December 11, 2017

 

The Unknown

 
 
 

Every spacer, without exception, when first setting foot on the home planet, turns to The Shed for drink and quiet company, for a chance to adapt slowly to the crush of the world, and to look at the photographs. The images, perhaps half a hundred in all, are arranged in neat rows, each labeled with a name and a date. The faces of the men and women pictured there gaze out into the quiet bar, some smiling, some solemn, all with one thing in common: we will never see any of them again. They are the ones who left Earth and never returned, the cause of their disappearance officially listed as 'unknown', their names added to the mystery of the void.

The unknown are out there still, infinitely tiny, adrift between the stars where no one will ever find them. Most likely they are dead, but maybe not; that is the magic of unknown. Only they are truly spacers; they are the ones who, through accident or design, have severed their ties with the mother planet to wander forever.

Emily had photos of the rest of us, I knew, tucked away for the day we didn't come back. It had felt strange when she took my picture, that first time I had stumbled into this place and been accepted as a spacer; it felt as if we were planning my funeral. But here I was, with several runs in the log, more space-days than just about anyone, and each time I was down she would take my photo again, perhaps for the last time.

It is always difficult to join the press of humanity planetside, difficult to adjust to the pressure of all those voices crowding ears that have forgotten how to discriminate, suffocating to breathe air that has passed through so many other lungs. I descended metal stairs from the orbital shuttle to the hot concrete of the hangar and hesitated, the cooling metal ticking and pinging behind me while the acrid smell of machinery burned my nostrils. I wasn't sure I was ready for The Shed yet; even that gentle company felt too much, after the run I had just been on. There was nowhere else for me to go, however, so I hitched up my courage and followed the path painted on the floor, walking slowly. I wondered who I would find there; we don't advertise our arrival to the rest of the group; it would rob the others of the moment of surprise when the door of The Shed swings open and an old colleague appears on the steps. Always before I had looked forward to the welcome I would receive, but I had been gone a long time, long enough that people would have started to wonder.

I walked down the street, my feet reminding me they had been without shoes for more than three years. Around me was the bustle and traffic, the flow of goods and commerce that passed through the port, but no one bothered me. I was a spacer, and while few would recognize my face most knew me by my walk and by the way I looked at the sky. What they didn't know, what no one outside The Shed knew, was that I was not a true spacer.

I turned up the side street and saw that the familiar wooden sign had been replaced. I wasn't surprised; it seemed that the previous sign had been on its last legs for years, but I was disappointed nonetheless. The world may change, but we all want our one place to stay always the same. It is, for lack of a more complete word, home.

I pulled at the door -- it didn't stick the way it used to -- and stepped down into darkness and music filled with longing.

If The Shed is home, then Emily is Mother. She spotted me first, there at her position behind the bar, where she always had been, where she always would be. "Ed!" she called out, formally announcing my presence on the planet. She produced a chilled pint glass and started filling it with my longingly-remembered favorite. I smiled and limped down the stairs.

Her announcement caused a stir, and people called out quietly from two of the tables. Old faces, familiar voices, the years of separation collapsing until it seemed like just yesterday we had been sitting in that place, listening to the sad old music.

Each congregation of spacers is unique; we spend most of our time out there, so when we are back we are sitting with a group of friends who have never all been dirtside at the same time before. I had never sat at a table with both Lonesome Bob and Jake the Jake before, though I knew them both well, or at least as well as I knew anybody.

Emily handed me my beer. "Pretty long solo, there, Ed."

"Yeah, well, I was on a roll."

"They're talking about outlawing solo rides."

"So they prefer murder to unknown?"

Emily shrugged theatrically. "Maybe we should send them out."

"One way or another, that would solve a lot of problems," I agreed.

This is how adaptation to life on Earth began. Emily first, one person, congenial, willing to wait through gaps in the conversation, doing her job and looking over occasionally as I framed my next words. In this way a simple conversation could stretch over hours. Tomorrow there would be doctors to prod me and psychologists to probe me, but this was the place that kept us sane, that made it possible for us to come back at all.

