At first she thought the white cloud floating across the blue sky had an interesting shape, almost like the face of a man.
Her head resting on her intertwined fingers, Allie lay stretched out on her long beach towel, which had been imprinted with multicolored stars and nebulae against black space. She let her gaze drift to the sun, so bright and beautifully yellow, then down to her friend Marcia.
“What’s that thing called,” Allie said, “when you see something that looks human?”
Marcia had been posing, more than relaxing, her torso lifted on her elbows, one leg drawn up; trying to catch the eye of the boys chasing the waves while pretending she didn’t notice them. She shrugged, but answered: “Pareidolia.”
Allie nodded, then returned her gaze languidly up the sky, back to the cumulus cloud. Except it wasn’t just vaguely suggestive of human features anymore. She sat up. The cloud had taken definite shape; as if some cosmic god had stuck his nose into the mist, which had molded around his face.
“Marcia,” she said, pointing. “Look.”
Reluctantly Marcia tore her gaze off the muscular boys. “I don’t see anything,” she said, then began to hum.
“What are you—?” The rest of the question died on Allie’s lips. The tune reminded her of something. Of someone? “What song is that?” she said finally.
Marcia stared. “What song?”
“The one you were humming just now.”
“I wasn’t.” And then, as if the question had reminded her of it, Marcia took up the tune once more, the melody beginning again in her throat, escaping through her closed mouth.
Allie shut her eyes, tried to place the melody. After a few minutes, her mind refusing to give up the answer despite, or perhaps because of the forcefulness of her concentration, she opened her eyes again and set aside that puzzle for the moment to focus on another: the face in the cloud. The oval shape, the dimpled chin, the thin lips, the protruding arrow of a nose, the round eyes a little too close to each other, the thick eyebrows and bald head.
“I know him,” she said.
Marcia stopped humming long enough to say “Who?” and then resumed the song.
The answer was there, but just beyond her mental reach. She could sense it, like something tucked away in a closet she couldn’t open. “I’m going home,” she said, standing.
Still propped up on her elbows, Marcia stopped humming, said, “Okay,” then began the song again.
Allie bent over to pick up her towel, but realization broke through: my God, it’s a lullaby.
Had someone sung it to her as a baby?
Now that she tried, though, she realized with rising panic that she couldn’t remember, not that far back … and not anything at all, as if a shroud had been cast over her memories.
“Marcia, I don’t feel so good,” she said, before she fell forward … and fell and fell, because the hard, gravelly sand wasn’t there to catch her. Instead she tumbled into one of the black empty spaces of her towel, slipping past the interstellar clouds, distant stars rising around her like columns of fire … falling and falling in the endless void until she lost consciousness.
By developing a strict daily routine, Andrick Peret had been able to hold the loneliness at bay for almost a year.
First, he had to finish his breakfast before he allowed himself to check the distress signal. That early morning sliver of time was the second best part of his day, and it wasn’t because the coffee (forbidden for so long) was delicious, better than any he’d ever had, or that he had his pick of a wide assortment of flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed breakfasts to choose from—sliced fruit, eggs soft- and hard-boiled, sausages, pancakes, waffles, all kinds of syrups and jams. After several weeks, even delicious food became commonplace; the novelty of popping off a tab and watching the coffee or food instantly heat up as air rushed in became routine even more quickly. No, he cherished that small stretch of time because he could eat his breakfast while anticipating the possibility that he’d walk into the small control room and find the blinking light had changed color.
Very soon after the crash, he’d created a subroutine that beamed out an SOS every hour, providing their location and status, and he’d wired it so that if a response came in at any point, a light on the dashboard would turn from red to green. A blinking green light meant that someone had acknowledged their signal throughout the night; maybe someone on their way to rescue them.
Every morning for eleven months, however, Andrick continued to see the light blinking the red distress color even before he’d entered the control room, its glow seeping out to tinge in crimson the gray metallic bulkheads. He still always went into the room to stare at the light. Then he would sit down in the cramped chair (the ship’s captain had been more like the ship’s entertainer, only rarely needing to visit this room; the real commanding and piloting were accomplished by various computer algorithms). From there, Andrick would review the previous day’s diagnostic reports to make sure everything was fine throughout what remained of the Pointed Star.
The first few days after the crash—before he was forced to develop his sanity-saving daily routine—there had been a few things to look into or repair. By profession he was a chemist, but he’d gone to graduate school on Luna, and had worked part-time to support himself at one of the moon’s space junkyards, fixing up old clunkers so they could be resold. And to supplement his out-dated knowledge, the ship had videos and instructions that could walk a reasonably handy person through fixing most things.
He’d skipped meals those first few days; he’d been too busy desperately looking for other survivors, then assessing and repairing the minimal damage in the remaining part of the ship. But once all of that was done, he’d instituted a regular schedule of lunches and dinners. It was good to have a routine, though he felt that these fancy dishes, some of them with labels displaying words he couldn’t pronounce, were wasted on him, who ate without enthusiasm but to sustain himself—and, later, to fill the hours too.
