4260 words, short story
Now is the Hour
We never had good luck with money, except for that one time. And that didn’t end well, so you could say we had no good luck with it at all. But we had plenty of hope. Or I did, anyway, and I was good at talking other people into having it.
“Don’t be ashamed of having hope,” says Furby. He holds me in his arms to comfort me. I’m very grateful he got rid of the pain for me. And I’m glad there’s someone to hear my story. I have lost everyone else. Yet even after all that’s happened, I think I still would have made the decision that brought us all here.
When I won ten thousand credits in the lottery I looked at it as our ticket off Hardcase, the Planet of Chronic Losers. If we had stayed put, that money could have set my family up comfortably for several years, and Lono knows we needed some good times.
But good times on Hardcase don’t last. We were all working ourselves to death trying to keep our heads above the water. I heard there were more opportunities on Oceana, and I had been eyeing Rent-A-Spaceship for years, with no hope of scraping together the cash for me and six other people (plus one tiny cat who was easily smuggled). Then boom, the exact amount we needed to get to Oceana falls right into my lap.
Laamaomao was sending a wind to us from Molokai. How could we fail to catch it?
“Careful about evoking those Hawaiian gods, Maybie,” Bro said. “Sometimes they listen, and they don’t always answer the way you would like them to.” Bro is my step-brother, and he only has a little Hawaiian blood, but I’m just 50% myself, so who am I to argue with his advice?
Besides, Bro was usually dead on with his warnings. Yet he let me talk him into immigrating. They all did. And our neighbors got together and threw a big Farewell party for us, and my adopted brothers Creole and Cajun cooked up a feast, because they were the best chefs in town. My little nephew Spicy showed us how well he had learned the hula. We danced and partied to all our favorite songs, from “Little Grass Shack” to “Now is the Hour,” the Maori song about saying goodbye.
Goodbye to good neighbors. Goodbye to No Hope. Goodbye to the virus that was just beginning to sweep the poor neighborhoods where most of us lived, so new it didn’t have a name, so deadly it killed before you could make one up.
Let’s just call it the Goodbye Virus. Only it had already said Hello to us, and we didn’t know it yet.
Bro was right about how the gods listen. Sometimes they don’t answer the way you want. And sometimes the god who answers is not the one you thought you were talking to.
I woke up from deepsleep feeling awful. They had warned us we would feel that way while the hibernation drugs wore off, but this was worse than I thought it would be. And I was scared—as soon as the lid to my unit popped, I crawled out and looked at the Health Display.
Mabel Aweau it identified me. I checked all the readings that would indicate whether the unit had performed as it was supposed to. I worked as a nurse’s aid for over twenty years, so I knew what to look for. What I found made me heartsick.
The readings that I hoped would be OPTIMAL all read ADEQUATE. So that pissed me off. But under GENERAL HEALTH it said: POOR; DISEASE OR PATHOGEN DETECTED.
The Goodbye Virus . . .
No one else was awake yet. I wondered if any of them would get that far. I wondered if I wanted them to, considering what we all probably had. I stumbled to the unit across from mine and looked in on my nephew. The information display on his unit said Douglas Aweau.
All of the readings were the same as mine—including the last.
He was my sister’s boy, just six years old. We lost her to kidney disease, not long after he was born, and I still miss her, every day. But he was my sweet reminder of everything I loved about her. He had hair the color of paprika, skin the color of cinnamon, and freckles the color of chocolate, so you know we had to called him Spicy. Wherever you found Spicy you would also find Tig, because that little cat was his best buddy.
They loved each other dearly. Tig was curled up under Spicy’s chin, the two of them hibernating like bears through the long winter of interstellar space.
I wish they could have stayed there. I wish they hadn’t been forced out of that hibernation. They would have died without ever feeling the pain, or the sadness. But the company that sold us passage on this bucket of bolts they called a spaceship just wanted us to stay asleep long enough to be out of reach for any kind of help. Sent us out here with no food, no medicine, and a bunch of systems that only worked well enough to get us so far.
“It was typical during your era,” says Furby. “Thugs took advantage of so many desperate pilgrims.”
