Back | Next

Flipping the Switch

No journey to the stars could begin without a starship, and so we continue our journey with a tale about one of those without whom colonization of the stars will never happen: a colonial ship pilot, called upon to take an adventure and sacrifice life at home, until he begins realizing the cost. Did he make the right decision? Would you choose the same? What would you do if you had the option to flip the switch? Jamie Todd Rubin’s story touched my heart. I hope it moves you as well.



The switch in my head is broken. Try as I might, I can’t switch the emotions off.

In all my years of ferrying colonists to the stars, I’d never spent much time wondering if they ever missed Earth. I could turn off my emotions like flipping a switch on the instrument panel. Flip the switch again and my emotions are back. Psychologists called it a disorder, but it’s a prerequisite for any starship pilot, and it virtually guarantees you a job in the space corp. Without worry or care, you can focus fully on the critical tasks at hand.

So I never gave a second thought to the colonists I carried to the stars. Just as it never occurred to me that switch in my head could fail. But try as I might I can no longer switch it off.


Nighttime was better in our tiny studio apartment. Darkness concealed the grimy alley beyond the two barred windows. The stench that rose from pools of murky water below those windows seemed less oppressive when the sun was down. And with the lights out, you couldn’t see the cracking apartment walls closing in on you. Despite the comforting darkness, I couldn’t sleep. I curled up to Selena, resting my hand on her round belly, her skin stretched tight and smooth.

The job had finally come through. In less than a year, I’d be leaving Earth as a full-fledged starship pilot. I’d be doing my part to ferry those who could afford a ticket away from the depressed planet to any one of a dozen brighter futures on colonies amongst the stars. It wasn’t ideal, of course. Selena and the baby would stay behind. But the pay was good, and it would afford them a better lifestyle. For the first time in our lives, we might do more than just scrape by. We wanted to believe this. We were young and in love and we thought that would be enough to carry us through anything—and it was a job, one to which I was particularly well-suited. I don’t think either of us really understood the time-altering implications of the job.

I felt a thump inside Selena’s belly, as if the baby was showing her approval. It touched my heart as surely as I’d felt it with my hand. As a starship pilot, I knew that in a race against anything else, light was the inevitable winner. As a soon-to-be father, I wondered if this was really the case. Didn’t love travel faster than light?

For as long as I could remember, darkness had ruled our lives. I would never have guessed that beginning on that day, light would take over, shaping our lives, defining the relationship between Selena and I; between me and my daughter. Little did I imagine that I would increasingly become an intrusion in her life even as she remained an oasis in mine.

At six weeks old, Gillian looked so different from when she was born that she might well have been another baby. It was hard to imagine that another six weeks would pass before I’d see her again.

Selena was understandably distant the day I left on the first trip. “She’ll be grown up when you get back,” she said, her features hardened into indifference.

“She’ll be eight,” I said and immediately realized it was the wrong reply.

Selena pulled Gillian closer, swaddling her tightly within the sling that hung across her breasts.

I kissed the soft spot on top of Gillian’s head, intoxicated by her fresh smells, creating a memory garden of her scents. During the loneliest times en route, when I lay in my bunk trying to sleep, I intended to wander though that garden, picturing what Gillian might look like, what she was doing, what she had become. I wasn’t sure I could bear to be away from her for a day, let alone six weeks.

I took one more look around the tiny apartment, drab and dreary in the light of day. “You should start receiving my pay as soon as I’m gone. You know what to do with it, right?”

“I know what to do. Safe flight, okay?” She leaned in and kissed me passionately for the first time in weeks.

“Wilco,” I said smiling. I turned to little Gillian. “I’ll bring you back a souvenir, honey,” I said. She cracked a little smile at me.

Then I flipped the switch.


For the next forty-five days, I piloted the Dertorous II, a near-light passenger vessel powered by a subatomic black hole. The ship served as transport for several hundred colonists on their way to the Alpha Centauri system. Most of these stars had no habitable planets. Instead, colonies had been carved into massive asteroids, which provided just as much protection from the star’s radiation as an atmosphere could.

