Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson



The Old Equations

“Imagination defined the advance of physics in the twentieth century. Although we were enticed by the less challenging models of minor thinkers like Einstein, science reached higher, and the era of quantum mechanics changed civilization. Naturally, very few remember Einstein these days—he died during the First World War, after publishing a widely ignored theory that would have set physics back centuries—and instead our future has been shaped by the models developed by visionaries such as Planck, Schrödinger, and Jain.”

—Pascal Delacroix, Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, Cambridge, from 500 Years of Physics, Oxford Press, 2187


May 5, 2193


My dearest James,

Surprise! Yes, the final item on your launch checklist is this special message from me.

I miss you already. But you know that. What you don’t know is just how proud I am of you. You were born for this, and no one could possibly be able to handle such a demanding job as well as you. I saw the joy in your eyes when we agreed in your taking the mission. Although I cried and complained, and it seemed like I hated the idea, the reality is that, more than anything, I was and am happy for you. I guess I was just scared—I’m still scared, but I know that this is how our life was meant to be. I’m prepared for it. And proud. Did I mention I’m proud of you?

Know that even while we are millions of miles apart, my heart will always be with you. Ten years is not so long. I’m sad that for most of the journey I won’t be able to hear from you, but you’ll be able to hear from me, and that’s more than some people have, isn’t it?

So this is the first of many, many reminders of the person you are leaving back on Earth, and also of the love that you are bringing with you.

I love you so much,




Your wife left me like no room to leave a note on this damn page. Incredibly proud of you, man. Jealous, too, you lucky bastard! I told Marsden to let me hit you with news from home, but he said no dice. Short messages from control and your wife only. Guess you won’t know the winner of the next ten Super Bowls until you get home, as your wife sure as hell won’t be mentioning it! Anyway, going to miss you, man. I’ll keep the beer cold. Tony


May 6, 2193—E-LC transmission

14:23:31: Testy test test test. askdfjowig. Yeah, this is a fucking test.

14:23:58: Sorry about that, Colonel. All systems are working perfectly on our end.  First sail calibration is still set for 4 June. General Marsden wants us to get through a few more days of testing the QE comlink, so you won’t hear from your wife as soon as you may like, but don’t be alarmed. Just to clarify, because you seemed concerned before liftoff—we’re still planning on sticking to the original schedule of odd days being hers and even days ours. Marsden made it very clear that we’re not to take any of your personal message time unless it was critical. Thought you’d like to hear that. Smitty [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


May 9, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:03:32: James, it’s me. Kate. Wow, this is so weird. I’m writing to you, and you’re out there in space. Sorry I haven’t written, but General Marsden wanted to get all the systems with the sail and monitors and stuff perfect first. I guess I’m glad that he’s using the word “perfect.” It makes me worry a little less.

I told Tony that it must be beautiful to watch the planets float by, and he laughed and said you are basically encased in lead with no windows. You never told me that. You made it sound so romantic, and now it sounds oppressive. I hope that you are able to keep that sparkle in your eyes for the whole trip, despite the conditions. It was always there whenever you looked in the sky. Remember that, James. Whenever things get tough, remember me holding your hand as you looked up at the sky, the stars reflecting in your eyes.

It’s only been a few days, and I can’t wait to hear from you on the fourth. Don’t worry—I can handle ten years, as long as I can hear from you. I’m running out of space. Love you so very mu [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED—MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


May 23, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:02:18: Sorry I didn’t write last time. It is awful that I’m only allowed to sit down at 6 and can only write a few paragraphs every other day. Anyway, I shouldn’t use the space to complain! Amy had a performance at school at 4:30, and your sister would have killed me if I missed it. I couldn’t get to the base until almost 7 because of traffic. General Marsden said I couldn’t even send you an “I love you,” and he wouldn’t give me a make-up day. Sometimes I hate the stick up his ass, but then I remember that it’s one of the things helping keep you alive, so I try to be thankful.

Anyway, I’m very excited that I’ll be able to get a message from you soon, but General stick-up-his-ass (kidding!) says not to expect more than a few words as this is your first time setting up your comlink. Still, even a few words will be a blessing. I miss you horribly, and it’s only been three weeks. Ten years seems almost unbearable now. Sorry to be such a downer. I’m sure I’ll feel better after I hear from you next week.



June 4, 2193—E-LC transmission

12:03:01: Jim, it’s Mars. Did the sail calibrate? Were you able to initiate the quantum link? I’ll assume you’re having some com problems. Let us know what went wrong with the process when you get the link established. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

15:32:54: Jim, are you okay? We’re still waiting to hear from you. I’m going to kill Ollie if he didn’t account for something on your quantum pair. I’ll be up until we hear from you. We don’t want to stress our QE link with too many messages, so don’t make me keep hassling you, soldier. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

19:02:17: Jim, I’m going to go against all of my instincts and assume the best. I’m working from the theory that you didn’t have time to get the link initiated with calibration going on. Understandable. I’m hoping for the best next month. I’ll tell everyone that it was a communication issue and that everything is fine. Don’t fucking make a liar out of me or I’ll kick your ass. Mars [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]



June 4, 2193—LC-E transmission

12:42:12: Hello? I sure hope to hell this thing is working. What the fuck is happening back on Earth? Why are you sending messages at all hours? Half of them don’t even make sense. I thought you were going to do one message a day at 18:00? Why are you guys so worried about this calibration? It’s going perfectly. This isn’t Tony fooling around is it? I can’t believe Mars would let him do that. Jesus. Someone better answer. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


June 4, 2193—E-LC transmission


19:59:33: Colonel, this is Smitty. General Marsden and your wife have already left. You’re almost eight hours late. What happened? We can’t send through any more messages due to the strain on the QE link, so we’ll have to catch up next calibration. Just give us a status update, and we’ll figure it out next time. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


June 4, 2193—LC-E transmission

12:43:41: What the hell are you talking about Smitty? I’m 43 minutes late, which is within the range we considered as acceptable before I left. I’m looking at the clock right now. Shit, I don’t want to wait another month to talk to Kate. Can’t believe you guys fucked this up on our very first calibration.

Anyway, all readings are normal except for distance traveled. It’s off slightly. I’ll have more data for the next calibration. Just don’t fuck it up next time, and make sure Kate is there. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]



June 7, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:00:04: I am so mad, but I’m not sure if I should be mad at you or the idiots who planned this mission. How could it take you so long to set up the quantum link? This is killing me, and now I have to wait another month. Argh! At least you’re okay. I was so scared when they said something was wrong and I missed you, but General Marsden was so calm and kind. Tony told me that sometimes that even though the buttons are shiny or new it doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally get stuck. I laughed, but I’m not sure that it made me feel better.

Ugh, here I am venting at you again, and you’re the one who’s all alone in space. Sorry! I am so proud of you, and I love you.

Oh, I’m supposed to tell you that your Uncle Bill broke his leg skateboarding. Your dad said you’d laugh at that. Everyone here wants me to pass along messages and stories. I’m watching your friends and family share their life with me. It makes me feel closer to you, James, even though you are so far away.  I love you so much. Please make sure that everything is [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED—MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


June 16, 2193—E-LC transmission

12:03:34: Colonel, you need to make sure the comlink is set up by 16:00:00. Not to put any pressure on you, but it’s so the President can talk to you. General Marsden will have more details later. Oh, and a reminder, Kate’s scheduled session tomorrow was kicked by General Marsden so we can send you the latest data points on the sail calibration. You’ll hear from her on 19 June and then we pick up the normal schedule. Smitty [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


June 22, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:01:33: Jim, it’s Mars. The President wants to communicate with you on the next sail calibration. Yeah, I’m sure you noticed it’s the fourth of July, and yes it means you won’t be able to send a message to Kate. You wanted to be the hero? Well, look here—you’re the hero. Anyway, just be your normal “oh golly” humble self. It’s one of the things that I hate about you but everyone seems to find endearing, so you have my permission to be yourself. Just this once.

Not sure what Kate is saying, as I’ve forbidden anyone from accessing her logs. Whatever you say is between you and her. I just wanted to say that she’s being a real trooper. Seems strong. Pissed as all hell about the com issues, but I can’t blame her. Anyway, she seems okay. Shit, I don’t know about women, dammit. All I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t worry about her. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


June 23, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:00:41: Well, they finally told me, and I’m both proud and angry. Mostly angry, to be honest. I can’t stand that I’ll have to wait another month to hear from you because you’ll be talking to the president. Of course it IS the president, which is a bit overwhelming. I have to admit that I’m getting quite a bit of attention over your mission, and now the president is going to talk to my James on the fourth of July because he’s a hero and inspiration. Is it bad that I’m kind of thrilled that I’m being asked to do talk shows? I know that sounds so shallow, but talking about you to others makes you feel closer somehow. Ha, that almost sounds like I’m rationalizing this celebrity thing, but honestly it’s not. If I can’t talk to you, I can at least talk ABOUT you.

I was invited to dinner by Tony and Gwen this evening. They’ll ask about you, and I don’t know what I’ll say. Because I don’t know. But it’s nice that they ask. They care, you know?

I’m still angry about not talking to you. Maybe if I ask the President he’ll say s [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED—MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 3, 2193—E-LC transmission

17:59:44: M. says I only have 50 characters. Love you! ~Kate

18:03:07: Colonel, all systems are fine on our end. I sure hope you can get the comlink initiated tomorrow. We finally got all the data from your first missed broadcast, and the only issue was the slight calibration error on distance. Beyond that things look good. The systems on the ship haven’t so much as hiccupped. Just make sure you get that communication link set up ASAP. Smitty [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 4, 2193—E-LC transmission

15:21:21: Jim, please tell me you’ll have the comlink set up soon. I’m forbidding anyone from coming near the com station until I hear from you. You know what to do, soldier! Mars [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

15:44:03: Jim, we just checked every fucking scan, transmission, assessment, and data point, and everything looks normal. Please get on the line within the next 15 minutes. I told the president that it would probably be good to wait, but he’s adamant. He wants to go live with you at 16:00. LIVE. Mars [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

16:00:00: Colonel Murphy, this is President Wallace. I just wanted to say how proud we are of you. You embody the true American spirit! [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

16:00:12: They are telling me that there may be sunspots affecting our conversation, and that I may not get a response from you. How unfortunate, I was hoping to hear how beautiful space must be as you fly past at such extraordinary speed. I wonder if you see out your window what we think of when we think of America—truth and beauty quickly passing us by as we look forward to an even better future. But we should stop and enjoy the view, don’t you think Colonel? [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

16:00:41: I’m sure your view is beautiful. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

16:00:47: It is unfortunate we can’t hear of it due to the sun. Perhaps next time, Colonel. Remember, all of America is proud of you. God bless you, and God bless America. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

16:23:28: Jim, I’m cutting the link for today, but I’ll have Smitty monitor the line in case we hear from you. Don’t expect to hear from Kate for a few days. All the messages today put a strain on the quantum link. Sorry. Mars. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 5, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:06:18: Colonel, I don’t know if you’re there, but we’re seeing normal readings across the board. General Marsden has everyone believing in the sunspots story, but what is really going on? We’re returning to the normal com schedule on 7 July. You’ll hear from Kate then. Smitty [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 6, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:01:08: Jim, I fear the worst, but I’m not against giving everyone one more month of hope. Hell, I need another month of hope. Readings are normal, so there is that. I expect this is your ineptitude and not anything worse. I’ll forgive ineptitude this once. Just don’t let it happen in August. Please. Mars. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 7, 2193—E-LC transmission

17:59:32: Dearest James, I am so sorry you haven’t heard from me. General Marsden wouldn’t let me talk to you until the sunspot interference died down. He said you wouldn’t even get the messages. I guess I yelled a bit, but he put his foot down. Sometimes I hate that man. But don’t worry, I’m okay. I was just so worried. Not hearing from you is killing me inside. First it’s normal first run mistakes, and now it’s sunspots. I haven’t heard from you in over two months!

Please please please tell me you’re okay, and you’ll be able to talk to me soon? Please? I know you’re okay. I just want to hear it. I love you. ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 4, 2193—LC-E transmission

12:33:12: Kate, are you there? I just got your message. Is everything okay? I can’t make sense of half of what you are saying to me, and I’m now getting a couple messages a day. Have you guys changed the schedule? [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


July 7, 2193—E-LC transmission

19:03:28: Holy shit, Colonel, am I glad to hear from you! It’s Smitty. We’ve been worried sick. What happened on 4 July, and why are you contacting us now? The next calibration is weeks away. Is something wrong? [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 4, 2193—LC-E transmission

12:35:22: Smitty, I have no idea what you are talking about. The calibration is going on right now. How could I have missed it? [MESSAGE RECEIVED]

12:57:22: Smitty, you there? I only have a few hours before I need to shut down. Where’s Kate? [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


July 7, 2193—E-LC transmission

19:53:47: Jim, it’s Mars. Sorry I took so long. I have communications locked down due to all these issues, and it took me a while to get here. I just went over the logs, and I am completely lost. Are you saying it’s 4 July right now? [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 4, 2193—LC-E transmission

13:23:11: Mars, I’m not in the mood for jokes. I’m looking at the computer screen right now, and it’s 4 July. What the hell are you guys up to? Can you get Kate on the line? [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


July 7, 2193—E-LC transmission

19:54:53: I’ll get Kate on the line at ASAP, but right now I need to figure this out. What’s your location? [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


July 4, 2193—LC-E transmission

13:24:02: That’s what I can’t understand, Mars. The instruments don’t match up. Acceleration is perfect—constant since launch, but I’ve covered even more distance than the revisions from the last calibration, and way more than our initial estimates. Just checked it three times. Something’s out of whack. And now the clock thing is getting worse. I know there were some unknowns, but this is fucked up beyond all belief. And why is the message frequency now several times a day? With the augmentation to handle the G forces Archer said to expect some disorientation, but this is ridiculous. Hell, I FEEL perfectly normal. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


July 7, 2193—E-LC transmission

19:57:01: I don’t know, Jim. We need more time to figure this out. Let me get the guys on it until the next calibration. Maybe you went through a particle field or something else we don’t know about, and it has affected some instruments and your perceptions. Look, we can’t stress the QE link any more. Every time we exchange multiple messages, it becomes unstable. I’ll tell Kate we got a short update from you, but let’s not let her know there are any problems. I don’t want to worry you, but she’s been extremely tense after missing the first two comlinks.

