Time for love

I looked up as a crow cawed excitedly from one of the tall pines. I remembered my Dad explaining to me that, ‘ if you see a rook, it’s a crow but if you see a bunch of crows, then they’re rooks.’ It didn’t make sense to me when I was a kid but I could work it out now. ‘With age and experience comes wisdom’, was another of his sayings, he was into heuristics even way back then. I cawed back a reply to the rook. Always be friendly to rooks, you never know who they are in real life.

It was snowing as I walked through the trees, quicker than walking around them. It was the sort of lazy, big flake, snow that IKEA would put in their self assembly snowmen kits, if they decided to sell them. I could see my footsteps when I turned to look behind me. That was the first clue. As I completed the first 360 degrees of the turn, I saw there was more to go, I had to turn through 1080 degrees before I was back facing the way I was going.

I could feel the coldness running through my veins. I guess this is what prompted the snow dream. I gradually woke up. I knew it wasn’t the usual waking, after a short nap or even an overnight sleep because I had a beard, my hair was very long and my fingernails had grown to more than 2 cm. The ‘droid extensionals withdrew from my veins, arteries and brain where they had been feeding and monitoring my body. ‘Always look after your body,’ I say, where would you be without it? In one of those new fangled life extension nutrient flotation tanks without your body, just an existing brain. That’s not for me, my living will says that when my body dies, so will ‘I’.

The stiffness gradually disappeared as I slowly came back to full wakefulness while taking care of the hair, beard and nails. Nearly felt human again. It took several cups of turkish to complete the job as I read through the briefing notes from my Oppo on the Holoread® image floating in front of my eyes. I never did get on well with the Hypnoread® system, where the words turn into thoughts in your head. I like thoughts to at least feel to be mine, not some stranger’s implanted in my brain. Mary thought she was a bit of a comedian so she always finished off her daily briefing report with a joke and a ‘Have a nice day’. Today’s joke was the one about the Indian guy and the polar bear in Mumbai. I am sure you know it so I won’t bore you by telling it again.

I grabbed my icomm and started doing the checks around the ship. I dialled up the G a little. I knew it took a bit more energy but it suited me to have a it a bit stronger than Mary’s setting. I liked about 0.3g while Mary was happier with 0.15. I would dial it up later to 2.5 for a while when I used the gym. This made the exercise more effective without the ship having to carry any weights.

I passed through the sick bay and gave the lab machines a little to do by letting them grab a blood sample from me. They were properly grateful and promised to have the report ready when I passed through after doing my rounds. They were true to their word and said that all was well with my blood balances, I just needed a top-up of Chronopeptide Hydrochloride. They insisted using ridiculously long words, everyone else in the universe that I know calls it Fast®. This drug has the effect of slowing down the physical body while speeding up the perception of time. This is a similar effect to getting old as then time appears to speed up as your body gets slower because of muscle wasting. The difference here was that the dose I was on made time speed up by a factor of one thousand. This was essential as it made the trip to the Proxima Centauri system appear to last for twelve years rather than the twelve thousand or so it would seem to be otherwise. My icomm told me that we nearing the half way point and that the Flip would happen on this shift. We had been accelerating at 0.0037g since leaving the Earth system about six thousand years ago and now we had reached our maximum velocity. We had to reverse the ship so that the ion motor would now start the deceleration that would continue for the next six thousand years until we reached orbit around one of the exo planets in the P. Centauri system. It also meant, of course, that we could now start to communicate with Earth for the first time since leaving – our ion trail had made any radio communication impossible. I wonder if they had forgotten all about us? It wasn’t a case of turning on the radio and saying, ‘Hi, it’s us.’ The telemeter system would send out a directed radio burst that had all our mission information compressed in it. It would take about ninety five years to reach Earth so, if anyone was listening and could be bothered to reply, we could expect an answer after about 190 Sol years. I wondered if it would be Mary or myself on shift when a reply came?

We were the third in a series of life ships sent into the universe from orbit above the Euro space elevator at Kouru in  French Guiana. We were named ‘Curiosity’ after the Mars Rover that found the first extraterrestrial life in 2014. The first had been called ‘Asimov’ after the science fiction writer, who first proposed the possibility of using an ion drive for interstellar voyages. The one before us was named Heinlein after another science fiction author. He was the one who developed the concept of sleeper ships to reach the stars. The old launch site at NASA in the Americas had been destroyed in the food riots of 2123. It had been privatised in 2015, sold to some guy called Branston but he made a right pickle of it and finally went broke. The site ended up as a dump for space scrap that was contaminated with aluminium oxide from the spent rocket boosters.