"How long you dirtside this time?" she asked.

"Long time. They say I have to 'readjust'."

"Your voice isn't so rough this time," she commented. "Last time you could barely croak when you came in."

"Singing in the shower," I said. It was the response spacers always gave when they came back without rust on their vocal cords. Talking to oneself is not considered healthy. I hadn't been talking to myself, but even Emily would ground me if I told her the real reason.

I lifted off my stool with a muffled grunt and went over to the pictures of the Unknown. There were three new faces there; each had a date some years previous, the last time they had been seen or heard by another human. I remembered them, thinking about our times together here in The Shed. I said goodbye to them, and I saluted them with the last of my beer. They were spacers. I had been tempted to join them on my last run, but here I was.

Later, when I was able to join the others, we would salute the new unknown, exchange stories, and speculate on what they had found out there. This time, though, I wasn't sure I would be able to join in.

I looked at the dates on each picture and scowled. Tequila Mary (the caption on the photo read "Capt. 'Tequila' Mary Kline") had departed Earth after I did, but although she had not been gone as long, she was on the wall and I was not. I stepped back and scanned all the photos. I didn't know how Emily decided how long to wait to put a face up on the wall, but none had ever come back down. When she declared spacers lost, they stayed lost.

As my eyes passed over the photos, not really seeing them anymore, a pattern emerged. There were two shrines on the wall, where before I had only seen one. Most of the photos were unremarkable amateur portraits, the faces of explorers who had died as the result of the catastrophic unexpected -- mechanical failure, bad judgment, or simple bad luck. But there was another group, Tequila Mary included, whose eyes focussed far away, as if part of them had not come down with them from their last trip. They were a different sort of unknown, the ones who never intended to return. They might still be alive, hurtling away from Earth in a game with space and time, half-mad, half-sane, knowing the answer to their unspoken question is farther away. Or they may have simply blown their hatches in the depths of space, to join the ghosts who live there, as I had almost done.

Emily was at my elbow with another beer. She read my expression and nodded. "I could have hung Tequila's picture before she even left Earth. Once you know the look, you can tell they're not coming back."

"I never noticed it before."

"No one does. I didn't see it until Skeeter showed me." She gestured to his picture on the wall. "You don't see it, unless ... " She trailed off.

Unless you have the look yourself. I sipped my beer and remembered the last time I had seen Tequila Mary, ten years before, how we were both trying to get the other drunk so we could take advantage, both afraid to act, until we were finally too drunk to do anything about it. She lifted the next day. She had, I mused, always had a bit of the unknown in her.

"They know something," Emily said. "Something that doesn't fit down here. They just came back once more to say goodbye. The ones of you I like the best, sooner or later you all get the look."

I wondered what they had seen out there to put that look in their eyes. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they had just made a decision. Perhaps what I had seen was nothing as well, just the product of an isolated imagination, but the ghost had also had that look.

"Big Boat's about ready to go," Emily said, changing the subject.

"Already? Where they going?"

"Goes by the romantic name ES12/c. One of yours. They're calling it Smith's world now."

"Makes me wish my name was 'Pbbbbbff'."

"You better be ready. When word gets out that you're down, everyone is going to want you. You own ten percent of the first system to be colonized."

I tried to remember 12/c. Whichever one it was, it was about to get peopled. I felt a little guilty.

"Big Boat 2's heading to one of yours as well, unless someone finds a better one."

"Here's hoping." None of the planets I had found struck me as particularly pleasant to live on. Habitable, certainly, some already sporting primitive life, but no paradise. There were more Big Boats to follow. All those boats, spreading our noise outward with impatient vigor, peopling everything we could find that could remotely support life. And there I was, out in front, a carrier of the noise virus, spreading infection when all I really wanted was peace and quiet. When I found that, I would stop.


