Rita sighed, a long drawn out affair. It made Jim soul sick to hear her. He remembered when they had first met. She had been the wild and impulsive one then, and Jim had always thought she had viewed him as a source of stability, even if amused at what a nerd he had been when they had met. It was ironic, because for months, Jim had been trying to sell her on the craziest idea of their time—the notion of packing up the family into the space station wagon and hoofing it up to the final frontier.
He still thought she was beautiful, after ten years of marriage. She had the craziest combination of dark skin and blue eyes. More than anything, Jim hoped flight from earth would not become necessary. He shuddered to think what the chain of events which might convince his family to agree to leave their home planet would be like.
Even though his wife was furious with him, with their situation, with the entire universe, he still felt mesmerized by her beauty as he watched her. Her eyes were luminously blue against her dark skin, and her earnest face hypnotized him as he watched her. “The hardest part of timelessness is knowing it will end,” Rita said to him. “I mean, it has to end, doesn’t it? I wake up sometimes, and all I can think of is I’m dead, and I’m in some kind of dream. You know, like the old movie about the ghosts who still think they’re alive?” Her body heaved in choking breaths. Even after all their years together, he still felt compelled to impress her, to somehow make her happy. She hadn’t aged a day in ten years, literally. None of them had.
Jim paused before answering. Infinity was teaching him patience. So was staring at the billionth of a second hand on their atomic clock, which was still calibrated to Earth’s rotation around the Sun. Jim had reset the parameters to display such tiny increments of time, and he often stared at it greedily, since it was the only tangible proof they might still be alive.
“It seems like it must. It’s only been ten seconds of Earth time here, though it’s been a ten years, if we’re calculating correctly. Even though we’ve only aged ten seconds in our time, eventually, inexorably we’ll die of old age here, or run out of food and water, even though we hardly ever get hungry or thirsty. Unless we are in some kind of dream like you said, we eventually, will die…..”
“In about a billion years,” Rita broke in crossly. “A second is a year, a minute is sixty years, an hour, three hundred and sixty years for us. Multiply that by 24 and then by the numbers of days in our year and it comes out to about thirty million of our years for one year here. Assuming we live for another forty years, we won’t die for about a billion years.” She started to cry.
Jim didn’t try to console her. He had been waiting for her to cry for ten years, since the day they had drifted into a strange galactic storm and come out on the other side, seemingly unscathed and unchanged into…nothing. He spoke in measured tones.
“Rita, if we are still alive and not dreaming, you might be right. There appears to be no material wear and tear on our metal. It’s like the ship is in suspended animation but we are moving around in it as if nothing has changed. Even our bodies have changed. None of seem to need to eat or drink much, if at all. You need to start trying to make the best of this. This is an opportunity, if you look at it right.”
Rita cast her eyes downward. “The children are the same as they were ten years ago,” she said sullenly. “This doesn’t seem the slightest bit creepy to you? What’s going to happen to them, with a million years drifting through this Nothing?”
There really was nothing outside their tiny 2077 Toyota Space Commander. They drifted though nothing and into nothing, and as far as they could tell, each of what they calculated as an Earth second was lasting a year in this strange place.
Barring suicide, there didn’t seem to be any escape. Their Life Support systems still worked adequately, and in fact showed as little wear as they might be expected to after ten seconds. Their equipment was still on Earth time as well, in that respect.
Jim thought about his wife, Rita, and their two children, Jeb and Kiera. They had been a fairly appealing representation of the American family product in the New Age. Jeb was eleven, on the cusp of young adulthood, and his sister Kiera was nine, and spunky. They had inherited their mother’s looks, her chestnut hair streaked with blond, her blue-green eyes, and her clean features. They hadn’t gotten much from him, if anything, except a certain kind of determination, a doggedness, maybe. It had been a trait that had caused Jim nothing but grief in his own life. He had never been able to reconcile himself to the mediocrity which was his apparent genetic inheritance.
Finally, Jim spoke. “Rita, things could be worse. We have the agripods to sustain us, though we don’t seem to need to eat or drink much. Though we can’t detect the source, our energy absorbers are being bombarded with enough cosmic rays to power our equipment indefinitely. We need to start making the best of it. Our children are growing, mentally if not physically. If they see us falling apart, they are apt to panic as well.”
Rita turned to him with malice. “Oh, you’re such a voice of reason, aren’t you? This was all your idea in the first place. You got us into this and now you can’t get us out so you rationalize your way out of it.”
Her words wouldn’t have stun him so much if they weren’t true. Jim bit his tongue and closed his eyes.
“What a rosy picture you painted back on Earth. What a wonderful chance it was, to explore space and colonize the galaxy. How was I ever stupid enough to fall for this?” Rita continued bitterly. “What losers we are. We barely made it six months into this crazy journey before we landed in this weird place. Nothing. We’ve discovered nothing. The Universe is composed of nothing. There’s nobody here.”
Jim listened to her rant. He’d been waiting for this, dreading it, but knowing it would eventually come. It had all been his fault. She was absolutely right, but having her confirm this wasn’t changing their reality. He went over the chain of events leading to this debacle again in his mind, for probably the millionth time.
Space Adventures Incorporated had seemed like the answer to a prayer. The corporation had swiftly emerged in the early 21st as the leading organizer of space travel, as governments were too bankrupt to attempt it any longer. Families like the Walkers were recruited to act as space homesteaders. Their voyage would be funded by investors who were promised a future return on any income generated from these voyages. After a training period, selected families were shuttled up to the Space Adventure’s huge Space Station where they were outfitted with the basics of terraforming and mining equipment in space vehicles being mass produced in orbit by outside contractors.
Rita was yelling now. “They must have seen you coming from a mile away. You ate their little spiel right up, didn’t you? Oh Jim, you’re the best and the brightest and we’re sending you to space,” she sneered, in a mimicking and taunting voice.
This hurt. Jim had found out later the most genetically gifted weren’t being allowed into the program. “The Slightly Better and the Slightly Brighter”, one of his more worldly training classmates had cynically put it. Jim and Rita represented a caste of humans The World Government had decided it could do without—slightly more intelligent than average people who were energetic enough to leave a larger carbon footprint by virtue of a tendency to have children.
While this most recent fledgling attempt at One World Governance lacked the money and power to truly subsidize the new corporate approach to space travel, it did provide massive tax breaks for investors in such expeditions. It was a risky business, and few investors would have gambled on it, but as a tax shelter, bankrolling space exploring families like the Walkers was a sure thing. In all fairness, some of these space homesteading families had stumbled upon immensely valuable discoveries. A few showcase families had done extremely well in asteroid mining, and just staking a claim to the vast tracts of lands on the planets they descended upon had incredible investment potential in perpetuity. Bankrolling space exploring families was increasingly becoming a valid portfolio diversification for immensely wealthy individuals who wanted to leave a long term tax break to their estate planners, as well as corporations whose timelines for investment return understandably was longer than most individuals.
Rita somehow had intuited the real basis for their “good fortune” well before Jim had, and had tried to warn him, but Jim had been blinded by the adventure, at the chance of seizing what appeared to be a real opportunity in the tepid maelstrom of Earth. When your life options are predicated by a few standardized aptitude tests and your future employment is determined by them, a certain rebelliousness can crop up unexpectedly over the whole situation. There was something in Jim which hadn’t been discovered in an aptitude test, and it was fortunate for him it hadn’t. Jim had a deep seated yearning to be free which was incompatible with the current political climate he lived in.