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.
Rita continued. “Ten years we’ve been floating through this. Ten years. We’ve been keeping time exactly with your grandad’s old wristwatch. Ten years according to it, and the ship’s atomic clocks have only moved ten seconds.” Rita sounded like she was trying to convince herself it wasn’t true.
Jim knew it. The first year had been a tumult. They had thought the ship’s clocks were permanently frozen. When a second finally ticked away, they had started using the only analog timepiece they possessed, the antique watch Jim had brought along for luck. It was so old it didn’t even take a battery, just required winding every couple of days. It was the only thing moving, time wise. Everything else, including their natural aging process had been arrested, seemingly, or was too slow to chart.
Physically, their children were exactly the same, though both Jim and Rita were convinced ten years had passed. The four of them seemed to eat and drink out of habit really. This disturbed all of them. Jim thought they might be deriving some kind of sustenance from cosmic rays, but other than that he had no other theories.
All he could do was listen to Rita rant. He’d been waiting for it, even hoping for it, in a way. She had been too bottled-upped, and stress had been making her lose her charm. Her thinness was turning skeletal, although her weight had not changed. Her bones seemed to bulge out of her still pretty face, and her skin seemed stretched taut over them. Fury gave her ripostes a barbed and accurate malice.
“If you could have just accepted what we were, which was just a couple of ordinary Earth losers, you wouldn’t have dragged us out here into the nothing,” Rita fairly screamed.
Watching her, Jim focused on why he’d fallen in love with her. He had an intuitive sense that if he broke now, they really were doomed.
The next time the second-hand flipped, a year later, all four of them were sitting and watching it silently. It had been a three-day vigil because they weren’t quite sure what the exact length would be. It was approximately a year, as they had suspected, in fact, almost a year.
The next year the second-hand ticked a day later. They agreed it must have been due to a leap year, and indeed, the next second reverted back to the original timeline. This was the bulk of their conversation.
During these second-years, the small family continued to function. Aside from their annual observance of the New Second, they began to drift into a schedule. The spaceship had been well equipped with a massive digital library, the principle being the children would have no access to schools, since the homesteaders were sent to explore the universe alone. They also files of just about every movie and work of music ever recorded. Their vessel had been outfitted with musical instruments, digitized art instruction, and a vast supply of digital technical manuals as well, enough to read for a million years, Jeb, their oldest had joked.
At the one hundred year and one hundred seconds mark, the four of them sat in the common room, waiting for the clock to tick.
Jeb spoke first. “The years are beginning to level out our age differences, but you will always be my parents.” The year had gone by as the previous ninety-nine had, with painful bursts of disunity, but with something else. A schedule was developing, organically, a schedule which was clung to by the four of them as desperately as a dying man clings to a life-preserver. Each day, no matter what, each member of the family did something constructive for at least one hour.
Jeb read. Kiera played the keyboard. Rita watched movies. Jim would stare into the nothingness while pretending to read technical manuals. Then, for a couple of decades, they would switch.
At year two hundred, Rita spoke. “I just want you to know, I am reconciled to this life, if it is a life.”
At five hundred years, Rita spoke again. “I take it back.”
At eight hundred years, Jim complimented Kiera’s keyboard playing. She seemed immune to praise. Her only reply was this:
“I am the most accomplished musician in recorded human history. Even though my progress has been painfully slow, I have had eight hundred years to practice.”
Year one thousand was still early enough in their journey to feel like a water mark. Year two thousand reminded Jeb of his earlier claim that there was enough on board to read for a million years. Though most of recorded human culture had been digitized into nano-trillobyte memory, he began to wonder if it really would take that long to plow through it all.
“I begin to fear the day we run out of novel external stimulus,” Jeb worried aloud. “I’ve read every book in its original language, and have well delved into the references cited. I fear the day I know everything.”
Rita reflected on this for a while and then answered him. “I begin to wonder what we’ll become, if we survive this.”
To Be Continued