The Long Smoke

Author : David Henson

The chaplain sits beside the young man and lays a small box on her lap. “Mr. Parker, would you like to pray with me?”

“That’s not for me, Chaplain. But I’m glad you’re here.” Parker’s hands are trembling, eyes red.

The chaplain reaches out and squeezes his arm. “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you. I have to ask. Why did you — ”

“I wanted the money. Simple as that. For my family, not me.” Parker takes rapid, shallow breaths. “You can understand, can’t you?”

The Chaplain nods. Parker removes a silver disc from his pocket. He twists the outer portion of the disc, and life-size holograms of a young woman and a small boy and girl appear.

“A beautiful family, Mr. Parker. I’m sure they were…will be…well-provided-for.” The chaplain removes something from the box. “Here, I thought you might like this.”

Parker hesitates then takes the small cylindrical object. “Is this a … what did they call it?”

“A cigarette. I found the formula in an old journal and replicated it. This, too.” The chaplain shows Parker how to work the lighter and hands it to him.

Parker holds up the cigarette and tries to light it.

“I think you need to suck on the other end while you do that.”

Parker flicks the lighter again while breathing in sharply and immediately starts coughing. The cigarette flares, then quiets to a slow burn. “I don’t get it,” he gasps.

“I read you’re supposed to inhale more slowly and evenly, like taking a deep breath.”

He tries again, this time without choking. “Better. Actually kind of relaxing.”

The chaplain sniffs the exhaled smoke and thinks she might want to replicate one for herself.

“How are the others?” Parker says.

“Anxious over the uncertainty of course. And most are losing somebody, but nobody like …” The chaplain nods at the holographic woman and children. “They’re mainly loners, adventurers. Some are hoping for fame. I guess I put myself in that category, may I be forgiven the vanity. “I hope, Ensign Parker, that –”

The captain’s voice crackles overhead. “Listen up, people. In less than a minute, we will engage our primary engines, and this crew will become the first humans to travel at near-light speed. You’ve all been counseled, but I want to remind you to be prepared for anything. While this test flight is brief for us, when we return to earth, we will have been in the history logs for more than 500 years.” The captain’s voice turns somber. “Now a moment of silence for the world we knew.”

The com goes quiet for a short time then a computerized voice begins the countdown. “Thirty seconds…twenty-nine…”

The chaplain looks at the ensign’s brightly smiling family. May God have mercy on their souls, she thinks, then wonders at what’s to come.

Ensign Parker turns back to his station, puts the cigarette to his lips, and takes a long, deep breath.

6 Comments

  1. xdhz8

    Thanks to you all for your comments — and math!

  2. Jiggiwatt

    The human impact of relativity during high speed space travel is fascinating, very well done!

    I was curious about how fast you would need to travel for the trip to be considered ‘short’ for the passengers while 500 years pass for the observer (because hard sci-fi is sexy). Doing some quick and dirty math and assuming the ship accelerates for 1 year and then decelerates for 1 year (both at 1g), the ship would need to travel for 3 years and reach 99.99918% the speed of light.

  3. Jae

    Fine slice-of-life in the moment before that life changes forever.

  4. Irene

    Nicely done. Was that cigarette the nail in the coffin I wonder?

  5. SimonJM

    Interesting and quite human take on the test flight concept! Quite a long flight though?
    Could have done with another editing pass.

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