The further apart we are, the closer I feel. The Goliath will be nearing its maximum velocity, and you’ll give the order to reverse the engines and begin the twenty-day deceleration, riding plasma fumes towards the Mars colony. After a six-day layover to rest, refuel and exchange cargo, you will come home.
We always keep in contact when you’re gone, so I never feel alone. Not even when I lay in bed at night, staring at a real-time projection of the night sky against the ceiling. Comets burst, stars twinkle, and ships soar where we should be together.
I curse the loss of feeling in my legs, the weakness in my arms, and the burning pain that consumes it all. My loss of mobility robs me of more than myself; it steals away us, what we should have been.
We met during summer break, in the shadows of the Silver Island mountains, at the Gemini Challenge time trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah. I was so strong then, racing a Speeder equipped with a prototype of the neural piloting interface I had worked on while interning at the Office of Naval Research. I flew hard enough to overheat the compression coil and shake loose the bolts on my seat but I won my heat by nearly three seconds.
You were in the garage when I was towed in. You were the new pilot on the team, and a year behind me at the Naval Academy. I thought you were going to swallow your tongue when I took off my helmet and you realized I was a girl, too. You recovered quickly, introduced yourself, and asked me out for coffee. That is how we began.
• • •
“We could get married, you know.”
Simple words that bound us together tighter than either of us suspected. We were about to graduate and speculating where our first assignments would take us.
“That way,” you sputtered nervously, “they’ll have to post us together.”
We both knew that was wishful thinking. The Navy didn’t always post married couples together but it didn’t matter. I wanted to be with you in every possible way.
“Let’s do it. Tonight,” I said.
“Tomorrow,” you replied. You put a finger to my lips to stop my protest. “Tonight, we celebrate.”
We hailed the next cab and told him to take us somewhere lively. We ended up at that Irish pub on Fremont, where we drank overpriced beer, clapped and sang along to the live music, and danced until the sun came up.
You took the lead when I stumbled and collided with you. We laughed, blaming it on the drink. Neither of us suspected those missteps and imbalances were anything more. We were young, naive, and ready to make our mark on the world together.
The courthouse opened at nine o’clock. Smelling like stale tobacco and spilled beer we waited in line with the other couples looking to be united. Before lunchtime the justice of the peace declared, with the power vested in him by the State of California and the city of San Francisco, that we were wed.
As we fell asleep in each other’s arms that afternoon, still fully clothed, I thought to myself how lucky I was to have found you, and that together we could accomplish anything. I never suspected the troubles that lay ahead, the wedge that would nearly destroy us.
• • •
Shortly after our second anniversary and fresh out of Command School, we went on leave and splurged on the honeymoon suite at the Monterosa Ski Resort in the Italian Alps. We didn’t even set foot outside our room for the first two days. When we did, we took the lift to Punta Jolanda and found a piste that wound through beautiful and tall fir trees and rock gardens.
“Race you,” I said, and launched down the slope.
You followed and quickly overtook me. I gave chase, the wind whipping through my hair and the cold air stinging my cheeks. The end of the run was in sight and I tucked, bending my knees and huddling tight to my thighs — and I almost caught you — when it happened. There was no searing pain, no trauma; the muscles in my leg simply stopped working.
I pitched forward and rolled, losing my skis and poles in the loosely packed snow. Somewhere on the way down I must have clipped a tree. When I opened my eyes, we were in an ambulance racing down the mountain and you were holding my hand tight.
“Good thing being an Officer doesn’t require grace,” you said.
I smiled, forcing a small laugh between gritted teeth.
Battered and bruised, and more embarrassed than I would ever admit, the paramedic monitored my vitals and tried to calm our frayed nerves. Every inch of my body hurt but I was lucky; nothing seemed to be broken.
A short, balding Swiss doctor who spoke in clipped English met us at the hospital and examined me. He ordered x-rays and blood work, admitting me overnight because of my symptoms, and insisted on doing a CT scan because I had lost consciousness.
At the Monte Rosa clinic, we heard the words that would forever change us: autosomal recessive Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy. Rare, incurable, and eventually terminal.
