It's when I see the look on her face that I realize the mistake I’ve made. Ten days of hiding it, and every minute it was like I’d stabbed her in the back, and she just hadn’t felt it yet. But when we wake up from the first sleep cycle, alone on a spaceship hurtling through the void between stars, I can’t take it any longer.
So, I tell her.
Only it isn’t really ten days later. It’s nearly ten years.
The first segment of our transport mission is 2,847 days. Then we come out of cryostasis, with seven days to perform maintenance. Then it’ll be back into stasis for another span of roughly ten years, then another maintenance cycle. A full trip on our route lasts about thirty years. Thirty years in the same room, but together for less than a month. It can seem like forever when you’ve made a truly human error.
I don’t think Linda suspected. Everything seemed normal during the last days before our departure. She was her usual self, as we went through the mission prep. She kissed me before we went down for the cold sleep, in our side-by-side cryo pods. Smiled and told me she loved me. My voice cracked when I told her I loved her, too.
Now she sits across from me, the small table of cheap metal an impartial barrier between us, her face as blank as a dead monitor. She’s staring at her dinner as it cools in front of her. I did the best I could to make a special meal for us. There’s only so much you can do with ship’s rations. At least I set the table.
“Please say something.” I look away from her, fidget with my utensils. I know I’ve hurt her. But will she forgive me?
She remains silent.
“I said I’m sorry,” I say, desperate to fill the quiet, like my voice can somehow soothe her pain. “I don’t know why I did it. It was just… impulsive. I swear, I’ve never even looked at another—”
Linda stands up, cutting me off. Turns and leaves the small cabin. The door hisses as it opens for her, clicks shut behind her.
Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake.
My wife and I are contracted employees of Starways Shipping, trained in mechanical engineering and spacecraft operation. Together, we’re the maintenance team for Transport One-one-eight, hauling supplies and frozen colonists across a distance that can only be grasped by scientists and those with imagination. Everything on this ship was chosen carefully; with mission durations measured in decades, the company has to plan ahead. It’s gotten good at it, too.
Long ago, corporate eggheads decided that a two-person team was the best balance of redundant labor and cost efficiency. Then they realized that married couples were even better. It provides stability and comfort, avoids the insurmountable complications of separating partners for as much as a century and a half.
Only when they came up with the system, they didn’t account for human error.
Our first maintenance cycle is a nightmare for me. Linda won’t even talk to me. She sleeps in the control center, takes her meals there. The only time I even see her is when we have to work together.
“Gravity rotational servos are green,” I say, finishing a diagnostic.
Linda taps her pad, confirming my evaluation in the report. Her eyes never leave the pad. I want to say something. Anything that might make this right, or at least better. But how do you make it as if you never made the wound?
Instead, I move on to the next diagnostic. “Stasis units power supply is green.”
Another tap on the pad. Technically, she’s supposed to verbally acknowledge my evaluations, but I’m not about to press her on that.
I move on. “Main propulsion green.”
“Backup systems green.”
“All systems green.”
“Maintenance cycle complete.” I sigh with the closest I’ve come to relief in seven days.
We stand there, a loud silence echoing between us. She looks up, catches my eye ever so briefly. Then she spins on her heel and walks out.
I finish up, filing the report and locking down the diagnostic tools. Then I make my way to the cryo chamber.
She’s already there, readying her pod.
I stand in the hatchway, trying to think of something to do. Anything to earn her forgiveness.
She glances at me on more time. The look is unreadable. Then she climbs into her pod and activates the sleep cycle. The pod seals with a chuff of gases, and she’s under for the next ten years.
I sigh. The opportunity is lost. Maybe in another ten years, something will have changed. Maybe by the next time we go to sleep, I’ll have earned her forgiveness.
It’s the only hope I have as I climb into my pod and hit the switch.
The human subconscious is a funny thing. I know I spent another 3,186 days asleep, my body in cold-induced stasis, under so deep that I shouldn’t have any concept of the passage of time. But somehow, I do. Somehow, I feel like it’s been forever since I last opened my eyes, since I last saw Linda.
And she still won’t talk to me.
By the time I’ve clambered out of my pod, she’s already left the chamber. Just walked right out without even look at me.
Now I feel anger, a low, simmering fury that burns through the guilt. I know I don’t have any right to feel that way. But does she have any right to treat me like this? All I want is make it up to her, to show her that I still love her. To convince her that she can still trust me, still love me. Why won’t she let me earn forgiveness?
After our first day of working apart, I put together the best meal I can, combining simple shipboard fare with the most elegant setting I can provide. Real wine glasses and cloth napkins. Actual candles, lit despite the unnecessary draw on life support.
