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I was eleven years old when the Earth burned.

I can still remember Papa running into the hotel room on the space station, screaming. What he said, exactly, I can’t recall. But there was fear in his eyes when he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. He did the same with my little sister, Irenka, and then he was back out the door—both of us bouncing across his deltoids like sacks of potatoes.

Papa didn’t stop for luggage, nor any of our toys.

Not even my special chair.

I remember the curved corridor being filled with adults: screaming, fighting, and yelling.

One of them got in Papa’s path, and Papa literally kicked the man out of the way.

Papa had never hurt another human being in his whole life.

Irenka, who was just four, kept calling for Mama. But Mama had been at a conference on the other side of the station, and we didn’t see her anywhere.

I kept thinking about my chair. If whatever was happening was bad enough for Papa to forget my expensive new chair, then it was really, really bad.

When we got to the hatch for the ship, there were big people with guns and they wouldn’t let Papa onboard.

Papa yelled at them. They yelled back.

I remember Papa slowly putting Irenka and me down on the deck and hugging us both very closely, his big hands stroking the backs of our heads while he spoke.

“Mirek, you’re the oldest. You have to take care of Irenka. And Irenka, I want you to be good for your brother and do what he says. Because you both have to leave this place and I can’t come with you.”

The big people with guns moved aside and other people, wearing crew jumpers, came through the hatch and tried to take Irenka and me away from Papa.

Panic gripped me.

I wouldn’t release him.

Irenka kicked. I shrieked, because I couldn’t kick.

We hung onto Papa’s shirt for dear life.

Ultimately, Papa yelled at us so loudly it made us silent, because we’d never heard Papa say such words to us before, nor in such a loud voice.

He apologized and kissed us both. We let go of his collar.

“Remember me,” Papa said when the crewpeople took us away. “Remember your Papa and Mama. We will always love you!”

• • •

The ship was crammed with people. Other children, mostly.

When the heavy banging noises came through the cabin, some of the kids screamed. I knew better, though. We’d undocked from the station because I felt all the gravity go away.

This was a good thing. No gravity meant I didn’t need my chair.

The crewpeople who’d taken us away from Papa didn’t even speak to us. They hurriedly found a two-person gee couch, strapped us into it, and moved on.

Irenka was sniffling and sobbing while I held her hand and looked out the window, perhaps too dazed to really feel what had just happened to our family.

The big rings of the station rotated beautifully while our ship thrust away from it. The gee from thrusting tugged at my stomach, then shifted ninety degrees. I was being pushed sideways, the view in the window spinning just as the station began to disintegrate. I couldn’t tell what happened, other than that there was a sparkling cloud that seemed to envelope the station for an instant, and then a white flash so brilliant I had to cover my eyes.

When I could see again, the station was gone, and the gee pressing me into my seat was so strong I had a hard time breathing.

Irenka’s sobbing had quieted to a whimper and she gripped my hand so hard I thought her little tendons would snap.

Our ship was moving. Fast.

The Earth’s night side was covered with huge splotches that glowed dull red, like a giant, angry rash.

Occasionally, flashes could be seen through the massive, roiling clouds.

An adult, clad in a spacesuit and with a helmet under his arm, shuffled past our couch. I tapped him on the arm and pointed out the window.

“What’s going on?”

The man paused just long enough to lean over us and look outside.

“Orbital stuff’s been hit,” he said in American English. “Now they’re using antimatter warheads in-atmosphere. Jesus almighty….”

The man bolted aft while I kept looking out.

Somewhere down there, I knew my cousins and grandparents were in trouble. The smoky clouds were too thick for me to see the continents clearly, but I looked for Europe anyway. Poland was by the sea, and I thought that, maybe being near the sea, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Until I saw the day-side limb come up, and wherever the glowing splotches touched the ocean, the water exploded into hurricanes of white vapor.

The angry splotches also expanded visibly, like the sped-up films in school that show how mold grows in petri dishes.

Then, the ship rolled over and I could see nothing more, the additional gee shoving me back into my seat.

I looked away from the window to see Irenka slumped against me, exhausted and eyes closing.

Her little breaths became regular and gentle, and before long I also felt my eyes close, and then there were only memories of Mama and Papa, gone forever.

• • •

Irenka woke up crying, and the adults in crewpeople jumpers had to come and get her and take her to the bathroom. When they brought her back she was in night pants and nothing else. They said she’d had an accident, and her clothes wouldn’t be clean for an hour. My sister’s eyes were puffy and wide and she now looked at everything as if it might bite her.

I asked if it was okay if she sat in my lap, and after some conversation, they told me yes, as long as we both stayed buckled in together. Being unbuckled in zero gee would be dangerous. But I already knew that.

Irenka snuggled into my lap, the night pants making a gentle crackling sound. I had us both buckled up and I wrapped my arms around her.

I put my head back and closed my eyes, hoping for additional rest. I felt more tired than I’d ever felt in my life.

“I want Mama,” Irenka said in a low voice.

I opened my eyes and looked down into her small face.

“I want Mama too,” I said. “But I think Mama and Papa aren’t alive anymore.”

My sister stiffened and began to whimper again, burying her face in my chest.

I hugged her tightly, feeling the lump move into my throat. I wasn’t sure who I felt sorrier for: my little sister, myself, or my parents.

I fought back the swell of grief and tried to stay calm. I could still feel Papa’s hand on my head when he looked me in the eye and told me to take care of Irenka—because he’d known Mama and he wouldn’t be around to do it anymore. Papa had looked resigned when he’d said those words to me. Resigned, and yet full of dignity. While the other adults on the station had panicked, he’d made sure Irenka and I were safe.

Now, my sister needed me to be the strong one. And I needed me to be strong for us both.

I swallowed thickly and let my tears be silent tears while I gently stroked Irenka’s golden hair.

An hour later, an adult appeared near our seat. She was older than many of the other adults we’d seen onboard, with short hair that was going gray. She seemed motherly and smiled at my sister and me, patting our shoulders.

“Do you speak TransCom?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good. Can you please tell me your names and ages?”

“Miroslaw Jaworski. This is my sister, Irenka. I’m eleven, she’s four.”

The kindly crewperson noted our names on her PDA.

“Do you know where your parents are?”

“Yes. You wouldn’t let Papa come onboard. He’s dead now.”

The woman’s mouth sank to a frown.

“I am sorry, honey. The captain wouldn’t let us bring any more adults than we already had. The ship was full.”

Her words were small comfort. But I worked to remain strong. Something told me that my childhood had suffered an abrupt ending, and the sooner I acted like a man, the better.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Ummm…did you watch the news these past few months?”


“There was…they…no, maybe it’s better if I don’t explain it. Honey, someone started a war. A very terrible war.”


The woman paused, her eyes un-focusing and her frowned lips beginning to tremble.

“I have damn no idea,” she whispered.

Then the woman seemed to remember who she was speaking to, apologized for cursing, and went back to recording information. She took down where we’d lived, the names of extended family, what we liked to eat, if we had any favorite videos we liked to watch, and if we had anything special the adults on the ship would need to know.

“I don’t have my chair,” I said.

“Pardon me?”

“On the ground, I can’t move without my chair.”

I pantomimed using the little joystick that commanded my electric chair, without which I couldn’t move except to drag myself across the floor with my arms.

“You’re a paraplegic?”


The woman’s lips quivered again, and she reflexively reached out and stroked a lock of hair off my forehead.

“I’m OK,” I said. “When there is no gee, I don’t need legs. It’s one of the reasons Mama was at the conference. She thought she’d get a job with one of the settlements in the asteroids, where I’d probably never have to worry about a chair again.”

“Of course. I’ll pass it on to the captain. Can you handle your sister, or should I see if one of us can take her?”

“I want Mirek,” Irenka said, not looking at the woman and reflexively wrapping her arms so tightly across mine, I think there was nothing more that needed to be said.

The woman stood up, her special shoes gripping the floor, and affectionately stroked my hair one more time.

“If you need any help, press the blue button on the seat in front of you. My name is Elaine, and I am one of the crew. Otherwise, the screen below the button is a computer you can use to look at shows or play games.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But what I really want to know is, where are we going?”

“We’re not sure. The captain has to decide. The war didn’t happen only at Earth.”