The Earth had been in a mess when we left and the only reasonable thing left to do to try and ensure the survival of our species was to launch a series of life ships, each carrying five thousand frozen young colonists to seed the planetary systems of our nearest star neighbours in our galaxy. It is thought that the probable success rate was less than 0.01% but the survival chance of the human race on Earth was put at a lot less than that. Humans had ensured that the sixth mass extinction on Earth was inevitable and, as top predators, they would be the first to be wiped out. Cockroaches, though,  had a good chance of surviving through it. Good luck to them, they had been through it all before and deserved better this time.

There was nothing left on Earth for me, the car crash had taken everything I valued, so I volunteered for the life program. Because I had some piloting experience and knew a little about astrophysics, they offered me a pilot’s job. I grabbed it as it gave me a chance to explore some of our corner of the universe and a promise of what seemed like eternal life, well twelve thousand years seems like eternity when it stretches out before you.

I had never met Mary, of course. Only one of us was awake at any one time. It had been decided by the Mission Psychologists (MPs) that it was better that way as they  predicted a that a twelve thousand year relationship between only two people had a 97.7% of ending in murder. Incidentally, the same equations could be used for marriage on Earth. I could see their point as Mary annoyed me even when she was asleep, with her silly jokes and artificial friendliness. I won’t kill her for it though, I think, maybe, at the moment.

Fast ® had been the second chronomorphic drug developed. The first one was called, wait for it, Slow®. This had been developed to maximise the time perception when enjoying pleasurable activities. This minimised the cost in cash and resources of an over populated planet. This way, a five minute trip to, say, a museum would feel like two days but would allow a much greater footfall of people without overcrowding. Football matches were split into twenty sections of five minutes with a one hour break in between each section to allow the stadia to empty and refill with a new crowd. There was a cost to the individual of course in the wear and tear on the body as it carried out all its functions so much faster. A quick calculation will show that this results in a reduced life span. This helped a little with the massive overpopulation problems – but not enough.

I started all my usual activities, I was getting quite set in my ways after all this time. I continued studying for my Open University degree in Creative Writing. This was one of the reasons I can’t kill Mary at the moment, however much she annoys me, as she marks all my assignments and will hopefully be awarding my degree, eventually. Perhaps I had better start laughing at her jokes… I spent some time in the gym, followed the personal workout planned for me by Brenda. After a shower, I ate one of my favourite meals from the 4D organic printer. Steak and kidney pie with roast potatoes and garden peas, with gravy of course. Banana custard for desert followed by a long read of one of the millions of books available from Brenda’s memory, with several cups of turkish. Not a bad life although somewhat lonely. I sometimes put on a holocube® recording of my family but I find that increasingly difficult as time goes on. They are all long dead by now of course so it seems a little strange to be having a conversation with them, even though I know of course that Brenda generates their replies.

There was a call from Brenda. ‘Alarm, the ship will be flipping in ten minutes.’ I didn’t have to do anything. Even though both Mary and myself had the title ‘Pilot’, the ship was run and piloted by Brenda. We were only there to follow her instructions if something manual needed doing that was beyond the reach of her extensionals. The flip was started as predicted, not that I could feel anything, the delta V was so small that it was below my perception and Brenda kept the g the same. The manoeuvre was planned to take twenty seven hours and then we would be decelerating, albeit very slowly, until we reached orbit around our new home planet. The ship was turned by small chemical rocket thrusters near the front of the ship while the ion drive was temporarily turned off.

Alarm, Alarm,’ warned Brenda, ‘bow thruster malfunction.’

I ran the diagnose app. It came up with a nonsensical result. Rocket  fuel level zero, it read. I ran the program again and got the same result. I asked it to detail the root cause and it showed, Leaking main fuel valve. The liquid rocket fuel had been slowly leaking into space over the last six thousand years until the tank was empty. This was very bad news as without turning the ship, there was no way of slowing down. It could only carry on at its present velocity or I could turn the ion drive back on and continue accelerating until the fuel ran out.

Neither of these possibilities appealed to me. Brenda was only programmed for one trajectory and one destination and so would soon be lost, in space. The only positive thing I could think of doing was to wake Mary and share the problem with her to see if she had any ideas. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds as I had to override several computer safety systems to wake her early and to stop Brenda sending me to sleep. The most difficult thing, however was to prepare myself to meet a stranger who I had been sleeping with for six thousand years but had never met. I just knew she liked terrible jokes. A woman with hidden shallows as I described her to myself.

It had to be done. I set out the problem and recorded it on a Holocube® so that she could read about it and get used to the idea before she had to face the ordeal of meeting me. Yes, I am self aware enough to realise that, if I don’t like her, then she almost certainly doesn’t like me.

Brenda put me to sleep for twelve hours. I hoped that would be enough time for Mary to read my Holocube® and perhaps even come up with a solution. The three of us would discuss it when I woke up.

