Sarah T. Schwab
We tried standing up this time. I wedged my feet under Shane’s bed; my knuckles were white from clutching my bunk above. He stood behind me and wrapped his arms around my floating, bared breasts. In the back of our minds we knew our attempt to successfully copulate this way was futile: for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. But we had to try. We all promised we would keep trying.
My feet dislodged with the first thrust; he banged his back against the opposite wall with the second, we hit our heads on the ceiling with the third. Ping ponging together in our narrow cabin. After a few more tries he let go and we drifted apart.
“You know this ain’t gona’ work suga’,” he said. He shook his head and allowed himself to float onto his side.
I grabbed hold of the top bunk again for stability. “Well something has to,” I said.
Sex was the most basic of human drives. It propagated the species, connected us, provided pleasure. It permeated our culture on earth. When NASA began drawing the blueprints of expanding our habitat to include the vast reaches of space, no one expected how little prepared we were. Costs and subsequent technological developments had been the top hindrances associated with interstellar travel. Sex in a weightless environment hadn’t even been a bullet point.
I slid my feet into the sleeping bag attached to the bunk. “We could try in here again?” I said.
“You remember there ain’t enough room for both of us.” He crawled down the opposite wall with his hands and strapped himself to the chair with a buckle. His legs levitated. “Besides, and this ain’t no offense to you Emmy, but look at me. Limp as a cooked noodle. I can’t remember the last time I got and stayed hard.”
“It worked a few weeks ago.”
“Yea, for a minute.”
“At least it was a minute.”
“I ain’t that kinda’ man. Zero-g does some damn horrible things to one’s ego.”
I zipped the sleeping bag to my chin. It felt good to let my body float under control.
The first time I experienced weightlessness it was unlike anything I had ever imagined. I could think something physically and execute it by intent – I barely thought “summersault,” and I did one in the air effortlessly. But it wasn’t until we were forced to initiate intimate moments under such conditions that all of us realized something was lacking: physical attraction. We could fly, but we couldn’t perform the most natural of human instincts.
“How have the others been doing?” I said.
“You’re the one who goes to the officer meetin’s. You know better than me.”
“I didn’t know if you’d heard anything, off the record.”
“Like in the halls, during meals? Folks jus’ casually chattin’ about gettin’ a gal knocked up?” He laughed to himself, shook his head.
“It’s not funny.”
“Ain’t you think you’d be one of the first to know if someone was pregnant? They’d be hollerin’ the whole way to our door.” He was right. The Mayflower was small. Smaller now. Everyone knew everyone else’s affairs – they were welcomed distractions from our small lives. “If you ask me, they shoulda’ put a few of them immaculate, face-huggin’ aliens on board jus’ in case somethin’ like this happened,” he said. “Damn things sure did know how to get a gal pregnant.”
I hated Shane’s simple-minded sarcasm. He was nothing like my husband – there hadn’t been a cynical cell in Samuel’s body. It’s what brought us together on earth: our optimism, our determination that a journey four light years to the red dwarf star Proxima Vita was possible. We were just two scientists with our chins raised high.
Samuel had been responsible for interviewing volunteer scientists – there could only be one thousand. After a month of physical, psychological, and aptitude tests, I met him. The Century Starship Mission would take generations to get to the earth-like planet that orbited Proxima, he explained. We, the original occupants, would grow old and eventually die. It would be our descendants who would continue our work upon arrival.
Commune members had a similar interviewing process, but less demanding. They were able-bodied men and women who were chosen based on two requirements: good genes and an area of expertise. Shane was part of the service industry.
There’d been ten thousand of us – scientists and commune members – total.
The mission was contingent on the fact that the ship would have gravity. The possibility of something altering this plan was so dire that he omitted alternatives. NASA had taken every precaution to detail, he assured. Everything would be OK.
I clicked the light off above my head. Only Shane’s side of the cabin was illuminated. “I have to get some sleep,” I said. “That log’s due to Mission Control by 06:00.”
“What’s the point?” he said. “They haven’t responded to your last one.”
“They told us: ‘No matter what.’”