Because lately, only very occasionally did he have anything to look into or fix. Hyperspace ships were made well, and with several redundancies built in. They were meant to last centuries without issue—so long as their safety protocols didn’t catastrophically break down.
Which, of course, they had for the Pointed Star. As far as Andrick could reconstruct the accident, this was what had happened: only two light years into their outboard journey, the ship’s hyperspace engine had tried to fold a section of space occupied by a solid mass, likely part of the asteroid they were now permanently attached to, causing an explosion. That was never supposed to happen, of course; and in the unlikely event that it ever did, secondary protocols were supposed to kick in and move them away from the impact area at full speed. Instead, not detecting anything amiss, the ship had powered up the propulsion engine to drive right through; except, instead of the hyperspace tunnel that would have resulted from folding a cube of near-vacuum, the ship had brought them head-first into the explosion. The bubble-shaped prow had burned up and the fish-tail-shaped stern had slammed into the asteroid, the heat fusing the two objects together—saving his and Alicia’s life by sealing off the hull breach.
In those project-free days, there were ten to twelve hours before he could allow himself to settle into his makeshift cot in the closet he’d turned into a bedroom, and anticipate checking the light again in the morning.
But right before the end of each day came his actual favorite part: the slow walk down the corridor, usually from the control room, to the door of the ‘stern’ cabin, which was now the foremost part of the surviving half of the ship. There, for only fifteen minutes, he allowed himself to watch Alicia through the clear, narrow band running down the center of the mostly frosted glass door. Having the worst cabin on the ship had saved them; everything forward had been destroyed in the crash. Their room, which Alicia had won in a virtual reality contest, was tucked away at the rear with the supplies and storage and the never-visited control room, and had survived.
He allowed himself those precious minutes of watching Alicia, tucked up in her pod, then forced himself to turn around and head to the cot he’d made from used-up supply crates.
It was a good routine, and it helped many days go by. But after eleven months, he couldn’t maintain it any longer.
Marcia posed, more than relaxed, on her beach towel, her poor arms holding up her torso, one of her legs drawn up, maybe to show off her knee or ankle or something. She watched the well-muscled boys run toward and then away from the waves, while pretending she didn’t notice them.
Allie smiled and let her head fall back into her hands. Marcia could waste her vacation absorbed with boys if she wanted. Allie had come here to rest; she would spend her day on this towel, doing nothing at all; dozing, maybe, warmed by the sun and cooled by the gently blowing breeze. Maybe she would let herself be convinced to take a quick—
She pulled her hands out from under her head, pushed Marcia away. Except Marcia wasn’t near enough to reach. And yet Allie would’ve bet the rest of the vacation that Marcia had run her fingers through Allie’s hair.
“Did you just touch me?” she asked.
“Weird question,” Marcia said, then began humming a song.
Allie’s hand shot up to her head. She’d felt it again, this time a soft hand tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“You okay?” Marcia said, except it wasn’t Marcia. A man stooped over her; a sad-looking man with a bald head and thick eyebrows. “You okay?” Marcia’s voice asked while the man’s thin lips moved.
Without waiting for her response, the man reached out his hand again, stroked Allie’s hair.
Allie didn’t pull away from him. She felt frozen between fear at the strangeness of the situation—and an even more bewildering sense of safety. Somewhere deep down, her mind recognized that man and knew he meant her no harm.
He hummed the familiar song as he tucked her hair behind her ear. When he was finished, he leaned back and popped out of existence, instantly replaced by her friend posing on her towel, as if she’d never left.
“You okay?” Marcia asked, without looking away from the boys in the water.
Allie stood, picked up her towel, and shook the sand off the vast cosmos with its many stars and nebulae.
And then, with sudden, strange insight, as if she’d already had this realization and then forgotten it, she recognized the song: a lullaby. But had someone sung it to her as a child?
Why couldn’t she remember? She pushed down the rising sense of panic, forced herself to stay calm. She couldn’t remember—now that she tried—any further back than this morning, when they’d left their beach-side hotel for the short walk along the pristine sand. Then, still forcing herself to evaluate her situation calmly, she thought: pristine white sand and pristine white clouds, clear blue water and clear blue sky; a golden sun she could stare into. Shouldn’t staring into the sun hurt your eyes?
Of course it should—in the real world. You’re dreaming, she simultaneously realized and yelled at herself. Wake up!
When his fifteen-year old daughter won two tickets aboard the Pointed Star, Andrick Peret initially insisted that she pass on the opportunity. But, much like her mother, Alicia had a way of pushing past any resistance he offered. Also like her mother, their daughter was an eternal optimist, who saw excitement and opportunity and adventure in everything, whereas he could only see risks, dangers, obstacles.
Alicia had placed first in some virtual reality space simulation obstacle course, winning the pair of tickets aboard one of the new pleasure-cruise hyperspace ships. Previously, hyperspace had been a road traveled only by governments, large research institutions and multiplanetary corporations, but now several smaller private companies were promoting elite tourism by way of hyperspace, allowing the rich and famous to go beyond the solar system—to be one of the first human beings to visit further and further into the galaxy.