I felt the cold liquid in my veins again so I knew it was wake-up time after a Fast induced sleep. This time there was a face floating in front of me. As my brain slowly started up on two cylinders, coughing and spluttering, metaphorically at least, I realised that, of all the women in the universe, this must be Mary. I searched through my memories for a creative, witty comment, found one, transformed it into audio speech and said, ‘Hi.’

‘Hi’, said Mary, she clearly was suffering from a similar brain block to me, but at least she didn’t start with a joke.

‘Can you leave me for about half a solhour, to give me a chance to wake up and become nearly human, I’ll meet you in the crew lounge, OK?’

‘OK, Dave’ she said and wandered off.

‘We can’t do that, Mary,’ said a male voice as I walked into the crew lounge.

‘Why not Steve, ‘asked Mary.

‘We have no reserves of liquid rocket fuel on board, so we cannot use the bow thrusters to change our orientation.’

‘Yes, we do, Brenda,’ I said as I poured a cup of my drug of choice.

‘Where would that be Dave,’ asked the computer in its Brenda voice.

‘How many space suits do we have on board,’ I asked the room.

‘I think you know that we only have one, Dave,’ replied Brenda.

‘What has that got to do with anything,’ questioned Mary.

‘A space suit has thrusters built into it. Calculate if there is enough thrust available in that suit to turn the ship, please Brenda.’

There was a pause, obviously a complicated calculation.

‘If that thrust is applied right at the nose of the ship, there is only enough thrust available to turn the ship through seventy three degrees, we need the full one hundred and eighty to do the job so we only have just over a third of the necessary. It just cannot be done.’

‘Thanks for that calculation Brenda but you have got it wrong. What about using the dimension multiplying effect of a chronomorphic drug? You remember what happened in my dream in the forest when I tried to turn round to look behind me? That was in a Fast® sleep. If the pilot in the space suit had taken enough Slow® then the same available thrust could achieve a rotation of nearly two hundred and twenty degrees. We only need one hundred and eighty so there would be enough to propel the guy in the suit from the airlock forward to the nose of the ship and back again.’

‘That’s true, Dave,’ said Mary, who had been thinking about the other implications, ‘but that much thrust wouldn’t be necessary because it would be a one way trip. You have forgotten that the ship’s hull is radioactive from the ion drive and so the guy in the spacesuit would be dead long before he got back to the airlock and the safety monitors wouldn’t allow the door to be opened anyway, to prevent contamination of the ship. It would be a suicide mission.’

‘What is it now then? Who is going to get out of this alive if we don’t do something? We will both be dead and the ship will run out of power in about ten thousand years time. The five thousand sleepers in the cryo hold will then die without waking up and even Brenda, or Steve as you call him, will have no power and so will shut down.’

‘All this is true, ‘said Brenda. ‘What do you suggest Dave?’

‘I suggest Mary and myself have an enjoyable meal together while you carry out the make ready routines on the suit. You can then give me a calculated dose of Slow® before I suit up and then get on with the job.’

‘That’s sexist Dave,’ said Mary, ‘why do you assume that you will do the job, why not me?’

‘Two reasons, Mary. The first is that I thought of the idea so I claim it as mine and secondly you would be a greater loss to the mission as you know more jokes to cheer up the colonist’s when you wake them up in six thousand years time and tell them they have got a lot of work to do. Now let’s decide what to have for dinner.’

We had agreed that Mary should be asleep while I got on with the flip mission. She would need to reserve her waking time for any issues that came up during the rest of the journey and there was nothing she could really do to help, Brenda would be able take care of anything that came up – hopefully. Brenda had checked over and warmed up the space suit while Mary and myself enjoyed our first and last meal together. Surprisingly, we got on very well.

‘OK Brenda, let’s get on with it,’ I said when we had finished eating, I didn’t want to string out any goodbyes.

‘OK, just don’t ask me to open the pod bay doors, Dave.’

‘Mary does the jokes around here Hal, remember?’

Following the first rule of leaving a space ship, I clipped my safety line on to the rail running along the length of the ship and then nudged myself along to the nose with short bursts from the suit thrusters. Once in place I wriggled around, following Brenda’s instructions over the radio, until I was oriented exactly right and clamped on to the hull.

I took my last opportunity to look out into the deep, cold, indifferent, infinitely lonely blackness then asked Brenda to start the thruster firing sequence she had calculated. Once the thrusters started firing she would use her in-suit extensionals to inject me with a fast acting narcotic to knock me out followed by a lethal dose of potassium cyanide. Better that way than slow suffocation as the suit’s oxygen supply ran out while suffering the onset of radiation sickness.

‘Goodbye, David. I love you and I’ll always be with you.’ I knew it was Brenda, the ship’s computer, speaking and she had just clipped and stitched some footage from one of my favourite Holocubes®, but I kidded myself it was Brenda, my wife and soul mate, talking to me through the parsecs and kilo years that separated us.

‘I love you too Bre…’


© Richard Kefford                                                                                                        Eorðdraca


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