a short story
Copyright © 1996 by
Sean Michael Ragan
I first conceived of the scenario for this story in 1995 while I was still at the University of Texas at Dallas. I played with the story for many years, and am still not entirely satisfied with the results. I have written several versions. This one is probably the best and most concise. It was awarded the 3rd place prize for fiction in the UT English Department's Spring 1999 writing contest.
There once was a great ship sailing the seas of space on a long, long journey. The people on board would live out their entire lives and die within it. Their fathers and mothers had done the same. So had their grandfathers and grandmothers, and their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, and so on back for fifteen generations.
Physically the ship was like nothing so much as an enormous football, spinning slowly about its long axis as it hurtled forward through space. The crew lived on the inside surface of the ball, so that its spinning motion provided them with gravity. The interior living area was very much like the surface of the planet they'd left behind, with soil and trees and rivers and houses and sidewalks and, high above everyone's head right on the long axis of the ship, a cylinder of burning plasma which served as a sun, giving warmth and light to grow plants.
Everyone on board had an important job to do. Some of them produced food in big tanks full of chemicals. Some of them maintained the great banks of computers which held copies of all the books ever printed before they left their world, and copies of all that anyone on board had written since. Some of them worked deep in the sooty bowels of the ship, tuning its working parts. Some of them apprehended criminals. Some of them sold tea and coffee in little patioed shops along the walkways. But everyone had something important to do, and they were all more or less content, because they were all in the same boat, headed for the same place, working to the same end.
And because all their jobs were essential, it was usual for every growing child to be apprenticed in the trade of his or her father or mother, to learn it well, and to take over his or her parent's position when the parent became too old to work anymore. This was done to insure that all the important jobs, which had been decided on way back in the beginning of the voyage, would always get done, tomorrow or two-thousand years from now.
Now, there was one man on board this ship who had what was possibly the most important job of all. He sat high up in a chair in a big ball-shaped room near the front of the ship and made sure that the ship stayed on course. All over the inside walls of the room were screens that showed what was going on outside the ship. The effect was such that, when this man, the Navigator, sat high up in his throne and looked around at the walls of his chamber it was as though he were perched right out on the nose of the ship, looking around at space itself.
But even though his job was very important, there really wasn't that much to do. The ship had been set on course and brought up to speed many hundreds of years ago, and because there is no friction in space it would continue on its way along a straight course until they got where they were going and fired the engines again to slow down. Once a year the Navigator had to stand up before the Grand Council--a meeting where all the Ship's administrators got together and talked about their concerns--and assure them that the ship was still on course. Other than that, though, he didn't have much to do but sit up in his ball-shaped room every day and read some old books on his computer screen.
And that was mostly how he spent his time. He sat in the ball-shaped room against the backdrop of the stars and read the best books of his home-world by the light of a phosphorescent screen. Every so often he would stop his reading and look out across the stars on the walls and think. No one saw him do this, of course, because the ball-shaped room where he spent most of his life was the most secret of all the secret places on the ship. But had someone been there, watching him, every so often they might have seen his face wrinkle up, his brows furow, and the corners of his mouth turn down just a bit, like he'd had to swallow something that didn't taste very good.
But he'd been doing his job for more than thirty years, and these moments didn't come very often anymore. He was growing old, he knew, and soon he would reach the age at which he would be allowed to retire, if he wanted to, and pass the job on to his son. He very much wanted to. He was tired of sitting in the ball-shaped room for hours at a time, tired of looking out at the same stars in all the same spots every day (they had moved only a few inches across the wall in his lifetime), and tired of reading all the time. He wanted to be able to get up in the morning and stay at home and maybe plant a vegetable garden.
So as the day of his retirement approached, he began bringing his son, who was now a young man, with him to the hidden ball-shaped room in the front of the ship. The tradition was that no one who was not or had not been the Navigator could know the secret way to the ball-shaped room, and so the Navigator had to blindfold his son and lead him by the hand each time they went there together.
The first time he had taken the blindfold off and seen the stars floating all around and so far away from him, the Navigator's son had screamed and shut his eyes and clutched into the arms of the chair until his fingers hurt. After all, he'd never had to look more than a few hundred yards to see anything in his whole life. Until that moment, he hadn't imagined that anything could be that far away.
"It does take a while to get used to," his father had said, rubbing the boy's shoulders and thinking how long it'd been since the sight of these stars had moved him to anything but boredom.
Eventually, however, the Navigator's son overcame his space-sickness, and could sit down and stand up and even walk around on the little platform which supported the chair without feeling like he was falling into space. He began to enjoy his visits to the ball-shaped room with his father. Looking out across the space that surrounded him, he felt a strange feeling in his stomach like he was flying, like he'd been chained to a rock all his life and now, suddenly, was free.
"See that little star there?" his father said to him one day, pointing out toward the front of the ship. "That's Promise. That's where we're going."
The young man stared at the spot on the wall for a long, long time.
"Of course," his father added, "We won't get there for another two-thousand years. But that's where we're going."
Day by day, the old man showed his son the how-tos and where-fors of being the Navigator. He showed him how to use the special computer controls to zoom in on certain stars, how to alter the perspective so that he was looking back behind the ship, instead of out in front of it ("See that little dot? That's where we came from."), and how to access the library computer to find good books to read when things got slow. Each time his father taught him something new, the young man nodded his head dutifully and stored it away in his memory.
Several days went by like that, with his father showing him interesting and amusing things he could do with the little computer console in front of the chair. But as time passed, the young man began to grow curious about something. One day, when his father had shown him nothing new and had simply stood there, behind him, for the better part of an hour while he flipped through a book on the computer screen, he decided to ask about it.
"Haven't you forgotten to show me something?" he asked, turning off the computer-book and turning the chair around to face his father. The older man looked at him with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Like what?" he asked, smiling a little.
"Like how do I check the ship's course? That is the most important thing I have to do, right?"
As soon as the words were out the young man began to regret asking. His father's face had kind of wrinkled up when he said them. His brows furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned down. Maybe he wasn't supposed to ask. Maybe his father wasn't allowed to tell him, yet. Maybe it was tradition, like the blindfold.
"Oh, that," the old man said. "We'll talk about that later."
The Navigator's son accepted that and tried to forget about it.
The weeks passed, and, soon, the day of his father's final Grand Council, when he would give his last course report and announce his retirement, was coming up shortly. As the day approached, the Navigator's son became more and more anxious about the procedure for checking the course. Could it be that the old man had simply forgotten about it? Because of the reaction he'd gotten last time, he was reluctant to ask again.
Besides, he thought, my father will have to check the course before he gives his report to the Council, and I can just watch him then to see what he does. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to work, anyway. Maybe that's the tradition.
However, on the very day before the Grand Council, the young man still had not seen his father do anything that could even possibly be checking the course, and he felt he could wait no longer. He had no intention of stepping into the role of Navigator without at least once having seen how the most important job he had to do was done.
"Father," he said, turning on him in the chair again, "don't you have to check the ship's course before the Council tomorrow?"
His father had been staring out across the room at the little point on the forward wall that was their destination. He blinked when he heard the question and turned to face his son.
"What did you say?" he asked, sounding distracted.
"The course heading," his son insisted. "Don't you have to check the course heading before you give your report tomorrow?"
"Oh, that," his father said, looking down at something near his feet. "That's mostly a formality, really."
The young man blinked in surprise. "A formality? What do you mean? That's the most important job on the ship."
"Well," the old man explained, his voice wavering a bit. "It doesn't really matter that much."
The young man was quiet for a moment.
"How can you say that?" he asked, finally.
His father shrugged and turned to examine a starboard nebula, leaning way out over the railing. It was a moment or two before he spoke again. When he did, his words echoed strangely off the concave walls of the chamber.
"The ship doesn't have enough fuel for a course correction."
His son said nothing, so the old man went on.
"If we burn any fuel to correct the heading, we won't have enough to keep the sun lit all the way to Promise."
There was a long silence.
The Navigator's son didn't know quite what to do. Part of him felt like crying, part like screaming, and part of him just didn't want to hear anymore, wished he'd never asked in the first place. But the strongest part of him could not let it go.
"You're telling me that the ship is off course and we have no way to corect it?" he asked, his voice low and even.
"No," his father responded, voice cracking. "I'm telling you that I don't know if the ship is on course or not."
All at once, the young man understood what was going on.
"You've never checked it, have you?" he asked abruptly.
The old man turned around and his face was streaked with tears. The next words out of his mouth were soft and pleading--almost a whimper.
"Would you want to be the only one who knew?"
To this the young man made no reply. Something had turned over in his stomach, and he'd had to shut his eyes, and dig his fingers into the arms of his chair, to ward off the sensation of falling.