Upon our arrival, we were granted twenty hours of shore leave. I found a gift shop and picked out a burping bib for Gillian. But before I paid for it, I realized that Gillian would no longer be an adorable infant when I returned. I left the shop empty-handed.

The outbound trip might have been exciting for me but for flipping the switch. I was emotionally idle. I didn’t fret or worry over Selena and Gillian. Yet neither could I savor the full emotional impact of the journey itself. I kept myself busy chatting with my crewmates, occasionally making conversation with a colonist, but mostly throwing myself into learning the ropes from the Captain.

Our commander, Captain Tanner, was a good mentor. It was her third trip to the Alpha Centauri system, and she talked as if it might be her last.

“After just three trips?” I asked.

“All you rooks think that way. Six weeks round trip. After a while, you stop thinking in terms of the time that passes out here and start thinking in terms of the time that passes back home. Three trips amounts to less than half a year. But we’re talking about eight-and-a-half light years round trip, three round trips, and all of them at 99.99% C. That’s more than a quarter of a century back home.”

“Not me,” I said, scanning the engine instruments. “I want to see what’s out there.”

“At the price of giving up everyone you love?”

“Pulling them up, that’s what I’m doing. My wife will live better than she’s ever lived before. My daughter won’t know the squalor that I’ve had to live in.” The truth was I didn’t think about them. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Maybe,” the captain said, “but it will cost your wife her husband, and your daughter her father.” I can’t imagine that I smirked, but something in my expression caused the captain to frown and say, “You don’t believe me?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Did you ever ask yourself why none of the passengers come back?”

“They’re out looking for a better life.”

“We’re all looking for a better life. Relativity: that’s the reason they don’t come back. We are time travelers, all of us, skipping years in weeks. What we go home to . . . it’s too painful.”

I did a quick scan of the instruments and then glanced out the viewport. The distorted light was hard to look at, dizzying but not painful.

The glow of the instruments threw dark shadows across the Captain’s face. “Well,” she said softly, “maybe you’re different.”

We didn’t talk much about it after that. I realized that while everyone in the space corps could flip the switch, some chose not to. The captain was clearly someone who didn’t. I missed Selena and Gillian when I thought about them, but I just didn’t think of them much. I enjoyed piloting the starship, but, even there, it was hard to say it was exciting. In flipping the switch, I couldn’t pick and choose what I felt. It was all or nothing. The voyage out was mildly exciting. Returning home was a little less exciting. It wasn’t that I didn’t look forward to going home. I just didn’t look forward to flipping the switch.

We began picking up broadcasts from Earth, and once we’d slowed enough to lower the shields that protected the ship, I was briefed on what had happened on Earth in the eight years I was gone. None of it seemed surprising. Some things were better, some were worse. I’d never been on a vacation before, but I was feeling what I imagined I would if I had been away on holiday.

Included in the briefing was a note that Selena would be waiting for me at the spaceport when I arrived.


I flipped the switch at the last possible moment. When all of the passengers had debarked, all of the checklists complete, I left the Dertorous II behind and dashed into the spaceport. There, at the end of the gangway Selena waited, a soft smile on her face.

Beside her, half hidden in Selena’s skirts, stood a shorter, more childish version of Selena. Same high cheekbones. Same brown eyes. Same dark hair, done up in ponytails tied with wine-colored ribbon. “Hi, Daddy,” she said, wrapping her arms around my waist.

At that moment, I felt my heart melt right into her eight-year-old hands. Overwhelmed, my chest grew tight and I found it difficult to breathe. I picked up Gillian, squeezing her so hard she squealed. “Did you bring me a present?”

Then I realized I’d made a mistake. I’d run out of time to find another gift and hadn’t thought about it since. Now I had to face an expectant eight-year-old with empty hands. “I’m sorry,” I said.

Selena said nothing, her eyes filled with tears—not of joy, but of anger. If Gillian was upset, she didn’t show it. But I was crushed. How could I have been so selfishly forgetful?