Before I had been discharged from the hospital, the records were transmitted to Naval Command and I was placed on medically restricted duty.
• • •
The gravity of our situation became clear when our new orders arrived from Naval Command. I was reassigned to San Diego, to be retrained and ultimately assist in the ReGenesis project. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry until I saw the look on your face.
Your orders took you away for a six-month tour of duty, to protect the civilian lanes against pirates and rogue nations looking to disrupt commerce. It was an assignment that we had dreamed of but not alone.
I arranged for our things to be moved and found an apartment with an ocean view while you reported for your first mission briefing. I spent our first six months apart deep in paperwork, logistics, classrooms, and doctor’s offices. The Navy doctors were thorough, and while they never said much, I felt reassured by the attention.
Every morning I would write you a letter and every evening I would return home to read yours. Alone, disabled and grounded, I would have been swallowed by a darkness if not for that. They gave me something to hold on to when everything else seemed bleak.
Days bled into weeks and months. When your first duty ended, you helped me finish unpacking. An awkwardness separated us. All of the things we used to do together were impossible for me then. My degeneration had progressed rapidly in your absence. I could still walk with crutches and pauses to catch my breath. There were no more races or rocket gliders in our future together.
“We’ll adapt,” you said, putting away the dishes one night. It was me who was changing, though. You were coping, marvelously so, but the stress was apparent. By the time your leave ended and you left for your next tour, you wore both relief and guilt like a mask for all to see, and I felt a sense of relief. I was falling apart. We were crumbling, together, but apart we were the same. Our daily letters continued and life returned to normal, until the next time.
• • •
The last day I walked, I was at the San Diego Zoo and you were in space, surveying damage to the satellites along the outer rim after a meteor storm. I wore the floppy straw hat that you once compared to a stingray. White streaks of unevenly applied sunscreen covered my exposed skin, to protect against the unforgiving August sun.
I couldn’t admit that my body was failing, so I often spent my free time walking. The animals in their open-air exhibits were still living in a cage, even if they couldn’t see bars around them. We had much more in common than I realized at the time.
Even with the canes I used for balance and support, the pain in my leg was unbearable. I forced myself to keep walking, to prove that I could. I made it through the Ituri Forest and the Panda Research Station. Halfway through the African Safari, the burning tendril that connected my hip and knee slackened, forcing me to sit on the blistering pavement. The laughter of the Hyenas rang in my ears.
I crawled to the nearest bench and sat there, too ashamed to ask for help. Most of the times my body rebelled me, it was only temporary. I trying willing my leg back to life. I swore at it, I punched it, I pleaded with it. Nothing I did would bring it back.
Hours later, a concerned passerby stopped and called for help. The sun beating down on me had left angry red streaks across my flesh. My hat lay in the dirt from when I fell. They said I was calling your name, over and over again. The paramedics had to scan my ID chip to find my name and medical history.
We do stupid things in our grief; I spent a night in the hospital recovering from sunstroke. You spent the remainder of your tour in the brig, having broken the nose and dislocating the jaw of the ensign who delivered the news and made a wisecrack about it when he thought you were out of earshot.
• • •
You were granted a ninety-day furlough to care for me. We cashed in our savings to buy and remodel a condo, making it easier to get around. Doorways were widened to accommodate the motorized wheelchair I was now bound to. Handrails were installed to give me leverage to stand, for as long as my arms would work. I felt like a baby being swaddled in cloth.
I’d spent our married life trying to deny my condition but now evidence of it surrounded me. Anger erupted over the smallest things. I smashed a mug against the floor because I couldn’t reach the sugar for my tea. My challenges had become limitations and accepting that wasn’t easy.
Returning to work was a relief for the both of us. You were space-bound and I resumed my research for the ReGenesis project, where I felt useful again. The Navy gave me a purpose; it defined us. Our lives returned to normal — normal for us, at any rate.
