by Karl Bunker
Whatever she said, it must have been pretty harsh. The man jerked his head back, his eyebrows raised. His face hardened with anger and he opened his mouth to say something, but then turned and walked away. It was the third time Jack had watched a man approach that woman and then slink away.
This was usually the sort of bar where a woman could sit alone without being sniffed out by every dog in town. She was pretty enough, in a no-frills way: brown skin, short hair, a strong face with African features. It was the UNSA uniform that was the draw, Jack was sure. A real bona fide spacer girl had quite an air of exoticism, in this town at least. But this woman was on a mission and she wasn’t interested in distractions. She was here to drink. There was something grim and mechanical about the way she emptied each glass and asked for another with a little gesture. He could see she was tired of the taste of it, tired of drinking, tired of being here and tired of being hit on, but she stayed and she drank.
“Jack!” A familiar voice pulled Jack’s attention away from the woman. “Can it be? Jack Birch, sitting in a bar? With a beverage of alcoholic nature in front of him? I’m bowled over, Jack. This is the first time I’ve seen you outside of work in months. I was beginning to wonder if you had a keyboard permanently grafted to your fingers.”
“Hello Mr. Herzfeld,” Jack said. “How are you?”
Herzfeld ignored the question. “I see you’re celebrating the end of your project,” he said with a smile. “Cutting loose and going wild out here in the land of the living. Well good for you. You deserve it. I know I already said this Jack, but you did a wonderful job.” He turned to the elegantly dressed woman standing behind him. “Janey, you’ve met Jack, haven’t you?”
The woman smiled uncertainly. Herzfeld grinned. “No, of course you haven’t!” Then to Jack: “Because you never come to the company barbeques, do you, you antisocial bastard!” He thumped Jack on the shoulder with his palm. “Jack, this is my lovely wife Janey. Janey, this is Jack, our star software engineer. Jack just finished up the orbital navigation software for the scooper ships that will be going to Jupiter in a few months. Tell Janey about the scooper ships, Jack.”
“Um, they’re the ships that will gather fuel for the Nomad,” Jack said, making fleeting eye contact with Janey. She was an attractive woman of about fifty, groomed and dressed in that exquisite balance of opposites that says ‘very wealthy but tasteful’.
Her eyes widened at the mention of Nomad. “Oh, you’re working on the starship project?”
“Only peripherally,” said Jack. His lips had a little trouble with ‘peripherally’ and he realized he was slightly drunk. “The scooper ships will orbit Jupiter, dip into the atmosphere with each orbit and gather Deuterium and Helium 3. They, um, liquefy those gasses and store them to be transferred to Nomad later.”
“And it’s Jack’s software that will keep those suckers from flipping ass–frontward somersaults when they’re surfing through the cyclones of Jupiter. Ahead of schedule, and fully tested and verified by UNSA. A terrific job, Jack, just terrific.”
Jack smiled. “Thanks, Mr. Herzfeld.”
“Well, we’ll leave you to your celebration…” Herzfeld paused, looking concerned. Jack couldn’t tell if he was feigning it for comic effect. “You look a little dopey Jack; are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just tired and happy. Something I made is going to Jupiter. So it’s like a part of me is going to Jupiter. That’s pretty cool.” He was smiling broadly and realized that he probably did look dopey.
Finally Herzfeld and his wife left.
Musicians mounted the small stage. The music started; loud and fast and louder and faster, a driving, passionate, coordinated assault of sound. Jack grinned and let it wash over and pound into him. After too many days and endless hours of grueling mental labor, the physical energy of this music was paradoxically relaxing. Jack closed his eyes and conjured up the image of the scoop orbiters. This music could be their theme song. He imagined them screaming through Jupiter’s atmosphere at the perigee of their orbit, howling like frenzied monsters as the gaping mouth at their bows swallowed ton after ton of atmosphere to be processed and stored in their bellies.
