“Of course, you’ll be travelling at the Lorentz Limit.”
“Oh! What’s that?” Reality Star LaVi Elphan, barely twenty-one, asked, her face a picture of happy innocence.
A furrow appeared above Professor Jon Hootenberg’s old-fashioned spectacles, but before he could say anything I flashed a smile at the ever present hovercam.
“The Lorentz Limit,” I said, as LaVi’s ridiculously open gaze turned my way, “Is the speed at which it takes you one year, to travel one light-year.”
Her megawatt beam implausibly brightened. “We’re travelling at light-speed?”
I ignored the snort from Hootenberg. “Not quite, LaVi. The faster you travel, the slower time passes, compared to here on Earth. So a day on the Helikon lasts about…”
“Thirty-three point nine hours,” muttered the Nobel Prize winning scientist, countenance stormy, as if my inability with mental arithmetic was as damning as LaVi’s ignorance of General Relativity. Or was it Special?
“–Thirty-four hours on Earth.”
“Oh.” There was a sudden, oddly wistful pout. “But Gary! Doesn’t that mean there will be ten hours without coverage?”
I blinked. “Well, yes, but every moment of your time will be screened, we just buffer it and squeeze it–”
“Otherwise it would be like watching you in slow motion. But that’s great,” I insisted, guiding her away from the professor’s glare before he could start trying to explain redshift, “Because Earth scheduling needs time for comfort breaks,”–A.K.A. adverts–“and News, and important things like that.”
Infomercials, to explain anything not answered by LaVi’s bubbly curiosity. Recruitment slots, for scientists, for engineers, for future astronauts.
“So no-one on Earth will miss anything?” she implored, wide-eyed.
“Not one glorious second, LaVi. Promise!”
I’m glad LaVi didn’t ask me how the spaceship got to seventy percent of light-speed. Twice, Hootenberg had explained the drive he’d invented and I still couldn’t understand it. Very few people did.
It was far easier to understand why, in a spaceship of two hundred perfect human specimens–minds and bodies honed to razor-edges, destined to explore a distant star–there would be one enchanting airhead like LaVi. It was all PR; my area of expertise.
The concern had been that Earth couldn’t possibly sustain an interest in the mission, not over two decades, most of that spent in the tedium of the interstellar void. The interest wasn’t important for the voyage itself, but was very important for any future missions. We needed to keep the Helikon alive in the minds of the people back home, at least until it got to its destination, and hope the planets there were as visually stunning as our own.
But here’s the truth; LaVi was quite as perfect as any of the other astronauts. Like them, she’d undergone extensive tests as part of the selection process. Unlike everyone else, hers had been captured on cam for all to see, resulting in a hundred-fold up-tick in applications.
The public assumption was that while physically healthy, LaVi got a pass on the intelligence requirements. I had access to her IQ results. Not the highest, but a long way from the lowest.
What she didn’t have was the academic knowledge everyone else on the program had. That was her only ‘pass’. And that’s what made her perfect for the audience at home. She could ask their questions, while exploring the vast spaceship. Every high and yes, every low, continuously streamed to keep us interested and entertained in an epic adventure that took twenty-five years to bear fruit.
What LaVi got out of it, I wasn’t certain. Oh sure, she’d be the most famous person alive. Far more famous than anyone else on the Helikon, even Captain Passera. Bit players, because the hovercam only followed LaVi. And they–our brave explorers and maybe (but highly unlikely) settlers–were glad, because it took the pressure off them.
That’s why they tolerated someone who didn’t know anything. Plus, who didn’t love LaVi? A whole generation, male and female, would grow up wanting to be her. They already did; her viewing figures always had been astronomical.
Pale sunlight, softened by curtains fluttering in the breeze… I turned, and there she was.
“I asked you to call me Gary,” I said, my voice a whisper.
She smiled. “That was fifty years ago.”
I shook my head, annoyed. “No. That can’t be. You’re…”
“Twelve years younger than I should be. You never warned me about that.”
“Thought it would be a nice surprise…” Did I?
She laughed, but there was sorrow behind those still sparkling eyes. “So much has changed.”
“Yes.” Her hand on mine; the returned astronaut. “For the better?”
It was a genuine question. I’d spent half my life watching her every move and could remember it all. But the world? Less so.
“Some of it.”
LaVi… I peered around, suddenly convinced this was a cruel hoax by the nurses and staff. “Where’s your hovercam?”
“Oh!” She shrugged. “I turned it off the day I left the Helikon. Did you put that clause in my contract?”
“Yes… I think?”
“Well, thank you, Gary. ” A small frown appeared. “But you’re tired, I can tell. I should leave–”
“Not yet!” I protested. “I… have questions?”
“Surely you’ve had enough of me!” Her playful smile was back. “And my children?”
I glanced around to see if they were here. The twins, Alex and Jon. Born ten years into the voyage. Men now, fine young men. Not the first born in space, by a long shot. Two hundred perfect humans… what did we expect? But they were the ones we’d watched grow up, who took over asking the questions LaVi knew all the answers to. You can’t remain an ingenue forever. I should have foreseen that, I guessed…
“How is he? Really?” The voice softened as it moved away. Redshifted.
“Oh. Good days and bad. He comes and goes. You know?”
I wondered who they’re talking about? I wonder which of a thousand twinkling stars they’re traveling to?
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk