again his mother’s breasts.
Oh, lord, not this one again, thought Helena. The on-board computer didn’t have many children’s books in its data banks. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been room. It’s just that the ship’s provisioning officer didn’t really think it important to include children’s literature for a childless couple that had no intentions of creating a family. Vox had managed to scrounge up about fifty of them from various times in human history by searching the encyclopedic databases. By now, they had read all of them to Brody, but Brody didn’t care much for variety. He seemed to study repetition. He wanted the same five or six books read to him again and again. Of those five or six, Helena only despised one, Struwwelpeter. Of course, it was Brody’s favorite. Helena decided that since she had managed to distract Brody with Green Eggs and Ham for the last five or six times he brought her Struwwelpeter, it probably was not going to work again–better to scratch the itch occasionally.
Helena plunged in. “Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffman. Merry Stories and Funny Pictures.” Merry and funny, my ass, thought Helena.
Brody giggled hysterically as the first picture came into view. “Funny hair, Mama!”
Helena sighed and just shook her head as she stared at Brody sitting on her lap.
Fifteen minutes later, Brody abruptly scooted off her lap and stood up just in the middle of Hoffman’s tale, The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup. Helena was relieved. Brody looked back at Mommy and said, “Tools, Mama. Play tools.” Before Helena could say anything, Brody wandered out of the room to his Dad’s workshop, where Roger had built some play tools. Brody loved to use them to “build stuff.” Helena could hear him rummaging around in the workshop, preparing to drag his box of tools back to her office.
Helena looked down at the book, clicked back a couple of pages to the story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, and decided that fit or no this was the last time she read Struwwelpeter to Brody. He was known to still suck his thumb occasionally at night, and Helena recognized that at some point he would put the pieces together. How could parents be so cruel? thought Helena.
She was still looking at the picture of the Scissor Man when two things happened at once. First, there was some kind of giant flash from the screen on the wall opposite her. However, Helena didn’t have time to process this information before the gravity on the ship changed drastically. Helena pitched forward, rolling across the floor. Behind her, their remaining supplies and foodstuffs began to pour off the shelves. Helena hit her head full force on the shelving that stood on the wall opposite her, next to the space on which she had projected the image from Roger’s shoulder cam. Helena felt sleepy. In the last moments of haze before her consciousness fled reality, some small but uninterested part of Helena recognized that her ears had begun to pop.
Month 41, Ship’s Time
Most of the time, when Roger stepped outside a ship, the experience left him with a huge smile on his face, but not today. He always pictured his current ship as a seed with a tail, designed to waft it on the wind. The crew quarters behind him made up a tiny fraction of the overall ship-gate complex. This oval shaped bubble, which held his wife and child, was attached to a half-kilometer log spine that stretched out from the tail of the ship. At the end of this spine, the round, kilometer wide, gate sat at an angle perpendicular to the rest of the ship. The gate was attached to the spine by hundreds of cables, which stretched from the spine in middle of the gate’s circumference to its inner rim.
The plan for the day had been quite simple: crawl down the superstructure of the ship, use his magnetic boots to walk down the half-a-kilometer spine, travel another kilometer or more around the future space gate to access E3, and then step inside. When inside the gate, he was to perform the simple maneuver of unscrewing a hatch, removing it, and taking out three different pieces of quartz carbide ceramics. Then all he had to do was replace the cover and get back home.
That was the simple plan, but this intraspace practice simulation hadn’t exactly gone as planned. Roger took a deep breath from his Helmet and Fresh Air Respiration system. The HeFAR provided a nearly skintight clear protection for his face and fresh air for his lungs. He tried to relax. His flight would be over in another minute or so.
The first sign of trouble had come when it had taken him a half an hour to find the small tear Vox had planned in his compression suit, which, until it was repaired, wouldn’t allow the airlock to depressurize. Roger became suspicious when there had been several unexpected obstacles on his crawl down past the engines to the spine. None of these were on design specs for any gate ship in the last fifty years, which he had spent the better part of the last two weeks studying with great care. But planning for the unexpected was part of why he and Vox had been simulating this walk for over a month.