On our way home, Gillian told me all about her school and her friends and the house and her bike. I drank it in. But the smells, those wonderful baby scents were no longer there, and some kind of spell had been broken by my wretchedness. What kind of man abandons his family the way I did? Sure, it afforded them a better life, but at what cost? Selena’s silence magnified my distress.

Home, as it turned out, was in a suburb, across the river from the city--and it was an actual house, albeit a small one. Despite Selena’s anger, this did my heart good. The money I earned had gotten Selena and Gillian into substantially better surroundings, despite the fact that the worldwide depression continued to deepen.

I tried to put it out of my mind, but did not flip the switch. I needed to feel these things. This was my penance. And besides, Gillian was eight years old. I had two years before I returned to space. I planned to use them to feel the world around me, to fill the emotional void of the last six weeks, to get to know my daughter.


They say time flies when you become a parent, so imagine being a parent and a starship pilot traveling at relativistic speeds. When I left on a trip, time melted away and Gillian grew up before my eyes in a way that only other pilots understand.

My second trip took me to an ancient M-class fireball orbited by a fledgling science outpost. We ferried a set of scout colonists who would share the potato-shaped asteroid with the scientists. All were eager to get away from Earth and seek out a new life. I wondered, fleetingly, if they realized what they were leaving behind.

We traveled further than my first flight, seventy days round-trip. I thought about home more on this trip than the first one, but that’s because I decided to experiment and flip the switch once we reached our halfway mark. After that I thought about Gillian all the time. By the time we got back home, I felt like I was suffering from a kind of addiction withdrawal—until I saw Selena waiting for me.

Sudden relief overwhelmed me, the kind you experience tumbling into bed after a long day’s work, knowing there are hours and hours of sleep laid out in front of you. She wore an elegant one-piece, the kind we used to see the rich folks wear on their way to the theaters. But something was off. Selena had aged and it was beginning to show. In the two months I’d been gone, she’d gained twelve years of lines in her face, twelve years of sag and decay. My god, she’d turned fifty earlier in the year! I was still in my late thirties.

I looked around.

“Where’s Gillian?” I asked with a kind of overeager desperation.

“At school,” Selena said. Our arms entwined and her head rested against my shoulder as we walked.

“What time does she get home?”

Selena stopped walking and gave me a look. “School, Zach. University. She’s on the other side of the country.”

My heart sank. A wave of nausea pummeled me. I was desperate to see my daughter and she was thousands of kilometers away. It was then that I realized what Captain Tanner had tried to explain to me on that first trip. Flipping the switch built a dam, blocking off a sea of emotion. The problem was the basic tool: a switch, not a valve. There was no flow control. Flipping my emotions back on converted that potential emotional energy into kinetic energy all at once.

The emotions prevented me from masking my disappointment, and I could see how that hurt Selena, but she said nothing more about it.

Selena was in a new house—new to me anyway. It was farther north than the old house and substantially larger than the first one. Its furnishings were elegant, clearly the result of professional decoration. I hesitated to walk on the imported tile floors that led from the foyer through a sunken living room and into the bright kitchen that overlooked a wooded backyard. I brushed my finger across the surface of a bookshelf and it came up dust-free. Nanites, Selena explained. They came out at night and carried away all of the dust.

“How do you do it?” Selena asked, kicking off her shoes and curling up into an egg-shaped chair.

“Do what?”

“Turn off your emotions, flip the switch.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “it’s just something that I’ve always been able to do.”

“But is it really like flipping a switch? Is there some mental trick you perform and—click!—no emotion?”

I thought about it for a moment. “How do you move your finger?” I asked.

Selena tilted her head, her eyes studying me with an unnerving, quizzical stare. “I guess I just will it to move.”

“That’s how I flip the switch. It’s like willing your finger to move.”

“Are you doing it now?”

“Of course not.”

She stared through me, past me. “I wish I could flip the switch . . .”


Later that night, I called Gillian. “She goes by Jill now,” Selena warned me.

Seeing her on the screen was like looking back in time. At twenty-two, she was only slightly younger than her mother was when we first met. I saw in my daughter an image of the woman with whom I’d fallen in love some fifteen years ago. Fifteen years relative to me, anyway.

