Category Archives: Flash/Short Fiction

Short stories, flash fiction, and other short works created specifically for distribution on chrishuttonthewriter.com

Last Call: Complete

© Ruslan1117 | Dreamstime.com – Two shots of tequila with lime and salt on a wooden table bar on the background of bright lights of the bar

By Christopher Opyr




Author’s Note:

I will now be using Tuesdays, when I don’t have a new blog entry, to post completed versions of my stories for easier reading. We begin this week with the complete version of Last Call.



          Thick strips of bacon crisped and bubbled, popping in an ocean of grease, their smoky aroma mixing with that of the scrambled eggs and glazing the kitchen in the scents of breakfast. Teagan breathed deep, the strength of the smell forcing itself past her clogged sinuses, and sliding inside. It felt warm and comforting, then suddenly it didn’t.

          Her stomach lurched, the taste of the previous night’s pad thai and whiskey surging up, along with what tasted like tequila, though Teagan could not remember having any. She burp-vomited in her mouth, wobbled, and lost her balance as her nausea took center stage. Attempting to right herself she flailed out at last catching onto the corner of the stove.

          “Son of a whore!”

          She yanked her hand back, her index finger throbbing from the sudden heat of the gaslit burner. The room spun, a whirling kaleidoscope of sensory overload. The sizzle of the bacon. Elder meowing incessantly, planted beside the cabinet with his treats. The window fan sucking in thin wisps of cigarette smoke from the ashtray. A metal band blaring over the surround sound, mingling with the raised voices of the television.

          Teagan winced fighting back the remainder of her pad thai and struggling with the throbbing migraine playing the drums in her brainpan. How many shots did I have last night, she wondered for not the first time that morning.

          After they had left Toi she and the rest of the gang had pinged a Lyft and caught a ride to the Whiskey a Go Go. The house had been packed and they had pushed their way past the reserved tables to the back bar under the balcony, ordering the first round of shots. They began with decent standards, ordering up an 18-year Glenlivet Single Malt, followed by a round of Johnny Walker Blue. After that they had hit the floor, and explored further options between sets, gradually regressing until they were down to the house whiskey. From there the night got fuzzy.

          Usually after a night of hard drinking Milly checked in with Teagan in the morning. They had been friends since childhood and had moved out to Los Angeles together eight years prior. Now they each had their own lives, but they were still close as sisters. When things got blackout crazy, they watched out for each other.

          Teagan checked her phone. No missed calls. It was only 11 am, but Milly always rose at the ass crack of dawn. She should have called or at least texted by now. Something didn’t feel right. Teagan considered calling and reached to dial.

          Before she could, an alarm rang out! Teagan refocused, pocketing her phone. The bacon grease bubbled black, the strips shriveled and burnt. She dialed off the heat and scooted the pan onto a stack of dirty plates covering the back burner. As she scraped at the charred mess, she shouted into the living room over the cacophony of the peeling alarm, music, and TV.

          “You like your bacon charred, right?”

          Teagan received no response. She turned, but couldn’t get a good look into the living room. Her world swiveled some as she shifted for a better vantage. Sinuses, my splitting head, and a case of the dizzies, she thought. This is going to be a fun hangover.

          “Henry?” she called again. The least he could do was respond. Instead she received still more nothing beyond the hideous racket drilling into her frontal lobe – not even a single acknowledgment that she had spoken.

          “Hey, a little help here, damn it!” Her head pounded as she screamed, but Henry was starting to piss her off. When he still didn’t answer, Teagan finally dropped the spatula into the pan and charged into the living room, dizziness and spinning rooms be damned.

          “Hey, cock hat, you could at least get the smoke detector?”

          Henry shot her a pained glance from the couch, where he lay with a beer in one hand and his tablet in the other. He looked about as grisly as she felt. He tilted his headphones back to hear.

          “What was that?”

          “You dick!” She braced herself against the wall, fighting the pain of the headache, and screaming through it. Bad move, bad move, bad move, she thought, but continued anyway. “You can’t possibly be paying attention to all these screens.”

          Teagan clicked off the television.

          “Hey,” Henry shouted, then stopped and jammed his palm into his eye socket. Good, at least if she had to suffer so did he. “Not cool,” he continued more softly.

          “Get off your lazy ass and do something about the smoke detector.”

          “Why don’t you do it?”

          “Because I’m busy cooking your breakfast and trying not to die from this hangover. Where the hell did we end up last night?”

          Henry casually glanced about the apartment, his eyes squinting together with concentration, as if truly considering Teagan’s question. His scan complete, he shrugged. “Here, I guess.”

          “No shit. Before that.”

          “I don’t know.” He winced again, covering his ears, as the detector continued its warning shriek.

          “What about Milly or Aaron? Have you heard from either?”

