Zio and Will were shipmates aboard the Venture Maru, a space freighter which sailed not only through our familiar Milky Way galaxy, delivering everything from canned peaches to ping-pong tables to radiation shields, but occasionally venturing all the way out to Kepler-186f, an exoplanet four hundred and ninety light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.
To all appearances Zio, the ship’s first officer, and Will, its chief engineer, were friends and nothing more. Zio would playfully tease Will about his hair. (Who would have thought that nineteen-eighties-style big hair would make a comeback in the twenty-third century?)
In return, Will joked about Zio’s taste in music — asonic reverb — which to him sounded like whales complaining bitterly about something, backed by steam whistles.
They watched vids together, sprawled companionably on one of the sofas in the lounge, passing a bowl of popcorn back and forth. There were none of the simmering gazes or secretive smiles that spoke of them being anything more than buddies. They would have laughed at the suggestion.
“We’re friends; that’s all. Do you think I could love somebody with hair like that?” Zio would have said.
Will’s response would have been, “How could I be in love with someone who listens to music that sounds like cows mooing along to a calliope?”
Each longed to admit their true feelings, but they held back, waiting for the other to speak first. A secret love was one thing; it kept a tiny flame of hope alive. The idea that their love might be unrequited was too painful to face.
But in stasis it was a different story. In stasis they dreamed.
For long trips, ones farther than the relatively brief four-month jaunt to Mars, the crew would climb into their stasis pods. Then their body temperature would be lowered, reducing their metabolic rate until they entered into a state of hibernation.
Stasis staved off boredom and squabbling among the crew. The ship’s computer monitored them, feeding them intravenously and massaging their bodies with pressure cuffs to prevent muscle atrophy. They were snug as kittens nestled in a basket while the ship flew itself.
Dreaming in her pod, Zio walked hand-in-hand with Will on the red plains of Mars, gazing up at the twin moons Phobos and Deimos. They bathed beneath the singing waterfalls of Gliese 581g and ran, laughing, along its pink sand beaches.
Will, dreaming in his pod, embraced Zio and presented her with a bouquet of black roses from Luminor — the exoplanet formerly known as HD 40307b. “Black roses without thorns, for my rose without a thorn,” he told Zio. In his dream, they kissed. In her pod, Zio sighed, feeling his lips warm and soft on hers.
They were star-crossed lovers, soaring among the stars, sleeping a few meters apart in their individual pods bolted onto the steel deck of the ship.
Then one time they awoke as usual, the lids of their pods springing open. Zio and Will climbed out, stretching and yawning. I dreamed about you. Each wanted to say it, but they didn’t dare.
Instead they went to the mess, where they drank protein shakes and hungrily devoured dried plantain chips, passing the bag back and forth between them.
“Your hair grew a lot while you were in stasis. It’s starting to assume a life of its own,” Zio told Will, grinning.
“The women on Keplar-186f think my hair is beautiful, thank you very much,” Will replied, grinning back at her. He didn’t care at all about the women on Keplar-186f, and none of them had ever said anything about his hair, good or bad, but he felt he had to say something.
Then he paused.
“You know, Zio…”
She cut him off. “Will, I’m sorry but I can’t go on like this.”
She took a deep breath and gathered her courage, before blurting, “I like you. A lot. In fact I think maybe I love you. There. I said it. Now you’re going to tell me to go jump in a volcanic vent next time we’re on Mars, right?”
A smile spread across Will’s face. “If you jumped into a volcanic vent I’d jump right in after you. Listen, I’ve been wanting to say something for a long time, but I was scared you’d laugh.”
“What did you want to say?” asked Zio. She thought she could guess. I can’t believe this is really happening, she thought excitedly. It feels like a dream.
But this time it wasn’t.
Jill Hand is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her work has appeared recently in the anthologies Cat’s Breakfast, Mrs Rochester’s Attic, and Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns. Her time travel novella, The Blue Horse, based on a true story, is available from Kellan Publishing.