Absence…

          UPDATE: Returning in May

          My blog will not be following its normal schedule for the next couple of weeks. I will be taking a short break over the holiday season, and while I will be finishing Ablation before December ends, I will not be posting my normal Friday blogs. The normal schedule will resume on January 6th, 2017. In the meantime, have a Happy New Year and a good holiday season!

          Also, enjoy this random picture of my cat, George, because I couldn’t think of anything else to place at the top of this post.

          Happy Writing, All!

Ablation: Part 3

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          Talia’s back arched and she could feel the air crushed from her lungs but she could say nothing. Her feet dangled lifelessly and she resigned, helpless to resist her assault as those arms pressed in squeezing her tight. They were stronger than they had any right to be, imbued with the strength of a decade of love, passion, and commitment.

          At last, Milton set her down, Talia’s only shock in that he hadn’t twirled her helpless through the air like a soldier embracing his love on the return from a tour of duty. Her husband dabbed at his eyes, attempted to speak, then choked back the words.

          “I understand, Milton. I do.” Talia dabbed her thumb against his tears. They locked eyes, both choked, but Talia fighting back the emotion as best as possible. She couldn’t cry in front of Milton. If she did, she didn’t know that she’d be able to go through with the mission.

          “My turn!” Bernard tugged at Milton’s pants.

          “What’s that?”

          “My turn! Hume!”

          “Hume? Okay, Bernard.” Milton bent down, embraced their two-year-old son, and lifted him up, hugging him tight. Talia turned away.

          Hume was Bernard’s word for hug me. Watching Milton with Bernard she could feel the emotional wall she had spent the better part of the past year building begin to crack. She had to focus on something else – anything else.

          A few feet away she saw the same scene playing out with another family. Beyond that an elderly woman embraced Sam Keeling, Mímir Group’s physician, surgeon, and linguist. From the look of it, obviously they were mother and son exchanging their final goodbyes. By the time Dr. Keeling and the other colonists arrived, his mother would likely be dead or senile. By the time a message could reach her, chances of the former would be far greater.

          “Mommy, hume!”

          Talia turned back to her family as Milton held out Bernard. She lifted her son from her husband and hugged the boy close.

          “Tank you,” he said, giggling the whole time.

          “You’re welcome, sweetie.”

          Milton broke into a wracking, full-chested sob.

          “Oh no.” Bernard twisted in his mother’s arms. “Why’s daddy sad?”

          “We have to say bye-bye, sweetie. Saying bye-bye can be sad.”

          “Don’t say bye-bye.”

          Milton and Talia exchanged a pained glance. Talia had known from the beginning how difficult this day would be, yet she had been unable to turn down the opportunity. It was historic, but more it was critically important. Humankind had talked for centuries of the need for a backup in case of an extinction level event. Since then they had colonized Mars and the rest of the solar system, yet those colonies still held a deep dependence on Earth and on luck. Man could survive unaided in those colonies, but a mechanical malfunction could easily destroy their fragile self-sufficiency. Anima, as the Global Coalition had named the target planet, offered real hope: a world on which humankind could survive even in the failure of technology – a breathable, habitable, Earth analog. To colonize it, to create that backup, required sacrifice.

          “We have to,” Milton said, hugging Talia again and squeezing Bernard between them. He laughed.

          “Again! Again!”

          Milton pressed close once more sending Bernard into another spasm of laughter. He squirmed and kicked as he squealed, then stretched out towards his father, pressing off from Talia with his feet. She knelt down, doing her best not to drop him, and minimizing the fall if she failed.

          “No, no, Bernard. This is mommy time.”

          “No. Daddy.”

          “Bernard,” Milton started now kneeling himself, “we spoke about today, remember?”

          “Mommy go work.”

          “That’s right. Mommy has to go to work.” Milton pried off his glasses and rubbed at them with his shirt. The lenses were already pristine and the act held no hope of fooling Talia.

          Bernard arched and kicked and finally Talia set him down. He ran straight to his father.

          “Bernard –”

          Talia interrupted. “It’s okay. He doesn’t understand.”

          Bernard lept around his daddy’s neck, strangling him with the desperation of his embrace. Milton pried his hands loose just enough that he could breathe and talk with some modicum of ease.

          “I can’t say I understand, either.”

          “Milton –”

          “I know, we’re not going to focus on that today. That’s not the last conversation I want to have.”

          “It won’t be the last. I’ll have a month docked on Unity while the various crews arrive and ample call time. Even after we depart you’ll both hear from me. I’ll be recording messages to be delivered in flight. Every birthday, holiday, anniversary, even some at random. You’ll be hearing from me.”

          “I know,” Milton said, still cleaning his glasses. “It’s just…” His voice wavered.

          “You’ll be hearing from me?”

          “Right. One way. Any messages we send…”

          “Won’t be answered for over twenty-eight years from now.”

          “Exactly.”

          Talia felt the crack. She wanted to stay. She had signed the contracts. She had accepted the salary and the training, and she had committed, yet she didn’t want to leave. For the first time in her life, she felt torn – ripped between her family and her life’s ambition.

          Still kneeling on the floor, she hugged her husband. There were no words to ease this situation.

          “I love you, Milton.”

          “I love you, too.”

          “And I love you, Bernard.”

          “Luv you.”

          “Okay.” Talia stood, brushing off her knees and cracking her back. “I think it’s time.”

          Milton nodded, rising with her.

          “Mommy?”

          “Yes, Bernard?”

          “Go home now?”