The vows we took said for better or worse, and we saw our share of both. You never complained over what my loss meant for you. Always patient, always understanding and there were times I hated you for that. You were my partner; my lover; my best friend. And when duty called, you abandoned me, arranged for caretakers to take your place.
• • •
Instead of waking in the morning to your face, I’m greeted by one of the automatons that look after me. They perform their duty mindlessly: lift me out of bed and into my chair, help me wash my body, change my clothes and inject the drugs that dull the worst of the pain while stripping me of humanity.
A contract is a contract, and the Navy has upheld their end of the bargain. Even though I am unable to stand or function as intended, they still find a use for me. I knew how to command and pilot a ship, and I had an aptitude for mechanics and navigation.
With specialized training, I’ve worked my way through the ReGenesis project. My body may be broken but my mind is strong.
All of the computers in the world combined can’t compete with the computing power of the human mind.
The experimental work I’d been involved with at the Office of Naval Research had evolved. The neural piloting interface was adapted to the complex task of running a generational ship. The first truly long-term human project would be helmed by a human operating system.
The plan was ambitious, reaching beyond anything ever accomplished, and while the ship waited in orbit, its designers were in a panic. At first, the Navy scientists believed that the interface was flawed, when in truth there was nothing wrong with it. The test pilots connected to the interface were able to operate the spaceship but suffered from severe headaches. Their minds were unable to process the streams of input from both ship and body. One volunteer described it like trying to run underwater, sideways, while trying to calculate the Schrödinger equation of each movement.
“It’s possible,” I suggested during a briefing, “that the human mind is too familiar with its own physicality to accept another. If the bodies stream was separated and blocked, maybe that would solve the problem.”
Scientists, engineers, and a Brigadier General nodded their heads. We discussed my theory, and the risks, for hours. The seed had been planted.
• • •
Control. We spend our lives believing that we have control — over ourselves, each other, something. Genetics stripped me of control, setting me adrift. Now I claw desperately, like a caged animal, for anything that makes me feel like I have power over my own life.
Everything in our lives led us to space, from model rockets to racing experimental speeders, watching the first commercial space flight when we were in grade school, and going to the academy. Now you are there and I am here.
You have done everything you could for me, but nothing you do can make me whole again. Eventually it will be the muscles of my heart failing and who I am will not matter anymore. I see it in your eyes even if you can’t admit it, when you lift me out of my chair, feed me, or wipe my ass. The thing that you love, the thing that is me, is not this broken shell.
I can’t live like this, and I can’t die. Even if I could grasp a bottle of pills I lack the strength or coordination to open it. I was forced to find another way.
The further apart we are, the closer I feel. That has been the way of us, two bodies in motion moving in parallel trajectories, occasionally sharing an orbit.
The seed I planted germinated and grew. What if, the scientists concluded, we disrupted the spinal cord and blocked the interfering signal. Disconnect the mind from the body to eliminate the confusion. You can see where I’m going with this; of course I volunteered. It was, after all, my idea from the start and I was the perfect candidate.
My spinal cord was severed, my body placed on life support, and my brain plugged into the neural interface. It was confusing at first, like learning to ride a bike for the first time. As I learned to use my new body, I took control of the ship, system by system. I watched the scientists and engineers through my cameras as their expressions turned from cautious optimism to cries of joy. Our beleaguered project was finally a success.
I am free now, and so are you. My old body lives on, cared for by Navy nurses who will see to its care and feeding but it is not me, not anymore. When you return, you will be offered a position on the ship. We can be together, separate but whole. We’ll never dance again but we can explore the stars beyond our own, together. The choice is yours.
Adam Israel was born with one foot on the road and a book in his back pocket. Having lived in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, he’s expatriated to Ontario, Canada with his wife, three dogs and three cats. With his nomadic days behind him, he spends his days working freelance as a writer and software developer.
A graduate of the 2010 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, his fiction has appeared in print and pixel, most recently in Crossed Genres, and the anthologies The Crimson Pact 2 and Finding Home: Community in Apocalyptic Worlds. He is a member of the Inkpunks group blog, and can be found online at www.adamisrael.com and on Twitter @adamisrael.