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
And that was enough. I reverently went among the dead, recording their names from the steel tags attached to their bodies and taking digital pictures.
When I ultimately got back to the observatory, I was calm.
Almost too calm for Tab’s taste.
But the dead of the Outbound had helped me cross a threshold I hadn’t known needed crossing, and at once filled me with renewed resolve.
Quickly, I flushed out the privacy module and dumped every last drop of grain alcohol.
Next, I began an exhaustive catch-up on all my neglected duties, interspersed with profound and heartfelt apologies to Tab and Howard alike. I couldn’t tell whether or not the man inside the computer could feel pain, but I knew my behavior over the last few months had scared and hurt Tab. Certainly I’d treated them both badly enough. I hoped that I could make it up to them, given time. And they certainly seemed grateful and relieved to see my renewed sense of purpose.
“Forgive?” I finally said one day, when the observatory was back in order and Tab and I were sharing a meal for the first time in ages.
A very long silence.
“Forgiven,” Tab said, slightly smiling so that the corners of her eyes wrinkled warmly. She reached out a shaking, gnarled hand, and I took it gratefully, squeezing.
• • •
During the tenth year of our flight, we found the first ship. It was abandoned. Ransacked. Every last usable part, taken. A skeleton of a vessel, accompanied by another mass grave.
At year fourteen, we found three more ships, also stripped, and also serving as a memorial to more people who had apparently lost—or given—their lives for the cause.
This time, I also found children; each far too young to have been born on Earth. The sight of those little ones brought up disturbing memories. They reminded me far too much of Irenka.
For Tab, who had become so old that she never left the observatory anymore, the children were actually a sign of providence.
“The day God takes away our ability to make babies, that’s the day when we know we’re truly cut off from His grace.”
I pondered Tab’s words and watched her gently maneuver through the kitchen, wrapped tightly against a chill in the air that did not exist. She’d tried over the years to bring me to Christ. Oh yes, she’d tried. Especially when I came off my bender with the grain alcohol. But somehow, I just never found the spark. I heard the words and I grudgingly listened when she read scripture, but while I respected and even admired the old woman’s faith, I could not feel it likewise.
Where Tab felt certainty in God’s purpose, I felt…nothing. In my teens I’d often questioned myself on this, suspecting some kind of internal moral failure. But now I just resigned myself to the fact that I was too much like my parents—unable to set aside the rational long enough embrace the fire and “get religion.”
As so often happened when Tab and I failed to see eye to eye, I discussed it with Howard, who had always seemed to support his wife’s belief without necessarily going great-guns himself.
“Tab’s Pops was a pastor,” Howard said one night when he and I were having a quiet conversation in the observatory’s control center. “God was mighty in her family, from the father down to the youngest child. It was kind of scary, when we first got together. She’d drag me off to meeting and bible study and I went along with it because my Moms had read me bible too, and it didn’t bother me any. And Tabby, well…She was just so damned attractive, I think I’d have walked into a pool of piranha if it meant I got to sit next to her and hold her hand.
“She was furious with me when she found out about you learning to distill. Almost as furious as when she found out about the pictures from the men’s e-zines.”
“Tab found out about that?” I said, laughing. “I swear, I didn’t tell!”
“I know, son. It was me. I never could keep a secret from that woman, not in my entire life.”
We shared laughter, one old man and one young man.
I sighed, and was silent for a long time.
“Howard, do you think I’ll ever get to have a wife?”
The speakers were quiet. Pondering.
“If we can ever find these Outbounders we’re on the trail of, I’d say, yes. Absolutely. Girl’d be plum crazy not to get with a handsome young guy like you.”
“But I’m still a paraplegic.”
“True. But let me tell you something, for women, a man being tall and macho ain’t the end-all, be-all. Especially the older a woman gets, and the longer she goes learning how hard it is to find a decent man, she appreciates the good ones when they come along. Don’t worry about it, son. Your woman is out there.”
“But what if I can’t make her—”
“Let that part of it take care of itself, son. Don’t fret over it now, especially when we ain’t even found these folk yet. You hear me?”