          Oh hell, she thought. He still doesn’t understand. And of course he didn’t. Bernard wouldn’t even remember her. As an adult his only recollection of his mother would be pre-recorded messages delivered while she slept through a twenty-four year flight.

          “Not yet,” she said, her voice cracking, and on the edge of tears herself.

          “Go playground?”

          “Sure, Bernard. Daddy can take you to the playground.”

          She looked to her husband, both saying their final farewells through their longing in their eyes. So much could be said without a single word.

          Haruka tapped her on the shoulder. “It’s time to go.”


***


          She left the rally point, Haruka at her side.

          “What now?” he asked. “Set up outposts in the twilight and start seeding?”

          “Well,” Talia said, “our oxygen reserves will last longer now, and with some conditioning we could acclimate to the atmosphere. We’ll need respirators for any outdoor work initially. Darshan and I had discussed ecopoiesis.”

          “Darshan?”

          “Dr. Vaidyar of Ogma group.”

          “Oh. Yes. I’d heard the two of you were close.”

          Close? she thought. That description seemed too easily attributed. They had been acquaintances, but only two people had ever penetrated her defenses, and they were light years away.

          “Yes, we were. Anyway, it would take generations for it to work.” She eyed Haruka. “I don’t think we have that.”

          In the distance, behind Haruka, she caught sight of two figures approaching from Group Nabu, although she could not make out who specifically was approaching.

          “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”

          “I appreciate the positive-thinking, Haruka, really I do,” Talia said as she exited the Terminus and re-entered Zhōngxīn, “but for now, I need to focus on the present. Let’s put seeding aside. The whole atmosphere is critically short on oxygen and our stores, even with the recyclers, are not infinite. We’ll have to focus on electrolysis in the short term. Do you know much about the printers?”

          “No,” he said. “Not my specialty, but I have a feeling we can find someone.” Haruka gestured forward encouraging Talia to look about the Hub.

          All around her pockets of colonists milled about the abandoned stalls, gathering in small groups. Talia estimated thirty colonists in the hub, and likely there were a scattering of other milling about in other portions of Enhet Basen.

          “Okay, so we have some colonists remaining. We still have to consider genetic diversity. Without rigid controls, we’re a dead colony in a few generations – long before seeding will have a significant impact on the atmosphere.”

          “Perhaps, but we need to plan for a future, Dr. Ernst.”

          “I understand, Haruka. I do. But right now I have more pressing matters. We can discuss later. I promise.”

          With that, Talia parted ways with her group leader and headed for Yedinstvo. She had downloaded her messages from Milton and Bernard before descending in the Unity landers, but she still had twenty years worth of messages left to which to listen and reply.

          Behind her the goat bleated its strange human-like cry, and Talia felt herself building an odd affinity towards the animal. She shared his pain. Did he leave a kid behind? A caretaker? What was it for a goat to be boarded on a colony vessel, placed into cryo-sleep, and awoke on a strange, foreign planet? Talia wondered how it compared with her own disconcertment. Of course, she’d never know; no more than she would ever truly know her own son.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 4

Ablation: Part 2

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          “Sounds like a fool’s errand to me.” Milton threw a log on the fire. The flames licked around the curves of the latest addition, embracing and consuming it, as the smoke filled the fireplace and climbed up and out through the flue, the whole setup yet one more of the many anachronisms that followed in Milton’s wake.

          Talia turned away from her personal screen setting her eyes on Milton. “The mission of our time. You understand that right?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “The planet is in the habitable zone, an actual Goldilocks planet. Terrestrial. Potential oceans. This could be it – an Earth analog and its only one system away.”

          “So only 5 light years? Sign me up.”

          “4.37.”

          “I was in the ballpark. That counts for something, right?”

          “It would, if you weren’t so condescending about it. This is huge. How can you not see that?”

          “And the Global Coalition is only what, two years out from completing an interstellar colony ship? Good thing we found a prime target within her only remotely realistic range. Otherwise we might have wasted nearly a trillion dollars of the economy on that boondoggle.”

          Talia gritted her teeth, unwilling to have her excitement dampened by the cynicism of her husband. “Barnard’s Star is within range.”

          “Okay. Rephrase. Good thing, we found a prime target around the closest possible star.”

          “Technically, Proxima Centauri would be closer.”

          Milton stopped stoking the fire and set his face in his hands caught in an irrepressible silent laugh. “You just have to be right.”

          “I don’t have to be,” Talia said, smiling once more. “I just am.”

          “Of course you are.” Milton rose, crossed the gap between the fire and his wife, then leaned down and planted a kiss on her forehead. “You’re always right.”

          She shoved him away. “Don’t patronize me.”

          “Not my intention at all.” He took a seat beside her, stretching his hands towards the fire for warmth. “I didn’t mean to spoil the news. If the consensus is a habitable planet within our reach, that’s huge. That’s the New World huge.”

          Talia narrowed her eyes. “Why are you giving in so easily?”

          “I’m not. It’s a big day. Lots of good news. Distant planets. A great checkup. Everybody’s healthy. I just want to keep us on a positive note.”

          Talia eased up, cozying beside Milton. She set her head against his shoulder. “Fair enough.”

          “So, what do you say? Do we want to know the gender?”

          “Of course, I do. Come on, Milton. You know I hate surprises. You?”

          Milton pondered for a moment, Talia watching as he did. Always so lost in the past, he often overlooked modern convenience. As such Talia took his response as somewhat of a surprise.

