THE INTERSTELLAR PROMISE
We arrived in the orbit of Proxima Centauri two years ago today. It is now apparent to us that this hope for a new source—our new Sun—was misplaced. Centauri is bright and soon going to blow, like its sister, our Sun.
As this was our last good idea—the bunches of us that built those ships years ago, or paid our way for a stand-up-strapped-in-folded-atop-each-other seat—and as our last scientist has perished (suicide they say, but I know better than to add comment), we’re running out of ways to distract ourselves.
Anna has taken to singing but the children cannot stand the old songs.
“Vygis,” they whine at me. They call me my by first name, though I have asked them to stop.
The last scientist was their father. They call Anna “Mama,” though she started as mine–not the scientist’s–and is no relation, whatsoever, to those kids.
The Russians, as usual, are in their shared corner, one darting an eye, forgetting that though they sought in the last decades of the Diminishment of Earth to conquer Lithuania and have another pass to the Baltic, we all agreed this place would be without country or war. With the land, sea, and history of our births erased, everyone hoped we could also lose the least pleasurable parts, habits, and tendencies. Let time and space be our superiors.
I can see that the Russians are not having that.
With time condensed, you’d think there would be more love making, show the children what they will be missing. Yet most of us (Anna, particularly) have put on extra layers, a deterrent to contact, sending out an unexpected truth at the end of our humanity: we’d rather be left alone.
The scientist’s corpse was boiled to save space. It was my job to distract Anna and the kids. They slept longer and heavier the evening we boiled him, with no idea that the entity that birthed them (or, in the case of Anna, fondled them) was being destroyed. I guarded the door. My eyes grew wide and refused to blink for so long that the captain kindly spit in my direction and, moist, I dozed.
Anna and I met before I knew couples got priority on the ships headed to red dwarf stars like Proxima Centauri. She was younger than me and so skinny my father looked at me sideways when I brought her home. My mother would place her hands on Anna’s hips, which, because she was 19, had yet to appear. Anna, an orphan like many already were, fell in love with me so fast, I should have been wiser.
“You are the perfect man,” she said.
I have buckteeth, thinning hair, and pocked skin. This was the first time I’d been told that I resembled perfection in the species. Like my dying planet, most people didn’t want to stick around me. I was growing older too, nearing my mid forties and few of my generation made it to fifty. But still Anna clung.
When my folks died (older folks took the Diminishment of Earth harder) and a spot for a couple opened up on the ship Interstellar Hope, Anna insisted we marry. The blowjob she gave that night left me no doubt. She was mine.
We took off on Tuesday. Anna pinned the marriage license to her chest.
Those were not times for secrets or shame. No one had patience for that kind of nonsense anymore. It made people blunt, bluntness understood as our people’s last kindness and the best anyone could do for anyone—given the circumstances.
This is why, when we met the scientist, he explained that his wife had divorced him the year before. He told us this before he even gave us his name.
She left him for his brother who was headed on Interstellar Promise, the most favored ship on the planet. She also left him the kids: Georges, 6; Slovar, 3; and Liliana, 2. The wife claimed they needed their father most in these kinds of times and that they were ungrateful for her gifts. The kids—I’m told—burned a stick in effigy before leaving the planet. In their minds, anyway, though still at their father’s prompting. For using fire like that, like a luxury for hexes or celebration, was illegal.
I doubt the children even knew what a fire or an effigy looked like. Though, knowing the scientist, I’m sure he found a way to precisely paint the image of their mother’s skin unwrapping from her bones.
Anna started as their baby-sitter, watching the kids while the scientist helped the ship captain. She taught them Boo the Russkies but changed the name to Martians—our versions of angels, our excuse for postponing the fixing of everything for so long. At least, during my generation. Once we realized the Martians had hidden elsewhere in the universe or never existed, our angels, our saviors, soon turned back into our devils and curses, which was fine. Everyone was so tired of cursing God. And Martians resumed their place as mythical space creatures for these kids.
Georges would run around his toddler sister holding his fingers to stretch his face away from his eyes, pop them out to get her to scream.
“Ah-nuh!” little Liliana screamed.
The ship captain would pace back to the dining cabin where most of us hung during what used to be called day, and gave a look to each child, each of whom would pause—Liliana in mid scream, mouth stretched so that we all heard her tiny jaw pop; Slovar gripping Anna’s hand; Georges reaching his palm to his mouth to begin a fart. The captain would do an about face. We’d listen for the steps to quit their echo and got right back to our play, me holding Anna a little bit tighter.
