Author : Bob Newbell
I extend my hand to Jerry. He decides a handshake won’t suffice and gives me a hug. I return his embrace while I roll my eyes.
“Will I see you again, Chris?” he asks.
“Of course you will,” I lie.
Jerry turns and walks through the entrance to the hospital. They’ll take good care of him. They specialize in NAFAL Depression. As the car drives me back to the spaceport, I think about all the people like Jerry I’ve known over my career. I’ve never understood why they decided to become space jockeys.
Shortly after Kern Drive was perfected, the first case of NAFAL Depression was diagnosed. The patient had been an astrophysicist who had made the short trip from Earth to Proxima Centauri. From his perspective, he’d traveled under Kern Drive for about 12 hours, conducted his research in the Proxima system for three weeks, then travelled back for 12 hours. Of course, each subjective 12 hour leg of his journey, due to relativistic time dilation, was actually about four years and two-and-a-half months back on Earth. Naturally, he knew this would happen. But returning home nine years later and actually seeing his “13 year old” daughter now 22 years old and married was too much for him. It didn’t help that his wife had taken a lover and had a child, now five years of age, during his “three weeks” away from home.
The mission I’d just completed had been Jerry’s first. He was okay as we flew out to Kappa Ceti. And he was fine during the six months we helped set up the research base there. Then as we flew back to Earth, something happened. After the first couple of days under Kern Drive, Jerry would sit and stare at the relativistic chronometer, watching the time from the point of view of someone on Earth zoom by. He’d occasionally remark about a missed birthday or a forfeited anniversary of a loved one. After a week of travel, Jerry would do little more than sit on the edge of his bunk and mutter “sixty years” over and over. Sixty years was our round trip travel time.
It takes a special kind of person to do this job. Some people say we’re sociopaths. They’re probably right in a way. If you value friends and family, if you can’t accept that you may be away for a few months and return to discover that you’re a hundred years out of date or that the infant grandchild you kissed goodbye now has his own grandchild who’s older than you are, then this isn’t the job for you.
The car pulls up to the curb and the door opens. A young woman wearing a crisp grey-green uniform stands waiting. Jerry’s replacement. She looks to be about 23 years old. The next mission is to the Algol system, 93 light-years from Earth. Everyone she’s ever known will have been dead for decades when we get back. I hope she doesn’t have a friend in the world. I hope she hates her family. It’ll make things easier for her. I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way 900 years ago.