Mum told me to write it all down on paper, the old fashioned way. She said when you write with a pen the ink slows your thoughts down, like you’re floating in the ocean on the way to an island and you don’t mind taking the long way round.
I didn’t know where to find paper on the ship but Mum had a spare journal in her suitcase. I haven’t used a journal since I was a little girl. Do you remember? It was the one you gave me. I’m sure I’ve left it behind somewhere in my old room, beneath piles of clothes and books that I wasn’t allowed to take with me. Maybe you’ll find it when you do a clear out of the house, if your bad back lets you.
I wish you had come with us. I was too proud to say that to you before we left, too stuck in my own head. You’d hate the ship though. I can hear you saying, ‘There’s no room to breathe,’ in that gruff way, each syllable hoarse with nicotine and tar.
I guess you’re right, though, in some way.
Starship-62 is big. Not quite as large as some movies might have taught us, but large enough for me to find a quiet corner, away from everyone else. The filtered air maintains purity in what we breathe (you’d be upset to know that smoking is strictly prohibited), but often I find myself thinking how stale the air is.
A lot of people like to sit in the Infinite Gardens, a large biodome in the middle of the central plaza. Some go to the space decks that line the outer rim of the ship. There are large windows where you can gaze into the never-ending blackness that’s speckled with stars.
But there really is no room to breathe. We’re like sardines, crammed into a tin can and kicked off into orbit. We can’t escape our problems because we brought them along with us. We can’t look back at the Earth and think ‘Yeah, we did it, we saved humanity,’ because we really didn’t. We left everyone on a dying planet. Including you.
I’m getting sick of these ‘How are you feeling today?’ tests. They make us do one every day for the first ninety Earth-days in orbit, then it’ll taper down to every week. It’s a long list of tick boxes and a space for further comments, all to monitor our moods. As if these strange feelings could be contained inside a box. I’m tired of monitoring my own thoughts; I want to live outside of them.
You’d think being in outer space meant being free: able to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. But we’re more constrained than ever because space is dangerous. Lethal, even. One wrong step and you die; worse still, you pull everyone else into a painful death, too.
I don’t see Mum that often. She’s always in meetings or conferences in the higher levels of the ship, out of sight of the regular folk. Once, I wanted to go with her to see what she did at work, but then I remembered I was still mad at her for forcing me to come with her. I never wanted to say goodbye to you, I hope you know. To you, or Dad. But Mum was adamant that Earth wasn’t for us anymore, wasn’t safe for anyone.
“If they want to make a stupid decision, that’s on them, but you’re my daughter and you’re coming with me,” she’d said to me.
I don’t know what she said to you or Dad back on Earth, at home, on Lenister Close. I do remember the three of you arguing. I think it was about me. I’ve always felt like I was being tossed across the three of you.
Before we left, I stepped out on the front porch one night (you know how bad my insomnia is). Dad’s car was parked outside. Mum hung over the window, her thick cardi pulled tightly across her chest. I sat in the shadows and listened to the hum of their voices; they weren’t raised shouts like I was used to, but guarded and gentle.
“She’s my daughter too,” Dad had said. “She’s fifteen, she can make her own decisions.”
A pause, maybe Mum shook her head. “This isn’t about choosing what car you want to drive. And I’ve told you before: you should all be coming with me. This planet isn’t safe anymore.”
“Do you hear what you’re saying? How can we live anywhere else?”
I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation because I heard you puttering around in the house, so I scrambled back to my room. You never liked me staying outdoors at night, even if it was just our street. You always said it wasn’t safe. I wonder how you’d feel about me wandering the lonely corridors of this ship, gazing out at the sullen depths of space.
Space doesn’t have a postbox so I can’t send these letters to you. We can’t communicate with Earth yet without a delay in transmission, and even then it’s for Highly Important Information like, ‘Hey, we’ve found a new planet we can transfer everyone to!’
I guess I’ll have to keep writing in this journal and picture your reaction to the things I tell you.
Because I’m nearly sixteen, I don’t have to attend the Starship Academy. There’s not much in the way of ‘jobs’ going around but Amit’s parents need help in the Gardens. You remember Amit, right? You said he seemed like a nice boy, but he needed a better barber. It’s true, he does have a huge cloud of hair like a mushroom, but he insists he likes it that way. He’s hopeless.
His parents manage the Gardens. There are plenty of volunteers but they needed an extra pair of hands to create the fertiliser. Yes, you heard me. It’s nasty work and it stinks like all the worst smells in the world, but no one else really wants to do it. Neither does Amit (just as well, imagine trying to get the smell out of that hair).