I’m just glad you’re okay. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


August 3, 2193—E-LC transmission

19:54:33: James, Mars is making me leave, so if you get the link set up make him get me. MAKE HIM. I NEED to hear from you. I understand that there is something wrong with your instruments or something, so I don’t blame you. But you MUST be here for the September calibration. I desperately miss you. I love you so much. ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


August 3, 2193—LC-E transmission

13:14:20: Smitty, you there? We clearly have major problems, but that can wait. Get Kate. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


August 14, 2193—E-LC transmission

02:44:04: Colonel, this is Davis. It’s 3 AM here and everyone is asleep. But don’t worry. General Marsden made it clear—if you contacted us the first call was to your wife and the next one was to him. We’ll get her here for you, sir.

04:08:44: James, are you there? I’ve missed you so much! I can’t believe I get to hear from you early! General Marsden says we only have a couple of exchanges, so I’ll just say a few words and then let you speak. Oh God, how I’ve missed your voice—seeing your words. Are you getting my messages? Are you okay? Can I do anything for you?

Please respond quickly. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


August 3, 2193—LC-E transmission

14:39:23: Kate, I’m here. I love you and miss you, too. More than you can possibly imagine. Yes, I’ve gotten every single one of your wonderful, maddening, crazy, loving messages. I love that Tony and Gwen are expecting. I love that you hate Mars one day and appreciate him the next. (I’m the same way, as if you didn’t know that). I love that on some days you tell me the most wonderful details of your life—our life—and other days you just vent.

I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine, and everything is perfect on this amazing ship. The worst part is being without you and our friends, but other than that I just have to deal with boredom. Being alone can be hard. I can’t deny that. But this is all just temporary. We’re already past a chunk of time. Nine or ten years still seems monumentally long. I know that. But it’s not so long that we’ll miss our lives together. When I get back you’ll be 38, and I’ll be 40. We can still have kids. We can run off to Venice or just sleep in and watch TV.

I wish I had more to say, but you know me—I’ve never  [MESSAGE RECEIVED]

14:46:02: Dammit. I hate the character limits on this quantum shit. Anyway, I was going to say that I’ve never been one for lots of talking and here I am running out of characters. I guess I will need to figure this out if we’re only going to talk every 30 days.

I love you, Kate. I miss you. James [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


August 14, 2193—E-LC transmission

04:23:38: I’m crying, James. Damn you, you made me cry and Smith and General Marsden will be in here soon. I hate when people see me cry!

I love you so much. ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


August 14, 2193—E-LC transmission

04:32:42: Jim, it’s Mars. We’ve pulled in every analyst and expert we could find. It turns out the initial thought of this being due to an astronomical anomaly isn’t possible. We had both engineers and statisticians go through the cosmological data, and there is nothing out of the ordinary. I mean nothing. We did confirm your assessment. One or more of your gauges is out of calibration. That could also account for some of your disorientation.

With that in mind I need to gather more data from you in terms of your perceptions the next time we have a link. Honestly, I’d like to peg you as crazy and call it a day, but with gauges out of calibration you could be right. Maybe we’re the crazy ones. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


August 16, 2193—E-LC transmission

16:32:44: Colonel, we almost lost the QE link on 14 August. We’re still working out the limits, but it looks like we’re going to have to hold the monthly exchanges to 2 incoming/2 outgoing. General Marsden says this will give you one exchange with your wife and one for us. It’s not a lot, but the quantum entanglement is very unstable. We can’t risk breaking the connection. Next message coming 19 August. Smitty [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 2, 2193—E-LC transmission

12:02:33: Colonel, it’s Smitty. Did you get the link set up? We’re hoping you got your ship clocks calibrated correctly during the last link. I’m standing by. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 3, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:00:04: I hate sunspots! I’m so depressed. All I want to do is see your words. Your words! How hard is that? They said you would be able to talk to me every month, and here it is month four, and I’ve heard from you once. ONCE! I tried to get General Marsden to maybe see about setting up the comlink next week instead of the long wait. I even told him I’d swap two weeks of sending messages just to hear from you, but he wouldn’t even consider it.

I don’t know what to do, James. I feel so powerless. I live and speak to you in the vacuum of space, and then—nothing. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 4, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:18:14: Jim, it’s Mars. I was afraid you wouldn’t hook up with us on 2 September, but I’m not surprised. All of us are pretty much just waiting until we hear from you, whenever that is. I’m still not telling Kate that we have some kind of unknown problem, but I’m sure she’s already covered that with you multiple times. Needless to say, I’m not her favorite person in the world right now.

I’m assuming that we have a few weeks until we get a link. The physicists want me to ask you to keep very close track of our incoming messages. We need you to log them in the computer and stamp them with your arrival time. Have that handy when we talk. I’ll have Doctor Singh with me next time, and he’ll be asking you about the variations between our time stamps and yours. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]



September 5, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:02:32: I’m so sorry about the other day. I NEVER feel like I’m not talking to you, especially after what you said last month. I was just sad and frustrated and not having the best day. I saw Jackie Merriweather holding hands with her new boyfriend, and it made me so intensely jealous. And then I can’t talk to you, so not only can’t I hold your hand, I can’t even read your words.

I’m thinking this is one of those venting messages, so I should just sign off. Why did we ever agree to this?

I do love you so very much. ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 13, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:02:02: Happy thirtieth birthday, my love. We had a celebration at the house, and your dad flew in from Phoenix. Isn’t that great? We thought rehabilitation would take months, but there he was. We let him blow out your candles. He blew out every single one, although he coughed a bit at the end. He laughed and said that he may not be as strong as he once was, but he’d live long enough to see his son return from Gliese 581 d! Isn’t that great?

I read your message at the party. It’s the first time I’ve shared it with anyone. I’ve been kind of keeping it to myself as my special thing, but the time seemed right to share it with others. Your words didn’t leave many dry eyes. Tony said to bank on the sleeping in and watching TV more than Venice, which got a laugh.

I’m getting nervous about October 2, but I’m starting to understand that space travel is something you simply can’t predict. As General Marsden says—there are just so many variables. Still, please be there. Love, ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 2, 2193—LC-E transmission

15:58:13: Anyone there? Of all times to have shit get messed up, it has to be now. Not sure what your time stamp shows, but I’m four hours behind schedule on getting the link up. Sail calibration is almost done, so we have to talk fast. Smitty? [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


September 29, 2193—E-LC transmission

17:13:23: Jim, it’s Mars. Thank God you’re safe. I almost gave up hope when you missed the 2 September calibration and link.

We need to get this problem solved. Do you have the time stamps? I’m calling for Professor Singh. Hopefully he’s nearby. He needs to know how closely they match up. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 2, 2193—LC-E transmission

16:09:58: Christ, this is fucked up. Anyway, I have the time stamps. They show incoming at increasing intervals. They started at one per day and are now coming in at nearly twice a day. I also followed up on the doctor’s recommendations and logged my sleep cycle and have done daily cognitive tests. Normal across the board.



