I wrote this half a year ago for a college course and was thinking of submitting it to a school magazine, but I just got word that the deadline's in a week and now that I re-read this it seems horribly amateurish, oh my god. Please help me, forums! Should I try to fix this or should I scrap it and instead submit two different stories that are each half as long?
Summary: This is a sci-fi story about brave interplanetary explorers coping with the fact that their spaceship has broken down. The mag I thought to send it to may or may not "do" sci-fi, but it does do pretentious.
I do intend to throw in smart quotes rather than flat quotes when/if I submit it as a printed piece.
"It was the pistons," Li said. "One of them shattered outright, embedded itself in the main processor. Probably the metal wasn't cast to specifications."
Josephus resettled herself in her plush chair. She folded her hands together on the table before her deliberately.
"You would have fixed it by now if it were repairable," she said.
"Yes," Li said.
"Our propulsion is entirely offline."
"Yes." He looked down at his titanium-wrapped librum, blinked a blink that was more of a wince, and turned down its backlight to a more manageable level. "We could have — if we'd caught it earlier it might have been repairable, but the alarm system was based in the processor it destroyed. We didn't know anything was wrong until we caught a shift in the electro-magnetic pulses downbay."
Josephus' brow furrowed. "I thought the damage would be more widespread."
"Well... it has, now that we've been running for two days with the power cycling down. The Zacua is within four days of us, but we would need more replacement parts than they have onboard. So..."
Josephus let her eyes fall closed. It was what she had been expecting. "We're packing up."
"I expect they'll tell us to," Li said. "It would cost more to tow us back home and make repairs than to build another ship from scratch."
They sat in silence for a long moment.
"Has Creft called the Zacua?" Josephus finally asked.
"She and Jonlan already went to bed. They'd been up for a while with me. But Creft keeps the codes for the Zacua crew just atop the messenger desk, so that's fine." Li's pale skin, almost the color of sand, did nothing to hide the circles beneath his eyes. "I'll go make the call. They'll have a good enough idea of where we are that I doubt they'll need interception coordinates until tomorrow, at least."
"Go and do it now, then," Josephus said. She leaned back in her chair, rubbing at her face. "Get some sleep afterwards."
"I will." Li paused in the doorway. "I'm really sorry, Seph."
The idea of preserving a respectful distance between members of a hierarchy was becoming somewhat old-fashioned in their field. Among skeleton crew voyagers, if it was ever present in the first place, it rarely lasted past Mars.
"It's all right," she said. He wasn't at fault, after all.
She had begun to think that no one was.
# # #
Their propulsion systems had stopped, but their ship hadn't. Inertia left them drifting through the star-dappled blackness of the outer solar system. Josephus spent the night with the window in her cabin uncovered, sleeping uneasily beneath illumination that could hardly be called so.
In the morning, when the ship's wall panels began to lighten in mimicry of natural sunlight, she rose and made her way to the kitchen.
Those of her crew whose positions on the ship were uninvolved with the trouble, except insofar as the trouble had just robbed them of the ship whereupon they held positions, were already halfway through an uninspired breakfast thrown together largely from Farsa's raw plant materials. Josephus recognized their small signs of discontent: Haman's plate looked untouched, Emerick was unduly preoccupied in reading his librum, and Farsa himself only ate his carrots quietly, with none of the joviality that Josephus was accustomed to.
She sat down with them, gathering apple slices and plums onto her plate. Emerick looked up at her.
"Nine AU out as of an hour ago," he said.
It drew the attention of the others. Farsa hastily swallowed his carrots, looking to make a reply, but Haman beat him to it.
"You're still keeping track?"
Emerick tilted his head in what seemed a mildly embarrassed way, consulting his librum once more. "I thought you might want to know. It's the furthest anyone's been in forty-six years."
"What's the record overall, though?" Farsa asked, leaning across the table as if to read Emerick's librum from upside-down.
"Assuming we break nine and a half within the next few days, which we should at our current velocity, our ship pair will be... second-farthest, as of yet."
