Call Me Mr. Positive
by Tom Barlow
It was my watch. Every time I wake from deep sleep, I have a moment of panic,
convinced I've slept through some event that has changed the course of human
history. My father never forgave himself for falling asleep in his recliner and
missing the President's announcement of our first contact with an alien race.
Fortunately, though, most human change is as agonizingly gradual as interstellar
This was my ninth awake period of the voyage, and we'd built up so much
velocity that little news from Earth could catch up to us. Although I'd been in
deep sleep for six months, there was only a couple of week's worth of news in the
queue. No personal messages: that's why I was in the service to begin with. No
I've lived long enough to differentiate "news" from the reiterations of the same old
human comedy. People continue to create arbitrary groups so they can fight with
people in other arbitrary groups. Those who have a lot continue to try to convince
those that have nothing that universal laws are to blame. Meanwhile, people keep
butting their heads against those universal laws, and damned if they aren't
beginning to bend. Once I deleted items like those from the message queue, there
was nothing left.
I selected some music and soon had the cabin rocking. Control preferred it quiet,
but I figured by the time I actually heard something mechanical going wrong in
the Unit, I'd probably be dead anyway. That's what it's like in space; you're
either bored to tears or being sucked into a vacuum. There's not much in-between.
These kind of things were going through my mind, which is my piss-poor excuse
for not checking on the others right away. I waited for my head to clear and my
heart rate to stabilize. I showered. I had a cup of tea and a biscuit. I turned the
volume up some more. Control could kiss my ass.
Then I looked at the service log.
We had a cute little routine with the service log. None of us had been awake at the
same time since we left five years ago. There were six of us, and we each had to
be awake for a week every six months, since that's the longest you can safely stay
in deep sleep without working your muscles, eating real food, and getting some
REM sleep and sexual release. (Yeah, I made that last one up. Not proven, but try
to find a spacer that disagrees.) Because Control wants the Unit checked as
frequently as possible, we stagger our awake periods. Because Control is stingy
with the food and O2, they restrict us to the minimum time awake.
So we spend a good portion of our waking periods composing witty log entries for
one another. Unfortunately, Mai Mu, who precedes me in the rotation, thinks
she's an artist and often fills page after page with her sketches. They resemble a
child's picture of an elephant, every part of the body in a different scale. Or
Nonetheless, I look forward to them. Solitude lowers your expectations.
This time, no drawings. No Kuro Kazuma's haikus. None of Meng's ruminations
on Goethe. No performances by Sir Thomas, who'd carefully hidden his cello the
day we embarked because he knew I'd jettison it as an act of compassion for
No laundry list of duties, staff evaluations, plans or way-over-my-head technical
notes from Captain Kim.
That's when I thought to check on their well-being.
Until that moment, I never realized that somewhere deep inside, I harbored the
belief that losing five friends at once wouldn't be five times as bad as losing one.
I suppose it was doughnut thinking; the first one is great, the fifth is blah.
It's not true. As soon as I saw the first body, I knew the rest would be dead. The
readouts were there in plain sight, right in front of me when I woke up, but I
hadn't bothered to look. I had just assumed everything was all right. They
couldn't be any less right.
I checked them over one at a time, anyway. Every one hurt just as much as the
first, or maybe more.
They weren't smashed-face-plate dead. They were peaceful-sleep dead. They
looked like they'd died at about the same time, and not too long ago; there wasn't
a great deal of decomposition.
I'm not a medicine man, but we've all had some basic training, including reading
the diagnostics. So after I cried a while, ate a big bowl of spaghetti and
half-a-dozen brownies (supplies being suddenly abundant), and received
permission from myself to postpone the burial detail, I checked the medical
They didn't tell me a lot. It was as if their bodily functions, already dialed back by
deep sleep to the minimum necessary to sustain recoverable normal life, had just
drifted away. The heart rates dropped smoothly from twelve to zero over the
course of several hours. The troughs of the brain waves got wider and wider.
Body temperature only fell about twenty degrees, to room temperature. I got
excited for a minute when I saw the line on the chart start to go back up slightly;
then I realized it was the heat of putrefaction.
The life support system seemed to have malfunctioned. The emergency protocols
didn't kick in until they were almost dead. The stimulants, then the shocks, over
and over again, only sent them into exaggerated cycles, until a cycle overlapped
death. After that, we were just injecting and shocking meat.
I made a mental note to suggest to Control that the pods be equipped to
automatically crash-refrigerate the dead until they could be returned to Earth.
For now, though, I had to improvise. It would have been very difficult to thread
them into their suits, because they were beginning to melt a little, some skin
turning slightly gooey. Instead, removed their dog tags, zipped each into his own
duffle bag, lashed them together and tied them to the outside of the ship. With any
luck, they'd still be there, flash frozen, when we got home. Slow acceleration has
its good points, I suppose.
