The Expedition

Photo: NASA

By Andrew Sharp

The squeegee left a band of clean glass behind as Lucas pushed the cleaning solution down the window. The stars blazing out of the dark sky were now sharp, dusted off, as if they had been washed clean by a sudden rain shower. He paused to take them in, just for a second. The view was breathtaking, but Lucas’ breath was not taken. The stars made a nice picture, but they did not rise or set. The view would keep. Sometime he would take time to sit and look at them again, when they did not come crowding in on him, their immovability and remoteness squashing him.

When he had imagined star travel, back home in Indiana, the stars had always been slowly floating by the window like billboards in the cornfields off the interstate. In his mental picture, an occasional comet would flash past, or a planet would loom up and slide by the window, a glowing bulk. But the planets were long gone. If there had been billboards outside, their passing would have been only an impression, a sense that the emptiness had been disturbed, here and gone before the eye could track. But despite their rushing speed, the frozen stars mocked the fragile and tiny ship’s efforts of the to reach them.

It, he remembered. They were not traveling to “them,” they were traveling to “it.” One lonely star, or more precisely, one of its planets. They hoped. After that would be only more vast emptiness, the next star yet more generations away.

He hungered to see something more than pricks of glowing light on the other side of the newly clean glass. He would have killed to see the large blue earth hanging there again, as it had been on the departure day. He had expected to feel a tinge of regret in his excitement as they prepared to fire the ship’s nuclear engine. Instead, it was like the day he stood at the edge of his grandfather’s coffin, staring at the face that was so familiar and yet not real, almost unable to feel that this was the last time, and desperately wanting it to not be the last time.

People in Asimov or Douglas Adams buzzed off to other planets and never felt this way. They were going to hop in a wormhole and be back in a few weeks. A few hours in hyperspace, and they were sitting in a warm bar on a new and exciting planet.

There was no cheering along the ship’s windows as the 287 passengers had stared out while the floor began to vibrate under them. Then they had pushed out of orbit, gaining speed so gradually they hardly felt it. As the earth began to shrink more and more quickly, the crowd drifted away from the window for the launch party, but Lucas had stayed for hours, watching it become a star.

“Hey Lucas!”

He jumped. Max and Carlos were looking at him.

“You’ve got to stop thinking about the theory so much and just squeegee,” Max said, grinning at him.

“Sorry,” Lucas said.

“You OK?” Carlos asked. He was always able to pick up on what people were feeling, and if they were down he was eager to make them feel better. Max expected people to get over things. They were a strange mix—Max, the stern-looking ex-soldier, who cared more than he pretended to, Carlos with his slow smile and gentle goodwill, and Lucas, the one who thought too much.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just forgot what I was doing for a second.”
He was not really fine. The problem was that he was not a space traveler, and neither was anyone else on this ship. They were space prisoners, serving voluntary life sentences. When they had walked up the ramp for the last time, they had known they would never leave it. They were rememberers, like living files, here to pass on human culture. They were, as Max put it bluntly, gene carriers. Behave, keep the ship running, and die. Repeat.

These ideas, if Lucas had said them out loud, in the wrong place, would have caused a thoughtfully alert expression on the face of the ship psychologist, who dealt quickly with those who strayed from orthodoxy. They all knew, of course, that all it would take would be one crackpot to ruin everything, go crazy and tear apart their peaceful society. They had to be good neighbors, or die. The authorities were very careful. Not that that had been going so well.

The psychologist would remind Lucas, if he were crazy enough to go to her, about their happy and contented lives. What more could they want but food, housing, meaningful jobs, a stable society, and a couple of good bars to choose from to relax in after work? Generations of humans would have killed for such a life, even if it was a tad small in scale.

His squeegee hit the bottom of the massive window frame. He glanced at his watch—5:30 p.m. earth time. Quitting time. The lift whooshed quietly into motion as Max pushed down the lever, and like ants they crept their way down the gently sloping outer wall. Lucas leaned on the rail and looked out over the familiar landscape, slowly rising up toward them. The first thing a newcomer would have noticed with surprise was the vast openness, then the breeze, then the trees, and how like a small slice of earth it was. Something generic and Midwestern—Ohio, maybe, or Illinois. Pleasant. It was not the fluorescent-lit hallways of Star Trek, or the airplane-like interior of a Star Wars ship. It was a square half mile, 320 acres, of fertile Ukrainian soil lifted out of Russia’s breadbasket as that region’s primary donation to the cause. He could see a few small joggers bouncing along on the gray gravel path around the outside perimeter.
Three hundred twenty acres made a big farm, but an extremely small world. A 320-acre trap that seemed shrink every day. Complaining was unreasonable, of course; even this size had cost as much as most nations’ entire five-year budget.