September 29, 2193—E-LC transmission

17:58:55: Colonel Murphy, this is Doctor Singh. Are the time differences random or is there some kind of order to them? Do you have any other things that appear to be out of phase? Also, can you remember feeling any anomalies? It may even be as slight as a flash in your eyes or a tingle on your skin.

Jim, it’s Mars. Kate’s in the other room. I’ll bring her in after you send your answers to Doctor Singh. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 2, 2193—LC-E transmission

16:46:09: Hard to tell, Doc. The times appear random, but when I look at them as a whole, they appear to be slowly increasing in frequency. And, yes, the whole fucking flight appears to be out-of-phase. I’m somehow covering more distance without our acceleration calculations being off. I’m starting to think I’m going crazy, because there have been no flashes and no tingling. Nothing like that. Beyond the bizarre data we’re seeing this trip couldn’t be more normal. I guess that’s good for Ollie and his team, but it makes for frustrating troubleshooting. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]



September 29, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:04:49: James, what is happening??? I haven’t heard from you in almost two months! Is everything okay? I’m so afraid for you, James.

General Marsden said you only have a few minutes. I could kill him for making me wait nearly all this time and then telling me you only have a few minutes. I want to hear hours of your thoughts, your dreams, and your words, but I get just minutes. I’ll shut up. Please just let me see your words and imagine your voice as you tell me you’re okay. Please. Quickly. Please. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


September 2, 2193—LC-E transmission

16:51:12: I have just a few moments, but it’s not Mars’ fault. I couldn’t get the comlink initiated until it was four hours late. I loved your birthday message. I must say that Tony was wrong—after ten years apart, I can drag my ass out of bed for a trip to Venice.

You know, I figured the one thing that what would keep me going would be your messages. But now that there have been problems I realize that I want—I need—to have you see MY messages, too. It’s the only way I can make sure you know I exist.

I think of you constantly. I think of our past, and I think of our future. I like to think of the more mature, elegant, and beautiful woman who will be waiting for me when I return. Of course, here is where you ask why you aren’t elegant, mature, or beautiful now, and I don’t have an answer for that, because you are.

I guess the point is that I want to remind you that I think of our future. That’s what gets me through the day—your messages from the present, and my dreams for our future.

I need to go. I have so much I want [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


December 12, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:32:13: Jim, it’s Mars. I’m sorry for all the dead ends, but I think we’ve found something. One of the physicists in Bern remembers a crackpot theoretical physicist from 200 years ago named Albert Einstein. He was an amateur who died during World War One after publishing a handful of theories that no one took seriously. The thing is that they kind of match what we’re seeing here. On the extremely off chance that this guy was actually right, we’re looking into it.

It’s something, at least.

He just gave me the briefing this afternoon, and I don’t understand 90% of it. I’ll have him dumb it down even more and then I’ll explain it to you in the next uplink. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 14, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:11:28: Jim, it’s Mars. The physicists are actually excited about this Einstein lead. I still can’t understand half of it, but the essence is that time is not a constant, it’s relative to the speed of light, which is the actual constant. What this means is that the faster you travel and the closer you get to the speed of light, the slower time goes for you.

Okay, here’s the kicker, and here is what is getting all the brainiacs excited. His theory basically says that as you are increasing in speed, time will slow down by a specific ratio, and that’s what we’re seeing with the messages. We have a ton more calculations to run through, and no one is sure how this integrates with quantum physics, but CERN is saying they are going to do some practical tests on this crazy theory, but it looks like the crackpot could actually have been a genius.

This is going to be difficult to grasp, but I want you to think long and hard about what this means for you. I won’t say more than that. I’ll have more later. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 16, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:08:00: Jim, it’s Mars. The scientists didn’t screw around. Every test they ran confirmed Einstein’s theory. Hell, you’re a living confirmation of the theory. I hope you did what I asked and thought about this, because the scenario is not good, buddy.

All our calculations anticipated you passing the speed of light to make this trip in ten years. You will not pass the speed of light. You will approach it, but you won’t be able to go faster. Einstein figured it out, and CERN just confirmed it. It’s impossible. I can’t be more blunt than this, Jim: Your mission will now take 41 years from our perspective.

Okay, that’s not all. You mentioned how you are covering more ground than you expected, and you’ve seen these messages come to you faster and faster. That’s because space is warping at the speed you are traveling. I still can’t believe this, but here’s the kicker: From your perspective, the trip will take only 5 years. As I said, time is slowing down for you.

This has a dramatic impact on this project, but it also h [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED—MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

18:14:47: I’m going to risk another transmission, because this is so important. Jim, this has a dramatic impact not just on the mission but you personally. When you arrive back on Earth, it will be 5 years from now for you, but we’ll all be 41 years older. I’m so sorry.

I’m going to let Kate know over breakfast tomorrow. She’ll have plenty of time before your transmission, which should be in a few weeks. Mars [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 17, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:00:44: General Marsden told me.

I spent all day thinking about it, and I think it’s a load of shit. Time has no meaning? Space can be stretched? I asked questions. Lots and lots of questions, James. And the scientists all give me the same answers, but their answers don’t scream “time dilation” (which is what they’re calling it) to me. They scream “someone fucked up and is covering their ass.”

Sorry. I just am very frustrated on your behalf. Don’t worry, I’ll push and push until we see something that makes sense.

There is absolutely no way that I’m not going to see you for forty years. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 21, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:03:01: James, I did some research on this Einstein fellow. Did you know that he died before quantum physics? The core branch of science for the past 200 years, and this crazy guy didn’t even consider it. THIS is who we are looking to for guidance on a communication issue?

Also, Doctor Singh told me that they still have no idea how our quantum link is working across space and time. He actually told me that you are a “quantum reference point,” and so you are talking to us in the future. After hearing that, how can we take them seriously?

You know me, James. I’ll dig and claw and fight until I get the truth. I know you’re okay, but someone messed up something, and I’ll find out. Next link let’s skip the personal stuff and get to the bottom of the problem. You’re right there and probably know what’s going on. We can solve this even if the scientists can’t.

Your father called, but I haven’t had time to call him back. At your birthday party, he asked if he could talk with you, but I’m not sure General Marsden would allow i [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED—MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


October 2, 2193—LC-E transmission

12:44:39: Smitty, this is Colonel Murphy. Link is set up. I want you to get Kate on the line ASAP. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


December 26, 2193—E-LC transmission

14:48:12: Colonel, this is Smitty. Glad to hear from you. I’m going to get General Marsden. Hold tight.

15:13:59: Jim, it’s Mars. Kate is here, but first I’m handing control over to Doctor Archer. She knows she has only one transmission, so pay attention to every word.

15:14:19: Colonel, your initial assessment was for a 10 year mission. While that is now shorter for you, the circumstances on Earth have changed radically. Your expectations on return have to be completely altered. I have confidence that you will be able to handle the strain, but I need you to be honest with us and honest with yourself. Please share any fears, concerns, or other psychological problems or issues you are facing, no matter how small. We will do our best to provide for them, even with this difficult means of communication.