Andrick had retired the previous December. His wife, Treanne, was hip-deep working on her third major exhibit of her art, which was to open a few weeks after the Pointed Star was scheduled to return. So, if Alicia wanted to go on this trip, she needed to convince her father to accompany her.
He’d put his daughter off, but the company rep needed an answer, yes or no, so they could move ahead or move on to the next person.
“Are we even sure this is legit?” he’d tried again, that Saturday morning when, casually over their weekend breakfast of pancakes and sausages, Alicia had asked if she could accept the prize.
His daughter didn’t bother answering him with words; she just smiled her bright beam of optimism and nodded.
“Mmm-hmm,” Andrick said. “And what about school?”
“Not to worry, father dear,” she said. “We’d be a month away—total. I’ll use it as my summer holidays.”
“Not sure how safe it is,” he mumbled.
But hyperspace itself wasn’t perfectly safe for human beings. Hyperspace engines, which operated by a sequential micro-folding of spacetime to traverse vast distances, had several benefits: micro-folding cost large but attainable amounts of energy and, importantly for him, time in hyperspace was non-relativistic, so people could travel those distances without their families having aged decades (or centuries) by their return. But dropping into and out of hyperspace had strange effects on the human mind: from harmless hallucinations to paranoid delusions. Which meant, these days, the explorers and adventurers and super-rich tourists visiting new stars and their systems got a nice long sleep while traveling through hyperspace, passing through the jumps in a personally-designed fantasy world rather than the haphazard daydreams and nightmares that had plagued the early adopters.
“I wouldn’t even know—” He’d meant to say he didn’t like virtual worlds, and would have a hard time deciding on one. But he recognized immediately what a lame excuse that was (and could imagine Alicia’s thin eyebrows rising in silent, reproachful response). Instead, he stumbled on what he thought was a better excuse: “Your mom will miss us. She might need our help with the show.”
Immediately he realized his mistake. Treanne, who had been watching the breakfast-table discussion with a bemused expression, had decided to stay out of it. But now he’d dragged her in.
“Mom?” Alicia said, turning to her.
“I’ll be fine on the show,” she said. “And of course I’ll miss you both very much.” He could tell from the tone of her voice what was coming next. “But I think I can survive a month.”
Alicia turned her bright beam of a gaze back on him.
“Let me look into it,” he said, then added ominously: “The details.”
“Sure thing,” Alicia said, finally digging into her breakfast.
He shot his wife a questioning glance. He hadn’t expected Alicia to be put off again so easily—not without a firmer commitment from him. Treanne shrugged.
When they’d cleared the table, however, Alicia disappeared for a moment, then returned with a tablet, the contest rules already loaded on the paper-thin screen.
“Let’s go over it together!” she said brightly.
He groaned, then insisted on making a second cup of tea first.
They returned to the table and she watched him eagerly as he read through the rules, taking occasional, thoughtful sips.
But every objection he uncovered, like a hopeful pig finding truffles in the earthen ground, evaporated under the glare of Alicia’s unbridled enthusiasm.
Him: “There’s a medical exam. You know I hate being poked and prodded.”
Alicia, simply: “Yes, a free medical exam!”
Him, after reading further: “Ho, ho, look at this. ‘Stern cabin!’ We’ll be in the smallest room, at the very butt of the ship! Next to the engines!”
Alicia: “We won’t even know. We’ll be in deep sleep! And when we get to Alpha Centauri, we’ll spend most of our time in the same observation deck as everyone else.”
Later—his eyes wide, and looking like a man who’d just discovered the smoking gun: “Each ticket on this thing costs as much as I made in a whole year of teaching! We’ll be with a bunch of super-rich mucky-mucks!”
Alicia: “We’ll make fun of them!”
A few more of his objections likewise melted under the glare of her undiminished excitement.
When he raised his head with his next semi-objection, Alicia said, staring at him fixedly, “Dad—we’ll get to see Alpha Centauri’s stars and planets with our own eyes. How many people can say they’ve done that?”
He couldn’t bring himself to dash her excitement by resisting any longer.
But now, watching her in that induced semi-coma—exciting when it was a temporary part of the journey, but now as terrible as a life sentence—he wished with all of his heart that he’d been willing to break hers; that he had allowed the nagging, hesitant, risk-averse voice that had ruled his life until he’d met Treanne to put its oppressive foot down and squash the head of this stupid adventure.
He pushed that thought away. What was the point of driving himself crazy?
He tried not to think too much about Treanne, because doing so felt like staring at a gaping hole where his stomach should be.
Andrick mostly had great discipline. In university, after he’d drunk two full pots of coffee while staying up late to finish a paper, and made his heart beat so fast he thought he would die, he’d vowed never to have another cup. And he’d lived up to that promise.
Until he’d woken up to alarm bells, stumbling out of his pod, not fully conscious yet but registering that something bad had happened, or was happening. In a daze, he made sure Alicia was safe and still sleeping in her own pod, then he exited their room and realized that the forward half of the ship was missing, a brown wall of cold craggy rock where the door to the next corridor should’ve been.