          “Milly or Aaron?”

          “That’s what I said.”

          Henry shifted, blinking and wincing at the light as he tried to wake from his deadened state. As he did, he shifted, and his hair flopped into his face. He flicked it aside, and flashed a questioning, half-asleep look at Teagan.

          “Why would I have heard from them?”

          “Never mind.” Teagan turned to leave. “Just do something about that smoke detector.”

          Finally, Henry sat up, downing the last of his PBR as he did. “Wait… what? Did you burn the bacon?” The PBR done he slouched back into the couch.

          “Oh, I’m so done.”

          Teagan left and grabbed the broom, which was leaning against the kitchen table from the last time she had used it. Properly equipped she stormed down the hall and inspected her adversary. It continued its shrill ring, its red light flashing mockingly at her.

          She tapped at it with the broom handle, trying to find a stop button. No luck. She shouted back down the hall. She knew it would hurt, but it couldn’t be as bad as this stupid ringing alarm.

          “Where’s the off on this thing?”

          Oh hell, it was worse. Much worse. Don’t scream. Gotta stop doing that. She held her head. It hurt so bad she could almost cry. What’s more, Henry had gone back to not answering her, most likely having finished that slouch taking it to its natural conclusion and shifting back down for a nap. Faintly, she could hear voices from the TV, again, which had been turned back on. She shook her head.

          Another bark sounded from the smoke detector and another ripple of pain shot through Teagan’s skull. She tried to focus, but between the headache and the rest of the hangover, the whole world had gone muddled, soft and linty, like a worn blanket had been laid down over it. Well, soft other than the relentless din turning the apartment into a sonic hellscape. Unable to focus, Teagan decided to go with her gut.

          Whack!

          She smacked the smoke detector with the broom stick, and smiled as she heard the plastic crack. She took another go, slamming the handle once more into the interminable offender. Caught in the moment, propelled by an irresistible drive to kill that ringing before it did her in, she swung again and again, a child with a piñata, only her candy was silence.

          “What the hell, Teagan!” At last Henry had come stumbling drunkenly and bleary-eyed down the hall.

          “I couldn’t reach it.”

          The smoke detector dangled lifelessly from the ceiling as Teagan, smiling victoriously, supported herself with the broom.

          “You’re buying me a new one,” Henry said, then covered his mouth and ran to the bathroom.

          “Whatevs.”

          The alarm let off one last defiant squawk, and Teagan bashed it in retaliation, snapping it from the wire tendons that held it to the ceiling like a poorly severed limb. It clattered against the wood floor and settled at last to a silent stop.

          Teagan breathed a sigh of relief. As she did, Elder rubbed against her leg.

          “What do you want?”

          He meowed back at her, his eyes set angrily.

          “Fine, I’ll get your damn treats.” She tapped on the half-open bathroom door before heading to the kitchen. “Henry,” she said softly (she had learned her lesson on screaming). “Your cat’s a jackass.”

          “I know,” he muttered, then waved for her to walk away as he kneeled by the toilet.


***


          Elder fed, Teagan plopped into a chair in the kitchen, gulped down a glass of water, and shoveled her breakfast down, burnt bacon and all. The breakfast helped settle her roiling stomach, but did little to dissipate her headache or her worries about Milly and the night before. It nagged her, something begging for her attention, but simultaneously forgotten. She had to get rid of this hangover and focus. It had been years since she felt this terrible after a night of drinking. Well… weeks, anyway.

          Try as she might, she could only recall flashes after the last shot at the Whiskey a Go Go. After the final band had finished its set she, Henry, Milly, Aaron, Erika, and, and… oh hell, who else had been there?

          Focus.

          Whoever it was, the lot of them had hit the street. She remembered another Lyft. She could picture the signature pink mustache on the dash lit up as it had pulled to the curb, but she couldn’t picture the driver or getting in. Then another flash. She could see her, Erika, and some dude in the backseat. Those last two were doing some heavy petting and she could remember pressing herself tight against the passenger side trying to get away from the makeout session. Then a heavyset bouncer. A jukebox. Dancing. Shots. Nothing clear, just snippets.

          Teagan fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her cell, tapping over to Milly. She waited, her phone held just far enough away that she could hear it without it wailing in her ear. It rang again and again, then clicked over to voicemail. She hung up and tapped over to Aaron. She wanted to talk to Milly, and where one went the other always followed. She also figured it was best to talk to one of them before calling Erika. She didn’t know who that guy was that Erika had been groping, but she felt fairly positive it wasn’t her boyfriend.

          Aaron’s line rang unanswered as well. Teagan tapped out a quick text asking where they’d gone after the Whiskey, then slumped deep into her chair.