          “Yes,” he decided. “I think I would like to know.”

          “Good,” she said, settling back against his shoulder. “It’s a boy.”

          Milton jerked back in surprise sending Talia tumbling from his shoulder. At the last minute, he reached out to catch her and they both spilled across the floor in front of the roaring fire.

          “Surprise,” she said.


***


          She laughed remembering Milton’s shock. How had he really thought she wouldn’t have found out the baby’s gender at the earliest possible moment? Why would she miss out on that?

          Talia scanned the empty room, the bed littered with the half unpacked contents of her suitcase. The black and white photograph of her family lay prominently on a heap of clothes. What am I thinking, she thought. I can’t miss this.

          And she couldn’t. Not really. That rocket was a once in a lifetime opportunity. If she missed it, she would have to live with that regret the rest of her life. She had to go. She had to go now.

          She dashed from the room empty-handed. There was no time to waste. She had wasted too much time already.

          Talia pivoted around the first corner, exiting Mímir Corridor, sliding across the metal floor paneling, and slamming into the far wall of Yedinstvo Kholl. A burst of pain bloomed in her shoulder, a firework flashing to life lighting up her nerves.

          “Son of a –”

          She righted herself, and sped off down the hall, stretching out her arm and testing the shoulder joint, but giving herself no break for a full examination. The clock had already started ticking.

          On cue the computer chimed out its warning. “Fifteen minutes until launch. All personnel should now be boarded. Repeat. Fifteen minutes until launch. All personnel should now be boarded.”

          Talia picked up pace, her footfalls echoing through the empty corridors. Up ahead she could see the opening from Yedinstvo onto Zhōngxīn, The Hub. Beyond that she’d find the entrance to the Terminus. Rally Point Mímir was four doors down that hall, and the launchpad one airlock beyond that.

          She bolted through the door into the vast expanse of The Hub, the former cargo bay of Unity, detached from the main ship in orbit. Now it stretched out, an empty square meant to be the thriving center of the colony, yet instead empty save for barren stalls and discarded cargo. Talia’s side ached, not used to the exertion, but she pressed on crossing the wide gulf of The Hub as swiftly as she could.

          As she had crossed half the expanse a scream rang out, piercing the echo chamber and reverberating from wall to wall in the cavernous common area. Talia tripped and rolled to a stop, slamming into a cast-off pallet. She grabbed at the new pain swelling in her back, as she hobbled to her feet and searched for the source of the scream.

          A goat bleated from a neighboring stall filled with grass and hay. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to bring livestock? The goat let out a third bleat, it’s eerily human-like wail causing Talia to shiver. There was no time to actually consider the answer. The goat was just one more incongruity in this grand theater of the absurd.

          Regaining her feet, Talia pushed on all the way to the doors onto the Terminus. They opened automatically upon her approach, revealing yet one more empty hall. One door down. Her side howled in agony and her breath came in heavy rasps. Two doors. Three doors. She couldn’t feel her legs and every step came as an act of absolute will.

          Four doors. She’d made it!


***


          “What do you mean you made it?” Milton shut his book and slid his feet from the ottoman by the fire. He was a smoker’s jacket short from a complete stereotype.

          “I’ve been selected for the Unity mission. I made it.”

          “Okay…” Milton ran his hands back through his hair. “So did you consider telling me that you had applied?”

          “No,” Talia said. “That would’ve been rather pointless. Unless I was selected it bore no impact upon us.”

          “But you were selected and that’s a huge impact, Talia.”

          Talia paced hurriedly, every step reverberating with the excitement and dread that battled within her. “Yes, but you know what this means to me. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Milton. Hell, it’s more than that. Most lifetimes don’t even see an opportunity like this one on the horizon.”

          “I get it, I do,” Milton said, rising to his feet. “But Bernard just now has acclimated to his nanny. You’ve barely been back at work and I’m on track for tenure. We’d what have to up and move to Florida for training?”

          “No. Final launch to Unity is in Florida. I was selected for training at the Kagoshima facility. Part of the international effort and all.”

          “Japan? We’d have to move to Japan? I don’t know anything about Japanese history.”

          “You don’t have to, Milton. The Global Coalition has agreed to cover all of our living expenses for duration of training. This is the biggest endeavor in human history, Milton. All of human history.”

          “Well, way to cut to the core.” Milton traced his hand across his shelves of books, collecting dust on his fingers as he did. “Fine. I get it. I’m in. We’ll go to Kagoshira –”

          “Kagoshima,” Talia interrupted.

          “There, too,” Milton continued. “We can do both. It will give Bernard culture. Plus I’ve always wondered what it would be to be a stay-at-home dad. Might as well give it a whirl.”

          Talia leaned in and kissed Milton. This time as they embraced, Talia felt all of the passion and all of the magic that she had imagined but found lacking in their first kiss, as if falling in love with Milton for the first time all over again. At last she broke away.

          “You’ll love, Japan. We all will.”

          “Of course. I’d follow you anywhere. I guess I just never saw anywhere including a distant star.”

          Talia stopped, her excitement crashing to a halt. This had been the moment that she had dreaded. Milton had never paid attention to the stars or to the minutia of the news around humankind’s ambitions there. He always missed the important details.

          “Milton,” she said, “you don’t understand. I made it. I was selected for Unity. Not us.”


