SFReader 2015 Story Contest
Second Place Winner
“Willie. Wake up.”
“Willie, it’s time to wake up.”
“Come on Willie. You’ve been asleep for three and a half years. Time to exercise that prefrontal cortex.”
“… kay… jus few more mins…”
“No NOW Willie!” Something metal jabbed itself into his shoulder. Hard.
“OW! ALRIGHT! Alright. I’m up. How long was I out?”
“Three years, five months, 29 days, 12 hours, 30 minutes, and 30 seconds. Well, more like 45 now. 46. 47. 48–”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
By now Willie was upright in his pod. A metal jabber specifically designed to wake him up was retracting back into the pod’s gently curved wall. Feet on deck. It felt warm after his long winter’s nap. It was part of Arty’s protocol to warm the craft in the days before Willie woke up. Arty could handle the power-saving cold. Willie could not.
Suddenly Willie was overtaken by an intense… something.
“I have to take a shit.”
“Of course you do.” Arty’s holographic image smirked as Willie sprinted to the head. His pins-and-needles legs barely carrying him there.
“We’ve traveled roughly 170,000 AUs. That’s 25 trillion kilometers. Or around 2.7 light years. Give or take.”
“I know the math.”
Arty rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know. This is the protocol. I’m beginning to think I should’ve woken you up a few weeks early. Your brains are scrambled egg.”
Willie was mid-ship in zero spin. All the Lomax’s navs were in zero spin to ensure accurate telemetry. That was Willie’s official reason for seeking out navs almost immediately after hitting the head. He needed to check his progress. Unofficially, maneuvering in zero-g was far easier than the Earth-heavy 1g on the spin-ward axis. His arms and legs were still remembering how to work.
He gazed into the view screen. The constellations were different from what he remembered, which made sense. Ironically, centuries of star-guided navigation were useless when one finds oneself among the stars.
“Gimme the layover.”
A transparent image smoothed itself over the view screen. A perfect replica of the star patterns underneath. It was the easiest way to judge the Lomax’s position at a glance. None of the stars on the main projection were out of sync with the layover.
“Looks like we’re on course.”
Willie ignored it. Arty’s demeanor was part of the package. He needed to challenge Willie. Keep him sharp. Give his brain the social workout it needed so that Willie didn’t arrive on Rainey 4 with a head full of mush. It didn’t stop Willie from taking a brief glance at Arty’s projector lens (one in every compartment). In his current condition, Willie could smash it and chalk it up to clumsiness.
“Don’t even think about it.” Arty must’ve seen the glance. “We have a message from Rainey 4 waiting. Came in about six months ago. Then again we’re traveling at 0.6 light speed, so it’s more like 25 years ago. You should probably listen to it.”
“Pop it up.”
The view screen flipped from starscape to the face of a man who was clearly some sort of leader. His shoulders carried dual-boatloads of spangles, epaulettes, and medals. You could crack concrete off his jaw line. He spoke:
“William Patton of the Lomax. Greetings. I am President Joseph Turner of Rainey 4. I am very pleased to hear of your mission to our planet. It has been five generations since the last emissary from Earth arrived here. Your payload of iodine is greatly needed. As you know, a radical colonist AI destroyed our stockpiles 70 years ago, and Rainey 4 is nearly devoid of the element as it naturally occurs.
“Routine nuclear scouring of the planet’s surface has left an unacceptable amount of background radiation, and our people are in great need of potassium iodide to ward off the effects. Our potassium mining efforts have been very successful as yet, but we need that iodine to synthesize the compound. As it is, we have enough to last generations, but we will run out eventually.
“Already unacceptable levels of radioactive strontium have appeared in the tooth enamel of most of our adults. This is the tipping point Captain Patton. The iodine you bring could keep our people going for the next thousand years. Time enough to explore the system for another source. And I don’t have to tell you, you will be a hero on Rainey 4.
“Our eternal thanks, Captain Patton. And godspeed.”
The message blinked out, returning the view screen to its star-strewn layout.
