Authors: Brad R. Torgersen
Tags: #lights in the deep, #Science Fiction, #Short Story, #essay, #mike resnick, #alan cole, #stanley schmidt, #Analog, #magazine, #hugo, #nebula, #Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show
Hot tears began to well up in my eyes again, and I ferociously jabbed at them with the billowy sleeve of my smock.
I cursed in Polish.
Tab sighed, and lowered her floating self down until she was looking at me eye to eye. When she spoke, her Southern Black accent was especially thick.
“It’s a damn shame any of this had to happen, Miroslaw. Your family. My family. All our people, gone. The Armageddon came, and it went, and we’re still here. Which tells me the Lord still has work for us. It ain’t an accident your couch came floatin’ by Howard and me. That much I’m certain of. I don’t know what else your Papa ever told you, but let me tell you something my Papa told me when I was your age. He told me that there was never any way of gettin’ out of pain in this life. Adam and Eve saw to that. Because the Lord needs us to know pain. That’s part of the test. So while I can’t make your pain go away, I can tell you that we’re all gonna be judged by how we bear that pain, and use it, and do the Lord’s will because of it. Do you understand?”
I didn’t. Mama and Papa had been physicists. Our family never went to church. Tab’s talk sounded like something out of a history book about the days when people thought religion was more important than science. It was foreign in my ears and made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t deny the earnestness with which Tab had spoken. Nor could I deny the heart-felt kindness in her expression.
My tears flowed like a river, and I stopped trying to wipe them away.
Irenka would have liked Tab. It was a crime that Irenka wasn’t here.
I blubbered something to that effect, and then I felt myself whisked up into Tab’s arms, almost crushed by the woman’s surprisingly strong embrace.
It was the first time anyone had held me—really held me—since Papa.
I bawled into Tab’s shoulder, and she just kept holding me, singing a soft song under her breath that I would later learn was a hymn.
• • •
I chose to stay, of course.
And Tab and I talked about the Outbound.
“So where do we start?” I asked Tab. “We can’t just search blindly.”
“The largest group of Outbounders was said to have followed in the wake of Pioneer 10. Can we do the same, Howard?”
“Let me see if I have the file on that,” Howard’s voice spoke from the speakers in the ceiling. “Oh, here it is. Yes, I think we can do that. It’s lucky for us we came out of the slingshot when we did, or we’d be going in the totally opposite direction. We’ll have to wait awhile longer before I can risk a second burn. We’re not far enough away for Jupiter yet.”
“No problem,” Tab said. “I think time is the one item we’re not going to run out of.”
She wasn’t kidding. Even with constant thrust, it took two months to cross the orbit of Pluto, and another eight to get as far as the inner limit of the Kuiper Belt. The observatory was well suited to long voyages. A plentiful fuel reserve, in the form of antimatter, provided power while a large hydroponics facility kept the air clean. Tab trained me to service the various automated and manual life systems of the observatory, and we inventoried and re-inventoried all the consumables and spare parts. With Howard’s help we drew up graphs and charts to see just how far we could stretch our resources.
Barring damage to the observatory, and with regular burns for course correction, Tab and Howard estimated we could go twenty years before running out of anything important. Even if the main reactor failed, a backup radioactive decay generator could provide full internal power for another ten.
Shutting down everything but the bare minimums increased these time frames by a factor of three. Which meant all we had to do was keep the hydroponics farm healthy, and Tab and I would have enough food to eat and air to breathe for decades.
My soul chilled at the thought of such a long, lonely voyage.
Howard stopped monitoring the inner solar system at sixteen months. There were no more human cries for help. All that remained were the automated signals of the few surviving death machines, each acting out its programmed orders regardless of the fact that the men and women who had given those orders were gone.
No other automated ship-to-ship communications were intercepted either, though if anyone else had survived and fled, they had likely done so in the same manner as we: deliberately silent.
Several times, Tab and I debated turning back.
But as the kilometers between Earth and the observatory grew, the very thought of going home became abstract. We were now well beyond the confines of the planetary system proper—the sun having become just another pinpoint in the star-filled sky. What chance did we have, in going back? How would we look for anyone while avoiding the robot killers?
