This wistful astronaut story will seriously mess you up

Illustration for article titled This wistful astronaut story will seriously mess you up

Now that the Hugo Awards have recognized the greatness of Clarkesworld Magazine, it's time to celebrate — with a fantastic story by James Patrick Kelly. "The Promise of Space" is a tear-jerking story about a woman visiting her astronaut husband in the hospital — and talking to the A.I. that now speaks for him.


Top image: Silent Oracle by Matt Dixon.

There's a lot going on in "Promise of Space," and I don't want to give it all away. But suffice to say, astronaut Kirk Anderson is not in full possession of his faculties, due to some of the rigors of space travel. But he's prepared for this moment, recording an insane amount of his own experiences digitally, so an A.I. can supplement his ruined memory and personality. But his wife, a science fiction author named Zoe, isn't too comfortable talking to the A.I.-enhanced version of her husband — and she's pissed at him for sacrificing himself on a heroic space mission. The whole thing is terribly sad, and the ending may leave you in tears. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery right after reading this story.

Here's how it begins:

Capture 06/15/2051, Kerwin Hospital ICU, 09:12:32

. . . and my writer pals used to tease that I married Captain Kirk.

A clarification, please? Are you referring to William Shatner, who died in 2023? Or is this Chris Pine, who was cast in the early remakes? It appears he has retired. Perhaps you mean the new one? Jools Bear?

No, you. Kirk Anderson. People used to call you that, remember? First man to set foot on Phobos? Pilot on the Mars landing team? Captain Kirk.

I do not understand. Clearly I participated in those missions since they are on the record. But I was never captain of anything.


A joke, Andy. They were teasing you. It’s why you hated your first name.

Noted. Go on.

No, this is impossible. I feel like I’m talking to an intelligent fucking database, not my husband. I don’t know where to begin with you.

Please, Zoe. I cannot do this without you. Go on.

Okay, okay, but do me a favor? Use some contractions, will you? Contractions are your friends.


Do you know when we met?

I haven’t yet had the chance to review that capture. We were married in 2043. Presumably we met before that?


Not much before. Where were you on Saturday, May 17, 2042? Check your captures.

The capture shows that I flew from Spaceways headquarters at Spaceport America to the LaGuardia Hub in New York and spent the day in Manhattan at the Metropolitan Museum. That night I gave the keynote address at the Nebula Awards banquet in the Crown Plaza Hotel but my caps were disengaged. The Nebula is awarded each year by the World Science Fiction Writers . . . .


I was nominated that year for best livebook, Shadows on the Sun. You came up to me at the reception, said you were a fan. That you had all five of my Sidewise series in your earstone when you launched for Mars that first time. You joked you had a thing for Nacky Martinez. I was thrilled and flattered. After all, you were top of the main menu, one of the six hero marsnauts. Things I’d only imagined, you’d actually done. And you’d read my work and you were flirting with me and, holy shit, you were Captain Kirk. When people—friends, famous writers—tried to break into our conversation, they just bounced off us. Nobody remembers who won what award that night, but lots of people still talk about how we locked in.

I just looked it up. You lost that Nebula.

Yeah. Thanks for reminding me.

You had on a hat.

A hat? Okay. But I always wore hats back then. It was a way to stand out, part of my brand—for all the good it did me. My hair was a three act tragedy anyway, so I wore a lot of hats.

This one was a bowler hat. It was blue—midnight blue. With a powder blue band. Thin, I remember the hatband was very thin.


Maybe. I don’t remember that one. Nice try, though.

Tell me more. What happened next?

Jesus, this is so wrong . . . No, I’m sorry, Andy. Give me your hand. You always had such delicate hands. Such clever fingers.

I can still remember that my mom had an old Baldwin upright piano that she wanted me to learn to play, but my hands were too small. You’re crying. Are you crying?


I am not. Just shut up and listen. This isn’t easy and I’m only saying it because maybe the best part of you is still trapped in there like they claim and just maybe this augment really can set it free.

Read the whole thing over at Clarkesworld.



James Patrick Kelly

Wow. Normally writers drops short stories into the pond of literature and they sink with just a few ripples. I'm very pleased with these comments, even if some remark that this isn't the sunniest story! And sweet.pea.leigh, I think kschang has the sense of it. If there is a twist, it is that Kirk's AI is gets more convincingly "human" as it interacts with people, but that this is even more disturbing to Zoe. Kate Baker and I read this story together at WorldCon and they needed to call a janitor to mop up the tears afterwards!