The topper came when he went to clip onto the hand-railings for his walk down the spine to the gate. He went to grab one of the railings while he readied his clip and an eight-foot section snapped off in his hand, completely rusted. With only his magnetic boots holding him to the ship, the sudden snap of the railing caused him to lose his balance and pitch forward over the edge of the tiny platform behind the massive engines at the back end of the ship. Roger looked into the void.
His magnetic boots were designed to keep him attached to the ship when standing firmly on top of them. If he applied pressure they were designed to snap loose and allow him to step forward. With his center of gravity leaning somewhere out off the back of the ship, his boots did exactly what they were designed to do–they let go. Roger tipped head over heels into empty space, spinning freely on his own axis with no means to stop himself.
Helena, thought Roger. None of the simulations Vox had put together in the last month had been nearly this difficult. Disgusted, Roger threw the rusted railing at the ship the next time it came into view. Honestly, Helena, rust? How could a railing get rusty in space? There’s no water in deep space. Give me a break. “Vox, did Dr. Porter help you create this simulation?” said Roger, as he did another rotation.
“Yes, Mr. Gillian. Helena did help me create this scenario.”
“I see,” said Roger, not amused. “Alright, let’s get me back onto that walkway before I puke in my HeFAR”
“Yes, sir!” There was the slightest pause, and then, “I am sorry, sir, but I am unable to access the controls for your suit. You will need to do this manually.”
“Aw! Come on, Helena!” Roger pressed a couple of keys on the data pad embedded in the left arm of his suit. His inner ear was not liking all this rotation one bit. He switched to fly-by-sight on his heads-up display, then looked at the pathway. Using the heads up mind reader contained in his suit, he told his compression suit with his thoughts to orient him on the point selected, even as it swung out of view. Little jets began to fire from his hips and shoulders, reducing his rotation and bringing the railing front and center.
Roger took half a second to chuckle at the intellectual vertigo of using a computer-simulated heads up mind reader inside an intraspace simulation while his real mind and body used a similar mind reading device to create the simulation in the first place. His real body lay comfortably on the bed in their quarters. He was about to direct his compression suit to fly to the point he had selected, when he decided he would walk the underside of the spine, in case Helena had any other surprises planned for him on his scheduled route. Better yet, why not avoid all her little traps all together? he thought. He looked toward his destination at the end of the spine over a half a kilometer away. The suit automatically fired a small burst to compensate for the spin he added to his mass by rotating his head. He looked at the gate about where he expected the E3 hatch to be located, then told the suit to fly there at low speed. He figured he better conserve energy, in case Helena had other surprises for him.
“I am going off plan, Vox,” Roger told the computer.
“Very well, sir. I believe that fulfills one of Dr. Porter’s goals for this simulation.”
“I’ll bet it does, Vox.” While flying straight and true toward the point on the two kilometer round gate towed on the thread of a spine, Roger shook his head back and forth in both amusement and disgust. His motion caused his suit to send out little pulses with each shake of his head. He decided there was no way he was going to let Helena see him sweat.
Month 42, Ship’s Time
The actual journey to the E3 hatch had been nothing like the simulations Helena had thrown his way in the last two weeks. There had only been one little hitch. Rather than being made of a single piece of woven carbon nano-tubing, the railing along the spine had instead been made of steel. Roger noted with amusement that, given water, a rusted railing would have been technically possible. In contrast to carbon nano-tubing, steel required posts attached to the spine at given intervals to support the railing. Roger was forced to detach his clip at each one of these posts and reattach it on the other side. He compensated for this little design quirk by using two clips, always keeping one attached to the railing.
The walk to the gate had been absolutely spectacular. He found himself wanting to stare not only at the blue shifted horizon in front of the ship but intrigued by the red shift and darkness behind his ship as well. At one point, Roger just stood still and turned in place, taking in the change in color of the bright stars around him. “Spectacular!” he said to no one but himself. “Beyond amazing!”