Normally, a trained technician had to pull someone out of the medically-induced deep sleep that minimized cognitive side-effects when traveling through hyperspace. Then each person was shuffled to the medical room for a complete physical scan. Complications could develop from being prone for so long, even with the constant electrical stimulation provided by the sleep pod. Andrick catastrophized as a matter of course, but it wasn’t strictly his own demise that concerned him. If something fatal had gone wrong deep inside his body during the long sleep, what would happen to Alicia?
He had focused on the immediate mission he’d set for himself: donning an Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU, to search the asteroid on the incredibly slim chance that anyone else had survived, returning to the ship only for a little bit of sleep before fortifying himself with several cups of coffee and heading back out. It took four days to conclude what should have been evident from the beginning, that he and Alicia were the only survivors. By then, though, he’d made two discoveries: his body had survived the plunge into and climb out of induced sleep without anything worse than a few cramps and occasional muscle spasms, which soon resolved themselves. And, distracted with his work, he’d been drinking coffee without any adverse effects—so perhaps, he thought, a little bit of the poison wouldn’t sting. After that, he’d allowed himself one cup each day, with breakfast.
But eleven months later, he’d lost his resolve with a different resolution: never to enter his and Alicia’s cabin. He didn’t know if Alicia in her induced dream state could see or hear him, but the crash alarm had jostled him awake, so he thought it was possible. The last thing he wanted was for her to wake up too. Well—the last thing he told himself he wanted … the truth was that he would’ve traded all the coffee in the universe for a chance to hear her laugh again. He couldn’t do that to her, though; in the dreamlike simulation, she had friends (not real ones, but she didn’t know that) and a vivid world to experience. He couldn’t pull her out of that to face reality, the rear end of a busted spaceship her entire world and him her only companion. Better she be in the blissful dream-world until … what? He didn’t know how to finish that thought. For now he focused only on his conviction that it was better she pass the time in the fantasy she’d picked for herself. Better for her to live in that dream-moment, unaware of their predicament or of anything beyond the fantasy world itself (a necessary limitation of the technology, since without the suppression of conscious memory, the mind would reject the dream and force the person to wake up prematurely).
Day after day, he accepted that he could only watch her face through the narrow band in the glass door (the pod covered up to her neck like a blanket, so it could discretely both feed her body and flush away its waste, as well as electrically stimulate muscles to prevent atrophy). Despite the translucent crown of needles on her head, she looked still and peaceful.
When his resolve to stay out finally broke, it snapped quietly. He found himself inside their cabin one day, his heart stirring at the unobstructed view of his daughter’s face. Immediately, he rushed out, and kept out for days—weeks. Then one day he was inside their cabin again, but she hadn’t woken or stirred, so he stayed. Then, on another day, he sat down beside her pod, out of view, reading quietly to himself. Then, later, he found himself reading out loud to her, like he had when she was an infant. Then just lightly touching her cheek with the back of his fingers, like he’d done when she’d finally fallen asleep, usually before he’d finished the story. Then he caught himself stroking her hair. Each step had emboldened him for the next.
A few days later, sitting in the part of the storeroom he called ‘the cafeteria’, making his small, delicious cup of coffee last as long as possible, he learned the terrible mistake he’d made. He’d been so used to near-total silence that the sound of screaming initially made him jump from the table, his heart rate sky-rocketing, looking around helplessly, furiously. Air escaping from a new breach in the hull? Then his brain sorted the echo of that sound: it had been Alicia’s strained voice. He’d woken her up after all, then, called her out of her pleasant fantasy world into cold, ugly reality.
He burst into their cabin and found Alicia had pushed away the hard cover of her pod. She was sitting up, staring at the crown of needles in her hand, angry red cat’s claw scratch marks on her forehead from where she’d ripped off the device.
“I couldn’t get it off,” she croaked, her long-unused vocal chords still straining under the effort to speak. “I started panicking.”
“It’s off now,” he said, gently.
A faltering smile finally broke through. “I’m okay, Dad. I’m okay. It was … not what I thought it would be like.” Her voice still sounded strange and pained, but her regular cadence, the rapid cascade of words, was returning. “And they really need to work on the whole waking-up part. That was not pleasant.” Finally she noticed something in his expression. “Dad?”
“In a minute, darling,” he said. “Get out of that pod and get dressed, but wait for me here. I’ll get you a glass of water. Are you hungry?”
She shook her head. “What’s going on?”
“Okay. Just water. Wait for me here.”
He hurried out of the room before she could stop him. He needed time to think, to organize his words.
But when he returned holding the unsealed bottle of water, he still didn’t know what to say. Alicia had gotten dressed, and had brushed her hair, and now sat waiting for him on the edge of the pod, which she’d converted into a regular bed.
“Something bad happened,” she said, accepting the bottle.