“Yessir,” I said, clamping up on the subject, even if it remained heavily on my mind.
Another lengthy silence.
“Howard,” I said.
“Does it hurt?”
“When they recorded you. And moved you into the computer. Does it hurt?”
“What does it feel like?”
“Impossible to describe.”
“You can’t even try?”
“If I did, it would probably just confuse you. But for the sake of argument, imagine going to sleep one night, and when you wake up, your body is huge, has a hundred new arms, a hundred new eyes, a hundred new mouths…It really takes some getting used to. But no, it doesn’t hurt.”
“We’ll have to record Tab soon, won’t we?”
“No. Tabby made me swear to never do that. She’s afraid it will interrupt her soul going to Jesus.”
“That was different. And believe me, Tab’s only reason for allowing it was because she feared being alone more than she feared my soul getting lost in space between this world and the next. I think in the long run she’s stopped worrying about me. Though she still insists that when it’s her time, nothing stop her.”
“Does she really believe she’ll go to Jesus?”
“You know she does, Mirek.”
“How about you? Do you really believe it?”
to believe, Mirek. Whether or not that counts…I dunno.”
• • •
Disaster came suddenly, almost 15 years after leaving Jupiter.
A micrometeoroid storm, composed of dark carbons so black and so thinly diffused we never saw them on the telescope, nor the radar. One moment I was helping Tab get dressed and get her room cleaned up, the next the observatory was trembling and a sound like hard rain echoed through the corridor outside.
“Howard, what’s happening?” Tab shouted.
When no reply came, Tab and I both looked at one another in alarm and rushed to the door to look out. Sparks lit from the ceiling and tiny rays lanced down and into the floor. The cosmic dust—moving at several tens of thousands of kilometers a minute, relative to us—was penetrating through many centimeters of steel and polycarbonate plate. Tab gripped me as we stood in the doorway, not daring to move, while the eerie light show continued for several minutes, until finally it ended, and I was able to rush out to the nearest computer access panel and bring up a status report on the station.
It was grim. Half the observatory was either off-line or red-lined. Worse yet, the workstation was operating on local software only—cut off from Howard’s direct control. We were also gradually losing air pressure, though the level had not yet dropped enough to be dangerous.
Tab and I floated frantically down several hundred meters of corridor until we reached the access hatch for the main computers buried down in the basement. I noted that the hatch had numerous almost-too-tiny-to-see holes in it, then dropped legs-first into the bowels of the main computer core, where Howard’s mind—and perhaps his spirit—had dwelled for over two decades.
The databanks were a mess. Whole arrays were dead. The computer center had been hardened against cosmic radiation and solar flares, but never something like this. I worked frantically to trace the logic paths of the fail-safes while Tab gripped a handrail and sobbed uncontrollably, saying, “Howard…oh, Howard….”
It was no good. Too many arrays were damaged or down. Even if I could load backups, the constant synergy between the databanks that was necessary for Howard Marshall to exist, as a person, had been disrupted. If we got something back, it probably wouldn’t be Howard.
Tab needed no one to tell her the reality of what had happened.
She simply stared at the arrays, many of them blinking red warning lights, and kept repeating her husband’s name.
She took to her bed later that day, not seeming to care about the thousands of microscopic punctures that were leaking our air away into space. Nor did she care about the other damaged equipment—repairs to which were now going to be near-impossible without Howard’s help. I had not realized how totally dependent Tab and I were on the man, until he was gone.
In a frenzy, I booted up as many of the dummy programs as I could, running them on local workstations or servers so that life support and other vitals didn’t close down. Then I spent the next three days securing the hydroponics farms and the cycler machinery and the other life necessities, without which death was certain.
Not that it mattered much for Tab.
Every time I checked on her, she’d gotten worse.
The final time I looked in on her, she was curled—floating—near her bed. An old framed photo of her and Howard from when they were young was pressed tightly to her chest. The same hymn she’d once sung to me, when I was breaking down, drifted from her lips.
I almost had to shout at her to get her to pay attention to me.