Amit’s mum, Priya, showed me how they make the fertiliser in the lowermost part of the ship, in a containment unit. We use ‘nightsoil’, or basically our shit (nothing goes to waste in this ship) and treat it to kill off the toxins.
“I’m glad you’re helping me out, Amira,” Priya told me when we were finishing up yesterday. “And I’ll admit, I’m a little surprised you wanted to in the first place.”
Priya is slim and short with a round face like a peach. She has a lovely smile and even lovelier eyes, neither of which Amit inherited. Both she and her husband are agricultural scientists.
“It’s better than wandering around on my own,” I’d replied before I could help myself. My cheeks burned red; I didn’t want her to know how lonely I felt. “I mean, it’s not like I have a job or anything.”
“Don’t you help your mum out?” she asked. We had walked back up to the upper level, where I could breathe non-manure air again.
I shrugged. “I’m not really allowed. She won’t ever let me go with her to meetings.”
Priya nodded and I could see her try to think of something polite to say in reply, so I saved her the trouble. “It’s fine, I don’t really want to be involved. I don’t care what she does.”
“Oh, but your mother is instrumental in co-ordinating the ship’s logistics. It’s a team effort, of course, but she’s a very clever lady.”
I grumbled inside. Priya must have seen the look on my face. She laughed. “It’s alright. Amit doesn’t like what I do either. You couldn’t bribe him to help me.”
Mum was in a late night meeting and I didn’t want to go back to our empty quarters. I spent the evening with Amit and his parents. We had dinner and watched an old movie, but mostly we all talked about life on the ship.
It felt a little like having dinner at our house again, with you, me and Mum. It felt nice.
When we reach the fabled planet of sanctuary, I’m going to build the first inter-planetary mailing system. We’ll have posties and post-aliens and I’ll finally get to send you these handwritten notes.
For once, Mum was kind of right; my thoughts do feel calmer when I write. I start to hear you muttering from across the table to me, though you’re mostly sighing impatiently at my bad jokes.
Do you remember when you used to take me down to the allotment when I was little?
You showed me how to plant tomato seeds and water the leaves until the stalks grew tall. The little bulbs of fruit would hang low, green at first, then slowly fade into a soft reddish tinge. The fields around us were brushed with the golden wash of an afternoon sun, and you’d read a book in your small deck chair. I’d traipse around with my massive yellow wellies (I didn’t need them, but I always insisted on wearing wellies at the allotment) and pretend I was protecting the tomatoes from invaders.
We don’t grow tomatoes in the Infinite Gardens as the farming section isn’t for public access. Everyone has enough food to last a good few years but a lot of it isn’t for us. It’s for emergency rations in case we can’t grow our own. We’re meant to have the ship’s farms up and running within the next two weeks.
I asked Amit what he thought would happen if we ran out of food completely. We were walking back to our quarters from the Gardens one evening.
He shrugged. “We’d probably have to eat each other.”
I stared back at him in horror before he slapped my arm. “Seriously, why are you so gullible!”
“Your parents are running this whole thing!” I moaned. “Sor-ry if I give you more credit than you’re due.”
He laughed and brushed his long hair out of his face. “I’ve got no clue, to be honest. I didn’t ask them about that.”
“Are you even concerned about anything that goes on in this ship?”
He shrugged again, which started to annoy me. “They’re the experts. They’ll know what to do.”
We’d reached our living quarters, a long section of units designed to house families of four or less. There were different sections on the ship for different sized families. Amit lives a block of units down from us, so we hung around my front door. (Nothing like our door back home, wooden with chipped blue paint. It’s all made of uniform PVC with a small light and door number on the front.)
“But that’s what we said back home,” I continued. I could see he wanted to get home but his apathy irritated me. “We said we could fix things and then we ended up running away from the problem. We can’t run away from anything in here.”
“Mir, chill out. This isn’t some science project at school; this is a big deal. You have to trust the process and the experts.”
“Easy for you to say,” I muttered. “Nothing goes wrong for you, Mr. Perfect.”
I didn’t mean it, Grandad, but the bitter monster just came out, like a parasite on a field of tomatoes. It ate away at me in the quiet moments when I thought about Amit’s family and the cold dinners I’d eat alone when Mum was in meetings.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said, his usually airy tone cut sharp.
I couldn’t lie to him and I wanted everything inside me to go somewhere other than these letters I write to you. Plus, he was one of my oldest friends. Double plus, he was really irritating me.
“Your family are all together. You guys get to do cool things every day, your parents get along and you get along with them! Nothing’s broken for you, everything works perfectly.” I turned to unlock the door. “But I’m just being bitter, so ignore me. Good night.”
A warm squeeze pressed on my shoulder before pulling me away from the door. Amit shook his head.