***


          Talia leaned against the window ledge looking out from Rally Point Mímir. She had made it. From this vantage, she could watch the rocket on its ascent and witness the final departure of her fellow colonists back to Earth. Of course at the moment she could see very little – only the constant dark of the tidally locked planet. How the scientists in charge had missed that feature she could only guess, but in the end Milton had been right, much as it frustrated her. The planet selection had been hastened to justify the expenditures already spent on the ship. The data had not been properly vetted.

          As Unity had approached the Alpha Centauri system it had surely sent new data back to Earth, and somewhere in that twenty-four year voyage, specifically somewhere within the first sixteen years of that voyage, the ship had sent back data on the planet’s orbital and rotational synchronicity, because the administrators in the Global Coalition had been able to reprogram the Unity landers to descend into the twilight zone on the eastern terminator, a data package that could have taken up to 4.37 years to reach the ship. Talia guessed that the error was caught near the end of that limited range, because that program too had been rushed, and the code hadn’t sent the landers into the twilight zone at all. Instead, Unity’s landers had descended ten kilometers into the dark.

          Beyond the glass of the rally point’s window numerous lights flickered as the ascent vehicle’s engines flared to life. Talia could hear the roar and see the smoke billowing as the flames poured out from the thrusters. In that sudden burst of light she could make out a distant range of mountains, a lake, and even a small river – features that had yet to be explored by the colonists; explorations that they had abandoned.

          As the rocket arced across the sky and vanished among the stars, Talia relaxed against the ledge and took in her surroundings. Another colonist leaned against a far window, watching as she had been. For a moment she held out hope that it would be Darshan, but she had no such luck. She squinted for a clearer view and realized it was Haruka waiting at that far window, unwilling to leave a member of his team behind.

          She felt some regret at that, if her absence from boarding had in fact played a part in his decision to stay, but she also felt a sense of hope. If she was still here, and Haruka was still here, perhaps other colonists were watching at other rally points as well. Maybe, just maybe, Enhet Basen still had the start of a colony after all.

          Even so, they weren’t family. Not yet. She only had one family and she had left them behind. Would they ever know that her decision to stay had been made on their behalf? Had she boarded that ship, any hope of hearing from Milton or her son again would have died upon launch. That was not a mistake that she planned to make twice.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 3

December 2016 Status Update

By Chris Hutton

          And on to status update number 3. This time I’m going to attempt a little more brevity.


THEN:

          Last month I built up my content.

    I had:

  • Drafted two new blogs posts
  • Finished my science-fiction short story, Inflow
  • Started and finished my horror story, Last Call.
  • Started my horror story, In Memoriam
  • Began releasing samples of my upcoming comic, Arcas
    I had also expanded my efforts in social media:

  • Joining Hootsuite and Manageflitter for aspects of social media management


NOW:

          Since last month, I’ve completed a few new items:

          So overall, I finished one story that I intended to finish, expanded my toolset for social media management, wrote two new blog posts, and expanded my presence on Scriggler. However, I failed to resume work on my spec script, did not finalize my partnership contract, and did not finish a second story (though In Memoriam was longer than usual) or a third blog post. As for the other items on which I intended to work…


PROGRESS:

          …well let’s jump into that.

Metrics for my author’s platform:

Facebook

  • My official page had a moderate gain of 26 followers for an audience of 156
  • My Arcas page held steady with a gain of one like for a total audience of 18 persons

Twitter

  • Gained 956 followers for a total audience of 1989 followers

Instagram

  • Gained 18 followers for an audience of 147

Scriggler Profile

  • Gained 12 followers for a total of 17
  • My stories have received 5165 views on Scriggler, with three posts surpassing 1,000 views

My blog

  • Has been visited by 393 unique users
  • Has had 1,130 pageviews

          I hit my goals with my twitter and Scriggler, but fell short on all other platforms. I’m still counting this as a win.


My Writing:

  • Finished part one of an original science fiction short story, Ablation
  • Am moving forward with my partnership contract
  • Began pages on a 3rd graphic novel script
  • Am pushing forward with Arcas promotion, releasing samples via my blog:

          That being said, I generally met my goals for writing specific to my website, but have yet to resume work on some of my offline projects.


NEXT STEPS:

          So let’s keep on rolling…

          I’m going to continue my twitter focus and aim to grow the audience of my author’s platform, while pushing out new original content for my blog, and somehow finding time to continue work on my non-blog posted writing (so the same as last month’s goals).

          In total, I aim to:

  • Increase my twitter audience by at least 50%, but will push to double it
  • Increase my Facebook and Instagram audiences by 25% each
  • Increase my Scriggler audience by 50%
  • Find ways to increase audience engagement on my blog
  • Finish writing Ablation
  • Draft at least two new short stories from scratch
  • Write at least 2 new blog posts on writing
  • Resume work on my next graphic novel script
  • Continue my work on my 3rd graphic novel
  • Resume work on my first horror novel
  • Continue compiling my horror short stories into a potential collection

          Despite not meeting all of my goals last month, I continue to feel ambitious


          Happy Writing, All!

Arcas – Sample 5

© Art by JC Thomas from ARCAS

Below you’ll find pages 9-12 of the upcoming graphic novel Arcas. These pages correspond to roughly the first half of the script pages from Arcas – Sample 2. Enjoy.

Arcas Page 09 (Art by J.C. Thomas)
Arcas Page 09, illustrated by JC Thomas
Arcas Page 010, illustrated by JC Thomas
Arcas Page 10, illustrated by JC Thomas
Arcas Page 11, illustrated by JC Thomas
Arcas Page 11, illustrated by JC Thomas
Arcas Page 12, illustrated by JC Thomas
Arcas Page 12, illustrated by JC Thomas


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Ablation: Part 1

© Aleksandr Korchagin | Dreamstime.com – Shooting star in the sky

By Chris Hutton

          They had made a mistake – a monumental, astronomical mistake.