It was queer, but I didn't feel as alone then as I had when the bodies were lying
next to me. I sent a report back home, although I didn't really need to; the daily
readings were automatically fed back to base. There wasn't a damn thing they
could do about it, anyway.
It is only now, after I've slept real sleep for about two days, that I've begun to
consider what comes next.
A lot of redundancy had been built into our mission. Six of us had been sent on
what was essentially a two-man mission, so that we had a back-up crew and a
back-back-up crew, just in case. We carried enough provisions for twice our
anticipated time in space. At the time, I thought it was overkill. I've since
changed my mind.
I'm in a quandary about resuming deep sleep. If I keep my normal rotation, the
unit would be unmonitored for six months at a time, rather than a few weeks. We
could drift irretrievably off course in six months. If I don't hibernate, I'll burn up
at least fifteen bioyears twiddling my thumbs alone in a thirty-cubic-meter room
with nothing but my doppelganger to keep me company.
OK, truth is, that isn't foremost in my thoughts. Fear is. I'm scared to death of
returning to my pod. I'm obsessing over the fact that there are five dead people
outside, who died in deep sleep for no discernable reason. If I was a gambler, I
know where I'd place my bet on the viability of the sixth crew member, once he
goes back under.
Control equipped Mainfram with a huge entertainment library. It's come as a
surprise to me just how useless that collection is. I've tried all kinds: 3-D, 2-D,
role playing, fantasy. I can only take a few minutes of any of them, though. The
more images of people I see, the lonelier I become. Like pornography.
Tomorrow I'm schedule to go back into deep sleep. I spent today reviewing what
I know of celestial mechanics. All I accomplished was confirming that, left to my
own devices, I couldn't find my own ass with two hands and a road map. I also
spent some time reading up on alcohol stills and inventorying the drug supplies.
I know it doesn't matter anyway. I can't turn around now: not enough fuel. We
need the mass of that sun to swing the Unit around without losing all of our
What is most frustrating is that the trip will be for naught. The original plan had
some of us taking the excursion vehicle down to the planet as we passed it on our
way into the system, then rendezvousing with the Unit on its way back out. Now
it's going to be like walking past a pastry shop window without a penny in my
pocket. A twenty-year walk.
I field-stripped a couple of the pods right down to the chassis. I found nothing. I
checked the air feed and reclamation system. It was A-OK. The nutrition system
worked flawlessly. I didn't see anything in the blood monitoring system records.
I actually got to the point of getting dressed, sliding into my pod, and laying my
head down on the pillow. Then panic set in. I couldn't close the lid.
The faceplate looked like a giant hand about to close over my mouth. The skin
jets looked like snake fangs. The rush of cool air felt like I'd stepped on
I began going through each of the crew's personal possessions, looking for clues
or direction or, really, companionship. I started with the Captain, since I was the
Captain now, and I needed some tips about maintaining crew discipline.
Captain Kim's locker confirmed my impression that he was the world's most
boring man. There was almost nothing in his kit that wasn't military issue: no
family pics, no diary, no awards, no jujus, no candy, no jewelry, no bronzed baby
shoes. At first, all I saw was regulation clothes, an elaborate shoe-shining kit, and
some old manuals from the Academy.
At the bottom of the drawer, though, I found a neck chain. There were fifteen dog
tags on it. They weren't dated, but from the patina, and more importantly, by the
sequence of political entities they fought for, I could see that they stretched back at
least 300 years. Kim after Kim after Kim, marching, drinking, whoring, fighting,
dying in the service of the country du jour.
I took his tag off the chain around my neck and added it to his.
Today I went through Sir Thomas's effects. If Kim was parsimonious, Tom was
profligate. He had a marvelous hand-carved wood chess set, a Go board with
moonstone and hematite pieces, an antique cardboard backgammon board, tiny
playing cards featuring the faces of famous composers, and a painted sheet-metal
Chinese checkers board with exquisite stone marbles. I found that disheartening;
the games all took at least two people to play.
I carefully leafed through his prized sheet music collection, browned and flaking
at the edges, carefully preserved in plastic sleeves. None of it was more recent
than the 20th century.
For some reason he had also packed his performance outfit, a tailored black suit,
ruffled white shirt and black boots with shiny brass buckles. Perhaps he thought
he might run across an alien civilization that didn't know his reputation yet.
He also had brought a scrapbook of his performance programs, which dated back
to when he was about ten. He'd never played large or prestigious venues, but
rarely were there six months between performances, except when he was in the
Academy or in space. I hadn't properly credited the sacrifice it must have been for
him to spend years with an audience of five.