“Boo-boo-boo-boo!” Slovar used to shout in glee into the face of each passenger when the captain left. Anna had to block the exit to the cabin, pretend to be ordering us all around so Slovar wouldn’t give us away every time to the scientist and captain. He’d bring himself forward with his tiny hands on my knees, up my lap, to blow a spit bubble boo into my face.
I admit there were moments when I’d squeeze Slovar to my chest, maybe giving away that I had love to give, so much stored up and Anna not taking it lately. Until Liliana would dawdle over and smack my hands off the boy. “Boo, boo, boo, boo,” she cried until I let go, took her up instead.
How I loved Anna’s laugh at this. Though by the end, often enough she’d scowl.
We’d set up bedtimes, rotating, though no surprise who got the favored Earth clock, the one our ancestors had: the scientist, one of the Russians related to a former President, and Anna. Aside from the scientist, no one could really explain the reasoning to me. I slept during the children’s schedule because the thinking was
(a) they were too young to have missed good sleep so we all might as well take advantage of that;
(b) the scientist and his former wife had always kept them sleeping erratically, they said, to prepare for this. But it seemed more likely it was him using the past to reason the present or vengeance for the lack of sleep the infants caused him;
(c) they thought one man, beside the captain who could be on call any moment, should be near the children so
(c1.) they wouldn’t miss their father,
(c2.) they’d be protected in case of . . .
We often used that saying “in case of,” though none of us, not even the captain or scientist filled in that blank. The way it was used on the Diminishment of Earth was really about one thing—ultimate destruction—though it seemed, in space, it could all be much, much worse.
In which case—the case of now—there is nothing one man, nothing I, can do about it.
Somehow we shared meal times. We ate on the feast-famine system: Two weeks stocking ourselves up, clogging the toilets, farting up a storm; two weeks drinking black tea mostly. We’d play games with the children, say we were hiding the food. That it had only been a day, really.
“Really?” Georges got more accusatory in his tone as time went on.
“Yes, really.” Anna would smack the back of his head and I spotted the scientist’s back rise, a little smile coming on his face.
I caught them in the anti-gravity capsule. The children were asleep and I, bored, horny, needed Anna. I tried tugging myself but with the children I had very little oomph. They each slept in a row, lengthwise, their little feet across my side. I slunk my arms and torso to the edge of our shared bed. I rolled up and stood to face the door. I could hear their breath, the snot that rolled with Georges’ outbreaths, the caw of Slovar, Liliana’s murr. I felt for the handle and slid the door, light beaming into our cabin. I slid the door quickly leaving only two inches. I waited to hear the snot, the caw, the murr over the buzz of the lights in the ship. When I was sure they would sleep without me, that there was no in-case-of, I tiptoed to the hull where the captain slept.
“She’s not here,” the captain grumbled, not even bothering to turn over, see who I was.
The President’s Son—who I caught dividing up the shares in the dining room and swearing he’d not taken a thing—also did not know.
I peeked into the cabins. The Russians’ room was filled with light and I heard the banter, peered in, and ducked away when I saw the three shirtless men tossing arms and cards into the air.
The toilet vestibule was empty. There was only one room left, dim but not dark. I walked down the long white glaze of hall to the powered on yet quiet anti-gravity capsule we kept. “For practice,” the captain said, though no one practiced anything. When I lifted the switch with my palm to illuminate the screen, observe the room from the outside—somehow knowing to avoid peering through the tiny glass—I saw Anna: naked, spinning, arms and legs in a swinging dance. And the scientist, he tugged. He tugged and tugged until she dove to him.
At bedtime, the scientist had been singing us a song. “Us” because the children wanted me there at every bedtime. During the Diminishment of Earth, though it wasn’t outlawed, people had took more to humming. It was hard to breathe, to get a whole song out, but on the ship the scientist seemed fine.
His song was an old Russian ballad:
Long live the winters in my heart
Long live my family if its smart
Wake up tomorrow
Wake up to sun
You’ll miss not your mother, not miss anyone
(and here the kids would join in)
I love my papa, I love the moon
I love the place I am going to soon.
By a few weeks in, once I was already keeping the secret of what I knew, I joined in the chorus as well, tearing up toward the end, at how Slovar couldn’t pronounce “moon” so well. And at how good my Russian had become, realizing that we were all now speaking, now defaulting to the scientist’s language.
Anna never joined us for these. It was her morning—actual morning—really. She’d follow the President’s son, sort the supplies, she said.