“And what’d you tell ‘em? The trillion-mile-high club still ain’t what it’s cracked up to be?”
“I said we’re still having difficulties, yes.”
He gave a short snicker. “You should tell ‘em to beam us up a few Viagra. That’ll get the ship rockin’ again.”
“The gals back home ain’t have a thing to complain about.”
“You rocked their worlds, eh?”
“Well when you last two minutes, I’ll be sure to consider myself rocked.”
“Ain’t you so sweet you make suga’ taste jus’ like salt.”
I closed my eyes. “Good night Shane.”
Like most nights my mind wandered to my childhood home in upstate New York.
“Remember your emotional refuge during moments of intense anxiety,” psychoanalysts instructed scientists and commune members alike during training.
In my mind I was surrounded by acres of farmland, standing beside one of the many gnarled cherry trees behind the tattered old country house my parents had bought in the flush of their young marriage. The sighs of Lake Erie echoed in the distance.
My father had taken me into the acre-wide fruit orchard to capture fireflies in one of my mother’s jam jars.
“How do we get those ones,” I said, looking straight up with my child eyes. My parents immediately nipped all curiosities I had of space. Earth was it for them – life, death. Anything beyond the clouds was God.
“We can’t,” my father said. They’d flown up too high, he explained. In their quest to find eternal life, they’d become eternally stuck in the space between.
As my eyes stenciled pictures into the night sky, one of the trapped fireflies caught my attention. It was different from the others: brighter, red. I took a great fondness to the oddity, as children tend to do. One day I would reach it, I promised myself. One day it’d be mine.
It didn’t matter how tightly I swathed myself in memories of home. A reoccurring nightmare unwrapped me: I was floating through the weightless corridors of the Mayflower, aware that there were bombs camouflaged in the walls, floors, and ceilings. Explosives could even be disguised as people. I moved carefully, trying not to touch anything or anyone. But I always did.
The blast of the impact traveled at the speed of sound. There was never enough time to take action – implacably the air escaped. I gasped for a moment through blue lips, and then collapsed.
I woke up struggling for air, my sleeping bag drenched with cold sweat. I didn’t need a therapist to tell me I was reliving the “day of dust,” as commune members termed it, night after night.
Shane was snoring and twitching when I unzipped my sleeping bag. Lime-colored numbers read 04:37 above me. I let myself rise out of bed and pushed my body off the bunk with my feet toward the small, circular window on the opposite wall.
When I looked out I could see the center of the spacecraft: a large spherical hub. Only the remaining DARPA agents – a crew of twenty with the Department of Defense – were authorized to enter it now. Periodically they would take pictures and collect data to send to Mission Control. But they, too, went unanswered.
The entire commune, a little over a thousand now, lived in the outer ring of the ship we called the “torus.” We were attached to the hub via five spokes, which had served as conduits for people traveling to and from the center.
The ship was like a giant wheel, a merry-go-round, spanning a mile in diameter. The hub had been our rotational axis, turning once per minute. This rotary motion drove any object inside the narrow torus toward it, giving the appearance of a gravitational pull.
My eyes traced over the damaged section.
We’d been on the ship for forty years, fifteen of which in zero gravity. It was a long time to be weightless – I’d forgotten what it was like to feel my body pulled to the floor. I remembered feeling deceived by Star Wars. The amount of gravity felt at one’s head had been significantly different from the amount felt at one’s feet. This made basic movements such as walking awkward for the first couple of years. And nausea remained the core struggle for most.
Both had negatively affected people’s nocturnal ministrations. There were only a handful of successful births during this transitional period. But after the five-year mark, we’d all become accustomed to our simulated world. Samuel and other senior officers were happy to report to Mission Control that people were finally eating, sleeping, and procreating as expected.
Next to the window was the door to the Waste Collection System. The scientists’ cabins were located on the south side of the ship. Each was fashioned with two bunks and one WCS. The rest of the commune had to share – eight people per. Their cabins in the north torus were like hostels, only smaller.
The toilets were designed to be comparable to those on earth. Airflow was used in order to conserve water. It was similar to an airplane toilet. Except much stronger.
