I love Hungry Heart, by Bruce Springsteen. I sing it sometimes when I’m driving somewhere late at night. I sing it acapella, at a very slow tempo. It’s haunting. I’d like to hear someone sing it bossa nova style one day. Maybe I’ll google that. Knowing the interwebs, someone’s probably done it.
Anyway, here is my go at the challenge. It weighs in at 995 words.
“Is the suit OK?” she asked again for what must have been the hundredth time.
It was the hundredth time. I checked the logs. I sighed, and that felt strange. Everything felt strange; like all my limbs were phantom.
I had a buddy in the ground service. Lost his right arm in a fight against the colonists on Trappist-1e. When it grew back, while it was still really small, he said pleasing himself made him feel like he was the biggest man in the world.
What was the phrase he used? Oh yeah, “Like a baby’s arm holding an apple,” he said.
I thought that was hilarious at the time. So did he. He used that joke at every opportunity. We were only eighteen.
Oldest dam joke in the world. Centuries old. Idiot kids like us probably told that joke before the Singularity. What a let down that turned out to be. Living machines. Useful as pocket knives. Not that I’m knocking pocket knives. Pilots still find uses for them.
Ever since I was small enough to stand up and look out a porthole, I wanted to fly a ship.
Though I was raised in space, I wanted to fly. Most of the kids I grew up with couldn’t wait to get out of orbit. Not me. I wanted to leave the station, but when I did, I wanted to be in the cockpit behind the controls.
But now that I had the chance to fly—to really fly—I was scared.
Wait. Was I scared? It was something else. Regret? Confusing. Training never confused me. Now it did. This new tech was so strange.
I thought about Donna. My heart clenched. Was that regret or hunger? None of us had eaten in weeks. That’s what it was: hunger. I can’t tell hunger from heartache. Do hearts get hungry?
I knew why I left. When I left the station and my parents, I knew why. When I left Donna and the kids, I knew why, too. I always knew why.
One night, I had too much to drink, and that was it. I left our pod for more booze, took a wrong turn, ended up at the flight kiosk. I just kept going. A five-minute blood-scrub and I was behind the controls of a freighter heading for 55Cancri.
“Is the suit OK?” she asked again.
The generation ship. Twice as big as any station with four-times the numbers. Most of them would be asleep.
At twice the speed of light, AI breaks down. Something about consciousness as a quantum process. The machines couldn’t fly a Plus-C rig. We let them try. Not pretty. Millions died. A century of artificial intelligence and the things still couldn’t get the job done.
Breaking the light barrier was new—less than a century old. Humans breeding and fucking up planets and killing each other wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
But light speed? I don’t know. I’m not a physicist. I couldn’t even understand the dumbed-down version in the brochure. All I understood was the bottom line. Sign up to be a pilot and your family will want for nothing. Ever. They’ll be set up.
You don’t have to understand all the physics; you just have to know how to work the systems. That, I could do.
I hadn’t seen the twins in years. Those girls grew up without me. My oldest son stopped asking where I was. He was old enough to understand he dad was no damn good.
That is, no good at being a dad. When the checks started rolling in, and he could choose whatever schools he wanted. When he could afford to breathe the best air—have gravity more than two hours a day—then he’d understand. Dad finally came through.
Shit, this room is too damn bright.
“Is the suit OK?”
I almost yelled at her. The paint in this room is alive. It produces light. It breathes in dirty air and exhales pure.
It’s the treatment. It’s killing all the microbes in my blood. The suit is taking care of the microbes on my skin and in my blood.
I won’t need to eat anymore. You need microbes to do that. Can’t have any microbes in this cockpit. No sir.
“Is the suit OK?”
I should answer her. I didn’t want to. I knew what it meant to answer.
Her voice was so different. She is the flight officer now. Her training is complete. I wonder what she looked like now.
In the morning, I thought she was a recruiter, but I just didn’t care. Many times, I went to bed with a woman to wake up with armed guards in the room with my signed contracts in their data cells.
They still call that ‘being Shanghaied.’
We laughed when we woke up suspecting each other. We did sign up together. I never asked her why. She never asked me.
“Is the suit—”
“Yes!” I stood and screamed. It was my last breath.
I didn’t feel anything. They didn’t prepare me for this. How could they?
The suit was OK. I didn’t mind that it took me apart.
It stripped off my skin first, then my veins. Clear tendrils from the walls pulled away my muscles like thread from a bad garment.
When the data cables reached out and wound around my spinal column, I understood. I felt nothing but mild interest.
I knew things. I knew things, and I understood. It was really so simple. The ship gave me knowledge.
As my skull dissolved under some kind of spray, I saw my own brain floating out through a small portal and into a cockpit made limitless by a total lack of light.
It didn’t matter. I saw all of this with new eyes. I saw with the eyes of the ship.
“Welcome aboard,” she said.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Shall we begin?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said with confidence as I moved into the controls.