Clockwise by J.S. Johnston
May 2023 | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
by J.S. Johnston
Space is unbelievably boring. Mind numbingly, hallucination inducingly, want-to-jump-out-of-the-airlock boring! Do you know why they call it space? Because there’s nothing but that for trillions of miles all around you. Nothing but empty space. Move a few thousand miles to the left, you’re still in empty space. Move a few thousand miles to the right, it looks exactly the same. Sometimes I wish I’d finally go crazy just for a break in the monotony. All I do is sit at this console and catalog the communications that come through. In the middle of nowhere with nothing else to do.
Back in high school, a guy from the Celestial Guard came and told the whole class how exciting it was to live and work on humanity’s last great frontier. He came with pictures and videos and schematics of spaceships. It did sound unbelievably exciting. You should’ve seen them. Those pictures of planetary nebulae had me mesmerized, with their cotton candy swirls of pinks, blues, oranges, and greens… Glowing matter thrown into space by the god-like forces of dying stars. Makes you want to sign right up, doesn’t it?
So, what’s my job in the Celestial Guard, you ask? What small part do I play in the exploration of the heavens? Well, it has nothing to do with planetary nebulae. Or anything else other than sitting at this console, staring at a screen of communications logs, watching for errors. For eight hours a day, every day. When I’m done, I get to go to the other room and watch ten-year-old movies that everyone at home has already seen and told me all about.
I’m stationed at the Celestial Guard Deep Space Communications Array №302. We call it the Space Mouse because that’s what it looks like with its giant dishes on either end of the main body where everyone lives. We sit around fifty or so lightyears from Earth. They send us FTL communication signals then we amplify and repeat them, directed to the next station. The Conglomeration of Planets territory is so wide now, it’s the only way they can talk to each other.
But even with FTL communication, it’s still not real-time. It takes days to send a recorded message over the vast distances between stars. Then it’ll take just as long to hear back. As bad as it sounds, it used to take years.
One day they installed something on one of the mouse ears that was supposed to fix all that, so people could talk in real-time, back and forth like a telephone over the lightyears between star systems. Can you imagine? The signals were already boosted faster than light. I didn’t understand how they planned to improve on that, but we all got training on how to use the new system. And it worked great for about a week.
Around the end of my shift, one of the comm lines errored out. The screen showed a flashing red ERROR X3.98700 in the Status column for one of the thousands of conversations from Earth. I looked up what it was in the manual they gave us, but all it said was “Time sync error” with nothing about what that means or how to fix it.
I tried some general stuff, like reloading the channel and cloning the output but the error stayed. It was toward the end of my shift, and I didn’t have time to play around, so I called the sender to tell them to restart the conversation.
“Celestial Guard Earth Outpost two-one-nine, go ahead,” said the lady on the other end. It was the first time in over a decade that I’ve been able to talk to someone on Earth. I mean, there’s plenty of people from Earth on board, but you know what I mean. She was actually on Earth. And she sounded really familiar.
“Outpost two-zero-nine, this is Deep Space Communications Array three-zero-two. Your conversation with Altair d is erroring out. Can you restart?”
“I swear these new systems! They keep trying to improve on it but they’re just making it worse.” Her voice was bothering me. Not in an I-don’t-like-it way but in an I-know-I-know-her way. Because I knew that I knew her, I just couldn’t place her. I could hear her tap a few keys before continuing, “There. How’s that?”
“That got it. Thanks.”
“You got it. Try not to get too bored out there in the void.”
“I’ll do my best. Take it easy.”
As soon as the call disconnected, I checked the ID on the transit log. I didn’t want to just ask for her name. If I was supposed to remember her and forgot, she might get mad. So, I checked the log. Since it was her login that initiated the retransmit of the channel, hers would be the one listed.
My heart stopped when I saw it. I had to stare at it for a while, in case I’d finally gone crazy, out here in the middle of nothing. I’ve been here for a long time, and no one would be surprised if I started seeing things. I mean, if I had my choice of hallucinations, this would be right there at the top of the list.
The name Warrant Officer 3rd Class Ana Gonzalez sat perched in the Sender column, as mundane as a grocery list. I kept staring at it like it would change to something else if I looked away. I saved a copy of the log and put it in my personal folder.
* * *
As soon as I was relieved, I went to talk to the commander in his office. I did my best to explain it to him without sounding like a crazy person.
“Well?” I asked him, unable to take his silence.
He turned his desk chair around to talk to me, then ran his fingers from the front to the back of his scalp, through deep grey hair cut as short as regulation demanded. He looked at me with piercing light blue eyes and asked, “Well, what?”
“Well, what do you think?” I stood a few feet from him, holding a tablet displaying the comm log.
