Far into the future, humanity is still searching the stars in the hopes that there is something, someone out there in the dark. Ships vault thousands of light years into the universe, studying planets and moons in the hopes of finding life, but — other than a multi-cellular blip here and there — humanity is still alone. Corporations fund ships, now looking for precious metals and minerals and planets capable of being named and claimed and terraformed to make way for more humans.
Harlon has been on numerous missions, each time getting just enough money to keep himself from being too far in debt. He drinks, he plays VR, and he finds casual hookups where and when he can. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but last night was almost … wonderful. Harlon almost asked the man for his name, but he has a mission to get to, and so he lets the man stay as only a fond memory.
The next day, Harlon is introduced to the new astrobiologist, a handsome man named Dexter. The same man whose hand Harlon is shaking today is the man he held in his arms yesterday, and all Harlon can do is try not to remember the way the other man felt beneath him; the way they kissed, or touched, or laughed … yeah, it’s going to be a long, long mission.
It’s the small touches in this story that sell it. The casual mention of a planet’s orbital cycle or the way cars slide into place, driverless and silent, gives us just enough of a glimpse of an almost Star Treckian future without bombarding us with descriptions. And yet, even with all the mentions of labs, probes, and drones, it’s the characters who are the main focus of the story.
Harlon is getting close to middle age, hovering closer to 40 than 20. Even though humans may live well into their 100s, middle age is still middle age. Time and failure have beaten out any sense of joy at his work. He does what he does well, is loyal to his crew, and only asks for his paycheck to be on time and his VR game to be happy. While he is lonely, it’s a tolerable loneliness eased with the occasional bursts of company at various bars. Besides, even if life was found — even if was Harlon to find it — the corporation who owns him, his ship, and his debt would just take the credit.
Dexter, roughly the same age as Harlon, has already hit his midlife crisis. Instead of sinking into drinks and gambling, he quit his job and decided to visit the stars. It’s been his dream to find life, to be on the forefront of … of everything! To make history while making science and he does it with gusto and the enthusiasm of a man half his age. To be fair, he often acts like a man half his age, compared to Harlon, but Dexter isn’t anywhere near jaded. He has no intention of ever getting jaded because there’s just too much to see and to experience, and he’s going to do it with arms wide open.
Together Dexter and Harlon are very much an odd couple. The dour and the delighted, the open-minded and the skeptic, but in between the moments of complaining about work, the two share an honest connection. Both of them felt something that night at the bar, and both of them look at the other man with the thought “what if … “ What if Harlon took a risk, what if Dexter pulled him in for a kiss. They’d have to be discrete, but it’s not impossible to, on occasion, meet up in one of their cabins.
This is a cute enough story, with far more world building than I had expected. The author put in honest thought to all sorts of small details, such as what would they call faster than light flight? Rather than use FTL or the ubiquitous “jump,” Lore uses vault. While it amuses me that the characters pause in the middle of one of their conversations to compliment whoever came up with it, and to point out not only how clever and poetic it is, but how many ways it can be interpreted, I did appreciate them making this their world, and not just a generic “in the future AD.”
I’m not a fan of the ending, personally, but I will say it works perfectly with the character of the book. It’s neither sacchrine sweet nor overly cynical; like Dexter and Harlon’s relationship, it’s somewhere in the middle. The pacing is a bit uneven, and other than a token conversation with an android, there are almost no other characters in this book. The tight focus helps with the characterization, but I would have liked to have gotten a better feel for the rest of the ship, to find out how they felt about Harlon and Dexter — did they guess at their interest in one another, did they care? But that’s a small and very personal nitpick that in no way detracts from the overall story.