“You’re not being bitter. But you’re not the only one with problems, you know that? We had to leave my grandparents back at home, my mum’s parents, and she’s devastated. She cries every night and doesn’t get up until really late in the workday, but Dad usually covers for her. I don’t know how to help her. She’ll shut herself in her room for hours and hours when they aren’t working. It’s my mum, you know? She’s always been the happy one.”
I nodded, remembering how Priya’s cheeks would blush a slight red whenever she spoke about her job. She genuinely enjoyed what she did and she spread that joy to others, even to me.
We said good night on slightly better terms. I took my shoes off inside our unit.
The unit is nothing like home, not cosy or really that warm. There are no knickknacks lying around, no furniture that’s slightly torn. Just a small living area with a sofa, coffee table and TV, and an attached kitchen. The living area splits off into two bedrooms and a minimal bathroom.
After what Amit had said to me, I wanted to find Mum. I wanted to talk to her, to tell her everything that was on my mind, like how I used to do with you. These letters just aren’t the same because I really wanted a person. I wanted my mother.
I found her on the floor in her room, sitting on a small rug with her eyes closed and hands held up in prayer.
She didn’t pray that much before we left Earth until the decision was made and we knew we were leaving the planet. Every now and then she’d wrap a headscarf around her hair and sit on the rug, blocking out all other noises.
I sat on her bed and waited till she finished. When she rose from the rug, her face was pale and thin. Dark circles smudged beneath her eyes.
“All done?” I said, nodding at the rug.
“Have to keep grounded somehow,” she said simply. “Helps to talk out loud.”
I must have scowled because her own eyes softened, lips pulled into a small, sad smile.
The bitter monster growled inside me, clearly not done for the night. I wanted to shout at her, “BUT WHY WON’T YOU LET ME TALK TO YOU!” but I guess that’s what I’m doing with these letters, Grandad, these letters that you’ll never read.
I said nothing and stayed on the bed. I didn’t want to move but at the same time I wanted to disappear.
“I know you’re upset with me,” said Mum as she folded up the prayer rug and placed it on her bedside table. “And I know you miss your father and grandfather, too.”
I spun around and spat back. “I miss home. I miss not being in a tin can, being able to actually see daylight.”
She climbed on top of the bed and shuffled on her knees until she swung her legs around on my side and sat close to me. That soft smell of hers brought me back home, a citrusy mixture of freesias and honeysuckle, like the flowers that you grew in the back garden.
“But it wasn’t safe, you know that. The news had been reporting it for years. All governments were declaring a state of emergency. The Earth is not safe, and it won’t be again.”
My jaw tightened as I tried to keep the monster deep inside me. Mum’s voice was gentle, restrained. When I met her gaze, I saw your dark, worried eyes stare back at me.
“What’ll happen to those left behind?” It was a question we had avoided.
She sighed. Her mouth became a thin line and that look of yours disappeared. She was now Dr. Aya Rahman, Lead Engineer and Head of Starship-62 Logistics. An expert scientist that had been interviewed by several news stations. I’ve always hated that side of her.
“We haven’t been able to contact the base on Earth yet. Nothing will happen to the population left behind, for now.”
I stood up sharply. “And what does that mean?”
She couldn’t look at me. “They won’t die—”
“So why didn’t we stay!” I shouted. “Why didn’t you let me stay!”
“Amira, I’m not having this conversation again.”
I stormed out of our unit and ran as far as I could, as far from Mum as this tin can ship would let me go.
It’s been a while. I’m sorry for not writing sooner. I’m sitting on the steps down to the fertiliser containment units. It’s ‘night’ now (we don’t really have day or night but allocated slots for work. I call this night because I should’ve had dinner an hour ago) and most of those that work in these basements have gone home.
Do you remember the first time I ran away? When I’d overheard Mum discussing our flight with you and you grunted several times in response. You didn’t agree or disagree with her, just let her finish her explanation. I left the house without a word but a burning sensation in my chest.
How could she just decide these things for me, without even asking? Didn’t she know that I watched the news, constantly saw my social feed update with information about new sinkholes and land masses breaking apart? Our world was literally crumbling away and she never bothered to talk to me about it.
I’d run away to our allotment and closed my eyes as I sat in your deck chair. The breeze was soft and fresh, like a feather tickling my skin. It was nearly sunset and the sky was bleeding red. The tomato crops no longer grew despite your best efforts because the soil couldn’t hold moisture. The plants would wither away like sand slipping out from between your fingertips.
I must have dozed off in the cool evening because the next thing I felt was your hand on my shoulder, shaking me gently awake. You pulled me up from the deck chair as if I were that small girl in yellow wellies. You told me I should speak to my mother before pulling me in close for a hug.