After forty years it was routine: I took my urinal funnel from the cabinet behind the mirror and attached it to the communal hose; I pushed it snug against myself and switched the toilet on. When I finished cleaning the system I sat on the seat and locked down a padded bar across each of my thighs.
I smiled, recalling my group going through alignment practice. “The hole you aim for is much smaller than y’all are accustomed to,” the instructor said. He told us to place a small smiley face sticker “in the right place” over our pants. Inside the toilet was a camera that hooked up to a television in front of us. “Sitting down correctly creates an airtight seal,” he said. The suction would take the deposit through a tube and into a small bag. When we finished the bag went into the trash.
“Suga’, you gona’ be long in there?” Shane said hoarsely through the door.
“Another minute,” I said.
After emptying the bag, I took a sanitization wipe from a cabinet and cleaned under my arms and pants, my face – all the important parts.
While wiping the sleep from my eyes, I studied myself in the mirror. There were perks to being weightless: even though my hair had begun to fade from auburn to brown and grey, I looked nowhere near sixty-four. My face was puffy and pale from being inside all the time. Except for my cheeks, which were always suffused with raw blush. All this helped with wrinkles – I had none. And there was no need for bras since nothing pulled my breasts down.
Our bodies gave nothing away. Only we knew the truth of their conditions.
I opened the door. “All yours,” I said.
An empty hydration pack was floating in the middle of the cabin.
“Why do you refuse to use the trash?” I said as he closed the door.
His reply was muffled.
After throwing his pack away, I went to the refrigerator and got one for myself. Our daily breakfast came in three varieties: strawberry, banana, vanilla. Not only did it hydrate us, but it was also a cocktail of super supplements such as calcium and protein, red blood cells and plasma volume. Women’s packs also included fertility drugs that would keep our bodies productive well into our seventies.
Or at least they should have.
It was recently reported that in the fifteen years since the day of dust, a quarter of the women who survived had stopped getting their monthly courses. Most were my age. The direct cause was uncertain. But it was suspected that a lack of gravity played a role.
I sucked down the chalky strawberry-flavored contents through a straw and went to the officer’s meeting to send the log to Mission Control.
“That’s all they replied?” Shane said. “A god damn earthquake on the West Coast?”
“Do you understand how many people died?” I said. I moved past him toward the window, resting my hands on the wall for balance.
“What about the people up here?”
“Satellite analysis said that it affected the gravitational field surrounding us. It actually thinned out the crust Shane.”
“Well unless people are getting sucked into space, what’s it matter to us? I can’t believe they still ain’t suggested a solution to our problem.”
“There’s always a delay. Maybe one’s coming.”
“It took ‘em five years to send us this Emmy. Wouldn’t you say that’s more than the typical delay?”
In space, one realized quickly that time was a fickle thing, an artificial thing. Scientists had been instructed to send monthly logs to earth. It was crucial, they instructed: under no circumstances were we to miss a deadline.
For the first few years, communication between Mission Control and the Mayflower were steady – we received a reply every few months. But the further we moved away from earth, the longer it took for them to receive and respond to our progress. It was three years before Mission Control knew about the dust, and three years before they wrote back.
The Century Starship Mission was a one-way ticket, they held. As long as we had enough energy to continue en route, and enough manpower to sustain a livable environment, we were to proceed as planned. No alternatives were given. Besides the news about the quake, it was their last correspondence.
“I tell you, we ain’t nothin’ but lab rats to ‘em Emmy,” Shane said. He threw his hands over his head in exasperation, almost doing a back flip. His head bumped the corner of my bunk and he let out a slur of swears, damning Mission Control to hell several times.
“Careful,” I said. I quickly glanced over my shoulder. “You’re not going anywhere if you get a concussion.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere no matter what. And neither are you. There’s no way we’re gona’ make it to Proxima without their help.”
“You know we have enough energy. We’ll make it.”
“So what if we do? Whose gona’ run the show once we get there?” The refrigerator squeaked opened. Contents banged together inside.
“Strap things back down when you’re done in there,” I said.