“I think that’s a hell of a story.” He picked up the coffee from his desk and took a sip.
“So, you think I’m crazy.”
“I didn’t say that. But it’s some coincidence.” He took another sip. “A few years ago, I commanded a logistics base. One of the office workers had the same name as my best friend back in school. When I first saw the name — ”
“But Commander! My mother was a warrant officer in the Celestial Guard. And I even talked to her!”
“Ian, you know that can’t happen. Your mother died three years ago. I was here when you got the news. I can see the name on the report, but you know that can’t be her.” He returned his coffee to his desk and leaned forward in his chair. “You wouldn’t be the first guy to think he spoke to his dead mother. We all go a little nutty, sometimes.”
“Wonderful.” I looked down at the name in the comm log and thought about my mother. “What about Einstein’s telephone?” I asked without looking up from the log. “All this faster than light communication. It’s possible.”
“Ian…,” said the commander. “I know it’s hard, but you need to stay grounded in reality.”
“But it’s possible! Communicating faster than light breaks the causality limit. Which is what the speed of light actually is.”
“I’m sorry. The what?” The commander was now looking at me like I was a crazy person.
“Well, events can only travel so fast through spacetime. I do something and you know about it after that and they know about it out there after that and it all happens at an immutable rate, determined by the laws of nature. It’s why the new system needs a time sync. It has to account for the difference.”
The commander looked at me like he was trying to figure out if the station shrink accepted new patients.
“Now, Einstein came up with this idea where if you could pick up a telephone and somehow make the signal go faster than the causality limit, you could talk to the past. But it only works one way, from the future to the past. Since I initiated the call back to the originating source, it’s possible that’s what happened.” I waited in silence for him to answer.
“Ian… I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Maybe. That’s a bit… out there.”
“Just let me call her back and ask.”
“What would you say to her?” he asked, sounding incredulous.
I shrugged. “Hello. My name is Ian Gonzalez. Are you my mother?”
The commander leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “I don’t want you to traumatize an officer of the Celestial Guard. She has a job to do. She doesn’t need… all this. What if you’re wrong?”
I didn’t say anything. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, either. I tried. I wanted to maybe come back to it the next day with a fresh, less panicky mindset. But that never works, does it? Especially on a station way the hell out in deep space where there’s nothing else to talk about other than the latest six-month-old episode of Life on the Jersey Boardwalk that just came in. Seriously, it is a good show. You should check it out.
I worked most of my shift the next day, telling myself the chances that the woman I talked to was my mother were pretty low, and that I was being silly. I should be a grownup and move on to thinking about boring grownup things. Paying bills, voting, cataloging, and correcting errors in the comms stream from Earth and the surrounding systems. I shouldn’t bother people with my own grief-fueled wishful thinking. Because that’s what grownups do.
Then I gave all that up and called the line from the previous day. I told myself it was for closure.
“Celestial Guard Earth Outpost two-one-nine, go ahead,” said the woman on the other end. I could tell from her voice that it was the same woman as before. The sound of it was a little distorted from being compressed and shot across lightyears at superluminal speeds, but it did sound a lot like my mother.
“Outpost two-zero-nine, this is Deep Space Communications Array three-zero-two,” I replied.
“Hey, you’re the guy from the Space Mouse, again,” she said in a very friendly voice. “What’s going on, today?”
“Ah, just more errors.” There weren’t any errors. “You know how it is.”
“I’ll restart the conversation to clear out the memory. The engineers have been talking about redesigning the system to better account for all the stuff in the interstellar medium. Too much gas and dust and everything,” she said like she was complaining about all the people at the shopping mall.
“That would make sense. Even the idea of faster than light communication is so crazy, I’m surprised it works at all.”
“No kidding.” I could hear her typing at a few keys. “There. How’s that?”
“Looks like that did it.” I wasn’t looking at any readout because there was no error. “So, what’s the weather like, back home? It should be winter there, right?” I hate people who talk about the weather, but I couldn’t come up with anything better.
“I’m stationed in Panama, so it’s always hot and humid, here. Where I’m from, up in New York, though…”
I laughed at that. “That’s where I’m from. This time of year, you could get frostbite just from walking across the street.”
She laughed with me. “The people down here will never know the joy of trying to open a door when the lock is frozen over.”
More laughing from me. “And if you forgot your pocket warmer to try and melt it, you had to stand out in the cold, beating on the door to try to break it up.”
“I know, right? And hope the neighbors don’t think you’re trying to break in before you can get it open.”
“That’s one thing I don’t miss about home. It gets boring out here, but at least I can feel my toes.”
“What’s it like, out there in the void?” Her voice was calm and relaxed and made me feel the same. In my mind, I could see her leaning back in her desk chair, twirling a pen with her fingers.
