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Maybe if One Person Less

The spaceship Calliope breathes without pause, inhaling through mouths on the floor and exhaling from mouths overhead. Seaweed streamers on the ceiling vents wave in the continuous sigh. Lying in my bunk, eyes closed, the humming, breathing, great bear of a ship holds me close in warm embrace, its cave spread all around, black and vast and cold.
I miss Earth--how could I not?--but I miss Mother, too. Her face fades. How did the corners of her eyes wrinkle when she smiled? What color was her favorite blouse? How did she sound when she sang at her table working on what... a jigsaw puzzle, a game of solitaire, a paint-by-numbers picture?
Time robs color from flowers. I can't remember grass under my back when I stared at clouds. Were they really so big? Did the horizon circle me and center me and lift me up, a dot between the plate of sky and earth?
I didn't know to look with fondness at the Earth as the elevator lifted us toward the shuttle to Calliope. The shuttle walls vibrated beneath my hand that would never touch beach sand again, that wouldn't brush away a fly, or cup around an ear to hear a night train groaning in the Kansas night.
So Calliope's breathing comforts me, a steady suspiration that whispers a long "ah" in my ear.
I hiked the Appalachian Trail on my last outing, starting from Winding Stair Gap at the highway to the Nantahala Gorge and through the Little Tennessee River Valley. The ridges above Fontana Lake offered water glimpses through trees. Twenty-nine miles in three days. Poplar, white and red oak, hemlock, sycamore, basswood, and beech. Tree heaven. Not far from the Joyce Kilmer National Forest. It's true, it's true, there is no poem as lovely as a tree, and there are so many of them they blanketed distant hills with green velvet. I would, if I could run my hands over them, pet the planet.
Calliope was the goddess of epic poetry, not a circus pipe organ. The ship is a poem. She would like a forest named after a poet. When she talks, it is always in verse.
But I only hiked in Tennessee for three days, covered less than two percent of the trail. Walked none of the side trails, saw so little of it, one tiny line of footsteps over a tiny portion of an immense globe.
On Calliope, the farthest I hike in a straight line is the forty feet up the main corridor. If I walk with my hand touching a wall, turn into every room, never skipping an inch, climbing every ladder, I travel less than two thousand feet. Through any port, the vista is millions of light years deep but less than the distance from one infinitely complicated oak to the completely different one ten strides behind it. I touch a single tree, my fingers sliding over grooves and fiber and fissures, while millions and millions of others remain unseen, untouched but present and weighty. So much life.
Fifteen cabins on Calliope. Fourteen long, plastic-wrapped lumps on fourteen bunks. Blankets cover them. Their faces too, are fading. Was the pilot's hair long or short? Did the communications engineer have a pointy chin or was it round? Did the navigator wear yellow on her last day? I resist the urge to look. When I walk their quarters, my fingers tracing along the walls, all two thousand feet of them, I'm careful not to bump their beds. Let them remain still and undisturbed.
The animal world knows murder. Baboons go to war, one tribe against another. Male lions kill cubs that are not their own so females will go into breeding condition sooner. Some animals kill their children if resources are scarce. Earth's a beautiful world, but not a gentle one. People are not so unique in their willingness to kill to protect their interests.
To a human, a forest may seem to teem with life, but to a wolf that cannot find prey, it is a desert. The numbers can be hard to see. Not so on the Calliope. The pantry holds a measurable amount of stores, and when we started, for every day, an entire crew consumed from them. Vast distances require time to traverse. Time to watch the food supply dwindle. The mission planners said we would have enough-of course we would--but wouldn't chances improve if only fourteen ate instead of fifteen? Oxygen restores at a calculable rate too, but the buffer for a full crew looks small. Maybe if one person less needed the air, we all would be a little safer.
The Resource Management Officer choked the Electrician to death in their bed. He claimed an argument gone too far, but he knew before anyone else. The Communications Officer slit the Microbiologist's throat. The Nutritionist bludgeoned the Environmental officer. Somehow, the Doctor talked the Physical Therapist into an EVA suit after adjusting the unit to pressurize with carbon dioxide. During breakfast, the Astronomer ate broken glass in her oatmeal. Tore her up inside. No one knew who arranged that. It might have been me; I don't remember. One night, the four killers died in their sleep. An overdose of insulin for each. Already, the ship seemed empty since I and the five remaining crewmembers stayed in our cabins. Who could be trusted?
The forgetting began. I stared at my cabin wall, a curved, featureless steel surface, and on it I projected from memory the faces. They didn't focus. Not the Astronomer, who'd been my occasional lover, or the Doctor who told jokes. They joined my brothers on Earth who faded away, and cities I'd visited in another lifetime. Only the wall remained. I hummed to it, long, random strings of unharmonious notes. Calliope hummed back. It whispered to me when the lights were low. "Check the food lockers," she said. Other times I heard her, but I couldn't make out the words. When I put my head against the metal, her heartbeat ocean pounded waves against invisible cliffs. Throb. Throb. Throb.
Still, the deaths arrived. Someone garroted the Mission Commander with a shoestring. Then the Mechanic grew a screwdriver in her chest. The Historian, a slight man, died with a pillow over his face. We were down to three. That should have been enough. The graph of food stores and oxygen over time looked so much better. But the Morale Officer hung himself, maybe for the greater good, and the Chemist swallowed acid.
I'm rationing myself. If I deny hunger, eat only enough to survive; if I breathe shallowly, sip the air, then I stretch the supplies.
In the meantime, I walk the ship, dragging my fingers against the walls. I've left a stain. When I look at an angle, my skin's mark on Calliope is clear. Perhaps I'll wear away the metal, make a groove like those stone steps in Peru where centuries of pedestrians have turned the rock into gentle arcs.
I've broken every mirror on the ship. Given time, I'll forget myself and fade like my mother, like the Tennessee forests, like the fourteen crewmembers who lie on their bunks in tight plastic cocoons. I talk when Calliope's voice is still. I tell her I am happy and all is well. We fly, the two of us, cuddling in deep space, rushing away from what I forgot until we arrive at the unknown, and all that changes are the graphs that slowly creep downward, but oh so slow.
We're feeding just one, after all. We're breathing for one.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 21st, 2016
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