“Linda, please come to the cabin,” I say over the shipwide intercom. “Have dinner with me. We need to talk.”
There’s no response.
“Honey, please, I know I made a mistake. I hurt you, and I’m so sorry. Please talk to me.”
Only silence answers me.
A trickle of that anger worms through me. “Look, it was wrong of me. But it was just a… a little mistake.”
A sigh comes over the channel. My breath catches.
“You did something terrible,” Linda says. “ You ruined everything we had. We were happy together. It was working out. Just a couple more runs, and we’d earn retirement. We were going to find a good place, start a family. And you ruined that, with one ‘little mistake’.”
Well, we’re talking. But it isn’t going right. What she’s saying is only making me feel worse.
“Honey, it was an awful thing to do. But it was just once. It’s not like I’m a serial adulterer.”
A bitter, sad laugh sounds from the speaker. “Just once? Is that all? You took my love, my trust, my devotion, and threw it away. But, hey, you just did it once, so that’s no big deal. Remember those vows we made? They meant something to me, and it wasn’t that I’d check them at the door over a pretty face.”
Deep down, I know I don’t deserve anything more. I should be ashamed. I should despise myself. But instead, I’m just getting madder.
“It wasn’t like that. It was just a mistake. Come on, it happened twenty years ago on the other side of the galaxy. I promise, it’ll never happen again. Can we please just… move past it? Let it go?”
Now she makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob, a choked, painful sound. “Let it go? How can you say that to me? For you, it might have been twenty years ago, but for me it’s been just two weeks since you betrayed me. How can I ‘let it go’? How can I ever trust you again?”
“What if things were turned around?” I say, letting some of my anger and frustration into my words. “What if you’d made the mistake, huh? Wouldn’t you want me to forgive you?”
There’s a pause, a moment of heavy silence. “Is that what you want me to do? Forgive you? You’re doing this because you need my… absolution, to make you feel better?”
Now I can’t speak. Is that why I want it? Is it possible I just want her to give me permission to feel better about what I did? Like if she forgives me, I can pretend it didn’t happen?
I sigh. “Please, honey, what can I do to earn your forgiveness?”
This time she’s quiet for so long I think maybe she’ll never speak again. Then her voice comes over the line, sounding so very, very sad. “You can’t. Forgiveness isn’t something that can be earned. It isn’t something you can make yourself worthy of. It isn’t something you can deserve.” She takes a slow breath. “Forgiveness has to be given. Freely and unconditionally. That’s why it’s called forgiveness. And I’m not ready to do that. I don’t know if I ever will be.”
The line goes dead with a crackle, a finality, leaving me with nothing but regret.
The last time we come out of the cryo pods, the chill lingers. Neither of us is interested in talking anymore. She barely glances at me before leaving the chamber. It hurts, but I stifle the urge to hurry after her, to grab her and make her listen while I tell her again how sorry I am and I can’t live without her and please, please, please tell me how to make it up to her.
At least the trip is almost over. We’ve reached our destination system, and the only thing left to do is bring the ship into orbit. Granted, it’ll take three days to get there, but we’ve gone thirty years like this, so we’ll manage.
My job is simple: run down a checklist and if everything turns up green, then I get to spend the next three days contemplating what comes next.
At the completion of every voyage, the maintenance crew gets debriefed, giving a full report on the trip and alerting the company to any complications that arose, mechanical or… otherwise. I’d say that we have a complication. But will we actually report it?
We just have one more voyage on our contract. Thirty more years of being together, though we’ll only have to spend about three weeks with each other. Can we do that? Retirement, a huge payout, enough money to do whatever we want with the rest of our lives, at the cost of being together in incredible pain for less than a month? I just don’t know.
And if she decides she can’t do it, then what? As much as I can’t imagine us staying together like this, I also can’t imagine what our lives would be like if we split up. I still love her; that’s never changed. She’s everything that I ever wanted, everything that I ever needed.
So why was I so stupid?
It was a fling. With a woman I’d only known for a few days. Her interest was flattering, made me feel special. She was beautiful, charming. Tempting. But temptation isn’t permission; it’s something to be overcome. And I gave in. She offered the fruit, but I ate it. That’s on me.
Why do people do that? What is it about hurting those we love that we just don’t get? Do we fool ourselves into thinking that it just doesn’t matter, that it’s a blip, a passing fancy, that won’t have a lasting effect? Or is it that we don’t understand why it’s wrong, why it should offend or hurt anyone? Whatever the reason, I’ve ruined everything, just like Linda said.