His name isn’t really Furby—that’s just what I call him because he reminds me of a character from one of Spicy’s favorite shows, I Love Furby.
“Call me whatever you like,” says Furby. “My real name is too hard to pronounce.” He and the other time travelers are aliens, and not one of them looks like the other. But they all have eyes I can understand. Their eyes are full of sorrow as they keep vigil with me and listen to my final declaration.
I stood over Spicy’s unit, watching him and Tig wake up from their sleep, feeling the headache that would turn into something much worse, and I think I knew how bad it could be as soon as Spicy opened his eyes. The spark that had always belonged to him was gone. “My head hurts,” he said. He frowned and examined Tig, who was also despondent.
“You’re just trying to wake up,” I said. “You’ll feel better soon.” But that was wishful thinking.
Creole and Cajun woke next. They were the biggest men you ever saw, taller than my full-blood Hawaiian cousins, and as strong as the day is long. Now they could barely stand, and they had the same headache I did.
“This thing is supposed to be able to deliver medicine to us if we need it.” Creole frowned as he inspected his deepsleep unit. “These medicine pacs are empty.”
“I think we got scammed,” said Cajun. He had to lean against his unit because his knees were shaking.
I hoped he wouldn’t say what all we grown-ups were thinking by then—not in front of Spicy. The virus had been rampaging through our neighborhood when we left it. We thought we had gotten out ahead of it. But we were wrong.
My cousin Akamai was the sickest one, waking up. She didn’t say so, she just looked at me with eyes that were too dark, as if death was invading her through those portals. “We had to try, Maybie,” she said.
No one called me Mabel. For as long as I can remember, it was Maybie, because I was the one who said Maybe it will get better. Maybe something good will happen. Maybe it won’t be so bad.
Maybe I’m the one who got everyone killed.
“You aren’t,” says Furby. “The virus is responsible—it swept your world. It killed most of the people in the poor neighborhoods, and over 50% of the people in the rich.”
“Killed,” I say. “Already?”
“Time is dilated, this close to Belial,” he says, indicating the big display screen that’s dominated by a graphic of a monstrous singularity that bends both time and space.
Akamai and I found it in the control room when we went looking for anything that could help us, a search that turned up some awful discoveries. Like the sick bay with almost no medicine in it, the food storage cabinets that were empty. The transport company put us into deepsleep before they loaded us on the ship, so we never had a chance to see what they were really doing. Akamai and I headed for the control room, hoping we could at least call for help to Oceana, since we weren’t supposed to have been awakened until we were close to our destination. But we didn’t see Oceana on that screen. Instead, we found a monster called Belial. We read the name on the bottom of the display, along with a bunch of numbers that probably would have scared me if I had known what they meant. We were headed right into it.
Akamai stood in front of the screen. She had always been a slender woman, tall and shapely, like the goddess of hula. But that spirit had fled her, and now she seemed to be floating in the graphic representing the singularity. “Belial dilates time,” she said. “To us it seems like minutes are going by, but back on Hardcase, years are passing.”
Akamai had a Master’s degree in math, but on Hardcase she could only find low-paying jobs as a teacher’s aid. She used to talk about getting her Doctorate, but there had been no money for that.
“What will happen to us in there?” I asked.
She shrugged, and I could see how much that movement hurt. She rubbed the back of her neck, but gave up when it didn’t seem to help. “Nobody really knows. Theoretically, we’ll be pulled into threads, toward the singularity. But some people think these black holes are wormholes. You could end up traveling through them to another part of the galaxy, or even to another galaxy. Maybe even to another universe. Too bad we won’t be alive to see that.”
I looked over my shoulder for Spicy.
“He’s in the sick bay with Tig,” said Akamai. “Maybie—I need to tell you something.”
I was scared to look at her, but I made myself.
“When you’re exposed to void,” she said, “you lose consciousness pretty fast—way faster than you would if you drowned in water.”
“What—” I said. “Why are you—”
“The first thing that happens,” she went on, “is the saliva boils off your tongue. It feels weird, but it’s not like you see in stupid movies where people’s blood boils. Your skin is thick enough to hold in the gas that would escape. But the lack of pressure means you black out a lot faster, in like fifteen seconds. It’s the best way to go out here if you—have to go.”