“Hey, Dad, how was the trip?” Her unintentional impersonation of Selena’s voice was perfect. I wanted to reach out through the screen and hold her, tell her how much I missed her. She was growing up—had grown up—without me.

We talked for a while as Jill caught me up on the last twelve years of her life; how she’d been accepted to the school in California; how she’d majored in something called sentient psychology; how she’d be graduating in just a few months. There were some gaps, and I wondered what she was leaving out.

“Will you be at the graduation?” she asked.

“Of course I will.”

“When do you go back?”

I hesitated for a moment, wondering if Selena hovered nearby. “Two years,” I said. “It’s always two years between flights. Family time and all. But on the bright side, I’ve been promoted to captain. I’ll be in command of the next flight.”

“Good for you, Dad,” she said. I could tell she wanted to say more but held back. “Gotta go. See you soon.”

Before bed, as I was recounting the call to Selena, she said, “I can’t live like this anymore, Zach.” There was a calmness about her, a peacefulness in her expression, a softness that seemed to melt away the hard lines of her face. It was as if she were somehow detached, as if she had learned to flip her own switch.

I started to speak, but Selena put a finger to my lips.

“You’ll be here for two years and then you’ll be off again, and for who knows how long. Look around. You’ve given us everything we could have hoped for. Everything but you.” My heart jumped to my throat as she continued: “My life is going by without you. Jill’s life is going by without you. She seems ambivalent about it, but she’s used to your absence. I suppose I am, too. But I can no longer live like this, okay?”

She may have been calm, but I felt frantic. I thought back to those colonists, eager to leave the Earth behind and wondered how I could not have seen then what I saw now—each time I went away, I lost more of my connection to home—more of myself. I still loved Selena desperately, and when she said no more, it was as if the roots of our love, buried deep in my heart were ripped away with an angry violence. I tried to argue with her and wanted desperately to flip the switch, but I knew it would only make things worse.

Within a few weeks, we put through the paperwork. There was no bitterness, no pointing of fingers. We attended Jill’s graduation together. Jill introduced us to a young man she’d been seeing. There was talk of marriage, and I was happy for her. I promised to visit often, whenever I was back on Earth.

And when it was all over, I headed home, but Selena did not come with me. We went our separate ways. I tried to be happy for her, but it still hurt. Dreading the dark feelings that I knew would linger for weeks and months, I finally flipped the switch.

This was not the future I had hoped to see, and I grew itchy for my next trip, eager to leave this place and come back to a happier time.


This trip—my first in command—took me to Sirius, a binary star system that included a mismatched pair of white stars. Forty-five days to get there and forty-five days back. I was still five months short of my fortieth birthday when I returned home. Nearly two decades had passed on Earth.

It sunk in a bit more once I’d flipped the switch back on.

My granddaughter’s name was Zoe, and I met her a few weeks later when she arrived for a visit with Jill and her husband (my son-in-law!)—a trim, rugged-looking young man by the name of John Osuna—to celebrate my homecoming. Zoe was ten years old and it was very hard not to think of her as my own daughter. She had a strong resemblance to Jill, but she’d inherited enough of her father’s features to ensure she didn’t look much like Selena at all.

We chatted. Conditions had improved on Earth. The depression had started to recede into the ocean of the past, leaving behind it a transformed world. Slowly, things were recovering.

“It’s like the economy has been hibernating these last few decades and is just now waking up to the spring thaw,” Jill said, and there was wisdom in her words. It took me a few days to realize why.

“How’s your mother doing?” I asked Jill one evening.

“Good. Remarried. Happy.”

The remarried part, though not unexpected, still stung. I turned my attention to Zoe, who was playing in the den with a model starship I’d brought for her. Jill was peeling carrots. “She adores you, you know? Zoe, I mean.”

“She hardly knows me.”

“She knows you’re a starship pilot and that gives her a certain amount of bragging rights with her friends. She’s a lot like you . . . Dad.”

Her subtle hesitation brought an awkward realization to the foreground: My daughter was two-and-a-half years older than me! Though it hardly seemed possible, she had lived more years than I, had more life experience than I did. As a father, I felt a creeping paranoia that perhaps I wasn’t needed any longer; that’d outlived my purpose.