“It doesn’t matter anymore, Mirek. The Lord has taken Howard, and it’s time for me to go now too.”
“You can’t just quit!” I screamed. “You told me once that God would judge us by how we bore our pain and burdens, right?”
These words seemed to bring her back to herself for a moment, such that she replaced the photo in its holder and pushed off to drift down to me.
The slap that came was unexpected, and the first and last time she ever laid a hand on me in anger.
I was too shocked to be angry.
“Don’t quote God at me, boy!” Tab said sourly. “I’ve spent my last years trying too hard to open a door into your heart, through which Christ might step through. But you’ve rejected Him, and a part of me too. Now go away and leave me be. I’m too old to help anyway.”
There was nothing to say, so I left, and got a few hours of harried sleep before returning to Tab’s room.
Her body was suspended in the zero gee bed. She was dressed in her white smock, and her eyes were closed, though her mouth hung slackly open while her chest drew no breath. A little roll of paper was held in one cool hand.
I shakily reached for it, and when it unrolled, it said, in Tab’s handwriting, “You are a good soul Mirek. Thank you for letting me have you as my boy.”
I couldn’t think for the rest of the day. Only the seriousness of my predicament kept me moving. But my mind and heart were as empty and cold as the space through which the observatory now lamely traveled.
• • •
I eventually put Tabitha’s body next to her husband’s, in the tomb they had made for themselves on the far side of the observatory. There was no ceremony, no words of eulogy. There had been none for Papa, or Mama, or Irenka after them. There seemed none appropriate now, and I felt anything I said that even remotely touched on the spiritual, would be almost profane. Tab had been right. My heart was deaf to God. If God even existed. I stared at the closed doors to the final resting place of my second set of parents, and doubted very much that Jesus, nor any other saving deity, existed. There was only the harshness of life, followed by the silence of death. Which came suddenly and without warning, and always took those who least deserved it.
That month, my work on the observatory was purely mechanical. And ultimately futile. Too much had been ruined in the micrometeoroid storm. Without the expanded capacities of Howard—his ability to be everywhere and see and feel and “think” the observatory all at once—there was no way for a single person to manage.
The local software kept things going, for a time, but when three months had passed, it became clear that the hydroponics were failing, along with the waste cyclers. Even with the stores that had been kept safe down in the many cellars we’d dug into the rock, within a couple of years, I was going to be out of both air and food.
I went back to the main computer core and considered my options. There were enough good arrays to try and re-assemble a new master program, using the original factory defaults which were kept on disc, but since everything I knew about computers I’d learned piecemeal from helping Howard and Tab, I didn’t have the expertise to make more than a half-assed attempt.
I tried anyway, and created a computerized retard whom I promptly erased.
I didn’t even think of messing with what was left of Howard. Those arrays I kept isolated, in case there was still some chance of sieving data from them which might prove useful.
Days I spent wandering alone through the halls of the observatory, wondering just what in the universe I was even doing here, and why I should keep trying to extend a life that seemed to have amounted to futility.
Whether by luck, or design, that was when the next beacon revealed itself.
Like the other, it was very faint, but it called softly from directly ahead, in the belly of the Kuiper Belt, like a siren beckoning a lonely sailor.
I went to it. Dumping more antimatter than I should have into the reaction, I thrusted viciously, pushing the observatory up the relative velocity scale, not caring if I was risking more micrometeoroid storms. If there was going to be any point to this entire journey, any way at all of giving the deaths of Howard and Tabitha meaning, then I had to reach that beacon, which lay an indeterminate way off, but appeared to be growing just a little be stronger, day by day.
Weeks later, I found the buoy.
It appeared to be the first piece of whole-cloth Outbounder technology I’d yet discovered. Incredibly small, and apparently operating on a store of antimatter—which the original Outbounders had never had—the device pinged happily at the observatory while I used the remaining, functional thrusters of the station to pull alongside and match course and speed. My radio query sparked a message laser that shot towards the observatory. I had to fiddle for a few minutes to bring the correct receptor dish into place—something Howard could have done reflexively, with a mere thought—and then the main audio-video channel was alive with a recorded message.