The following is excerpted from Sequoia Nagamatsu's new novel, How High We Go In the Dark. Nagamatsu is a Japanese-American writer and managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine, an online quarterly dedicated to innovative prose. He is the author of the award-winning short story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone and teaches creative writing at St. Olaf College and the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA program. He currently lives in Minnesota.
U.S.S. Yamato—Launch Day, December 30, 2037
All two hundred of the crew lined up in our flight suits, waiting for the hangar doors to open to reporters and relatives and those who dreamed of one day traveling the stars. We are at the dawn of a new age, a NASA official said to applause. This is the first step for humanity to become a part of whatever is beyond our solar system. As the hangar opened, we could see the ticketed spectators behind the velvet ropes flanking the red carpet—my sister and nieces, my gallery dealer, who’d arranged a final showing of my plague victim portraits a few weeks earlier, children in astronaut onesies waving toy models of the Yamato. But beyond all this, perhaps fifty yards away, there was a fence barricading the chanting crowds: Second chance, second chance! A woman with a bullhorn shouted: “You can’t leave us! Planet X will collide with us soon. We see the signs, the rising seas, the fires. These are the signs of judgment.” A man wearing an American flag T-shirt and a fanny pack tried to scale the fence. One of the Kennedy Space Center guards shoved his baton through the chain links to beat the man down.
“Don’t pay those nut jobs any mind,” I told Yumi. My granddaughter stood beside me, examining the line of people behind us. Her duffel bag was slung over her shoulder, stuffed with clothes from the shopping spree that I’d used to help soften the blow of leaving home.
“There aren’t many teenagers,” she said. “I thought you said there would be other kids my age.”
“There are more than a few,” I said.
I could see my sister waving as the line progressed, the final hugs and handshakes, last-minute parting gifts—a bag of oranges, an apple pie, a crate of vintage pulp novels. How do you say goodbye when you know you’ll be alive hundreds if not thousands of years after everyone you’ve ever known has died? I overheard one of the ship’s doctors a few people ahead of us telling her best friend that she’d see her around sometime. One of the few nonscientist and nonmilitary passengers, a woman named Val, kissed her boyfriend, who was dressed like a mortician in a black suit and tie. Apparently his brother helped develop the Yamato’s engine.
“You should be coming, too,” she told him.
“Maybe on the next ship, if there is one,” he said. “You should know by now that it takes me a while to act on anything.”
As I eavesdropped on their final moments, I imagined what the day would be like if my husband and daughter were still alive. Would Cliff be leading the way? Or perhaps I’d be behind the velvet rope, saying goodbye to Clara as she embarked on the ultimate adventure.
Behind me, Yumi was lost in her headphones, gazing at the Yamato on launchpad 39A, the old stomping grounds of the Apollo program. She texted her only close friend who was still alive and hadn’t been shuttled to one of the quarantined neighborhoods by their parents. The people behind the fence shouted. Someone threw a bottle that smashed and sent shards flying across the concrete.
“Take out your headphones,” I told Yumi, tapping her ears. “We’re getting close to our people.” She ignored me, continued texting. I wanted to tell her to stop, but I knew this was her last chance to talk to her friend.
We stepped forward after Val and Dennis said their goodbyes. I hugged my sister, my two nieces, and even Steven, my gallery dealer. When I held them, I made a mental note of Steven’s body odor, always masked by a cologne that smells like cinnamon; the way my sister’s frenetic hair expanded in the humidity; how my niece’s face glitter caught on my flight suit, tiny stars from home that I’d take with me on our journey.
“This is going to be so good for the both of you,” my sister said, rubbing Yumi’s arms. “A fresh start.”
“We have a couple of your paintings left in the SoHo gallery— Laird No. 2 and Mother and Daughter in Mud No. 3,” Steven told me. “I’ll be hanging on to them for now. Maybe the Smithsonian will want them, the last works of one of the Yamato pioneers.”
My nieces gave me and Yumi a crayon drawing of our entire extended family, including Cliff and Clara, all of us circling the planet hand in hand. My sister gave me our mother’s engagement ring. And Steven gave me a case of charcoals and paints, which I’d add to the art supplies the mission commander had already approved.
“You’re murderers, the whole goddamn bunch of you!” someone shouted from beyond the barricade.
Yumi huddled with her little cousins. I heard her tell them to talk to the stars and that she would hear them. I held on to my sister one last time.
“Love you for light-years,” I told her.
“Who’s going to sell my work up there?” I said to Steven. I thought about what I might paint after this—the different variations of black and silence. Or maybe I’d paint our memories, all the tiny moments we took for granted.
A caravan of golf carts shuttled us to the launchpad. Both Yumi and I hung our heads off the side, trying to take in the Yamato. Here on Earth, the ship looked like six Saturn V rockets strapped together, with a giant silver sphere in the middle that would open in space like a flower, ejecting a habitation ring that will rotate around the engine’s core. When the stasis technicians led us down the corridors of sleeping pods, Yumi spoke of worlds where we’d have two shadows and oceans glowed orange, and if we traveled far enough, we’d find another Earth where her mother and my husband might still be alive.
“You don’t have to do this for me,” I said, stopping Yumi as she began to unzip her flight suit. “I don’t have to tell you there are no go-backs on this one.” She stared at her steel crib that would soon fill with cryo gel, preserving her at the age of seventeen.