Jack smiled at the image, at the sheer beauty of it. A part of me is going to Jupiter. His mental picture changed; now he saw the scooper ships as incarnations of himself. His oversized nose and sharp cheekbones over the wide–open mouth at the bow. His arms held tight to the body of the ship for aerodynamic efficiency. His blue eyes wide and wild as he flew high over Jupiter, exulting in his own speed and power. He laughed aloud at the image, feeling safe and hidden by the deafening roar of the music.
He looked back at the spacer woman, curious if she would show any reaction to the music. If anything, she looked more depressed. Her head was bent over her glass as if she was looking for something in it. Her eyes were almost closed. Jack felt a flash of anger at the bartender; this woman should have been shut off long ago.
Jack nursed his own drink, then another. The live music ended, recorded music came on, couples danced, cute little holo–projected animation creatures scampered and danced on the walls and ceiling. Jack got up to leave, looking over to where the spacer woman had been sitting. She was gone now.
In the parking lot, a low shape on the ground caught Jack’s attention. It was the spacer woman, lying on the pavement. The blue uniform was hard to see in the darkness. Jack squatted beside her. She was snoring, on her side with one arm pillowing her head. The front of her blouse was wet and she smelled of alcohol–vomit. “Hey,” said Jack. “You can’t lie here, you’ll get run over.” He shook her shoulder gently, then harder. “Hey. C’mon. Wake up.” Without opening her eyes she made a whining sound and swatted at his hand.
Next Jack tried to get her to sit up. She came awake enough to push him hard, tipping him off balance. While he was recovering she started crawling away, mumbling something unintelligible. Sitting on his haunches, Jack watched her for a few moments. She was headed toward the center of the parking lot. She stopped, still on her hands and knees. Her back arched spasmodically and she vomited onto the asphalt. She started crawling again. A string of spittle hung from her mouth and caught a flash of light from a street lamp. Then Jack heard a new sound and saw her shoulders shaking. She was crying.
He walked to her and squatted at her side again. “Honey,” he said, and instantly was embarrassed at the word. “Woman, I know a little about UNSA. It is going to be very bad for your career if the cops find you passed out drunk in a parking lot. And that’s assuming you don’t get killed by a car first.” No response. “Oh, fuck it,” he said. He took her arm over his shoulders and stood, pulling her up with him. “Can you tell me where you live? Where you’re staying? If I put you in my car, can you try not to puke any more?” She said nothing. Jack couldn’t tell if this was because she was too far gone to understand him, or just some drunken, sullen stubbornness.
She seemed barely conscious by the time he got to his car. He folded her onto the back seat and started driving home. Shit, he thought. This is insane. She could wake up at any second and start screaming, I’ll be surrounded by cops and charged with kidnapping and attempted rape. Or if I take her home she could wake up in the middle of the night and run off to the cops and tell them I’m a kidnapper. Or wait––better still, she could wake up, decide I’m a kidnapper, rapist and murderer, and kill me in my sleep. “Shit, shit, shit,” he said aloud.
He arrived home at his condo and half carried, half walked her inside. As he did this he talked to her: “I’m going to let you sleep at my place, okay? That’s all. Just sleep. I’ll be in another room. You can leave whenever you want, okay?” She was standing on her own now, but her eyes were almost closed. Jack held her by both shoulders and shouted. “Do? You? Un–der–stand?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay, jus’ lemme go to sleep” she said, frowning. Then she made a visible effort to focus her eyes on his face “Y’know, you’re kinda cute,” she said without much conviction.
Jack helped her to lie down on the carpet, rolled her over onto her stomach and covered her with a blanket. It all felt very clinical until he lifted her head to put a folded towel under her as a pillow. Feeling the skin of her face against his hand sent a chill of emotion through him; a feeling of tenderness like the jolt of a suddenly awakened memory. He stroked the side of her head, barely touching her. Then he went to bed.
He woke up a few hours later to the sound of a whispered voice. “Hey. Hey pal. Can I lie on the bed? I’m okay now, I’m done throwing up.”
