The Hazards of Space Travel


by Melissa Franklin

I am a little distressed about something, so I thought I would put my thoughts down on paper. That’s always helped me in the past.

As you know, it was a four-day trip to Alpha Centauri, where I am now. I am writing this letter on a note pad as I sit in the waiting hall of the Transfer Point. It’s very much like an airport, except it’s larger, emptier, and more relaxed. The amenities are much nicer; so if you can imagine an extremely luxurious airport where no one is in a hurry, you’ll have the right picture.

The Alpha Centauri Transfer Point is actually a space station that orbits the local sun. I was hoping that it would either orbit a planet or even be located on a planetary surface, but no such luck. There’s a great view of nothing. Just a bunch of stars, and since this miniature artificial planet has no atmosphere to speak of, it’s always night.

I never thought a space station would be boring, but it is.

Harshan (that’s the purser from the ship I just got off) explained it to me in great detail: a transfer point on the surface of a planet just adds to fuel costs, since there’s a “gravity well” to climb in and out of. That’s kind of obvious; even I understood that right off. He also told me that a transfer point that orbits a planet just makes life interesting for the astro-navigator, and there’s just no point to it in an uninhabited system like this.

Harshan is my problem.

You see, everyone was so nice at Earth Watch Base and on the ship that I didn’t really notice Harshan at all! It just seemed to me that the crew of the ship was ultra-nice, super-considerate and very helpful all of the time. Which they were; except that Harshan seemed to personify these virtues more than anyone else. He showed me how to work the television in my cabin, explained the ship’s cuisine (it’s Fjarnian), and was generally always there when I needed someone. He was even in my TAL class! (That’s the conversation group for people who speak Thorgelfaynese as an Additional Language.) He’s Halakanian, you know, and he needs to improve his Thorgelfaynese.

I’ll never forget the adventure with the vegetables! It happened at dinner on the very first day of the trip! When I was on the Moon, I never ate those round little red things (they look like red peas) because I thought they would be peppery and I don’t like piquant food. So I didn’t eat them on the ship, either. But Harshan happened to be sitting next to me at dinner, and he scolded me for not eating them. We quickly got into a playful fight about why I didn’t want to try them, and finally I just sat there shaking my head “no” with my lips clenched shut. He just scooped up a-er-forkful of them and swooped them around in the air, suspending them right in front of my mouth.

“Time to park the car,” he said with mock solemnity, “Open the garage!”

What a coincidence! My mother used to use the “here comes the choo-choo” ploy to get my baby brother to eat his veggies. I never dreamed that an alien from outer space would ever do the same thing to me on board a spaceship to Alpha Centauri! I started to giggle and he crammed the red peas in. That just made me choke on them, but after a few hearty slaps on the back and a sip of water I was okay.

They didn’t taste all that bad; in fact, red peas are my favorite vegetable now!

Harshan is very handsome. He’s the Prince Charming you dream about as a teenager, but when you actually meet someone like that, his perfection is very intimidating. He’s too nice, too handsome; too thoughtful to be interested in me with my eyelid birth defect. A man like that could get any woman he wants, but he’s not the type to take advantage of that. I tried so hard not to think about him, because if I did I’d just get overwrought.

Then on the third day Harshan took me to the Observation Room-I should have read the information card in my cabin. I didn’t even know it existed! There was a giant monitor, about six feet wide, on which you could watch the stars outside. (Windows on a spaceship are impossible because of the effects of a Maneuver.) I expected that they would go streaking by like on Star Trek, but they just sat there without the slightest twinkle! It didn’t look like we were moving at all! Harshan explained that our little interstellar hop was so small by galactic standards that we really were barely moving. If we could move fast enough to see the stars streak by, the Doppler effect would shift the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation to the point that... you get the idea. Anyway, at that speed there would be Time Displacement.

I asked Harshan how we manage to cover four light years in only four days without going faster than light. “We just maneuver around that,” he said cryptically, “there are more ways to go than just fast and slow!” His Thorgelfaynese was not good enough to explain it, and he promised that I wouldn’t understand the explanation anyway. “Well!” I said in mock indignation, but I knew he was right.

We were between Maneuvers, and about half-way to our destination. He pointed out Earth’s star Sol, Alpha Centauri, and a few other important stars. Chern and Zerpick are too far away for their stars to be visible, but he pointed in their directions. I pretended not to notice that he slipped his arm around my waist! A secret thrill shivered up my left side, and I struggled to keep my composure. Without the slightest pause, he continued his lecture on why Alpha Centauri was chosen for a Transfer Point, and how Humanity was discovered. (I was wrong, it wasn’t stray radio waves. We were discovered quite a while before that.)

Over there is Homeland, he whispered, can you see where I am pointing? I turned my head to answer and found myself nose-to-nose with him. I could feel his arm on my back, trembling ever so faintly. What a delicious thrill that was! He was so nice; even his breath smelled good. I just stood there, half wishing, half fearing; and my stomach did a little flip-flop.

We just stared at each other for a while. For an instant, I felt a thrill of mixed joy, fear, and anticipation! Then, ever so gently, he embraced me and kissed me.

I pushed him away almost immediately, and I exploded into tears! Looking back, I see the build-up, but at the time it was so sudden, so unexpected! All my life I wanted a boyfriend like him, but they just called me “Pop-eye.” I married the first guy that half-way liked me, and divorce only traumatized and embittered me. I didn’t really want to push Harshan away; it was an involuntary reaction that I instantly regretted. Part of me was so blissfully happy, but the other part felt cheated and ashamed; because I really liked him, and the inevitable would hurt so bad.

“I did not mean to offend you, Melissa!” he exclaimed urgently in an honest but unnecessary apology, but I couldn’t stop crying long enough to explain. Another crew member ran after me and walked me to my cabin. She apologized for any impropriety that Harshan may have committed. In between sobs I explained that Harshan had done nothing wrong; but I could not seem to make her understand my private torment. I just went into my cabin, unfolded the sofa into a bed, and had a good cry. We only had a day left to our trip, and I spent most of it alone and depressed.

Every time I saw Harshan that last day, he just averted his eyes to the floor. I didn’t know how to handle the situation, so I didn’t; and the matter was never cleared up.

Harshan works the Sol-Alpha Centauri shuttle run, so he returned with the ship and the crew back to Earth Watch Base. And I sit here in the Transfer Point, waiting for my connection to Homeland, and trying to figure out what I did, what he did, what I should have done, what it could have been, and what it all means. It’s really wrung me out and left me quite confused. How dumb! Here I am traversing light years of interstellar space to visit a wonderful planet full of nice people, and I’m all depressed because someone kissed me. I should be having the time of my life; why am I so upset?

One thing’s for certain: I’ll never see him again. The odds against that are staggering.

Now I wish I were a fictional character in a science-fiction story written by you, Ken. Then I could have you arrange for me to meet Harshan again.

Fenap θorgelma,
Melissa

PS: I reread this letter one more time. I can’t believe I wrote all that mush! But I can’t change a word.