A Stitch in Space

Chapter 1

“I want my flying car.”

“Excuse me?” Father Xris asked. The short, spiky-haired blond woman sitting next to him had broken a long silence and he wasn’t sure that he had heard her correctly. It was June in the year 2462, and though they were now on an inexpensive commercial rocket flight to a space station orbiting around the earth, and the technology that would have made flying cars possible had existed for over 200 years, they had never been invented. Or, more precisely, they had never been put into commercial production. A few one-off prototypes had been made by people hoping to start an industry, but only three had ever been sold to non-family members.

“I want my flying car,” she reiterated.

Father Xris gave her a quizzical look, hoping for an explanation.

“I was watching this ancient movie the other day,” she said, “made in 1990 or something like that, and set in 2341, and everyone drove flying cars. That's more than 100 years ago, so where’s my flying car?”

She laughed. If pressed, she would have admitted that it wasn’t a great joke, but she wanted to talk with the dark-haired priest, dressed in the clerical black cassock which to this day is still often imitated by action movie heroes, and she couldn’t think of anything better.

The man sitting on the other side of her looked up from his book.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I follow this blog which is all about old concepts of what the future would be like. It’s sometimes amazing to see how wrong they were. And sometimes it’s a pity that they were wrong.”

“It’s a pity that they were wrong about the flying cars,” the woman said.

“They would be kind of cool,” Father Xris said. “But I don’t think that they’d be very practical.”

“That’s what killed them off,” the man said. “They’re not as good a car as a car, they’re not as good a helicopter as a helicopter, and they’re not as good an airplane as an airplane. I mean, if you want to have fun in the air, get a glider. If not, why not get something which is good at flying?”

“I think that the idea of the flying car was really before the self-driving car, wasn’t it?” Fr. Xris said. “The idea was that you could just fly over traffic jams? I wonder if intelligent cars killed flying cars?”

“It was also before they made cars aerodynamic,” the man interjected. “Back around the turn of the millennium, cars were these big bricks that couldn’t go very fast. Granted, on the roads of the time it would have been suicidal to go more than about 100 miles an hour anyway, but with the amount of air friction the things had, you’d have burnt less fuel in a bonfire than try to go at a decent speed.”

“That’s true,” Father Xris said. “The early days of cars were quite slow, which could easily have made people desperate for workarounds.”

Until the 2060s, it was common for people to drive cars manually, rather than relying on computer control, though the shift to self-driving cars did not immediately result in speed limit increases, as the cost of fuel was still prohibitive. It did, however, set the stage for higher speeds when cars became equipped in the late 2090s with movable fairings that gave them the low friction of airplane designs when moving quickly, but stowed away for low-speed maneuverability. The final piece of the puzzle that allowed cars to move at modern speeds was the Great Road Project (which spanned much of the first half of the twenty-second century), which retrofitted roads to standard grades and turn radii that supported truly high speed travel. It was also in the Great Road Project that the first ducted roads were built. To people living at the turn of the millennium, the idea of average highway speeds of 200 miles per hour would have sounded like a pipe dream. Ducted roads which allowed 270mph travel or low-pressure tube roads averaging 360mph would have sounded like pure science fiction.

“Actually,” the woman said, “I think that the flying cars were more about freedom than speed. A flying car meant that you could go anywhere you wanted.”

“The problem,” the man said, “is that physics gets in your way. A flying car is basically a helicopter with tiny blades concealed in the body—or, I guess, jets, but that’s even more ridiculous from a fuel efficiency standpoint—and at that point, why not just use a helicopter? I mean, even if you can’t afford to own one, they’re cheap enough to rent. And because they’re so much more fuel efficient, you get more freedom from the greater range.”

“I suppose that’s true,” the woman said, “but somehow flying cars are just cooler.”

“Purely fictional things often are,” Father Xris said. “When something exists only in our imagination, it doesn’t have any of the downsides that real things do. We don’t even have to have real reactions to them—the same thing applies to feelings, after all. If you met a flying car in real life, you’d probably be disappointed because it didn’t make you feel like how you imagined you’d feel. We can imagine ourselves feeling anything or everything, but our actual feelings are constrained by what we experience. We can imagine ourselves being blissfully happy, but whatever is making us happy, the things that make us unhappy don't magically disappear, and though novelty is powerful enough to blot them out of our memory, it’s short-lived. Nothing has the capacity to overwhelm us forever.”

“That’s outside my field,” the man said, returning to his book.