“Um, yeah, okay.” He said foggily, shimmying to the far side of the bed.
“I washed myself off too.”
“Mm.” A moment later he was fully awake and his eyes snapped open. Trying not to jostle the bed, he slid out from under the sheet, took his pillow and lay down on the floor beside the bed. Eventually he went back to sleep.
It was nearly dawn when he was awoken again. He sat up and looked at the figure on his bed. She was asleep, but making a sound–a long, high-pitched keening. The sleep-paralyzed version of a scream. “Hey, wake up.” He reached over and shook her. “Wake up!”
With a ragged gasp she sat up. In the dim light Jack saw she was naked, at least to the waist. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “You’re okay. You were dreaming.” She grunted and sat for a while, breathing hard, her forearms resting on her raised knees. Her dark skin was shining with sweat. From where Jack sat she was silhouetted by a dim light from a window behind her. A long ribbon of silver traced her profile: down the straight line of her forehead, the curve of her nose, over the fullness of her lips, around her chin and back to the long line of her neck, and finally the perfect parabola of the upper side of her breast, ending at her nipple. Jack stared, feeling guilty, but feeling also that only a fool would look away from something so beautiful. Her breathing slowed. She rubbed her face and lay back down, covering herself.
Jack got up and sat reading from his hand held computer. Not sure why he was doing it, he turned his chair so that it faced the bed. At odd intervals he stopped reading and watched the woman as she slept. Hours passed.
When it was light, the woman stirred, groaning slightly as she woke up. She was facing Jack when she opened her eyes. They looked at each other for a few seconds. “Good morning,” Jack said, tilting his head to one side. “Do you know where you are?” She nodded, barely moving her head, then closed her eyes again and seemed to fall back asleep. Jack got up to shower and dress.
When he came back, she was sitting up in bed, making no attempt to hide her breasts. “Good morning,” she said.
“Hi. Good morning. Again. Um… how are you?”
She smiled, her eyes narrow and pinched. “I’d laugh at that question, only I think my head will explode if I laugh.”
Jack fetched a couple of pills and water. “Here. This should help. My name’s Jack, by the way.”
“Thank you Jack. I’m Madi. Madior, actually, but I let people who pick my vomit-soaked corpse up out of the gutter call me Madi.”
“Well, technically, it wasn’t a gutter. Just a parking lot.”
She smiled again. “I remember, Jack. I seem to remember everything–no blackouts. You were very kind.”
While Madi showered, Jack put her clothes in his washer. He gave her a bathrobe to wear and they ate breakfast, Madi nibbling on toast.
“You said something about knowing UNSA,” she said.
“Yes, the company I work for contracts for them.”
“Ah. And you are in software, a programmer?”
“Um, yes. How did you know?” he asked.
“‘Not a gutter, but a parking lot,'” she quoted. “It’s my experience that people who are that literal are usually software engineers.”
Jack laughed. He talked a little about his work on the scoop orbiters and other UNSA projects. There was a lull, and Madi stared into her mug of tea. “I was on the Iliad,” she said.
Jack started. “Oh. Oh. I’m… I’m sorry…”
“We… the survivors, just got back to Earth orbit a few days ago. Yesterday was my first day surface-side. I came here to Portland to see the wife of one of the men who died. I was good friends with both of them. She was in rough shape… angry… said some very angry things… So anyway, after that, getting drunk seemed like a good idea, so I did.”
“Did it help?”
“Well, it wasn’t any worse than the damn post–trauma therapy UNSA’s been shoving down my throat.”
“I’m sorry…” Jack said. “It was a terrible accident.”
“There have been worse. Yes. It was terrible.”
“So you’re on the Nomad project,” she said a few moments later. “That is so exciting. God, a starship. It still seems unreal to me.”