          Dr. Talia Ernst stretched out across the window seat of her hab unit, collecting her sole pillow beneath her head for some modicum of comfort, and stared out into the night. The stars stared back, both familiar and foreign. Her whole life the stippling beauty of the night sky had provided her great comfort, but now she found no solace in its infinite expanse. That feeling of relief had been supplanted by a jumble of disparate emotions, the two most prominent of which were excitement and grief; and both battled for dominance. For only the second time in her life Talia found herself at a loss.

          Above her a meteor streaked across the firmament, a “shooting star” disintegrating from the heat of atmospheric entry. There had been a time in the history of humankind when the term meteor had been defined in specific relation to its entry into, and subsequent ablation within, Earth’s atmosphere, and as Talia watched in a mix of childlike wonderment and detached observation, she pondered the ego of that etymology. The definition existed as a remnant of both a geocentric ideology and a pre-cosmic explanation of the universe, finding its root in the Greek metéōron. In that earliest form the word included a host of atmospheric phenomena from wind and rain to rainbows and, of course, meteors. Then came an understanding of the cosmos and the word meteor’s expulsion from that family tree, but the geo-centrism of the definition remained. And then at last humankind reached beyond the confines of Earth, spreading across the solar system and even out into the icy hell of the Oort Cloud, and wherever humans spread as a species, if an atmosphere existed, then meteors followed and with them came the magic of the shooting star.

          Talia closed her eyes and made a wish.


***


          “Do you see it?” she asked.

          “Umm… are you going to judge me if I say no?”

          “Of course not,” she said, casting a definitively judgey glance at her date, Milton Barnes. Handsome, if delicate, he wore an old-fashioned tweed jacket and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, both of which gave testimony to his status as a relic – especially the glasses. Tweed jackets had come in and out of fashion over the centuries, but after corrective surgery became the norm glasses had gone the way of the top hat and the parasol. The eccentricity of his dress made Talia want to roll her eyes, but it also intrigued her. Milton existed a man out of time, a historian immersed within the culture of his study. There was something endearing in his devotion.

          “Just look there at Pisces, just a little down and to the left from the bottom star of the western fish’s head,” Talia continued, pointing up into the sky. “You can’t miss it.”

          “Okay, so now you’re just making stuff up. I mean fish heads?”

          Disgusted, Talia cut her eyes at Milton. What an ignorant fool, she thought. How can he not know the constellations? The conquering of the stars was the driving mission of the current generation, the pinnacle of academia, and yet he knew nothing of them.

          “One question. Do you ever lift your head from the page and just look at the universe above? Have you even ever seen the night sky?”

          “In all fairness,” he started, “that’s two questions. And first off, no. Kind of need my nose in the books when that’s where the history is. Plus we have people like you for the stars.”

          “People like me?”

          “Yes. Dreamers, explorers, adventurers: the people who drive the expansion of the frontier. People like you.”

          Talia blushed. “That’s the first thing you’ve said right all night.”

          “Didn’t know I was being tested. I would’ve read up.”

          “That’s okay. We’ll call tonight a study session instead. Come here.” Talia motioned Milton over.

          “Yes, ma’am.”

          He walked closer and, as Talia pointed up at the sky, Milton bent low to her eye level and pressed in close to get the best angle of view. Talia could feel the heat radiating off of him as his face pressed within an inch of hers. She lowered her voice, taking on an intimate tone, and reached one arm around his shoulders guiding him as she pointed out the stars with the other.

          “You see,” she said, “that there, those six bright stars forming a circle, that’s the circlet. And just off from the lowest star of the circlet, you should see it, brighter than the others. Do you see it?”

          “Yes,” he said, his breath warm against her skin. A tingling pimpled across her flesh and Talia felt an unfamiliar flutter of attraction. She stumbled, at a loss for words.

          “Yes,” Milton said again, this time inflecting a question.

          “Yes,” Talia said, finding her voice at last. “Well that’s, that’s Venus. With the naked eye it looks no more than a bright star, the Evening Star, but now we have stations in its orbit, scientists up close studying the atmosphere and the history of its runaway greenhouse effect in which its oceans boiled away. In fact, some say it was Venus and that very same greenhouse effect that inspired James Hansen to some of our earliest computer climate models.”

          “You don’t say.” Milton turned towards Talia his face almost pressing against hers.

          “I do. This part’s history, you know. Kind of your area.” Their faces were intimately close, and Talia could feel the imminence of their first kiss, and yet Milton moved no closer.

          “Uh huh,” he said. “Not my era, though.”

          “Oh.” He’s dragging it out, she thought, and decided that was unacceptable. She grabbed the back of his head and pulled him close into a deep kiss. The act was passionate and new and, much as she would have liked to remember it as magical, it was also awkward at best.

          They unlocked from each other.

          “Wow,” Milton said and fell back pulling her down to the grass.

          “Yeah, wow.” Talia lied falling down beside him.

          “I never knew the stars could be so spell-binding, so amorous.”