He ignored me. Closed the door. “Tell ‘em to send another ship. A smaller one to come get us.”
“We’d be at Proxima by then.”
“Do you really buy that?” I turned toward Shane. He was in the middle of the room eating freeze-dried carrot soup. “If Virgin Galactic can fund all us out here, they sure as hell can send somethin’ to get us outta this pickle. It’s too expensive to help us, the greedy bastards.”
Long before I was born, NASA had been sponsoring space theme parks to raise proceeds for the Century Starship Mission. Tourists were flown sixty-two miles up off the ground. At that height they could see blackness and stars, could feel their stomachs in their chests. They could see earth’s atmosphere. Every day, for decades, people had been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a five-hour rollercoaster.
I didn’t want to admit it, but Shane had a point.
I glided toward him, putting a hand gently against his chest to stop myself. My touch bumped him away slightly. But he grabbed onto my wrist, letting the soup drift away. I put my head against his chest and he wrapped his arms around me. I sighed, “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”
His hands were much larger than Samuel’s had been.
The two men had met during college – Shane a bartender, my husband a soon-to-be engineer working for NASA. Shane was seven years younger than my husband: eighteen, newly a man, but afraid of nothing and no one. He was tall and had a lean build, which made him agile. I imagined he liked to think of himself as a sword – light, straight, and very fierce. Samuel had been the opposite – he was armed with nothing but his mind. But there was a special respect between the two men.
They were roommates for years; Shane was the best man at our wedding.
It was curious to me why he never married. He was attractive as those things go: his honeyed hair, once loose and curling at his shoulders, now cut to grey stubble; his green eyes gleaming with a youthful almost wistful pleasure. And aside from his sarcasm, he didn’t have a horrible personality. Perhaps it was the mission itself, the mission Samuel helped him get – he didn’t want a spouse coming along for the unpredictable ride.
I could sympathize with that fear.
When Shane hugged us after the ceremony, I could feel his strength when he pulled me into him. It was only a month until launch and my nerves were peaked. But during that fleeting moment I felt safe. With Samuel’s intellect and Shane’s strength, I was confident we could accomplish great feats.
I looked out the window over Shane’s shoulder.
Like most of the senior scientists, Samuel had been to space two or three times. But for the nine thousand chosen commune members, Shane included, it was their first experience. Because I had just finished school, it was also mine.
While walking unsteadily through the rows, helping people unfasten their seatbelts, it appeared to me that they looked like those tender animals of the forest just before being slain: eyes wide, expressionless. But when they were free to move about the ship, their faces were instantly pressed against any available window. Officers let them gape for hours before having them escorted to the residential quarters in the north torus.
A week later people began working.
Every commune member had been one of the best in their individual fields. And no matter how trivial their job might have been considered on earth, people felt purposeful here. They were filling cavities, stirring soups, even cleaning toilets, for the greater good of humanity.
I moved my head away from Shane’s chest and looked up into his lineless face.
“Whether they respond to us or not, we can’t stop trying. None of us came up here with a mind of quitting,” I said, telling him what I wanted to hear.
“That may be suga’,” he said. His voice was calmer. “But I know you feel it: people are losin’ faith in the mission because of this baby thing.” He paused, gave a short chuckle. “We’ve got sixty more years on this gal. That’s a long time with no sex.”
“It’s not a joke.”
He went quiet and let go of me. He placed his hands on his hips and looked at the floor to hide his expression. “Well, it’s a long time for people to live without a reason,” he said, trying not to sound weak.
Many people lost loved ones on the day of dust – neighbors and parents, spouses. Entire generations of families were gone within a minute. There were only two suicides afterward. I thought there would have been more. The survivors sustained themselves during the subsequent years of mourning and fear by their individual roles.
Support groups were set up. People began comforting one another. Romances blossomed. But it wasn’t the flowery puppy love of teenagers; rather, it was something similar to the stale affection of those who’d gone through a cruel divorce. Shriveled hearts, loneliness – these were the emotions that pushed people to pair off. Including me – we were all just dogs searching in the rubble.