• • •

Our ship was a common interplanetary liner. The kind that are so common, they don’t have names, just numbers. The captain did his best to inform us of what was going on, but I don’t think he was used to talking to kids, so I had to keep asking Elaine to explain it to me. She said that the captain had decided to take us to Jupiter, where we might find other refugees at the Jovian space settlements.

There was near-constant thrust because we had to go as fast as we could to get away from the war satellites that were still hunting between Earth and the moon.

This meant I had to spend the first half of the trip on the couch to which Irenka and me were assigned, which would have been fine except that I needed Elaine’s help whenever I had to go to the lavatory. Some of the younger teenagers laughed and called me a baby when Elaine carried me up and down the aisle. I could handle that. You don’t live life as a child cripple and not get used to the fact that a lot of other kids are always mean.

But when they started picking on Irenka, I knew I had to do something.

I waited until we were at mid-point, when we got a few hours of freefall before deceleration. It was the one time during the trip when the other kids were awkward, and I felt comfortable. I’d spent the previous months onboard our station using the zero gee exercise rooms in the station’s hub, in preparation for Mama’s hoped-for assignment to the asteroids. Now I used these skills to maximum advantage.

A few black eyes and fat lips later—both theirs and mine—and the troublemakers and I reached an understanding.

When Elaine found out, she scolded me hotly of course. Adults always have to do that, so that it seems to everyone like they’re not taking sides. But when we were thrusting again and I was back to needing Elaine’s help to use the lavatory, she quietly told me she was glad I’d stuck up for my sister, and that some of the rowdier kids had stopped being so rowdy.

There was no more teasing, and the people who had been bothering Irenka didn’t say another word.

Which was good enough for me.

• • •

Jupiter was gorgeous outside our liner’s cabin windows. The huge planet had hung there for a week now, growing steadily larger while we adjusted and burned in order to drop into a rendezvous orbit with one of the Jovian stations the captain had spoken of shortly before we fled the inner system.

I’m not sure what all of us were thinking. The Jovian settlements had grown into a sort of mythic destination in our minds, and we’d all begun to place various—and later, I would think, unrealistic—expectations on the place. Irenka especially seemed fascinated with Jupiter.

I felt bad, having to keep reminding her that Mama and Papa wouldn’t be there at the door to greet us when we got off the ship. Every time I did it, Irenka got mad at me and told me she hated me because I was happy that Mama and Papa were dead, so that I could take Papa’s place and boss her around. At which point she’d take off for the little indoor playground the crew had built in the lower cargo hold, and I wouldn’t see her for an hour. Until she’d come sulking back to our couch, apologize for being mean to me, and we’d end it with a great big hug.

Irenka was up front using the lavatory when the lights in the cabin went red and the klaxon sounded over the speakers.

The captain’s voice roared, temporarily drowning the screams of the other kids.


My immediate thought was of Irenka, stuck in the bathroom. I used my arms to propel myself out of my seat, but was promptly shoved back down from behind by Elaine’s hands on my biceps.

“Do as you’re told!” Elaine yelled at me.

“But my sister!”

Elaine looked to where I stared wide at the lavatory, then nodded once and said, “You stay here, I’ll go get Irenka!”

The older woman almost ran down the aisle, her grip shoes making rip-rip sounds as she went. I managed to get my harness buckled around me when the gee kicked hard. We all slammed from side to side, up and down, screams and shouts and crying filling the cabin. Elaine stayed upright through all of it, and I saw her reach the lavatory door and use the special key card on her lanyard to open it. She vanished inside for a moment, then emerged with Irenka, whose eyes were searching frantically while her legs kicked in the air. Elaine was yelling, “Calm down! Calm down, honey!”

Another series of violent maneuvers battered the occupants of the cabin. I saw one girl come loose from her partially-buckled harness and crash into the ceiling. She floated limply for a moment before being catapulted over my head and out of sight, followed by a sickening thump.

Elaine held Irenka tight, however, and began making her way back to my couch when there was a horrific concussion that made my teeth rattle, following by groans and shrieking from beneath the floor.

My ears suddenly felt like they might pop, and for an instant I realized that the ship had been hit. Elaine and Irenka simply looked at me, their mouths forming twin oh-shapes while their hair ruffled in the rush of escaping atmosphere.

Then the orange decompression shield slipped out of its compartment on the headrest of my couch and dropped down over me like a shroud, sealing at the edges.

I screamed Irenka’s name and fought to undo the chest buckle on my harness, watching through the shield’s small window while the cabin became a nightmare of flashing red lights and debris exploding from the floor. My little sister and I were able to exchange one final look, her little mouth shrieking, Mirek! Then the world tilted over and I was crushed into my couch, the decompression shield flapping and billowing.

• • •

When I came to, I was numb to the core. My ears hurt a lot and my nose had bled all over the front of my shirt. I didn’t care. For the longest time I just sat and kept my eyes closed tight, re-watching the image of my little sister noiselessly screaming my name.

Eventually I felt the rumbling of a terrible cry struggle up in my chest. Once it broke the surface, I howled for many minutes, snot and tears and blood caking my face and hands. By the time I went silent I was so spent physically and emotionally, I could only muster a few last sniffles, and then I was back to simply feeling nothing much at all.

Hours passed. I didn’t move until my bowels complained, and I used the small LCD in the armrest of the couch to read the emergency instructions. The decompression shield had snapped taut as a balloon, affording me some elbow room. So I unlatched myself from the harness and, per direction, pulled the seat cushion up to reveal the orifice for an emergency zero-gee toilet, which I used. Then I simply sat and stared out the shield’s window, watching the blackness of space and the stars beyond roll slowly past.

I figured I’d been blown free of the wreck during the decompression, or the couch was designed to eject in an emergency. It didn’t matter, really. Irenka had died five meters from me, and all I’d been able to do was watch.

I’d failed Irenka. And I’d failed Papa, who’d told me to take care of her.

I wished very much that I could cease to exist.

Another cry rumbled, but I didn’t have anything left for it.

I fell back asleep.

• • •

I came awake with a start.

The decompression shield was slowly deflating around me.

I hurried punched at the LCD on the armrest, wondering why the system hadn’t sounded an emergency alarm, only to find the decompression shield lifting back up into the headrest on its motors.

I flinched for an instant, expecting the vacuum of space, but instead found the illuminated, metal-ribbed interior of…another ship?

There were no people present in the high-ceilinged, rectangular space. It dwarfed the passenger cabin of the ship Irenka and I had originally escaped on.

Irenka. A wave of sudden depression washed over me and I brought my useless knees to my chest, burying my face. The repeating images of her frantic death began to replay across my mind, and I slowly beat my forehead on my kneecaps, unable to make the horror stop. Would it be like this forever? Always seeing Irenka, dying a million deaths, with me unable to help her?

There was a clanking sound from across the large compartment, and I snapped my head up. I saw a circular hatch swing open.

My heart began to beat rapidly in my chest. I stayed put on the couch, watching a small figure in white, flowing, pajama-like clothes float through and attach to the deck with grip shoes.

To my surprise, it was an old woman.

Her skin was wrinkled and coal-black, and her eyes were wide with dark irises.

She looked at me, unblinking. Then she quickly walked rip-rip-rip across the deck.

“Boy’s a mess, Howard,” the old woman said, but not to me. Her speech was American English, but heavily accented in a way I’d never heard except on television. When she drew near I noticed the tiny device in her ear—a headset. I just looked at her while she knelt down slowly near the coach and examined my face, the dried blood on my shirt, and the way my balled fists gently trembled while I hugged them over my knees.

“You got a name, son?”

“Miroslaw,” I said, the dried mucus and blood in my nostrils making it sound as if I had a bad cold.



“Well you can thank the Lord that your little lifeboat here crossed our path, Miroslaw from Poland. The killsats didn’t leave much left when they hit Jupiter. Howard and I kept the observatory dark until the killsats moved on. Then we did a slingshot burn, and now we’re away.”

“What does that mean?”

“Everything has gone on automatic. The military doesn’t exist anymore, but their machines do. To the killsats, everyone has become a target. So Howard and I decided it would be best to cut loose and go.”


“The Kuiper Belt, boy. Only place left. We’re going to find the Outbound.”

Outbound. There had been stories about them in school: privately-funded deep space missions that had been sent to determine if the space beyond Neptune provided fertile ground for colonization. None of them had ever sent back any data, once they passed the orbit of Pluto. Common sense said the Outbound had perished.

