Veronica was a spaceworthy lass with a definite preference for silence and a sensitivity to detail. She'd never lost her tea in zero gee and had always been the first to note when the coffee maker needed cleaning or when the fluorescent lights would flick-flicker in signal of the bulbs' impending death. Furthermore, she seemed to genuinely relish freeze-dried food.
When the other colonists asked her to take the long watch over The Doubtful Guest as it hurtled through space to their new home, she was quietly enthused and declared she'd always meant to read the world's Great Literature.
But they worried that she would get lonely with nothing but books and the hum of the cryopods to keep her company over those dark decades. And, more important, who would watch the ship's systems while she slept?
So they chose a lad named Melvin to be her companion. He matched Veronica in most important aspects: religious affiliation, political outlook, favorite dessert, air freshener preference. While not as attuned to detail as she, he did seem like a fairly alert fellow, respected quiet, and was easily amused by a variety of odd hobbies.
The voyage started well, with Veronica reading the Bronte sisters and Melvin building tiny Spanish galleons out of toothpicks, glue and dental floss. They traded shifts, she awake while he slept, and so they seldom saw one another. When they did, they attempted sex a few times, quietly groping each other beside his mother's cryopod, but it never seemed as satisfying as their respective pastimes.
The trouble began two years into the trip, when Veronica had started on the Russians and Melvin had begun knitting long, itchy black-and-blond scarves from all the hair they'd shed. It was not the aesthetic qualities of the scarves that upset her, for she approved of creative approaches to waste management. Nor did the click-clack of his needles bother her as she slept. It was his snoring.
His snore developed slowly, like cancer. When she began The Brothers Karamazov, it was just a soft, throaty purr like the breathing of an asthmatic cat. Barely noticeable. A few months later, when she was on Notes From the Underground, the purr became punctuated with the occasional grunt or snort, and by the time she finished the ship's store of Dostoyevsky and started Anna Karenina, his snore had risen in volume to resemble the revving of a small motorcycle with a bad cylinder.
Veronica, who read slowly because she liked to savor every word, could not concentrate with all that infernal noise. She wrestled with issues of politeness and protocol for a few days, then woke Melvin and suggested they re-synchronize their schedules so that they were awake at the same time. He reluctantly agreed after she promised to program an extra set of monitors to sound an alarm if anything should happen while they slept.
With the snoring gone, Veronica happily resumed her normal reading rate of ten pages a day. But then she started to notice other things about Melvin that disturbed her. The click-clack of his knitting needles made it hard for her to focus on all the nuances of Tolstoy's use of the verb "to be," and the sound of him gargling in the morning broke her concentration entirely.
She did not approach him with her complaints because she felt a bit sheepish for making him adjust his sleeping schedule to salve her sensibilities. After all, he'd taken her imposition with such good spirit. And, as her dear departed mother had always taught her, it simply wasn't polite to comment on others' personal habits.
So she tried to concentrate on her text. But more malignant Melvinisms arose. The crunching of him eating his daily ration of vegetable flakes. The wet slurping sound he made when he drank his coffee. The way the air whistled through his nose when he sighed. The low, animal grunts he made when he whipped himself with one of his scarves behind his mother's cryopod.
Finally, one morning when Melvin was drinking his coffee and knitting in the nude, he belched. Not a mild little burp, but an eructation that shook the whole ship, thundering like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Her patience snapped along with her concentration. She threw down War and Peace, launched herself across the room and started to strangle Melvin with his scarf. He made quite a lot of noise, but only for a little while. When he was unconscious, she stabbed him fifty-three times with the knitting needles, then hauled him and his scarves, toothpick ships, fungus sculptures and rotifer farm to the airlock and ejected everything into the cold silence of outer space.
Feeling exquisitely relieved, she washed her hands, carefully dried them and resumed her reading.
But then she started to notice the low hum of the cryopods, the periodic hiss of the cooling units. The flutter of the air vents. The raggedness of her own breathing. The lub-dup of her own heart.
Her hands began to shake.