I’ve been giving myself a hard goal of writing for two hours every day. Some days I have something that really needs to be written. Other days, I’m just trying to write something.
This is a short story I’ve been massaging for the last couple of days. I’m a playwright. That’s my thing. But I wanted to make myself write something and this was what started coming out.
Tom looked out the window at the stars. At some point – he wasn’t sure when – they had become boring. For the first few months, he believed he would never grow tired of them. The represented so many options.
Millions of stars. No – billions of stars. Even if his eyes weren’t good enough to pick out every one of them, he knew they were there. Solid dots of light that served as a reminder that space might be mostly empty, but it wasn’t completely empty. They were all so far away, though. So far away.
“Tom. Tom! Are you listening to me?”
Melinda’s voice startled him. He hadn’t been listening because what she said didn’t really matter.
“No, I was distracted. Go on.”
“When did you stop listening?”
“I don’t know. I stopped listening.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Something about securing some thing to some other thing.”
“It’s happening, Tom.”
He didn’t care. Melinda had always been more interested in the mission to begin with. He just went because he wanted to be with her. Now he couldn’t even remember what it was that made her so interesting.
“Tom! You have to fight it!”
Melinda grabbed him by the shoulders and looked into his eyes. Her barely even registered the touch. What had it been like to feel?
Her eyes were blue. At least he thought they were blue. He didn’t really notice color any more.
“We’re the only two left, Tom! If you give in, I don’t know what I’ll do. All we have to do is make it until tomorrow, remember?”
He remembered. He remembered the rest of the crew. How each of them had simply stopped caring. It wasn’t that they did their jobs badly. They didn’t do them at all. Eventually, they lost interest even in living. But he had Melinda and she had him. Together, they managed to resist. Most of the time.
“Tom! Look at me Tom!”
Some time ago, he was looking at a board filled with math he didn’t understand. Melinda sat next to him, and he was only too aware that she understood every symbol. She had a relaxed intensity to her that he admired. She was always paying attention. Always learning.
“So you see,” the man of the impenetrable math told them, “every human mission we’ve sent to the edge of the solar system has failed because of the malaise effect.”
The malaise effect. Tom didn’t understand the math but he understood the malaise effect. When you are in space for that long, you would reach a point where you weren’t close to anything. Every single object in view was bafflingly far away. That isolation inevitably led to a loss of self. And once you lost yourself in that seemingly endless trip between worlds, there was very little chance you could be found.
Ten missions had been sent beyond Pluto and all ten had been lost. Finally, though, there was an understanding of what had gone wrong. But they weren’t sure if they could fix it.
Maybe, they reasoned, it was enough if the crew knew what was going to happen.
Tom now wondered, so what? So what if they made it through the worst?
Immortality seemed awfully boring.
That was the other problem. Something about being in space slowed down the aging process. It wasn’t relativity because they weren’t traveling anywhere near the speed of light. They didn’t really understand how or why, but an Earth year aged the body the equivalent of about one second. Or less.
It might take hundreds of years to reach the nearest star. But the crew would live to see it. They could explore hundreds of stars systems in the Galaxy. They could outlast their entire species and perhaps even their home planet. If they could keep the listlessness at bay.
Tom wasn’t sure he wanted to stay alive that long. Even with Melinda. Even with her.
“Tom! Let’s play some chess, OK? Let’s play chess.”
“You always win.”
“No I don’t”
“OK – sometimes you let me win.”
She laughed. How could she laugh? Had he said something funny?
There was something about the laughter, though, that got through to him. He managed to smile just a little.
She got the chess board and set it up. He looked out the window while she did so. What was he looking for? It was all the same. Points of light they would never reach.
“You’re white. You go first.”
He moved his pawn. Even in space, it felt so heavy. It would have been so much easier to leave the piece where it was.
“Really? Is that your opening move?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Oh nothing. Nothing.”
He knew what she was doing. She’d done it dozens of times before. Maybe hundreds. Could it have been thousands?
She moved her pawn. He moved his knight.
She laughed again.
“Do you even remember how to play this game?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well then, you should remember how to move your knight.”
She smiled. How could he have grown tired of that smile? It was filled with such hope and promise and love. Just seeing her happy reminded him of how good he felt when he was happy. Maybe being happy was OK.
He looked out the window again. He didn’t just see stars. He saw possibilities.
The apathy drained away. Had he not been through it so many times, he could easily have believed it never existed. He took a deep breath and looked at her.
“You did it again.”
“That’s why I’m here. Maybe it’ll be your turn tomorrow.”
“Do you think we can keep doing this for another three hundred years?”
“Why not? We’ve made it over a thousand so far.”
“You always do.”
“This is so hard.”
“Yes it is.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too. Now, make a move so I can kick your ass.”
He laughed. They would make it until tomorrow.