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Bonus Story

Charles Robertson

 

As a teenager, Charles Robertson spent many hours reading Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein and aspired to become the next Isaac Asimov. He graduated from Missouri State University and started his career as a science teacher, but is now employed in the Information Systems field. He has been married for twenty-one years to a registered nurse, but most of all a compassionate wife and mother. Together they are raising two brilliant and (mostly) well-behaved teenage children. When not working, doing family things or writing, Charles likes to build military models or play with model trains.

Charles Robertson's short stories have appeared in Stupefying Stories, Timid Pirate Publishing’s Benevolent Apocalypse Anthology, The Fifth Dimension and Cosmic Vegetable's Anthology of Humorous SF.

For our Bonus Story this issue we meet a girl literally on a trip of a lifetime who, at the culmination of her journey, must cope with an adult situation far beyond her adolescent years.

 

 

Sailing to Eden

By Charles Robertson

 

Katy dashed to the top deck of the habitation module and peered out an observation port. Even though she'd seen it so many times before, her mouth dropped open in awe as she took in the huge rotating ring curving upward in both directions until it joined high overhead. She stared at the constellations, mesmerized as they spun past like specks of glitter on a black wheel. Tau Ceti shone near the center of the sky, a brilliant yellow disc that blinded her every time she stared into it. Next to it hovered a dimmer star-like object: Eden.  The planet got a little brighter every day.

The enormous solar sail to her left consumed half the sky.  Dark blotches peppered its surface, space showing through tears in the thin fabric.  They made their own constellations of a sort: the Dog, the Snake, the Giraffe.  The dark spot everybody called the Bear looked a little different tonight. She rubbed her eyes, but she was right. It had become larger, as if it had grown another paw.  A change in the sail!  She had to tell Mom and Dad.

Katy dropped three decks down the ladder and sprinted twenty degrees spinward through the main access way, finally reaching her family's quarters.  She hit the button next to the door and burst inside, then paused to catch her breath.  “Guess what? There's a change in the sail!”

Samantha looked up from her spot on the floor in front of the video screen. She set the doll she called Mister Willy aside.  "Can I see?"

Her parents stepped into the living room, both neatly primped and wearing their good outfits. Mom put her hands on her hips. "What took you so long? You know you're supposed to watch Samantha while we go to the meeting."

Katy ran up to her mother. "I'm, sorry, Mom, but I saw a change in the sky.  The Bear. It’s bigger than last night.”

Mom grabbed her purse.  "You'll have plenty of time to look at the sky later. Make sure you have Samantha in bed by 21:00.  If we're not back by 22:30, get to bed yourself."

Katy turned to Dad. "But it's a change."

Dad rested a hand on her shoulder.  “Rips happen in the sail every few years. You're too young to remember the last time one occurred. They'll probably happen more often now that the solar pressure from Tau Ceti is greater.”

Mom kissed Samantha on the top of the head and Katy on the cheek. "We'll see you later. Remember what I told you about the bed times."

Katy sat on the couch. "If you're back before 22:30, can I go to the observation deck one more time before getting to bed?"

Dad smiled at her.  "We'll see."

Samantha clutched Mister Willy against her chest as she watched their parents leave. She turned to Katy. "Can we watch animations tonight?"

Katy grabbed the control to the video. "I need to see the meeting."

"But that's so boring."

"Maybe so, but I'm curious about what is so important that all the grown-ups have to be there."

Katy changed to the public channel.  It always showed the meetings, but it was blank tonight.  She wondered why. Perhaps it was because all the adults were already there?  "Well, I guess it's animations after all."

Twenty-one hundred came and the lights dimmed to night luminosity. Samantha was out, the curve of a smile on her face as she held on to Mister Willy. Katy carried her to their bedroom and tucked her into the lower bunk, then slid the doll under the covers with her.

Katy watched videos until twenty-two thirty. She should have gone to bed herself, but lay on the couch instead, in case she could talk her parents into letting her get one more look at the sail. She dozed off.

The sound of her parents returning woke her. They staggered into the apartment like zombies, staring straight ahead and not speaking. 

Katy yawned. "I know I should be in my bunk, but can I go outside and take one more look at the sail first?  I want to see if the Bear has grown any more."

Mom glared at her through glossy, red eyes. "No!  I don't want to hear another word about that sail."

#

The next morning, Katy trudged into the dining room and sat at the table. In front of her, steam rose from a huge pile of pancakes. Chocolate syrup ran down the sides.

Samantha stepped in a few minutes later, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, and taking her own seat.  Mom served her an omelet stuffed with green peppers and pickles. Samantha's eyes lit up as bright as Tau Ceti.  "Thank you, Mommy!"

Katy stared at her mother.  "You made both our favorite breakfasts?"

Mom poured each daughter a tall glass of milk. "I felt like doing something special for you kids."

The girls devoured their meals and rushed toward the door.   Before they could leave, Mom clutched one daughter with each arm and kissed both their cheeks.

The hold seemed to last forever. Katy tried to push herself free.  "Mom! We'll be late for school."

Her mother only grasped harder. "Can't a mother show her children she loves them?"

A tremor came from her mom's chest. Katy could have sworn it was a sob, but what was there to be sad about? "Are you okay, Mom?"

Katy's mother finally released her daughters.   "Why would you ask that? Now get to school.  I love you both."

Samantha grabbed Katy's hand and they headed into the corridor together. Dad stood behind Mom and waved. "Good-bye, girls. I love you both, too."

Katy rang the buzzer to the door of the adjacent apartment three short times, the same way she did every morning. This time, the door did not open right away. Katy folded her arms and waited. Finally, the portal slid aside.

Angie stood in the open doorway, with her younger brother Timothy holding onto her hand.  Angie's mom held onto both her children and kissed them all over. Angie peered at Katy and shrugged her shoulders. Finally, Angie's mom released them.

The four children headed spinward down the long corridor. Katy nudged Angie in the side. "Guess what? The Bear is different now."

Her friend sighed. "So what?"

"So what? The sail changed.  And I was there to see it."

Angie stopped and turned to Katy. "You're always into that brainy stuff. I wish you'd do something different. Play hooky or something."

"Why?"

"I dunno. Maybe to have fun for once."

"But school is fun."

Angie rolled her eyes. "Whatever."

After traveling fifteen degrees, they reached the school pod. Samantha and Timothy broke loose from their sisters and scurried into the Kindergarten room, then started playing with the other five-year-olds.  Angie and Katy crossed the corridor leading to the fifth grade room and sat at their desks, across the aisle from each other.

In the front of the room, Mrs. Fitchell was keying something into her console. She'd be interested in the Bear. Katy ran up to her.  "Guess what?  I saw a change in the sail last night."

The teacher's eyes widened and her face paled. "What did you see?"

"The Bear. He grew another paw last night."

"That's—interesting."

Katy studied her teacher's face. The smile she always sported was missing this morning. "Did I say something to make you mad?"

Mrs. Fitchell turned away from Katy and locked her stare onto the console. "No. Everything's fine."  

Before Katy could ask any more questions, the morning bell rang. The students scrambled to their seats. Mrs. Fitchell stood at the front of the classroom and cleared her throat. "There's been a change in the lesson plan. Today we are going to talk about the sail instead. Can anybody tell me about it?" 

Katy's hand was the first one up.  "It catches solar winds.  Those are tiny particles that push the Ark through space as they hit it."

Mrs. Fitchell picked up a sheet of tissue paper from the top of her desk.  "That’s good, Katy.  The closer the Ark gets to Tau Ceti, the faster it falls toward the star.  The sail is designed to slow the Ark enough to go into orbit around Eden as we pass it."

She held the paper above her head and dropped it.  As it fluttered toward the floor, she blew on it.  The sheet stopped falling momentarily.  "The sail acts like this sheet of tissue paper.  My breath acts like the solar wind.  Just as my blowing stops the paper from falling, the sail is meant to stop the Ark as it reaches Eden."

Mrs. Fitchell played a video.  It showed school children packing into one of the shuttles in preparation for reaching the new world.  "When the shuttle is first released from the Ark, you will feel as if you are falling.  This is normal.  There's no reason to be afraid," the narrator said in an accent Katy could hardly understand. Her dad had told her that was how people talked when the Ark was first launched, so many years ago. "Since the entire fleet of shuttles can only hold one thousand people and there are five thousand on the Ark, they will have to make five trips.  If you are not on the first one, be patient.  Your turn will come."

Soon as the video ended, the recess bell rang.  Katy's classmates scurried to the playground, but she headed to the upper deck, eager to see if the Bear had changed any more. She stood next to one of the sail-ward viewports and looked outside.  The shape appeared no different than last night.  Maybe there would be no more changes.

Just as she was getting ready to descend the stairs, something about the Dog caught her attention.  She squinted.  Her eyes were not deceiving her.  It had a longer tail.  She looked at the other shapes.  The Swan had a thicker neck.  The Snake had a fat belly, as if it had just swallowed something.  The Giraffe's head had doubled in size.