The woman was quiet too. Fr. Xris (correctly) guessed his comment had hit too close to home, so he let her sit quietly. He had been a priest for less than ten years, but that was more than sufficient time to teach him that if a person needed to talk, only very subtle encouragement would be needed. In nine cases out of ten, all that was necessary was a little time and space.

In this case, a few minutes of silence was all it took.

“I wonder if Xanadu really will be better than Texas,” she said.

“I imagine that depends on which qualities you're considering,” Fr. Xris answered.

“Well,” she said, “Frank won’t be there, which means it will have to be better.”

“Frank is a former boyfriend?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Surely you’re making this trip for other reasons too?” he asked. Six months in deep space is a long way to go to get away from a boyfriend.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Everything seems so... claustrophobic, here. Or I guess now I should say, ‘on Earth’. Everyone knows their place and nothing really seems worth doing. We keep doing things just because we’re supposed to.”

Father Xris nodded.

“I’m not trying to talk you out of moving to Xanadu,” he said, “but if you can’t see the point in anything you were doing on earth, that will still be true in the frontier. Things may be simpler or more obviously related to survival there, but if you don’t know why you were existing when it was easy, it won’t become clearer when it’s hard, you’ll just have less time to think about it.”

“I suppose that you’re right,” she said. “But isn’t it sometimes better not to have so much time to think?”

He didn’t answer for a minute.

“It’s best to know enough that thinking isn’t unpleasant,” he said. “But to answer your question, I don’t think the right thing to do with suffering is to run away from it. I don’t mean that suffering is good. I just mean that if you’re unhappy, you should defeat the cause of that unhappiness, not do your best to ignore it.

“Which isn’t to say that change of scenery isn’t a good idea. Sometimes places carry such big loads of habit and baggage that we can’t think there no matter how hard we try. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t go to Xanadu—I wouldn’t presume to tell you something like that, anyway. I just believe in being realistic.”

“Fair enough,” she said.

“So what are you hoping to find in Xanadu?” he asked.

She described her ambition to start a horse ranch and breed horses. Father Xris had little experience of horses, having grown up in a city, and listened with interest to her descriptions of how horses can be kept in pastures and letting them grow long coats for winter and other outdoorsy things which he had only read allusions to in books.

“By the way,” she said, “My name is Hannah.”

“Fr. Xristopheros Guerin,” the priest replied. “Most people call me Father Xris.”

They shook hands, and Hannah had a surprisingly firm grip. She was a little more muscular than the standard diet and hormone pills produced on their own, suggesting that she was used to working with her body. She noticed that Fr. Xris also had unusually strong hands.

Before long, the space plane they were riding reached orbital velocities and docked with HEO7, a large spaceport which served both cargo and passenger ships.

Father Xris made his way over to the cargo section of the station, as he was making the trip to Xanadu in one of the spare berths in a deep space cargo ship. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to make the trip, but it was one third the cost of taking a passenger ship and safer than being cryogenically frozen and shipped as cargo. (It was more likely than not that you would be revived without brain damage, but no one had yet found a way to make the thawing process completely reliable for multicellular organisms other than goldfish.)

He was surprised to see the woman from the space plane, Hannah, waiting at the same cargo bay that he was going to.

“Hello again!” he said cheerfully.

“Hello!” she said. “So you’re going on the cheap too?”

“I am indeed,” Father Xris said. “The money for a passenger ship could do a lot more good among the poor than I would get out of it.”

She accepted that without comment.

“Is the Hopeful here yet?” he asked.

“She is,” the woman replied, and pointed to the window where the Hopeful was visible.

“She’s enormous!” Fr. Xris exclaimed after looking. And indeed she was. When making long, difficult trips, size is efficiency, and the deep space cargo ships of which the Hopeful was one were truly enormous. She was over a kilometer long and nearly 150 meters in diameter. As all deep space ships were, she was covered in highly reflective ablative armor, but unlike passenger ships, she didn’t broadcast any decoration graphics to pretty her up, giving her only the rugged sort of beauty that truly utilitarian objects have.

A Chinese man walked up, clearly having been looking for the dock which they were now at. “Is this the dock for the Hopeful?” he asked, more out of politeness than as a real question since he could not have missed the sign above the personnel dock door.

“It is,” Hannah answered, “though I haven’t seen any of the crew yet.”

“We’re early,” Father Xris said.

