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art by Tais Teng

The Navigator

The one thing they all agree about is that I'm insane. They probably warned you about that before they brought you in here. Did they also tell you I used to be the navigator? Thirty years. Never a mark against my record. At least, not until I told them what I'd found.
Sit up here on my bunk and I'll tell you about it. Come on, they won't let you leave until your time's up, you know. I won't bite if you won't. I know, cheering up duty is no fun. I had to do it when I was a kid. I hated it too. There you go, settle down now and pretend to listen. I'll pretend you're cheering me up.
I wasn't the first to tell them. The Proponents of Understanding have been saying it forever. No one pays them any attention. What do they know? But me, with my training and experience--that was different. It caused quite a commotion when I said we were lost.
That's right, lost. Don't look so appalled. The Generation Hope probably missed her destination hundreds of years before you were born. There's no point crying over it now.
The captain was the first to turn against me. What proof did I have? No navigator ever doubted the ship's course before. Which is true, as far as the records show. But the records only go back a few hundred years. There's no telling what happened before then. We don't even know where the ship came from, or when she left. Or why.
Anyway, why should I have to prove we're lost? Shouldn't it be the other way round? You prove we're on course! That's what I told the captain.
Of course he couldn't prove it. How could he? Our trajectory takes us right off the map, about twenty years out. Whatever's beyond that is anyone's guess.
The captain claims our whole route is safe inside the navigation database, but it's off-limits to us. That our destination is Elysium, a bluish-green planet described in a book in the ship's library. He also says the old records are actually still intact, but they're off limits, too.
Baloney, I say. Why would the ship keep that information from us? Shouldn't we at least know when we're due to arrive? He says there's a good reason for it. It's not for us to know. There are lots of things we don't know. Like how the air we breathe is regenerated. How our waste is converted back into nourishment. Where the power to run everything comes from. We only know as much as we need to for routine maintenance and daily operations.
Despite our ignorance about the ship, not one of her systems has ever failed. Which is why the captain insists the navigation database is fine. He says it's updating the map from its own archives as we progress along our route. There's nothing to worry about.
But that's ridiculous. Any fool can see we're in uncharted space. The map is being updated as fast as the ship's telescopes collect data. The database ahead of us is as blank as the map. That's what I concluded after thirty years on the job. The captain said I was crazy for thinking that way. He had me locked up in here.
The Proponents of Understanding were outraged. At long last they had someone in the know on their side. It wasn't me who was crazy, they said. The captain was lying. They demanded to see me.
It was months before the captain finally allowed it. By then I'd had time to think things over. Pay attention now. This is the important part. I won't be around much longer. I'm counting on you to remember it.
Suppose it's true that we're lost. Hypothetically, if you can't bring yourself to actually believe it. What then? Should we turn around and go back? As far as anyone can tell, the ship has no propulsion mechanism of her own. Some external force must have driven her up to speed and sent her on her way. We could no more change our course now than an archer could an arrow's in flight.
Nevertheless, the Proponents of Understanding want to break into the navigation database so everyone can see the truth for themselves. It's not enough for them to know the truth. They won't be satisfied until everyone knows it.
But there are truths and there are truths. Our marvelous spaceship will eventually give out. That's inevitable, unless some ill-positioned sun or black hole claims her first. What's the point of proving the archer aimed poorly? What good will it do to prove our journey has no destination or purpose? Imagine the effect on all those poor fools pinning their hopes on Elysium.
I think the original crew understood this when they first realized the ship was irretrievably off course. They had a choice. Tell the passengers the awful truth or destroy all evidence of it. Concoct a lie for everyone to believe in right up until the end.
The Proponents of Understanding don't see it that way. They changed their minds about me, said I was crazy for thinking like that. A lie is a lie. Better to know the truth no matter what. There's no getting through to them. They'll keep pushing to break into the navigation database until the captain, or some captain, finally agrees. He doesn't know any better.
That would be a disaster. The death of hope. It's up to you to make sure it never happens. Do you understand? You have to spread the word to the others. Tell them this: breaking into the database will throw the ship off-course and destroy any chance of ever reaching Elysium!
You fell asleep on me, didn't you. Oh, sure, now start your purring. After all that tail-switching before. I should have known better than to expect you'd be any help. They wouldn't have let you in here otherwise.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

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