#fridayflash : space

Later, when James told the story, he wouldn't start with what the engineers announced. He'd talk about the reactions of the very old people, the ones who had been told since childhood that they wouldn’t live long enough to see the end.

James himself didn't even bother going to the observation lounge when the sighting was confirmed. Most people who were in their teens at the time, like him, couldn't be bothered, not unless they were massive astronomy nerds.

His mother made him go to the lounge with her. She pointed and told him to look, so he did, if only to get it over with.

He'd been right, he'd say later. There wasn't actually anything to see. Just a new spark of white in the black sky, looking a lot like all the other sparks of white that had been there for as long as he could remember. The patterns the stars formed kept changing, of course, since the ship was moving through space. But so what if this particular white thing was different? It wasn't like you could tell from looking at it.

On the way out of the lounge, an old woman fell to her knees practically in front of James. He helped her up — of course he would have, even if his mother hadn’t been standing right beside him. Like everyone else, he’d had “one community, one people” drilled into him from before he could understand the words.

But it was as he was looking into the woman’s face, asking if she was all right, that the import of that white speck finally reached him. The woman wasn’t seeing him, wasn’t seeing the crowd pressed against the observation windows. There were tears running down her face, but her eyes, her skin, even her white hair was glowing with rapturous bliss. In her expression James saw all of the joy, all the wonder and curiosity that he’d been told to feel. The lounge officer announced they all had to leave to let the next group of sightseers in, and as he guided the old woman to the exits, she clutched at his arm and said, “This will sound so foolish to you, but I wish my mother was here to see it with me.” She nodded at James’s mother, who was on her other side and discreetly shielding her from the crowd. “You’re very fortunate.”

“What was your mother’s assignment?” said James’s mother, in that polite way she had with everyone.

“Engineer,” said the old woman. “Me too. Engineer after engineer, going right back to the launch.”

“That’s a remarkable legacy,” said James’s mother.

They helped the woman back to her quarters. Until he actually spoke the word “good-bye”, James couldn’t think of anything at all to say to her.

The next part, James would always say, wasn’t a big change. Rather, it was an accumulation of little things, noticeable but of not much consequence on their own, until he woke up one day and glanced out the family window, and realised that the white speck was no longer a white speck, but a blue-green circle, and he could see it moving.

Which meant, of course, that he could see the ship moving, for the first time ever. Before, since long before he was born, stars and galaxies had drifted by the windows, but there had never been any sense of the motion. He’d known, for as long as he’d been old enough to understand, but he’d never been able to perceive it before.

After that a lot of things he’d learned in his lessons crashed through the barrier between the abstract and the real. Terms like gravity slingshot and atmosphere and terraforming. And after every sleep period the blue-green circle was larger, until it became a sphere, and the patterns its gaseous outer shell formed over its solid inner core were visible. It filled the entire view on the port side of the ship.

They didn’t actually land on it, of course. There isn’t anything to land on if the planet is a gas giant. But its gravity helped them reach the inner solar system sooner. Later, James would explain, after they were settled, the story would surface that the old woman he’d helped in the observation lounge had calculated they would run out of fuel before reaching the colony planet, and it was only the slingshot effect of going by the two gas giants along the way that let them reach their destination.

And the thing was, James would continue, it took eight more years for them to get where they were going. He was married and the father of a baby girl himself by the time they reached orbit.

The only scary part, he explained, was the landing itself, the landing and the immense silence when the great ship’s engines were turned off at last. The survey crew went out, did their tests, confirmed the atmosphere was close enough to their ancestral Earth’s that they could breathe it, and that their crops could too.

James always told the story so that he would get to the landing just as the tour group reached the entrance of the great ship. He’d park his wheelchair in front of the access ramp with a practised twist of the controls, and then activate the hologram showing him, his wife, his baby daughter in his arms, and the old engineer who had given him his sense of wonder, who had calculated them safe to their new home. He would joke he started giving the museum tours when he was older than the engineer had been at first landing.

And then, just before the barriers came down and the tourists were allowed to board the generation ship that had brought their ancestors to the planet, he would tell them how hard it had been for his daughter to believe her parents were born out in the black, in between the stars, and that she herself had been born between the planets. And then he’d ask the group to think about that while they toured his old home.