“I think that this might be one of the crew now,” Hannah said, pointing to someone who was leading a cargo train of (comparatively) small containers, pulled by a single transport tractor, towards the cargo doors. He seemed to notice the group, and came over while the main door was opening.

“Hi,” he said, “you guys the passengers?”

He asked it like it wasn’t merely a formality.

“We are,” Hannah said. “Don’t you see our IDs?”

“I’m not the one scheduled to meet you. I’m security,” he said in explanation, “Kari is in charge of personnel.”

“You weren’t all given our IDs?” she asked. Normally for any sort of transportation, all of the people working on it would be given the full list of passengers' IDs. (By this time no one used hand-held smartphones and smartglasses any more; implanted computers which used blood sugar and oxygen for power had been ubiquitous for some time, and so by now society had adapted to everyone reliably broadcasting their unique ID.)

He shrugged. “We’re not a passenger ship. It’s really only Kari’s job to know who you are.”

The way this sounded seemed to occur to him and he softened his tone a bit.

“I don’t mean to be unfriendly,” he said. “I’ll see you around the ship often enough, and be glad for the company. It’s just that we tend to operate on a need-to-know basis when we’re in port. It makes everyone’s life easier. My name’s Biff, by the way.”

Introductions were made all round, and they learned that the Chinese man’s name was Xiao.

The cargo doors were completely open by this point and the robot who was driving the cargo train must have asked for permission to proceed, as Biff replied to him, “Permission granted.”

Watching professionals communicate with a robot was often a confusing experience. They tended to configure the robots to send text messages rather than talking out loud, but though there were cybernetic interfaces to directly overlay displays onto the optic and auditory nerves, it’s not possible to talk to the robot without making sound. The result was something like watching a private phone conversation. You could guess what the other person was saying, sometimes.

Before the cargo train had made its way entirely within the cargo airlock, Fr. Xris noticed several headless terminator robots in standby position on the towing vehicle.

“Worried about encountering trouble in the station?” Father Xris asked with some surprise.

Biff followed Fr. Xris’s eyes to the robots.

“I’m just paranoid,” he said. “There haven’t been any fights over cargo at this space station in over six months.”

He watched the cargo train enter the airlock, and then turned once the airlock had mostly closed.

“Well, pardon me,” he said, “I need to go report to the captain and get this stuff stowed. See you on the ship!”

He gave a wave and walked through the personnel entrance which opened as he approached it and shut immediately behind him.

The small group which had assembled waited for the Kari who was supposed to meet them. As they waited, they heard the faint sound of air rushing through an opening. It startled Hannah, who asked, “what was that?”

Xiao answered. “The cargo airlock. They do not make the cargo sections of ships airtight on container ships like these. It would add too much weight, and it does not make a difference to the robots who do the loading and unloading.”

“How much of the ship is pressurized?” Hannah asked.

“Most likely, twenty or thirty meters in the middle,” Xiao replied.

“All the way through? I mean, from the inside to the outside?” Hannah asked with a little trepidation in her voice. She hadn’t thought too much about what the traveling conditions would be like when she saw the price on the booking site.

“Except for the superstructure, and armor on the outside,” Xiao said.

“You know a lot about cargo ships?” Fr. Xris asked.

“I was a crew member on several voyages” Xiao said. “It pays well enough. But I wish to settle down, perhaps raise children. A cargo ship is a bad place to work if you get along with your family.”

“Do you also have dreams of setting up some sort of outdoorsy life?” Fr. Xris asked. “Hannah wants to raise horses, and Xanadu is supposed to have some beautiful wilderness. I hear it’s what attracts a lot of its settlers.”

“I would like to run a camping guide business, but I doubt that I can get that started immediately," Xiao said. "Now, I am looking forward to the fun of a world which is not yet working perfectly. Why are you going?”

“I'm Going where I’m told to go,” Fr. Xris said.

Xiao looked at him. “Oh!” he said, recognizing the cassock and collar. “You are a Christian priest?”

“Yes,” Fr. Xris said. “There’s a small Christian community on Xanadu. The priest they have is 94 and having a hard time coping, so my bishop has sent me to help him. Basically that means that I’m to take over and let him enjoy a hard-earned retirement.”

As he finished this explanation, a woman in the sort of loose fitting utilitarian clothing typical of space station and cargo ship crew members came up to them.

“I’m Kari,” she said, “Second officer on the Hopeful. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Despite her ID being broadcast electronically, Kari took the polite route of introducing herself. Something had to be the content of the ritual of greeting, and in any event introducing yourself let people know how you pronounced your name.

