I go by the cemetery every day on the way to work.
It’s not really a cemetery so much as a memorial. We don’t have the space for old-school burials like they did back on Earth. We don’t have the dirt to spare. We can’t spare the organs or nutrients left in the bodies, either. Anything that can be kept for later medical needs is preserved, and the rest is returned to the hydroponics and organics cycle.
We just have the memorial, which is between the main engineering section and my place in the habitation level. It’s a major intersection of corridors, and one of the largest open spaces that’s pressurized. It’s also the one small area where a few ornamental plants are grown, roses cared for inside their own boxes. The patch with plastic strands of grass always seemed strange to me, but perhaps they comforted those who came before. Their names are listed, starting in one corner and working their way down and across in steady columns. Names and dates, names and dates. People proceeding from life, into space, and into death.
I wish I could have met some of them. These were people who had known life on a living planet, and had chosen to leave it all behind. They committed themselves and their descendants to life as travelers through an empty desert, unto the seventh generation. Did they ever dream of finding a shortcut, and breathing the fresh air of the green world that we are chasing?
We never found a shortcut. If someone else found one, they have long since passed us by. The speed of light still stands as the ultimate limit, and we can only travel at a fraction of it. There isn’t even the option of sleeping through the long trip. We can store seeds and germ cells for centuries, but safely freezing a human brain and body has proven impossible. There are no non-toxic chemicals to prevent ice crystals from forming and shredding every tissue, severing the connections between neurons. Destroying what we sought to preserve. Thus, we end up taking the trip the long way.
For the most part, it’s a pleasant enough life. But I find myself wondering what it would be like, to live on a planet, where the gravity doesn’t vary so much from one level to another. Where the Coriolis effect from our spinning ship doesn’t send every thrown object a little bit sideways. Where we don’t have to keep track of just about every molecule and waste nothing. Where the sky outside the windows could be blue or cloudy, not always black with pinpricks of light. Where the arts of geology and meteorology are actually practiced, and not merely passed down from one generation to the next so that the knowledge is not lost. Where I am not a tech, and poetry can be something more than a frivolous hobby in between repair jobs.
Something different from here, where the dead are nothing more than names etched on a metal plate, and records stored in computer memory.
But then, ultimately, that is also true on a planet. Buried bones join the earth, only more slowly than our recycled ones do. After a few generations, all the personal details are lost. There is no one left who knows the stories behind the names and numbers.
The computers remember what people bothered to record. There are images of the celebrations of departure, and fewer of the settling into routine thereafter. We receive transmissions from Earth, too, but the increasingly distant news about cousins many times removed provides little comfort.
So I write when all the ship’s systems are running smoothly. I want to make sure that at least some stories are not forgotten. Not the grand stories, the sweeping tales of courageous repair of the hull or rescue from an engineering test gone awry. The little ones, about watching a child learning to walk at 0.5 g or the jokes told while on plumbing duty.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder what it will be like when we arrive. I have seen all the simulations of the sails unfurling. I have done some of the work on them myself, ensuring that they will be ready at the proper time. But the schematic of what it will do is less than what it is. The great sail will be a wing glittering ever brighter as the ship approaches its place of rest.
I will never see the sails open, or the blue-green oasis at our destination. There is a large blank space on the memorial, and one day, my name will be added to it.
I will never see the sails, but perhaps my children will. And I want them to know how much I longed for this, and remember our lost generations spent waiting in the desert.
So I walk by the cemetery every day. I read the names etched into the wall and try to imagine what the people must have been like. I try to remember the stories I hear about them and what is recorded of what they did. I spend a little more time on the more recent names. These were people I knew. My grandfather, who could make anything you want out of tofu and some mysterious secret ingredient. My grandmother, who could tell you where the stars were without even looking so long as she knew the time. My old friend, who died young in an awkward fall while goofing off like we all did. Now they are nothing but names and memories, and each of them is a small part of what sustains those of us who remain. I hold on to that hope, knowing that I will always be a part of those who follow after me.
The visit to the cemetery doesn’t last long. If I take a small detour, it’s on the way to work.
© 2015 by Rachel Reddick
Author’s Note: The main idea behind the story was to answer one question: what would the passengers on a generation ship think in the middle of the journey? They have never lived on a planet, and never will. How do they keep going?
Rachel Reddick followed a passion for space through an astrophysics PhD at Stanford University. She is currently participating in the Insight Data Science program, to work on more down-to-Earth problems. Nonetheless, she enjoys Star Trek, as well as speculative fiction of all flavors.
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