“I worry about her sometimes,” she continued, “She can do it, you know. Turn off her emotions. They say it skips a generation. I’m afraid that she’ll follow in your footsteps too closely, run off to the stars. Hardly age.”

We must have been thinking the same thing, because she gave me a look. “What it is you look for out there, Dad? What’s so important that you’ve spent most of your life away from your family?” It wasn’t exactly anger in her voice.

“A better life,” I said. “For you. For Zoe. For your mother.”

“Our life isn’t out there,” she said.

“You don’t know what things were like, how we lived.”

“Maybe so, but I know what it was like to grow up without a father. Things are different now, Dad. Look around. We’re doing just fine. We’re happy with the life we’ve got. We’d be even happier with you in it.”

It wasn’t until that moment that I knew that I was searching for something out among the stars. Jill was right. Their lives were better than I could have dreamed possible. But I was no longer a part of that life. The lure of the stars called out to me once again. I tried to hush it by doting on Zoe. She was absolutely wonderful. She warmed my heart.

A few nights later, I was in the backyard with Zoe, looking up at the night sky. She would point to a star, I’d name it, and she’d ask, “Have you been there?”

Sirius was bright in the sky that night, and I pointed to it and said, “See that one? That’s Sirius. I’ve been there. If you look carefully, you might even see me, still floating around up there.”

“Don’t be silly, Grandpa. You’re here.”

I tasseled her hair and said, “Of course I am.” But it wasn’t where I belonged. The siren song was calling me again, and I knew that in two years, I’d answer that call.


The call came three weeks before my second trip to Alpha Centauri. Jill sounded frantic. Selena had been killed in an auto accident near her home in France. There was a pressure in my chest as I heard the words. I didn’t want to believe them. First the memories: our first date; our wedding; the day Gillian was born. That dam I’d constructed dissolved, emotions flooding like a surging river overflowing its banks and spreading its cold waters into the dry, empty spaces of my heart. But now was not the time. Not three weeks from the trip.

I flipped the switch.

At first, nothing happened.

Fear spilled into the flood like black oil. It was a lot like those nights, when I was a youngster, and I’d wake up from a dream, unable to move. Regardless of my brain screaming commands at my arms or legs, they wouldn’t budge—at first.

I felt dizzy. My face was warm and beads of sweat accumulated at my temples while a bitter taste filled the back of my tongue. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. I took a breath, tried to calm myself, much as I tried to do when I was a youngster. And then I gave the switch a single, violent tug. The world of emotion went dark and I could relax.

A funeral was planned for the following week. On the shuttle across the Atlantic, I allowed myself to feel some of the pain again. I tried making sense of it all, tried to understand how someone so young could be taken away so suddenly. But then again, Selena wasn’t so young, she was seventy-two—it was I who had barely aged, thirty years younger than she. When I flipped the emotions off again—this time without any trouble—our life together, Selena and I, seemed like someone else’s, a past life, something I’d seen in the holos, or read in a novel somewhere.

The funeral took place on a blindingly bright day at a small cemetery on the northern coast of France, a warm breeze carrying the pungent smell of the sea off the water. I stood with Jill and John and Zoe during the ancient service that Selena had insisted upon. Afterward, I sought out her husband, Matthieu, and tried to come up with words of condolence that somehow fell flat. Even as I took Mattieu’s hand, I could see the discomfort in his eyes. It was something I’d never really noticed before. You don’t belong here, it said. You don’t belong in this time.

That night at the inn, after John had taken Zoe to find something to eat, Jill lit into me.

“You were never there for her,” she said. “You were always running off to the future, running away from what you had at home. You never saw what it did to her. She hid it from you.” There was a gleam in her eyes that I recognized. Jill was holding back her tears. “She waited for you. Every time you went away, she waited. She was in love with you from the start, but that wasn’t enough for you, was it?”

“I loved your mother very much,” I said.

“But you loved something else more, didn’t you? You still do.” Her voice cracked, her face crumpled into her hands. “And you abandoned her for it!