Be strong. But be honest with yourself. When you return, you are not going to see the wife, family, or friends you expect. Some may not be alive. Colonel, I handled your initial screening, and I know you can handle this challenge.  [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


October 2, 2193—LC-E transmissio

13:11:39: No shit, doc. Put Kate on. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


December 26, 2193—E-LC transmission

15:15:45: James, I have missed you so much! I have nothing to say. You’ve seen my words for months, and I’ve seen nothing from you, so please just tell me you’re okay! [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


October 2, 2193—LC-E transmission

13:12:00: Kate, I’m perfectly fine, but please pay attention to this very carefully. I know you don’t believe it, but you must. They explained the theory behind the old equations that the physicists are discussing, and while they are strange, the concepts are clear and make sense. I’m so sorry, Kate, but this is how things are. I don’t want them to be, but they are. Trust me. Relativity is real. I can’t go faster than the speed of light. Time dilation is real. All of it is real. I see it every day. Every day I receive multiple messages from Earth. It is wonderful to have the constant communication, but it is sad to watch time fly by.

Please believe me. It is much better for us to talk about our new plans and how we are going to deal with that than pretending it isn’t real. I love you so much that the last thing I want to do is hurt you, and I know this is probably hurting you. But we can get past this.

We cannot be sad. We cannot be angry. We need to just find a way to deal with what life has dealt us. We WILL see each  [MESSAGE RECEIVED]

13:06:44 : We will see each other again, my love. Talk to Doctor Archer or Mars. They can give you perspective. Mars told me that I can’t reply more than twice due to lack of stability of the quantum entanglement, but this is important, Kate. Let’s not look at the problems. Let’s look ahead at the answers. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


December 31, 2193—E-LC transmission

18:01:03: James, I don’t want you to worry. I was being selfish and I let my emotions get in the way of thinking clearly. I spent a long time talking to General Marsden, and I understand time dilation now. You know me—I’m not one to just sit back and give up. Don’t be mad, but I asked him about abandoning the mission. He wouldn’t even consider it. I don’t want to belabor the point, because I know you won’t agree, but I really think that with everything all screwed up that they should turn you around and bring you home.

Anyway, maybe he told you, but if notthat isn’t going to happen.

Believe me, James, I am thinking. Maybe they can send another ship that I can be on to join you? It’s not that crazy. Maybe we could live on Gliese 581 d as the first colonists. They’ve done husband and wife missions before, right? God, 41 years is so long. That’s longer than I’ve been alive! I’m sorry. I know it is hard for you, too. But will you love me when I’m old? Will you even know me? I’m sorry. Happy New Year, my love, although I k [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED – MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


January 17, 2194—E-LC transmission

18:00:03: James, Gwen had her baby. They named him James after you, and they asked us to be his godparents. I think that is really nice.

I’m still meeting with Doctor Archer. She helps a lot, but it is still difficult. The press has found out about what is happening, and they are calling me constantly. The headlines are all about how when you finally return, you’ll be 35, and I’ll be almost 70.

It’s hard.

Tony joked that when you return your godson will be older than you, and I started crying and couldn’t stop. I know he felt terrible, but I wanted to just kill him.

Will you still love me when I’m old and gray, and you’re still young and handsome?



November 1, 2193—LC-E transmission

12:14:23: Smitty, link is established. I’ll wait on instructions. Please make sure Kate is there. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


February 10, 2194 E-LC transmission

21:32:01: Jim, it’s Mars. Great to hear from you. Listen: You really need to get to Kate. I’m very worried about her. She won’t tell me what’s wrong, but I’m sure it’s finally dawning on her that she won’t see you for 40 years. She’s shut out Archer, too, and they had been talking regularly. If you need to, send a double transmission this once. You know that I need you both strong. I’m going to clear the message buffer. Wait for her message and then reply. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]

12:45:03: James, I am so sorry to tell you this, but your father passed away. We’ve kept it very quiet because the press is still looking for every possible angle to write about you. They are horrible.

He died in his sleep. Maybe it was for the best, he was fighting so hard.

All I want to do is hold you and make you feel better, my love. I am so sorry. I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. I need to be strong for you and everyone around me. But I don’t know if I can handle it. It’s hard, James.

And then I think of you and feel guilty. So guilty.

I was at the funeral, and as they lowered your dad’s casket in the ground, I couldn’t help but think that it was like your ship. A metal casket taking you to some unknown beyond. I know that’s grim and sad and not true because I know I’ll see you again, but it won’t be for so long. [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


November 1, 2193—LC-E transmission

13:50:01: Kate, please don’t let everything overwhelm you. I am so thankful that you told me about Dad. To be very clear—I never expected to see him again. I know that sounds harsh, and I know he’s a tough old bird, but even he knew that his cancer wasn’t going to give him much time. We said our goodbyes.

I committed my life to this mission. I knew I’d have to leave my life behind and that things would be different when I returned.

This is so hard, because I will be responding to messages I’ve just seen that you sent weeks ago. So bear with me if you can’t remember what I’m talking about.

Yes, I will still find you beautiful. Yes, I will still want to feel you against me as we fall asleep. Yes, I will kiss you with the same passion as when I left, if not more. Yes, I will be there for you always.

Never doubt me, Kate. I don’t doubt you. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


February 10, 2194—E-LC transmission

12:57:56: I will be strong, James. How sad is this—I’m safe on Earth, and you’re in a dangerous ship sailing to an unknown planet in a far away solar system, and you’re trying to make me feel better. And you just lost your father. I’m ashamed. Mars said I had this one extra message and to make it count, but I don’t know what to say other than you inspire me, James. I miss you. ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 1, 2193—LC-E transmission

11:44:32: Smitty, Mars? What is going on? The messages have started to slow down. Is there something wrong? Everything is fine here. I’d wish you Happy Thanksgiving, but you’ve already celebrated Christmas and New Years. Still no problems on my end. Just a bit worried about you guys, actually. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


May 19, 2194—E-LC transmission

16:58:54: Jim, it’s Mars. I’ve been waiting to hear from you before giving you the bad news. As you’ve noticed, the QE link has become unstable. We’re not sure if it’ll hold up. We’ve cut transmission down to the bare minimum in the hope that the entanglement will restore itself, but I have to be honest, buddy. It doesn’t look good. I don’t know how many more messages we have, but we will most likely lose our link soon.

17:07:32: James, it’s Kate. I haven’t heard from you in over 3 months, but I just want you to know I’m not worried. Smitty told me we’ve seen instability in the link before, so I’m sure everything is fine. So ignore that and just tell me how your Thanksgiving went. Yes, I remembered!

General Marsden tells me we only have this one transmission, so I’ll just say that even if you don’t hear from me every day (or 5 times a day!) I’ll be with you. Love you so much, ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 1, 2193—LC-E transmission

13:03:54: I don’t know what to say, Kate. This is too much to think about. I don’t know if I can survive without hearing from you. As you said, they did have instabilities before. I have to be positive. Tell Mars that if he needs anything from me in the way of working on my half of the quantum pair, that I’ll do anything—anything—to get it stabilized.