          “Our friends are useless,” she yelled, slipping right back into the same mistake again. She sat her head in her hands, massaging her temples. This time she cried.

          Her phone rang, Henry’s picture flashing onto the screen. In the photo he had one arm draped over a plastic statue of Scooby-Doo, while he leaned forward, mid full-rocker headbang, hair whipping every which way.

          She tapped it to speaker.

          “Yep,” Henry said, his voice soft and weak. “Completely useless. Can you grab me some water?”

          “Seriously?”

          “It hurts to yell.”

          She couldn’t say he was wrong.

          “Sure. Anything else?”

          A long pause, then Henry chimed in his voice half question, half serious.

          “A beer?”

          “You’re going to die of liver failure, you know that?”

          “Yeah, but I’ll take you with me.”

          “Well, that’s sweet.”

          “So can I get that beer?”

          Teagan clicked off the phone and reluctantly hauled herself up and over to the sink. She pushed a few discarded dishes aside, turned on the tap, and filled up a glass. Done, she drank that one, then filled it back up, grabbed a PBR from the refrigerator, and made her way down the hall past the remains of the smoke detector.

          The things I do for love.

          Teagan sniffed, trying to breathe through her clogged sinuses. It didn’t go so well, snot rolling back down into her throat. She gagged, the feeling of bile on the rise returning, and paused to resist the also returned urge to vomit.

          Finally, reaching the bathroom, she toed the door open and held out both drinks to Henry. He was hugging the toilet. The water was clear so she figured he hadn’t vomited yet, though the porcelain was covered in muck. We should probably clean that, she thought absently, then thrust the idea to the bottom of her discarded mental to-do list.

          Henry reached for the beer. That done Teagan set the water glass on the sink and perched on the edge of the tub.

          “Your allergies acting up? Mine are wreaking havoc right now.”

          “Eh…” Henry grunted.

          “Is that a yes?”

          “They ain’t great. Probably the weather change. It always does this crap.”

          Every time they shifted out of a hot spell in LA the allergens killed the both of them. Sometimes Teagan thought it was enough to drive her back to the east coast, but those were always idle daydreams. She liked the music scene here. Though New York could be fun, too. Come to think of it though, it was hot as balls out.

          Teagan squinted into her phone and opened up the weather app.

          “It’s supposed to be 94 today.”

          “I don’t know. I’m not a weatherman.” Henry shrank his head back into his neck, holding something in. “Oh God. Can I get some privacy?”

          “Yeah, no one wants to see that. Yell if you need anything.”

          She shut the door on her way out, Henry mumbling behind her.

          “I’ll call. Thanks.”

          Dumbass.

          She sniffed again. She needed some meds – something to kill the pain, and something to fix her allergies. A glass of water wouldn’t hurt either.

          She stumbled back into the cramped kitchen, almost tripping over Elder. He scattered, then assured she wasn’t going to step on him, returned and meowed pleadingly.

          “I already fed you.”

          He meowed again, unphased.

          “Damn it, Elder.” She hadn’t meant to raise her voice, but when she did the world flickered and it felt as if a searing hot poker had just stabbed through her eye.

          “Holy shit, mother, cock, ass!” She fell to her knees grabbing at her head, tears streaming and let out every obscenity she could think of, which was a long litany. She had learned from her grandfather and he’d been a swearing pro.

          She continued, muttering through a second and third verse and rocking back and forth on her knees until the pain subsided. When she opened her eyes, Elder had bristled up, tail straight and back arched. She reached out to calm him.

          “I’m sorry, buddy,” she started. “I didn’t mean to –”

          He hissed and swiped at her face. She heard the skin pop first, then felt the flesh tear and flare as he caught her upside the cheek.

          She shot back banging against the washer. Her head hit first, as she had fallen as she went back, and as it jolted into the wash the jenga set of dishes clattered to the floor. Elder dashed off down the hall.

          Holy hell, this is a shitty morning, she thought, then fumbled to her feet, avoiding the broken plates and glasses. Still rocking to a stop from the fall, she spotted the bottle of aspirin. At least she could do something about that headache. She tapped out two pills, paused, then tapped out three more.

          Carefully tiptoeing around the disaster that was now the kitchen, Teagan made her way to the sink and filled up another glass of water. She gulped it down, and the pills with it, then tried to sneak a look at the scratches on her cheek off the glass of the window. She couldn’t see herself. The daylight streaming in whited out everything else. It hurt her eyes, so she made her way back into the darkness of the living room.

          The TV and music were still blaring. That had to be fixed. Teagan shut both off and melted down into the couch. Half dead and her cheek now stinging in addition to her headache, she poked her hand over the end of the couch, casting about the floor until she gripped a discarded shirt. Satisfied, she pulled it up and pressed it to her bloody cheek.