“The view is… Well, there’s nothing like it.”
I snickered. “But it’s the same view every day. Day in and day out. With no hope of it ever changing. Pretty, though.”
“I could see that. I dated a guy in the Navy, once. He’d complain about that, all the time.”
“Yeah. So much complaining.”
“So, how do you keep from getting cabin fever, up there? It has to get boring.”
“So very boring.”
A notification came up on my screen, reminding me that my shift was almost up. Simmons would be here in just a few minutes to relieve me.
“Hey, I have to go,” I said, not wanting to go. “I’ll talk to you the next time we get errors. Which probably won’t be too far off.”
“Even if you don’t, you can always call, just to say hi.” I could hear the smile in her voice.
“I’ll take you up on that. Take it easy.”
I disconnected the line. A few minutes later, Simmons walked in the door and took over.
“It’s her,” I said, taking a seat in the commander’s office. My hands were shaking. I folded them together to keep him from noticing. It probably didn’t work. “Her voice was a little different because of everything they have to do to the sound to get it to go so fast, but it’s her.”
The commander leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “How can you be sure? Did you ask her?”
I snorted. “She’d probably hang up on me if I just asked her that.”
“So how do you know it was her?”
“I got her talking. Everything she said… She’s originally from New York. She dated a guy in the Navy. The way she said ‘Space Mouse’ was just like how she used to say ‘Mickey Mouse’ when I was a kid. The way she laughed…”
“Huh.” The commander looked through his thoughts for something. “Do you know when you talked to her? I mean, at what point in her life?”
I shook my head. “No. So I don’t know if I even exist yet, for her.”
“Wow,” he said and sat back in his chair. “Spacetime does weird things. So, are you going to tell her?”
I looked at the ceiling and laughed. “Hey, by the way, I am your son that you may or may not have given birth to, yet. How are you, today?”
“Well, it just sounds silly, when you say it like that,” said the commander.
The comm logs do have a date/time column, but it only shows when the conversation was initiated and ended in local time. Meaning what it is here, not there. With all the geniuses that it took to plan and build an interstellar FTL communications network to tie together all the outposts separated by lightyears of empty space, you’d think someone might’ve thought a column for the date/time on the other end might’ve been a good idea. Maybe someone suggested it at a meeting, and no one listened to them. People never listen to people like that.
The next day, one of the comm channels from Earth got another time sync error. Even if there wasn’t, I’d have still called.
“Celestial Guard Earth Outpost two-one-nine, go ahead.”
“Hey there, Outpost two-zero-nine. It’s me again, Deep Space Communications Array three-zero-two.” I took a sip of coffee from a Celestial Guard coffee mug.
“Did you call to say hi or do I need to restart the conversation, again?”
“Can I say both of them?”
She laughed. I could hear the smile when she said, “Gimme one sec.” I heard typing. “There. Restarting.”
“And like magic, the error is gone.” I took another sip of coffee. It’s not that great, but it’s hot and caffeinated.
“There’s going to be an upgrade overnight that’s supposed to fix all that.”
“That’s what the email I got this morning said. Comms will be cut off for a couple hours overnight, during the maintenance. They didn’t tell you?”
I quickly brought up my email on a different screen and scrolled through all the unread messages for a few seconds. “I’m not sure. I should probably check my email more often.”
She laughed. It made me smile. “Hey, do you guys follow the normal calendar, up there? It’ll be Christmas in a few days.”
“Oh god, you can’t miss it. There have been Christmas decorations all around the station for the past month. We even have a Christmas Tree on the mess deck. The station shrink says it’s important to do whatever we can to replicate what we had back on Earth. We even have a day and night shift.”
“Are you going to call your parents for Christmas? Now that you can talk to them in real-time, I mean.”
Interesting question. I paused to decide how to answer that one.
“That’s a good point. I probably should,” I answered. “Are you going to see your family for Christmas?” I took another sip.
“No. It’ll be just me, Hector, and… the little one.”
I almost spit coffee all over the console when she said that. I wasn’t sure if she could hear it. “You have a little one? Do they have a name?”
“Not yet. He’s still in my belly. I’ve been thinking Alexander after my father. Hector wants to call him David, after his uncle.”
“Wow. That’s great! Congratulations. Are you excited?”
“Excited. And terrified. It’s my first.” Even over the console speakers, she sounded happy. Her voice was light and bouncy.
“I can imagine. I was terrified when I got a kitten. A baby human would be so much worse.”
“So much worse.” She laughed. “I’ve been reading all the books. But my mother’s been giving me all this advice…”
“Well, that’s what mothers are for. I’m sure when little what’s-his-name has a kid, you can do the same for him.”