But had they really?

As long as Irenka’s death was foremost in my mind, the Outbound didn’t matter to me. I kept hugging my knees, and stared past the old woman, looking at nothing.

“I’m Tabitha,” the old woman said, sticking out her hand.

“Thank you for finding me,” I said, weakly shaking it.

“You don’t seem too happy about it, Miroslaw.”

“Mirek. My sister called me Mirek. She’s…she’s….”

I couldn’t say it, but it didn’t seem like I needed to. Tabitha just put a gnarled old finger to my lips.

“Hush child. You’ve survived the Devil’s Day. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”

I let her grab my arm and pull me up off the couch. Using the grip shoes, she towed me back to the hatch she’d used to enter the large bay.

She noticed that my legs trailed behind me, and I used only my arms to maneuver through the hatch on its hand rails.

“Can’t walk?” Tabitha asked.

I nodded. She immediately flipped me over to check for injury, but I pushed her hands away. “Not hurt. Paralyzed. Since I was born.”

“Mercy,” Tabitha breathed. “Well Mirek, we’ll just have to do the best we can, you and I.”

“What about Howard?” I said.

“He’s my husband. You’ll meet him soon enough.”

• • •

Howard and Tabitha Marshall were originally from Virginia. Assigned to one of Jupiter’s six original Humason-series mobile space telescope platforms, they’d served as technicians when they were young, and moved up to take over their observatory when older.

We talked while Tabitha helped pull my shirt off and began washing my face.

“NASA told us the telescope was too old, and ought to be decommissioned, but Howard and I liked it out here so much, where we could be close to God’s quiet grandeur. When the astronomers and other staff packed up and left, we stayed. In protest, at first. But eventually NASA gave up and let us keep working. We sent data back right up until the war.”

Howard, I’d learned, had actually died a few years earlier, but they’d recorded him into the computer, and now he ran the observatory as its brain. I’d heard of that being done for some of the very long deep space missions, using volunteer pilots who’d grown too old or sick to fly. It was an experimental thing, and lots of people back on Earth still hadn’t been too sure about. Talking to Howard was a little like talking to an imaginary friend, since he seemed to exist everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

The observatory itself was a sprawling complex built into the side of a tiny piece of ore-rich rock that had been blasted off one of Jupiter’s trailing Trojan asteroids. When the hunter-killer satellites from the inner system had reached and attacked the Jovian settlements, Howard had turned off every piece of active equipment he could, going “dark” in the hope that he and Tabitha wouldn’t be detected.

Pure chance had sent my couch spinning across their path, and when Howard’s passive sensors picked up my vital signs, Tabitha demanded that I be brought aboard, in spite of the risk.

I didn’t know what to say, so I mostly kept quiet and let Tabitha—Tab, she insisted—do most of the talking.

She literally flowed with stories and spunk and an irrepressible good cheer, such that I almost forgot the depression that had sunk its teeth into my heart since Irenka had died. But the dual loss of my sister and my parents remained like a toothache—always there, and always painful.

We got me bathed, and dressed in an oversized smock similar to the one Tab wore, and then she took me on a tour of the facility. Most of the compartments were sealed and cold, since the observatory’s automation did most of the upkeep and Tab herself only needed a few rooms in which to work and live. She moved like a fish in water when she maneuvered in zero gee, and she showed me the spin room where she spent at least a couple of hours every day, doing exercise and letting her body experience centripetal gravity so that her muscles and bones didn’t wither away.

“I know you can’t use your legs, Mirek,” Tab said, “but we’ll find out a routine for you. Meanwhile, we can open one of the other compartments and get you a room set up. You’re going to be our guest for a while, I think.”

I stopped.

“What if I don’t want to?” I said.

Tab looked at me with a raised eyebrow, her steel-gray, close-cropped hair poking out in a mass of springy ringlets.

“Boy, you think you got any choice at this point?”

“Papa used to tell me there are always choices.”

Tab opened her mouth to argue, then stopped and looked at me carefully.

“Fair enough, child. The Lord gave free will, and it’s not mine to take away. We could put you into one of the observatory’s dories. You could take your chances on your own.”

I stared at my host. Staying here wouldn’t make the pain to go away, that was for sure. But then, I wasn’t certain anything would.

Hot tears began to well up in my eyes again, and I ferociously jabbed at them with the billowy sleeve of my smock.

I cursed in Polish.

Tab sighed, and lowered her floating self down until she was looking at me eye to eye. When she spoke, her Southern Black accent was especially thick.

“It’s a damn shame any of this had to happen, Miroslaw. Your family. My family. All our people, gone. The Armageddon came, and it went, and we’re still here. Which tells me the Lord still has work for us. It ain’t an accident your couch came floatin’ by Howard and me. That much I’m certain of. I don’t know what else your Papa ever told you, but let me tell you something my Papa told me when I was your age. He told me that there was never any way of gettin’ out of pain in this life. Adam and Eve saw to that. Because the Lord needs us to know pain. That’s part of the test. So while I can’t make your pain go away, I can tell you that we’re all gonna be judged by how we bear that pain, and use it, and do the Lord’s will because of it. Do you understand?”

I didn’t. Mama and Papa had been physicists. Our family never went to church. Tab’s talk sounded like something out of a history book about the days when people thought religion was more important than science. It was foreign in my ears and made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t deny the earnestness with which Tab had spoken. Nor could I deny the heart-felt kindness in her expression.

My tears flowed like a river, and I stopped trying to wipe them away.

Irenka would have liked Tab. It was a crime that Irenka wasn’t here.

I blubbered something to that effect, and then I felt myself whisked up into Tab’s arms, almost crushed by the woman’s surprisingly strong embrace.

It was the first time anyone had held me—really held me—since Papa.

I bawled into Tab’s shoulder, and she just kept holding me, singing a soft song under her breath that I would later learn was a hymn.

• • •

I chose to stay, of course.

And Tab and I talked about the Outbound.

“So where do we start?” I asked Tab. “We can’t just search blindly.”

“The largest group of Outbounders was said to have followed in the wake of Pioneer 10. Can we do the same, Howard?”

“Let me see if I have the file on that,” Howard’s voice spoke from the speakers in the ceiling. “Oh, here it is. Yes, I think we can do that. It’s lucky for us we came out of the slingshot when we did, or we’d be going in the totally opposite direction. We’ll have to wait awhile longer before I can risk a second burn. We’re not far enough away for Jupiter yet.”

“No problem,” Tab said. “I think time is the one item we’re not going to run out of.”

She wasn’t kidding. Even with constant thrust, it took two months to cross the orbit of Pluto, and another eight to get as far as the inner limit of the Kuiper Belt. The observatory was well suited to long voyages. A plentiful fuel reserve, in the form of antimatter, provided power while a large hydroponics facility kept the air clean. Tab trained me to service the various automated and manual life systems of the observatory, and we inventoried and re-inventoried all the consumables and spare parts. With Howard’s help we drew up graphs and charts to see just how far we could stretch our resources.

Barring damage to the observatory, and with regular burns for course correction, Tab and Howard estimated we could go twenty years before running out of anything important. Even if the main reactor failed, a backup radioactive decay generator could provide full internal power for another ten.

Shutting down everything but the bare minimums increased these time frames by a factor of three. Which meant all we had to do was keep the hydroponics farm healthy, and Tab and I would have enough food to eat and air to breathe for decades.

Decades. My soul chilled at the thought of such a long, lonely voyage.

Howard stopped monitoring the inner solar system at sixteen months. There were no more human cries for help. All that remained were the automated signals of the few surviving death machines, each acting out its programmed orders regardless of the fact that the men and women who had given those orders were gone.

No other automated ship-to-ship communications were intercepted either, though if anyone else had survived and fled, they had likely done so in the same manner as we: deliberately silent.

Several times, Tab and I debated turning back.

But as the kilometers between Earth and the observatory grew, the very thought of going home became abstract. We were now well beyond the confines of the planetary system proper—the sun having become just another pinpoint in the star-filled sky. What chance did we have, in going back? How would we look for anyone while avoiding the robot killers?

Better to forge on.

• • •

For my thirteenth birthday, Tab told me she would teach me to be an astronomer.