From this height he could see down on the roofs of the cluster of small houses and apartments, the community center spire rising up out of the middle, surrounded by the library, movie theater, and a few shops and restaurants on the nearby streets. He could see a few solid citizens taking the path he was going to take in a few minutes, through the door of the Blue Boar, where the huge fireplace looked exactly like stone, the fire looked exactly like a wood fire, and the engineered yeast-and-algae beer tasted almost exactly like beer. He could only faintly remember real beer now, anyway.

The lights of the town were starting to gleam as the overhead lights, far up in the roof, began to dim for the evening. Lucas almost expected smoke to be rising from the chimneys, and he glanced toward the “horizon” only to miss the sunset yet again. There were many suns, but none of them set.

The platform hissed to a stop at the bottom and they stepped off and began walking inland along the splashing stream that ran over never-moving boulders through the vegetable patches and fruit orchards. It was winter now in the scheduled cycle, so the patches of vegetables were mostly full of winter greens, the trees were bare, and the ship’s crew wore long sleeves in the cool air. In a few months the sweet smell of apple blossoms and lilac would drift along here, but now there was only the clean smell of the damp earth.

Of course, most of their food came not from these patches but from the towering vats of algae that rose solidly up in the distance over the dark of the evergreens on the far side of town, maybe not with the majesty of mountains but creating a shadow of the same feel of space and distance.

A small group of dirt-covered landscapers was walking toward them on the path. When they saw Lucas and the others, they stopped talking and looked past them, avoiding eye contact. Their feet scraped on the hard gravel as they hurried past, and then they were gone. Some of Hunter’s group.

“Bastards,” Max muttered. He glanced at Carlos. “Sorry. But they are.”

Carlos shook his head slowly. “We can’t take sides or we’re just part of the problem.”

“I’m not taking a side,” Max said. “I think they’re all bastards.”

“That’s fair,” Lucas agreed.

“So now it’s us against everybody,” Carlos said. “What does that make

They didn’t answer him. They were on the sidewalk along Main Street now. The street was very quiet; there were few pedestrians. Those few they did pass shot them dirty looks, or watched silently with arms crossed as they walked past.

The three pushed in through the heavy oak door into the warm air that smelled faintly of fried potatoes, and gravy, and beer. They walked past the bar, and out into the middle of the room, where they had their pick of tables. Lucas tried to decide if the room was half empty, or if everyone was just packed into the booths on opposite sides of the room. At least a few people were missing, because it had been hard to find a seat anywhere a few months ago.

They sat quietly for a long time, listening to the scraping of silverware and the soft thunk of cups set down on tables. Finally Cindy, the waitress, came over and stood silently at the edge of the table. Cindy was on Soto’s side. Carlos and Lucas ordered beer, and Max got a whiskey. Then they waited again. Light conversation felt like talking in a library, so they didn’t. Eventually Cindy stalked by, plopping the glasses down on the edge of the table. Lucas moodily used a napkin to wipe up the beer that had sloshed out of his cup.
Edgar Stoes, the newspaper editor, came in and sat down next to them.

“Hi Edgar,” Lucas said. “What’s the news today?”

“Community calendar and some interviews about the upcoming marathon,” Edgar said sadly. He had run a real newspaper, back on Earth. “Captain is meeting with the committee right now in an emergency meeting, but of course I don’t dare touch that one with a ten foot pole.”

“No,” Max said.

Edgar leaned in. “Rumor has it if people can’t get their act together something big is going to happen. Captain can’t tolerate this kind of thing. If it gets any worse, we’re sunk.”

Lucas gripped the handle of his mug tightly. He wanted to stand up, get on the table, and yell at everyone, call them the idiots they were, challenge them all to a fight if they wanted it. But that would just get him arrested, or start a riot.

“What’s she going to do about it?” Max asked.

Edgar shrugged and sighed. “No idea.” He frowned. “Where the heck is Cindy? I really need a drink.”

“Give her a half hour, she’ll be over,” Max said. “You’re sitting in the wrong part of the room for quick service.”

