This is a surprise short story. Last Rights: Part I of III details a young man’s thousand-year journey to a recently-discovered planet.
Clamps holding onto the ship, releasing. Crowds cheering over the hill. I am a young guy, I tell the little window looking out onto the world. Just a young guy, and here I come, stars. Lift off. Power coursing like you couldn’t believe. At first, no movement, but then a rising. A sprinting.
“Are you okay?” comes a voice on the microphone.
“Holy cow,” I say. It’s not poetic, but young men are not poets.
Blue sky, the last time for a while. Blackness, space. Behind me, a planet of blues and whites. Can’t even see the colour of trees and grass from up here.
More acceleration. Now I’m fast.
Failed out of university. Ended up painting decks in the sunshine. Got a hell of a tan. Spent the nights drinking and smoking. Wandering around the streets trying to figure out why there were limits on what I was allowed to do.
It’s easy to find your way, if you’re not looking for anything. You see a corkboard, and on it an article clipped from a newspaper. ‘Join the Reach!’ it says. Later, in the recruitment station, young men and women are watching a video, blurry images from a telescope, identifying a single bright dot – a star. And around it, they say there’s a recently-discovered planet called Thear.
“The Reach for Thear,” says a man at the front, “will be the most significant endeavor in the history of the human species. We are going to send a person to this planet. It will take more than a thousand years. This person will sleep for much of it, but when they awake, they will be on this planet, the first human to reach a new world.”
I put up my hand. I don’t remember the question I asked.
I stayed up to watch myself pass the moon, and people on the planet congratulated me for having gone further than anyone ever. They threw a party. In my tube, about the size of a small bus, I unwrapped a cupcake that had been waiting for this moment. Ate it as the moon receded into the background.
It takes twenty two years to fly out of the solar system, but that’s only the start of the journey. By the time the Earth is small, a voice whispers, “It’s time to sleep.”
“Already? I don’t mind staying up longer. More books to read. Lots of messages to reply to.”
“They’ll wait. You need rest. Have a good night.”
I lie in the cubby. It looks like a funeral casket. Closes with a snap, and then a whir of air. The lights in the surface wink off, one-by-one, simulating nightfall. I can smell gas. It’s green, faint. “Good night,” I tell everyone. They can hear me, because the microphones are always on.
The lights wink out. I’m a young guy. There’s a lot to dream about.
There is a volcano at the top pole of a moon that spins around Jupiter. It blows up. Too much heat. Too much energy. It’s a geyser reaching for the stars. Looks like an eruption of paint, colouring the sky. A few drops escape the gravity of this moon. Spin out into space, dispersed. Starting a journey. Or, more correctly, starting another one.
A single drop flies towards a solitary ship travelling towards the edge of the solar system. It lands on the hull, splatters there. Starts off a fiery red. Settles as an orange. Glimmers in the sunshine. Freezes in the cold.
Waking up after twenty two years is not as hard as it sounds. I groan as I leave the casket. Someone thought to put a corkboard in my vessel, and on it that old note: ‘Join the Reach’. My eyes blur as I try to read.
Through the window, there’s only blackness. Neptune is behind me. Gone. This is interstellar space, the edge of everything we know.
I have thirty million messages accumulated. Only three hundred thousand in the last year. I sort them through, look for my family. A picture of my dad comes on the screen. He died two years ago. My mom is at the funeral. My brother is holding a photo of me, and behind them is a long line of military people, saluting. My dad wasn’t a hero. He was just a farmer. Loved the land, the soil.
I eat. Sift through messages. I have two nephews now, they are in university. A good number of my friends have sent me messages almost every month for the last twenty two years, explaining what’s happening with their lives. Hoping that I’m well. Telling me that they miss having me around.
I type messages back. They’ll take four hours to get home. I have three days of awake time coming to me before the next long sleep. I stare at space, and wait for responses.
I’m a tree. In 2050, I’m a sapling. Birds land on me. Occasionally, they shit on my feet. A drought almost kills me when I’m 13. A forest fire nearly incinerates me when I’m 42. But you have to remember that I don’t need much. Sunlight. Water. Soil. These are the simplest things, and they never abandon you.
By the time I’m fifty, I’m in the backyard of a big house. Children play in me. Once, one of them falls down and lands on my roots. Writhes in pain, screaming, but I can’t move to help her. She’s bleeding. People are running from the house. My leaves shake. My breath burns.
By the time I’m a hundred, the house is gone and the forest is bigger. In the distance, towers rise, far taller than I will ever be. One scrapes against the clouds. Little ships sail above.
One hundred and twenty is my year, though. That is the year that a couple comes to me, and looks up through my branches at the blue sky. These people stay with me into the night. Huddled close together, breathing. Observing the stars, the same way I do. Existing, just like I do. Striving, too, but there’s no place to go just now, and no need to go there. Let’s just be, I suggest to them, shaking my branches.
In the morning, they carve their names in my trunk. They thank me, and run off towards the towers in the distance.
A hundred years later, you can’t see the solar system. It’s just background. I look in a mirror, and there I am – a young man. Indispensable, if you read the newspapers.
“Good morning!” proclaims the computer screen. “We haven’t forgotten about you! Everyone’s been looking forward to this wake-up sequence. Let us tell you what’s happened on Earth while you’ve been asleep.” Images flash across the screen. I try to take it in, excitement and terror building until they’re the same thing.
“My God,” I whisper. “That is so amazing. You guys are doing so well. I never imagined this stuff…”
I deliver a message into space. It will take months for it to get home, but it’s nice to know that people are thinking about me. I have messages. It takes about a day to go through them. Then I hit a button and get the red-mail, the highlighted stuff that I’ve been warned about. People are gone, all of them. My family is dead. My friends are dead. Even my nephews are gone. But there’s a larger family now, people I don’t recognize. There’s a room full of relatives, all holding up a sign wishing me well. Asking me to send them a message.
I tap on the screen, things I dreamt about saying. I wish I could know you, I tell them. I wish we could meet. Just know that I’m thinking about you.
There was no loneliness until now. You’re in the thick of space, not a particle of matter anywhere around you. It’s dark, and your old sun just another speck in the sky. And I’m a young man. Indispensable.
I say goodbye to everyone I have known. Get used to learning new people that I never will know. I stay awake for a week, moving around the ship. Eating and drinking, checking the vessel, making sure I’m on course. In the last moments before sleep, I look out the front, peer into space. I can’t see Thear’s sun, but it’s out there. Gravity-assisted and coupled with electromagnetic drives and ionic propulsion, I have nearly nine hundred years to go. The next sleep is centuries long, but so what? I’m in the fastest human-made thing that’s ever been made. No, strike that. I’m just the fastest human that’s ever been.