It was easy, since everything I needed to know was in Howard’s databanks. And it helped pass the time, keeping my mind off things I still didn’t want to think about. Mama and Papa and Irenka were still there, like deep sores newly scabbed over. But somehow, day by day, Tab and I grew closer. And the hurt got a little bit less, and a little bit easier to carry.

She and I manipulated the observatory’s sensors and equipment, cataloguing various large and small objects in their path.

Tab told me that, contrary to popular conception of centuries past, deep space was not a total void. The Kuiper and Oort regions were actually a combined debris field that bled inexorably into the sparser debris that populated the interstellar medium—where the planemos ruled.

Planemos. Planets without stars. Worlds unto themselves.

Perhaps the Outbound had ultimately reached and settled on one of them? After a voyage spanning centuries?

Howard diverted our course on several occasions in order to investigate anomalies that showed up on the observatory’s impressive sensor array.

In each case, we found nothing; even if the comets and icy worldlets themselves were interesting.

Mostly, they were rocky bodies which had accrued a shell of water and gas ice. Perfectly routine, once you got out beyond Pluto.

On only one of these did we find something which indicated humanity.

It was a smallish snowball of a world, irregularly shaped, yet giving off radioactive emissions from one of its many craters.

Closer inspection with the telescopes revealed signs of mining, long since abandoned.

It was enough to make Tab whoop and spin, shaking her hips side to side while she floated through the observatory’s control center while Howard jabbered with as much excitement as his computer-cooled mentality could muster.

We matched with the ice body and Tab and I went outside in one of the observatory’s two dories. Landing, we then took suits—one of which I’d helped Tab extensively modify to fit me—and we were disappointed to find only ice-crusted garbage and a small pile of spent fissile material.

No messages. No clue to how long the Outbound had stayed, nor where they had gone.

Though there was no sign of Pioneer 10 either.

We returned to the search.

Twice more in two years, we found similar pit-stops on similar worlds. The Outbound had needed hydrogen isotopes and reaction mass for their fusion drives. It must have taken them many decades to travel as far as we had gone in just a few years on antimatter drive.

Tab risked active communications, tight-beamed to the fore.

For weeks we waited for a reply, and nothing came.

The longing to see other living humans became like an itch to me. Beyond missing my family, I also missed the wide open plazas and parks of home, where I’d been able to race my electric chair between the fountains and startle the pigeons and laugh like a boy ought to laugh.

At ship’s night, I began dreaming of home, and…other things. It was embarrassing to talk about with Tab. I had an easier time talking about it with Howard, who had been a man once, and before that, a teenaged boy.

Howard said he was surprised that I was getting the kind of physical response I was getting, even though I had never felt anything below my hip bones my entire life. When our conversations turned specifically to women and women’s bodies, Howard hesitantly uncorked a database of pictures he’d been keeping—pictures that my mother would have been scandalized by, had she caught me looking at them on my laptop back at home.

“Don’t tell Tab,” Howard had warned in a fraternal fashion. “She’ll be liable to erase me if she finds out I’ve shown you this.”

I promised Howard I would not tell, and was actually grateful to have something I could share with another male, even if he was just a computer recording. We talked more and more, Howard and I, while Tab and I remained close, if gradually more separate. One evening when Tab thought I was asleep, I slipped out of bed and moved silently through the air to the doorway to her room, where I heard she and Howard talking. Pillow talk, my mother would have called it, made strange by the fact that Howard was not actually in the bed with his wife.

“He’s going to be a man soon,” Tab said sadly.

“He became a man when his Daddy died,” Howard replied.

“Probably true. But you don’t know how happy I’ve been, finally having a young one around to look after. We tried so hard, all those years, you and I. And nothing. Then, like Sarah, God sends me this boy in my old age. Only, I never got to have him as a baby. He was mostly grown up when he came, and now….”

I felt a lump form in my throat while Tab quietly wept.

“He’s a good boy, Tabitha. We can both see that. And I think he loves you. He won’t say it when I talk with him, but I can feel it.”

Tab barked out a mocking laugh. “Hah! A computerized man who can feel!”

“You know what I mean, woman. Now hush up. My sensors tell me the boy is lurking at your door. He’s probably heard everything we’ve been saying.”

“Sorry,” I said, letting myself in, sheepishly smiling.

Tab was there, wiping tears from her eyes. “Don’t be, Mirek. I’m just a sad old lady who never had a chance to have any children of her own. Don’t mind it if I’ve become too attached to you.”

In fact, I didn’t mind it. I didn’t mind it at all.

Using my arms, I launched from the hatch and grabbed Tab in a bear hug, squeezing her as tightly as I remembered her having squeezed me that first day I decided to stay with my new family, and seek the Outbound.

She wept anew, for joy this time, and I told Tabitha and Howard Marshall how much I did love them, and how thankful I was that they’d found me and given me a home when the world had taken all such things from me.

• • •

By the time I was sixteen, I suspected that the full burden of humanity’s self-annihilation had yet to settle on my shoulders. Some crucial part of me remained numb to the idea that everyone had ceased to exist, and that all the artifacts of humanity on virtually every world had been antimattered to dust. How ironic that perhaps the only surviving tokens of human intelligence, were the final remaining warbots which continued to prowl the solar system, seeking targets and enemies which did not exist. Such thoughts were depressing, and depression again became a common companion.

I’d have liked very much to have another young woman around to talk to, to touch, and to hold in my arms at night. But the way things stood, I might not ever see another woman again, besides Tabitha, and this grew to be an irritant like no other.

With Howard’s surreptitious help, I began to distill spirits from the grains grown in the farm domes.

Shortly after, Howard began to worry that he had an alcoholic on his hands.

But how else was I supposed to bear it? I had a dead past, and an unknown future. The only living young man left in the universe!

Homesickness and abstract horniness accentuated my depression, giving it a melancholy flavor.

I began to drink daily. Alone. In the private module I’d built out on the face of the observatory’s foundation, where Tab couldn’t touch nor talk to me. I neglected my daily exercise in the spin room. Why bother? What future awaited me now? I’d been young when I left Earth, and young I would remain for many years. But what was youth without joy? Without a girlfriend? I found myself daydreaming endlessly about all the older girls I had ever been attracted to: their faces, their expressions, the way they laughed or got angry, how their bodies had moved under their clothes. It got so that I thought I would be ecstatic to see even a single, other breathing female, regardless of her state. Just someone I could hug, and who could hug me back, and who wasn’t old enough to be my grandma.

I grew distant from Howard and Tabitha both.

I got sick of them, and I think they began to grow sick of me.

We began to go days or even weeks not speaking to each other, and eventually I retreated to the privacy module almost entirely, forcing Howard to monitor and tend to the observatory all by himself, with Tabitha’s declining help.

Which was fine, at first, because Howard had always done most everything anyway.

Then, one day, there came a beacon.

It was faint. No more than a weak radio signal, sending binary.

Howard couldn’t make sense of the message, which seemed truly random—ones and zeroes in an endless stream, without pattern.

That was okay. It was a sign that we were still on the right path. It was also enough to shock me into a forced detox.

By the time we reached the comet from which the transponder was sending, I was sober enough to take out a dory; and human enough to actually be pleasant to Tab for the first time in too long.

On the surface of the comet, I found a tunnel.

At the bottom of the tunnel, I found a grave: sixty-eight bodies, all perfectly frozen, and arranged with dignity.

I spent days examining the site. I reverently combed the dead for anything that might indicate where the other survivors had gone. They were of mixed racial heritage and gender, and if I’d had to guess, I’d have said they were Americans. And whether or not they came from the group of Outbounders that we’d been specifically pursuing was uncertain. But their presence was the first absolute proof that humanity had survived to that point, so far from its now-dead home.

And that was enough. I reverently went among the dead, recording their names from the steel tags attached to their bodies and taking digital pictures.

When I ultimately got back to the observatory, I was calm.

Almost too calm for Tab’s taste.

But the dead of the Outbound had helped me cross a threshold I hadn’t known needed crossing, and at once filled me with renewed resolve.

Quickly, I flushed out the privacy module and dumped every last drop of grain alcohol.

Next, I began an exhaustive catch-up on all my neglected duties, interspersed with profound and heartfelt apologies to Tab and Howard alike. I couldn’t tell whether or not the man inside the computer could feel pain, but I knew my behavior over the last few months had scared and hurt Tab. Certainly I’d treated them both badly enough. I hoped that I could make it up to them, given time. And they certainly seemed grateful and relieved to see my renewed sense of purpose.