Staring at a screen without seeing it, I decide that it will be her choice. Whatever she wants to do, I’ll go along. It’ll be penance for my mistake. It will probably leave me bitter and resentful, but maybe that will cover the hurt.
“We have a problem.”
The sound of her voice, coming over the ship’s intercom, is so unexpected that it takes me a moment to understand what she said. “Uh, repeat that last?”
“There’s an error in our approach vector,” she says, sounding like she’s trying to read while speaking. “We’ve lost the lock on our guide star. Our course is off.”
“Off by how much?” I’m already doing the math in my head, calculating how fast we’re going and how much fuel we’ll have to burn to correct.
“Enough that we’ll miss our orbital slot and shoot right past the planet.” Now there’s an edge of concern in her voice.
“Okay,” I say, thinking some more. Despite the worry, I’m almost glad for this. At least we’re talking again. “Let’s adjust course. We’ll worry about the bean counters and fuel cost later.”
“Calculating,” she says. I can almost see that little frown that forms on her brow when she’s doing astrophysical equations, determining thrust angles and burn duration. “Hold on, it’s not working. The computer is accepting my input, but it’s not executing the command.”
“Running diagnostic,” I say. My fingers fly over the terminal input, bypassing the regular checklist and going right to the propulsion and navigation systems. A list of items highlighted in red leaps out at me. “Okay, that’s not good.”
“We’ve got a burnout in the control interface. Tracing it now.” I work my way through menus, hunting the source of the malfunction. A sardonic grin plays about my lips: if only every problem was like this, easily diagnosed, with a clear-cut method for repairing it.
"Can you fix it?”
“Yes.” I pinpoint the location of the burnout, and then I’m off at a run, wending my way through the maintenance corridors.
“Hurry.” Linda’s voice follows me. “We don’t have long to execute the correction. If we miss the window, we won’t have enough fuel to come around, and nothing will be able to catch us.”
My heartbeat accelerates at those words. One malfunction, and the ship could be sent speeding through empty space forever. It’s happened before, transports just disappearing. The company will make a token investigation, then write it off. Hundreds of people and a few million tons of cargo, just gone. Oh, well.
As for us, well, we’ll have to decide how we want to die. Officially, company policy is to put the ship on minimal output and then enter cryo sleep, in the miniscule hope that someone will eventually find us, perhaps even in time for us to still be alive. But right now, I don’t see that I would have much to wake up to, so… we could always overload the reactor. Boom and good night. It’s almost a comforting thought.
I reach the correct section and open the access port, freeing a cloud of smoke and the smell of fried electronics. How did this happen? I could’ve sworn I checked this last cycle. Did I make another mistake? Another human error? I guess I have been distracted.
I yank out melted, smoking circuits, as fast as I can. When the last one hits the floor, I turn to the replacement part locker nearby. Everything on the ship is modular, designed to be easily and swiftly replaced in the event of failure. Again, I can’t help wishing my own life was that way. As if I could just take out whatever doesn’t work and replace it with what does.
A quick count shows that I don’t have enough spare boards, and I don’t have time to get more from another locker. So I triage the situation, building a new control path for the guidance systems. The last board clicks into place.
“Done. Execute,” I say, panting with exertion.
“Copy,” she says.
As I regain my breath, I hold it, mentally crossing my fingers. This is what I was trained to do, but did I do it right, or make yet another mistake? Will we even have the chance to decide if we have a future together?
A soft exhalation of breath comes over the speaker. “Input… and executing. We’re back on track for standard orbital insertion.”
I let out a ragged laugh and let myself slump to the floor. “How close did we come to being lost forever?”
She’s silent for a moment, long enough for me to start to worry. Finally, she answers. “You don’t want to know. But far too close.”
And I know that she’s talking about more than navigation errors. “Linda…”
I hear her take another deep breath. This is it. This is when she says she doesn’t want to take that last voyage, that we’re ending… everything. All because of me, because of my mistake.
My human error.
“If you’re willing, let’s take the next available assignment,” she says.
My head comes up, a mixture of surprise and relief coursing through me. “Are you sure? I mean, if you don’t want… if you can’t…”
“I’m sure.” Her voice turns wistful. “There’s enough between us that I’m willing to do this.” Then she sighs. “I can’t pretend it’ll ever be the way it was. But we can try to… move on. Together.” Then a new note creeps into her voice, a sadness, a bitterness, but tinged with hope. “I can’t forgive you. Yet. Not after only a few weeks. But maybe in another thirty years, I’ll be able to.”