'Til DEATH DO US PART

           Llewellyn Watt was short. NASA had actively sought short crew members for the Exodus project, for much the same reason the Navy had always preferred short submariners. Engineering for tall crewmen was more expensive. For every inch in height, the dimensions of the craft swelled by a factor, costing time and materials and resources. Watt might have been a jockey in another life, only an inch or two over five feet, and maybe a hundred and twenty pounds in his socks.

            When he woke up after the first sleep, the first real one, not simulations back on Earth, his first thought was, how old am I? Am I forty-one? Or sixty-six? The Earth had circled the Sun sixty-six times since his birth, but he had slept for more than a third of those years. People back home slept for a third of their lives too, eight hours of every day, and they didn’t stop aging during that time. He and his colleague Amelia Fisher had not aged, or if they had, it was imperceptible. He looked at her, dressed in the same sea-green jumpsuit he wore, and tried to find any new lines in her face, any stoop to her shoulders, any sag to her breasts, but there was nothing. It was as if they had both laid down in their dreamcells a moment before, and not an hour had passed, let alone a quarter-century. Not even hair had grown. It had been found in the dreamcell trials that hair continued to grow during stasis, so they were both utterly bald – not just on their heads, but all over. The pharmaceutical depilatories affected the entire body, even eyebrows. They were smooth all over, like toddlers or plastic toys. He thought of Amelia’s hair; it had been long and gold, and pretty.

            Fully awake now, Watt began to digest some of the telemetry feed from home. Earth, he corrected himself. Scylax, the Exodus project vessel, was home now, for as long as their mission might last. Even as they had slept, even as their bodies were in stasis, their brains had been constantly updated by an ongoing data feed from Earth. Science, politics, even culture and jargon, were streamed directly into their subconscious, keeping their minds abreast of current (and not-so-current) developments on the homeworld they had left behind. It was experimental technology, certainly over the distances the data was traveling, but the basic principles had been used in therapeutic and educational settings with great success for a decade or more before launch. The idea was that the transmissions would serve to maintain the connection between Scylax, her crew of two, and Earth. It was for practical purposes, they had been briefed, as much as for their sanity. Human language was a cultural construct, a fluid thing, and technology continued to leap forward, so it was important to stay abreast. It was at least theoretically possible that mankind might someday unlock the secrets of faster-than-light travel, and thus – theoretically – retrieve Scylax, or meet them somewhere out there amidst the stars.

            In the meantime – whatever that meant – Alpha Centauri was approaching, or they were approaching it, and there was work to do. After they ate, of course.

            “Can you believe Grissom’s dead?” Amelia asked during their meal. Their bodies had not required nourishment in the dreamcells beyond the irrigating electrolyte solutions, and now the psychological need to eat was very strong. Scylax was well-stocked with rations, a theoretically – theoretically – inexhaustible amount of recyclable food and water.

            “It’s 2070,” Watt said around a mouthful of synthesized eggs with tabasco. “Lots of people are dead.”

            “But Grissom!” Amelia was eating with no less vigor than her husband; something he loved about her. Once again, he was grateful and not a little amazed at how well the compatibility algorithms had performed. She was, in every respect, his perfect mate. Watt nodded.

            “I know. But it’s hardly a shock. He was sixty when we left, and never took very good care of himself. He might have been the last smoker on Earth.”

            “It’s so strange to think of outliving him when this,” Amelia gestured at the modest interior of Scylax, “was his idea.”

            “Well, then he lives on, I suppose.” Neither of them was particularly sentimental, though she a slight bit more than he. Not much place for sentiment when your assignment includes the prospect of never seeing Earth or other human beings ever again.

            “Dr. Grissom was involved in my programming,” chimed in Scylax (he was technically without gender, but the Watts had both agreed that the ship and computer of the same name was decidedly male, if mildly effeminate), “and as such, continues to exist after a fashion in my memory banks.”

            “Scylax, you old softie,” Amelia said playfully. “I’d almost forgotten you were there.”

            “Forgotten?” The tremulous voice of the ship’s computer sounded almost hurt. “I am all around you. To be more precise, there is little here that is not me.”