“Forgive?” I finally said one day, when the observatory was back in order and Tab and I were sharing a meal for the first time in ages.

A very long silence.

“Forgiven,” Tab said, slightly smiling so that the corners of her eyes wrinkled warmly. She reached out a shaking, gnarled hand, and I took it gratefully, squeezing.

• • •

During the tenth year of our flight, we found the first ship. It was abandoned. Ransacked. Every last usable part, taken. A skeleton of a vessel, accompanied by another mass grave.

At year fourteen, we found three more ships, also stripped, and also serving as a memorial to more people who had apparently lost—or given—their lives for the cause.

This time, I also found children; each far too young to have been born on Earth. The sight of those little ones brought up disturbing memories. They reminded me far too much of Irenka.

For Tab, who had become so old that she never left the observatory anymore, the children were actually a sign of providence.

“The day God takes away our ability to make babies, that’s the day when we know we’re truly cut off from His grace.”

I pondered Tab’s words and watched her gently maneuver through the kitchen, wrapped tightly against a chill in the air that did not exist. She’d tried over the years to bring me to Christ. Oh yes, she’d tried. Especially when I came off my bender with the grain alcohol. But somehow, I just never found the spark. I heard the words and I grudgingly listened when she read scripture, but while I respected and even admired the old woman’s faith, I could not feel it likewise.

Where Tab felt certainty in God’s purpose, I felt…nothing. In my teens I’d often questioned myself on this, suspecting some kind of internal moral failure. But now I just resigned myself to the fact that I was too much like my parents—unable to set aside the rational long enough embrace the fire and “get religion.”

As so often happened when Tab and I failed to see eye to eye, I discussed it with Howard, who had always seemed to support his wife’s belief without necessarily going great-guns himself.

“Tab’s Pops was a pastor,” Howard said one night when he and I were having a quiet conversation in the observatory’s control center. “God was mighty in her family, from the father down to the youngest child. It was kind of scary, when we first got together. She’d drag me off to meeting and bible study and I went along with it because my Moms had read me bible too, and it didn’t bother me any. And Tabby, well…She was just so damned attractive, I think I’d have walked into a pool of piranha if it meant I got to sit next to her and hold her hand.

“She was furious with me when she found out about you learning to distill. Almost as furious as when she found out about the pictures from the men’s e-zines.”

“Tab found out about that?” I said, laughing. “I swear, I didn’t tell!”

“I know, son. It was me. I never could keep a secret from that woman, not in my entire life.”

We shared laughter, one old man and one young man.

I sighed, and was silent for a long time.

“Howard, do you think I’ll ever get to have a wife?”

The speakers were quiet. Pondering.

“If we can ever find these Outbounders we’re on the trail of, I’d say, yes. Absolutely. Girl’d be plum crazy not to get with a handsome young guy like you.”

“But I’m still a paraplegic.”

“True. But let me tell you something, for women, a man being tall and macho ain’t the end-all, be-all. Especially the older a woman gets, and the longer she goes learning how hard it is to find a decent man, she appreciates the good ones when they come along. Don’t worry about it, son. Your woman is out there.”

“But what if I can’t make her—”

“Let that part of it take care of itself, son. Don’t fret over it now, especially when we ain’t even found these folk yet. You hear me?”

“Yessir,” I said, clamping up on the subject, even if it remained heavily on my mind.

Another lengthy silence.

“Howard,” I said.

“Yeah, boy?”

“Does it hurt?”

“Beg pardon?”

“When they recorded you. And moved you into the computer. Does it hurt?”

“Not really.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Impossible to describe.”

“You can’t even try?”

“If I did, it would probably just confuse you. But for the sake of argument, imagine going to sleep one night, and when you wake up, your body is huge, has a hundred new arms, a hundred new eyes, a hundred new mouths…It really takes some getting used to. But no, it doesn’t hurt.”

“We’ll have to record Tab soon, won’t we?”

“No. Tabby made me swear to never do that. She’s afraid it will interrupt her soul going to Jesus.”

“But you were recorded.”

“That was different. And believe me, Tab’s only reason for allowing it was because she feared being alone more than she feared my soul getting lost in space between this world and the next. I think in the long run she’s stopped worrying about me. Though she still insists that when it’s her time, nothing stop her.”

“Does she really believe she’ll go to Jesus?”

“You know she does, Mirek.”

“How about you? Do you really believe it?”


“I want to believe, Mirek. Whether or not that counts…I dunno.”

• • •

Disaster came suddenly, almost 15 years after leaving Jupiter.

A micrometeoroid storm, composed of dark carbons so black and so thinly diffused we never saw them on the telescope, nor the radar. One moment I was helping Tab get dressed and get her room cleaned up, the next the observatory was trembling and a sound like hard rain echoed through the corridor outside.

“Howard, what’s happening?” Tab shouted.

When no reply came, Tab and I both looked at one another in alarm and rushed to the door to look out. Sparks lit from the ceiling and tiny rays lanced down and into the floor. The cosmic dust—moving at several tens of thousands of kilometers a minute, relative to us—was penetrating through many centimeters of steel and polycarbonate plate. Tab gripped me as we stood in the doorway, not daring to move, while the eerie light show continued for several minutes, until finally it ended, and I was able to rush out to the nearest computer access panel and bring up a status report on the station.

It was grim. Half the observatory was either off-line or red-lined. Worse yet, the workstation was operating on local software only—cut off from Howard’s direct control. We were also gradually losing air pressure, though the level had not yet dropped enough to be dangerous.

Tab and I floated frantically down several hundred meters of corridor until we reached the access hatch for the main computers buried down in the basement. I noted that the hatch had numerous almost-too-tiny-to-see holes in it, then dropped legs-first into the bowels of the main computer core, where Howard’s mind—and perhaps his spirit—had dwelled for over two decades.

The databanks were a mess. Whole arrays were dead. The computer center had been hardened against cosmic radiation and solar flares, but never something like this. I worked frantically to trace the logic paths of the fail-safes while Tab gripped a handrail and sobbed uncontrollably, saying, “Howard…oh, Howard….”

It was no good. Too many arrays were damaged or down. Even if I could load backups, the constant synergy between the databanks that was necessary for Howard Marshall to exist, as a person, had been disrupted. If we got something back, it probably wouldn’t be Howard.

Tab needed no one to tell her the reality of what had happened.

She simply stared at the arrays, many of them blinking red warning lights, and kept repeating her husband’s name.

She took to her bed later that day, not seeming to care about the thousands of microscopic punctures that were leaking our air away into space. Nor did she care about the other damaged equipment—repairs to which were now going to be near-impossible without Howard’s help. I had not realized how totally dependent Tab and I were on the man, until he was gone.

In a frenzy, I booted up as many of the dummy programs as I could, running them on local workstations or servers so that life support and other vitals didn’t close down. Then I spent the next three days securing the hydroponics farms and the cycler machinery and the other life necessities, without which death was certain.

Not that it mattered much for Tab.

Every time I checked on her, she’d gotten worse.

The final time I looked in on her, she was curled—floating—near her bed. An old framed photo of her and Howard from when they were young was pressed tightly to her chest. The same hymn she’d once sung to me, when I was breaking down, drifted from her lips.

I almost had to shout at her to get her to pay attention to me.

“It doesn’t matter anymore, Mirek. The Lord has taken Howard, and it’s time for me to go now too.”

“You can’t just quit!” I screamed. “You told me once that God would judge us by how we bore our pain and burdens, right?”

These words seemed to bring her back to herself for a moment, such that she replaced the photo in its holder and pushed off to drift down to me.

The slap that came was unexpected, and the first and last time she ever laid a hand on me in anger.

I was too shocked to be angry.

“Don’t quote God at me, boy!” Tab said sourly. “I’ve spent my last years trying too hard to open a door into your heart, through which Christ might step through. But you’ve rejected Him, and a part of me too. Now go away and leave me be. I’m too old to help anyway.”

There was nothing to say, so I left, and got a few hours of harried sleep before returning to Tab’s room.

Her body was suspended in the zero gee bed. She was dressed in her white smock, and her eyes were closed, though her mouth hung slackly open while her chest drew no breath. A little roll of paper was held in one cool hand.