“Well, it is sort of unreal, isn’t it? Between the seventy six years it will take to reach Epsilon Eridani, and another ten years before their report is received here… You and I will be dead before anything is heard from them, before it’s known if the ship made it, or if the crew survived the cryo-sleep, or what they found, or whether they decided to head back to Earth or to go on to Tau Ceti… There’s something very unreal about the whole thing.”
“Perhaps there is,” said Madi. “But it’s something that has to be done.”
“Has to?” Jack was looking at her eyes. Her irises were such a dark brown they seemed almost black. Obsidian, he thought, smiling to himself. Polished obsidian.
“Yes, absolutely. It sounds melodramatic, but I really believe starships are necessary for human survival. And not because the sun is going to burn out in a couple of billion years. I mean much shorter term than that. We can’t sit around forever hoping that some day we’ll come up with some magical way of traveling faster than light. Because while we sit here, the human race is rotting away. People are spending more and more time and energy and money on entertainment–on VR immersives and games and movies and holos and all the other sensory junk foods–and they’re losing interest in the real world. The solar system isn’t enough of a frontier. Most people see it as a bunch of places that are too hostile, too alien, to get excited about. We need planets humans could live on, planets with life, to get people excited about space. To get people interested in the real universe again. And we need it soon, before we turn into a race of jellyfish that can only sit and be entertained and is incapable of getting off its ass and doing anything. I say thank God for Nomad. I cried like a baby when I heard that project was approved.” She stopped, took a breath. “Sorry. I get a little carried away on that subject. You’re smiling; you must think I’m just doing my silly spacer-fanatic thing…”
“No!” said Jack. “No. I’m smiling because I think you’re magnificent.” Then he blushed. “Oh, um, I don’t think I meant to say that out loud.”
Madi put her head back and laughed. “Thank you, Jack. That’s quite a compliment. Hey, I laughed and my head didn’t explode. Those meds must be working. I actually feel okay.”
When they finished their breakfast, Madi said, “Well, I should go.” She got dressed. Jack stood, put his hands in his pockets, took them out. He opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind, closed his mouth. She went to his door, he followed her.
“Thank you again, Jack,” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Thank you for everything.”
“Madi, um, you don’t need to thank me… it was my pleasure… it was an honor… I mean, I enjoyed meeting you. Um, very much… and I…um, hope-”
“I brushed my teeth, Jack.”
“You didn’t have any mouthwash, so I put some toothpaste on my finger and brushed my teeth. See?” She brought her face very close to his and huffed a breath at him. It smelled of toothpaste. “Nice and fresh.”
“Um, that’s nice…”
“Could you stop saying ‘um’?”
A pause. Then: “Yes. Yes I can.” And he kissed her.
Later that morning, Madi asked to go to a park. “A big one, with trees, grass, birds,” she said.
They went to a park and walked. “I have two week’s leave,” Madi said, “more, if I want it. After that I’m under orders from my shrink to only take short assignments for a while–just Earth-orbit hops. So we’ll be able to spend some time together, if you want.”
“I want,” said Jack. “I want.”
They stopped and sat under a tree. “Oh, god,” Madi said, inhaling deeply. She lay down, first on her back, then rolling over onto her stomach and pressing her cheek and opening her palms to the grassy ground. She closed her eyes. “Oh god, oh god, oh god. It’s good to be home.”
Jack watched as tears leaked out of one closed eye, then the other. He put his hand on her back, stroking her. She started sobbing quietly, and Jack lay beside her and pulled her close and ran his hand over her short bristly hair and kissed the side of her face again and again. Soon she was quiet, and soon after that she fell asleep.
She dozed for only a few minutes, then rolled over and opened her eyes. Jack was sitting, looking down at her. She smiled. “And there you are,” she said. “My own personal angel, watching over me as I sleep.”
And the next morning, when Madi awoke in Jack’s bed she saw he was already awake, sitting in the half-light, reading and watching her. “Okay,” she said with a laugh. “I can see this is going to be a habit.”
