A lonely navigator endangers her ship when the solitude of wormhole travel proves to be too much for her.
A.D. Sui is a Ukrainian-born, queer, and disabled science fiction writer. She holds a Ph.D. in Health Promotion and spends most of her time being a stuffy academic of all things digital. Her writing has appeared in Augur, Etherea Magazine, and others. When not writing convoluted papers that nobody will ever read, she’s tweeting into the void as @TheSuiWay or blogging on www.thesuiway.com .
The Guild of Interstellar Transport and Navigation has never explicitly stated that navigators don’t make mistakes, but it’s one of those adages that everyone knows and never says out loud. Navigators don’t make mistakes, a dead navigator is better than an old one, always carry a pencil, things like that. Len stares out into the vastness of the cosmos, sock-clad feet resting on the control panel. A quiet sleep-cycle yields too much time to think.
Aptitudes are supposed to weed out those who falter, Len reassures herself. And she did pass the aptitudes. Yes, the advanced mathematics and calculations done solely by hand, the weeks of zero-G living, and the psych-evals, more psych-evals than she could count. Her scores marked her as unremarkably antisocial but promising in the right environment which meant that she would never grow attached to anyone but could play nice, if needed. All ideal traits in a navigator. A cool head comes with a cold shoulder.
Wormhole travel runs on redundancies. If something unthinkable happens to a Captain, the first mate takes over. If the first medic dies, the second medic, and then the nurse take over the clinical duties. If the cook dies, well, there’s always dehydrated protein. But there’s no replacement for Len aboard the ship. If the guiding systems fail, if the jumps are mistimed and the cosmos spits the ship out in unknown territory, if Len falters, there’s no use for a second navigator, they’re all dead anyway. Len is the beacon, the rudder, and the current that steers the ship back to its harbor. Len won’t be distracted by the company of others.
She doesn’t find this to be a comforting thought.
• • •
Len makes her first mistake seven months into her third assignment when Captain rises from her cryo-sleep. Wormhole travel is lonely, bone-crushingly lonely, and it’s her third assignment, and she knows she shouldn’t form any personal ties, but she does anyway. When Captain emerges on deck Len gives her a small smile. “Cryo-funk?” she asks.
Captain sips on a jell-pack and returns a weary smile. “Not my first rodeo.”
Len doesn’t know what a rodeo is. “She’s been steady since you went under, ma’am. Readying for course adjustment.”
Captain nods along and takes her seat to Len’s left. Captains sleep for the majority of the flight, waking only to readjust course and wave good-bye to colonists when they disembark at a new planet. Navigators don’t get to sleep in cryo. Many experience only a single transport in their careers. If everything goes smoothly, and Len does her job well, this will be her last.
Len catches Captain looking at her and raises her eyebrows in question.
“You’re in the Captain’s seat,” Captain says softly.
Len freezes and then bolts from her seat, forgetting to keep a cool head, forgetting her pencil. But Captain’s warm hand stops her, slender fingers wrap around Len’s wrist. “I don’t mind.”
• • •
Captain has inquisitive eyes and a soft voice, milder than the air pumps. Captain walks silently and smiles seldom. The day she goes under again she hands Len a real book.
Len flips through the pages, dumbstruck. “What shall I do with this, ma’am?”
Captain shrugs. “It’s my grandfather’s. He was a navigator before the jumps. Flip through it, see if any of the problems interest you. I can tell you’re quite bored here.”
“I am not, ma’am!” Len spits out, almost forgetting her formalities.
Captain pats her on the shoulder. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
The other side is many millions of light years away, so far it may as well be a different universe. And it is.
• • •
Len makes her second mistake when, nine months into her third assignment, she catches herself counting down the hours to when Captain will wake. Two months of solitude are enough to forget that she is unremarkably antisocial, and she flips through the pages of the book left behind as if she hasn’t memorized every swirl of ink on them.
“How did you like the problems?” Captain asks, an hour early out of cryo, wet hair splayed against her shoulders.
Len is a navigator; she is the guardian of mothers, fathers, husbands, and wives aboard her ship. She is the thin wall between the crew and the abyss, a second parachute, the point of no return, the last bullet in the chamber. She stares at her lap and says, “The problems were quite difficult.”
“I bet you enjoyed those.” Captain doesn’t mention that Len is in her seat. “Let’s adjust course.”
• • •
Len makes her third mistake without noticing. It slips past her as an afterthought, as miniscule and destructive as a misplaced period, while she watches her Captain pour a cup of tea. The error runs deep, deeper than the Guild of Interstellar Transport and Navigation will ever acknowledge. A navigator far more precise than a computer, but cruelly lonely, will falter one hundred percent of the time.
With a slip of her mind and a coy smile she’s been rehearsing all day, Len cements the fate of the colony ship, unknowingly dooming them all.
• • •
Captain scans the coordinates, and her face pales a shade each time she goes over the lines. “This is a bad jump,” she says. “This is thirty light-years bad.”
“Protocol requires you to immediately enter cryo-sleep, ma’am,” Len says, her voice a pathetic whisper. “No sense for you to waste your time here.” But the more Len looks at the new coordinates, the more she calculates and triangulates, the more she realizes that there’s no return. Captain arrives at the same conclusion, albeit more gracefully.
“Then I stay, and we figure this out,” Captain says and takes Len’s hand. “I don’t see how leaving you on your own will fix anything.”
“I killed us all,” Len whispers. Yet, there’s no guilt in her voice, only relief that she won’t have to be alone.
Len makes her fourth mistake when she lets Captain stay. But a yearning heart stumbling through the cosmos unloved will burn entire systems only to keep warm. A lonely navigator will make mistakes.
The Guild denies such things.
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This is a fantastic example of telling so much by not saying everything.
This is such a good story.