What Lemons Tasted Like

Andrew Najberg

The air is cold and sterile, but not as cold nor as sterile as the nothing outside. Grandmom draws her deep breaths with the help of the ship’s life support medbay, but even with precision calibration, her lungs rattle with something that battles her.

Mom kneels at her side and kneads her hand in eight different ways like she can’t decide which angle will remove twenty years of age from her mommy. 

“Are you going to make it to tomorrow?” She asks.

“At least one more time,” Grandmom answers.

I stand back behind mom, unsure how I feel. I step a bit left and right. Occasionally forward and back. Of course, I love Grandmom, but I don’t really know her too well. We look at the cosmos with two very different eyes; hers still have memories of what Earth had been like. Even if those memories are little more than vague impressions, the butterfly effects of childhood separate us as much as humans and artificial intelligence. There are few of her left.

And that’s a major reason why I love her. She is precious. Rare. It will be so long before another human has a childhood that can resemble hers that Landers would probably be unable to understand Launchers in every other way.

Mom wants to stay a little while, but I walk from the room toward the medical facility’s garden halls. Even after four generations into space, turns out we still want to see green things. I can’t say I feel much joy at these green things, these fronds and petals. Is the air really better here? It is certainly more humid.

I find Dahlia in the Wisteria corridor. I pass through the pressure skin that invisibly separates the module’s atmosphere from the rest of the ship. The oxygen must be collected and purified before it can circulate lest things as pesky as pollen end up inside sensitive equipment that needs to be maintained for half a millennium. The barrier feels like walking through a soap bubble.

Inside, trellises run up both bulkheads wrapped tight with the vine and dotted with purple flowers. Dahlia picks a blossom and spins it gently by the stem between thumb and forefinger.

“She turned down cryo?” Dahlia asks.

I nod, kick off my shoes, sit down against one bulkhead and stick my feet against the other. I slide strands of wisteria between my toes. The stems are waxy. I take one of the flowers and wipe away an idle tear with it. It really does feel good to be touching a plant.

As if it is the next step in our conversation, Dahlia slides her hand into the wisteria and twirls her fingers around it. 

Then, she says, “I don’t know if I could do that. Only 1% win the lottery.”

“She said she wanted to leave the ship,” I say, “And this was the only way she could go somewhere else.”

“But she would have,” Dahlia says. She slides down the wisteria wall to sit facing me. Stems break and she does not care. I try not to wince at each little snap. “She would have woken with our ancestors and our descendants on the soil of a new world.” 

“That’s a long time to spend dreaming. What if you don’t like your dreams?”

Dahlia rolls her eyes. “Nobody likes their dreams.”

We sit in silence for maybe half an hour. We try not to look at each other, causing us to conspicuously exchange glances. Of course, we are already registered partners even if we’ve not even kissed. It’s all down to mathematics, but that doesn’t stop you from fluttering. I try to focus on breathing in the plants’ smell and close my eyes.

After we have returned home, Mom comes into the cramped living room holding two cups. Her eyes are puffy, but when are they not? She glances at her tablet on the table at the base of the main conduit junction. The news can come at any time. Beside it, the room’s entertainment screen plays a muted episodic construction composed by one of the ship’s AI. The archives also contain more earth-cultural artifacts than one can absorb in a lifetime, but watching them inevitably leaves mom and me feeling a little depressed.

Mom adjusts her bracelet with the bottom of one of the cups and then holds that cup out to me.

“Synthetic Nine?” she asks.

I shrug and take the cup. I drink. Nine supposedly tastes like someone’s memory of a lemon. I’ve developed a taste for it, but I don’t think there’s anything yellow about it. I tasted a real fruit once. It was dried and way past its date, but I’d loved the sharp tang. I set the cup on the coffee table to let it mellow a bit.

“You holding up okay?”

“Sure,” I say automatically. “You?”

“You know you can tell or ask me anything,” she says. 

I try to focus on the entertainment screen, but all I can do is examine the faces of the computer constructed characters in search of tells that they are rendered. I feel mom’s eyes on me the whole time. I know she wants me to say how worried I am about Grandmom or how I can’t imagine life without her, but that’s because she wants to project her own concerns onto me. The problem I have is that it is all too easy for me to imagine life without Grandmom, that I almost think its best that her entire generation vanishes. As long as she is alive, we have all left our home behind. When she is gone, this will be all the more our home.

I can’t say any of this to Mom. It would be far too disrespectful to the grief she’s already feeling.

“You think we’re still human?” I say instead, knowing that Mom really just wants to feel like she’s connecting with me over all of this.

Mom snorts.

“Of course,” she says. “We’ll always be human.”

“And what about the people on the Rose or on the Lotus?” I ask, voicing something I’d thought about since my Formative History lessons as a boy. “How different will they be from us in ten generations? Twenty? Which one of us will still be human?”