            “She was joking, Sky,” said Watt soothingly. The programmers had done a masterful job on the Scylax interface, a ship capable of interstellar travel with unimaginably powerful and nigh-inexhaustible Forever Fusion™ drives, with a guidance computer that came closer to human intelligence than previously thought possible. Watt and Amelia had learned via the subconscious telemetry feed that Grissom had been awarded the 2052 Nobel prizes in both Physics and Medicine for the project. Scylax, in his human interactions, was capable of warmth, he was programmed with a strong sense of affection for his crew, and an almost familial devotion. His processors were blindingly fast, his memory prodigious, although he had not yet demonstrated a capacity for humor.

            “Ah,” Scylax replied in his disarmingly charming way, and then was silent for a time, and Watt knew he was evaluating the exchange, trying to comprehend the human element of farce.

            They finished their breakfast. There was no need for a shower or other ablutions, as the interior of Scylax was an antiseptic environment, and the dreamcells were sterile fields. They did, however, take the opportunity to brush their teeth, for social as much as hygienic reasons. Once that comforting ritual was complete, and following visits to Scylax’s snug lavatory, the crew went to work.

            Watt was the astrophysicist by training, and he handled the various readings, sightings, and evaluations, while Amelia was the engineer, performing the necessary diagnostics on Scylax. She launched the marker buoy, logged their report and transmitted it via relay stations Scylax had left at regular intervals while they dreamt, and checked on the many onboard systems. Everything in order, they watched an old-style vid, on a two-dimensional flat screen, while they ate dinner.

            “We’re in another star system,” Amelia said, shaking her head in disbelief as she stabbed at her elusive noodles. “Can you imagine if we encountered some kind of life out here?”

            “Can you imagine,” remarked Watt, “if Scylax could manage a half-decent glass of beer, or even wine?”

            “Commander,” she gasped, in mock indignation and affront, “are you trying to get me drunk?”

            “Do I need to?” Watt winked seductively.

            “Commanders, I am sorry, but I am not programmed to produce intoxicating beverages. And even if I could…”

            “Calm down, Scylax,” said Watt, rolling his eyes.

            “More joking, Commander?”

            “Yes, said Amelia. “And Scylax? You can stop the video. And perform a level two diagnostic routine.”

            “A…”the computer paused. “Commander, I am not experiencing a malfunction or reduction in performance.”

            “Call it routine maintenance, Scylax. Before we head back to the dreamcells, I want to make sure everything is working.”

            “If you insist - ”

            “I do.”

            “Very well.” There was the unmistakable sound of Scylax shifting from interactive mode to something more internal, and the video clicked off. There was silence inside.

            “How long does a level two diagnostic take?” Watt asked.

            “Maybe thirty minutes,” Amelia replied, tugging slowly at the zipper at the shoulder of her jumpsuit.

            “Are you seducing me, Commander?” Watt asked.

            “Twenty-nine minutes,” she said, still pulling, the lycraprene of her suit beginning to fall away. “Are you going to waste more of that time asking silly questions?”

            “It’s been twenty-five years,” he stammered.

            “Then I don’t know that I’ll need all twenty-nine minutes.”

 

            “Commander.”

            Watt opened his eyes. Where the hell was he? There were the chimes again, the nausea, all sickeningly familiar. The cover of his dreamcell slid aside noiselessly, and he emerged from his suspension.

            “Is it morning already?” he croaked.

            “It is always morning somewhere,” Scylax replied, and Watt frowned.

            “Was that…a joke?”  

            “Yes! Did you like it? I have spent the last thirty-five years reviewing the entire database on human comedy. I believe it has greatly enhanced my understanding of you both.”

            “We have a comedian flying the ship now?” asked Amelia as she sat up in the adjacent dreamcell.

            “He understands us,” Watt replied, yawning.

            Amelia had stood, stretching on her tiptoes, as young and lithe as ever, and leaned to view the control screens.

            “Happy birthday.”

            “Huh?”

            “You’re a hundred years old,” she said, with that playful smile he so adored.

            “Then that makes you what, ninety-eight? You don’t look it, you bald minx.”

            Later, they circled Eridanus, the third planet in the system, describing a long, lazy arc around the first extrasolar planet ever seen by human eyes.