“How long will the trip take?” she asked. We watched the technicians open her pod, run diagnostics on the monitoring systems that would keep her asleep and nourish her body. Yumi stepped out of her flight suit and handed it to one of the techs, draped herself with an opaque plastic poncho.
“No one really knows. It’s not like we have a set destination—we need to find our way,” I said. “But you and the other children won’t come out at all. You’ll remain asleep, and when you awaken, you’ll feel like a long night has passed.”
The technicians helped Yumi climb into her pod and allowed me to say goodbye. I wondered how many farewells and second thoughts and assurances to scared children and spouses they had already seen.
“I do want to go,” she said. She held out her hands and pulled me in for a hug. “For Mom. She would want us to go.”
I told her to dream about the impossible and colorful and miraculous. Dream about your mother and father. I squeezed her hands. I kissed her head. “When you wake up,” I said, “I’ll be there. And we’ll be home.”
I nodded to the technicians to proceed, and they finished preparing Yumi for the long sleep. Her tiny, shaking body looked embryonic beneath the plastic in her silver crib before she succumbed to the sedatives and the cryo gel washed over her as if she had been encased in ice.
191 Proxima Centauri B–—4.3 Light-Years from Earth; Travel Time: 50 Years
CONSTELLATION: Centaurus. Tidally locked and in tight orbit around a red dwarf star–—perpetual day and night on opposite sides of the planet. Approximate orbital period: 11 days. Volatile solar flare activity likely to have stripped any atmosphere that would have been present.
ARTIST’S NOTES: We stopped because of possibility, even though we knew the world was likely dead. After all, it would be too convenient for our closest neighbors to be right for us–—the universe wouldn’t make our journey that easy. But this would be our first look at another world not in our backyard–—vermilion at over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit on one side, steeped in darkness and ice on the other.
Most adult passengers lived through the long, dark years in stasis, emerging from their pods only for weeks at a time when we stopped at a planet worthy of study. Children were not to be awakened before colonization, to preserve our resources. Perhaps some thought it cruel for children to spend so many years in a tin can. After I woke up and completed my initial checkup with the ship’s doctors, I didn’t go to my assigned quarters or to the mess hall as I was instructed, despite my hunger and the fact I was still wearing a hospital gown. I allowed my bare feet to carry me across the empty steel corridors, beyond the areas that had begun to stir with life from the crew. I sat next to Yumi’s pod and described the ship’s awakening—how everyone was wandering the halls half-naked, disoriented, slightly slimy from the cryo gel, how the windows of the ship glowed with the faint light of a red dwarf. After that I visited Yumi every morning. I held a small speaker to the glass walls of her pod, playing her favorite songs as I updated her on my life, which was punctuated by the monotony of meals, sleep, and trying to make myself useful, cleaning the halls, rearranging the mess. I could barely bring myself to socialize with the others—they all had colleagues and spouses and friends, a purpose. They were vital to our task. I wonder if the Department of Planetary Security offered me privileged passage aboard the Yamato out of some sense of guilt, the widow of the great Clifford Miyashiro, who gave his life attempting to avert an outbreak; the mother of the woman who tried to cool the planet. But when the navigation commander found me curled up outside of Yumi’s stasis chamber about a week after our arrival at the Centauri system, my space life changed forever.
“We can’t use all the paint, of course,” he explained. He crouched beside me and looked up at Yumi. “But between your personal supplies and part of what we earmarked for education, we should be able to spruce up these walls. Do you think you can take charge of that for me?”
I nodded, a little self-conscious that I hadn’t showered since I’d awoken. A moment later a woman approached, lingered behind the commander until he waved her over, making me even more aware of my unwashed appearance. She wore leather boots, magenta tights, a wool poncho that grazed her thighs.
“And Dorrie here is something of a painter as well,” he said.
“Nothing like you, of course,” Dorrie interrupted.
“She’s a lottery passenger. We woke her up hoping she’d want to help you,” the commander said. “How’s that sound?”
“Wonderful,” I said. My words came out quieter, less enthusiastic than I’d intended. I had never collaborated with another artist before. The woman the commander ushered over beamed at me with excitement. “I mean, thank you.”
“I brought my portfolio,” Dorrie said as I stood to shake her hand. The commander knocked on the bulkhead and excused himself. “I’m a bit more than a hobbyist, though I felt like I was lying when I called myself an artist on the Yamato lottery forms.” Dorrie opened the case slung over her shoulder, spread out a series of charcoal prints and watercolors and tiny acrylic portraits of children she’d painted on index cards. Behind each card: a name, birth date, time of death, and the title “City of Laughter.” I assumed they were from the euthanasia theme park that had been popular during the first wave.
“These are remarkable,” I said. I studied the portrait of a little girl with golden curls. If I squinted hard enough, I could just make out the outline of a roller coaster reflected in her eyes. I wondered what might be reflected in the eyes of those on the journey with us. As artists, we could transform the sterile walls of this ship into a home, preserve our journey for those who never woke up. I could hold on to our memories through the millennia. I could help us move on.
Excerpted from How High We Go In the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. Copyright © 2022 by Sequoia Nagamatsu. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow & Company, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.