"Ship pair," Farsa scoffed. "No, no. No one cares about the rescue tail. The Zacua will be a footnote. We will be venerated. And — sent out on the newest model, should we want to, in a year or so. Cheer up, Haman, you're still young."
"I'm not upset," Haman said, giving him a weary smile. She was in her sixties, and dressed far more conservatively than she behaved, to the extent that Josephus sometimes wondered if she had inherited her formalwear from her great-grandparents and never bothered to expand into any other sartorial field. This morning, her silk headscarf was almost unnoticeably askew.
"You're a little upset," Farsa said, hooking her plate with a fork and pulling it across the table to him.
"I am a little upset," she admitted. "But it isn't my first voyage. I've... well, you begin to expect it. At least — "
She fell silent. Josephus, whose duty it was meant to be to monitor the physical and mental health of her crew, belatedly withdrew from her own turmoil in mixed concern and self-recrimination.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Oh," Haman said, and shook her head. "It's nothing. Just — "
Her eyes turned to the viewscreen at the edge of the kitchen, a long line of black against the white walls. "Well, I meant to say at least I got to see Saturn in person," she said. "But it's really just a dot from here, isn't it?"
"Very pretty dot," Farsa offered, eating Haman's helping of bread.
"Better in pictures, I think," Emerick said. "There's a particularly good one from, ah, three centuries ago, I think. Historic. The clarity isn't the best, but the colors are very nice. It's lit up from behind by the sun. The rings are all aglow."
"I thought that one was older."
"Oh, it's based on an older one," he said. "They updated it when technology improved. The cameras were better, so when they were sending an unmanned ship by, they took another..."
He trailed off. Haman's eyes were downcast again, her mind obviously somewhere else.
"They've had very good photos of the Pleiades, lately," Emerick finished lamely.
"Yes, they always do," Farsa said.
Josephus focused once more on her apple slices. The rest of breakfast was quiet.
# # #
Farsa had signed on with them barely a week before they left. It had been past the application deadlines, but their former agricultural engineer had withdrawn and left them with a space that needed filling. It was, perhaps, lucky that they'd found Farsa. He'd fed them well over the course of their journey. Their oxygen, produced in part by his plants, never fell below a level of twenty-one percent. Farsa was very proud of this. He was also very tall, very outgoing, and very attached to his cannabis and cilantro.
Emerick was his opposite, at first rarely speaking to anyone in person; he preferred to transmit his reports in writing by way of librum. He only opened up on the second leg of their journey, once they had left the space station of Babylon that orbited Earth and made their way toward the main belt, on a course that took them through the gap clockwise of the asteroid Pallas. Emerick led them there faithfully — it was his role to check the math of their navigation — but he never quite managed to fit in with them socially until the day Jonlan almost literally dragged him out of his room to have supper with them.
Jonlan was a mechanical engineer, and almost purely so, in contrast to Li, who dabbled in both history and sculpture, and Creft, who turned her own talents of systemic memorization toward learning to speak in every accent of the six most common networks, as well as lesser sub-accents or dialects from thirty-two smaller ones. She spoke a courteous form of Ladder to superiors, but with Josephus, she shortly fell into the softer tones and creative idioms of Vulpine. Josephus was fond of it.
Haman, for her part, had begun as a scientist and become something akin to a quiet institution. She had come with them from Babylon, gateway to the heavens and urban limbo to those who had no one to take them through said gate; dozens of them like Haman were still waiting there, languishing veterans or active members of the old guard who went aboard a new ship every other year, bringing with them their knowledge and their experience, setting their hopes on the thin odds that they would go farther this time.
Josephus knew that their voyage had been a success in that measure. She had checked the records and found that Haman had never made it more than a scant half-AU beyond Jupiter before. Josephus knew that if she chose, she could be proud of the fact that she was the one who had taken Haman farther than she'd been. Together with this pride, though, was the shame and frustration that came with not having gone farther still.