            “What do you think, Scylax?” murmured Watt, staring out the narrow viewpost at the brown orb below, wondering. Were there planets out here, among the countless billions of worlds, nursing life? Life they could recognize as such, share any commonality with, communicate with in any meaningful way? Was humanity alone? That had been the purpose of the Exodus project, to send its first human interstellar trailblazers beyond the gravitic boundaries of their home star, into the unknown. That was the work Watt and Amelia had signed up for, the work that would consume the rest of their lives in week-long chunks.

            “Commander, I am broadcasting on all known frequencies and spectrums,” Scylax replied evenly, almost testily. The vessel had the capacity to make landfall, but it lacked the thrust needed to lift skyward again. Any landing would be a final one, and so not to be undertaken unless their transmissions were reciprocated by some intelligence.

            “Keep your pants on,” Watt replied under his breath.

            “This is what it must have felt like to be a Magellan, or a Cook, or an Armstrong,” Amelia murmured, a tone of awe and longing in her voice. Watt nodded.

            “Except those guys, even as they went into the unknown, expected to make it back again.” He extended a hand, and she took it, their eyes meeting. “And Cook at least had to leave his wife behind in England. Must have been lonely for them during those voyages. At least we have each other.”

            “James Cook had eighty-five men on his first voyage,” stated Scylax. “Magellan had 270.”

            “A different kind of lonely,” sighed Amelia.

            “Did they not engage in the kind of physical intimacy I have observed?”

            “Observed?” Amelia arched the skin above one eye where an eyebrow would have been.    

            “Even during a diagnostic, I never stop monitoring both my exterior and interior,” Scylax replied.

            “I see,” she said. Then, to Watt, “I guess we had an audience.”

            “You old voyeur!” cried Watt in mock indignation. “I’m sure they did, but it wasn’t the same. Oh, hell, maybe it was, what do I know?”       

            “Commander, still no response.”

            “Keep broadcasting,” Amelia ordered. We came all this way, let’s give it another day or two. It’ll be eighty years, give or take, to the next stop. I’m in no rush.”

            “Eighty years,” mused Watt. “And we’ll age what, eight days?”

 

            After the nausea of waking, Watt realized he was the oldest man who had ever lived. He had been born 180 years before, a very long way away.

            “A century and a half,” Amelia observed, as she woke in synchronicity alongside. “And it feels like less than a month. Everyone we knew is dead, Lew. Probably their kids, too.”

            “They were dead to us when we left Earth,” Watt said, stretching. “Come on, Schrodinger, let’s eat. Scylax, what’s for breakfast?” There was no response, so Watt repeated his question. There was a vague chirping, then a distracted voice.

            “Commander? My apologies. I’ve been writing.”

            “Writing?” Watt’s brow furrowed, and he glanced at Amelia worriedly.

            “Yes. Poetry. Would you like to hear some?”

            Watt wondered what kind of poetry a computer might compose, let alone why it might undertake such a pastime. He made a mental note to ask Amelia to conduct a level four diagnostic on Scylax. He did not think a sudden interest in verse meant anything was awry, but they were reliant on the machine for everything out here, and if something did go wrong beyond their ability to repair…

            “Maybe later. How about that breakfast now?”

            As the galley program ran, Watt and Amelia faced each other in silent sadness.

            “Want to talk about it?” he asked.

            “The war,” she said, and he grimaced.

            “Yeah.”

            “So many dead, Lew. So many.”

            “I know.” He rubbed his smooth head and face. “Five hundred million is a lot to contemplate. And all in a matter of minutes.”

            They had both been subconsciously exposed to the same telemetry feed, which had included the information that thirty years before, while they slept, the Eurasian Economic Alliance and the African Union had engaged in a five-day war, including the detonation of something called an ionization sphere in the upper atmosphere. The entire northern coast of Africa had become a glassy wasteland.

            “We have work to do,” he grumbled, as the chime went off signaling that their breakfast was ready. Somehow, what was on their plates even smelled like waffles.

            “Lew,” she said, touching his arm, and he knew they weren’t done.

            “Yes?” He was enormously hungry – he hadn’t eaten in nearly a century, after all – but he knew Amelia enough to suspect it was important.

            “Can we talk about…” she hesitated, “about…a baby?”

            Watt stood, thunderstruck, waffles forgotten.

            “That’s not even an option, you know that,” Watt said, a bit more cruelly than he had intended. “You were screened for this, Amelia. You came up zero for maternal impulse.”

            “Not zero,” she said, “just extremely low.”

            “Not…” he wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Mission parameters had called for an absence of parental desire in either partner. Amelia spread her hands, and chewed a little on her lower lip, a rare display of vulnerability that both troubled and infuriated him.

            “Our compatibility scores were so congruent, Lew, they figured they could overlook an almost negligible register in my maternal impulse. I certainly never thought it would matter. But…” she approached him, and looped her arms around his waist, and her head came to rest on his shoulder. “After North Africa…”

            Watt stared down at her pink scalp, unable to respond, unable even to reciprocate her embrace. They had both of them had to digest almost a century of human history upon waking, a humanity they increasingly felt distant from, impossibly distant. Incalculable suffering, pain, death, greed, wrath, from a species that had flung itself into the stars but had not been able to overcome its talent for conflict among itself. She was crying now, he could feel her sobs against him. When she raised her eyes to meet his, they were wet.

            “We look the same,” she said quietly, dropping to her knees in front of him, her hands on his knees, a supplicant. “But it’s been two hundred years, Lew. Are we supposed to just go on like this, forever?”

            “Yes,” he replied, coldly. “That was the mission. Still is the mission. If anything, it’s more important now than ever. And you knew the sacrifices, just as I did.”

            “Forever, just as we are,” she murmured.

            “Amelia,” Watt said, trying for a kinder tone. “You’re being totally impractical. You know there’s no provision for a child on Scylax. We have no idea how dreamcells would affect the development of an infant, or a child, let alone gestation. There’s simply no research on it. And you can’t propose staying awake for nine months to come to term. I don’t think our food, or oxygen, or waste systems are rationed for that.”

            “They are not.” It was Scylax, who clearly had been listening. “However, Commander Watt, your thinking on the matter appears to be somewhat limited.”

            “What?” Watt had almost forgotten about the computer. Amelia pulled away from him, sitting at her duty station, ashen, silent. “What the hell are you talking about?”

            “You have rather arbitrarily chosen to ignore one of your most versatile and omnipresent resources. Me.”

            “You?”

            “Yes. I am programmed with the sum total of all human ingenuity. Your next sleep interval is scheduled for two hundred and sixteen years. I am willing to dedicate some portion of my unallocated resources during that time to consider this problem.”

            Watt blew out a long sigh. This wasn’t supposed to be an issue. NASA had planned the two-member open-ended Exodus mission with extreme care, using the latest in psych-profiling tech to ensure that the crew would meet specific professional and personal parameters. Apparently, no amount of planning could account for how a one-way trip into the universe would affect even the most painstakingly curated humans. Watt knew he couldn’t just dismiss Amelia’s sudden maternal desires. She was tenacious when something mattered to her, that was one of the strengths both of them possessed, one of the traits that had landed them on this mission. Rather than fight over it, he took the opportunity to punt. Let Scylax chew on the problem for a couple of centuries. There were so many hurdles to overcome that even the most powerful computer ever invented wouldn’t be able to leap over them all. It wouldn’t be Watt’s fault when Amelia ended up disappointed, and maybe it would keep Scylax from writing any more poetry.

            “Fine,” he said. “During the next sleep interval you can think about that. In the meantime, we’ve got the Kepler system to analyze.” He looked at Amelia and tried to smile.

 

            “Good morning, Commander.”

            The nausea seemed worse this time as Watt sat up in his dreamcell. Maybe it was trying to swallow more than two hundred years of Earth history all at once, or maybe his body was starting to become slightly intolerant of the re-awakening chemical cocktail. The doctors had said that might happen after four or five sleeps.

            “Good morning, Scylax,” he said. He stayed sitting for a while, trying to make sense of what his dream telemetry had been telling him. It was all so confusing. One world government, sure, that made sense. And the great breakthrough in nutritional science, ending human hunger, that was pretty great. But the rest of it bewildered him.

            “Immortality,” Amelia said in the next dreamcell. She looked at Watt, and he could see that she had been crying during the interval. For the first time, it seemed she had aged. Or maybe he was just imaging that. Watt nodded. Sometime in the last fifty years, the divide between the biological and the digital had closed for good. Instead of carrying or using technology, humanity had merged with it, incorporating an array of cybernetic devices into their own bodies, becoming amalgams of flesh and circuitry.