          “It pays to study.” Talia laid her head back against Milton’s chest and stared up into the sky. Despite the awkwardness of the kiss, she still felt elated, her head swimming in the ecstasy of the moment, yet also tangled in a web of meanings. Stars had been used to describe passions before, in the time of Shakespeare with the star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet. Contextually the term had come to mean ill-fated. She laid there beside Milton staring up at the cosmos and pondered this meaning both new and old, hoping that it offered no true portent beyond her propensity to drown out her own joys through overthinking.


***


          The alarm sounded over the intercom, and the emergency lights flickered to life.

          “One hour until launch,” came the computerized voice. “All personnel should now be at their rally points. Repeat. One hour until launch. All personnel should be at their rally points.”

          Talia sighed, then, with great effort, heaved herself from the window seat and stepped over to her bed. Two small cases set open on the mattress, each half-packed with an assortment of clothes and personal effects. She reached in slipping out a printed photo, a curiosity, the fascination with which had been imparted upon her by Milton – one of his few anachronisms that she had adopted. The photo was black & white, neither having learned to develop color film, and showed Milton, Talia, and a small child posing on the side of the road, a behemoth structure towering into what she remembered as the cerulean blue of the sky, but which showed here as a dim gray. The structure was the largest launch pad ever built, its service tower piercing upwards in a twisted skein of trusses and bridgeways: Launch Pad 73C. Despite the grandiosity of its purpose the government had avoided any flight of fancy in its naming. In the photo, Talia, aged 35 years, smiled from ear to ear showing more teeth than in any picture for which she had ever before posed. The glow of pride enveloped her.

          She turned towards a nearby mirror. Her face still displayed the same youthful appearance, yet the glow had faded. She hadn’t aged more than a year, and yet she had aged decades.

          A knock sounded from the entryway to her hab unit, alerting her to the presence of Dr. Darshan Vaidyar, one of many resident geologists and also one of the maybe one hundred colonists that Talia had met pre-launch. That had been during initial team training. In the end, however, Dr. Vaidyar had been assigned to Group Ogma, while Talia had been placed with Group Mímir. Their paths had not crossed again until disembarking from Unity’s landers. Since then they had struck up a casual acquaintanceship, each finding in the other a comfort in their mutual ability to focus on the details of their studies instead of dwelling on the mistake that had sent them to an in inhospitable planet.

          “Yes, Darshan?”

          “Haruka was looking for you at rally point Mímir.”

          “And he sent you?”

          “Not exactly. I swung by on my way to Ogma. Thought I’d wish you well on the return. When Haruka reported you unaccounted for, I volunteered myself. We need to hurry. Boarding is underway.”

          “Thank you for your concern, Darshan.” Still clutching the photo, Talia turned and cast a quick look through the window and into the great dark and the mysteries that it hid. What discoveries awaited beyond and soon to be abandoned?

          “Of course.” Darshan cast furtive glances down the hall, anxious to be on his way.

          Talia turned back to the elderly geologist. “Enhet Basen was our home for so short a time. What has it been? Four weeks? Five? How quickly we decided to pack our bags and move on.”

          “The atmosphere is not tenable, Talia. What would you have us do, create a second Mars? To what end?”

          “The same?”

          “Not good enough. Most of us came here with a promise of a second Earth. Habitable. Breathable. That’s not what we found.”

          “The Great Mistake. I wonder sometimes if when the message of our failure finally reaches Earth, will anyone from that administration still be in a place of power to be held accountable for the error? Will they even be alive?”

          “Some. We can discuss this on our way. Really, Talia, we must hurry.” Darshan nodded down the hall. “Come.”

          “To where?” She glanced about her disheveled room, so much still to pack and yet so little of it of any actual importance.

          “Home,” Darshan said.


***


          “No, really?”

          “Yes.” Milton swept his tweed clad arms in a wide arc showcasing the small cottage before them. “All that you see, our grand new adventure.”

          “You bought it?”

          “No. I murdered the tenants and buried them out back. They were hermits. No one will ever suspect a thing. I’ve forged the deeds and the transfer is complete. We’ll live on the lam. A modern day Bonnie & Clyde.”

          “That would mean we were nomadic, Milton. And murderers. Who get caught.”

          “Ah, the best laid plans. Very well, then. Forget the lam. We’ll live here. No one will suspect a thing. But we’ll know our misdeeds.”

          “You’re an idiot.”

          “Yes, very true. Now come here.” Not waiting for Talia to comply Milton rushed to her side and swept her off her feet, hefting her like a sack of potatoes over his shoulders.

          “What are you doing?” Talia beat on his back with her fists.

          “It was once tradition for the groom to carry his bride over the threshold of their new home.”

          “Not like this.”

          “No, I’m pretty sure this is the way. I am a historian, remember. We know things.”

          “Put me down.”

          “No can do. Tradition is very clear. If you step over that threshold you will be beset upon by demons. History does not lie.”

          “Perhaps,” she laughed, “if you hadn’t slaughtered the occupants there wouldn’t be any demons to descend upon me.”

          “Ah yes. Well, live and learn my dear.”

          With that he charged through the door with great flourish, pivoted from the foyer into the living room and flung his wife down upon a mattress discarded in the middle of the floor among a towering labyrinth of moving boxes. Mid fling he shouted, “Veni, vidi, Vi — shit!”

          Milton collapsed to the mattress clutching at his back.

          “Oh hell, I think I threw a disc.”

          “Serves you right.” Talia sat up taking in their new home. A part of her felt anger that Milton had taken it upon himself to make such a momentous decision. Another part of her loved him for that same eccentricity. It wasn’t until she saw the skylight with a perfect view of the stars that she realized which part of her held dominance.