“I quite agree, Mr. Gillian.”
Vox’s unexpected answer brought Roger back to the present. “How are we doing on time, Vox?”
“We are running a little ahead of schedule. Although I would prefer that we keep that margin, in case we need it later.”
Roger smiled in his HeFAR. “Duly noted, Vox.”
The recovery of the parts needed from the gate went without a hitch. Roger fitted the last screw back in place and placed the tools attached to him by retractable lines back in their pouch. He zipped his bag closed, and began to climb out of hatch E3. He was half way out of the hatch, almost ready to swing his legs free, when something went terribly wrong. To his right, far back along the path he had just walked, there was a blinding flash. The concussion knocked him backward into the E3 hatch. All the wind was knocked out of him, and his medical sensors started chirping instantly. He didn’t lose consciousness, although the snap and the pain in his side indicated he might have broken a rib or two. It was a lucky thing for Roger that he had been thrown backward into the hatch. There was no sound except that which vibrations carried through the gate underneath him, so Roger felt, rather than heard, the impact of large pieces of debris hitting all around his location. Breathing hurt. His compression suit tightened around his rib cage. This brought more pain, and Roger screamed. A slight prick at the back of his neck indicated that his suit had deployed emergency medical nanites.
As soon as he felt safe again, Roger struggled up, and took a look out of the E3 hatch. At each step up on the ladder, Roger thought he could feel the pieces of his ribs rubbing against each other, but there was no longer much pain. Far to his right, the metal of the gate stood up, twisted and broken. Most debris had passed on from his location, continuing outward away from the explosion with no gravity to stop it. The space around him was relatively clean, except for the few pieces that had embedded themselves in the deck of the gate here and there.
Then he remembered the ship and his wife and child. “Oh, shit!” He looked up quickly. Everything still seemed intact, but he could feel that the impact had induced a spin to the whole ship gate combination. That wasn’t good at all.
“Vox, what just happened? Are Helena and Brody OK?”
There was no answer.
“Vox? Ship status report, Vox!”
The computer chirped at him but did not speak. Well at least she can hear and understand me, thought Roger. Worried for his family, Roger scrambled up the last steps of the ladder.
He needed speed. He decided to fly to the small platform at the other end of the spine on the back of the ship and then hike his way back across the superstructure. He used the intraspace connection in his compression suit to target his flight guidance system on the platform at the other end of the spine. Once it locked on, he checked his flight status–all indicators were green–and jumped into the void.
After assuring himself there were no large objects in his path, he executed a spin so he could look back at the gate as he flew away. A good 25 percent of the left side of the gate was missing–vaporized or torn to shreds.
As the implications dawned on Roger, he simply began to cry. A picture of his son as an eight-year-old running into his arms after coming home from school ran through his head. He saw him headed off to college and just playing in the park. With dawning terror, Roger recognized that none of these were possible any longer. He sobbed.
Vox chirped at him again. Roger opened his eyes and saw a message on his heads up display. “Small hull breach. Helena and Mr. Brody alive and safe. Assistance requested for repair.”
Where are the maintenance bots? thought Roger. He decided to send that as a reply to Vox. His intraspace cap immediately recognized the difference and posted the return message.
“Inoperable. Small Electro Magnetic Pulse went off in ship same time as blast. Because of EMP, explosion likely not from meteor impact. Possible sabotage? My systems functional but disrupted. Running full diagnostic now. Expect answers in 20 minutes.”
Roger took another look at the gate, the reality of his situation hitting him again, but he quickly put it aside. Someone had just tried to kill his wife and child. While they weren’t dead yet, whoever tried to kill them might just as well have succeeded in the long run. I could just scuttle the whole ship. It would be kinder than starvation on an alien world or dying of air poisoning. Roger sighed, recognizing that he didn’t have the courage needed to relieve himself or his kin from the misery that was to come.
Life is just too tenacious, thought Roger. We keep on long after we should give it up.