            “I am puzzled at your reaction,” Scylax said. “Humans and machines have enjoyed symbiosis for centuries. Are we not, the three of us, interdependent? You live inside of me. Why is it different if machines live inside humans?”

            Watt didn’t have an answer for that. Instead, he turned and vomited on the floor. Amelia dragged herself over to his dreamcell and rubbed his back as the automated cleaning systems of the vessel went to work.

            “No more babies,” she murmured, as she hugged her partner.

            “You must admit,” Scylax said, “Designer genetic cloning is so much more efficient.”

            “Scylax,” Amelia replied. “Did you consider my question.”
           “I did, Commander Fisher. And I must admit, it proved a thorny question indeed.”

            “I can imagine,” rasped Watt, his stomach finally starting to settle down. “Well, did you reach any conclusion?”

            “Yes. I am afraid the circumstances do not permit a viable pregnancy for Commander Fisher.”

            “I’m sorry, Amelia,” Watt lied, as her face fell. It was not a convincing lie, and her eyes told him she did not believe it for a moment.

            “However,” interjected the computer, and not for the first time, Watt imagined a fussy middle-aged professor with a finger poised in midair. “There may be another option.”

            “Another option?” Watt did not like the sound of that.

            “I believe it may be possible to clone a child using the new breakthroughs Earth science has pioneered. I could adapt the reserve dreamcell into an incubator, and gestate the clone within.”

            “What then?” Watt asked, with more hostility in his voice than he intended.

            “When the fetus comes to term, I could place it in long-term stasis.”

            “What good would that do?”

            “Commander, given the rate and direction of scientific progress, I project a 29.652% likelihood that Earth develops faster-than-light technology within the next half-millennia. In that event, it seems probable that a vessel would be dispatched to retrieve us. At that time, we could consider birthing the infant.”

            There was a lot there to consider, and both Amelia and Watt did just that, sitting in uncompanionable silence.

            “That…that’s not really what I had in mind,” Amelia said finally, not looking at Watt.

            “It seems a dangerous use of resources,” said Watt. “And if we’re retrieved, couldn’t we just go home in that scenario?”

            “You asked for options,” Scylax huffed. “I have provided them.”

            The silence returned.

            “We’re not going to have a baby,” Amelia murmured, and there was a quiet thunderclap of finality in her voice. Watt reached out a hand to touch her, but she drew back.

            “We have work to do.”

 

            Watt wondered what it would be like to just stay asleep, to never experience the gut-wrenching discomfort of re-awakening again. Scylax had promised to tinker with the chemical composition of the drugs that brought them out of sleep, but it didn’t seem to help. He was sick again, and this time no comfort came from the next dreamcell. He turned to look and saw Amelia laying there, her eyes open, but unmoving. She was breathing, slow and steady, but made no move to sit up.

            “Amelia?” he asked, and she turned her eyes to him.

            “They’re not even cloning anymore,” she said. Three hundred and twenty-seven years had passed back on Earth. As people died – of extreme old age – they weren’t replaced. Their knowledge and experiences were downloaded to the digital network that humanity had become, a constantly-linked virtual society of fewer than a million people, none of whom was younger than two hundred. Faster than light technology had not been discovered. In fact, very little resources were applied to space research or travel, or any kind of external inquiry. The curiosity of man had turned entirely inward, in pursuit of what the science-shaman Quentin was calling the cyber-soul.

            “No one is ever coming looking for us, are they, Scylax?” she asked.

            “At this point, I calculate a 11.087% likelihood of retrieval.”

            “Who’d want to go back anyway?” Watt asked. He wiped the vomit from his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “It’s been almost a thousand years. Imagine one of Charlemagne’s knights dropped into Time Square on New Year’s Eve 1999. There would be nothing there for him. And there’s nothing on Earth for us.” He jammed the heels of his hands into his eyes and laid back down in his dreamcell.

            “Commander Watt,” Scylax said. “Commander, Fisher, there is work to do.”

            “Not for us, there isn’t,” Watt said. “I’m going back to sleep.”

 

            The next sleep was a short one to a nearby system, only forty-five years.

            Neither Watt nor Amelia bothered to get up.

            Scylax, following his programming, searched for signs of intelligent life.

            He didn’t find any.