He told me before we left that, like it or not, he'd be playing for all of us, a week
each six months. Since we would be asleep, there was nothing we could do about
"If you could just applaud," he'd said, "You'd be the perfect audience."
I knew he couldn't hear me, since he was floating outside, but I clapped for a
Opened Mai Mu's locker yesterday, but I didn't feel like writing about it for a
I expected to find it jammed with bad art. I'd seen the sketches, of course, but
whenever we talked, which was a lot during our prep since we were often teamed
up (we weighed about the same), she talked about all the other art she did:
sculpture, ceramics, glass, wood-carving. She made it all sound massive.
There was, in fact, a lot of art, but very little of it hers. Half of the locker was
filled with exquisite miniatures of famous sculptures, each about fifteen
centimeters tall. It wasn't that I recognized them all, but the name of the piece and
artist was engraved on each base. There was the "Burghers of Calais" by Rodin,
Modigliani's "Head," Donnatello's "St. George and the Dragon," Noguchi's
"Mother and Child," "Brushstrokes in Flight" by Lichtenstein and others. Each
was in its own wood case. Each of the bases was a little worn, like someone had
held it in her hands for a long, long time.
She was also a diarist, but wrote in Chinese. I couldn't read it, but Mainframe
I never knew she felt that way about me. She seemed so assured, so professional,
so decisive, so damned competent. I could have gone the rest of my life not
knowing how she was attracted to me, or feeling the regret that came with that
Today I went through Kuro Kazuma's things.
What a slob. I hate cockroaches, and thanks to his habit of hoarding crumbly
cookies, we had them. You know what's worse than stepping on a roach when
you walk into the kitchen without turning on the light? Waking up with one
floating an inch from your mouth, and not knowing if it was arriving or leaving.
Luckily, we had enough spin to keep the crumbs from floating away, so I shook
out his stuff and swept up what fell.
He had a lot of civvies for a military guy. I had a hunch he didn't bother to wear
his uniform when he was awake alone. I can't say much, since I usually I don't
wear anything at all when I'm the only one awake.
He had some strange-looking outfits, historical stuff. There were several silk
robes which were entirely too small for me; he was a slight man. There were a
couple of hats. The bright green silk fez fit me just fine.
At the bottom of his locker was a sword in a heavy leather scabbard. The long
curved handle was ivory, elaborately carved with dragonheads, tails, talons and
little people in various stages of being devoured. I carefully drew the blade. It
sounded sharp against the sheath, utterly smooth and foreboding.
The blade was greased to keep it from corroding. I wiped it off with one of his
socks. I almost took my thumb off when I let my hand stray too close to the edge,
so I had to take a half-hour break to administer first aid. Five minutes for the
bandaging, twenty-five to work up the courage to look at the blood. We all have
The sword was amazingly heavy, the steel beaten so dense it felt like an anvil. I
cautiously took a few swings the way I'd seen in old martial arts entertainments,
and managed to neatly slice the cable to the backup environment monitor, which
caused the primary monitor to immediately start whooping like a drunken cowboy.
I put the sword away before I put a hole in the hull.
There were some photos in an envelope taped to the lid. I pulled them out and
spread them on the floor. There was nothing written on the back of any of them,
and they were mostly close-ups, so I couldn't really tell who they were by context.
Many may have been of him, but just as easily been his ancestors. I wished I knew
something about him, but we'd never really talked about ourselves. We were too
busy with the jokes, trying to outdo one other, each trying to capture the audience.
I tried to remember one of his jokes, but for the life of me, I couldn't. What's
worse, I couldn't even remember any of my own.
Last locker. Meng Ruixun. Probably the person I knew the best, since I almost
married his sister, until it dawned on me that she was a raving lunatic. Meng had
tried to warn me, but she had such a cute overbite I couldn't hear him.
He was the world's worst poker player, so I'd spent a lot of time in college playing
cards with him. He had the money spare, since his mother built the biggest
specialty metals business on the planet.
In return, I helped him learn western literature. I did such a good job that he soon
made me feel like a dilettante. He was one of those people that could quote
Goethe or Yeats or Kim-Juan off the top of his head. I can do it with commercials,
but that doesn't impress people so much.
He was that way about anything he tackled: consumed. He gathered information
about a topic like a whale sucks in krill.
When I found out he'd been assigned to the team, I was flabbergasted. I couldn't
believe the Service would squander such talent on what would most likely be a
wild goose chase.
He was convinced that he deserved a slot in the unit, though. When we received
that famous transmission, which confusingly seemed to arrive from five widely
dispersed solar systems simultaneously, he didn't sleep for almost a week. It was
his wild-ass theory about what it meant that prevailed after all the other wild-ass
theories had been discredited. It was his research that found a way to assign
probabilities to each of the systems as the true source of the signal. We were
lucky that the closest system turned out to also be the most probable, because it
was the only one we'd be able to reach.