I knew then that Jill was right, but I also knew she was no longer talking about Selena. It’s one thing for a man to love something more than his wife, but what kind of man loves something more than his daughter? There was nothing I could say in response, but she didn’t give me a chance.

“Zoe will not be like that. I won’t allow it. She thinks the world of you, and wants to be a starship pilot. Well, I won’t have it. I won’t have her abandoning her family the way you abandoned yours. She won’t listen to me, but she’ll listen to you. You need to talk her out of it. You need to convince her that it’s not worth it.

That I could never do.

I adored Zoe and knew she had to follow her heart. I could never tell Jill how proud I was that Zoe’s heart might lead her to the stars, but it was the truth. From the shadows, I heard echoes of my grandfather’s voice quoting Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true . . .” Zoe had to be true to herself, just as I had to be true to myself. Yet I could not bear to live with my daughter’s resentment, either. There was only one choice I could make.

Rather than wait out the two year cycle, I volunteered to cover a trip to Tau Ceti after the scheduled pilot decided to retire. I might not be able to talk Zoe out of becoming a starship pilot, but I didn’t have to be around to cause her or Jill any more pain. Jill wouldn’t speak to me when I told her my decision to leave early. Zoe seemed thrilled for me.

“That’s your longest trip yet!” she said, circling the star on the chart she kept on her wall. I watched her, watched her excitement, and for just a moment, I thought that maybe I could stay behind. Within my granddaughter was the spark of what I had and seeing it through her eyes might not be so bad. It would be awfully difficult to leave her behind to grow up without me. But despite everything I wanted for Zoe, I owed it to Jill not to interfere any further.

“My longest trip yet,” I repeated, staring at Zoe’s star chart. But whereas she might have been thinking of distance, I was thinking of time.


Tau Ceti, now that was a voyage! We were only the third ship sent out with the improved Sarkisian drives which brought us within five-nines—99.999% C. Twelve light years in about three weeks! And the star itself! Its yellowish light set aglow a halo of dense dust scattered throughout its orbital reach. It was the most magnificent view I’d ever seen in my life, and, when I flipped the switch on in order to feel the local sun’s full effect, I felt as if I stood before the gateway to heaven.

Almost as quickly, I descended into the pit of hell.

Jill’s words came back to me, still stinging after three weeks, the more so having repressed the emotions for so long. I couldn’t bear it, not in the glory of this work of nature spread before me. So I flipped the switch off—except nothing happened. It simply didn’t work. The emotions: awe, anger, fear, shame, all of them crashed in upon me and no matter how hard I tried, I could not will them back.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter.

The three week return trip was sheer agony. I replayed in my mind all of my choices, caught up in the game of “if only . . .” I mourned over the loss of Selena, and bitterly regretted what I had done to her—to us. And Jill’s words . . .

Each day I tried to flip off the switch, always with the same result. I once heard that the definition of insanity was trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results. I was terrified I was losing my grip on reality.

I tried thinking of Zoe. She was just like me. She understood me. She had the gift, as Jill had pointed out. I realized that it was a mistake not to say anything to her. Zoe needed to know what she was getting into. I needed to warn her and decided to make that my first priority when I arrived home. The switch might be broken, and my emotions might be running wild, but I knew that seeing Zoe’s face, hearing the excitement in her voice, would be my anodyne. It was her face and voice that got me through those remaining weeks—weeks that remain, to this day, the most horrific in my life.

We arrived back at Earth, and though it had been only three weeks since I’d lost control of the switch, it seemed as though I’d never really had control to begin with.

Distracted, deep in my thoughts as I passed through the spaceport, I didn’t recognize Jill when she called out to me.

“Dad?” she said as I passed by, my gazed fixed on the long concourse.

I stopped and turned to face her. For her, twenty-five years had passed. A quarter century! And I wasn’t there for a minute of it. Not for the first time, I questioned my true motives. What good was providing for a family you were never there for?


She put her arms around my neck. “I’m so sorry, Daddy.”

She drove me to her house and John greeted me. He was looking trim and gray, but I clearly recognized the man who’d been married to my daughter for more than thirty-five years now. At dinner, they told me about Zoe.

“She became a starship pilot, like her grandfather,” Jill said.

I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say, but Jill smiled and touched my arm. “It’s okay. It’s what she wanted to do. It’s what makes her happy. When you are a parent, all you really want is for your kids to be happy, right?”

Jill and John went on to tell me that they had four grandchildren—that made me a great grandfather four times over! Two of them were Zoe’s kids, and the other two were Sam’s kids. Sam had been born a year after I left.

“Do you see your grandkids often?” I asked.

“We see Ella and Darin all the time,” Jill said. “But Zack and Tasha went with Zoe and Ryan into space.”

The company was now allowing pilots to bring their families with them. With more and more people going to increasingly distant stars, allowing families to travel with the pilots kept turnover to a minimum. But what really struck me was something else:

Zoe named her son after me.

I felt consumed with the need to see my granddaughter—as a grownup, as a starship pilot, as a kindred spirit. I quizzed Jill and John on where she had gone, but they weren’t certain. All they knew was that it was far away. They would never see her again.

“But it doesn’t have to be like that,” I said. “My next trip is in two years. I can pick and choose now. I can pick something that is equally far, and we can meet her back here when the trip is over! My heart was pounding with excitement.

We?” Jill said.

“I can bring my family now. You can come with me.”

The look that passed between Jill and John hinted at what was coming. “That’s not our life, Dad. We’re happy here. We’re retired. We get to see Sam and the kids often. We like our life.”

“But Zoe—”

“We said goodbye to Zoe when she and Ryan and their kids left. We knew it was for good.”


“You have your reasons for going, Dad. You always have. We have our reasons for staying.”


It took some digging, but I found out where Zoe had gone and when she’d be back. As a senior captain, I had my choice of flights. There was a ship scheduled to leave to Betelgeuse, and it was mine if I wanted it. The question was: did I want it?

I could leave instructions for Zoe. Jill would see to it she received them. If she followed them, she could arrange to arrive back on Earth within a year of my arrival back from Betelgeuse. But Betelgeuse was six hundred light years away. Even at five-nines, it meant more than five years in space. And of course, twelve hundred years would pass on Earth. Not only would I be saying goodbye forever to Jill and John, I’d be saying goodbye to just about everything I’d ever known. On the other hand, it was my opportunity to venture farther into the future than I’d ever thought possible. And there was at least a chance that I would get to see Zoe again.

I agonized over the decision, wishing that I could flip the switch off, knowing that if I could, it would be an easy decision to make. I thought back all those years ago when Selena and I first considered starting a family. All we were trying to do was little more than scrape by.

I had a daughter, a son-in-law, both successful, both happy. I had grandchildren. I lost Selena, and perhaps Zoe too, but, even so, they saw benefits from sacrifices we made. It slowly began to dawn on me that I had right here on Earth everything I had hoped for when I’d left in the first place.

The next morning, I told Jill and John: “I’m staying.”

Later that day, I scribbled out two letters. The first was to the space corps, asking them to put through my retirement papers, effective immediately. I did this not without sorrow, but without any regrets.

The second was to Zoe:

Dear Zoe,

Each night I look up at the stars and remember the time when you were just a young girl and we stargazed together. You pointed to Sirius, and I told you that if you looked carefully, you might still see me up there. “Don’t be silly, Grandpa,” you said, “You’re here!

When I gaze up at the stars now, I imagine that I can see you, wandering around up there, raising your family, living your life as you have chosen to do. I wish I could be up there with you, but my place is here now. I wanted you to know, however, that you were right. A person can be in two places at once. For as surely as I see you voyaging to distant stars, I also feel you in my heart every day.

By the time you read this, I’ll be long gone. But maybe I’ll linger in your heart as you have in mine.

All my love,

Your Grandfather

There’s a switch inside my head over which I once had complete control. Flip it off and my emotions would wink out like a light cut off from its power source. Flip it on and all of those cares and worries snapped instantly back in place.

Now that switch is broken. Try as I might I can’t switch it off.

Thank goodness for that.

Back | Next