I caught her.
The doctor gave me a textured blue wrap. Frannie looked alarmed and said, “No, no, skin—skin-to-skin, I want skin-to-skin,” and the doctor assured her that this was only for me, so that I wouldn’t drop her. I lost track of what I was supposed to feel, and I bent over the bed, only dimly aware of Frannie’s feet near my head, her toes splayed wide as she fought. I heard her scream like I’d never heard her do anything before. It was primal, and I felt like a hunter on the savannah, standing over my kill, like a warrior, head thrown back and the taste of blood in my mouth.
And then she came to me, like a child on a water slide into my arms, slippery and dark and blue, and I caught her, and her tiny face looked like the wrinkles of my knee, almost featureless in her surprise, and she bawled rapidly. She pierced my heart and my ears with her cries, and a nurse clamped and clipped the cord, and I carried her to Frannie and laid our daughter on her breast.
She wailed and clung to her mother, her tiny fingers opening and closing against Frannie’s skin, and Frannie breathed heavily and said, “Elle.”
I didn’t want to look away from either of them—Frannie dripping with sweat, her hair in damp rings on her face, and Elle, pushing against her mother’s skin like a fresh piglet—but the movement at the door caught my eye, and I did, I looked up, and for the rest of my life I wished that I hadn’t.
Frannie saw, and looked, too.
The man in the doorway smiled regretfully, and waggled his fingers at me, and nodded.
I met Frannie’s dark eyes, and watched the tears well up, and I felt my heart pull out of my chest and stay behind in that beautiful room, the most wonderful place that had ever been made. I kissed Frannie, but she kissed me back, harder, and then I nuzzled Elle’s tiny soft ear with my nose, and kissed her head everywhere, and her small hands. I would have stayed in the room forever if I could have.
But I followed the man out of the room, my ears ringing with sadness, an enormous hole in my head and my heart, and that was that. We both knew that it had to happen, but we pretended it wasn’t going to. And then it did.
I followed his dark suit through the hospital corridor. I couldn’t feel my hands. My feet moved on their own.
He said something, but I don’t know what it was.
We stepped out of the building and into the light, and the cold wind turned my tears to ice.
Elle taps the camera, and I watch her fingertip, large enough to crush worlds, grow dark and obscure my view. I laugh, and she giggles, and this makes her laugh harder, and then she begins to hiccup wildly. She rocks back on her bottom and puts her hands on the floor behind her, and reclines and stares at me, hiccuping and laughing, and I laugh with her.
“You’re silly,” I say to her. “Silly, silly Elle.”
She babbles at me, and in the stream of muddled sounds I hear something that sounds like a-da, and I say, “Frannie!”
Frannie turns the camera on herself, and her smile is big and bright and threatens to push her eyes off of her face. “We’ve been working on it all week,” she says. “She can’t quite make the d sound work, so all we’ve got is ada-ada, except, you know, it’s more like atha, atha.”
I turn away from the camera and wipe at my eyes.
“Daddy’s crying,” Frannie says. I look back to see her turn the camera to Elle, who thinks this is hilarious. She pats her round tummy and laughs harder, and then the hiccups take over in a big way, and a moment later Elle burps up breakfast.
“Oh, uh-oh! Uh-oh!” Frannie sing-songs, and she says to me, “We’ll be right back, Daddy!” and puts the camera down.
I watch Frannie’s feet, then she scoops up Elle and whisks her out of frame.
I sigh and push off of the wall and turn in a slow flip, waiting.
Sarah comes in through the research wing hatch and sees the camera and says, “Oh, shit—I mean—oh, goddammit, I—fuck! Shit.”
I laugh at her and tell her it’s fine. “Elle spit up,” I say. “Commercial break.”
Her face relaxes. “Whew. Okay. I don’t want to corrupt your little girl or anything.”
“Did I forget to flip the sign?”
Sarah turns around and leans out of sight. “Well—nope, no, you did,” she says, leaning back in and holding up the little handwritten recording sign. “I wasn’t even looking, I guess.”
“What did you need?”
She looks around, scatter-brained, gathering her thoughts. Then Frannie comes back into the room with Elle, singing a bit, and she sees Sarah on the display and says, “Sarah! Hi!”