Katy slid down the ladder and spotted Angie skipping rope with a group of girls.   "Hey! Come look.  The animals in the sail are growing."

Her friend chased her to the upper deck.  Other children followed and gathered around the viewport.  They peered at the dark shapes and gasped. 

Mrs. Fitchell's stern voice boomed from behind them. "What are you doing here?"

Katy turned around. "Look, Mrs. Fitchell.  The animals are changing."

The teacher folded her arms and tapped her right foot on the deck. "Get back to the playground."

"But you said it's okay if we come up here during recess."

"That rule has been changed. Now go below or I'll give you detention."

#

The end-of-school bell rang. The children streamed out of their classrooms and scurried home. Angie walked up beside Katie. "I'm glad to get out of here. I've never seen Mrs. Fitchell in such a bad mood before."

Katie turned to Angie. "Have you noticed something strange about the adults today?"

"Like what."

"I don't know. They all seem sad or something."

Angie smiled. "Grown-ups are just weird. Let's get Timothy and Samantha and go home."

They approached the ladder to the observation deck. Katy couldn't resist the urge to peek through the hatch in the ceiling. "Why don't you get Samantha and go on ahead. I'm going to take another look at the sail."

She climbed the ladder and scanned the bulkheads. All the port shutters had been closed. Katy moaned. They had never been shut before.

When she got home, the stench of burnt meat ran up her nose. Mom scraped a spatula in a mechanical motion over a crusty skillet. A cloud of gray smoke rose from the burner, but her mother didn't seem to notice.  Dad sat at the table with his head resting on his arms. She waited for one of them to ask how school went or if she had any homework, but neither one spoke.

Samantha dropped into her favorite chair, a gleeful look in her eye that disappeared as soon as she stared into Mom's and Dad's faces. Katy sat beside her sister. Mom served the burnt meat and then cut off a chunk of it and began chewing. The crunching sound carried across the table.

The silence became unbearable.  Katy had to speak up.  "There's something wrong with the sail, isn't there."

Her parents froze in mid bite. Their father then hastily swallowed the food in his mouth. "What makes you say that?"

Katy leaned forward. "All the grown-ups have been acting so strange, and when I ask them about it, they clam up."

Her parents stared at each other. Dad shook his head at Mom, who shook her head back.

Their father cleared his throat.  "Yes, there is. Did your teachers tell you today how it works?"

The sisters nodded.

"Many generations ago the sail caught the solar winds of our home star to push us out into space. It is now supposed to catch the solar winds of Tau Ceti and slow us down to where we can go into orbit around Eden.  The problem is, it's been damaged during the voyage.  It's—" Dad stopped speaking to take in a breath of air, then slowly let it out. "It's falling apart. The Ark will move past Tau Ceti without stopping."   

Katy thought of all the accounts of Eden Dad had given her.  Plants so high, they blot out the sun.  Pools of water so huge you can't see across them.  All this waiting and she'd never get to see it?  It was a hundred times more disappointing than being told she couldn't look at the sky.  "Are we going to have to live on the Ark forever?"

He frowned. "No.  In fact, we can't.  The reactors are—they are running out of fuel. In a couple more decades they will-- fail."

Her stomach felt heavy, like it had after she'd eaten too many of Mom's pancakes that morning. "We'll die then, won't we?"

Samantha started crying. "Mommy, are we going to die?"

Mom got up from her seat and stepped up to Samantha, then bent down to hug her. "No, Sweetie. We won't let that happen."

Dad smiled, but his eyes did not show happiness. "The engineers are working to make sure everybody gets off the Ark. Even though it can't slow down, the shuttles can.  They'll just have to use all their fuel for the landing on Eden.  They won't be able to make it back."

The video from this morning spun around in Katie's mind.  The shuttles were designed to hold a thousand people. There were five thousand on the Ark.  She remembered what Mrs. Fitchell had taught her about percentages.  "That means only twenty percent of the people can go."

"We can take about half our people if we strip everything out of the shuttles and carry just enough of the animals for breeding.  It'll be much harder without all the farm machinery and pre-fabricated buildings, but we can survive."

"That's still not enough space."

"If we can't find more space, there will be a lottery to determine who gets to leave and who will – stay." Dad leaned toward his daughters and rested his left hand on her shoulder and his right on Samantha's. "I promise, one way or another you won't be left behind."

Katy peered deep into her dad's eyes. "Can you really promise that?"

He stared back.  "Have I ever lied to you?"

"No."

"I give you my word.  We'll do whatever it takes."