I’m glad you remembered Thanksgiving. I haven’t been in space for a full year yet, and already it feels like ages. Hell, it’s been even longer for you. Okay, to be positive—tell Tony I’m proud of his promotion. He knows damn well that running the Mars line is the final step before getting a deep space mission, but tell him I mentioned it anyway. I hope to God he never gets a deep space mission, but don’t say that—he’ll never understand. Can anyone?

We’ll figure the com issue out, Kate. Just remember I love you. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. James [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


August 17, 2194—E-LC transmission

18:00:03: They are only giving me one message every month, James. I don’t know how often you’ll be getting them, but just know that as you wait for my next message I am still thinking of you. I know you’re figuring out what’s wrong. That’s what I love about you. I could always count on you. I’ll wait to hear what you have found out, but I have to tell you that General Marsden has told me that we have only a few messages left. He said that the quantum pair are spinning apart or the link is broken or something like that.

At home there isn’t much to report. Everyone is just a few months older and a few months wiser. The press are finally leaving me alone. I know I vent at you about them all the time, but they are vultures. Anyway, it’s better, thank God.

I don’t know what else to say, James. How sad is that? I have only one message a month for you, and I have nothing to say. I guess life goes on. Love you. ~Kate [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


December 31, 2193—LC-E transmission

11:44:34: Mars, you know what I’m going to say: This is total bullshit.  How can you guys fuck up something as simple as the comlink while a sail the size of the moon is working like a charm? Skipping messaging today to do live diagnostics on my transmission quanta. [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


September 23, 2194—E-LC transmission

13:04:03: Jim, I understand your anger. I’m so sorry. I got the final report from Ollie. The QE link is slowly breaking apart. How long we have I don’t know. The brainiacs are shocked we’ve kept it up this long. Anyway, we’ve given up on maintaining our transmission link with the LEWIS & CLARK and are just now trying to give you guidance on keeping your link alive. We don’t know if it’s the volume of messages, the rate of messages, or time that is breaking the link. Hell, the CERN guys think that it’s the distance, our particles are simply moving to a new, stronger entanglement. Anyway, I’m sure you don’t give a shit about this.

We are going to keep the link alive until it breaks apart. It may take a long time if we only send one message every few months. No one knows for sure.

Kate is calm. I don’t know what you’ve been saying to her, but keep it up. Everything else is normal. You’ll be back on Earth in another 40 years or so. And although I’ll be over 100 then, trust me, I’ll still able to beat you into shape. Mars [MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


January 30, 2194—LC-E transmission

12:04:04: Christ, the time difference is hard. Okay, I have some thoughts. I know the QE is untangling, but perhaps we can turn my transmission particle into a two-way link? Hell, just make it transmit from your side. I don’t need to talk, I just need to hear from you guys. You don’t know how hard it is to wait even a few days for a message.

Can the physicists work on that? I know it’s too late for this calibration, but I could spend the next one doing anything they needed me to do.

Mars, I hate to say this, but if that doesn’t work, perhaps we could turn the sail around? You know there is an abort plan in place with catastrophic failure. Damn, I can’t believe I’m writing that, but we need to get this fixed.

I’m worried about my link, so I’ll just add my message to Kate here.

Kate, please don’t worry! You know we have two links. Even if the one breaks down, we’ll fix the other one. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll turn this damn ship around. I’m not sailing into fucking space with nothing but a bunch of holos for company. Anyway [MESSAGE RECEIVED]


February 19, 2196—E-LC transmission

14:09:11: Jim, it’s Mars. My God, it was great to hear from you a few days ago. I’m sorry you haven’t heard from us in a long time. I told everyone to hold off and make one last try to get a message to you when you finally contacted us, and it has taken monumental calculations to get this message through. Nothing you are suggesting will work. Once the particles are entangled, we can’t make the kind of changes you are suggesting. Just keep your link alive so we can make sure you are okay.

I’m sorry, but this is the last message you’ll hear from us until you get back. I never said this, Jim, but you were the son I never had. So just be safe. I don’t think anyone else could do what you’re doing. I’m incredibly proud of you.

James, it’s Kate. I talked to Ollie and he said he can’t guarantee that the link won’t ever be back for short periods of time. So I will be sending you a message every day. Every day, James. You may never see them, but know they’ll be there floating in space. Just my messages to you. I love you and miss [WARNING: CHARACTER LIMIT REACHED—MESSAGE TRANSMITTED]


March 1, 2194—LC-E transmission

12:38:18: I will assume that my messages are going through, even though yours have stopped. So I am going to make this more like a monthly mission log than anything.

Sail calibration is normal. Acceleration is normal. Life support systems are normal. Everything is fucking normal.

I’ve watched about 40 holos this month. I liked BREAKDOWN. The woman in that reminded me of Kate. I’ve done some research on physics, but find it just as maddening as I did in college. I examined the abort system, even though Mars was kind enough to ignore my request to abort the mission, but I guess I’m too good a soldier to abort the mission without orders. So I sail on.

Kate, your final message inspired me, but it is so hard to sit here and just wait. And wait. And wait. I’ve kept the QE link from Earth open, even though nothing ever comes through. Still, I hope. And wait.

And wait.


Special thanks to Mike Brotherton, who provided invaluable assistance on the science in the story. Assistance can only go so far, however, and any errors are entirely due to the author.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Jake Kerr

Jake KerrJake Kerr began writing short fiction in 2010 after fifteen years as a music and radio industry columnist and journalist. His first published story, “The Old Equations,” appeared in Lightspeed and went on to be named a finalist for the Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. He has subsequently been published in Fireside MagazineEscape Pod, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology of humorous SF. A graduate of Kenyon College with degrees in English and Psychology, Kerr studied under writer-in-residence Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters.


29 Responses »

  1. Wow, this was a fantastic story. At first I didn’t like the premise very much, but it is an interesting idea…physics without the benefit of Einstein. Of course we would have tried space travel anyway…maybe moreso!

    This story plays with many complex and subtle ideas. I felt for all of the characters in a way that only a great writer can evoke.

  2. Top Notch! The weekly stories always entertain me, but this one is phenomenal. I have to say, I would have aborted the mission.

  3. Excellent. More please.

  4. AMAZING! The idea itself is great (Albert Who?), but the delivery and the characters really make it solid. You really don’t see many stories with a different format like this, and it’s great to read an author who can really pull it off.

  5. This was fantastic. Such an interesting way to tell the story and I was just pulled right in by the characters.

  6. Wow! What a story.

    I didn’t read the story above, but listened to the podcast. Initially, the time tags got me confused, but i correctly deduced that time dilation was involved in the story. About a quarter-way through, I restarted the audio file, and began taking notes myself.

    At a point, I just wanted to know if [a] Kate abandoned Jim [b] Jim went crazy [c] if Jim aborted the mission early [d] if Jim went ahead with the mission, and did return to earth.

    I was a bit disappointed by the ending, but there you go.

    P.S. Ever since I first heard Stefan Rudnicki’s voice in The Cassandra Project, I’ve been a faithful follower. He is a terrific voice actor, and makes boring stories sound great.