Another voice in his head, sounding way too much like Helena, suggested, There is always hope.
No, this is too much. I am done with hope. I will merely continue. I will keep going, if for no other reason than that someone else wants me dead.
Roger turned away from the gate. Speaking out loud he said, “Vox, can you take over my flight controls and get me to that hull breach, or do I need to find it manually? What am I looking at, Vox? Do I need repair materials or what?”
October, Pax Imperium Year 318: 10 Years Before Launch
“Hang in there, man. Don’t give up.” Shock kept Roger hauling his buddy Joe to the escape pod. He shouldn’t have been able to walk on the leg nearly severed just above his knee, but the compression suit and the lack of pain kept him at it. He was finding it difficult to breathe even with the high oxygen mix provided by his HeFAR. He had to make it, though. He and Joe had been together since training, and, right now, Joe needed him. He wouldn’t let his buddy down. Another shudder and the sound of a tremendous explosion somewhere aft told Roger that the Korpis weren’t done with the Calliope yet. He continued to drag Joe behind him.
Finally, reaching the door of the open pod, he said, “Joe, we made it, buddy. We’re getting off this thing.” He looked behind him at the ruined ship and then noticed the slick trail of blood was too full of burned flesh. Joe’s boot and some of his leg lay on the deck twenty yards back. Roger looked down into the glassy eyes on the burnt face of his training buddy and recognized that Joe wouldn’t be coming with him. He decided he couldn’t process that right then. He hauled Joe into the escape pod with him and hit the large red button that initiated the automated launch and coded distress beacon.
Month 42, Ship’s Time
Roger and Helena sat next to each other in the destroyed galley. It was now a full standard day after the explosion, and not much had been accomplished in the way of cleanup. They had managed to re-pressurize the ship, stop the spin, and restore normal gravity. Neither he nor Helena had slept at all in that time.
When the hull breach started to depressurize the ship, Vox automatically sealed all the decks and compartments. Brody had been separated from his mother. When they could finally think, Helena and Roger went back and watched Vox’s feed from the workshop. Nothing could really be made out for a few minutes after the explosion due to the EMP. From what they got from Brody, he was apparently thrown onto one of the low shelves by the blast. This gave him good protection from the rain of sharp objects and scrap metal that cascaded off the shelves as the room reoriented itself to the new gravity. He escaped with a small cut on his hand, easily mended by Vox.
When they could pick up the feed, a panicked Brody had climbed the mound of debris to the now tilted door. Pounding on the door, he was screaming and crying for his mother. It took Roger three hours to fix the hull externally and for Vox to re-pressurize the ship. In all that time, Brody never gave up trying to open the door. He even searched out his play tools in the wreck of the workshop and tried to use them to fix it. Needless to say, he had clung fiercely to Helena when Vox had opened the doors. He had finally collapsed from exhaustion about six hours ago. When it was over, Roger knew he would never be able to watch that again. It hurt too much. He decided to concentrate on something else.
Now sitting in the mess, he looked at the data pad on which their supplies were listed. Food stores were no worse than before, but they had lost a surprisingly large supply of atmosphere in the hull breach. Roger had no doubt it had been planned–a random explosion, a hull breach, and an EMP at the same moment couldn’t be anything but planned, probably by the Korpis. They had pulled similar stunts over the years. The bitterness made a lump in his throat. He didn’t care about who had won the war. He just wanted to be left in peace with his family. They had fled from Athena to get away from this kind of stuff. The Korpis had simply come with them into deep space.
Honestly, he couldn’t believe their dumb luck. If he hadn’t been outside the ship, all three of them would currently be trapped somewhere on board with no way to access any supplies. They would be as good as dead. Of course, considering the energy it had taken to replenish what they had lost, Roger figured they might be dead anyway.
He sighed. No, they probably could work something out to get them to their destination if they jettisoned the gate and he could get the matter converter working. The real problem remained attached to the spine behind their ship.
Helena gently removed the medical patch from the swollen lump on her forehead. “What are we going to do?”