He sat beside her and, staring ahead, told her about waking up to the alarm, determining that everyone else had perished in the crash, setting up the distress signal … which had gone unanswered for almost a year now. “I’m sorry, honey,” he finished, finally turning to look at her.
Her face had paled. He indicated the water, and she forced the bottle up to her lips and took the smallest sip before bringing it down again and saying, “Dad—it’s not your fault.”
“I’m sorry about waking you up. I did, didn’t I?”
“I started seeing you in my dream. Hearing your voice. But I didn’t know it was you. You touched my hair?”
“I convinced myself it wouldn’t wake you.”
She hopped off the bed, suddenly energized, the water sloshing in the bottle and some spilling onto the ground. “You should’ve woken me up right away!” Alicia wiped up the spilled water with the toes of her socks. “I could’ve helped you.”
Andrick stared at the bulkhead where it met the overhead. “At first I wanted to know what the situation was. I wanted to make sure we were safe. Then I set up the distress beacon and I thought I should let you sleep until we got rescued. I didn’t want to wake you up to this—”
“And if we didn’t get rescued? You would’ve let me sleep forever? Until I died? Or you died?”
He didn’t answer. But he didn’t need to. He’d spent the last year so terrified he’d accidentally force her to leave the comfort of her dream world that he’d never imagined Alicia would be upset with him for not waking her up.
She paced the small room, marching up and down its length as if a sentry on duty. He had the same tic; he needed to move his body to work his brain.
“How about some breakfast?” he ventured after watching her cross the room a half-dozen times.
She stopped short. “I have questions. Honest answers only!”
“Okay,” he said.
“Is there enough food and water?”
“The storeroom wasn’t harmed. We won’t starve, even if we live to be a hundred each.”
“Oxygen, energy, heat—things like that. How long before we run out?”
“You don’t have to worry about that. The engines, the batteries, life support … none of that was harmed. That isn’t the issue.”
“What’s the issue?”
“It’s just you and me, darling.” He studied the bulkhead again, no longer able to meet his daughter’s judgmental, still-angry stare. “That’s it. For the rest of our lives.”
“You said the engines are fine,” she said, as if only then processing the words. “Can’t we just—”
“Fly away?” He fought back a smile. “We lost half our ship … more than half … but we gained an asteroid thirty times its original size. The propulsion system can’t handle that kind of mass.”
“Can we cut ourselves free?”
The thought hadn’t occurred to him, but he knew instantly it wouldn’t work. They had access to hand-held welding torches, but they were very low-powered … he and his daughter could spend an entire day out there and only lightly scratch the surface of the asteroid. “It would take a long time,” he said. “Longer than we have.” With a grunt, he pushed himself onto his feet. “We have the distress signal,” he said, trying to inject into his voice a note of optimism that he didn’t feel. “Our best bet is to wait for rescue.”
“Our best bet is the signal that’s gone unanswered for a year?”
He couldn’t look at her. Yesterday, the thought that he’d be standing here having a conversation with his daughter would have filled him with joy, but now, in actuality, he was faced with his own failure—to get them out of this mess, yes, but also to keep her blissfully asleep so she wouldn’t have to face the stark reality of their doomed lives.
He almost jumped at a touch; she had placed her hand on his arm. Before he could turn toward her, she pulled him into a tight embrace. Because her head reached only to his chest, and she spoke into it, he almost missed the words, but not the tone. Hadn’t she been furious with him? Didn’t she realize the severity—the hopelessness—of their situation? But, gently, she had said, “And that’s why you need me.”
“What?” he said, pulling her away from him.
“Dad!” Oh, my wonderful dumb-dumb dad, her tone said, that familiar, wonderful enthusiasm. “Are you kidding? There’s much more we can do!”
If Alicia had slept for the next year … or five, or ten, or a hundred, he didn’t doubt that he would’ve kept on checking his distress signal every day. What else was there to do?
Well—Alicia had plenty of ideas.
He tried, over the next few days, to entertain her with games or movies or books (he’d screened them for her, he said; played or watched or read them all in advance during the long daytime hours, so he could point her toward the best ones) but his daughter only wanted to debate ideas. And, if he failed to convince her that one wouldn’t work, they had to try it right away: silly things like literally carving ‘SOS’ in large letters into all sides of their potato-shaped asteroid (which took them three weeks in EMUs with the welding torches) to more serious endeavors like erecting a series of mirrors and debris painted with reflective paint to send their distress signal in many more directions.
He always poked around for holes in her ideas. Her job was to bring up wacky notions and his to knock them down, he told her. If he won, they took that day off and read books and watched movies, and if she won, they spent however long it would take to make her idea a reality, which usually meant putting on the many pieces of their EMU suits and trekking into the cold, ever-present night of space on the asteroid Alicia had named Potato Island.
She was so enthusiastic that it took him a long time—too long—to notice that something was wrong.
When Alicia was very young, probably five or six, she’d cut herself while playing in their living room. It was only when he saw drops of blood all over the floor that she showed him the deep gash across her thumb. A toy had fallen into the floor vent; she’d removed the register and fished around for her little figurine, slicing open her thumb in the process. But she hadn’t wanted to stop playing, she said. Alicia’s soaring optimism had its dark side; she could set aside concerns with terrible ease, assuming things would work themselves out.