Sarah looks up at the screen and smiles sheepishly. “Hi, Francine,” she says.
“Everything okay?” Frannie asks me.
“Everything’s fine,” I say.
“I was—I shouldn’t be in here,” Sarah says, making a slow turn towards the hatch. “I’m sorry. Nice to see you, Francine.”
“Bye, Sarah,” Frannie says. She lifts Elle’s small hand and flaps it at the camera. “Say ‘Bye, Sarah!’”
“Bye, sweetie,” Sarah says, then shakes her head at herself and looks at me. “Really, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I should’ve checked first.”
“Not a big deal,” I say, and then Sarah floats back into the research module and presses the hatch shut behind her.
“It’s not like we were having phone sex,” Frannie says, chuckling. “Make sure she knows it’s fine.”
I look at the readout beside the screen. “Time’s up anyway,” I say.
Frannie’s frown is adorable. “Oh, I’m sorry, dear,” she says. “We wasted so much time cleaning Elle up—I’m so sorry.”
I smile, but I know it’s a sad smile, and I know Frannie can tell. “Kiss her for me,” I say.
Frannie kisses Elle, a big playful smooch that sets Elle’s giggles off again.
“Love,” I say.
“Love,” Frannie answers, and then she squeezes Elle and coos, “Love! Love!”
The screen goes dark, and I sigh, and look around the module. It’s cramped and small, but it’s private, at least until Sarah bumbles in again. I point my hands at the floor and push off with my feet, just enough to reach the lights, and I snap them off. The module goes pitch-black, and then my eyes adjust to the faint light from the porthole. And then I cry, the way I always do. The tears stick to my face like film, and when I’ve cried enough to feel better, I sop them up with my sleeve, and turn on the lights, and get back to work.
• • • •
This is the way it has to be.
I was already in the program when Frannie and I met. She sometimes asked me that awful, difficult question: Would I have signed up for this if we’d already been married? And I tell her no, of course I wouldn’t, but I would have. I still would have. Some things are important, and then some things resonate through history like a bell, and this is one of those resonant things, being here, aboard the Arecibo, crawling through the night.
Then Frannie got pregnant, despite our best efforts and multiple contraceptives, and my answer to that question softened.
When I caught Elle that morning in the hospital room, I knew that it had changed. Frannie saw it on my face, I think, though we have never talked about it since then. But she knew that my heart had changed, and by noticing that, she learned that my earlier answers had been kind lies.
We are a crew of seven, with the simplest of orders.
See what’s out there.
So that’s what we’re doing.
We’ve all left something behind.
It isn’t easy for any of us.
We are martyrs.
I think of Elle’s bright eyes and her shock of blonde hair, and I wonder what it would feel like to hold her, that hair tickling my face as she falls asleep on my shoulder.
I would hold her for hours and hours and never grow tired.
It wouldn’t matter to me if my arms fell off.
Every day I grow heavier with regret.
Every day I hate my younger, star-crossed self a little more.
• • • •
Sarah is the scientist. Introverted, awkward, a little odd.
Then there’s Mikael, our technician. We wanted to call him an engineer, but he prefers spaceship guy. As in, “Hey, spaceship guy, the wing just fell off.”
Stefan and Heidi are the pilots. Heidi has a secondary specialty—she’s the shrink.
I’m the communications guy.
Walter is the physician and nutritionist. Edith is the researcher.
They are all quite nice.
We have a pact among us—an unwritten one, one that the WSA probably figured would happen but did not write into our training manuals, or account for during our isolation boot camp in Antarctica—that anybody can sleep with anybody else, and nobody will be jealous, and that our families on Earth will never know. It was Walter’s suggestion. Heidi thought it was a marvelous idea, and would reduce tension. So far I think Mikael and Edith have been together, and Walter and Stefan, and the plan has held water. But I think soon someone will feel bad, and then things will be strange.
I told Frannie about the pact. It was our first video chat. She thought it made sense, and told me that she couldn’t begrudge me for taking part.
“Sarah seems nice,” Frannie had said.
“I don’t want to sleep with anyone else,” I told Frannie. “I miss you.”