It was too familiar for Lucas. He had come on this trip partly to get away from his small town, where petty disputes over library fines or who knew what, important only in the small worlds of the combatants, had set up battle lines all around town. The ideals of the Starship Project—a better humanity, the only way to survive a star voyage at all—had drawn him, even as his cynicism had warned him away.
The better humanity, it turned out, when trapped together in a small community and handed lifetime careers that were headed only to the shuffleboard court, and then the ship cemetery, behaved a lot like the old humanity would have. And now he was trapped and helpless, unable to escape. At least back on earth he could have moved to Montana. Sometimes he felt like he had many years ago when he was a small child in the tunnel in the McDonald’s playplace, surrounded by kids, and claustrophobia had made him desperate to escape. He would have clawed anyone who blocked his way out.

This whole voyage is a star that is awfully close to collapsing on itself.

“Profound,” Max said.

Lucas was startled. “Did I say that out loud?”

Stoes eyed him thoughtfully. “You might want to be careful about not saying that kind of thing out loud. We could get in trouble just for not reporting you. I’m not reporting you, of course,” he said hastily.

“Oh, you just need to sleep on it,” Carlos said reassuringly. “We all feel like that sometimes.”

“Yeah?” Lucas said. He glanced around, then leaned forward and said “How does this sound, Carlos—I’m stuck on a small ship with a bunch of crazy people. If I stick it out, my reward is to be buried in the ship cemetery, and then my kids, if I ever get any, will be buried there, and then their kids are going to show up at some planet that may or may not even be habitable.”

“Next food and fuel, 60 trillion miles,” he added in the silence.

“Shut up!” Edgar said frantically, under his breath, his eyes bugged out. “You’re going to get us all arrested! These people don’t need any encouragement to turn us in, either,” he hissed, looking around. Nobody seemed to have heard, though.

Max looked almost sympathetic. “Look, Edgar, don’t freak out. He’s right, OK?” He kept his voice low so it could only be heard by those at the table. He fiddled with the salt shaker, tapping it on the gleaming table top. “No sense pretending. We might get there and the planet might already be inhabited. Might be sitting out on their orbital porches with nuclear shotguns, taking potshots at strangers. Not that we even know if this piece of junk will stop. Kind of hard to simulate 10 percent light speed with a wind tunnel.” He held up his hand as Carlos and Edgar simultaneously tried to interrupt. “The key is, Lucas, just don’t care so much, OK? Stop trying to be a philosopher. Life is no more meaningless out here than it was back on earth. We live, we work, we die. It’s pretty nice here. Like a vacation almost, compared with some options.”

“Geez,” Edgar said. “I thought I was grumpy before I started hanging out with you guys.” Suddenly he sat up straight. “Hey! I still don’t have a drink!” He pounded the table with his fist. Cindy glared at him from the bar.

“Don’t worry about it now,” Max said. “We’re done, unless you want to drink alone. Let’s get out of here.”

They said goodbye to Edgar out on the now dark street, lit by glowing street lamps. As he walked away, a shadow moved by the tavern wall and Heinrich stepped out.

“It’s a fine evening, gentlemen.”

“What do you want?” Max said shortly.

Heinrich held up his hands. “Hey, easy, I just want a few words.”

“We’re not interested,” Max said.

Heinrich narrowed his eyes. “No need to get pompous,” he said. “We want a peaceful ship, same as you. That’s what we need to talk about.” He held up his hand as Lucas tried to say something. “Just let me finish. We need you guys. Hunter…”

“Get lost,” Max said. Lucas was envious of Max’s bluntness. He would probably have been stuck here for a long time, listening to Heinrich.

Heinrich’s veins stood out on his neck. “Suit yourself,” he spat. “I could have kept you safe.” He turned to leave.

“Wait just a minute,” Max said. “What are you talking about?” But Heinrich was gone between the tavern and the library. They stared after him.

Two weeks later, the maintenance crew was high in the air again working on the ceiling, replacing the thousands of dirty air filters and collecting them for cleaning. Lucas had kept quiet—and out of prison—but Soto, one of the ringleaders, had not. He had been arrested last night, and rumor had it that his rival Hunter might be arrested any time. Nobody went to the Blue Boar any more.
The crew sat dangling their legs off the work platform near the top of the vast dome. Far below through the safety netting, Lucas noticed a small crowd gathering outside the courthouse. The other two noticed as well, and they all leaned over the railing to get a better look through the safety netting.

“Uh oh,” Max said.