  7. For a story of depth and complexity, it’s actually a very simple insight. Well done.

  8. My new resolution is to start giving feedback and praise whenever I hear/read good stories. This thing knocked my socks off. The format really worked (kind of reminded me of twitter in an evil way): the pace was just perfect, the message size limit added so much tension, and then when quantum link got messed up, it was edge of your seat. I listened to the podcast while I was working and man, the reader’s voice was incredible at a drown-the-world-out volume. So hats off to Lightspeed, the author, and the narrator!

  9. Wow! I stumbled on this after showing my 11-year old son “The Cold Equations,” and this story is as worthy a successor to that one as anyone could ask – partly because it *doesn’t* end, but leaves the reader considering Jim’s fate as it’s still unfolding, out there somewhere. Well done!

  10. I just wanted to thank everyone for the kind comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave your thoughts.


  11. I really enjoyed this story, for pretty much all those reasons. Really well-written, draws the listener (I’m on the podcast) in to the character’s plight, the characters are real people.

    There was one part of my reaction that I’d like to pass on: whenever I see a story title like this one that plays off another story title (The Cold Equations), it’s usually attached to a story that’s either humourous, or at least fairly light. (‘Humourous’ or ‘light’ aren’t bad things in my book.) When I saw ‘The Old Equations’, that’s what I was kind of mentally cueing myself up for. So, a little cognitive dissonance on my part there.

  12. I had trouble getting past the idea that the scientists got all the way to a 10 year interplanetary manned mission before they noticed relativistic effects such as time dilation. We notice and compensate for this effect with our GPS system, so how could a society become so advanced to manipulate quantum pairing without even realizing that their theories didn’t adequately predict real-world events.

    Also the wife character bothered me because while she was allegedly prepared for a 10 year spousal absence, she started freaking out the first month. I think Jim was better off without her. Too bad he didn’t have windows on his ship.

  13. Wow! Loved this story. The narration was top notch.
    Looking forward to reading more stories from Jake Kerr.

  14. This story infuriated me. The conceit is obvious from the beginning, so listening to the excruciatingly long build up as the characters catch up with a concept any SF fan is thoroughly familiar with really made me yearn to find out how they resolved it. Which would have been great IF THEY HAD RESOLVED IT.

    I loves me some Stefan Rudnicki, and the other narrators did a fine job also, but the wife who goes from helpless and whiny to gung ho smartypants and back didn’t quite work for me either. That’s a minor quibble, which I could have easily gotten past if the story had anything even remotely like a satisfying resolution.

    I realize this is a personal pet peeve, but I literally spent some time shouting at my car stereo when I heard the music fade in signalling the end of the story, it irritated me that much.

    Lightspeed continues to be one of my favorite sources for audio fiction. This one just didn’t work for me, sorry.

  15. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment; sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy the story.

    I think the reason the story infuriated you is because you read it one way, but the author actually intended it another — basically, the story is character-driven, not plot-driven, but you seem to have read it as a plot-driven piece. The author *expects* the savvy reader to quickly pick up on what’s going on; the drama of the story is that the *characters* don’t know, and the tragedy that unfolds as they realize what’s going on and that there’s nothing they can do about it.

    In any case, that’s how I read it! I hope the next one works better for you.

  16. I thought the piece was fantastic. The conceit was delivered before the piece started with the encyclopedia entry; it’s a great exercise in dramatic irony. I’m curious whether the author considered having the guy in the space-ship relay the content of future messages (E-LC) back to earth in a way that would affect the course of events on earth.

  17. Just to provide a little balance to all the positive comments, I thought this was terrible — one of the worst SF stories I’ve ever read. I would be more emphatic and specific than that, but when I tried that my response was censored as “trolling.”

  18. I thought the story was great! I love taking a scientific premise (real or imagined) and playing out its impact on characters. Yes, I had a couple of wait-a-minute moments, but this is science fiction. I realize that a flawed (as far as we know) concept will hit harder on some readers than on others, but it sounds like a few of the above critiquers think you can’t write a “what-if” story if our current understanding of science says it’s not possible in the first place. That would condemn an awful lot of science fiction. I was a little let down by the ending, but all-in-all it’s a terrific read.

  19. On the occasion of this story’s being nominated for a nebula, I would like to offer this modest critique.

    I am sorely, sorely tempted to use language in the mode of the “Mr. Plinkett” reviews of the Star Wars prequels (“I [will] carefully explain how much of a f__king idiot you are…”), but I won’t. I shall restrain myself.

    As I started reading this story, I assumed it was a gag story. After all, the title is a small joke; a riff on the classic “The Cold Equations.” Ha ha. And immediately, in a prologue to the story, we get another little joke: In this alternate world, Einstein died young, and relativity went undiscovered for over 250 years. Ha Ha.

    But wait. It seems that some people don’t “get” that this is a joke. A few have noted that it might be a little unrealistic, while others just accept it as a neat premise. So allow me to explain what a f__king idiot — (Oh wait, I said I wasn’t going to do that). Allow me to explain why this is not a neat premise, nor even “unrealistic,” but rather a joke, plain and simple. It is a joke in the same sense that it would be a joke to say that if Isaac Newton had died young, the theory of universal gravitation would have gone undiscovered for 250 years. Only it’s more of a joke than that, because scientific progress runs at a vastly faster pace now than it did in Newton’s day. So let’s say that the theory of universal gravitation went undiscovered for a thousand years. Do you get the joke yet? Ha ha.

    I’ll explain a little further by running through some facts.
    Fact: Einstein was not solely responsible for the theories of relativity. For example, the Fitzgerald contraction, commonly thought of as being a special relativity effect, was not discovered by Einstein. That’s why it isn’t “Einstein contraction.” Einstein developed an overarching theory that encompassed the Fitzgerald contraction, but the Fitzgerald thing by itself was enough to let us know, before Einstein, that accelerating anything with volume to the speed of light was probably impossible.
    Fact: Relativity, like all fundamental theories in science, is not “optional.” You can’t just skip over relativity and go on without it, like it was just a boring “extra reading” chapter in your science textbook. Before Einstein, the Michelson-Morley experiment had come up bust, and something was needed to explain that, and to explain many, many other things that would be observed in the centuries after Michelson-Morley. The universe simply does not, can not, make sense without relativity.
    Fact: The effects of relativity are observable. And I don’t mean in some fancy, obscure, timey-wimey sense where if you do such-and-such an experiment and then to a lot of math and whatnot you will see this subtle little mismatch in your equations that can only be explained by relativity. Relativity can be observed in a particle accelerator that’s small enough to sit on a workbench. Accelerate some particles toward the speed of light… and hey: the increase in speed stops being proportional to the amount of power your bench-top accelerator is using. Instead, the mass of your particles is increasing. Gee, what’s up with that? And relativity is observable in plain old photographs of some distant galaxies, which appear smeared out into crescents or rings by the gravitational lensing effect of closer galaxies. And relativity is observable using the 1960s technology of atomic clocks and Earth-orbiting satellites. And relativity is observable by you, right now: Take a look at the GPS in your phone or car; does it work? It wouldn’t if the technology didn’t take special relativity’s time dilation into account.

