He has never been to the comms room – not once in all the time they’ve been on board. Sometimes one of the others asks him why not and he shrugs and says ‘I’m not expecting anything.’ Then he changes the subject; he is good at that. Some realize what is he is doing, but they know also everyone has their reasons for being here and not all of these are easy to discuss. And so they indulge him.
This day, though, he pulls himself up through the hatch and there are the six booths arrayed around him and in four of them there are people with their screens and their headphones on. Amelie is weeping softly with her hand up to the screen and on it is an old woman and she is crying too. He slides past her without a word and into the farthest alcove and settles in. The screen flickers to life and on it is a small countdown.
BURN 1C: -11:21:36:01
He taps the screen and says his name and passcode and as he does so the man in the booth to his right looks over. It is Daisuke, wispy-haired and thin-faced.
‘Hello, Rohan,’ he says.
‘Not expecting anything.’
He is lying.
Daisuke smirks and returns to his screen and when Rohan is certain no one is looking he closes his eyes and presses a button marked messages. It flickers and then he is in his inbox and it says 3 unseen messages. The first one called Hey, where are you? and the next one ???.
The last one has no title.
Rohan closes his eyes, and wishes he hadn’t come.
He still remembers the first time he saw her and the only thing he learned from trying to forget was that he did was that he never will. He is at a street festival somewhere and it is early summer. There is a steampunk marching band blasting a strange species of trumpet-rock so catchy he cannot help dance to it even though he is self-conscious and alone. Indrani is late as always and he is mildly irritated by it but there is someone she wants him to meet and he suspects it may be fun. His phone pings. By the donut stand. He looks over and there she is in an overtight corset and a strange hat and as always she looks over-dressed and prim. Then he sees the girl next to her and wanders over half-hoping this isn’t what he is here for. But then Indrani sees him and saunters over and the girl follows her and he knows he is done for.
‘Hey,’ says Indrani. ‘This is Adrienne. Adrienne, Rohan.’
‘Hi,’ says Adrienne.
He always has something to say, so he is not tongue-tied, but that does not mean what comes out of his mouth makes any sense. Adrienne smiles and he notices that her teeth are oversized and her nose long and narrow and thinks that is good, because if she were any more beautiful he would probably have some sort of aneurysm.
He realizes has just said something and he can’t remember what it is so he just shrugs and grins and says, ‘Sorry, the sun’s melting my brain.’
Adrienne grins back.
‘Yeah, mine’s made of butter too.’
They laugh but Indrani does not and already he has forgotten that she is even there.
The planets look small when you’re racing past them at a fifteenth the speed of light. The ship is scheduled to get gravity assists from Jupiter and from Neptune but they will only really see Jupiter, the captain tells them, because they’ll be moving so fast when they get to Neptune that it will only look like a blue blur, and then also only for a few moments.
When he first signed up and they sent him details on his ‘accommodations’ he worried that there would be no space for solitude or reflection onboard. Now that he is here he realizes that there is, but he does not have time for it. They are all kept busy with systems checks and exercises and communal meals and activities. To ensure harmony when they get there, the manual says.
Still, there is some time for himself and he often makes his way to the little viewing room at the back and it suits him very well, because it is big enough only for two or three. After a couple of weeks aboard he is the only one to come here, and he wonders if that means if he is the only one there who is still looking back.
When he was young he thought about suicide once and he told a friend. But his friend said, ‘But – what if you changed your mind?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Like imagine if you jumped off a bridge. Imagine you’re on your way down and the water’s coming up and about three seconds in you think, actually, things aren’t so bad. I want to live.’
He thought about it then and he thinks about it now and then he thinks it doesn’t make a difference, because he’s on his way now. He’s already past Jupiter. There’s no way back.
They wander down to the river. Just the two of them, as always, and as always they intended only to have a meal. But – as always – they just end up talking and walking and forgetting about the rest of the world. The skies here are always moody and when they are not, like today, the humidity lies as heavy as a drunk over the city.
‘Man, I’d illegalise humidity if I could,’ he says.
‘Yeah. Like pass a cosmic law.’
They’re on the beach now and it’s getting dark and out across the water they can see the new Titan V. Illuminated by floodlights and emblazoned with the UN flag and pointing straight at the stars.
‘That is so cool,’ she says, and sits.
He sits down too, a little closer than he should, just to see her reaction. She does not move.
‘Must be amazing to be on one of those,’ she says.
‘Must be scary.’
‘Exciting, you mean.’
‘Yeah. That. Sorry, I get the two mixed up sometimes.’
‘Like rheas and ostriches?’
‘Like rheas and ostriches.’
‘I’d love to go up there.’
They look at each other and smile and look back at the sea and as he does he realizes that yes, he’d love to go up there, but not as much as he’d like to stay here, on this beach, with her, forever.
They retract the solar sail six hours before ignition. Would not do to have it flapping around out there like dirty washing, says the captain.
‘I’ll do it,’ Rohan says.
‘So you shall, Mr. Alles,’ says the captain. ‘How are you doing?’
She peers at him, hawkish and grey-haired, and nods back.
He watches her recede down the corridor and wonders how she can be so large and so delicate at the same time. But then again, so is he. Just not at first sight.
Even after you sign up they give you the option of dropping out. Right until the launch date. It isn’t as if there aren’t enough people lining up to go. And if they run out of people in the cities where the air is still breathable, there is always the poor. Huddled in the favelas that sprawl in dusty expanses from shore to miserable shore. Those places where the puddles are red with rust and where they’re always killing each other for being too white or too Buddhist or too stupid to know any better than to be there and be killable.