“I like watching you sleep,” Jack said. “It makes me happy. It feels like… It feels like that’s where I belong.”
“Okay, my love. As long as you know you belong other places too.” She held the sheets open for him.
When Jack came home Madi was sitting at the same table where they had shared their first breakfast five months ago. She was staring at her folded hands, and was slow to look up when he came in. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She stood up, and somehow that frightened Jack. It made her look military, hard, ready to do what she had to do, regardless of the consequences.
“I’ve been accepted for an assignment, Jack.”
“It’s something I volunteered for. A while ago. I didn’t think they’d accept me, but they did. And I have to go, Jack.”
“What are you saying? What assignment? How long?”
“It’s for the Nomad, Jack. I’m going to be part of the crew.”
For a moment Jack felt like he was falling. “No,” he said. I am not falling, he thought.
Madi was silent.
“You can’t. Madi… Madi…” He stopped, and stood looking at her. “Okay,” he said finally.
The next day Jack went to see Herzfeld. He sat in the CEO’s elegantly decorated office and stared down at his own feet. “I need you to put me on another project,” he said. “I want to… I have to work on the Nomad MIR’s.”
“What?” Herzfeld said blankly.
“The software for the Nomad MIRs–the bots–I have to be on that project.”
“But Raj is heading that project, and he has been for months. You know that Jack; what are you talking about?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Herzfeld. I don’t like asking this, but I have to. I don’t have to be chief engineer. I’ll take anything, as long as it’s on that project. If you can’t do this for me then I’m resigning. Quitting. Now.”
Herzfeld took a slow breath, then spoke with a deliberate calmness. “Listen to me Jack. You know the kind of security we have on these UNSA projects. I can’t let you–I can’t let anyone–come charging into my office and bully his way onto a project like this. Not unless I know exactly what the hell it’s all about. I know you don’t want to Jack, but you’re going to have to talk to me. You’re going to have to tell me why you want this.”
Jack stood up and paced around the office. After a few moments he started talking. He explained as well as he could. He talked about Madi, about her being accepted to the Nomad crew. At times he stumbled over his words, or sentences trailed off unfinished, at times his face burned with embarrassment, but he explained what he wanted.
When he was finished both men were silent for a while. Then Herzfeld said “Alright Jack. Raj has been wanting to do something more managerial anyway. You’re chief engineer of the MIR project.”
A little over a year later the Nomad left Earth orbit with Madi aboard.
There were thousands of systems aboard the Nomad, each one built with redundancy upon redundancy. It carried an army of self-testing and repair mechanisms that would, in theory, keep the ship intact and on course, keep the crew preserved in cryo-sleep, keep the dormant systems of the ship ready to function when they would be needed, decades in the future. Most of the ship’s self–maintenance happened quietly, invisibly, behind panels, under the decks and within the walls. Every circuit and electronic component had redundant twins, and every mechanical system had a way to replace its own parts. But apart and independent from all this were the Mobile Inspection and Repair units, commonly called the bots. Wheeled and legged, these semiautonomous mechanicals would roam the decks of the Nomad, looking for signs of damage or wear or malfunction that the ship’s other sensors might miss.
In all of the byzantine maze of systems on board the Nomad, the MIRs were the one that Jack knew he wanted to work on.
And when the Nomad left on its journey, and for the rest of Jack’s life, he could close his eyes and imagine the bots. He could see them in his mind’s eye, walking the corridors of the silent ship, walking past the coffin-like cryonic enclosures where the crew slept. And he knew that a part of these lifeless mechanicals was his; a small part of him was going with them. He could see them quietly inspecting, testing, measuring. Watching, watching, for year after year, for centuries even, he would be watching over Madi as she slept.
Karl Bunker is a middle aged software developer who grew up on Simak and Clarke, stuck with the genre through to Chiang and Wadholm, and wonders who’s coming next. He recently decided it was about time he started doing something creative with his love of SF. This is his first sale.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish