What They Don’t Teach You At Space School

Author: David Barber

Sometimes spacers come back to see us.

Anyone chosen for a visit gets notified, which is why Vera is waiting in a tidy house, with a home-baked Victoria sponge and wearing her sleeveless cotton print dress with the sage-green leaf pattern, because it’s cool in summer, even though it reveals the age spots on her arms. It should go with her dark green shoes, but arthritis forces her to wear sandals.

Who knows if spacers like tea and cake. It’s been centuries since they went off to the stars. Perhaps it’s just food pills now.

And there he is at the door, a young man in grey sweatpants and top, all overdue for a wash she judges. Clusters of silver droplets dangle from him, he drips like a bather climbing from a pool.

No, he says, shiny beads clicking. Nothing to eat or drink. His gaze slides away.

Instead, he patrols her living room, examining things, but when he pulls open a drawer, Vera asks him sharply if he’d mind not doing that.

She tries to imagine starships and space. Perhaps they left privacy behind, along with manners and laundry. Instead, she asks what it’s like out there.

Empty, he says. A lot of emptiness.

“And what do you do?” She has decided she doesn’t care much for spacers. “Your job, I mean.”

“Life survey. Worlds like peaches bruised with mould.”

“Well, that’s…”

“Meaningless, yes.”

He is much taller than Vera, but stooped as if resentful of gravity. “You were chosen because you were ordinary.”

In private, Vera’s friends would agree she could be prickly. “My grandmother said ordinary is as ordinary does.”

“Received wisdom. Privacy. Sharing food.” He shrugs, sounding like a wind-chime. “Rules. Is that your secret?”

The thought occurs to Vera that he’s high. She finds herself frowning. The young of yesterday.

“But I follow rules, so it can’t be that.” He stares out the window.

“We can go outside if you like,” she suggests, without enthusiasm. People said she’d enjoy gardening once she retired.

“You tidied up. Made a Victorian cake. Put on special clothes. It never occurred not to bother. Also,” he adds, before she can reply. “You have no children. There were never children on c-ships.”

She hadn’t married, though that didn’t mean she’d not wanted a family. Sometimes she joked she would have liked three, one of each.

“You were born for this.” His hand indicates her living room. “Somewhere like this, where it all makes sense.”

He’s had some sort of breakdown, Vera realises. Been sent home to recuperate.

“The universe doesn’t care, you see.”

Just then there is a momentary whiteout, as if…

He tuts with irritation. Another glitch. Or a bit flipped by some chance cosmic ray. She needn’t concern herself, he says.

Wait, protests Vera.
They had talked before, when the meaning first began to leak out of things.

At bottom, everything was just hydrogen and physics, and humans had been glad to come home, leaving silicon to get on with it. But the truth remained that nothing has meaning in itself. Why choose this code over that?

Work, she had suggested. Love. Centuries ago, a woman named Vera had tried these things. Something in the blood, something deep in her genes believed in life. Evolution and its old tricks.

The Ship’s Consensus began messaging. Another world. Perhaps this time…

None of her arguments made sense, she just seemed more real. Flesh tells its own story; machines must borrow their meaning from the living.

“No, wait,” she says, as it switches her off again.

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