The heavy boom was so completely outside the plausible that for a couple of seconds, they just tried to understand what they had heard. Lucas dropped the filter he was holding and it bounced on the netting below. They looked at each other in horror. A column of black smoke was rising out of the courthouse, and they could already smell it, sharp and ugly. Small specks on the street were running from the smoke. Now coming back. Now gathering in clusters. Some of them weren’t moving at all.

Lucas had wondered sometimes, in his darkest moments, what he would feel if their little society started to fall apart. Instead of the despair and resignation he had been expecting, he felt only an icy rage at the fools who insisted on ruining everything.

Max jammed the lever on the platform down, pushing it to full speed, which wasn’t that fast. It felt dream-slow in their impatience. As they dropped down along the outer wall, they were carried away from town toward the outside edge of the ship. When the lift hit the bottom they all took off running back through the small grove of trees in the arboretum toward the column of smoke.

They were almost to the town when the ship turned upside down and everything disappeared. The air roared around Lucas. Heavy blows beat his body all over. Then everything stopped moving.

Lucas carefully lifted his head and felt for his legs and body. They were still attached, which the piercing pain affirmed. He looked around. The administrative office next to the path was half gone, burning, piles of smoke rolling out of it. Carlos was sitting a few feet away on the path, slumped forward. Max was gone.

Lucas ran to Carlos and touched his shoulder. Carlos looked up at him. He was crying. He tried to say something, but coughed instead. And then he stopped crying.

Lucas gently laid him back on the path, and stood up. There was shouting in the town, some screaming. A loudspeaker was blaring something.

Something was flapping at the front of Lucas’ torn shirt, and he looked down at it. His ID card that gave him access to the computer complex. All the maintenance crew had one. He looked at it. Then he began to run away from town, almost enjoying the shooting pain in his fierce rage and hurt.

No one was in the lobby when he swiped his card in the door and walked in. A message console was buzzing, unanswered. A door down the hall hung open.

He quickly walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a heavy wrench. Then he ran down the hallway to a heavy gray door with a “WARNING: Authorized Employees Only” sign. He swiped his card again. The door clicked, and he heaved it open and walked in to the cool room filled with the massive computer system, quiet, humming. No one was there. He walked up to the cluster of machines that ran the backup system and the central control system.

They never thought anyone would do anything but try to keep these running, he thought.

Then he thought of Heinrich and the others — those who were still alive anyway — back in town. He screamed as he swung the heavy steel wrench into a computer. It crumpled downward, and a ventilation fan pinged to a stop. Sparks jumped. Alarms began to screech. He screamed for Carlos, and hit again. For Max. For the silly dreams he had had about star travel.

This ship was beautiful, glittering, and fail-proof, with a rotten core. They were transporting themselves, that was their big mistake. Now he was down in the middle of the rotten core, alone, with no one to stop him. He would hack it out. He would destroy it. He swung again, and again, and again, and again. The lights went out. There was a smell of wires burning.

The ship shook. That would be the protective force field shuddering off. Any asteroid — or space pebble — would tear through it now like a bullet.

He realized his hands were wet; he must have cut them on metal shards, but he hadn’t felt it. He was getting tired, but he swung again hard. He staggered. He had completely missed and the wrench smashed into his shin. He fell. Pain throbbed through his rage. It was like waking up. He would have looked around at what he had just done, but it was dark as the inside of a coffin. His head knocked on something. He put his hand out; it was the ceiling.

And there was a funny noise. He listened hard, trying to figure out what it was that sounded so strange. Then he knew what it was. It was a not-noise. The steady, three-year throbbing of the ship was silent now.

Heinrich saw the running figure disappear into the orchard along the stream and ran harder. They were cleaning up the last resistance. They had almost restored order.

He ran through the trees and saw the other man jumping over the stream in a soaring leap. He gripped his club and surged forward, but then the light sputtered and became starlight. He staggered forward and fell as the ship lurched violently and the lights went out. He put out his hands in front of him to stop his fall, but his hands never hit the ground. Incredulously, he saw the stream ahead of him ripple up out of its bed. Water bounced off stones and rose in delicate tendrils through the air, leaving the stones uncovered. The other man flailed as he floated in his eternal leap. Heinrich looked down at the ground, hovering under him.

The brilliant light of the galaxies flooded in through the now dark windows of the ship, filling it like a vast cathedral at nighttime, a cathedral with dark shapes floating everywhere through the air. The ship flew on. It had a long journey ahead.