    I’m aware of these facts (off the top of my head, without looking anything up) because I’m a bit of a physics buff. But any half-way literate reader of SF should know some of these things, and more importantly, should have enough of an idea of how science works to know that it doesn’t work the way this story’s premise pretends that it works.

    So with the prologue, the story (getting back to our story) is definitely a gag story. “Ha ha,” I thought as I read it, wondering what the punchline was going to be.

    Moving into the story proper, we have a young wife professing her love to her young husband. She loves him, she misses him, but “ten years is not so long.” Ha ha ha. Yes, this story is a gag story all right. A young couple, ostensibly in love, talking about a separation of ten years the way I would expect such a couple to talk about a separation of — say — ten days. Maybe ten weeks at the outside. A separation of ten weeks is still “I’m going to miss you so much” territory. Ten months, and you’re getting into the territory of tragedy. You don’t say “I will miss you so much,” because that would be like saying “ouch” as your leg is sawed off without anesthetic. Ten years… a separation of ten years for a young, in-love couple is in the realm of inconceivable — for human beings, that is. But we obviously aren’t talking about anything resembling human beings here. So it’s a gag story, with characters who act like no human beings would ever, ever, ever act. Ha ha.

    And mind you, we’re talking about a voluntary separation. Our loving husband just accepted the order to set off on this mission without so much as a “Wait — what?” So again we have silly, non-human caricatures of characters. Ha ha.

    And mind you, this is a solo mission. The clever folks in this story’s space program don’t see any problem with putting a man into solitary confinement for ten years. Not for one second do they ponder the likelihood that a man sent on such a mission would be about as sane as Daffy Duck and as useful to them as a puddle of curdled milk after the first year or two. So more non-human caricatures of characters acting like no human being would ever act. Ha ha.

    And mind you, these space-program folks are sending our intrepid hero out on his ten-year mission without even testing the technology of his spaceship on any kind of unmanned craft. So ha ha, etc.

    And mind you, when the high-school science of relativity comes out from behind the curtain and smacks these future scientists in the face and the mission starts to go sour, these space program folks don’t abort the mission. They just inform the loving couple that the wife is going to have to wait 41 years for hubby’s return, at which point he’ll only be five years older. And husband and wife collectively go “Oh darn it!” and that’s that. So, ha, etc., etc.

    But even before this last point in my reading of the story, the joke was getting stretched rather thin for me. After all, a gag story should be a short-short, right? Maybe a thousand words or less. Okay, so it’s a badly-written gag story; I still wanted to see what the punchline was going to be.

    And then… slowly, horribly, the realization came upon me:




    This isn’t a gag story. There is no punchline. All those ha-ha jokes weren’t jokes. The insipid, high-school-science-violating premise is meant to be taken seriously. The laughable, no-human-being-would-ever-act-this-way, caricature-characters were meant to be taken seriously.

    And just for a kicker, for the frosting on the cake, people like this story. It’s been nominated for a Nebula. OMG all over again. OMG squared. I guess that’s the punchline I was waiting for. Ha ha.

  20. KarlB, your comments are serious…….oh, I get it, they are a joke. Your comments are filed under “Quantum Entanglements”. Ha, ha, etc.

    Well, Ta Ta!

    I think this is a great story! Simple but progressively more complex as the tension between husband and wife develops. By the end, I had two thoughts – First, why didn’t he abandon the mission and turn around – but I guess that would have taken away from the focus of this character-driven story. Or is it a science lesson. Ha Ha. Oops, I regress.

    I hope this wins a Nebula – a great take on the original story line!

  21. Great news! They’ve repealed the law that requires you to either like everything you read or deliver a fifty-thousand word disquisition on its flaws! Go Congress!
    PS — I liked it. Nya.

  22. I liked the idea of the story and the structure. Not so keen on the wife. I’d have been tempted to have James free and single and focus on his feelings, and the scientists back at mission control scrambling around trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

    Still, it was an interesting idea, and it got me thinking about long term space missions and the impact on people both on the mission and back home. Personally, if my husband announced he was going on a 10 year mission, I’d be filing for divorce before he went. I highly doubt that any women who actually loved, or even liked, her husband would agree to a 10 year separation like this.

    One of two things would have made me like this story – a resolution, or more convincing characters.

  23. I have to agree with the nay-sayers in the bunch. It was just boring to me. The characters were OK, the story OK and the resolution OK.

  24. I got more out of reading the comments than the actual story.

    There were times of great tension, but then the story would go flat. Additionally, it’s terribly repeatative. Many of the transmissions say the say info over and over (where was the editor on that?)

    Finally, I agree there’s a lot of buildup for a disappointing payoff. I should be angry about the time I just committed to reading it, but in this instance learning to speed read paid off.

  25. For me, this fails as either a plot-, character- or idea-driven story. I found the characters difficult to swallow in a couple of ways (they behave inconsistently, and I have a hard time believing in these types of characters in these roles — wife who doesn’t understand the role of an astronaut’s wife, astronaut who doesn’t like physics, etc.). The central idea is kind of silly because, as KarlB points out, this is just not stuff that would be omitted or skipped-over — it’s kind of essential to the development of the technology they’re using to take this trip. (Also: Sails? What in the world are they sailing on, at relativistic speeds?) And in SF, if the ideas don’t work, the plot doesn’t work.

    I’m really having a hard time understanding what people like about this. I’d appreciate if people could get more specific and help me understand that. I’m seeing a lot of “I like it” and “this is a cool idea”, but I’m not seeing very many people explain what they like about it, or why they think it’s cool.

    • “I’m really having a hard time understanding what people like about this.”

      It’s simple: Sturgeon’s Law applies to readers, too.

  26. I like writers who push the envelope and are adventurous. SF is not an easy genre to write in. Not only do you have to suspend disbelief on the science but also must get the right pitch on the human part of the story. I like writers who try and put in the effort to get it right knowing that the reading demographic is broad with all sorts of extreme outlyers. For me, “Old Equations” is well worth the read, easily a 4 out of 5. It encourages you to read it all the way through to find out what the author has prepared to resolve the initial premise. And it stakes out real estate in your mind well after the reading with followup questions and ideas.
    Reviewers like me don’t have the same kind of challenge. I can spout all sorts of nonsense, not having to worry about internal consistency and flow or even grammar. And in this way I can influence others. But in reality, I am simply attaching to the first effort that is the author’s in the vain hope that some of the story’s shine reflects on my review.

  27. A good solid read. The premises fine, it makes sense in its own world (just not in ours). At first I wasn’t sure about the story structure, but in the end it worked really well. There was a certain poignancy about not being able to communicate directly. It worked as fiction foremost in my mind, I wanted to finish reading it. The lack of resolution is perhaps the best part- any sort of spelled out resolution would have seemed so pro forma. The point of the story had been made. Imho.

  28. Hmmm. “The Cold Equations” is a classic of the genre, and like this story, it contains rock-solid physics and rock-stupid engineering/design (forget the mess with relativity; what about the message client that automatically truncates-and-sends once you reach a certain number of characters?).

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