Our story will be: we bobbed along on ships our parents and grandparents put together, dying in the process but launching us with hope. I’m glad my parents are not around to see Anna and me, or the whole big idea of saving humanity go bust, though I don’t remember them thinking much of hope.
The scientist was screaming; this I remember. It was a day where I didn’t hate him and that was largely because Anna had touched my hand on her way to the toilet. To remind me to watch those kids, sure, but still: it was a touch.
“Liliana, watch them,” I said to the confused girl, motioning to her older brothers, before I stepped out of the dining cabin and strained my ears over the buzz of Hope’s engines.
“I told them,” the scientist screamed, from the hull, breathless. His words carried, weighed, like a lie.
I jogged, then stopped at the hull’s entryway—in time to see the captain’s hand wrestle open a metal locker.
“When? When did you say?” The captain shouted, his head in the locker, his shout a trapped and trembling boom.
The scientist caught my leering from the hull door. “Vygis! Out!”
The captain slapped shut the locker, the device he wanted on hand.
I tried to help the scientist. I do not know why. “The children need you,” I said, speaking over the captain’s body, to their father.
The captain laughed, cupping a hand over his face.
The scientist’s neck flushed red. “I’ll go then.”
The captain dropped a rod across his body, his back to me, blocking the thin exit of Hope’s hull.
The scientist did not move. He looked past the captain to me. “Come here, Vygis. I will tell you something. I will tell you about the Hope.”
The captain turned to face me, dropped the rod to block my entry. I saw the spear at its end. I raised my hands and stepped back. Slovar ran into my knees, giggling. I turned to scoop the boy into my chest.
“Take him,” the captain said. Spit flew from his mouth to my neck.
Anna exited the toilet from the end of the hall. She began to pick up her step toward us. I met her, handed her the child. She looked past me, as she’d been doing of late. Behind us, the scientist dropped the metal locker. We heard it spill. I heard more spears, their tin hit our tin. The captain continued his fight with the scientist.
“It’s just an argument,” I whispered to her. I gave a small shrug.
Slovar swung himself off Anna’s arm, dragging her shoulder down. What skin and bones she was. She kept looking past my shoulder. I kept trying to bend for her eyes–to send her my message without words.
“The children are alone,” I said.
She shushed Slovar, angled for my eyes. “You are – “
“They shouldn’t have to watch,” I said, raising my voice so it, too, hit the tin of the walls. It startled her enough to jerk away. She pulled Slovar down the hall as he giggled, giggled and she shushed, shushed.
“Let them keep their innocence!” I called after her. The laughter from the Russians’ cabin stalled.
When I returned to the hull, I pushed the captain in. He had turned the rod not sideways to block the angle of the door but pointing, on guard. At an angle facing the chest of the scientist. If I check my mind, I cannot see it: that my return will plunge it forward.
We did the boiling, the captain and I, and went on with it. Until one of the Russians found the last scientist’s letter. He read it to us, how it would all end, passing out extra provisions.
“The food isn’t hiding?” Slovar asked.
No one answered.
Slovar looked at me: “Is Papa?”
I don’t care where the children are. They’ve stopped sleeping with me, in these final days realizing that we big ones are of little use. They went to huddle together, elsewhere on the ship. The captain said, “Leave them,” though no one really cares about the captain anymore, much less the captain himself.
Anna sings the most beautiful song on this, our last night. Not the songs of papas but something I think she is making up. I hear strings erupt in her throat; everything feels like it is in A minor. I take it as apology.
I stop watching the rivers of her hair long enough to spot an eruption like I remember, when our First Sun brightened to chase us away. To buy us time. That First Sun drained the oceans, sharpened on our skin. It erased the ice, over decades—centuries even—by inches before we finally noticed it, swallowing the horizon as the horizon had long been swallowed by it.
That’s the thing about revenge, about the sun–both of which we think only give. But they also take everything you’ve got.
Here we are, at the end again, and this time it is a dive. We are falling into nothingness and expanse at once. She has my hand and that is enough. I pretend her song will at least be allowed to fade into a hum, as the sound of space arrives first to blast my ears—before my eyes ignite with nothing but star.
N.T. Arévalo‘s stories have most recently appeared in Shenandoah, Necessary Fiction, Regarding Arts & Letters, & Hawai’i Pacific Review and received Honorable Mention in the 2014 Bevel Summers Prize Contest. She’s been a contributor to Literary Arts, an advocate for human rights and expression, and grateful scholarship participant at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and Napa Valley Writers Conference.