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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

It's Good to See You

Douglas Rudoff lives in Seattle with his wife Margaret and his eight-year-old son Liam. In his long career as a software engineer, you may have unwittingly used his work if you ever analyzed Soviet intelligence, requested a taxi online in Paris, had your cell phone account suspended, had your power restored after Hurricane Katrina, or just wasted time on the internet.

Most people were unsettled by the journey past the dead to the ship's forward viewing dome. Brad didn't mind as it allowed him solitude. He floated through the zero gravity of the dimly lit, quarter-mile-long corridor of the necropolis, pulling himself along the rungs between the rows of thousands of white sarcophagi encircling him on all sides, the blank faces of their occupants just barely visible through small windows. In four days, he'd be joining them.
Right before he reached the viewing dome, the lights in the necropolis brightened suddenly. In the distance, the entry door clicked open. Brad heard muffled voices as a four-person recovery crew entered. He floated for a few minutes as he watched them pull themselves forward and detach a sarcophagus. With two people on either side, they carefully floated back to the open door. The door shut with another click, and the lights dimmed.
He climbed the ladder into the solace of the viewing dome. For almost an hour he stared into the sea of blackness dotted by stars, and then his communicator beeped. He read a message he never would have expected: "I saw your name on the passenger list. I'm on the ship, too. My shift is starting. Come see me. Janice."
He had been looking frontward to where the ship was heading, wondering what the future would bring. He rarely ever turned back toward Earth. But now he did.
At age twenty-one, in college with an undeclared major and not particularly good grades, he played guitar and sang in a not terribly good band. Twenty years later, Brad could easily bring back to memory the stink of spilled beer and illicit cigarettes in a club with a name long forgotten. From the stage he had seen Janice for the first time, sitting with friends of his. She had short, dark hair and pale skin. He was immediately drawn to her; he watched her bored and dour expression fleetingly vanish under a bright smile every so often. He looked straight at her as he sang. She paid no attention to anything happening on stage.
But he had misread her. After the set she sat beside him, laughing and flirting for over an hour before they left together. She led him by the hand up a dimly lit staircase to her apartment, him feeling almost as if he was floating all the way. She kissed him on the landing before her door.
In the next year, he and Janice had married, and their son Peter was born.
Four years later, tragedy struck in the form of an automobile, killing Peter. Torn apart by Peter's death, they divorced.
When he left Earth, Janice had been his ex-wife for fifteen years.
To anyone who asked why he chose to leave Earth, Brad gave the standard platitudes: to be a pioneer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, to ensure the survival of humanity. To himself alone, he would say he left Earth to leave his past behind. All the disappointments, failures, and grief, both his and humanity's, could be forgotten.
He thought he knew what Janice would have said: that he had given up. The last time he saw her, she had said so explicitly, tears streaming down her face, "You gave up music, you gave up school. Please, I beg of you, don't give up on us. I can't survive this without you."
He had looked straight at her and said, "I can't survive this with you." The empty bedroom with toys still strewn about, the family pictures with Peter eternally four years old had been too much for Brad to bear. They never spoke after the divorce.
Over the years, thinking about Peter became endurable. He moved on. He returned to college, but didn't finish. He had another marriage that lasted less than two years.
Janice had been right about him giving up on things. Finally, he had given up on Earth.
It was the 96th day of Brad's first shift of the voyage. In four days he'd get the injection to kill him and be shelved in the necropolis with the dead for eight years. The ship held 3,000 passengers, at any time: 100 alive, 2,900 dead. A body couldn't survive being dead too long. Random cosmic rays and the decay of radionuclides damaged cells. If one stayed dead the entire forty-year voyage, there would be too much damage; less than a 25% chance of survival. But interrupting death every so often gave the body a chance to heal. So, in rotation, every 2,900 days, nearly eight years, they'd bring you back to life where you lived for one hundred days to heal before they killed you again. After five shifts, forty years of travel and twelve light-years from Earth, they would make planetfall, and resurrect all the passengers to join the colony on the new Earth.
The journey back through the necropolis left him shaking and sweating. He stopped to calm himself once he entered the hub of the rotating ring. He climbed down a ladder in a spoke to the living quarters, his weight increasing with every step.
For the next hour he kept himself occupied with his janitorial duties. There were four days until he would be reshelved to join the dead, and someone else would be resurrected to take his place.
His job gave him access to normally restricted areas of the ship, including the now empty security office. He slinked into the dark room and flipped a switch. The multitude of black video screens turned on, filling the room with a diffuse light from views of every aspect of the ship, inside and out. He sat in the chair in front of the console and found the view of the sterile white recovery room.
Brad recognized Janice by the way she lay asleep curled up with her head under the sheet and one foot hanging off the side of the bed. During their marriage that was her position every weekday at 5 a.m. when he awoke to his alarm. She would always grumble a sleepy "I love you" from beneath the covers. He'd respond with an "I love you, too," then slip quietly from the bedroom.
He watched the sheets move slowly up and down with her breathing. A nurse came up beside her and she stirred, slowly pushing herself up to sit. Her hair was shoulder-length, streaked with gray. He found the camera controls and zoomed in to her face. It was a tired face, but the serious face he remembered--with blue eyes, and a mouth that always looked like she was frowning, belying her eternal optimism. "Everything will be all right," she'd always say, even after Peter's death. She'd had hope for Earth, too. She hadn't though it was too far gone to save. He wondered what had changed for her.
She turned her head slightly and spoke. Without sound he could only wonder what she was saying as he watched her lips move. Her frown disappeared momentarily as she suddenly opened her mouth and smiled brightly. He could fill in the silence with remembrance of the sound of her laugh. She stopped speaking and her frown returned. He watched her face on the screen for a few minutes, noticing every blink, every slight movement of her head.
Suddenly, she shifted her gaze and stared at the camera, as if she knew he was studying her. Brad reflexively flicked the screens off, darkening the office.
He thought back to her message. She wanted to see him. Did he want to see her or not? Was there enough space in the immensity of the ship to cowardly avoid her for four days every eight years? He laughed at the absurdity of his thought.
He recalled their cramped apartment, the sheer joy of being madly in love with her their first year together. And Peter. He recalled cradling him in the hospital after his birth, and four years later when he died.
He thought he had left his life on Earth behind. But it clearly wasn't meant to be.
Could they start over? He could bring her back to his cabin, borrow the ship's guitar and serenade her with songs barely recalled. They could start a cycle of four days of bliss every eight years while their shifts overlapped. In their subjective living time it would seem like a hundred days, but there was something romantic about the actuality that every eight years he'd stand beside her as she was resurrected, have four perfect days together, and then she'd stand beside him as he was killed and shelved for the next eight years.
He knew he was getting ahead of himself. He had no idea what had happened to her after they divorced. He didn't even know the reason she chose to leave Earth.
But he knew just as he gave up everything for a chance at a new life, so had she. He left the security office and walked to the recovery room, hesitating before the door. Through its small window, like a framed picture, he saw her sitting up in bed. She looked at him and smiled. He pushed the door open and walked to her bed.
"Janice," he said, "It's good to see you."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Author Comments

I wrote the first draft of "Four Perfect Days" in 90 minutes during a one-day workshop given by Mary Robinette Kowal in 2010. The writing prompt was "meat grinder." If you are wondering where in the story the prompt came into play, it was originally the name of the band. After a number of rewrites, I was told the story was "either too long or too short." I chose "too long" and pared it down to its essence, which you see here. In this version much of the backstory has to be created by the reader. Perhaps, one day I'll take the "too short" advice and expand it to include my version of the backstory.

- Douglas Rudoff
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