I shakily reached for it, and when it unrolled, it said, in Tab’s handwriting, “You are a good soul Mirek. Thank you for letting me have you as my boy.”

I couldn’t think for the rest of the day. Only the seriousness of my predicament kept me moving. But my mind and heart were as empty and cold as the space through which the observatory now lamely traveled.

• • •

I eventually put Tabitha’s body next to her husband’s, in the tomb they had made for themselves on the far side of the observatory. There was no ceremony, no words of eulogy. There had been none for Papa, or Mama, or Irenka after them. There seemed none appropriate now, and I felt anything I said that even remotely touched on the spiritual, would be almost profane. Tab had been right. My heart was deaf to God. If God even existed. I stared at the closed doors to the final resting place of my second set of parents, and doubted very much that Jesus, nor any other saving deity, existed. There was only the harshness of life, followed by the silence of death. Which came suddenly and without warning, and always took those who least deserved it.

That month, my work on the observatory was purely mechanical. And ultimately futile. Too much had been ruined in the micrometeoroid storm. Without the expanded capacities of Howard—his ability to be everywhere and see and feel and “think” the observatory all at once—there was no way for a single person to manage.

The local software kept things going, for a time, but when three months had passed, it became clear that the hydroponics were failing, along with the waste cyclers. Even with the stores that had been kept safe down in the many cellars we’d dug into the rock, within a couple of years, I was going to be out of both air and food.

I went back to the main computer core and considered my options. There were enough good arrays to try and re-assemble a new master program, using the original factory defaults which were kept on disc, but since everything I knew about computers I’d learned piecemeal from helping Howard and Tab, I didn’t have the expertise to make more than a half-assed attempt.

I tried anyway, and created a computerized retard whom I promptly erased.

I didn’t even think of messing with what was left of Howard. Those arrays I kept isolated, in case there was still some chance of sieving data from them which might prove useful.

Days I spent wandering alone through the halls of the observatory, wondering just what in the universe I was even doing here, and why I should keep trying to extend a life that seemed to have amounted to futility.

Whether by luck, or design, that was when the next beacon revealed itself.

Like the other, it was very faint, but it called softly from directly ahead, in the belly of the Kuiper Belt, like a siren beckoning a lonely sailor.

I went to it. Dumping more antimatter than I should have into the reaction, I thrusted viciously, pushing the observatory up the relative velocity scale, not caring if I was risking more micrometeoroid storms. If there was going to be any point to this entire journey, any way at all of giving the deaths of Howard and Tabitha meaning, then I had to reach that beacon, which lay an indeterminate way off, but appeared to be growing just a little be stronger, day by day.

Weeks later, I found the buoy.

It appeared to be the first piece of whole-cloth Outbounder technology I’d yet discovered. Incredibly small, and apparently operating on a store of antimatter—which the original Outbounders had never had—the device pinged happily at the observatory while I used the remaining, functional thrusters of the station to pull alongside and match course and speed. My radio query sparked a message laser that shot towards the observatory. I had to fiddle for a few minutes to bring the correct receptor dish into place—something Howard could have done reflexively, with a mere thought—and then the main audio-video channel was alive with a recorded message.

It was a head shot of a young woman against a bluescreen. She was of Asian descent, and spoke TransCom with an accent I suspected to be Chinese.

“If you are seeing and hearing this message,” she said, “then you are halfway to us. We know about the war, and we know that you would not have come this far unless you sought refuge. Be aware the Quorum has decided to grant asylum to all refugees from the governments of Earth, the independent satellite localities, and all colonies of the asteroids and the Jovian planets. Provided that you can reach us. We regret that we can offer no further assistance at this time. We also regret that we cannot offer you precise coordinates to follow, but if you have come this far, you already know the rest of the way. Good luck.”

The message repeated, and I was both elated and crushed.

So far. I’d come so far. Tab and Howard had sacrificed so much. And this was only halfway?

I went back to my calculations, regarding stores and the upkeep of the hydroponics. There was no way I’d squeeze out fifteen more years, even if I thought I could last that long alone without going insane as a result. And even if I dumped the entire antimatter reserve into one, long, drawn-out burn. Which would be stupid, because then I’d have nothing left to slow myself down with when I neared the endpoint.

I stayed near the buoy, and debated at length.

The girl in the message had obviously intended for refugees to keep following the last known trajectory of Pioneer 10. Following that jellybean trail was a snap. How I could do it and still be alive upon arrival, was another matter entirely.

It took me three days of thinking and tinkering to come up with a plan.

It terrified me, because it seemed so much like suicide.

• • •

The room with the recording equipment hadn’t been touched in a long, long time. Tab had sealed it in a low-density, pure nitrogen environment after she’d helped put Howard into the computer, so that all the machinery and the consoles remained pristine and in good working order. It was also one of the few rooms the micrometeoroid disaster had not touched, and this gave me a hint of comfort while I set about preparing to download myself into the observatory’s database arrays.

I’d spent a few weeks carefully creating a new, hardened shelter for those arrays, then painstakingly moved each one of them from the old core, down to the new location, finally powering them up and synchronizing them, with triple-redundant electricity I’d snaked down from the antimatter reactors.

If the observatory got hit again, I didn’t want to suffer the same lobotomized fate of my old friend.

The instructions for recording were fairly simply. The device itself was like a compact PET scanner that lowered over the skull like a hair dryer.

The catch was that the process could not be aborted nor re-tried. The recording process took days, and was so electromagnetically intensive it destroyed neural pathways as quickly as it stored them in the databanks. Once the recorder lowered itself over my skull and began scanning, I was on a one-way trip. And since I didn’t have any help, and had never done anything like it before, there was a very good chance I’d wind up nothing more than a mindless piece of meat, my entire life hopelessly scrambled inside the computer.

I prepared carefully. In the event that I did not survive, I programmed an automatic course into the guidance system. Having come this far, it seemed worth it to make sure my remains had at least a chance of arriving at my destination. I also networked the life support servers and crossed them with the recording monitor, so that if the recording process completed and I did not awake and assume full control over the observatory, the contents of the observatory would be gradually deep-frozen.

My brain would be empty at that point anyway, and I didn’t like the idea of leaving my body to slowly rot on the recording couch.

Once I was satisfied that I’d tended to the necessary details, I sat down and considered my final words. In my entire life, through everything I’d experienced, I’d never really thought about what I’d want to leave behind for the future. It had always been someone else leaving something behind for me. I had always been the one to have to pick up the pieces and carry on. It frustrated me to sit there in front of the computer, finger poised over the button that would begin audio-video storage, and not have a damned thing to say.

After ten minutes I finally tapped the button and spoke—in TransCom, so that the people who might recover the recording would understand.

“My name is Miroslaw Jaworski. I might be the only survivor to have escaped the destruction of planet Earth. If you are viewing this message, it means that I am dead. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like somebody to put up a placard somewhere; for myself and my family.”

I slowly repeated the full names of my sister, mother, and father, as well as my grandparents, and several extended family who had been alive when the antimatter bombs wiped out the Earth. It seemed like a good idea to include them, since we were all victims and I wanted our lives to be remembered somewhere, by somebody.

“I don’t really care what happens after that. Tabitha and Howard Marshall are entombed on the other side of this facility, and I think they should stay there. My body, and the entire contents of this observatory, are yours to do with as you see fit.


I punched the stop key, made sure the file replicated through my crude daisychain of stand-alone workstations, then stood up and walked to the recording room, where I slowly shut the door, set up the IV system—I’d need fluid put into me during the process, or I’d dehydrate to death before recording was complete—then sat in the recorder’s attached chair.

The recorder “crown”—which is how I’d come to think of it—was poised just centimeters above my skull. I’d detached the activator toggle from the control station and put it on a cable that allowed me to hold the toggle in my hand.

I thought about how Howard had once had to do this, with only Tab to monitor his progress.

Swallowing hard, I flipped the toggle with my thumb.

And the universe vanished into a swirl of sounds and color.

• • •

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. One moment I was bathed in an endless sea of shifting and chaotic images—sounds echoing across the cosmos from one side of my mind to the other—and the next moment I seemed to snap back to a state of utterly cold and solid reality.

