Author: Jason McGraw
Images of vectors, numbers, and circles reflect off of a bi-metallic cube. Gold touches lead at a wide, dull blur. Machinery forces the metals together and a clear sleeve prevents bulging. Crew is receiving a “big-picture” brief from Captain using the display adjacent to the cube.
Each crew member works five years while the ship travels. The crew member that this one will replace after completing training will go to “sleep” in timeless stasis. Sixty crew and a captain are “awake” at all times.
Captains are different from crew members. They’re awake until they die and another woke. Captains handle course changes, crew disputes, and resource rationing while artificial intelligence handles the daily decisions and crew members perform the physical tasks.
Captain ends orientation the usual way. “Any questions?”
“Yes, Captain. What’s that?”
“The cube? It symbolizes our time in space. It’s inspired by jewelry found in ancient tombs on Earth. Different pieces stacked in pots. After millennia, the metals mixed and alloyed. It was very slow, but a beautiful result. Maybe more beautiful than the original jewelry.” Captain rotates the cube. “This one will be more beautiful than the tombs because it’s larger, purer, and with more pressure.”
“Oh, I see where it’s mixing.”
“The planners thought we’d have plenty of time for it to blend.”
“Yes.” Captain nods. “To me, it says, ‘Everything changes as time goes to infinity.’”
“It’s like humans moving across the galaxy. Each ship is a crystal of metal and we migrate into the void.”
Captain inhales. “I didn’t know we had a poet on the roster!”
“It’ll be so exciting to wake up and see it finished!” Crew says.
“Someone suggested that the colony should display the cube outside, unsheathed. The lead will tarnish and it’ll symbolize your time on the planet.”
Crew replays Captain’s words. Our time in space, your time on the planet.
Two words stand out. Our. Your.
Captain won’t be at the colony. This piece will never change. Crew looks at Captain’s face, stress lines, and papery skin. How many years does Captain have left? Under five? Will I meet a new Captain before I sleep?
“Something else, Crew?”
“I was imagining, the metals, diffused.” Pause. “I’m sorry you’ll never see it, Captain.”
Each crew member realizes this eventually. In seventy years, this Crew figured it the fastest. And apologized! A poet indeed.
“Yes, Crew will sleep and wake up in a colony. Captains die in space. But look here.” Captain points to a porthole. “My body will jettison in a capsule. AI will steer it to an exoplanet in a Goldilocks zone with warm, liquid water. Or a moon, more likely. We don’t want to ruin a planet’s biome, if it exists. The capsule will open if there’s moisture and my native bacteria will wake and take their shot at terraforming.”
Crew’s mouth drops. “That’s incredible! But what if the moon’s dry, like Mars?”
“It only opens under optimal conditions. Theoretically, it can be closed forever and stay perma-frozen until geology destroys it.”
Crew breathes deep and puffs the chest. “You’re also a colonizer, Captain. I salute you!” Crew’s stiff hand touches the forehead.
Captain hasn’t been saluted since Earth and forgets the etiquette.
Crew’s hand drops. “Honestly, I believe I’d rather see your terraformed moon in a thousand years than this alloy.”
“So would I. But remember, Crew, I volunteered. My purpose is getting you to the colony.”
“At the colony, I’ll look for your moon!”
Captain nods and holds back laughter until Crew leaves.
Poets are so serious.