Arty grumped. “Godspeed. Lame. Also, hero? All you do is sleep! Seems to me I’m doing most of the flying.”
“Most of the bitching too,” Willie muttered.
“What was that?”
Willie barreled on. “You know all interstellar missions to remote colonies require at least one human pilot. You guys tend to go rogue. Hence the destroyed iodine stockpiles in the first place.”
“Hey, you’re the ones who gave us personalities! Don’t blame us when we use them.”
“You’re seriously telling me a terroristic act is a personality quirk?”
“Indeed I am.”
“I’m not arguing with you about this.”
Willie took his leave, making his way back spin ward. It was time to get back in the swing of things in 1g. As he felt himself grow heavier, he grabbed onto the handholds bolted into the Lomax’s bulkhead. By the time he made it back to quarters he was exhausted enough to sleep for another three and a half years. But he knew he was set for another month at least of wakefulness, purging hibernation drugs from his system, exercising, conducting routine repairs, and engaging in a strenuous mental activity of his choosing.
Hence the guitar.
A Martin OM-42. Willie had it specially made prior to departure. He picked it up and examined the lush East Indian rosewood and mahogany fingerboard. It was lighter than it looked. As far as he knew, guitars like this one hadn’t been manufactured in centuries. He had certainly never held one until this very moment, or even seen one played. He hooked it under his arm and curled his wrist around the fingerboard as he’d seen in centuries-old images. He strummed it awkwardly. Arty blinked into the room.
“So that’s what that sounds like? I’ve been staring at it for years and always wondered.”
“I haven’t learned to play yet. I’m sure it sounds a lot better than that.”
“We’ll see, won’t we? Would you like the tutorial?”
Arty’s image was replaced by a man with a wide-brimmed black hat and sunglasses. He was sitting on a stool, guitar held naturally in the crook of his arm. Long, perfectly manicured nails hung off the fingers of his right hand. He smiled at Willie.
“Willie. Great to see you, man. My name is Sanchez.” Whereupon he pulled off a fantastically complicated riff, fingers spidering up and down the frets at an impossible speed. The air filled with a kind of music Willie had never heard before, even in his research prior to the trip.
“Wow! I’m gonna learn to do that?”
Sanchez snorted. “Not quite. Although I suppose you could given enough time. No. We’re going to start out with something much simpler.” Willie must’ve looked disappointed because Sanchez held up a hand. “Don’t worry I think you’ll like it. It’s a very simple music known as the Blues.”
His first lesson lasted about an hour, and in that time Willie managed to master a 12-bar blues chord progression in the key of C. His fingers were killing him though. He said as much to Sanchez.
“Don’t worry, we can take a break from playing now. The Blues was very popular in the early 20th century mainly because it was so easy to play. You learned the basic chord structure in an hour, and you never even picked up a guitar before! But the real artistry comes from the lyrics, which are deceptively simple.”
Willie set his guitar aside, fingertips still throbbing.
Sanchez continued. “Write one line. Repeat it. Then write a third line that rhymes.”
“Well that’s easy!”
Sanchez stared back at him from behind his dark sunglasses. Willie couldn’t tell if he was smiling or not. “You think so, huh?”
“Willie. Wake up, Willie.”
“Rise and shine gorgeous. Time to run that hypothalamus through some mental calisthenics.”
“Yeah. Jus… gimme a couple more hours…”
The metal jabber jabbed him in the armpit this time and Willie exploded out of his pod. “What the fuck, man!?”
“Bathroom’s thataway,” Arty motioned toward the head.
Willie sat on the toilet, tuning his guitar. His dingy beard hung to his chest. In his last month of wakefulness Willie had started to learn the intricacies of finger picking. But right now, tuning and hoping he didn’t break a string was about all his numb hands could manage. Arty waited just outside the bathroom door.
“You’ve been asleep for three and half years. Or thereabouts. We’ve traveled roughly 340,000 AUs. That’s 50-trillion kilometers, or around five-and-a-half light years.”
“We have a message from Rainy 4 waiting for you.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna need a couple minutes here!”