#

Katy and Angie hardly talked on the way to school the next day.  The morning bell rang, prompting them to take their seats.  She looked over at Angie, who looked back, echoing the same fear in her eyes.  What if one of them had to be left behind?

Mrs. Fitchell took her usual place at the front of the class.  "I'm sure your parents have told you about the sail."  Everyone nodded.  "Because of the situation, all normal classes are cancelled. We are going to be talking about surviving on Eden instead.  You all need to pay close attention from now on. What you learn may save your life."

Katy staggered into the apartment at the end of the school day.  She rubbed her scratchy eyes.  All the lessons Mrs. Fitchell had tried to cram into the class still buzzed around in her head.   How could anyone expect her to remember so much?

Mom set a fresh pizza on the table.  Grease sizzled on the meat.  Katy took a whiff, but the aroma didn't make her mouth water this time.  "I'm not really hungry right now."

Dad looked up from the slice of pizza he was holding. "I have some news."

The girls froze.

  He let out a breath. "We won the lottery. We are guaranteed a place on one of the shuttles, even if the engineers can't find a solution."

Samantha made fists and shook her arms in the air. "Yipee!  We're going! We're going!"

Katy smiled.  All the worry had been for nothing.  They would end up on Eden after all.  She let out a cheer of her own, then noticed her parents were not cheering with her.  "What's the matter?  I thought you'd be happy."

Dad swallowed his bite of pizza.  "I'm thinking of the rest.  If the engineers can't find a solution, they will have to be left behind."

Katy thought of Angie, Mrs. Fitchell, all her class mates.  Her smile died. Which of her friends would have to stay? "Oh, my God!  Angie."

She sprang from her chair and rushed to Angie's apartment.  Katie punched the door buzzer several times in succession, still trying to think of what she would say.  Her mind locked up. How exactly do you ask a whole family if they are going to live or die?

Angie opened the door.  Her glossy eyes betrayed everything. She studied Katy's face and wiped a tear.  "You're going, aren't you?"

Katy couldn't bring herself to answer. 

They clutched each other in a crushing hug.  Katy's own tears flowed.  Maybe she could give her place on the shuttle to Angie.  She knew every square meter of the Ark.  She could write a note to Angie's parents, saying their daughter could have her seat, and then hide.  They'd never find her until the last shuttle left.  Then she thought of Samantha.  It wouldn't be fair to leave her without her older sister.

After what must have been several minutes, Angie let go. "I'm glad you're going."

Katy hugged her friend again. "I wish it were you instead."

#

The waiting for departure time had seemed like an eternity.  The alarm rang on her final morning on the Ark. Katy's stomach churned. She dragged herself out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen. A few scrambled eggs and vegetable slices sat on her plate. She recalled her last instructions— eat a light breakfast before boarding the shuttle. She crammed the first bite into her mouth.

Mom pushed a plate with sliced vegetables toward her. "You'll have to eat more than that."

Thoughts of Angie wouldn't get out of her head. Katy rose from her seat. "I'm not hungry."

She crept to her friend's apartment and gave the buzzer three short rings. Her throat tightened as she realized it was for the final time. The door slid open. She found herself standing face to face with Angie. No words came from either of them. How could she even begin to express the sadness and guilt of leaving when her best friend would be left behind?

They hugged silently. Angie's fingers dug into Katie's back. Katy was sure her own grip was just as tight. After they had clutched each other for a while, someone tapped Katy on the shoulder.

It was Dad. He took her hand. "It's time to go."

Katy followed Dad and the rest of the family, but kept her head turned toward Angie. Her friend mouthed 'I love you' as Katie advanced up the corridor and the curve of the Ark separated them.

Dad held a red bracelet.  "This is your boarding pass.  Whatever you do, don't lose it."  He snapped it around her wrist and another one around Samantha's.  "Your seat assignment is number 36A.  Samantha, yours is 36B.  We will be 36C and 36D.  The red color means the seats are on shuttle number two."

Katy stared at the bracelet, with the seat assignments stenciled in bold, black characters.  More sobs escaped from her throat as she thought of Angie and all the others who had no bracelets.  What was worse—dying on the Ark, or making it to Eden but spending a lifetime with the guilt for all those who had been left behind?  She couldn't decide.

Mom stuffed Mister Willy into Samantha's arms, then ushered both sisters down a side corridor.  "The shuttles are loading.  For Heaven's sake, we don't want to be late." 

She led them to the hangar bay.  More people clogged the passages the closer they got.  Ahead, a large round portal stood with bold letters above it: SHUTTLE TWO.  Other parents were leading their children inside.

A metal chain separated them from those who would be left behind. They crowded the barrier, but no one tried to cross it. Katy glanced at the people and then turned her head away.

Mom and Dad stopped at the airlock. Mom nudged the sisters inside. Katy turned around.  "Aren't you coming?"  

Mom looked away.  "They are loading the children first.  Let the stewards strap you in, and don't get out of your seat for any reason.  We'll be along later."

The sisters followed the steward down the narrow aisle.  They stopped at row 36. He fastened the safety netting around them.  She looked at the two empty seats next to them.  Mom and Dad couldn't arrive to fill them fast enough. 

"Katy!"  A voice shouted from the boarding hatch. 

Angie and Timothy scurried toward her.  Did they come to say good-bye again? She shrank back into her seat.  One emotional good-bye today had already drained her.  Another would be too much to take.

A huge grin broke out on Angie's face. "They found some more places.  We're going too!"  She forced her way through the narrow aisle.

Katy expelled an enormous breath.  She felt as light as that sheet of tissue paper Mrs. Fitchell had used for the demonstration the day after Katy spotted the rip in the sail. Angie and her family were going!  This was better than she could ever have imagined.

Angie and her brother stopped at row 36 and started to slide in.  Katy blocked their way.  "Where are you going?"

"We're taking our seats."

Katy grabbed Angie's wrist and read her boarding pass, then Timothy's. Her heart pounded.  She sank back into her cushion.  "This can't be right.  It says you have seats 36C and 36D."

Angie grinned. "That's right."

Katy fought her way out of the webbing and stood up.  She shouted at the steward.  "There must be a mistake.  These seats are already reserved."

He stepped down the aisle and examined Angie's bracelet.  "There's no mistake."

"But how--?"

He pointed at the boarding hatch.  "Why don't you ask them?"

Her parents filed into the cabin, among a line of other adults.  Katy shouted, "Mom, Dad, there's some kind of mistake."

Her parents shuffled to their row.  Mom reached over and held their hands. 

Dad leaned past Mom.  "There is no mistake.  The adults decided to change the evacuation plan.  If there weren't enough seats for everyone to go, we would give up ours so all the children could have one.  There are only enough adults going to teach you how to live until you grow up."

Anger boiled inside her.  "You lied! You never lied to us before."

He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Please forgive me.  I did lie, but it was for you.  If you had known the truth, you wouldn't have agreed to go."

Angie's mom and dad threaded themselves through the narrow aisle and bent across her so they could reach their own children. They clutched them in tight grips.

Mom squeezed Katy's hand as if she would fall off a cliff if she let go.  "It's going to be hard.  Samantha will need you to take care of her.   Listen to everything the adults tell you.  Above all, we love you."

Yet another sob forced its way out of Katy's throat.  She swallowed to keep it down. For Samantha's sake, she would have to keep her composure.  "Be strong, Samantha.  Don't cry."

Dad patted both his daughters on the head.  "You're very smart girls.  I know you will both make it."

In every row, parents were leaning over their children.  Tears flowed like rain. A chime sounded.  The sign over the hatch flashed CLEAR CABIN.

Mom's grip tightened.  "I guess this is it. Let me look at you two one more time."

Dad's eyes watered too.  "Your mother and I are so proud of you."  His voice broke.

A man in uniform emerged from the cockpit door.  "Parents, you have to leave the shuttle.  We're entering our launch window."

Samantha clutched Mom's wrist. Her mother tried to pull free.

"Don't go, Mommy!" Samantha screamed and gripped harder.

Mom cried as much as her youngest daughter as she gently twisted against the grip. Dad joined in and the parents tore themselves away. They filed out of the cabin with the rest of the adults, still looking back at their children.

Katy felt like crying herself, but she would have to be a model for Samantha from now on. She turned to her sister. "We have to let Mom and Dad know how strong we are."

Samantha stopped crying long enough to face her parents. They waved good-bye on the way out.  Mom blew a kiss. Cries spilled from all the children, even the teenagers. 

Katy no longer felt a reason to keep from breaking down.  She clutched Samantha's hand.  "Okay, now you can cry."

The hatch hissed shut.  Weightlessness took over.  She clutched Angie's hand with her left and Samantha's with her right. Angie squeezed so hard, Katy felt as if her fingers would break. She stared out the porthole and watched the Ark recede into the blackness.  The entire sail came into view, now shredded to where it had more empty space than fabric.  The animal shapes were no longer recognizable, but she waved at them anyway.  "Good-bye Bear.  Good-bye Snake, Giraffe, Dog."  The habitation module drifted past the window.  "Good-bye Mom and Dad."

END

 

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