“We should get back in the deepsleep units,” I said. “We can hibernate until someone can find us and help us.”
“Good idea.” The way Akamai was standing scared me. She was in terrible pain, and she was trying to fight it. “But those units are shot. They were on their last legs when they sent us out here. The ones they showed me before we shipped were not the ones they put us in. And this is not the ship we toured.”
“Damn it.” The bad news was piling up so fast, I couldn’t process it.
But Akamai had perfect clarity. “We don’t have medicine to treat the virus, and we don’t have enough painkiller to tough out the last stages. It’s horrible, Maybie. It’s similar to rabies. Spacing is our best option.”
“The airlocks. Exposure to void.” Akamai could barely stand. She seemed propped in place. “Don’t wait,” she advised. “Don’t think about it. Just do it.”
“Akamai . . . ”
“I love you, Maybie. I love you all so much.”
“I love you too.” I could barely get the words out through my swollen throat. “More than anything.”
She turned her eyes back to Belial. “You’d better look in on Spicy. He’s going to need help.”
She didn’t want an argument, and I didn’t want to give her one. Every hope I ever had was dashed to bits. And it was about to get worse.
Maybe you think it’s possible to be so full of grief, you’re glad to be dying. But there’s nothing glad about it. It feels inevitable, maybe even natural, but it doesn’t feel good.
I made my peace with it, though. Just because it was my only option didn’t mean it wasn’t my best option. Especially after what happened to Spicy.
“Poor child,” says Furby. Probably he guesses what I’m about to tell him.
“Tig is suffering, Spicy.” L’India didn’t try to pet Tig. She didn’t much care for cats, but she adored Spicy. She was trying to get him to see what had to be done. “This happens eventually to everybody’s cat. Eventually everybody has to say goodbye to them.”
Spicy was so sick, he couldn’t cry. But the way his sweet face had crumpled made it hard for me to breathe when I looked at him.
“Do we have to put him to sleep?” He stroked Tig, who lay on his side, panting. L’India had given Tig the last of the opiates, or he probably would have been screaming. “There was only a cat-sized dose left in this damned place,” she told me.
L’India was Bro’s wife. Like me, she had been a nurse’s aid. Like me, she actually knew enough to be a registered nurse, and she looked pretty horrified just then. “We can’t put him to sleep, honey. There are no more drugs. We’ll have to put him in the airlock and blow him out. He’ll die super-fast. He probably won’t even know what’s happening.”
Spicy twitched as if we had stabbed him. “He’ll be scared! He won’t know why I left him.” He turned to me with pleading eyes. “He’ll be alone and scared, Maybie.”
Don’t wait, Akamai had said. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
And I couldn’t. “Give him some time,” I told L’India. And we left Spicy alone with his Tig. And do you know what he did, Furby?
Furby doesn’t speak. He waits for me to tell him.
That little boy—that six-year-old child—picked up his kitty and went to find an airlock. And that smart boy figured out how to work the controls. He didn’t want Tig to be alone. So he went out with him.
“He didn’t wait for me,” I told L’India. “I should have been in there with him.”
Furby brushes the hair back from my face. “We’re glad you weren’t,” he says. “We wouldn’t have found you if you had done that. We would never have known what happened.”
L’India told me Akamai had already gone out by then. I figure Akamai did it right after she talked to me. By then I was sitting on the floor of the control room, staring at Belial, watching the graphic update as we got closer and closer.
It dilates time . . .
“Honey?” said L’India. “Maybie? We’re going, now.”
Going? Where could they go? My eyes hurt, but I could just make her out in the doorway. She leaned heavily on the frame. “It hurts too much,” she said. “Bro and me, and Cajun and Creole, we’re—”
She didn’t say going again, but I finally understood what she meant. She said, “You’re staying, Maybie?”
I looked at the screen again. “I want to see,” I said. “What happens.”
She didn’t say anything. But then I heard Bro’s voice. “Don’t blame yourself, Sis. Don’t do it.”
I waited to hear why he thought I shouldn’t do that. But that was the last thing he said to me.