Better to forge on.
• • •
For my thirteenth birthday, Tab told me she would teach me to be an astronomer.
It was easy, since everything I needed to know was in Howard’s databanks. And it helped pass the time, keeping my mind off things I still didn’t want to think about. Mama and Papa and Irenka were still there, like deep sores newly scabbed over. But somehow, day by day, Tab and I grew closer. And the hurt got a little bit less, and a little bit easier to carry.
She and I manipulated the observatory’s sensors and equipment, cataloguing various large and small objects in their path.
Tab told me that, contrary to popular conception of centuries past, deep space was not a total void. The Kuiper and Oort regions were actually a combined debris field that bled inexorably into the sparser debris that populated the interstellar medium—where the planemos ruled.
Planemos. Planets without stars. Worlds unto themselves.
Perhaps the Outbound had ultimately reached and settled on one of them? After a voyage spanning centuries?
Howard diverted our course on several occasions in order to investigate anomalies that showed up on the observatory’s impressive sensor array.
In each case, we found nothing; even if the comets and icy worldlets themselves were interesting.
Mostly, they were rocky bodies which had accrued a shell of water and gas ice. Perfectly routine, once you got out beyond Pluto.
On only one of these did we find something which indicated humanity.
It was a smallish snowball of a world, irregularly shaped, yet giving off radioactive emissions from one of its many craters.
Closer inspection with the telescopes revealed signs of mining, long since abandoned.
It was enough to make Tab whoop and spin, shaking her hips side to side while she floated through the observatory’s control center while Howard jabbered with as much excitement as his computer-cooled mentality could muster.
We matched with the ice body and Tab and I went outside in one of the observatory’s two dories. Landing, we then took suits—one of which I’d helped Tab extensively modify to fit me—and we were disappointed to find only ice-crusted garbage and a small pile of spent fissile material.
No messages. No clue to how long the Outbound had stayed, nor where they had gone.
Though there was no sign of Pioneer 10 either.
We returned to the search.
Twice more in two years, we found similar pit-stops on similar worlds. The Outbound had needed hydrogen isotopes and reaction mass for their fusion drives. It must have taken them many decades to travel as far as we had gone in just a few years on antimatter drive.
Tab risked active communications, tight-beamed to the fore.
For weeks we waited for a reply, and nothing came.
The longing to see other living humans became like an itch to me. Beyond missing my family, I also missed the wide open plazas and parks of home, where I’d been able to race my electric chair between the fountains and startle the pigeons and laugh like a boy ought to laugh.
At ship’s night, I began dreaming of home, and…other things. It was embarrassing to talk about with Tab. I had an easier time talking about it with Howard, who had been a man once, and before that, a teenaged boy.
Howard said he was surprised that I was getting the kind of physical response I was getting, even though I had never felt anything below my hip bones my entire life. When our conversations turned specifically to women and women’s bodies, Howard hesitantly uncorked a database of pictures he’d been keeping—pictures that my mother would have been scandalized by, had she caught me looking at them on my laptop back at home.
“Don’t tell Tab,” Howard had warned in a fraternal fashion. “She’ll be liable to erase me if she finds out I’ve shown you this.”
I promised Howard I would not tell, and was actually grateful to have something I could share with another male, even if he was just a computer recording. We talked more and more, Howard and I, while Tab and I remained close, if gradually more separate. One evening when Tab thought I was asleep, I slipped out of bed and moved silently through the air to the doorway to her room, where I heard she and Howard talking. Pillow talk, my mother would have called it, made strange by the fact that Howard was not actually in the bed with his wife.
“He’s going to be a man soon,” Tab said sadly.
“He became a man when his Daddy died,” Howard replied.
“Probably true. But you don’t know how happy I’ve been, finally having a young one around to look after. We tried so hard, all those years, you and I. And nothing. Then, like Sarah, God sends me this boy in my old age. Only, I never got to have him as a baby. He was mostly grown up when he came, and now….”