“Yeah. Little what’s-his-name.” I could imagine her running a hand over her baby bump. “What’s funny is I never wanted kids. I was dead set against them. I even told Hector that on our first date. And now… Now I see a little piece of Hector and me, growing in my belly, and I think I’m crazy for saying that. Or that it was another person that said it and not me at all. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so. I mean, if I had another person growing inside me, I’d be a lot less calm about it. But my mother used to tell me she didn’t want kids either until I came along. So, I get it.”
“Do you have a good relationship with her?”
“I did,” I said, wiping coffee from the corner of my mouth. “She passed away a long time ago. But we were really close. You would’ve liked her.”
I could hear someone on her end walk up to her and say something about the upcoming maintenance. She answered them, paused, and said to me, “I bet she was a nice person.”
“She was the best. She told me so herself. All the time.”
She laughed. “I’m just so worried that I’ll forget to feed him, or something.”
I smiled. “I’m sure he’ll let you know.”
“You know what I mean, though. I just know I’ll mess something up. Like not buy him ice cream one day and then when he grows up, he’ll be telling the story to his psychologist, saying it’s why he became a serial killer or something.”
“I think it takes more than that,” I said.
“I hope so.” Her voice drooped a little.
“As long as you keep telling him you love him, he’ll forgive you for all the ice cream you don’t buy him.”
“Even if it’s chocolate?” she asked.
“Now, you didn’t specify chocolate. That’s a whole different thing.”
I laughed with her.
I got the notification on my screen saying my shift was about up. Simmons wouldn’t be far behind. “Hey, I gotta go. If I don’t get to talk to you tomorrow, give the name Ian some thought.”
“Oh, god. Everyone has been giving me names.”
“Yeah, but Ian is the best name.” I tapped my screen to dismiss the notification.
“I’ll think about it.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “Goodbye, Ian.”
“Goodbye, Ana.” I disconnected the call.
“Well?” asked the commander with bated breath. “Did you talk to her?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “Are we really having maintenance on the system, tonight?”
“No,” he said, furrowing his brows. “Did she say there was?”
I nodded my head.
“The FTL comms project’s been developed for the last thirty years, or so. The upgrade to make it even faster was just the recent change.” The commander paused for a moment. “The maintenance was probably just one of the changes on her end. Her time.”
“Will I still be able to talk to her, afterward?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “What did the two of you talk about?” The tone of his voice was hushed like he was trying not to set off a land mine.
“She was pregnant with me. She wanted to name me after her father. My dad wanted to name me after his uncle.”
“Did you tell her you’re from the future? I mean, her future?” he asked, putting a hand to his chin.
I shook my head and looked at the floor. “Would you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” he answered. “My mother probably wouldn’t believe me, anyway.”
“What if she did? Say you said something to convince her. Told her a story she always used to tell you about when you were a baby or something.”
“I don’t know.” He chuckled and added, “She’d probably still hang up on me.”
I called her, the next day. Of course, I called her. A deep male voice answered, this time.
“Celestial Guard Earth Outpost two-one-nine, go ahead.” He sounded like I interrupted his nap.
“Outpost two-zero-nine, this is Deep Space Communications Array three-zero-two.”
“Hey, the Space Mouse.”
I took a breath. I knew how weird this next line would sound. “I’m looking for Warrant Officer 3rd Class Ana Gonzalez. She around?”
“What was the name, again?”
“Warrant Officer 3rd Class Ana Gonzalez.”
“Doesn’t sound familiar. Can you spell her last name?”
“G-O-N-Z-A-L-E-Z. Like Speedy.”
I heard him type at his keyboard. “Thanks. One… sec…” More typing. “No. Sorry. There’s no one by that name in the directory.”
“Alright, then. Thanks for checking.”
“You got it.”
And that was it. I’ve called the outpost a few times since then. One time, I even had a valid excuse. I’d always ask for her and they always told me they didn’t know who she was. Whatever broken process that let me call the past and talk to my dead mother had been fixed. My line to her had been cut off. Whatever closure I’d gotten from it, was all I’d ever get. I don’t know how I feel about that.
I transferred off the Space Mouse years ago, but I think about that conversation a lot. Looking back, I realized that it was Christmas time for her, just like it was for me. And if I was calling the past, there wouldn’t be any reason it’d be Christmas time for the both of us. I tried asking the commander, but he just said he doesn’t know because he’s not a scientist. So, maybe it was just a random chance. Maybe all that time in the middle of almost literally nothing conjured it all up for me. Would it matter?
Originally published in the April 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
About the Author:
J.S. Johnston has been writing science fiction and horror out of his
home in Tampa Florida, for decades. You can find him hiking the state
preserves, if he’s not engaged in episodes of Star Trek.