In the days they spent waiting for the Zacua to intercept them, she rarely spoke to Haman, but her shame was not why. In part, it was that they had not spoken frequently before; Josephus was more inclined to spend time with Emerick and Li, while Haman enjoyed the company of Creft and, inexplicably, Farsa. Josephus and Haman had been born in different eras, had been raised on different networks, and had developed different tastes. They had little in common.
What they did have in common — what Josephus did see of herself in Haman — was the reason they rarely spoke in those days. Josephus was, in her own way, frightened by the truth. She was frightened by how easily she could see herself in Haman's position three decades on: leaping from ship to ship, advising every new captain they assigned her, never reaching any closer to the heavens.
# # #
Almost all of the windows were open.
They could easily have closed them, but it was difficult to say which option would be more demoralizing. Jonlan and Li, on one hand, kept to the interior parts of the ship and avoided discussion of anything outside; Creft and Farsa loved to drift among the ship's outer hallways, where there were in places walls almost dominated by enormous viewscreens.
Josephus, unthinking, went wherever she was required. For the most part, since there was little to do after consolidating her research and logs, she divided her time among the others, checking in with them to make sure they were all doing as well as could be expected.
Their gravity seemed to have changed slightly, perhaps as a result of their change in velocity. The engineers must have noted it — and later, as she read in their reports, they had — but since it was such a harmless and unsubstantial change, they hadn't bothered to mention it to her directly. She only noticed consciously what had been putting her on edge for days when she woke from a nightmare of falling and, upon waking, still half in the dream, panicked at her inability to right herself.
That was the middle of the second night.
# # #
In the middle of the third night, she couldn't make a start on sleep at all, and so wandered the corridors instead. She expected to see some of those who normally took night shift, but everywhere she went was empty. She supposed their internal clocks had shifted in the absence of work.
What they referred to as the blue room, a small niche full of cushions and blessed with one of the ship's largest windows, was occupied. Proving her theory about internal clocks, it was occupied by Haman, who was dozing in a chair, and Emerick, who was curled on the couch with a blanket pulled to his chest, face lax in sleep. To Josephus, he looked very young.
She made sure that he was covered. She debated waking Haman so that the woman could move to a resting spot that wouldn't leave a crick in her neck, but Haman resolved the issue by rising back into consciousness on her own, eyes opening and slipping into lucidity with the ease of someone removing a cloak.
"Emerick's sleeping," Josephus murmured in caution, not that Haman ever spoke loudly in any case. When Haman nodded, Josephus sat down on the floor nearby, using the side of the chair as her backrest. It let her look out the window without turning her head.
From a long, comfortable silence, Haman eventually said: "He's still upset."
Josephus had known as much. "He's new to it," she said, casting a glance at his brown face, made darker with shadows and stubble. He seemed to be asleep as yet, so she went on, "It took effort on his part to get us here. It isn't for nothing, but — you don't think that way the first time. Not if you know the history. Not if you hoped to beat the odds."
Haman's voice had a smile in it. "I never took him for a gambler."
"No," Josephus said. "I meant..."
She stopped, unable to think of a way in which it didn't count as gambling. Haman waited out the silence while she reconsidered.
"Yes, then," Josephus said. "Why would anyone still do it if they weren't? It's always a gamble. All you have is the hope that you'll be lucky when no one else has."
Above her, no more than a dark shape leaning over the arm of the chair, Haman shook her head. "Scientists get a different kind of upset," she said. "He isn't an explorer. He wants to learn things. Solve problems. And this..."
Josephus drew her shoulders back. "Is a problem."
"It's a question," Haman said after a moment. "He's upset that there isn't an answer. He's confused by the lack of possible ones. Scientists get confused by things like that."
Something in the sound of it made Josephus turn away from the window, focusing on Haman as carefully as she could in the dim light.
"Do you have an answer?" she asked.
"Oh, Josephus," Haman said, ducking her head ruefully. A smile hovered around her lips. "Everyone has an answer. Just none's the right one. I know you have your own."