I felt a lump form in my throat while Tab quietly wept.
“He’s a good boy, Tabitha. We can both see that. And I think he loves you. He won’t say it when I talk with him, but I can feel it.”
Tab barked out a mocking laugh. “Hah! A computerized man who can feel!”
“You know what I mean, woman. Now hush up. My sensors tell me the boy is lurking at your door. He’s probably heard everything we’ve been saying.”
“Sorry,” I said, letting myself in, sheepishly smiling.
Tab was there, wiping tears from her eyes. “Don’t be, Mirek. I’m just a sad old lady who never had a chance to have any children of her own. Don’t mind it if I’ve become too attached to you.”
In fact, I didn’t mind it. I didn’t mind it at all.
Using my arms, I launched from the hatch and grabbed Tab in a bear hug, squeezing her as tightly as I remembered her having squeezed me that first day I decided to stay with my new family, and seek the Outbound.
She wept anew, for joy this time, and I told Tabitha and Howard Marshall how much I did love them, and how thankful I was that they’d found me and given me a home when the world had taken all such things from me.
• • •
By the time I was sixteen, I suspected that the full burden of humanity’s self-annihilation had yet to settle on my shoulders. Some crucial part of me remained numb to the idea that everyone had ceased to exist, and that all the artifacts of humanity on virtually every world had been antimattered to dust. How ironic that perhaps the only surviving tokens of human intelligence, were the final remaining warbots which continued to prowl the solar system, seeking targets and enemies which did not exist. Such thoughts were depressing, and depression again became a common companion.
I’d have liked very much to have another young woman around to talk to, to touch, and to hold in my arms at night. But the way things stood, I might not ever see another woman again, besides Tabitha, and this grew to be an irritant like no other.
With Howard’s surreptitious help, I began to distill spirits from the grains grown in the farm domes.
Shortly after, Howard began to worry that he had an alcoholic on his hands.
But how else was I supposed to bear it? I had a dead past, and an unknown future. The only living young man left in the universe!
Homesickness and abstract horniness accentuated my depression, giving it a melancholy flavor.
I began to drink daily. Alone. In the private module I’d built out on the face of the observatory’s foundation, where Tab couldn’t touch nor talk to me. I neglected my daily exercise in the spin room. Why bother? What future awaited me now? I’d been young when I left Earth, and young I would remain for many years. But what was youth without joy? Without a girlfriend? I found myself daydreaming endlessly about all the older girls I had ever been attracted to: their faces, their expressions, the way they laughed or got angry, how their bodies had moved under their clothes. It got so that I thought I would be ecstatic to see even a single, other breathing female, regardless of her state. Just someone I could hug, and who could hug me back, and who wasn’t old enough to be my grandma.
I grew distant from Howard and Tabitha both.
I got sick of them, and I think they began to grow sick of me.
We began to go days or even weeks not speaking to each other, and eventually I retreated to the privacy module almost entirely, forcing Howard to monitor and tend to the observatory all by himself, with Tabitha’s declining help.
Which was fine, at first, because Howard had always done most everything anyway.
Then, one day, there came a beacon.
It was faint. No more than a weak radio signal, sending binary.
Howard couldn’t make sense of the message, which seemed truly random—ones and zeroes in an endless stream, without pattern.
That was okay. It was a sign that we were still on the right path. It was also enough to shock me into a forced detox.
By the time we reached the comet from which the transponder was sending, I was sober enough to take out a dory; and human enough to actually be pleasant to Tab for the first time in too long.
On the surface of the comet, I found a tunnel.
At the bottom of the tunnel, I found a grave: sixty-eight bodies, all perfectly frozen, and arranged with dignity.
I spent days examining the site. I reverently combed the dead for anything that might indicate where the other survivors had gone. They were of mixed racial heritage and gender, and if I’d had to guess, I’d have said they were Americans. And whether or not they came from the group of Outbounders that we’d been specifically pursuing was uncertain. But their presence was the first absolute proof that humanity had survived to that point, so far from its now-dead home.