          “You better be faking that back injury,” she said.

          “No, it is really most excruciating. I will likely never recover,” he moaned. “You ought call an ambulance. Of course, if you do that, our number may be up. Any prolonged investigation is bound to discover the former resi–”

          She placed a finger to his lips. “Shh.”

          “As you wish.”

          At that she fell against him and they embraced. They had never been happier. She had never been happier…


***


          …not until that day, outside of Launch Pad 73 C. Yet now, looking at the photo in her hand, she realized that she had been the only one happy that day. Milton smiled beside her, as did her infant son, Bernard, yet neither of those smiles carried up into the eyes. They had feigned that joy for her benefit.

          “Home, Darshan?” she asked. “Do you really think we have a home to which to return?”

          “Not the one we left, perhaps, but a home nonetheless, yes.”

          “Then you’re more the fool than my Milton ever was.”

          Darshan regarded her with a puzzled expression.

          “Tell Haruka that Mímir can board without me.”

          “You can’t be serious.” He stepped forward as if entering that room could somehow sway Talia. Of course, even his meager knowledge of her told him that Talia would not be swayed.

          “Completely,” she said and began to unpack her bags.

          “You’re certain? Nothing I say can convince you?”

          Talia embraced him in a light farewell hug.

          “Yes. Now get moving. Otherwise you’ll be forced to join me for an extended stay.”

          Darshan nodded, unable to mouth goodbye, then ran down the hall. Talia listened as his footfalls retreated, perhaps the last sounds of another person that she would ever hear within the halls of Enhet Basen. There would be no second launch, no rescue vessel, and no return to Earth. This decision marked the claiming of her new citizenship, a citizen of the Alpha Centauri system in a nation of one.




On to Part 2

In Memoriam: Part 7

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Kyle sank his head into his hands breathing in the gravity of that which was to come. He looked back at the path that had brought him here, to this incredulous point, and he pondered how he had ever let himself come so far.

          For Charlotte.

          Yes, for Charlotte. Soon there would be order again, and his daughter would be returned. He lifted his head from his hands and met Anita’s gaze. He trembled contemplating his fate and sought an answer in her eyes.

          She nodded, a silent affirmation that Death would lay its hands upon him. In that moment, Kyle accepted his fate, though after a longing glance to the discarded remnants of his cigarettes, he wished he had one last smoke – one last calming of the nerves before his time came to an end.

          “Will it be quick?” he asked.

          “No.”

          So be it. What else should he have expected? He waited in that silence, so much more terrible than the baying of the dogs and the howling of the wind that had preceded it. He waited for the inevitable, and he pondered what would happen to his daughter.

          How would she return? Would she suffer or would she just be made whole? Would she see that which came to claim him and would it haunt her? Or would he die before she saw life once more? He so wanted to see her before he died.

          “When she’s here,” he started, pausing and thinking better of his words. “When she’s alive once more, I need you to be sure she gets to her mother. You haven’t lost the address?”

          “No, I have it.” She paused then, holding something back. Did she want to tell him goodbye and how she wished there was another way, or was she holding back her anger for what he had made her do. Kyle would never know. “She’ll see her mother, again,” Anita continued.

          “Good.” Kyle glanced away not wanting to see the pity in Anita’s eyes – a pity that he did not deserve – or worse, the hate that he did deserve. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper – one of those refrigerator magnet to-do lists – and handed it over to Anita.

          “You’ve done your part. Your answer is here.”

          Anita glanced at the paper and smiled, though her eyes bore only sadness. Kyle had done wrong forcing her hand, and he knew that no matter what she said.


***

          After the doctors informed him of the cancer riddling his lungs, Kyle’s hesitance had gradually vanished. Before, when Anita had warned him of the line that they could not cross, he had known that it was because she could not bear his death on her hands. Once that sentence had been handed down, however, he could no longer accept her position. If death had chosen him, he’d rather have at it already and let his daughter know life. To perish without making that barter when he could have set the order right, that seemed a waste of life on a cosmic scale.

          Anita had not agreed, so he had taken Jonesy. With her husband long in the grave, her corgi was the dearest thing left to her and the only bargaining chip that Kyle could leverage. He regretted that it had come to that, to taking her dog. He was not a man of violence or coercion, but Anita had been unwilling to see sense. Even with his death only a matter of time as the cancer spread, she still insisted that his daughter’s resurrection was untenable.

          Though he regretted the way he had forced her hand, or having had to force it at all, Kyle did not feel a deep sympathy for Anita herself – his daughter came first, after all, and his life seemed already forfeit. Instead a deep loss clung to him, grieving for the destruction of the bond that they had formed. When he had come to her and forced her hand, he had seen the life break behind those glassy eyes. At that moment all compassion she had held for Kyle had ended.


***

          Of course there is no compassion left in the world, is there?

          Kyle ripped himself from his reverie. Anita looked at him, the crumpled note in her hand.

          “Your apartment? The one to which I have a spare key in case of emergency?”

          “Yeah, that’s the place. I didn’t really have an option on many places to keep a dog. I didn’t want him to get hurt or stolen.”

          “You’re a piece of work.”

          “Yeah.”

          The silence returned between them and Kyle looked across the cemetery to the gate as the iron pickets began to rattle and the doors strained against their chain.

          “Time?” he asked.

          Anita nodded.