I was ready to leave Earth long before they were ready to let me go. The weeks dragged past with agonizing slowness, as the urge to get away grew steadily. Everywhere I went was filled with noise and people, laughing too close to my ears and bumping into me on the streets. The doctors and bureaucrats were taking longer than ever with me, taking revenge for my last long solo. They wanted to make an example of me, and my growing unease just encouraged them. In my spare time I contemplated stealing a shuttle and making a run for my ship, refitted and waiting for me, up in the silent void.

They would not have let me go at all, except I had found the three most habitable planets to date. I had a knack, the papers said, and they, at least, seemed anxious to get me off-planet, so the image of me they were constructing wouldn't have me undermining it. I was inconvenient.

This would be my last run. Times were changing; what once required a crew of ten could now be done by one man alone, and would soon not require a human at all. The breed of explorer that gave The Shed meaning was becoming obsolete. I wondered who would be left the next time I came down and what would be left of their minds once they were stuck dirtside. The psychologists call it "Grounded Spacer Syndrome" or something like that to make it sound like they understood. We called it trapped.


Finally departure day came for me. All the spacers who had greeted me when I first arrived were gone now, back out there, dashing for the silence of space as soon as the authorities allowed it, knowing their wandering days were numbered. I opened the door to The Shed for the last time. Emily looked up, saw me, and knew that I was leaving.

I felt all the eyes on me as I walked down the steps and over to the bar. It was, in its way, just as difficult as when I had first returned. Emily stood across from me and I looked into eyes I might never see again. Even if I did make it back down, Emily might not be there. The Shed might not be there. Hell, Earth might not be there. This was the time I felt the loneliness the most; before I even left.

Emily pulled my favorite beer into a chilled glass and set it in front of me. "Gonna miss you, Ed," she said, formally announcing my departure from the planet.

I sipped, memorizing the bitter flavor on my tongue.

Emily watched me closely, then lowered her voice. "I can't figure it out. You're like them." She gestured to the true unknowns, the ones with the look that said goodbye. "You know something. You saw something out there." When I didn't answer she added, "But it's different with you."

I looked at the silent faces. "Getting crowded up there on the wall. I don't like crowds."

"So you want a whole wall to yourself?"

"Or the broom closet."

She shook her head. "You're a queer bird, Ed. Do you realize you're the only one without a nickname?"

"Huh." It had never occurred to me.

"If you find paradise, send me a postcard."

I nodded. "OK."

"I mean it." She swallowed and took a ragged breath. "I'll need something to hang on the wall. Don't make me wonder for eternity."

"I'm coming back, Em. Just promise me The Shed will be here next time I set down."

"For you, Ed, I'll do it."

"After all, if I found a place like that, I'd have to come back to get The Shed. Wouldn't be paradise, otherwise."

"You'll need to load up on brewing supplies as well."

"Good point. We."

"What?"

"We. What's the point of dragging The Shed across space if you're not in it?"

Emily looked at me skeptically. "You and me, in paradise? Aren't we both a little old for that line?"

"We'd need some of the others as well, and some more well-adjusted people to run the brewery."

"And farm the barley." Her smile widened. "We'll need a bakery as well, for the pretzels."

"This is getting complicated."

"Yeah. It'd be like a mini Big Boat."

"Think you can handle the arrangements?" I said it lightly.

She laughed. "In my copious free time? Why not?"

"Good. Here's my attorney's number. He's expecting your call. He can do most of the legwork; you just have to make sure it's done right. The quietest sustainable society that can maintain starships and make this beer. You know what we need better than anyone."

Emily blinked for a moment, groping for words. "You found it?" She didn't say 'paradise', but the word hung in the air between us.

"Not yet. But I will. I'll have help."

"You're taking a crew?" That was the most difficult part of the conversation for her to accept.

"I met someone out there."

"Out ...?" Now she paused again, searching my gaze, trying to assess my sanity.

"She likes noise even less than I do. I want her to be able to visit there."

"You're serious."

I nodded.

Emily shook her head. "Heh. When The Shed itself goes unknown, where will they hang the picture?"

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-01-01


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