Only, I was seeing the observatory through at least fifty different eyes, and hearing with fifty different ears, and I couldn’t blink nor turn off the input, so that I was trying to scream, but that just made things worse because my scream bellowed from fifty different speakers, which overloaded fifty different microphones, and within my head a feedback squeal like a migraine peeled across my consciousness.

It was Howard who saved me. Or, rather, his memories.

On the chance that I’d be able to access what was left of Howard’s intellect, I’d networked his old arrays in a cluster adjacent to the main set of blanks I’d set up for myself. In desperate panic, I mentally reached for Howard, and felt a quick jolt of information flow across the link. Suddenly I was on solid mental ground again, my field of vision rapidly narrowed to one camera view, and my ability to hear narrowed down to a single, neutered computer voice that simply said, “Command access granted, Mirek. Awaiting further instructions.”

The system knew my name.

I’d made it.

Only, I couldn’t feel excited about that. Intellectually, I think I was relieved. But the glandular feeling of satisfaction, of triumph, that should have been mine, was absent. All that remained was the coolness of pure, rapid thought. Thought so fast, I felt staggered by the implications. And capability. No mathematical calculation ever need be beyond my grasp again. The moment I could conceive of a problem, the answer was in my mind at the same instant. Memory recall proved similarly instant, and I took a few moments to ponder this reality, which brought on a further jolt of data from Howard’s banks, which were actively integrating with my own, now that they had a reliable cerebral matrix to map to.

It took me only a few minutes to master the network, and another few to access and test all the remaining, functional systems in the observatory.

At once, it became obvious how sloppy and haphazard I’d been. Total facility efficiency was down to forty-two percent, with a list of yellow, orange, and red-lined items stretching into the hundreds. While I scanned and prioritized, I received continual jolts of data from Howard’s arrays. One moment, I’d be wondering how to fix a certain problem. The next, the knowledge would be there, as if it had always been there. As if I’d done it a hundred times before.

Though his personality was barely perceptible in the data, like a tiny aftertaste on the tongue, Howard was still, for all intents and purposes, gone. I sent numerous mental thank-yous to the man’s memory, then made ready to depart the buoy, and begin the down-hill leg of my journey towards the Outbound.

• • •

One thing about being a computerized mind: I could make time go as fast or as slow as I wanted to. Weeks and months evaporated in a blink while I made necessary fixes to reactors and set up a schedule to ration the fuel supply, all the while thrusting gently up the relative velocity curve, being careful to have more than enough fuel left over at the end-point for slowing down. I had no idea what might be waiting for me there, but I knew it’d probably be bad manners to go speeding past the Outbounders like a semi that’s lost its brakes on a steep hill.

I turned my radios forward and began gently peppering my flight path with greetings for whomever it was that would meet me.

I suppose there was always a chance that nobody would meet me, and that the buoy, for all its promise, could have been a deception, or even a relic from an effort that had since failed. But my computer-dictated intellect didn’t have the capacity for real fear. Such strong emotion, I found, was purely a residual memory—like a stimulus response, now delayed. I knew I should be afraid, but this was largely a past-tense knowledge, and did not affect my overall progress, nor my determination to reach my goal.

What happened when I got there…well, I purposely tried not to wonder about that. What use would the Outbound have for a computer mind like me? It wasn’t like I could just put myself back into my own head again. Nor, I began to think, would I want to. The expanded capacity of the neural arrays was almost intoxicating, and after a couple of years had passed I suspected that if ever I had to be restricted again to one set of eyes, one set of ears, one set of senses, I might feel so claustrophobic about the whole affair, I’d go mad.

With the main telescope mostly wrecked, I deployed the backup and used my idle cycles to scan and chart the narrow sliver of the Kuiper Belt through which I passed.

It really was amazing, to see so much debris in an area of space that most humans had thought of as empty, even up to and through the twenty-second century. Only the Outbound had had the forethought to see this region for what it truly was: a refuge from the catastrophes that were sure to strike the planets of the solar system—be they comet or asteroids, intense solar flares, or as had actually happened, the competitive stupidity of humanity itself.

Out in the Kuiper Belt, there was room enough to get lost. Like a hermit penetrating deep into the wild, seeking resources enough to survive and distance enough to avoid the madness of humanity.

I found two more buoys, each with a similar message to the first.

My antimatter fuel passed the point of no return, making it totally impossible to go back to the Jovian region of space. But I paid little attention. I was Outbound now, and there would never be any going back.

Another decade’s worth of time elapsed in surreal ease, and at the end of that, another micrometeoroid shower hit. But I’d secured the vital systems before putting myself into the computer, and the effort paid off. Nothing critical was damaged, though the hydroponics and other life support systems would never operate again—too many micro-holes.

I wondered why my messages, which I had been casting ahead of me like rocks across a pond, garnered no response.

Maybe that was just the nature of being Outbound—never reveal yourself until the time it’s absolutely necessary.

At the twenty-ninth year since leaving Jupiter, I should have felt excited and nervous with anticipation.

I felt only lingering ghosts.

• • •

I never saw the other ship.

One moment, I was alone in space. The next moment, a fifty-meter-wide wedge was matching course and speed—which was no small feat.

I politely lobbed radio hellos at the wedge, anticipating a reply. But all the wedge did was spit out a dozen, tinier wedges, each of which fell on the observatory like fleas on the ass of a dog, and suddenly I was struck by the notion that I’d been baited into a colossal mouse trap.

Each of the small wedges touched down and disgorged a series of spider-like drones that began scrambling into the observatory’s interior, cutting through metal and rock as easily as a knife through butter.

My hello calls became pressed, and then frantic. The spiders blindly ignored my efforts and sped towards the hole where I’d stashed the memory arrays. My cameras and others senses followed them, and I’d have screamed if I’d still felt the kind of visceral panic necessary.

I remember one last camera view, overlooking the arrays. I watched a spider climb on top of my databanks, hungrily rubbing together its claw-tipped forelegs, then I sensed my mind fissioning into separate parts—which seemed like the worst kind of insanity imaginable—then merciful blackness.

• • •

Reactivation was bothersome, because they wouldn’t let me see, hear, nor sense anything. Not at first. All I got was the impression that someone needed me to be patient, so I waited, tasting the quality of my thoughts and finding them…Truncated. Limited. The absolute speed and precision of the observatory’s databanks was missing. It felt like…It felt like?

When I finally opened my eyes—?!—I was greeted by several different faces, all of which appeared concerned. I sat up—?!—and looked at the Outbounders, each of whom was dressed in what I took for medical gowns, though the room in which they’d placed me was remarkably warm, and free from anything even approaching a scalpel or other menacingly surgical object.

“I’m Doctor Hastel. How do you feel?”

That was one of the women, who looked about forty.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “How did you…put me back?”

“It’s a long explanation,” said one of the men, a Chinese-ish fellow in his thirties who identified himself as Surgeon Chow. “Here, I’ll make it simple for you.”

He never moved, but there was a sudden mind jolt, like the ones I’d gotten from Howard’s memory array. In the space of a single second, I suddenly understood everything about the Outbounder procedure. They’d cloned me, using tissue from the frozen corpse they’d found in the observatory’s recording room. Inside my clone brain they’d installed a new organ: a direct-connect interface. They’d used it to slowly trickle my cerebral matrix into the clone brain while the clone body grew.

Now that I was awake, the direct-connect would allow me to access their public network—once they deemed it safe for me to do so. I still had a lot to learn before I could get out of the hospital.

All of this knowledge arrived in my consciousness with a cool surety, as if I’d always known such things. But I felt a tight thrill run down my spine while I looked down at my legs.

“Fully functional?” I asked.

“Yes,” Hastel said, with a small smile. “Were they not before?”

“No,” I said. “Paraplegic.”

“We’ve gotten a few of those,” she said. “Easily fixed.”

I dared to try to move my legs, which had been useless my entire life, and discovered I didn’t really know how. Though if I concentrated, I could feel the sensation of the air cycler’s gentle current across my thighs, such that it created tiny goose bumps.

I felt delirious with sudden joy, tears leaking from the corners of my eyes while I smiled broadly.

My mind began to burst with questions.

“All in good time, Mister Jaworski,” said Chow. “We’re sorry we had to keep you off-line for so long. Even with advanced gen, it takes years to grow a clone body to the decanting stage. You were put into the queue as soon as possible.”

One of the other women, a younger and freckly red-head, asked the next question.