Now she had hidden for weeks what he suspected was a blood clot that had formed in her left calf. She had begun to limp, and when he asked about it, she said her leg hurt a little. By the time he examined her, her calf had swelled up to twice the size of the other, the skin had turned red and very hot to the touch, and she screamed out in pain when he squeezed the muscle gently.
“Oh, darling,” he said.
“It’ll be fine,” she said, shooing him away, jumping off her bed, but unable to stop herself from wincing. “Okay, so it hurts a lot, but it’s far from my heart, right?”
The scanning equipment that could’ve confirmed the clot had burned up with the rest of the medical room; so had the medicines, like blood thinners, that could’ve helped.
“Any trouble breathing?” he said, looking up from the tablet.
“None!” she said, sucking back a deep lungful.
He didn’t tell her what he’d just read: a warning about pulmonary embolism, which would happen if the clot dislodged and traveled up to the lungs. He doubted Alicia would give it much thought anyway, even though it was a fatal condition; she’d dismiss the possibility as an outside chance and get on with her life.
From then on, though, every cough, every clearing of the throat, made him whip his head around to stare at her. She finally told him he was making her feel like a time bomb he expected to go off, and she wanted him to stop. But her limp got worse.
And if she did develop an embolism? What could he do, without equipment, training, supplies?
The specific fear of something happening to Alicia before they could be rescued focused his mind, forced it into considering ideas he would’ve dismissed as reckless, fueled by the real pain he saw escaping onto the grimaces on her face whenever she walked and by the ever-present shadow of something even more serious pursuing her.
When it finally came to him in the middle of one sleepless night, the solution arrived with a freezing chill of recognition: yes, this was their best chance to get home quickly; and yes, this could be the last thing they tried, and in that case there’d be nothing recognizable left for any ship that did eventually find their wreckage. But sometimes, he told himself, ideas seem brilliant to a sleepy mind, and lose their luster in daylight. He half-hoped that would be the case, and went back to sleep.
He woke to the sounds of weeping. Alicia was sitting up in bed, left leg pulled up, gripping her calf as if desperately trying to hold off the pain with her hands.
“How bad?” he said, sitting up.
She shook her head but couldn’t speak for a minute.
“There’s something we can try,” he said, speaking through a sudden constriction in his throat, “to get home.”
“Let’s hear it,” she croaked, then stretched out her leg again and turned to face him.
He hesitated. “It’s incredibly dangerous, actually. Really desperate. And even if it works, probably futile.”
“Dad, spit it out.”
He spat it out: “We fold the space just beyond Potato Island. Touching it only a little.”
“But that would … cause an explosion.”
“It would. A small one. But perhaps enough to propel us back toward Luna. We could, maybe, correct our direction by folding space at angles to Potato Island.”
She’d been listening intently. “Okay, let’s try it!” she said suddenly, excitement or hope, perhaps, chasing away the pain from her mind for a moment. He was glad for that, anyway.
“Let me lay out my concerns, okay?”
“I’m sold already,” she said, shrugging playfully. “Why risk changing my mind?”
“Just listen. The hyperspace drive has safety protocols to make sure it doesn’t send out a beam to fold space occupied by a significant mass. But I’ve spent a lot of time studying the ship and what went wrong, and I think the malfunction that caused us to crash into the asteroid will also allow us to blow up pieces of Potato Island.”
“Not really. The protocols are there for a reason. There’s a risk—a big one—that we’ll miscalculate and blow ourselves up. Or cause another breach. Or—”
“Yes, yes. But how will we know unless we try?”
“Two light years, Dad,” she said, more seriously. “We can’t let that small of a distance keep us from mom.”
“Two light years is not …” He let the thought trail off as unnecessary to complete.
“Hold on, what’s the rest of your idea? Just pushing ourselves toward Sol doesn’t get us very far very fast, does it? It would take thousands of years…”
He waited for her to figure out.
“Ah!” she said, after a moment. “We carve away enough of Potato Island …”
“Yes,” he said.
“… then we fold space properly and go through under propulsion! And boom, we’re home.”
“Well, hopefully not boom.”
Alicia stepped onto the floor gingerly, testing her weight before trusting her leg, and hobbled over to sit beside him. “I know there are significant risks. But we should try. They would’ve found us by now. You’re right: two light years is an immense distance. But if that’s all that’s keeping us from mom? Don’t you think we have to try?”
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll try. Carefully!”
Carefully meant that Andrick first wanted to test the beam on cubes of empty space far away from them; when he’d satisfied himself, they tried folding the space barely touching the edge of Potato Island. He was right about the ship’s malfunction; it didn’t even give a warning. And once it was done, they hardly felt the explosion—if there was one.
“Closer,” Alicia said.
Again there was no warning, but this time they felt the explosion as a small rumble under their feet. And if nothing else, Potato Island was now moving in a direction more toward Sol than it had been before.