          Kyle watched the dark roll in from that gate, fallen leaves riding it and tumbling before it like the foam on a wave crashing to shore. It spread up the hill past tombstone after tombstone, rattling among the roots of the trees and the low bushes, and toppling flowers left for loved ones long gone. The dark wave swept over a nearby vase, sending it crashing down and tearing the pink petals from the still fresh daisies that it had held. Those petals swirled and roiled in the tumultuous tide of encroaching dark, until they blew past caught on a new eddie and whisked away like the smoke of his cigarettes.

          What did you say when you knew death had come? What were you to do then? Fuck all, he thought. Ain’t shit left to do about nothing. He laughed struck by the absurdity of the profanity and the poor grammar that would constitute his last thoughts. Then the shadow hand reached from the dark and plunged itself into his chest.

          He writhed as the pain tore through him, an ambush of agony. It clawed at his flesh and burned at his insides. He tried to scream but another shadow hand choked him, shoving itself down his throat. The thing tasted of damp earth and chalk and he gagged upon its grit. His breath stolen from him and the pain searing through him, Kyle prayed for an end to come.

          Then another hand, and another, and another, rose from the shadow tide and gripped and clawed him and pulled at him, clutching to him at random. As the shock overloaded his system his mind blotted out the pain leaving only the imbalance of it all – the randomness of the pressure. Those hands groped without order, and suddenly Kyle found himself shifting and squirming and tearing at his own self trying to balance the pain and touch, to provide some symmetry to the utter anarchy of the thing that tore at him.

          Yet no matter how much he clawed and scratched, no matter how he rolled and punched and ripped at himself, he could provide no balance and find no peace. The sensation erupted into madness and he could bear no more. He could feel himself dying and he welcomed it.

          That’s when he felt that other sensation, something familiar. Tiny fingers plucked at the hair of one wrist, their pull soft and tender, a slow and soothing repetition. He did not try to balance it. He did not try to even out the sensation or to resist it. Kyle welcomed it even more than he had death a moment prior.

          A soft exhalation of air sounded through the vacuous night, followed by a steadying rhythm as the breathing slowed and found its pattern. A damp sweat broke out on his shoulder as a warmth pressed down against it. Charlotte curled into her father’s arms.

          No, he thought. She shouldn’t be here for this. They can’t have her, not her, too!

          He opened his eyes against the pain, and struggled to his knees, clutching Charlotte tightly to his chest as he tried to rise. He had to get his daughter to Anita.

          Only as he made to move, he felt the shadow hands retreat. They did not accept him. He had been found wanting. One after the other they withdrew from him plummeting back into the shadow tide. He didn’t need to see it to know it. As they vacated a sense of peace had returned to him and his soul mended with every departure.

          Yet, a greater terror flooded over him. A life for a life. There was no other way to balance the scales. His daughter slept peacefully in his arms tugging upon the hairs of his wrist, but if she lived, and if he lived, then there was only one other possibility.

          “Please,” he said. “Take me. Not her.”

          Anita sagged into herself, resting against a tombstone. “You’ll give Jonesy a good home?” she asked. “I left instructions by my usual seat at group.”

          She had known. She had known from the moment he asked this of her, and yet she had never told him. She knew that death would reject him and take her instead, that his life so tenuous at best would not balance the scales. He tried to say something, anything, but no words came. Of course, as always, Anita understood.

          “There was always a chance of this with you so close to death’s door. Of course you’ll have to stop that habit now. You’ll have to fight.”

          Kyle nodded, watching helplessly as the shadows hands lunged from the tide and bore into Anita. She shrieked as the onslaught bombarded her and collapsed to her hands and knees. Again and again those shadow hands dug into her, the pallor fleeing from her face as her remaining years vanished in mere moments.

          “She’s waking,” she said, struggling to get out the words. Then her strength gave, her fight snuffed out. She writhed and screamed and kicked against the inescapable grasp of Death’s shadow.

          Kyle looked down then and noticed for the first time his daughter’s face, smooth and soft and still so full of innocence. Beads of sweat dripped from her hair, soaked from the nighttime sweats that had always stolen over her in her sleep. She squirmed, seeking comfort against his chest, and as she did her eyes fluttered open for the briefest of moments – those beautiful green eyes, so full of joy and wonder. He could not let the horror of this night be the first thing her new life witnessed.

          Kyle cast Anita one last desperate glance. She sunk against the earth, a desiccated husk, a nightmare version of her former self. Her lips dried and cracked and her skin shriveled and hardened like the leathery remnants that had clung to his daughter’s bones. All the while she screamed and struggled weighted down by that shadow-thing.

          There was nothing that Kyle could do for her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, then rose to his feet and ran from the cemetery. Her screams echoed behind him as he shimmied through the hole in the fence, all the while clutching his daughter close and shielding her, praying that she would have no memory of this night.

          He would not be so lucky. He’d have to return to his promise now. He’d have to fight to live, to be there for Charlotte, and yet he knew that part of him had died in that cemetery with Anita. For every joy that Charlotte experienced, he’d know the sacrifice that he’d made to make that possible. He had killed Anita. He had exchanged her life for his daughter’s life and the part of that exchange that would haunt him, however, was not that he had made that sacrifice, but in knowing that in hindsight, had he known it would have been Anita asked to die in the barter, he would have made the same decision. Even there beside the shadow of Death, asking it to take him instead of her, Kyle had known it. He hadn’t wanted it to take him. No matter what mask he’d worn, he’d been relieved when it claimed Anita. He’d live watching his daughter grow up, fighting against the cancer, and hoping that Charlotte never came to know the darkness of his own soul, the darkness that had granted her new life.




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