“I’m Surgeon’s Assistant Keilor. What would you like to know first?”

“Can I…” I stopped to really think about it. Then I said, “Can I get something to eat, please?”

The entire group smiled widely.

I looked around. “Is that the right question?”

“You bet,” Keilor said, taking my hand.

Another mind jolt, directly from her.

I slid off the table, and discovered I knew how to walk.

• • •

The Outbound were far more numerous and sophisticated than I’d expected them to be. While the solar system had gone about its myopic, self-centered business, the Outbound had secured great whacks of the Kuiper Belt, both for mining and colonization. Eventually they’d erected a monitoring network that had, at first, been designed to keep an eye on the rest of humanity that lived “down in the hole”, as I’d learned they called everyone who lived inside the orbit of Neptune.

It was this grid which had first detected the Others, who had apparently erected a monitoring network of their own, dating back to the twentieth century.

Things sort of snowballed from there.

Exchanging information and technology with the other sentient species of nearby star systems, the Outbound rapidly outpaced those of us “down in the hole”, so that the Outbound were able to easily mask their gradual takeover of the Kuiper.

None of the Outbound had been surprised by the outbreak of war. They’d seen it coming for many years. The wedge-shaped ship that had intercepted the observatory had been one of numerous, automated picket craft designed to intercept anything sent from the solar system, and determine if it was friendly or hostile. Had I been one of the killsats, or any other hostile entity, I’d have been destroyed. But once they found my memory arrays and determined that I was benign, they pulled the arrays, sampled tissue for cloning, returned both the arrays and the sample to a safe harbor, and the rest was history.

The observatory, along with the bodies of Howard and Tabitha, was allowed to continue on its eternal journey towards the vastness of the far-away Oort.

I bided my time as just another adolescent Outbounder: lounging around in the public spaces, getting used to my new body and its revelatory mobility, and playing on the direct-connect system. Hundreds of thousands of minds, most human, a few alien, all feeding into and interconnected by a vast, peer-based sharing system that was serverless and extended as far as communications equipment could make it go. Not quite a pooled mind, since everyone kept up their privacy barriers, but enough crossover so that we each could learn and access enough information that it was like digesting an entire college semester every day of the week.

I also managed to stay in touch with the freckly red-head from the clone center. Physically, Colleen Keilor was a good bit older than I was, but age didn’t seem to matter much to Outbounders.

Col and I got along quite well.

A couple of years after I awoke among the Outbound, their Quorum announced its intention to begin reclamation of the solar system. The Quorum asked for volunteers to spearhead the effort, which would involve not only cleaning out all the killsats that still prowled between the planets, but a partial terraforming of the wasted Earth.

It would be a protracted effort—the greatest challenge of the Outbound Age.

Col and I signed up immediately.

• • •

Irenka Elaine Jaworski-Keilor was born in the midst of the Inbound flight of the First Reclamation Flotilla. Bright-eyed, and with a face and smile that seems eerily familiar, she brings my wife Col and I a great deal of joy. Once, Irenka would have seemed an impossibility. But through the years of changing diapers and teaching her to read and write and do math and use direct-connect, I’ve gradually accepted the fact that impossibilities are routine in my new, expanded reality.

We’ve reached Jupiter, and found the scorched remains of the old settlements. The killsats were waiting too, but we made short work of them, radioing our progress back to the Second and Third Flotillas which were launched in our wake.

There’s work aplenty for the new inhabitants of the solar system.

I hope that some day I can take Irenka down to Earth and show her a world I once called home, and which, hopefully, with a lot of fixing, might be called home again.

▼ ▲ ▼ ▲ ▼

“Outbound” came together over the winter holiday season in 2008. It was the mixture of two different stories which I’d started and stopped earlier in the year, and which seemed to unconsciously complement each other so well, I decided to blend their components and draft an entirely new story from scratch.

Very often, when you’re a new writer just starting out, you don’t have a lot of faith in your craft: your ability to execute the story in your head—only this time on paper—such that readers will find it as engaging and enjoyable as you do in your mind.

Then, there are stories that just seem to click.

“Outbound” was one of these: I knew when I was done with it, that it was (at that point in time) the best thing I’d yet written. So strong was my surety, that I felt almost electrified as a result. “Outbound” was going to be the story—the one that would put me over the top. Having never sold fiction professionally before, and after many years of fruitless effort, I knew I’d finally (finally!) generated something above-the-standard.

So you’ll understand if I tell you I was significantly crushed when “Outbound” did not win for its quarter of the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest; in which the story had been a Finalist.

How could this story have failed?

I’d written “Outbound” specifically with the Contest in mind. After studying past winning stories. And when I sent “Outbound” to the Contest, I’d already gotten three Honorable Mentions on all three of my previous entries. I knew therefore I was very close to winning, and that “Outbound” would be the story that would earn me a slot at the Contest workshop week, and in the Contest anthology.

So: what went wrong? Had I just been fooling myself? Was my desperation for publication—a long delayed dream—clouding my judgment to the extent that I’d lost perspective on my own work?

Such questions plagued me for weeks after getting the news that “Outbound” hadn’t won. It was definitely one of those long, dark nights of an aspiring writer’s soul: to have come so close—and felt so sure—and still not achieved the goal.

Flash forward half a year.

I sent “Outbound” to Stanley Schmidt, who was at that time editor for Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.

This was in the wake of my having finally won Writers of the Future—with a different story, “Exanastasis”, which is included later in this book.

I let Stan know that “Outbound” was a prior Contest Finalist, and that Contest judge Dave Wolverton had read it and liked it very much, despite its not having won, and that I hoped Stan would like “Outbound” too.

Roughly sixty days after putting the manuscript in the mail—to Stan’s address at Dell Magazines in New York City—I got my self-addressed stamped envelope back.

This was in the days when most short fiction was still going out on paper, so you had to include some kind of pre-stamped envelope in the package, so that the editors could send you their reply—usually a form rejection. Of which I’d already seen dozens from the Analog desk.

Receiving my sad little SASE that particular January evening was almost as crushing as learning the story had not made the cut at Writers of the Future.

Again: was I just fooling myself?

I reluctantly tore my SASE open, observing the half-page form header paper that fell out—and which Stan normally reserved for personalized rejections. I knew what those looked like because I’d gotten a couple from Stan before.

I read the top line of the top paragraph:

“Dear Mr. Torgersen, I like OUTBOUND too, and a contract is coming.”

Wait, what?

I had to read it twice to be sure I wasn’t imagining things.

Vindication was mine!

My daughter can truthfully testify that I was simultaneously whooping, yelling, and jumping up and down (in the seated position!) right there on our living room couch.

You see, Analog is where the big kids get to play. It is—as of this writing—the most-circulated and venerable professional science fiction digest in the English-speaking world. Scores of Big Name people got their start in Analog. Some of my writing heroes still publish in Analog. Getting to have a story in print in Analog felt a bit like stepping up to the plate—having previously done time in the minor leagues—and getting a solid base hit in the majors.

Or was it a home run?

The following year, after “Outbound” was published, I got another piece of mail from Stanley Schmidt. This time informing me that “Outbound” took first place in the Analog Analytical Laboratory readers’ choice poll, for best novelette in 2010.

The story has since been reprinted in several languages in several prestigious overseas publications, as well as being bundled into an Analog best-of-the-decade electronic anthology. It was even hunted up by a Hollywood person who paid me a hunk of change; for him to have the right to shop it around Tinsel Town.

I still get nice fan letters about this story.

I like to think it’s because “Outbound” has heart.

I also want to thank Carolyn Ives Gilman for providing a somewhat spiritual roadmap, with her wonderful story “Arkfall.” If I’d not read and enjoyed “Arkfall” so much, in 2008, I’d not have written “Outbound” the way I did, and the story thus would not have gone on to do as much good for me as it’s done. Because in addition to the substantial paydays and notoriety this story has given me, it also established me with both the Analog staff and the Analog readers—as the kind of writer who could be trusted to provide people with an uplifting, worthwhile experience. A guy who wouldn’t waste the readers’ time—one of Larry Niven’s stated authorial sins.

Thanks, Stan Schmidt. I owe you for trusting me enough to run this story.

And thank you Analog readers, for providing me with such terrific feedback, voter support, and fan mail. On this story, and on so many stories since.


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