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There’s an SF story I’ve been looking for for a long time. I have a hard time believing that I made it up myself, so I feel like it must be out there, somewhere. But I can’t seem to find it.

The story must be from either the Golden or the Silver Age. It has a classic fleets-in-space feel, but elements of modern psychology. I think about writers like Cordwainer Smith or Poul Anderson, but I don’t think it’s either of those.

The plot summary, as best I can remember it: A young man, on the rise in his career in the Space Army or the Astronaut Corps or whatever it is, is about to be sent on his first mission into deep space. At the pre-mission briefing, he is reminded that, in the event he becomes too horribly lonely, out in the depths of space, and feels he is about to go crazy (or, by implication, suicidal), he can trigger an emergency program. The program has — I think — a woman’s name. But, if he does that, it will mean the end of his career advancement. The real test is to see whether he can make it through without the emergency fallback. The young man, of course, is confident that he’ll never crack.

Something goes wrong on the trip, I think. Maybe the protagonist’s companions die; maybe it just turns out that he can’t handle the terrible loneliness after all. Anyway, in the end, and at the end of his rope, the desperate protagonist is driven to do what he never thought he’d do, and invoke the emergency program.

Suddenly, a thus-far-unnnoticed young crewwoman appears. Where did she suddenly come from? The protagonist doesn’t question. But the young woman is intelligent, friendly, and understanding, and everything he’s ever hoped for in a woman. She is his constant companion, and balances out his fears and uncertainties. His loneliness is assuaged and he becomes much more emotionally and psychologically stable and healthy.

Upon return to Earth, when the debriefing officer sees how well-fed and happy the protagonist looks, he immediately looks sour and disappointed. “So,” he says, “you triggered the program.” The young man explains that he and the young crewwoman have fallen in love and plan to marry.

It is explained, either directly to the protagonist or obliquely to the reader, that: a) the crewwoman is not real; b) the crewwoman is the emergency program; c) the crewwoman will stay with the young man for the rest of his life; he will always believe in her reality, and his psyche will sidestep any awareness that threatens to undo this; he will be very happy, and in love, with a perfectly matched partner; but d) he will be earthbound for the rest of his life, never to go into space again. He will, going forward, live with a very complex and unshakeable delusion. And it requires the constant input of a certain amount of his brain’s energy to keep her going, so he will never be able to completely focus on anything else ever again.

The twist-on-the-twist is the sour, jaded, highly successful and spacefaring debriefing officer wondering: which of them will really have the better life?

That’s it. I think the story might bear the same name (a woman’s name) as that of the emergency program, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it is.

  • Hello and welcome to SFF! This is a really nice first question but can you take a look at this guide to see if there is anything else you can edit in. For example, when do you believe you read this? – TheLethalCarrot Apr 10 '18 at 13:06
  • Great question as it lead to a great read! Thanks :) – Cloud Apr 10 '18 at 16:58
  • Whats the Silver age? I've heard Golden Age before, but Silver Age is new to me. – Polygnome Apr 10 '18 at 17:21
  • Also reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode The Lonely where a prisoner in exile on a remote planet gets a similar perfect companion (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lonely_(The_Twilight_Zone)) – chiliNUT Apr 10 '18 at 23:11
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This story is "Nancy", by Cordwainer Smith. I'm looking at my Baen hardcopy of The Instrumentality of Mankind, in which it was reprinted, so I don't have a synopsis to cutpaste for you, but it matches almost exactly every single point in your question. The "emergency program" activates a virus called "sotka" to "create" Nancy; she's not a crewman, but his ideal girl, and the two of them - the real crewman and the imaginary ideal girl - make a life together aboard the ship until they return to Earth. At that point, Nancy is nowhere to be found (she's imaginary, after all), but the protagonist of the story is always sure she'll be around soon - at lunch, she'll be around come dinner time; she's always a short distance away, etc.

In activating the sotka, he effectively allocated most of his brainpower to Nancy, and as a result, did the bare minimum on the mission to survive and actually complete the mission requirements. Because he activated the sotka, and could be considered not-quite-sane, he's frozen at his present rank, but will not be forced out of the Service.

User14111 notes that the story is available at the Internet Archive as "The Nancy Routine", published in Satellite Science Fiction magazine in 1959, but that original version is truncated relative to the version in the Baen republication.

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    Available online at the internet archive – user14111 Apr 10 '18 at 13:59
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    @JeffZeitlin : Thank you so much!!!!! You're exactly right, it is "Nancy," and I must have been thinking of Cordwainer Smith after all! I don't know why I was so convinced it wasn't him. Unless, I suppose, it's because I haven't had my hardcopies of his work around in quite a while, and this story turned out to be impossible to look up online when one has forgotten the woman's, and story's, name! I am really so grateful! I know now where to find the story -- even if I'll have to wait to reread the unedited version until I have my own books in hand again. And I know it's real. ^__^ – S.R.M. Apr 11 '18 at 5:25
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Null Apr 11 '18 at 18:17

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