Roger couldn’t look her in the eye for fear that he would burst out crying. On a data-pad, he brought up a photo taken from his shoulder cam during yesterday’s flight back to the ship. In a voice on the edge of tears, he said, “It isn’t repairable. There’s just no way. It would be like fabricating a gate from scratch. I think we should jettison it. It would reduce our mass and the energy cost to slow down. If we do that, we should be able to make it to our destination.”
Helena swallowed hard, tears trickled from the corner of her eyes. “So if we do get there, what do we do, Roger?”
“I don’t know, Helena. We’re going to have to resupply. Then maybe we try to get a gravity assist from Arcadia itself to help with the acceleration, and we head home.”
Helena spoke calmly, quietly, “Roger, I am not stupid. There is no way we will be able to process that much fuel in our lifetimes.” She looked up from the table. “Look me in the eye, Roger. We aren’t going home, are we?” Her tone was steady, but tears ran freely down her cheeks.
“Probably not, Helena. Arcadia Five has a breathable atmosphere and water. It was the target of this gate, anyway. I think we will put down there until we can figure something out.”
Helena sniffed. They cried quietly for a few minutes, and Roger put his arms around his wife. “I’m so sorry, Roger. I should never have been so selfish. Brody should never have been born. It was incredibly self-indulgent of me.”
Roger shook his head. “No, Helena. This isn’t your fault. The fault lies with those who planted a bomb on a civilian ship carrying an exploratory gate. You know, the funny thing is, they tried to kill us, and they didn’t succeed. There really is no explaining it, and it has to count for something, somehow.” Roger wasn’t completely sure if he believed what he said right now, but if it would help Helena keep going that would help him.
Helena stared down at the table next to him. “Yes. You’re right, but what can we do about Brody?”
“What about him?”
“Well, someday we are going to be gone, and he will need someone to take care of him.”
Roger was completely taken aback. He sat back from her and tried to keep his voice calm. “Helena, I have no idea what we’re supposed to do then. That is years from now. I am just trying to keep us alive for the next few months. I hope we have a bunch of years to work it out.”
Helena looked at him, sober-eyed and serious. “But suppose it doesn’t happen. This isn’t exactly going well. What happens then? What if we don’t make it? Who raises Brody? He can’t take care of himself. We have to do something for him.”
Roger ran his hand through his hair. Worry caused his stomach to tighten into a cold knot. What would they do if something happened and Brody was left alone?
He sat silently for a moment. Then some semblance of a plan that might solve two problems at once shaped itself in his head. He looked intently at Helena and spoke with all the deliberation and will he could muster. “You keep working on that AI until the day you die, so that he has someone to talk to after we’re gone. Don’t leave him alone. You make Vox into the best surrogate mother you can possibly create.”
Helena thought for a second, returning his gaze. Then she closed her eyes and simply nodded her head.
February, Pax Imperium Year 319: 9 Years Before Launch
Roger stumbled and landed on the tile floor, his forehead striking first. His eyes squeezed tight, and his jaw became rigid. He reached up with his right hand to try to stop the throbbing pain. His left hand remained gripping the railing he had been using for balance just a few seconds before. With all the medical advances of modern technology, you would think they could come up with a way to teach somebody to walk again, he thought. His rehab hadn’t exactly been smooth.
It wasn’t like his brain didn’t remember–he walked just fine in intraspace–but his legs just wouldn’t do what he wanted. His brain was having trouble talking to all the reconstructed and lab-grown nerves which made up his left leg.
Roger was done, worn out, and exhausted by trying to rehab. He just wanted something in his life to come easy. He felt abused by fate, and that thought made him angry. He would fight his fate with all his might. He would damn the doctor who told him he might not ever be able to walk. He would find a way. He wouldn’t let this beat him, and he would show that bastard he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Roger gritted his teeth, rolled over on his side, and reached both hands up to the railing attached to the wall of the rehab facility. Then he pulled himself to a standing position.