“Be practical,” Frannie said. “We’re talking about the rest of your life here. You aren’t a monk. You shouldn’t be.”
Heidi approached me a few days later. I said no, and she wasn’t upset or embarrassed. I didn’t tell Frannie. I don’t know why I didn’t.
• • • •
We have all left something behind, somehow. We talk about these things, about our families and lovers, as if it will somehow ease the pain of it all. Mikael had just met his birth parents for the first time. He thinks it would have been easier to never have met them, but Walter thought that it was better to know. “Now you won’t spend the rest of your life wondering about it,” he said to Mikael once.
Heidi has a husband and two children. They’re in college. Her husband writes novels. She thinks that he’ll be happier alone. She doesn’t talk about her children. Each of us keeps something for ourselves, and doesn’t talk about it.
I am just like a new father on Earth. Each time Frannie sends me a video of Elle doing something new, I show everyone. Stefan seems the most enthusiastic about her progress. Edith always watches and nods, and then goes back to what she was doing before. I don’t care. I sometimes wonder if I must share Elle with everybody so that everybody will recognize the enormity of my personal loss. I told Heidi that during one of our sessions, once.
Heidi said, “Is that what you think?”
Of all of them, Sarah is the closest to a friend for me. She seems to like Frannie, and that makes me like Sarah more. I like that she doesn’t talk much, that she prefers to be alone. I like that she considers me the next best thing to being alone.
Sarah seems nice.
Sometimes I think about it.
• • • •
Elle gets bigger and bigger. Frannie and I celebrate Elle’s birthdays every month, to make up for the many I will miss. The WSA permits only two communications per week, and I look forward to them as much as I did to my own birthdays as a child.
I miss every first.
Frannie will wait for my call, then excitedly tell me that Elle has started walking, that she had her first solid food, that she said her first word. Elle demonstrates all of these things for me, but I feel like one of my shipmates—not a parent, but an audience. I cry every time. The emptiness between us feels incalculably large, larger every time we talk. I see Elle’s eyes change from blue to green, her chubby cheeks become slim, her hair fall to her shoulders. She wears the clothes of an adult—pretty sweaters and thick tights and patent shoes, and I feel a terrible fear seize me when I realize what is coming.
Frannie sees it in my face. She doesn’t know what to say. She only says, “We love you more than anything.” She means it, but I can feel the helplessness behind her words.
The inevitability of the Arecibo launch hung over our pregnancy like a pall, like a storm that grew darker and more ominous every day.
But it is nothing like the storm that approaches now.
• • • •
“The WSA has mandated special counseling sessions for each of you,” Heidi says over breakfast a few days later. “Now, I’m inclined to agree—but I’d like you all to tell me if you prefer them to be one-on-ones, or if you would consider a group session.”
She studies everyone’s faces, and when nobody speaks, she adds, “I think a group session would be more productive.”
Everybody dreads the Long Sleep, as they’ve been calling it. Walter says it’s not exactly a Sleep. “It’s a dark age,” he says. “Literally, it’s the Dark Age.”
Heidi looks around the room and says, “Right. Okay. A group session.”
• • • •
Sarah sits beside me. We’re all gathered at the dining table in the galley. There aren’t many chairs aboard the Arecibo that aren’t attached to consoles, so the galley was the default choice. One by one the crew floats in and buckles themselves into a seat at the table. Heidi comes in and sits down and says, “Who are we missing?”
“Edith,” Mikael offers.
“Is she coming?” Heidi asks.
Mikael shakes his head. “She doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Heidi sighs, and thinks about this, then says, “All right. We’re on our own out here, folks. WSA can’t really do anything to you. Does anybody else want to skip this?”
Silence, and then Stefan unbuckles and leaves. Mikael shrugs apologetically, then follows.
We watch them go.
“So,” Walter says cheerily.
Heidi smiles at him and I wonder if they’ve slept together.
“The Long Sleep,” Heidi says.
“The Dark Age,” Walter contradicts.
“Whatever. How do you all feel? Who wants to talk about it first?”
I begin to cry immediately.
Sarah pats my knee beneath the table, then leaves her hand there, and I feel my skin flush hot.
Sarah seems nice.
“Maybe this should really be mandatory,” Walter suggests.