The others introduced themselves.

“Are there many more passengers besides us?” Hannah asked.

“Only one,” Kari said cheerfully. She was a young woman. If Hannah was 31, Kari might have been a few years younger, but not less than 25.

“His flight is on time and due to arrive at the station in twenty minutes. With docking time and getting over here, we should see him in about an hour, so why don’t I take you aboard the ship and show you around? Just leave your luggage here and Stan will make sure it gets to your quarters.”

The passengers surmised, correctly, that Stan was the robot standing a respectful distance behind Kari.

She led the way through the personnel door, which opened into a narrow corridor, which was in fact a long tube leading to the crew section of the ship.

“For those of you who’ve never been on a cargo carrier before, the living area is just forward of the middle of the ship. Since the living area is only twenty four meters long, we have eight 3-meter high decks.”

“What is the gravity differential on the inner decks?” Xiao asked.

“It’s .6g on the innermost deck,” Kari said.

“Very nice,” Xiao replied.

They came after a several minute walk to where the tunnel made a right-angle turn to go out to the docked ship. The walls were lined with windows, and the ship was a truly impressive sight from the middle. Walking out to it on a gangway suspended in the middle of nothing allowed the sense of enormity to strike one unimpeded. It was huge in both directions at once.

“How do we get on?” Hannah asked. “I mean, if the living quarters are spinning to generate gravity, how do we get in from the outside edge?”

“Actually,” Kari said, “the living quarters are locked at the moment. We do that whenever we dock because it’s too disorienting to have two different gravities pulling at you at once. That doesn’t answer your question, though. There’s a tube from the outside to the center on the main part of the ship which connects up to the living quarters in the center. It allows space-walks in emergencies when we are rotating the living quarters, and there’s no point in having a second entrance just for when the living quarters are locked.

“At the center the rotation is very slow. The living quarters only spin at a little over three rotations per minute, which gives a tangential velocity of thirty meters per second on the outside, but it’s almost nothing on the inside. If you think about it, three rotations per minute is only three times faster than the second hand on a watch.”

Kari clearly liked the ship, and despite its obvious inferiority in comfort to a passenger ship, she was proud of it. Whether justified or not, this enthusiasm was rubbing off onto Hannah, who was starting to let go of the fear that choosing the cargo ship for its cheap fare was a mistake as big as the ship itself.

“We dock with the station so that down, in the space station’s inertial frame of reference, is towards what is normally the back wall. All of the rooms are equipped to make this livable, with ladders and other conveniences built into the floors, walls, and ceilings. The Hopeful is a modern design, if she is about thirty years old, so the rooms are quite comfortable, by cargo standards.”

That qualifier was necessary. Passenger ships were designed around comfort and convenience, especially considering how unlike regular life space travel was, the vast interstellar distances making connection to the internet impractical. Passenger ships were thus designed to allow people to get away from each other as well as to help them congregate. Part of this was large bedrooms for the passengers, since many of the passengers would spent most of their time there.

When the group made its way through the inner decks to the deck with the sleeping rooms, they saw that the berths were not what one would call spacious, though if you were familiar with historical cargo ship designs you would have to be in an ungenerous mood to call them cramped. Each had a single long bed, a small closet with drawers built into it for clothing, and a fold-out desk which took the place of the foot of the bed once the bed was folded up into storage.

“What do you do for a chair?” Hannah asked.

Kari pointed to the wall under the bed.

“You just text it the chair command, and it folds into place.”

She demonstrated, and a thinly cushioned chair came out.

“You can adjust the cushioning by command, as a percentage of maximum cushiness.”

She sent it what Fr. Xris presumed was the 100% command, because it puffed up resembling a French feather cushion recently fluffed by a conscientious, if not enthusiastic, servant.

At the same time that Hannah was thinking about how tiny the room was, Xiao was impressed by how it had a desk as well as a bed in a single room! When he had been a hand on a cargo ship, the berths were arranged with three people to a room, and had no provisions for anything but sleeping.

Kari then took them on a quick tour of the other parts of the ship which would normally be open to them. The lounge was surprisingly spacious, and Fr. Xris guessed that this was where the crew was meant to spend most of their time. The cafeteria was a long, narrow room with one table running its length. There were two communal bathrooms, one for males and the other for females. They were equipped with showers, though there were only two showers in each. The bath water system only carried enough water to run four showers at once. (The showers were high efficiency immediate reclamation systems which ran a continuous loop of water. Water is heavy, and weight costs fuel.)