I always hated the stale smell of smoke in your woollen jumpers but I would light a dozen cigarettes in this stupid tin can just to smell you once again.
I couldn’t finish what I was writing. Priya just found me on the stairs when she was walking up from the basement units, wiping sweat off her brow. I’ve sat on these steps in the evening for over two weeks and this is the first time someone’s walked past me.
She didn’t tell me off. Instead, she sat down on the step below me and sighed. The edges of her dark hair were grey and her round face was wilted like a sunflower at night.
“What a long day!” She smiled with her eyes closed as she massaged her neck. “But I think the fertiliser is finally picking up. A little behind schedule, but better late than never.”
I nodded slowly and closed this journal, keeping it tightly on my lap. She didn’t say anything about it, but I blurted out, “I’m writing letters to my grandad.”
Priya nodded with polite curiosity.
“It’s stupid,” I continued, wishing I could shove the journal out of sight. “He’ll never get them, never read them.”
We sat in silence for a moment. Priya’s smile slid off her face and her cheeks lost colour. I remembered what Amit said about his mum and suddenly felt awful. As always, I said the wrong thing, the bitter thing, the horrible thing. Why can’t nice words ever come out of my big mouth?
“We’re a long way from home,” she said quietly. I wasn’t sure what to do, whether to hug her or say something nice, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have to. “Tell me, what’s your grandfather like?”
So, I told her everything about you. From the way you shuddered whenever you ate a sour fruit to the allotment you kept. I told her about your obsession with cars from the eighties and the way you used to pretend to be a grizzly bear to get me to finish eating my dinner. I told her how you’d always encouraged Mum with her studies when she was young and always said she was the smartest woman you knew.
And I told her how we’d make up bedtime stories together, filled with magic and adventure, when Mum and Dad were going through their divorce, so I didn’t have to face the empty nights alone.
“He sounds wonderful,” said Priya, a smile back on her lips. “I wish Amit knew his grandparents like that.”
“He doesn’t know them?” I asked, the words clunky in my mouth.
She shook her head. “When international travel got too risky, we couldn’t visit them in the States. Amit grew up seeing them on video calls, but he doesn’t really know them that well.”
She fidgeted with her fingers in her lap, scrubbed pink from disinfectant and soapy water. She said nothing else about her parents, nothing about her sadness.
I wanted to tell her something positive, like from the endings of those stories we’d make up. That we were lucky to have people who loved us both on Earth and in the stars. But I couldn’t bring myself to say that because the truth is, both of us were miserable for leaving our only home.
“It was Mum’s idea to keep a journal,” I finally said to my own surprise. “She had a spare one. I haven’t written in ages though, so my handwriting was really rough at first.”
Priya nodded. “It’s a lovely idea. I know the decision wasn’t easy for Aya, to leave her father behind.”
I looked at her as if she’d said the strangest, most alien thing in the world. And then shame flooded inside me, overwhelming all my other feelings, that I hadn’t even noticed my own mother’s grief.
Priya told me not to stay down here too long, and said good night.
Honestly, Grandad, I’ve got no idea what to do. Why couldn’t you be here to help me find a solution, to help me figure things out?
But I guess I know what you’d say.
You’d tell me to stop being so moany and go and speak to my mother.
There are some perks to having your mother be the Lead Engineer on the ship. Farming might not be allowed for most civilians onboard but I managed to convince Priya to give me a little slice of the Gardens, just a corner that no one would miss. She was reluctant at first, knowing how much space we had to conserve, but I promised her it wouldn’t go to waste. The Head of Logistics would never allow it.
I got Amit to help me, even though he didn’t want to, but I threatened to smear fertiliser in his hair while he was sleeping. It seemed to do the trick.
When I eventually dragged Mum down to the Gardens I told her to stand just a little outside our corner.
“Close your eyes and trust me, okay?” I said and slowly led her inside by hand.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Mum cry, Grandad, but this was the first time I had. When she saw the little allotment we created, fitted out with a small deck chair (hashed together with bits of wood) and a table with books and a lamp, she squeezed my hand.
She stood there for a while until she asked what I was growing on the far side of the allotment. We don’t grow tomatoes over here yet, but I used the fertiliser to plant some potatoes a couple of weeks ago. Little green shoots sprouted through the dark soil, beckoning us to visit them. I explained to her the process of planting the vegetables and making fertiliser and she nodded a few times before her tears had dried completely. Then she looked at me and smiled.
Somehow, I saw your face staring back at me again. This time full of warmth and pride and eyes that said, ‘I’m home’.
Love you lots, Grandad,