• • • •
Frannie is exhausted. She’s alone on the screen, her eyes rimmed red. Her hair is disheveled, and she’s wearing her pajamas.
“Frannie?” I ask.
She tells me about her day—Elle has been throwing tantrums, but it’s because she has a fever, Frannie thinks, so she’s trying to remain as patient as she can, but it’s wearing her down. Elle hasn’t slept more than a half-hour for two days. “Can you hear her?” Frannie asks.
“Yes,” I say. The sound of my daughter crying hundreds of thousands of miles away is wrenching. I want to go to her. I want to pick her up and hold her close and say, “It’s okay, Daddy’s here.” I want her to snuggle close and sniffle herself to sleep in my arms.
Frannie says, “It’s so hard,” and she cries.
“Fran,” I say, leaning close to the camera. “Darling.”
“I’m so alone,” she says.
I strap myself into my bunk that night and think about my sins.
I have abandoned them.
I hate myself.
I unstrap and go to Heidi.
“What if I killed myself?” I ask her.
• • • •
The Long Sleep, the Dark Age. One hundred forty-four years of hibernation sleep. Autopilot. Essential systems and life support only. Seven people, quietly stored in airtight sleeves in a module with countless system redundancies. Heart rates slowed and monitored. Data transmitted daily back to Earth, for a long slow journey to the WSA’s computers for analysis and modulation.
“Well, you shouldn’t do that,” Heidi says.
“Tell me why,” I demand. I’m crying. I’m the most unstable person on the Arecibo, I think.
“Because your wife and daughter would know,” Heidi says.
She doesn’t have to say another word.
But she does.
“If you want to kill yourself when we wake up,” Heidi says, “then at least you won’t hurt them.”
• • • •
The possibilities are impossible to predict. The WSA and our native governments have put in place a series of treaties and contingencies, and written a strange new constitutional document that will take effect should any one of those bodies no longer exist when we wake up. A lot can happen in a century and a half. We might wake to find that the WSA has lost its funding. There might have been wars. Earth could have been destroyed by a meteor. Or it might have evolved into a technological utopia. The cure for death might have been discovered, in which case our families might survive to see us again.
But nobody knows for sure.
Frannie says, “What am I supposed to do?”
“What do you mean?”
Elle sits on Frannie’s lap, playing with a toy I don’t recognize, a plush character from a children’s show, and it strikes me again that I am left out of even Elle’s tiniest experiences. Does she hold that doll close when she sleeps? Is it her favorite?
“Am I supposed to be alone for the rest of my life, too?” she asks.
I don’t know what to say to her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.”
“I’m an asshole,” I say.
Her eyes widen and she looks in Elle’s direction, then back at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Elle, ignore Daddy.”
Frannie turns the camera to Elle’s face. “Say night-night to Daddy,” she says.
My beautiful daughter looks up and smiles and says, “Nigh-nigh, Daddy.”
Frannie turns the camera back to her own lovely face and says, “I’m sorry. Don’t worry about us. We’re going to be just fine. We love you.”
“I love you, too,” I say, and kiss my fingers and hold them up to Frannie’s.
• • • •
Sarah is in the research module when I come out.
“I thought everyone was asleep,” I say.
She shrugs. “Sorry. Sometimes I can’t sleep. Are you okay?”
I touch my face. My skin is tight. “I was crying,” I say. “I’m fine.”
“You’re a sweet man,” Sarah says to me.
“I wanted to kill myself.”
She smiles sadly. “We all do.”
I float past her and go through the hatch to our sleeping quarters, and then I turn and look back at her.
“I’m putting her through so much,” I say. “It’s inhuman. I can’t think of anything worse.”
“I can think of lots worse,” Sarah says. “But Frannie’s wonderful. She’ll be okay. She’ll find someone.”
I look down.
“You have to let her do that,” Sarah says. “You’re not really hers any more. She’s not really yours.”
“I don’t know what it feels like to be in your skin,” she says. “But maybe it helps if you think of them as a story that you’re watching. Like on television.”
“I’m going to miss every episode,” I say.
She nods. “But you’ll know the ending tomorrow.”