Minutes may have passed, or hours. “Hey L’India,” I called, “Rent-A-Spaceship did one thing they said they were going to do. They uploaded our playlist. Hey computer, play Ports of Paradise.”
The music started with the blast of the horn from an ocean liner. And then the magical sounds of Polynesian percussion instruments ushered in the voices of sirens. “Ports of paradise,” they sang as we crossed Belial’s event horizon, “I’m sailing home to you . . . ”
There is a god Puea, who is worshipped in darkness. I think he must have been the god who heard my prayers, and answered them in his own way. Was he waiting inside that singularity for me? Is he the one who showed the Travelers where to find me?
“To us,” said Furby, “this singularity is a means of travel. That’s why we crossed paths with you. Once you passed the Event Horizon, you entered our wormhole. We are the Travelers. We police the timelines. We fix the damage people cause to them when they tamper with them.”
I hadn’t seen him until he knelt beside me. He wasn’t alone; other creatures were there too, super-smart, super-advanced aliens who did work that the god Maui, the Time Shifter, would have admired.
“I wish you could have come sooner,” I complained. I was still in terrible pain.
“Sooner is not just a time,” said Furby. “It’s also a place. And we were not in that place.”
I felt his fingers inside my head. It was like he was touching my thoughts, pulling them into strings that could be spooled and rescued from the diseased tissue around them. He said, “We will give you a happy ending, Maybie. But there’s a price for this. I and my fellow Travelers have paid it. You will pay it too. You must die in this timeline. But you won’t be gone.”
The pain faded to nothing, but I didn’t feel like I was getting better. I was still dying. I stood at the edge of a cliff and looked into a canyon so deep, whole worlds could get lost in there. But I wasn’t scared to look down. I saw stars. It was like seeing Kane, the Godhead. At that particular juncture of time and space, I saw the timelines Furby had told me about, arching away from me and back again, like petals of the flowers woven together into a lei. I understood why the Travelers had to protect them.
“I think I am happy,” I said. “Dying is okay. Do you think Spicy felt this way, too?”
Furby kissed my forehead. His fur tickled. “You can ask him when you see him.”
I was going to see my Spicy! If any tears had been left in me I would have cried with happiness. I just had to settle for feeling good.
I slipped into the well of stars, and my mind floated free.
So I died. But then I woke up, just like I had before. I was in the deepsleep unit, but this time Furby was helping me out. “So,” he said, “You and your family have been treated for the virus, and you’re cured now. We fixed your ship, and you’re back on track for Oceana. You’ll arrive there in about one hundred fifty-two hours—we called to let them know you’re coming. They’ll help get you settled.”
“Uh—” I heard everything he said, but I couldn’t make sense of it.
“You’re well-stocked with water and nutrition bars now. We always keep extra supplies for emergencies like this.” He helped me walk. My eyes focused on the deepsleep unit across from mine, the one where Spicy had slept.
Spicy was in there with Tig.
“You found them?” I stuttered. “You—found their bodies?”
“They’re alive in this timeline,” said Furby. “And so are you. We traveled back in time and implanted your memories from your experiences in the other timeline, into this body. You get a do-over, Maybie.”
“I get—a . . . ”
The readings on Spicy’s unit said he was alive. He and Tig were alive!
“We filled the pacs on these units with the medicine to kill the virus,” said Furby, “plus some other treatments we thought you should have. You’ve all been well-dosed. You’re cured.”
“This isn’t possible.” I watched Spicy waking up. Tig tickled him with his wet nose, and Spicy smiled. I did cry then, because my eyes were back to normal.
Furby turned me to face him. “We can’t do this for everyone we meet, Maybie. We don’t even do it for ourselves very often. We were able to do it for you because your lives are very small in the scheme of things. Your lives don’t affect the timelines one way or the other.”
“If our lives are so small and unimportant, why did you bother?” I said. I wasn’t trying to complain, I honestly felt curious.
“They’re small. But they’re not unimportant. Not to us.” His eyes were big and golden. They were wet too, like mine. “We could do this,” he said. “So we did.”
And I finally got it. The Travelers, time travelers, could change things as long as there was a timeline that would accommodate the changes. That’s what they did for us. That’s what they meant when they were talking about how we did and didn’t affect the timelines.