Josephus let her eyes drift back to the couch. "The latest theory is that something in our life-support systems emits signals that conflict with some aspect of the solar system outside the asteroid belt, causing equipment malfunctions."
"Hm," Haman said. "In my time, the guess was resonating frequency."
Josephus found herself tired all of a sudden. She leaned back against the chair, letting her head fall against its padded arm.
"And what do you think now?"
"Can't say," Haman said. "Thought it was sabotage for a while. Almost seems like it has to be deliberate. But I don't know. As good as we can ever build them, they all crumble."
"It isn't us," Josephus said, low and with conviction. She meant that it wasn't them, her crew, that had been at fault this time, but Haman was looking at her, and —
There was something else beneath the words. She felt her skin prickling, hairs rising in instinct.
"Not us," Haman agreed. "But it's not any harm. Just sends us home."
"That's not — what you're saying isn't possible," Josephus said, trying to pull back from the strange precipice before her. "It isn't true. It doesn't even work as a conspiracy. Just because we haven't made it far past Saturn doesn't mean we haven't sent out — probes, telescopes, robotics, anything else. What could be kept hidden?"
"Hidden, no. I don't think so," Haman said. "Josephus — I'm not saying anything. Just... maybe we aren't meant to go." She shrugged, her old clothes a whisper against the chair. "Maybe we're only meant to look."
Josephus could think of nothing to say. Because of that, she didn't. It might have been the tension in the air that woke Emerick shortly after, the pressure of the unsaid resting upon the room like heightened gravity, but he said nothing, seemed to find nothing wrong, and so Josephus let it go.
# # #
The Zacua came for them just before their fourth night. They had gathered their things, and the Zacua's crew helped them to make sure that nothing was forgotten.
Josephus looked after her crew, guiding them to their new cabins, helping them with their bags, and, in the end, was left alone on her ship. The main corridor was open and empty, broad window at one end letting in the darkness of space. As the ship was angled, the sun was at the ship's other side, slightly below; her view was out and up, cresting atop the orbital planes, on to the outer asteroid belt and the ancient wreckage beyond it. In that wreckage, by humanity's best guess, were at least two hundred small shuttles, all unmanned and empty.
She turned away from the corridor and, for the last time, left the Etemenanki.
|# ? Feb 21, 2013 00:05|
|# ? May 23, 2013 09:09|
It's not totally horrible, and you can definitely fix it in a week. Strip out all the willful cleverness, bullshit convolutions, tedious euphemisms and extraneous adjectives and you've got a dreamy sort of story that could probably get published (I have no experience getting published). Then before you submit, repost it and ask for crits and see what happens I guess
|# ? Feb 21, 2013 16:22|
I've noticed some bits of cleverness that are basically only distractions and could be cut out or re-worded.
"Yes." He looked down at his titanium-wrapped librum, blinked a blink that was more of a wince just say winced. You don't need the rest, and turned down its backlight to a more manageable level.
Those of her crew whose positions on the ship were uninvolved with the trouble
He only opened up on the second leg of their journey, once they had left the
Their gravity seemed to have changed slightly, perhaps as a result of their change in velocity. The engineers must have noted it
Oh... this whole story is a Tower of Babylon reference. That's clever and subtle. That works.
|# ? Feb 21, 2013 19:08|
Oh... this whole story is a Tower of Babylon reference. That's clever and subtle. That works.
I was hoping it wasn't too subtle. I tried to make it so that the story wouldn't only make sense if the reader noticed the allusion, though, since it always bugs the hell out of me when I read stories where the author is clearly being coy about something that isn't telegraphed hard enough for me to figure out.
I'll work at de-adjectiving and de-convoluting the draft. Thanks, guys.
edit: ...And I just noticed that the conversation in the second-to-last scene abruptly stops making sense if you're not seeing it through a lens of Biblical literature, so maybe I'll mess with that some.
Tjadeth fucked around with this message at Feb 22, 2013 around 04:37
|# ? Feb 22, 2013 04:32|