I can’t help it. I cry. The thought of my family growing up, growing old, dying—and that all of it will happen while I’m asleep—feels like someone has grabbed my ribs and is spreading them apart, pulling as hard as a body can be pulled. It feels like I’m going to come apart, and I double over involuntarily.
Sarah is there, then, and she holds me and we wobble in zero gravity together. She puts her hand on my face, and my tears crawl from my skin to hers.
“You won’t lose everything,” she whispers. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
• • • •
The last conversation with Frannie is surreal.
She is wearing the bulky sweater that I liked, the one with the neck that is wide enough for her shoulder to peek through. I stare at her skin and try to remember what it felt like to touch it. I try to remember her smell. I can’t.
Elle is wearing a beautiful sundress and yellow rain boots. “Boots!” she cries, pointing at them.
“Boots,” I agree, trying not to cry again.
Frannie smiles with shining eyes as Elle runs to her toy chest and picks up a building block, then brings it to the camera.
“Block!” she says. Her eyes are big and she bites her lip, waiting for me to understand.
“Block,” I say, nodding.
I wish that I could stack the blocks with her into a great big prison cell, and stay inside of it forever with her. I watch her run to the toy chest. She puts the block down and picks up a squeaky giraffe.
“Raffe!” she says, displaying it to the camera.
“Giraffe,” I say.
“Elle, honey,” Frannie says as Elle runs back to her toys. “Daddy has to go in a minute. Can you say goodbye? Can you tell him how much you love him?”
I cannot hold back my tears. I suck in deep breaths and stare longingly at the Earthbound room and my girls inside of it.
“I miss you, Ellie,” I choke out.
“Daddy misses you,” Frannie says.
Elle comes back to the camera and holds up a stuffed pig. “Piggie!” she cries.
I nod like a fool, and she runs away again. Frannie snatches her up and brings her back to the camera, and Elle kicks in protest, and Frannie looks at the camera with a terrible fear in her eyes and says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, she’s—”
The digital counter beside the screen runs out, and the screen goes dark.
• • • •
Heidi and Walter see to us all, one by one. Walter will be the last into the units, as the ship’s doctor.
He stands in front of me, adjusting the monitoring belt. He is close enough that I can feel his breath. He smells like coffee. He smiles at me and says, “It’s going to be a pleasant dream. Okay?”
I nod and look away, uncomfortable at his closeness.
Heidi comes by next, after attending to Sarah, who will be in the sleeve beside mine.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I am tired of crying. I feel as if I have cried a thousand years.
“The first thing Walter’s going to do is adjust the gas compounds in your sleeve,” she says. “There’s a light neuro-sedative in the mix. You’ll feel relaxed and care-free.”
“I don’t want to sleep,” I say.
“We all have to,” she says.
“I’ll stay awake. I’ll watch over the ship, make sure everything runs fine. I’ll make sure you’ll all be okay.”
“The ship can do that for itself,” Heidi says. She leans closer and kisses my forehead. “You are going to be all right. When you wake, we’ll talk. Okay?”
I think about Heidi’s family. “What about your kids?” I ask. “Don’t you care about them?”
She is unruffled by my tone. “My boys will be fine,” she says.
“They got to know their mom,” I say bitterly.
Heidi’s smile is kinder than I deserve. “Let me help you inside,” she says.
• • • •
Inside the sleeve is a slim, curved screen. It is fixed to the thick polyglass before my eyes, and it displays a simple message.
You are humanity’s finest, it says. We wish you godspeed and long lives. Make us all proud.—WSA, Earth
The message disappears, replaced by something new.
Hey. Look left.
I frown, then turn my head.
Sarah waves at me in the clear sleeve next to mine. She says something, but I can’t hear her, and I shake my head. I mouth, “I can’t hear you.”
She points at the screen in front of her face. I understand, and look back at mine.
The message reads, We can talk until we fall asleep.
Then another line: It’s voice-activated. Just talk.
I say, “Hi.”
I look over at Sarah—weird, strange Sarah—and she smiles.
“You’re too happy,” I say.
You’re the saddest person I’ve ever met.
“I should be,” I say back. “I’m a monster.”
Will you be okay?