Rohan can scarcely believe it when the letter arrives. He doesn’t tell anyone for a few days and then he decides that he won’t. He hides the message before Adrienne comes over and as always when she does he forgets all about it.
She has brought a cheesecake. She opens it and on it is a little chocolate kiwi.
‘Check it out!’ she says. ‘Flightless!’
He peers at the thing and then grabs it and pops it in his mouth. She punches him on the shoulder.
They go up onto the roof with their bowls of rice and seaweed and grilled meat. And also an egg each, perfectly boiled, and he is very proud of it. He mentions it twice and both times she takes a bite and mumbles ‘Oh yeah’.
It is clawing cold and the sky is utterly transparent. He has laid out a futon and a blanket and they snuggle under it and sip booze from a hip flask and stuff their faces in silence. After a while he lies back and she lies back too and their shoulders are touching and her hair is on his and he can smell her.
This, too, he will remember forever.
‘I saw one!’ she says.
He peers into the sky and catches the tail end of it. The brief fizzing glitter of a meteor. And then another one.
‘Two! Did you make a wish?’
‘What did you wish for?’
‘Peace on earth.’
‘OK fine. I wished for superpowers.’
‘The power of flight?’
They look at each other and as always she looks away before he does and then he looks away too. But after a few moments he looks back and thinks how amazing it is that with the whole of the heavens laid before him all he can look at is her. How absurd, he thinks. How ridiculous.
After all, he thinks, this too shall pass. Surely, this too shall pass.
An hour and nineteen minutes to launch and everyone is prepping. One by one they go into the disinfected baths naked, and they have been nude around each other so many times that now all of them but Su Lin can speak about things as if they were just sitting in a bar having a drink. Amelie, perhaps, even likes it a little bit, and why wouldn’t she? She is beautiful and smart and hilarious and Rohan is confident that in years to come many in their small colony will claim descent from her.
Some of them decide to go into the pods early and nearly all of them ask for him to be the one to tuck them in. That is what they have decided to call it – tucking themselves in. They were not taught this but very early on they realized that it made things less frightening. ‘Getting tucked in’. Not ‘drugged and frozen in cryogenic hibernation pods tumbling through the fifth dimension’.
Daisuke goes in first and then Will and Maddox and Susan. Su Lin goes in after that and she does not like Rohan but she still wants him to tuck her in.
‘Don’t mess up the settings,’ she snaps, sloshing about in her pod. ‘And stop looking.’
‘I can’t,’ says Rohan. ‘Mess things up, that is. And I’m not looking.’
She covers her breasts.
He stares at her and she starts to say something but he presses the seal button. She halfway through a vocalization and her mouth is wide open when the pod seals shut and she freezes. He peers at her through the little window and thinks she looks like a sex doll. Something she’ll yell at him for when she wakes up.
Oh well, he thinks. That’s an argument we can have in six hundred and eighty-nine years.
He’s been building up to this all week and is waiting for the right moment. They wander down to Little Italy and they get cannolis and he thinks they are too sweet and the pastry too dry but she eats them all. So fast that she gets little smears of it on her cheek. He takes a tissue and hesitates for a moment and then he reaches out and begins to wipe it off her face. She doesn’t move or flinch and waits for him to finish and then smiles and says, ‘Thank you.’
‘No problem. You’d do the same for me if I had cannoli all over my face.’
‘No I wouldn’t. I’d point and laugh.’
‘Yeah. But then?’
‘Then you’d feel guilty and wipe it off.’
‘Huh. Yeah, probably. You know me so well.’
He is quiet for a moment and then when he speaks he cannot believe that the moment is finally here and he is finally saying it.
‘Yeah, I suppose I do. That’s why I love you.’
‘Oh, I know.’
They sit there for a few moments in silence and watch the children dancing in the fountains and then he says, ‘No, Adrienne, I’m serious. I love you.’
She looks at him and then she smiles and he can tell immediately that she doesn’t know what to say. Which is to say that she is not going to say what he wants her to.
‘Oh,’ she says eventually. ‘Thanks.’
They are quiet for a while after that and then he says something about rheas and they joke and giggle all the way home on a train that stinks of piss and screams when it takes corners like the voices of the damned. The blood has run to his face and he has to try hard to focus and even harder to be funny. When they part she gives him a quick hug and it is shorter than usual and then she is into her apartment building without looking back.
He goes home and on the walk over he tells himself over and over again that he should be proud for having told her at all, that this is not like back then when he was younger and he pined in silence and regretted the silence afterward. But not long after he goes home he and lies on the roof for a long time finally the hot sourness within him fades into something bearable. And then all he can think of is how much he wishes she was there with him to see the blazing heavens, so far, so vast.
It is up to the captain to tuck him in. He descends into his pod and the liquid is thick and cold and as smooth as skin against his own. The captain does the final checks and then looks down at him.
‘Have a nice nap,’ she says. ‘When you wake up, we’ll be half the galaxy away from Earth.’
‘Yeah. Half a galaxy and seven hundred years,’ says Rohan.
The captain watches him for a few moments and then squeezes his shoulder.
‘Nothing of anyone else belongs to you but your memories of them,’ she says. ‘And those are things we make ourselves.’
He nods, and smiles.
She seals him in and her hands move to the button. And then he wakes up in the glare of an alien sun, dazzling and golden, bereft of memory.