"Does a flower blooming in an uninhabited wood have no value?"
--Lyle L. Simpson (2011)
At embarkation, the Jovian Explorer had a crew of ten. Three months into the journey, the crew was reduced to one after on explosion in a fuel cell killed the other nine members and incapacitated the ship's navigation and communications systems.
It was supposed to be a round trip--the first journey of men and women from Earth to Europa, the sixth closest moon to the planet Jupiter, and back. But it wasn't.
The Explorer was headed out of the solar system at 50,000 miles per hour. At this point, there was no planned destination and no ability to change direction. If the ship stayed on its expected trajectory, it would reach Sirius A (the Dog Star in the constellation Canis Major) in about 115,000 years--a distance of 8.6 light years. The Explorer was a prototype, and the Space Agency did not have additional ships that could mount a rescue.
The ship's life support system was still functioning and had backups. The food supply that would have supported a crew of ten for five years could support a crew of one for fifty years if the sterile, vacuum-packed food remained edible. A green house and hydroponic garden on the lower deck of the 100-meter ship provided fresh food.
The sole survivor was John Nansen, age forty-four, an astronomer and chief science officer for the ship. He was physically fit--5 feet, 10 inches, 180 pounds-- although in a near-zero-gravity environment, he had to exercise two and a half hours per day to avoid excessive muscle atrophy and bone loss. John figured he had a long time to live. In his current circumstances, he wondered to what purpose.
John spent the first weeks after the explosion cleaning up, mourning colleagues, and trying without success to repair the navigation and communication systems. He cremated the remains of his colleagues in a high-temperature oven connected to the ship's heating system and spread their ashes in the ship's garden.
As John used a trowel to mix the ashes with the soil, he thought of his childhood in Pennsylvania, during which he occasionally helped his parents with a garden. In John's early years his parents took him to Sunday services at a Protestant church. That gave him points of reference about the purpose of life. But when he was thirteen years old John declined to be confirmed in the church, concluding the tenets of the faith required too much magical thinking to serve as a foundation for his life, although he did enjoy the majestic music he heard in church.
John's music collection, which he brought with him on...