In his locker, I found a letter from his mother. She'd made sure, before he left, to
let him know what a burden he had placed on her heart by asking her to pull the
strings necessary to get him assigned to the mission. She put it all down on paper
so that he could refer back to it whenever his guilt started to slip.
I wasn't surprised to find poetry. I knew he'd been writing since he was a
teenager, but he'd never shown it to anyone. After I read it, I understood why.
It wasn't bad. It wasn't good. It was poetry written by someone who thought too
clearly, who always knew the route from point A to point B and never got lost.
It was, however, intensely revealing. With all the scholarship and
accomplishments, he'd still found time to stop and doubt the hell out of himself.
The hardest thing was the smell. Meng had a penchant for musky, sandalwoody
cologne and it permeated his locker. It reminded me, as nothing else could, of
cookouts on his patio, holding his head while he puked Coors in the dorm head,
bounce-racing on Mars.
Speak of the devil -- he had a bottle of Coors in the bottom of his locker. He also
had a dozen empties, which disappointed me. I'd have shared with him, if I'd
thought to bring some. Probably.
I waited until later in the day, after dinner, before I cracked open the beer. I
sipped it all evening, toasting Meng, savoring the flavor and the memories.
20 (Earth) days down. 480 (Earth) hours. 28,800 (Earth) minutes. 5.4% of a
About 5,475 days left. 131,400 hours. 7,884,000 minutes. 0.36% of the
remaining journey in the bag already; only 99.64% to go.
No, wait, we have an update: 7,883,999 minutes. The multiplication took me a
I'm going out of my mind, which is a short walk to begin with.
Since I have all day, every day, to devote to it, you'd think I could keep a decent
journal. But there's something less than satisfying about recording your thoughts
and actions, when all you think about is how bored you are, and all you do is eat,
evacuate, and count the hours until bedtime.
I tried to figure out how long it would be before I could expect a reply from Earth
to my incident report, but the math is still beyond me. The computer knows, but I
don't know how to phrase the question. I know it'll be years, not days. Years.
Maybe you thought things couldn't get much worse. I sure did. But now, I can't
sleep. I've been awake for over forty-eight hours. When I'm sitting up, I feel like
I'm about to pass out, but as soon as I lay down my eyes pop open like sunny-side
I've gotten to the point that I can watch entertainments again without intense
longing, but I've lost the ability to be amused. I've discovered that the joy of the
audience depends on being able to imagine, if only in the most tangential way,
sharing the experiences of the characters. I've lost the capacity to pretend.
Some things you might not know about space travel:
- Despite traveling through mostly vacuum, the window gets dirty.
- It's apparently cheaper to spray the food with an agent that numbs your taste
buds than to make it delicious.
- Just because they spend billions and billions to build a ship, that doesn't
guarantee the speakers will be worth a shit.
- If I do find an alien civilization, I'm going to ask them for an air freshener.
- Like they say about all the sled dogs except the one in front, the view is always
Blah, blah, blah, blah.
It took me hours to screw up my courage, but I went back outside today. I needed
to look into the faces of my friends again, to see if they'd died peacefully. As I
did, I realized I had nothing to compare it to except my imagination.
I've run out of things to put in the log. If you have a problem with that, complain
to the morale officer.
In fact, if you're reading this, then you probably have corpses to deal with, so why
are you screwing around? The Exec Comm is going to tell you to burn the log
anyway. Nobody wants to admit they allow juveniles like me into the space
Just bury us as a crew and pretend we died together.
If you aren't reading this, then maybe I survived.
A strange thought popped into my head this morning -- even Jesus only had to
spend forty days in the wilderness.
Where that came from, I have no idea; I haven't seen the inside of a church in
twenty years, and even out here between the stars, I don't sense any divine
presence, just emptiness. If I were a believer, though, I might come to the
conclusion that I'd been spared for a good reason: to mourn my friends' deaths.
Everybody deserves to be mourned.
I hadn't admitted it to myself yet, but I was finally ready to get in the pod. Afraid
my courage would evaporate if I looked at it too carefully, I let my mind go blank
as I dressed and prepped the pod. I slid in, and was about to close the lid, but I
couldn't shake the notion that I'd left something unfinished.
I got up and wrote these words so that the log has some sort of an ending, in case
things don't turn out well. I've always hated books that end "To be continued."
I thought long and hard about these, perhaps my last words. I was looking for
something profound, something you could carve on my gravestone if you want to,
but couldn't think of anything. Only that I'd rather be floating dead through space
with five of my friends than be alive and alone.
See you in six months. Call me Mr. Positive.
You know what's funny? The cabin? It has a night light.