“Again,” Alicia said, clapping her hands.
Fold by fold, Alicia tried to push him to blow up larger and larger chunks of Potato Island. But having found a distance from the Island he felt reasonably comfortable with, Andrick insisted they maintain discipline.
Day after day they carved away chunks of the asteroid, Andrick working until he collapsed, Alicia unsuccessfully hiding how much her calf hurt most of the time. It took almost a month before they felt they had sliced off enough mass to try moving under propulsion. So far, after weeks of work, they’d barely moved any closer to Sol, of course. But with both drives running? They could be home in a few days.
“Ready?” he said. They sat in the storeroom, Andrick holding the tablet he used to manipulate the software that was designed, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, to control itself.
“Do it,” Alicia said, sitting across from him.
He took a deep breath, then shook his head and slid the tablet across the table. “You do the honors.”
She glanced down at the screen, then—without any ceremony—stabbed the bright square button with her finger.
The propulsion drive sprang to life, humming its soft song throughout the ship’s decks, beginning to move them through space even with the remaining mass of Potato Island attached.
“It worked?” Andrick said, hardly able to believe it.
Alicia twirled around and around in the chair, though if circumstances were different, he knew, she’d be on her feet, dancing, leaping around, laughing madly.
As he watched her, he felt the wide smile on his face crumble away. Because now he had to face the reality of their situation: yes, they could create a wave of micro-folds, from here to Luna, and drive their ship through them. They could be entering Sol within the week. But who would they be when they arrived? Hyperspace had strange and ugly effects on the conscious human mind. And … something was wrong with this hyperspace drive. Something that was beyond his abilities to uncover, let alone fix: the error in mass-detection that had caused the crash in the first place and that had allowed them to carve away most of Potato Island.
“We have to risk it,” Alicia said, when she’d stopped twirling long enough to ask him what was wrong.
She sat back down. “We didn’t do all—”
“We’re no good to anyone—no good to your mom—if we show up having lost our minds.”
“We’ll have to drop down to one fold a day. I’d rather travel while we’re awake and can guarantee the space is empty, but the risk is too high. Instead we’ll identify the area we’re going to fold in the evening, then set the commands to activate in the middle of the night so that the ship goes through folded space while we’re sleeping. You can add to your bedtime prayers that nothing enters the area we’ve identified in the hours between setting and activating the engine. But we have to tolerate some level of risk,” he continued, and had enough self-awareness to know that he was speaking now, not to Alicia, but to the risk-averse part of himself, “and I think that one is pretty low. We’ll try it tonight and monitor for effects. Okay?”
She bit her lower lip, then said, “Okay.”
That night, they instructed the ship to create a micro-fold at two in the morning and drive through it. Andrick had a terrible time falling asleep, and considered deleting the instructions; but from her snoring, Alicia didn’t have similar trouble and he tried to put the worries out of his mind … and then it was morning. He turned over quickly and picked up the tablet.
Alicia stirred as he studied the star charts. “Did it work?” she said, sitting up.
He nodded, then met her eyes. “How do you feel?”
“Oh, fine. I’m fighting to suppress this weird homicidal urge to strangle you, but otherwise I feel totally sane.”
The following day they instructed the ship to repeat the process.
They didn’t feel any adverse effects then either, or after any of the other nights.
“We’re on our way home, darling,” Andrick said to Alicia.
Their joy was genuine but muted. If they stuck to their single fold-and-travel per night, it would take almost a decade to get home. Even if they risked two or three fold-and-travel cycles during the night—a huge risk, given the drive’s inability to properly detect and avoid massive objects—it would still take years. As for traveling through a fold while they were awake, so they could fold and monitor for objects, fold and monitor for objects … Andrick had heard too many horror stories about what the early hyperspace travelers experienced to allow himself to contemplate that option except as a last, desperate resort.
It turned out that wouldn’t be necessary. When rescue came, though, it almost killed them all.
Because of all of their jumping around, beaming out distress calls from different points in space, one of those signals had finally been picked up by an outpost station in orbit around Pluto. A search and rescue ship called the Corner Lights was immediately dispatched.
Loud banging woke Andrick up just as he’d fallen asleep. For a moment he thought he’d imagined the sound, but Alicia had woken up too, startled, and then they heard again the urgent thud-thud-thud.
Something’s gone wrong with the engine, Andrick thought in panic, and stumbled out of bed desperately to see if he could shut it down before it exploded. But in the passageway the thud-thud-thud banged again.
Through the airlock portholes, he saw what he’d dreamed of one day seeing: friendly human faces waving at him, though he was surprised they wore no helmets or EMUs. Was he still asleep, dreaming of this rescue by people who could float in space and breathe vacuum? But then he saw the structure extending behind them and realized that they’d established a pressurized tunnel between the two ships.