At that moment, a nurse rushed into his room. “Mr. Gillian, you know you aren’t supposed to be out of bed. What are you doing? You could have hurt yourself.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t, did I?” said Roger, gently rubbing the swelling bump on his throbbing forehead.
Month 45, Ship’s Time
Roger smiled as he ladled sloppy gray gunk out of the bucket underneath the spigot of the matter converter. An almost three-year-old Brody squatted down just to the height of the bowl and bucket on the floor, watching intently.
“Dada, is this my dinner?”
“Yes, Brody. This is what we are going to have for dinner from now on.”
Brody’s brow wrinkled. “It smells funny.”
Roger grinned. “You’ll get used to it.”
Roger carried two bowls from his workshop to the galley. Brody brought his own. Tonight was a bit of a celebration dinner. They seemed to have finally gotten a break after they jettisoned the gate. Despite his feelings and his superstitious need to get that cursed thing away from his family, Roger had insisted on keeping the gate to scavenge it for as many useful parts as possible. That took another three months before they let it go. Roger made at least twenty salvage trips, grabbing everything from electronic components to scrap metal. Every compartment of their ship was now stuffed with electronics and pieces of the dead gate. They had finally released the stripped husk a couple of weeks prior.
The gunk the converter produced wasn’t exactly the healthiest thing a human could eat. Converters never could replicate everything humans took from the organic life forms they ate, but as long as they got the calories they needed, they wouldn’t starve. The trick would be to make sure they had enough muscle tone and health to find proper food after they arrived.
Roger watched Brody put the spoon to his mouth. The glop created by the matter converter had the taste and consistency of krettle that had been left on the counter for a couple of days–not exactly pleasant, but not inedible. He wasn’t sure how his son would handle it.
Brody took one taste and immediately spit the sloppy paste back out into the spoon. Roger was disappointed. It was difficult for him to be honest with himself about how much he really wanted his son to like what he had made for him. His face must have shone his disappointment, because almost three-year-old Brody took one look at his dad, smiled, and put the grayish paste back in his mouth. I guess both of us want the other person to be proud of them, he thought as he smiled back.
Brody desperately tried to keep smiling as he chewed up the paste and laboriously swallowed. Helena put her arm around Roger and just laughed. Then Roger started laughing, and Brody followed. It was the first laughter Roger could remember all of them sharing together in many weeks.
Month 2, Ship’s Time
Helena sat across from Roger at the minute fold-down table in the galley from him. “What do you think the future will be like for us, Roger?”
Roger laughed. It was their first meal together after their drug-induced sleep during their two months of high-G acceleration. They were both ravenous. “Oh, I don’t know, Helena. I guess that depends on whether or not we are right about that property investment we made on Theta Seven.”
Helena laughed, “Well, let’s hope so. Then we will be rich.”
Roger looked across the table at Helena, smiled, and just shook his head. “That is supposed to happen no matter what. We just have to deliver the gate on time.”
Month 59, Ship’s Time
Roger was surprised how calm he felt. “Vox and I ran the numbers twelve different times. This is the best scenario we can come up with. “
Helena nodded slowly. They were standing in what remained of Roger’s workshop. Helena put down the data pad in her hand. She smiled at Roger, reached across what used to be a patient bed, and squeezed his hand. “Then we know the choice we have to make,” she said matter-of-factly. “We’ll face it together? You and me?”
“Yes. We’ll face it together.” He managed a weak smile.
The string of luck that had given him and Helena hope they could safely reach Arcadia Five ended when they restarted the engines for their deceleration. Something was busted on engine two, probably by debris from the explosion a year and a half prior. They could still reach their destination with the energy they had available; they just couldn’t reach their destination and feed themselves, at least not all three of them. They could get Brody there alone, but not him and Helena as well. The energy they had left meant Brody’s parents would have to eat sparingly from this point forward, too sparingly.
Helena put down the data pad and turned to the mechanical talon that had once hung on the ceiling of the infirmary and watched over the delivery of their baby. It now moved around the ship on four makeshift legs. A series of different mechanical ends, useful for various tasks, were scattered around its platform base. “Well, Vox, we are going to have to make this transition a little faster than I think any of us want.”