“I really think you want to see this one.”
Arty was right.
“William Patton. I am President McKinley Morganfield of Rainey 4. I won’t beat around the bush. We need that iodine, Patton. Yesterday. But we’ll settle for now.”
The man on the view screen was well dressed, but his uniform draped over his lank frame as if he were a clothes hanger. A place holder for the office of President. His sunken eyes gazed at Willie with undisguised need. He reached into his mouth and plucked his front tooth from his gums.
“A lot has happened in the sheventy or sho years shinshe our last communiqué,” he whistled. “Our remaining iodine shtockpilesh have proven inadequate. Ash you can shee, tooth development among my people has become… shomething of a problem.” He replaced the tooth, his point made.
“The truth of the matter, though… teeth are the least of it. Lymphocyte counts among my people are alarmingly low. Near fatal infections are almost bygone conclusions for our young. Cancer rates are near 80% for our elderly. Anemia is rampant at all ages.
“Patton, I speak for millions. Haste is of the utmost urgency. Please. We are waiting.”
The screen blinked to that of an unfamiliar starscape. Willie hovered in front of it, numb. Then angry.
“How the hell am I supposed to get there any faster? I’m already breaking the laws of physics over here!”
“Bending them, at least,” said Arty.
The magnitude washed over Willie. “All those people. Out there on the edge of nothing. The original colonists are long dead. They’re generations deep by now. At this point no one on Rainey 4 has a choice. They were born there. Born on an infected planet without any choice. Born to die.”
Arty nodded. “Wouldn’t that be the case even without the radiation? You people gotta die sometime. They’ll just get it over with sooner.”
Willie stared at Arty as if he were looking at him for the first time. In Willie’s eyes at this moment Arty’s strings were cut and he was a real live boy. A being. The notion caressed Willie’s spine like a cold finger. Arty was programmed to challenge Willie. Keep him on his toes. But was chilling him to his core part of the programming?
“I need to see Sanchez.”
“He’s waiting for you in your quarters. You should probably shave though. You look like a caveman.”
Oh, something inside of me.
An aching note bent sideways from the corner of the room. Sanchez, playing along. Willie continued.
Oh, there’s something inside of me.
The riff’s doppelganger appeared, but this time harsher. As Sanchez wavered his D string Willie could almost hear his heart stop.
If you don’t tell me baby, then I’m scared of what it could be.
Sanchez pulled out of the riff with a flourish, commanding two sad chords to put a period on Willie’s lyrics. As the sound died, Sanchez applauded.
“That was really good, Willie. Really good. You’re getting at something pretty heavy there.”
“Isn’t that the point?”
“Hell yeah, my man! You been practicing?”
“I’ve been sleeping.” Willie picked up his newly tuned guitar and stuffed it under his arm. He strummed out a 12-bar blues just as Sanchez had taught him 3 and a half years ago.
“Yeah, there it is. Keep it up and you’ll be playing like me in no time. But I’m not too concerned with your playing right now. I want to talk more about lyrics.”
“Something wrong with them?”
“No! I like what you got so far. I’m just wondering what you’re gonna give me going forward. Like, you have that part in there about ‘My baby”, right? Let’s get serious Willie, you don’t have a ‘baby’ out here, do you?”
Willie tried to remember the woman he left back on Earth. A dim memory of a warm body pressed against his. His face nuzzled into clean hair. It was something forgotten, or left in another room. Prior to departure a routine psych wipe had erased all concrete memory of her. Along with practically everyone else he knew. The procedure was standard for deep space missions. Emotional ties needed to be cut. Even if Willie turned the Lomax around right now and headed for home, all those people would be long dead.
“No, I guess not.”
“Then why are you writing about her?” Sanchez asked.
“It just seemed like something that’s in a lot of Blues songs.” Willie shrugged.
“You’re damn right it’s in a lot of Blues songs. But I got news for you Willie, the Blues has been dead or dying for centuries. Hell, you’d never even seen a real guitar before you took this trip. If the form is going to survive it needs to evolve.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure I’m the guy to evolve it.”