Mom smiles. Her hair stirs a bit in a recirculation breeze.

“If we change enough to really wonder, we will always feel like we’re the ones who are humans,” she says. “They will feel the opposite. We will both be right.”

“Grandmom chose to die,” I say.

Mom sighs.

“I’m so tired of the sound of metal,” she says. “My feet slap on metal grates. I can hear a hatch close four corridors away. Feel it from six. When your grandmom told me about life on a planet, it was so real to her. I used to ask Mom, ‘How can an ocean be?’ and ‘what did sky look like?’ and I felt like we spoke two languages with the same words meaning different things. How could it be that a field of grass could stretch for miles? How could an airplane possibly have the space to fly? Grandmom used to look at me and laugh and tell me that the universe is much bigger than I know.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s small. Tiny. The only space that exists is where you are.”

“You’re arguing with a dying woman who isn’t even in the room,” my mom says.

“She doesn’t have to be. Dying, I mean.”

“Yes, she does. If you ask me, they ought to stop that damn lottery.”

“No,” I say. “It’s the only things some folk talk about.”

“And that’s why. They want immortality. I just want a goddamn window. Grandma too. Better to want simpler things.”

“But Mom, there are no windows on the Indigo.”

Mom sucks in a sharp breath at the end as if she’s about to say something much louder. Then, she takes a drink of her Synthetic Nine, straightens her sleeves, and heads off to her bunk.

When it is time for my shift, I leave our quarters. The route through the corridors and lifts is the highlight of my day. It is the only time I feel I am going to arrive somewhere, even if it is at work. They say that life is all about the journey, but when the only thing in your life is a segment of a literal journey, getting there becomes this thing as big as God. My mom wants a window. I just want to arrive somewhere. 

I am about to arrive at work when Dahlia catches me in the hall. She sneaks up behind and startles me with a light flick to my ear. By impulse, I reach out to tickle her, but I pull my hands back before I make contact. For a moment, her body is twisted in anticipation, an almost giddy smile on her lips. Then, her breath releases and her shoulders deflate. 

I know without doubt that had I tickled her, I could also have easily drawn closer and kissed her. A pang lances my heart at the thought, but just as quickly, I feel like my heart is a steel ball. I stick my hands in my pockets and keep walking.

“Hey now,” Dahlia says, placing a hand on my shoulder. This close, I can smell the subtle tinge of applied pheromones underneath her cleaners and detergents. I know she wants things between us to move forward. She gives my shoulder a slight squeeze. 

I look at her fingers like she just wiped a respiratory infection on me. Her hand draws back. Her eyes give a slight tremble, and her lips press together. 

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I promise I’ll cooperate more soon, but right now—”

Dahlia fakes a smile. “Terrible timing, I know. But the breeding window is so narrow, and who knows if our rotation will even come ‘round again.”

“We’ve only just been registered,” I say.

Dahlia groans, but I’m saved from her reply because we arrive at Engineering Hold Six. I don’t hesitate to thumb the print pad that opens the hatch, and I hop straight though.

“We’re going to talk about this later,” I hear her say from the corridor as the hatch closes behind me.

I stop and lean against the bulkhead. The designers in the room ahead hunch over their consoles and manipulate their holographic prototype projections while the fabricators at the far end wait by the printers or toil delicately at assembly stations. I feel bad about making such a cheap getaway from Dahlia. She means well, and she isn’t wrong about how rare the chance is. I wonder if I want to turn down a child because Grandmom turned down cryo. It might be the largest act of defiance I will ever have the chance to commit.

My shift passes quietly. I assemble components for the exhaust system and break down scrap print from failed parts and mechanisms. My hands stink of print substrate, and I keep rubbing the bridge of my nose. It’s oily and metallic, but I don’t really notice much even after it starts to give me a faint headache. The work is monotonous and endless. I am neither where the components begin nor where they end, but rather always in the middle of their journey. The sheer scale of the Indigo and the length of her voyage ensure an essentially endless workflow. The closest I come to a sense of completion is when workflow is disrupted.

About two thirds of the way through my shift, such a disruption arrives in the form of the room supervisor, Clarke. He’s a slender man with a lean build and cheeks as pale as eggs. He adjusts his waist. His expression is glum.

“Word from below is that your grandmother passed last hour,” he says.

The news feels like dropping into an icy water tank, but I try to keep my face neutral. It wouldn’t do much good to have a breakdown here. That can wait until I get home. 

“Thank you for letting me know.”

Clarke nods.

“Shame she turned down the cryo,” he says.

I look at him sharply. My cheeks warm. “Does everyone know?”

Clarke shrugs. 

“It’s public record, and you know how the lottery mongers are,” Clarke says. “Anyway, you’re officially on two weeks mourning leave. I’ll see you then. My condolences to you and your family.”

