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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."
"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
"The Bear. He grew another paw last night."
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
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
"That rule has been changed. Now go below or I'll give
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?"
"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
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
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
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
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
He stared back. "Have I ever lied to you?"
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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."
He pointed at the boarding hatch. "Why don't you ask
Her parents filed into the cabin, among a line of other
adults. Katy shouted, "Mom, Dad, there's some kind of
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
Anger boiled inside her. "You lied! You never lied to
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
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
"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
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
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
Katy no longer felt a reason to keep from breaking
down. She clutched Samantha's hand. "Okay, now you can
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."