Shane was still staring at the floor in some deep-minded trance. I leaned forward trying as softly as possible to bring my lips against his. But the contact bumped him away again. This time he didn’t hold onto me.
The sound of waves crashed in the corners of my mind that night. Living by the water, it had always been a noise that lulled me to sleep on earth. But tonight the clanging of metal and the rumbling of a rusted commercial-sized dishwasher accompanied it.
I was standing at a stainless steel sink, washing dishes at the foul-smelling beach bar in my childhood town. My father knew the owner and got me the job even though I was twelve. Hard unpaid labor was my parents’ way making me repent for my aspirations of interstellar travel.
My fingers pruned and cracked while scrubbing crusted plates and pans in the grey water. My only reprieve was the small square window above the sink that looked over Lake Erie.
At the end of the evening, when the chefs and patrons had all gone, I was left alone to mop the kitchen clean. The last chore was emptying the trash in a rusted metal bin behind the drinkery. Lights were never left on. So I dragged the bloated garbage bag across the sand in the dark, hoisted its rubbery bulging contents against my chest, and pushed it over the side of the bin.
Before riding my bike home, I listened to the waves break and searched the sky for my firefly. When I located it, the stinking of stale beer and grease ebbed away. I never forgot my childhood promise. It’s what got me through the thankless jobs, Sunday school lessons I didn’t believe in, and six intense years of engineering classes.
It’s what sustained me after I lost Samuel.
My dreams pulled me back to the day of dust.
It was a Wednesday around 13:00. I had just finished lunch and was walking back to the lab to continue research on a project.
The impact was so sudden: a roar of explosions followed by an unbearable quaking. The ship trembled violently for what seemed like hours. People in the hallway clung to the walls, fell to their feet. We all panicked, breathed too quickly, started screaming. It’s OK, I assured those around me. We still have air, I said to myself. With each breath: we still have air, we still have air.
Abruptly everything stopped – the tremors, the rumbling. All noise. People quieted and listened to the silence, waiting. That’s when I heard the first person become sick. I understood why immediately: my stomach felt like it was lifting into my chest. It was a similar effect as going down a rollercoaster, only slower. A second person was ill. This time it didn’t hit the floor; it hovered just above it.
Within minutes each of us began to gradually levitate into the air.
It was determined that it was impossible for a meteoroid, or even a micrometeorite, to have hit the central hub that afternoon. Even at the micro level there would have been a shower of light traced across the radar screen.
The navigation room near the top of the central hub controlled the radar. It scanned surrounding space for debris in the Mayflower’s path. There was always an officer on duty, three rotations per day. Samuel had been in control of overseeing the two hundred scientists who scanned space that Wednesday.
According to Mission Control’s meticulous planning, the percentage of encountering a cluster of space dust was almost nil. A single macroscopic dust grain – a speck a thousand times smaller than a fleck of paint – was even more improbable. That’s why it was undetected.
The hub wasn’t a fragile thing – the metallic glass that coated it was stronger than steel and titanium. But at the ship’s speed, the grain acted like a pinpoint bomb, a BB shot forming an intense fireball that melted through its skin like a hot poker through a round of cheese. DARPA determined that the dust grain barely nicked us. But its impact was enough to suck everything inside the cabin out, and stop the hub from spinning.
The Mayflower was built similarly to a submarine: it was sectioned off into compartments. As soon as we were struck, isolation valves acted as a tourniquet – the damaged limb was cut off from the rest of the body. But debris from the hub’s viscera was sucked into space and fanned out. Pieces clipped the north torus. Even though it wasn’t punctured, the ventilation was damaged in the residential quarters. Again valves closed off the wounded.
People’s lips were blue when they were found a week later.
I woke up, shaking from pain – it felt like I’d been pierced through the abdomen with a piece of shrapnel from the explosives going off in my mind. My hand instinctively moved along my body searching for the wound. Yellow and red buttons illuminated in the dark along the door to the WCS. I unzipped myself and floated up.
Again I felt myself stabbed by the invisible object. The pain swelled in my belly, rolling up my chest and into my throat. I tried not to taste the filmy layer of acid beginning to coat the inside of my mouth as I propelled my body off the wall. I was going to be sick.