I clean up my workstation with motions a bit more abrupt than I intend, but something inside me vibrates. In the back of my heart, I am angry because I know how much I would like her spot myself. However, it is even more aggravating that I’m suddenly aware of how we are so fixated on being turned to ice. Some folk call it being chosen for “the millennium of dreams.” How is that even a hope?

What if you want to wake up? 

What if after three hundred years you can’t withstand another minute? What will be left of the frozen when they awaken?

I stow my precision tool packs and give the assembly station a final wipe down. It’s nice to leave nothing of myself when I depart. I’ve always thought I did it to be considerate to whoever came next, but I suspect it is more than that.

On the way home, I pause at Epsilon junction. It isn’t a special place, nor even an interesting one. It is simply the fifth junction of perpendicular corridors with the main, trans-lateral corridor. Habit normally takes me left here to enter our quarter block, and the muscle memory of my legs is actually quite restless to continue on the familiar route. After all, I know my mom will be waiting and more than likely Dahlia too. Though most of Grandmom’s friends had already passed, Lily and Oak will come by as well to pay their respects. It will be a shame to miss them, and Mom and Dahlia will certainly find it rude.

However, I force myself to the right instead, towards our deck’s recreational facility. I pass through a pressure skin at the entry and immediately smell the sweat in the air despite the strength of the recirculation system that strives to reclaim every molecule of moisture. In some ways, the recreational facility with its treadmills and cycles, its rowing machines and stair machines is the most human part of the whole ship. Not only is our smell ingrained in the very existence of the place, but most of the machines represent simulations of things that humans used to do on Earth. It occurs to me that perhaps there is nothing more human than to cling to the past.

Some passengers even choose to wear virtual rigs while they exercise. I’m told that the representations that pass into the neural interface are in essence indistinguishable from reality, but somehow I’ve always found my brain rejecting the experience of rowing across a placid lake or jogging through the streets of something as wildly improbable as a city. Invariably, I’ve always found myself switching over to a simulation of taking a brisk jog on the command deck or the engine room. That, or I simply don’t bother with the rig to begin with.

Today, however, I eschew the exercise machines altogether and head straight for one of the virtual experience chambers.

Here, I power on the link which speaks to my neurotransmitters. I can imagine myself anywhere my mind or the minds of anyone else who has used the chambers can conjure. Its reservoir of experiences is vast. Some folk seek to experience the summits of Earth’s great mountains or the troughs of the earth’s greatest depths. Others return to the bustling metropolises or the rolling farms from which their families came. People explore imagined worlds that never were full of dragons and magic while others sit in a tea room on the edge of black hole and watch light particles spaghettify. 

I make myself into a white dot floating in a vast, black space. I imagine the space to be as near to infinite as the hardware can manage. Then, in the middle, I place the Indigo. I’ve never seen its outside with my own eyes, of course. Almost no one alive has. The best most anyone can claim is to have seen a section of the ship while on a tether during a spacewalk to repair a micrometeor strike or some other hull patch. Only people of my grandmother’s age have seen the ship in such a way that they could literally walk around it, a concept that boggles my mind.

And now there is one less such witness.

I ask the simulator to increase the distance between my dot and the Indigo, further and further away. I know there are solar systems and nebulas and quasars, but my path never carves towards anything tangible. The truth about the vastness of space is that you have to intend to hit something. Otherwise paths of intersection are miracles of quantum probability.

The Indigo shrinks into the barest of specks, so dim against the backdrop I only recognize the spot where it had been by memory. All I have to do is look away and find myself drifting in the simulation’s replication of endlessness.

But I can’t. 

My eyes won’t unfix from the spot at which the Indigo had vanished. Even though its shade is too close to black for me to differentiate it from the blackness around it, I can’t not look at that place. I feel tears running down my face, loudly hot, and all of a sudden, I’m shutting down the neural interface and running through the exercise room. 

The ships’ corridors blur as I cross Epsilon junction and into the residential facility. I burst through the door to quarters. There in the living room glow a dozen electronic candles. In their light, Mom and Dahlia sip broad-mouthed mugs that I suspect contain Synthetic Nine. They look at me as I enter, and their smiles are warm and kind and full of sympathy. 

I compose myself with a deep breath and straighten my shirt. I run a finger under my collar and wipe the tears from my cheek before I sit on the floor cross-legged. I feel Dahlia’s arms close around me, and she presses her head against her shoulder. I feel her forehead against my cheek. I don’t know how long the journey took me, only that I have arrived.

Andrew Najberg authored the collection of poems The Goats Have Taken Over the Barracks (Finishing Line Press 2021) and the chapbook Easy to Lose (Finishing Line Press 2007). His individual pieces appeared in North American Review, Louisville Review, Another Chicago Magazine, The Wondrous Real, Fleas on the Dog, Nashville Review, and many other journals and anthologies. Currently, he teaches creative writing and other course at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.