Every reboot is a second chance to get things right. The things you did wrong you can fix, and the things beyond your control you can thwart. But stories tell us that there is always, always a price. Sometimes that price is simply knowing just how wrong things went in the first place.
Things go pretty wrong in “Now is the Hour” by Emily Devenport. It’s a heart-wrenching sci-fi story about an impoverished family who gets lucky enough to buy their way off their infected world, but find they’ve already contracted a fatal disease. In the face of hopelessness and death, they must make some grave choices that will affect their lives — both current and otherwise.
[Spoiler Warning] I’m sorry — really, I am. If only you had read the story first before this article, you’d have found out everything on your own. So if you’re reading this now, do it. It’s your last chance. Love, M.
A fatal virus is sweeping the planet of Hardcase, and Maybie and her family don’t want to stick around to get it. Luckily, Maybie has just won the lottery, which just happens to be enough to buy her entire family a ticket off world.
Maybie wakes up mid-flight, long before the deepsleep should have worn off. What’s more — her health status says she’s already infected with the virus; they hadn’t outrun it like they thought. And to go from bad to worse, the ship is headed right for a massive, time-dilating singularity called Belial.
As Maybie moves about the ship, confirming the virus has infected the others, we learn about her family. Among them are the sweet, innocent Spicy and his little cat Tig; the adopted brothers, Creole and Cajun, strong men laid low by the virus; and the intelligent and pragmatic Akamai. It is Akamai who suggests the solution — to exit an airlock and let outer space claim them before they succumb to the virus’s torturous slow death. As the family disappears one by one, only Maybie is left. The only reason she hasn’t spaced herself is because she wants to find out what happens when the ship finally reaches Belial. [Maybe it was in the way of their destination]
Once the ship crosses the singularity, Maybie is rescued by time-traveling aliens. Furby (not his real name) explains that Belial is a wormhole used by their kind to travel across different timelines and stop those who would tamper with them. These philanthropic aliens decide to use the wormhole’s power to access a different timeline, one in which Maybie and her family did not die. They cure the family of the virus and set them up with enough supplies for the rest of their journey. Only Maybie is left with the knowledge of what could have happened.
Before they leave, Furby leaves Maybie with some weighty knowledge: the price for taking advantage of a new timeline is carrying with you the terrible outcome of the other. The family goes on to lead lives of happiness and prosperity, and not a day goes by where Maybie doesn’t think of how they could have ended up.
Two things from “Now is the Hour” stand out from many other sci-fi stories I’ve read this year: the Hawaiian ethnic elements and the characters. The first of these I’ve never read in a sci-fi. The theme of saying, “aloha” to the aliens blends in so beautifully with time dilation — as “aloha” means both “hello” and “goodbye” — that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it used before; that’s how perfect it’s used here. The Hawaiian flavor also reinforces the importance of family, which, public perception or not, makes for an effective story.
The second standout aspect is how the characters are presented. They’re poor, which I feel is rare for sci-fi since you need people who will be able to experience all the spankin’ new technology and stuff. The rich, powerful, or educated are the ones who usually get to go on these adventures, so seeing space from a poverty perspective is not only refreshing but impactful. But what really makes the characters interesting is they’re also a family — not a crew or a brilliant and lonely individual. The stakes seem higher for Maybie because she has so many people she cares about on the same ship.
It’s the same concept that made last month’s story so poignant. In a time when sci-fi media like Interstellar and The Martian are revelling in relatively solitary experiences, “Now is the Hour” makes the loss of every character feel so much more tragic. Author Devenport accomplishes this in the way Maybie feels grief and in the unceremonious way her family goes off to die. Here’s a passage between Maybie and her step-sister, after finding out Spicy went out the airlock with his cat:
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.
The confusion, combined with the physical pain, lends such an air of authenticity to the scene. Maybie can’t comprehend what L’India is saying to her because she’s still in shock, even though she was just thinking about how Akamai must have already gone. For as much non-action is going on here — Maybie just staring blankly at Belial — it tells a great deal about her sadness. Also, saying her “eyes hurt” is a nice detail that could either mean a symptom of the virus or because she’s crying to the point where she can’t see. Maybie’s thoughts are stated in such a matter-of-fact way that we can’t help but feel heartbroken.
Getting a second chance at life — that shouldn’t have resonated with me as deeply as it did. Getting a do-over for some simple mistake — we’ve all wished for that, right? But not all of us have been put in life-or-death situations; I only have the concept itself to consider. But seeing the context of Maybie and her family go through what they did — yeah, I can fully appreciate the outcome of their predicament.
If I do have one critique, it’s that I felt the price of having to carry the memories of their deaths was a bit on the weak side. But I understand if there had been some other price, it would have taken a hell of a lot more words to explain it, and this story is so admirably tight as is.
Ultimately, I don’t think my critique matters too much. Not when I’m left with these feelings of profound sadness. “Now is the Hour” is easily some of the saddest stuff I’ve read in short fiction. It doesn’t give you time to build up characters just to break you down, nor does it go for shock value in killing them off for no good reason. We saw their deaths hinted at from the beginning, which makes us feel their loss.
I think the beauty of the story is that, in a way, we’re kind of put in Maybie’s shoes. We know what happened to Spicy and Tig and Akamai and L’India. We know how it all could have ended, and the fact that it didn’t makes me so, so happy.