“That is true, Helena. I will miss you and Roger. Please know that I will do my very best for Brody. I will make you both proud.”
In a voice choked with tears, Roger tried to speak, paused, and then tried again. “I am sure you will make us proud, Vox. You have had the best Mother in the world yourself. There is no way you could fail to be a great parent to Brody.
Helena cried for a moment. Then, recovering, she spoke to her last student in a tone reminiscent of the professor she had been. “Well, I am not ready to think about all of this. Let’s just stay in this moment in time, shall we? No future and no past.”
Month 21, Ship’s Time
Helena scooted toward him in the bed, pressing her back into his chest. Roger wrapped his arms around his wife, cupping her clothed breasts with his hands. Helena seemed to relax, shaking off the nightmare which had just moments before overwhelmed her. Roger leaned down and smelled Helena’s hair. He felt powerful. He always felt powerful with Helena in his arms. It still amazed him that this strong woman could find such rest in his embrace. After a few minutes, Roger kissed her hair gently and, moving her braid, the nape of her neck. Helena’s breath caught ever so slightly. She giggled quietly, rolled toward him, and kissed him long and slow. Taking his hand in hers, she pushed it up under her shirt.
Month 65, Ship’s Time
Roger heard and felt their bones click together as he held Helena in his arms. Exhausted by hunger, they lay naked on what remained of their bed. He couldn’t remember the last time they had had the energy to be intimate. The only thing his mind seemed to be able to focus on was his gnawing need for food; a need he could no longer fill. They had eaten their covers and their clothing over the course of the last couple of weeks. Roger figured they probably didn’t have any nutritional value, but at least they filled the ever-present void. He and Helena had given Vox the duty of supervising Brody’s meals several weeks ago. They hadn’t even really discussed it. They just both recognized that there was no way they could be around food without devouring it themselves, and this would jeopardize Brody.
Roger leaned forward and sniffed the wispy thin hair on Helena’s head. Much of it had fallen out by now. He put his paper dry lips to the back of her bony neck and kissed her. Helena reached down and placed her hand on his protruding hip.
Her voice was harsh and raspy as she spoke. “Do you regret your decision to let me take you on this trip?”
“No.” The answer surprised him, but it was true. He regretted nothing. “And I don’t regret our decision to bring Brody into the cosmos either. This isn’t the life I would choose for him, but I don’t regret our decision.”
Helena nodded. “Neither do I. For Brody, I still have hope.”
They didn’t speak again that night. In a few minutes, Roger felt the slow rhythmic breathing of his wife as she slept. He listened to only a few breaths before exhaustion forced him to let go of his remaining cares, and he too submitted to the forgetfulness of dreamless sleep.
Month 67, Ship’s Time; June, Pax Imperium Year 365
The bulging eyes staring out at Commander Hodgkins might not have been human. On the other hand, they were the only things possibly human on the mask of skin and bone that appeared on his small view screen. The man was stark naked. Hodgkins repeated his words. “This is Commander Hodgkins of the New Athens vessel Archimedes. We have been sent by the central government to assist you.”
The man closed his eyes and began to shake. At first the portly Hodgkins thought the man might be having a seizure. Then he began to wail uncontrollably. Hodgkins muted his pick-up. He looked at his XO. “Carter, get the medical team together, and get a shuttle ready. Tell Dr. Johnston that we have severe malnutrition aboard, but there is a survivor.”
The wailing skeleton put its toothpick arms around its washboard chest and held himself. The skin on its arms looked translucent and hung limp from its bones. For a while, he just continued to cry, but no tears ever came from his eyes.
Hodgkins took a deep breath. The gold buttons on his stark white dress uniform rose and fell. He had been on three other gate rescue missions in recent years. There had never been any survivors. In fact, the naked man was the first survivor in the sixteen rescue missions the central government had attempted. Hodgkins had always felt it best to greet the dead in his dress whites. Before now, none of the dead had ever talked back to him. Hodgkins wanted to look away. What the hell happened to him? How did he survive?