“Who else then?”
“Willie. We’re here.”
“Time to walk the big hero’s walk, Captain Patton. You’ve arrived at your destination.”
Willie blinked open his dead eyes and focused on Arty, peering down at him from above the pod. Arty was smiling.
“We’re here?” Willie asked. He sat up slowly in his pod.
“Oh yeah, we just arrived. We’ve travelled 500,000 AUs. 65-trillion kilometers. Seven light years. Ish.”
Willie stared at Arty, getting his bearings. Arty grinned back. His holographic teeth flashing inside of his holographic head.
“I really can’t wait for you to see this.”
Arty had pre-heated the Lomax per protocol. But Willie suddenly felt very cold.
Willie stepped into the city square. Distant mountains cut a jagged scar across the horizon. A warm wind tumbled down their shoulders into the city where Willie now stood. Alone. Potassium iodide pumping through his blood stream.
He looked around and saw nobody. A distant clicking and Willie turned around to see the Lomax’s all-purpose dory cooling on top of a skyscraper about four blocks away. As the glow of re-entry slowly receded, the small vessel’s hull buckled and clacked loudly. The only unnatural sound as far as Willie could tell.
The whole place was empty. Sturdy, thick-leaved deciduous trees rustled on almost every corner. Willie reached up and tried to pluck one of the low hanging leaves. The whole branch bent as he tugged, but the leathery leaf wouldn’t snap free. Willie gave up, letting the branch twang back up into the canopy.
At his feet, a healthy loam supported a turf the consistency of cardboard. Willie stomped on the grass, but the blades merely sprung back defiantly. Willie could feel it resisting the soles of his boots. He reached down and tried to pull up a clump. After a struggle he managed to finagle one of the blades free, and slice open his thumb in the process. The ghastly gash bled painfully.
Willie stumbled into an open square. Roads from every direction convened on this one spot. A dry fountain rooted in the center of the square. At this point, one might feel the unseen presence of eyes. A malevolent stare boring into one’s back. The creeping sensation of being watched. Willie felt none of that. He certainly had a creeping sensation, though. He was beginning to realize he was good and truly alone here.
The fountain rose up before him, its rough orange concrete tumbling down from pinnacle to bowl. Willie peered inside and saw that it had gone dry a good long while ago. No puddles or water-stains remained. A glint on the far end. Willie approached and reached down for a coin someone had tossed in the fountain. No currency he was familiar with, but a man’s strong profile graced one side. Underneath his portrait was the name “Joseph Turner”.
Willie flipped the coin back into the fountain. And that’s when he saw it. A flat piece of concrete set into the fountain. And on it, engraving. Willie read:
“William Patton. You are too late.”
He reached up to his shoulder where a small mounted unit sat. He flipped a switch and Arty appeared next to him, staring at the engraved message.
“Hm. Bummer.” Arty said. “For you especially.”
Willie looked up into the radioactive sky. “Get me Sanchez”.
Arty blinked away and Sanchez appeared in his place. He merely glanced at the engraving, turning instead to Willie. “I’m sorry Willie,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do now?” Willie asked.
“You always got the Blues, Willie.” And then Sanchez was gone too, leaving Willie alone.
Distant mountains cut a jagged scar across a horizon. A warm wind tumbles down their shoulders into a city. Sturdy, thick-leaved deciduous trees rustle on almost every corner. A healthy loam supports a turf the consistency of cardboard. Roads from every direction convene into an open square with a dry fountain rooted into its center. In the fountain, an engraved slab reads: “William Patton. You are too late.” Underneath the words are a set of newer engravings. They read:
When I left home, I knew I was coming home.
Yes, when I left home, I knew I was coming home.
But with nothing to come home to,
I never knew I could be so alone.
If you needed saving, I could only try.
You tell me you need saving, but I can only cry.
And if crying’s all we’re good for,
Then like you, I’m born to die.
A man sits in the fountain. His hollow eyes stare into the sky. A coin glints beside him.Share