I hear a dim hissing sound, and outside the sleeve Walter waves at me, then gives me a thumbs-up. He folds his hands beside his face and mimes falling asleep. I nod blankly at him, and then he moves on.
It smells sweet.
I sniff the air. “I don’t want it.”
I know you’re scared. You’re a good man.
“I’m not. I’m not a good man.”
You’re not really the best judge of character. Your own, I mean.
“Sarah,” I say, feeling the drift of the gases. “I’m terrified.”
It will be over before you know it.
“That’s what I mean. When I wake up, my little Elle—“
She will be proud of her daddy. What do all the other dads do that’s so special?
“She’ll hate me,” I say. “She’ll die thinking I left her, that I didn’t love her.”
I stare at the screen. To my left, Sarah is drifting.
I say, “Record a message.”
• • • •
I hope with all of my heart that this message comes through. Maybe the WSA will see it and make sure. I hope so.
We’re going to sleep now. It’s about to happen—I already feel woozy. I’m sorry. This is my last message and I’m going to sound like a drunk. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—
Frannie, my dear, my sweet wife. I have loved you since I met you. I wish that I could hold you forever, but I can’t—I have to let you go. Be happy. Fill your days with love. Fill Elle’s.
Elle, sweetheart—I’m going to cry, I’m sorry—Elle, there is nothing—I—oh, god, I’m drifting, it’s happening—
I hold you always.
I am—I am always—
• • • •
The message ends, and I blink away tears.
“Stupid,” I whisper to myself. “I didn’t say anything at all.”
Sarah is wrapped in a white blanket beside me. Her eyes are wet, too.
“You said everything,” she says. “Everything.”
We sit in shock around the table with the others. Each of us leans on another.
Heidi looks the worst, as if she can’t believe it’s real. “My pretty boys,” she whispers.
The table is lit from within, a soft bone-blue glow like a ghost, which is exactly what it is. Before each of us are the messages we sent to our families and loved ones—except for Stefan’s. He presses his palms hard to his eyes. Walter rubs his back.
“I didn’t know,” Stefan rasps, his voice tired from the years of sleep.
“He didn’t send any messages,” Sarah whispers.
I nod. What a terrible feeling for his family on Earth—to wait for his message, to see reports of the others and their final letters, and to never receive their own.
A gentle tone sounds, and I look down at the table.
2,783 messages retrieved.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“You’re the communications specialist,” Mikael says.
• • • •
The sum total of missives sent to the Arecibo from Earth following our entry into the Long Sleep. Most are reports from the WSA—status updates on major events. It is an otherworldly feeling, thumbing through them and seeing tiny bites of history. They read like fictions: North Korea. Nuclear detonation. Dissolved democracy. It’s like reading an alternate history, a science fiction novel.
The WSA is gone, we learn. The World Space Association was disbanded in 2142—“They couldn’t have waited until we woke up?” Walter asks—which explains the dead air on the networks.
The United States is gone as well.
“All empires fall,” says Heidi, but she says it in a haunted voice.
The rest of the messages are personal ones.
Sarah has dozens from her parents. Heidi’s boys have recorded hours of video—she is a grandmother. Each of the crew has countless messages. Stefan has many, and this seems to cheer him.
I have one.
• • • •
It’s a video.
I don’t recognize her at first. Her blonde hair is brown now, her green eyes steady. She is outdoors, at a picnic table. The sky is pink behind her—dawn over the trees. She’s backlit, partially in rose-colored shadow. She stares into the camera, and opens her mouth once, then twice, as if she isn’t sure where to begin. A nervous smile, and I see her then: I see her mother in her upside-down smile, the smile that should by all rights be a frown but isn’t. I see myself in her eyes. She is older than I am now.
Nine hours of video.
“Daddy,” she says, looking straight into the camera. Her voice is strong and a little scratchy, like her mother’s.
I remember her wrinkled pink skin, her insignificant weight in my hands. Her strange smell, her little fish mouth gasping at the air.
Her tiny fingers, opening, closing.
A tear slides down her cheek. I am struck by her beauty and how much of an adult she has become. I have so many questions for her, and I will never be able to ask any of them.
“I hold you always,” she says, repeating my own confused words back to me.
Her tears spill over, and so do mine, my long sleep over, my dark age turned to light.