When finally under control, the skeleton spoke with a weak and raspy voice. “How did you know? When did they send you? All of you sent to the future for us? Why would you do that?”
This is the tricky part, thought Hodgkins. “Since you left, Mr. Gillian, there have been some changes. It was about a year after your launch that the house of Athena developed point-to-point wormhole technology. In the 48 years you have been gone, the gate you were supposed to bring to Arcadia has become virtually obsolete. I know this may be hard to believe, but Arcadia Five was colonized 25 years ago.”
Hodgkins winced as he said the next part. “I am sorry we couldn’t get to you any sooner. We couldn’t come alongside until you had slowed down to a non-relativistic speed. Even so, it has taken us the better part of two months to track you down and then catch up with you. You aren’t exactly where we expected you to be.”
Even before he had finished, the skeleton on the view screen was wailing again, but there was no sign of anger, no recriminations. That was what he had feared most when someone had answered his hail. No, Gillian’s cry was the sound of pure, soul-wrenching catharsis. Gillian held himself again with his toothpicks, putting a bony hand on each shoulder. Hodgkins had a hard time continuing to listen to him.
“Daddy?” A small boy looking noticeably healthier than his father wandered into the video pick up. “Daddy, what is wrong?”
A boy? There is a child! Hodgkin’s eyes opened wide in wonder. He quickly slammed off his pickup. Turning, he saw Carter just heading out the door with a couple of security personnel.
“Carter, there’s a child on board.”
“He looks like he was born in-flight. Make sure the doctor gets a good look at him, and make sure everybody follows a level one bio-hazard protocol. We don’t need to kill him with some disease; the kid probably has zero immunity right now.”
Carter nodded. “Aye, sir.” Looking as surprised as Hodgkins felt, Carter proceeded off the command deck.
Hodgkins looked back at the view screen. The father was simply holding his son and continuing to weep. The little boy patted his father’s leg. Here was the answer to many questions, most importantly why the ship was out of position and late. A deep sense of wonder, the close kin of respect, took root in Hodgkins. Turning on his pickup mike again, he spoke softly, “When was he born?”
Gillian straightened up and looked proud, almost fierce. “Month 13.” Then a look of concern flooded his face. He suddenly seemed too anxious to speak clearly, “His mother–my wife–Helena.” He waved a toothpick of an arm in front of his face, closed his eyes, took a breath, and began again. “Dr. Porter is ill. She couldn’t come to see you. She is in our bed, and she hasn’t left it in about a week now. Please hurry!”
Hodgkins nodded. “My medical staff is already on its way. We will do everything we can for her. You’re safe now. You just let us do the worrying for you for a little while, all right?”
January, Pax Imperium Year 369
The smell of warm sunny air wafted from the dust-covered street into the shop just off the square in the small settlement on Arcadia Five. A robotic arm, which looked like a bird talon on four legs, quickly sorted out some microscopic welding on a basic soil-processing unit. A buzzer chimed at the open door. Roger looked up from his workbench and removed the monocle-style electron microscope from his eye. An eight-year-old young man hurried to the swinging gate that divided his work area from the rest of the shop. Along the way, he deposited a data pad on the counter. His mother and one-year-old sister followed him out of the afternoon heat.
“What are you working on, Dad?”
“What does it look like, Brody?”
“I don’t know. It kinda looks like a heat exchanger, but the tailings are all wrong.”
“That’s because it isn’t a regular exchanger. This one is designed for water.”
Helena walked into the back of the shop, patted the robotic arm, and said, “Hello, Vox.” The arm continued its welding. Putting her arm around Roger, she leaned down and gave him a kiss. “I will leave you two boys to your work.” Then whispering in his ear, she added, “Just make sure he does his homework, OK?”
Roger smiled, reached out his arms, and folded his family into one big hug. “See you at home,” he said, before letting go.