THE FOUR BILLION YEAR BIRTHDAY • by Jamie Hittman

“I’m glad you could come see me off,” said the woman behind the airlock. Her voice crackled through a speaker in the ceiling of Sector 8-G, but Dr. Hauser could tell she was smiling. He imagined her kneeling, plump and beatific, on the upholstered bench of her escape capsule.

“I’m not here to see you off anywhere, Marian,” he said. “Why don’t you come back aboard and we can talk about this?”

“Not today, I’m afraid. The launch sequence has already started.”

“I’ve called ship security. They should have that cancelled momentarily.” Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. It was a lie, of course. She had cut the control lines leading to the capsule, and he was coming to the nauseous realization that she simply could not be stopped. “If you change your mind, the Paradisus won’t go after you. If you have any doubts — ”

“I don’t. It’s exactly as I’ve been telling you for months now. I’m not happy here, Dr. Hauser. You of all people should know how hard it is.”

There was silence, broken immediately by the crescendo of ion engines. Marian, as usual, was not wrong. The engineers of the Paradisus had themselves acknowledged that a spaceship was no place to live, though the Paradisus was created to ferry the remnants of humanity — fifty thousand souls at last count — across the gulf of stars. The ship was five kilometers long from stem to stern, a lozenge with fins and guidance thrusters. Inside were promenades and parks, vistas of forest and tropical birds maintained by the most advanced environmental controls ever designed. No one went hungry. Sickness was rare. The old generation was nursed by the new, and when they died, there was great ceremony praising their contributions before their bodies were donated to waste reclamation. It had been this way for the past two hundred years. It would continue until the Paradisus made planetfall on Gilese-3 four hundred years hence.

Dr. Hauser was a psychiatrist, a fourth generation passenger aboard theParadisus, and his role was critical. Suicides were growing frequent. As it was written in the counselor’s handbook: “Each passenger must be made to believe in their own purpose and self-worth. The journey will be one that most will not survive.”

What noble purpose he had! The great Dr. Hauser, preserver of minds! But he had nearly pulled the trigger himself at turns. Noble or not, his use was short-lived. He would grow old here just like the rest, a stopgap, a means to an end. No one would remember him come planetfall, absolutely no one —

“Your daughters, Marian,” Dr. Hauser said. “Think about your daughters.”

Here Marian sounded contrite. “I’ve thought of them,” she said. “I even considered bringing them along. But I believe they must make their own decisions. Promise me they’ll be taken care of.”

Dr. Hauser thought of the children. They were four years old. Twins. Both had curly red hair like their mother.

“Promise me,” she said.

He sighed. “Yes. Yes, it will be done.”

Marian gasped in delight. “Oh,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”

“What?”

“The planet out there. So much water. I can’t imagine what it’s like, can you?”

He could and he had. For the past week, the Paradisus had been in transit of a nameless earthlike planet about four hundred thousand kilometers off their starboard. Hundreds had flocked to the portholes to stare at it, a great blue gem couched in the velvety black of space, and Dr. Hauser had prostrated himself along with them, sobbing hysterically at this grand cosmic joke; they had arrived a few billion years too early. There was no vegetation, no oxygen. The atmosphere would smother them all.

“It’s my birthday today,” Marian said. The engines were throbbing loudly now.

“Well,” he said. “Happy birthday.”

“I’m forty. Half my natural span. How old are you, Dr. Hauser?”

“I’ll be sixty-three in June.”

“The clock is ticking.” She gave a high hiccup of laughter and the sound sent hot fury stabbing through him. He felt his hands begin to shake.

“I consider this a present to myself,” Marian went on. “I’ve had a great many birthdays here. Last year I went to the beach. There are reed huts and blue, blue water. I nearly forgot the waves were holograms.” She sighed a little. “I wonder when it was that it all stopped meaning anything to me. When I had to stop and ask myself, ‘What difference do I make?’ Have you ever asked yourself that?”

“We all have purpose here,” Dr. Hauser recited hollowly.

Marian went silent a moment. “You’re right,” she said, to his surprise. “You’re so, so right, Dr. Hauser. I’m sorry I doubted you before. I really am.”

Hope surged inside him. “Then open the door. Stop the launch. Come in and we’ll talk about it.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“But why?”

“My purpose isn’t here. It’s down there.”

He slapped his hand against the wall. “Marian, you’re going to die on that rock.”

“I’m never going to die.” She was laughing again, laughing hard, and the sound spun his head like a carousel. “Earth was just like this once,” she said. “A lifeless, barren world. But all the ingredients of life are inside of me, Dr. Hauser. That grand old primordial soup. That planet down there… it just needs someone to stir the pot.”

“For the love of God, Marian!”

“Oh, don’t chastise me now. You’ll be dead soon enough and forgotten. Reduced to your constituents and scattered around the growing vats. And I? Well, I’ll go away for a while. But come visit me in a few epochs, would you? You might just find Marian again, walking upright.”

The engines screamed out and there was a great clatter as the docking clamps withdrew.

“Stop!” Dr. Hauser cried, and in his mind he begged her: “Take me with you!”

But there was only a slight shudder as her capsule hurled itself towards the stars.


Jamie Hittman is a 2010 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she studied creative writing and psychology. She is currently enrolled at the Queens College MFA program in Creative Writing, studying fiction. She has work forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb Magazine.


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