As good-naturedly as he could, Andrick waved off the hugging and celebrating to ask if they had a medic on board, and on being told of course they did, to beg that they look at Alicia’s leg right away. In the meantime, his daughter had hobbled out to see what was happening, so they picked her up and whisked her through the tunnel and into the Corner Lights, Andrick racing to keep up, and into their medical room. There the doctor, an old woman with a brusque manner, shooed them away after they’d put Alicia down on the hospital bed, but grudgingly allowed Andrick to stay. “Very bad,” she said, after a few minutes examining Alicia, shaking her head. “You should go,” she said, “your daughter is in good hands.”
“Very bad?” Andrick repeated in a whisper.
The old woman pushed him out the door with remarkable strength. “Could be worse,” she said, in that oblivious, matter-of-fact way some doctors had. “Probably would’ve killed her within a few weeks. But she’ll be fine now. Routine surgery, a few hours of rest, and she’ll be jumping around like nothing ever happened.”
Somewhat dazed, Andrick allowed someone to lead him back to the mess, where he was sat down at a table and handed a hot cup of coffee by a young officer named Cedric, who’d clearly been assigned as his minder.
“We’ll have to wait for the doctor’s all-clear,” Cedric said. “Then we’ll get everyone back into deep sleep and get you home. Before we dismantle the tunnel to the Pointed Star, is there anything we can bring back for you? We’ve collected the personal effects you had in your cabin.”
Andrick shook his head; he couldn’t think of a single souvenir he wanted of that experience, thank you very much. “Can I record a message for my wife?” he said.
The young man nodded and said, with evident pride, “The Corner Lights has hyperspace bottles.”
Well, Andrick thought, we sure could’ve used hyperspace message-in-a-bottle probes on the Pointed Star. He began to voice the thought, but his throat had suddenly gone dry.
Cedric had stood and was waiting for Andrick to follow him, but Andrick’s legs had lost their strength. He forced his arm up to eye-level and checked his wrist. In under twenty minutes, the hyperspace engine on the Pointed Star would try to fold space, with no safeguards to stop it in case any part of the Corner Lights touched its folding field.
“I need to get back to the ship,” he said, turning wild eyes on his minder, adrenaline finally unlocking his body so that he nearly toppled over the table when he jumped to his feet. “Now!”
To his credit, Cedric didn’t hesitate. He nodded once, then sprinted down corridors until they reached the tunnel, where he stepped aside for Andrick to lead the way.
The race to the cabin was a blur he could never quite remember. Some memory of stumbling down the semi-rigid material of the tunnel, shoving open the airlock doors, launching himself into the cabin to grab the tablet and delete the instructions, Cedric on his heels the whole time, asking something that didn’t register at the time.
“It’s okay,” he said, collapsing into the chair to allow his pulse to resettle.
“You’re sure?” Cedric said, breathing heavily himself.
Andrick closed his eyes and nodded.
“All right. I’ll let you be then. You know your way back when you’re ready to join us?”
Andrick nodded again without opening his eyes.
After a few minutes, his breath and heart-rate under control, he stood again. If anyone on that poor rescue ship had known how close they’d come to, at best, a very unnecessary and stupid risk… He shook off the feeling and began heading to the tunnel, when he stopped and looked back. The light he’d wired to their SOS signal was no longer blinking red, of course. How many countless hours had he stared at that tiny light, praying for it to blink green, just once? Now it was blinking green continuously and he’d almost left without noticing.
Now that would be a souvenir, wouldn’t it?
The risk-averse Andrick warned him against tampering any further with the ship. No doubt there would be an investigation—at the very least, they’d want to know what had gone wrong with the hyperspace engine—and he didn’t need to explain to anyone why he’d felt the need to help himself to a part of their ship.
Oh, do shut up, he told himself. He unscrewed the cover from the dashboard, removed the small light, and stuck it into his pocket. Satisfied, he left the cabin without looking back and climbed into the tunnel, closing the airlock doors behind him.
Back aboard the Corner Lights, Andrick sent Treanne a message and, in the time he waited to be allowed to see Alicia again, even received one in response. He could hardly understand his wife because she kept crying, almost hyperventilating, through her words. But he understood her intent and sent her one more message to say that he loved her too and they both couldn’t wait to see her again—very soon now.
When the doctor finally let him into the medical room, Alicia was sitting up in the recovery bed and looking better than she had in months. He thought he’d known how much the pain from her calf had caused her, but only now, seeing the contrast in her relaxed face and easy smile, did he realize the extent of her previous suffering.
“Hello, my face in the clouds,” she said, tucking her legs to the side to make room for him. “Why so glum?”
“Face in the clouds?” he said, sitting down beside her.
She only broadened her smile at his confusion, then cupped the side of his face with her palm. She’d done that even as a toddler, reaching out whenever she thought he was upset. “Aren’t we going home now, Dad?”
“Yes, darling. We are.”
“Good,” she said. “You see? Everything worked out. And don’t worry, next time I win tickets aboard a hyperspace ship, our trip will go much smoother.”
In the past he’d never been able to help but rise to Alicia’s bait. This time, however, he just shook his head, said, “Sure it will, darling,” then laughed and pulled his daughter into a tight embrace.