James van Pelt: “Solace” (c) 2009.

“Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves.
For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey:”
           — Proverbs quoted in the sci fi story “Solace” by James van Pelt.

The Proverbs are # 18 and 19 from Chapter 7.


James van Pelt: “Solace” (c) 2009.

Source: “The Year’s Best Science Fiction:  Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois (c) 2010.”
(from SF stories published in 2009).

“Solace” is a story of two people, living in two different centuries. The Proverbs scribbled on paper by a 19th century miner, Isaac, give courage and hope  centuries into the future to Meghan, a crew member of a space expedition to start a colony on a far distant planet.

The story is written in short sections to mirror the events in Megan’s space journey; and the determined and courageous struggle by Isaac to keep the mine’s power generator going in a ferocious winter snow storm.


Aboard the spaceship:

Meghan is a hydroponics specialist aboard a spaceship on a journey of 4000 years from Earth to Zeta Reticula, to establish a colony. A space journey of this length has not been done before: The ship itself is a prototype and no one knows whether they will make it to Zeta Reticula, or whether they will succeed in colonizing a planet there. The crew members include maintenance engineers, doctors, hydroponics specialists, and horticulturalists. Various experiments are planned including the impact of short and long sleep cycles on aging. There is no return journey planned.

During the journey, most of the crew members have long sleep cycles of a hundred years with intervening work cycles of 2 weeks. There are different crew shifts, sleeping and waking at different time intervals. A smaller number of crew members have short sleep cycles of 25 years or less, to maintain the ship’s propulsion systems, as well as life support systems.

After her first cycle of sleep, Meghan activates a 3D image on her room’s wall. The image is of a photo she took on Earth, prior to the space journey. She had gone hiking along Crystal River, near a 19th century mine. She can see and hear the river flowing, and the rustle of aspen leaves. A generator house stands on a rocky outcrop. A water chute drops from the generator to a pool below. Meghan had found an old iron candle-stick holder near the generator house and had brought it with her on her space journey as a memento of Earth.

After the second sleep cycle, Meghan cannot activate the image. She tries to recall the scene, but realizes memories of Earth are already fading. She becomes despondent as questions and doubts fill her mind: Will they even reach their destination? Will she even live to plant and see aspens growing on the new planet?


19th Century: Crystal River. Winter.
A snow storm has been raging for several days. Deep snow already covers the banks and the trees in the valley beyond. Inside the generator house, in the maintenance room, Isaac keeps the woodstove going, burning whatever furniture wood he can spare. There is no more firewood near at hand.

Isaac goes down to the room below, to check the power generator. He spikes the sharp end of a candle-holder into the wood panel of the wall. The handle of the candle-holder is actually a hollow brass match holder with a screw-on cap. He lights a candle and checks the generator. Fast flowing water enters and exits the troughs around the wheel. As the wheel turns, the power generated is carried by cables up to the mines, for the compressors which ventilate the tunnels, and for the miners’ drills. Isaac breaks up the ice forming at the sluice gates. Without the fast flowing water, the wheel will stop.

In the maintenance room, Isaac draws strength from his recollections of his days as a novitiate in a monastery, of his solitary life, of meditation. He reads from his Bible, verses from Genesis, of the seasons, of day and night. Outside the storm continues unabated. A plank from the snow-laden roof collapses, hurling snow into the maintenance room.

Heavy snow blocks the door of the house. Isaac shovels a path from a window up to the surface. Outside, the snow is up to the eaves. Using his spade, he clears snow from a part of the roof, and the rest slides down. He digs his way back into the house.

Exhausted and freezing, he clears out the ice from the troughs of water in the generator room. The woodstove fire is out, and he struggles to light it with the few dry matches from the candle-holder. When he finally gets the fire going, he prays and opens the Bible at random. The first lines of verse he sees are the verses from the Proverbs:

“Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves.
For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey:”

Thankful and filled with hope, Isaac scribbles the lines on a piece of paper and puts it into the match holder on the candle-holder. Perhaps one day those words will help someone else.

The storm finally breaks. The snow is very deep, and the upper branches of trees are now at the surface of the snow, within easy reach. Isaac will have enough firewood to keep the generator house warm, and maintain the power generator.


On the space ship, Megan and Sean Arnold, a doctor, have drawn close together. When Megan awakes from another sleep cycle, she is 722 years old in Earth years. Sean has died, as he has aged faster with shorter sleep cycles. She thinks about Earth. She still has the miner’s candle-holder and has the machine shop cut open the screw-cap on the handle. Inside the hollow space, she finds a piece of paper, almost a thousand years old. She reads the scribbled words and recognizes the verses from the Bible. In the hydroponic lab, Meghan starts an experiment and leaves instructions for the next crew to carry on the experiment.

When she wakes up from the next sleep cycle, she goes to the hydroponics lab. Her experiment has succeeded: A tall aspen tree has grown in the hydroponic plant tank, where she had planted its seed. Her colleagues have planted more seeds over the years: there are three more aspens growing in the plant tanks.
Meghan can smell the aspens, and hear the rustling of leaves.