“Computer,” I said, “Play Little Grass Shack.”
That had always been our celebration song. It played while the Travelers and I greeted my family as they woke from their deepsleep. My family had no memories from the other timeline, they didn’t know about the bad things that happened. I’ve never told them the worst of it.
We partied with the Travelers, and Spicy taught them the hula. It turned out the Traveler with the tentacles was the best at it. And when the Travelers were sure that the Immigration officials on Oceana were aware of us and were ready to accept us, they told us they would have to leave. They still had important work to do, work that involved fixing the timelines where people were abusing them.
“Aloha doesn’t just mean goodbye,” I told them. “It means hello at the same time. So hello, Travelers. You’re part of our family now. You’ll always be here.” I put my hand over my heart.
“Aloha, Maybie.” Furby put his hand over his heart, too (though it was in a different spot than mine). “You’ll be glad so much time has passed since you left Hardcase. I think you’ll find that your clunker of a spaceship is valuable, after all.”
And with that, the Travelers sparkled and vanished, like embers floating up into darkness, leaving us with wonder and delight.
Furby was right about The Clunker. Because the original owners were long dead, we were able to claim salvage rights. Turned out on Oceana, that old ship was considered a collectible antique. We sold it and bought a nice house, better than we could have gotten on Hardcase with my ten thousand credits.
And if Oceana wasn’t 100% paradise 100% of the time, it was close enough for government work. L’India and I both studied to become registered nurses and got good jobs at doctors’ offices. Akamai got her doctorate and became the director of an observatory. Creole and Cajun became much-sought-after cooks at a fancy resort. Spicy grew up, went to college, and became a volcanologist. Oceana has a lot of volcanoes.
Bro spent most of his time surfing, which pissed L’India off. But the rest of us made enough money to pay the bills, so we didn’t bug him about it. We prospered, and we stayed together as a family. Even Tig stayed—that little cat lived another fifty years. I think it was because of the medicine the Travelers put in the pacs for our deepsleep units—they didn’t just cure us of the virus. It was just like Furby said, they did what they could because they could. And what they could do was amazing.
This is all that I hoped for when I blew my ten thousand credits to get us off Hardcase. But Bro’s advice about evoking the gods comes back to haunt me every morning, when I rise and remember what it felt like to wake up sick, what it felt like to find Spicy and Tig gone—what it felt like to crouch in front of the screen that displayed hungry Belial and to die like a sick dog—to hear my dear ones telling me, We’re going now, knowing that they were killing themselves.
Now is the hour
When we must say goodbye.
This duality of happy and sad, joy and grief, success and failure doesn’t surprise me. It’s pono, balance. It’s the price I pay for what I did and what I failed to do.
Soon you’ll be sailing
Far across the sea.
I can never forget how we suffered and grieved. We despaired and we rejoiced. We died and we survived. Our current lives are woven together with the ones that ended so badly, just like time and space are woven together. I don’t take anything for granted, because of those memories. And if I’m not exactly happy to have them, I understand why they’re necessary. The gratitude I feel for our second chance has never dimmed.
When I lay dying in the control room, and I thought about my family, I listened to that Maori song, “Now is the Hour” and cried tears I could no longer spare.
But now when I hear that song, I think of Furby and the other Travelers.
While you’re away, oh then, remember me.
When you return you’ll find me waiting here.
After all, they’re time travelers.
And we said aloha, not goodbye.
Nine of Emily's novels were published in the U.S. By NAL/Roc, under three pen names. She has also been published in the U.K., Italy, Israel, and China. Her novels are Shade, Larissa, Scorpianne, EggHeads, The Kronos Condition, GodHeads, Broken Time (which was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award), Belarus, and Enemies. Her new novels, The Night Shifters and Spirits of Glory are in ebook form on Amazon, Smashwords, etc.
Her short stories were published in Asimov's SF Magazine, the Full Spectrum anthology, The Mammoth Book of Kaiju, Uncanny, Cicada, Science Fiction World, Clarkesworld, and Aboriginal SF, whose readers voted her a Boomerang Award.