“Emmy?” Shane said groggily.
I couldn’t answer him. My body convulsed with internal violence, it consumed my voice. After opening the door, I mechanically pushed my face against the toilet and clicked the switch on. My cheekbones were sucked against the hard plastic rim; it felt like my own viscera were being torn away.
Shane’s hand touched my back. He said nothing, wondering in his silence what was wrong. But I knew. I hadn’t been speared by shrapnel. My heart skipped a beat: I was pregnant.
“We’re runnin’ outta duct tape on this old gal,” Shane said, entering our cabin. I was floating by the computer, reading past replies from Mission Control. A plastic bag had been recently attached to my belt and connected at my knees. It was for when my water broke.
I looked away from the screen. “Did something break?”
“Suppose you could look at it that way,” he said. He moved toward me and smiled big.
“I can’t get over that diaper of yours.”
“It’s not funny.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll figure out somethin’ more appealin’ in the future.” He rested his hand on the mound of my belly that rose above the bag. “How is she?”
“Her foot is on my spine.” Shane’s eyebrows brought together in a little frown. He couldn’t handle truths about pregnancy. “Oh it’s fine. My back just hurts,” I said. His face ironed out and he turned toward the refrigerator dutifully. “So where’s all the tape?” I said.
“Seems like folks are getting’ creative with their ‘nocturnal ministrations,’ as you put it.” He chuckled and pulled out two hydration packs.
“What do you mean?”
“Word got around that tapin’ your feet to the floor works wonders.” He lobbed me one. It glided toward me in slow motion. “Seems that walls and bunks are accommodatin’ too,” he said. “Is that what you’ve been preachin’ to visitors all this time?”
“Have we ever used tape Shane?”
“I’m sad to say we ain’t. But look what I scrounged up.” He pulled a fat roll of duct tape from his pocket. “For number two.”
“Great.” I said. I sipped the chalky chocolate-flavored contents of the pack and tried not to acknowledge my anxieties about giving birth to “number one.”
There had been successful births in space – a little over two hundred during the first twenty-five years of the mission. Those mothers who survived the shower visited me. In the hopes of heartening my experience, they went through all the reasons they loved being pregnant. But I wasn’t an enthusiast – they had gravity.
During the first three months I was nauseous throughout the day, every day. For fear of clogging the ventilation, I was prohibited from communal activities such as eating and working. I had to be close to a WCS at all times. And so I resided in my cabin, took calls from commune members, and gave intimate sermons about why people should keep faith in the mission.
When I stopped being sick, zero gravity actually made pregnancy more comfortable. Nothing weighted down my growing body. Therefore I didn’t suffer from typical discomforts such as back pain and swollen feet. I floated through the torus as an anomaly. People’s eyes followed me wherever I went. It made me uncomfortable – I never enjoyed attention. But Shane rationalized their looks: “If we can make an elephant fly,” he said, “what else could we accomplish?”
Now that I was close to coming full term, I was again cabinridden.
“How’s the tank?” I said.
“Lookin’ good. They say she’s good to go.”
“Sure is. But jus’ a warnin’, they ain’t sure there’s gona’ be warm water in there by the time this thing’s a go. It was hard enough buildin’ and fillin’ the damn thing so fast.”
“As long as there’s water.” I finished the remnants of my pack, hungry for another.
Because I couldn’t physically attend weekly officer meetings, the computer in my cabin was rigged to a screen in the conference room so that I could FaceTime with fellow executives. It was also given access to correspondences between Mission Control and the Mayflower. There was still no reply.
One of the female scientists had given birth at the start of the mission. Everyone was so thrilled about being able to get pregnant that she had to remind us that the process of giving birth in a weightless environment would be messy.
We all agreed that a modified delivery room had to be created.
One suggestion was covering the vents with plastic. Another was fashioning a sort of birthing suit that was similar to the plastic bag around my waist, but would cover my entire body. It was quickly decided that both proposals would end up suffocating someone.
While other ideas were discussed on the screen, I looked out the window in my cabin and instinctively searched the sky. I closed my eyes after a few minutes and let the sound of waves lull me.
That’s when I got the idea to give birth in water. It would be similar to a birthing tank on earth: the lower part of my body would be enclosed in a container of, preferably, warm fluid. This would control any fluids during birth, as well as provide a safe transition for the baby into a weightless environment.
There were no guarantees. But we had faith it could work.
“Finished?” Shane’s hand was stretched out for my empty fluid pack. I handed it to him, smiled my thanks. “I’m gona’ get back over there and see if they need any help. Need anything suga’?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He kissed my forehead and left.
I returned my concentration to the computer. I’d been rereading past correspondences from Mission Control all morning. Something remained unsettled inside me after receiving the last message about the earthquake on the West Coast. There had been several earthquakes during the forty years of our journey. None of them had bothered me. Perhaps it was the magnitude of this one, or the fact it had happened on home soil.
Since I couldn’t work in the lab, I would perform my own research in my cabin.
Words on the screen began duplicating. My eyes were exhausted from staring at the computer – I’d found nothing that rationalized my concern. I was about to logoff when the green button illuminated on the keyboard. I looked at it tentatively, unsure if my eyes were deceiving me. When it didn’t disappear, I pushed it.
A message from Mission Control pulled up on screen: The solar maximum starts tonight. We’re expecting a considerable flare. If this happens we may be offline for a while.
The words appeared unreal to me. They seemed to float. Dreamlike. I read them again and again. One thought kept entering my mind: That’s it? I felt like Shane asking the question. Dispatches were usually lengthy and filled with useful information. They were at least a few paragraphs long. This was unlike any communication we’d ever received. It seemed rushed.
Plus solar flares were nothing new. In September 1859 telegraph wires in the States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires. And in March 1989 a similar, yet more powerful, event hit Quebec. It was again the year of the solar maximum – a period of greatest solar activity in the solar cycle. After the flare hit Canada, the country was blacked out for nine hours.
I learned about the event in high school. I remembered picturing the Sun’s surface as a tangle of magnetic fields and boiling arc-shaped clouds of hot plasma dappled by dark, roving sunspots. Every twelve years or so an event occurred on the surface that released a great amount of energy in the form of an explosive burst of hot, electrified gases with a mass that could surpass that of Mount Everest.
These flares were generally small enough to be deflected by the magnetic field that surrounded earth…
Mission Control’s message about the earthquake on the West Coast blinked into my mind.
“It affected the gravitational field surrounding us,” I had told Shane. Not “us” as in America, “us” as in earth. With such a state of magnetic turmoil, a large enough flare could pass straight through the weak magnetic field and into earth’s atmosphere. This wouldn’t kill anyone. But because our entire social system was built on microsystems, anything that worked on a microcircuit would be fried including cell phones, airplanes, and computers.
A year after the Mayflower’s launch, we were told that brilliant auroras rippled across the skies of China. This was followed by short-wave radio interference. And then the rest of the world lost communication with the country. It was quickly realized that they were struck by a substantial solar flare. All communication with the country ended for two months. When they went back online images flooded the internet: robbed banks and raided grocery stores, burnt buildings and broken things littering the streets. Reports revealed that millions of people had died in riots, panic.
I read Mission Control’s message one last time. What if a “substantial,” a planet-sized, solar flare got through the earth’s weakened magnetic field? The truth was inconceivable: they might never go back online.
My first instinct was to contact the other officers. We would discuss the same possible outcomes. We’d calmly inform commune members. But how would people react? Would that surge of hope in people’s lives remain?
I rested my palm on my stomach – we had yet to see a single human go all the way from an egg through gestation, be born and develop in a weightless environment. Whether we were prepared or not, we would be the first mammals to reproduce this way. We had the intelligence to succeed. Now we had to prove that we had the strength. This news would take that strength away.
I pushed delete.
I floated to the window. My gaze drifted past the hub and into the labyrinth of stars; I stenciled pictures with my eyes. I couldn’t see my firefly. But I knew it was out there, somewhere. We would continue our journey by an echo of sense, both thought and real. And one day we’d all make good on our promises.