Kari timed things so that the tour of the ship ended right as she needed to go meet the fourth passenger, and she left them in the lounge while she fetched him.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” Hannah asked, possibly jokingly.

“I do not understand your concern” Xiao said. “This ship is practically a luxury liner.”

“I take it that you’ve been on more primitive ships?” Fr. Xris asked.

“Yes,” Xiao said. “Two, but they were both Shue class cargo ships. They are old designs, and are not meant for the same sort of deep space trips as the Hopeful. The newer of the ships I was on was built eighty years ago, and then it was a sixty year old design. One hundred and forty years ago, people were willing to put up with very little comfort in exchange for being in space for a month.”

The silence that followed made Fr. Xris feel free to change the subject.

“Do you read much?” Fr. Xris asked Hannah.

“Some,” she said. “Not that much. I like playing games. Swordcraft is my favorite—it’s an online game. I like the social part as much as the game itself.”

“Online games do not work in deep space,” Xiao said. “Some of the passenger lines run their own ORG servers, but I doubt the shipping line has spent that money for a cargo ship. I have brought some single player sword and sorcery games. I can lend them to you, if you like.”

“Thanks,” Hannah said. It would make the trip better, but she was still apprehensive.

“Feeling claustrophobic?” Fr. Xris asked.

“Kind of,” Hannah said.

“Even though so much of modern life is lived online, it’s still different when you don’t have the option of going anywhere, isn’t it? Just having something as an option can make you feel better despite never taking advantage of it. But don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. The glory and the shame of the human race is that we can get used to anything.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Hannah said.

“This is the lounge,” they heard Kari say from right outside the door as it opened. She stepped in, followed by a tall African man.

She introduced the man, whose name was Shaka, to the other passengers.

“I’ll introduce you to the crew in the mess hall at dinner, once we’re underway,” she said. “In general, feel free to go where you want on the ship. All of the controls are electronically locked to the people responsible for them, so you can’t accidentally cause problems. Just make sure to stay out of people’s way. As long as you don’t go into the bridge without Belle’s invitation or into engineering without Katie’s invitation, no one will throw you out of an airlock... Just kidding! Seriously, don’t go there without an invitation, but the worst they would do is yell at you.”

Kari smiled at this as if it was hilarious. It was more of an in-joke than she realized.

“I’ll come get you when it’s time to get ready for departure. There’s a procedure that I'll need to explain for transitioning from the station’s gravity to zero-g during maneuvers, and then to our own gravity afterwards. Since it involves equipment, it's easier to explain then.”

The passengers thanked Kari, and she left to go about her duties. Shaka excused himself to go to his room to take a nap since he hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before his flight, and the remaining three passengers stayed in the lounge. They talked with each other about what they had done on earth before deciding to leave.

Father Xris had been an engineer before entering the seminary, and was ordained a priest six years when he was assigned to Xanadu. He had served in two different parishes before getting this assignment.

Xiao had gone to school for computer science, but didn’t like it and spent a few years unemployed before he signed up with a space shipping company. He enjoyed mountain climbing, and had tried to join the Sherpa's union several times, but it was the old story of there being several hundred applicants for every opening, and he at last decided that earth was just too crowded.

Hannah was a sculptor, though she had yet to sell anything. To pay for that, she worked part-time as a guest relations specialist on a vacation ranch and part-time as nude model at an art school.

The topic then turned to hobbies.

“I love horses,” Hannah said. “That’s why I work on the ranch—I get a fair amount of time with the horses for free.”

“I had wondered,” Xiao said. “Horses are very expensive. That is one thing I like about hiking. All you need are shoes and a public park.”

“I could never afford horses otherwise,” Hannah said. “The rest of my hobbies are cheap. Like dancing.”

“What sort of dancing?” Xiao asked.

“Some ballroom, but mostly Australian swing,” she said.

“Most excellent,” Xiao said. “I only know a little Taiwan two-step.”

“I always wanted to know how to dance,” Fr. Xris said.

“Why didn’t you learn?” Hannah asked. “If you look around a little, you can always find a free dance class in some style or other.”

“When I had the opportunity, I didn’t have the courage. By the time I finally had the courage, I no longer had the opportunity.”

The conversation soon shifted again, and several hours passed quickly as they talked about the experiences of their very different lives.