          The sounds diminished, her headache eased off ever so slightly and she shut her eyes. At first a comforting blackness met her behind her closed lids, then pops of light, and finally more snippets from the previous night.

          Henry had his arm flung over her neck and was trying to cop a feel. She brushed him aside. Stupid drunk Henry was a pain.

          “But…” he muttered pathetically and motioned to their friends across the table. Erika and the mystery guest were buried in each other’s faces with way too much PDA for even the most desperate of couples, let alone two perfect strangers.

          Time lurched forward.

          People laughing. People leaving.

          Just the four of them now, Teagan and Henry, and Erika and what’s his face. More laughter. Then Milly and Aaron slam into the booth beside them, Aaron missing his seat entirely and taking a few beers down with him.

          A bartender shouting. Telling them they were cut off.

          That stranger, finally unlocked from Erika, trying to calm the man down. That pale, weird stranger. Dapper clothes and effeminate features, but something so charming. At last the bartender relented.

          “Fine. It’s last call anyway.”

          The stranger nodded to the others.

          “Take a seat. I got this round.” His voice rang with a lyrical quality and a tinge of reverb. His face skipped forward, then back, like the flicker of a film reel, or another jump of time. They really needed to stop drinking.

          Teagan opened her eyes. Last call. The words stuck with her. She tried to picture that mystery man, to get a firm grasp on his face, but it would never lock in. Just something evocative and pale, and fueled by nightmares. It didn’t make sense, and her thoughts seemed to worm around him, sloshing about in either direction unable to hold. Somewhere deep down her mind connected him to an abstraction, an idea more than a physical thing, but that had to be the alcohol talking. His face flashed one more time, a stretched and distorted nightmare pulled from the fuzzy edges of her vision.

          Last call, she thought again. She needed to reach Milly, and she needed to reach her right now.

          She checked her phone. Nothing back from Milly or Aaron. She rang again, but still they didn’t answer. At last she tapped over to Erika. As the call rang through, she snorted again, swallowing back more snot. Her head was so stuffed.

          She pulled the shirt back from her cheek revealing three small lines of blood. Not bad. She’d had worse scratches from cats before, though never like this from Elder. It wasn’t like him. The way he had puffed up —

          Erika’s voice broke through Teagan’s thoughts. “Hello?”

          “Hey, Erika. You sound like hell.”

          “Sure. The same could be said…You know.”

          “Yeah. We might should lay off for a while.”

          “Good by me.”

          “Have you heard from Milly?”

          “Not since, like, last night.”

          Damn it. One line of questioning closed. Next up…

          Teagan strained to push on. The effort of speaking, and more of listening, did her and her obvious migraine no favors. “And your mystery bae?”

          “Oh God.” Erika’s voice dripped with regret. “Don’t even go there. Like, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was so mad at Mike and then this guy, he just like…he was so there… and can we just forget he ever existed?”

          “I almost got you covered there. I can’t remember jack. All flashes after the Whiskey, then him grabbing the last round.”

          “Oh, hot hell. The tequila.”

          Teagan shut her eyes, ready to drift off, but another flash lit up. The stranger coming back with a tray of shots – tequila shots. She had had tequila. Lime chasers by each. Something else. Something pulsing. His hand so pale.

          “You get Goth boy’s number?”

          “Jerk ditched me after those last shots. All hot and, like, heavy all night, like he could just play me. I don’t even let Mike do half of… I just couldn’t… he was so… I can’t even put words to it, you know?”

          “Yeah, I do.” Every time Teagan tried to picture him his face still shifted. That thought of an abstraction returned. All she could capture were those snapshots, that smooth, icy skin. A fair image, but always blurred or jerking in and out of focus. And a sense of something primal. He had oozed with an irresistible charm. And his eyes…

          “Oh, hell.” Her head shrieked, another stab of pain slicing back through the cornea, right through the soft tissue and back to gray matter. “I can’t.”

          “Yeah,” Erika said. “We so outdid ourselves last night. It’s never been, like, this bad.” As she finished she sniffed, then sneezed.

          Alarm bells went off.

          “You don’t have allergies, Erika. Right?”

          “No. I’m just coming down with something I guess. There’s just so much pressure. It’s like it’s all swelling up behind my eyes and my nose. Just this constant pressure, you know?”

          Teagan panicked. Her heart went racing and she could feel the sweat already beading on her forehead. What exactly had happened last night? The thought held a new level of urgency.

          “Teague, are you there?” Erika’s voice drew Teagan back to the phone. “You’re cutting out.”

          Caller ID showed Henry’s headbanging profile beeping in.

          “Hold that. My lazy ass boyfriend’s calling from the bathroom.”

          “He’s what?”

          Teagan tapped over to the other call. “More water, love?”

          No response, just a sort of a throaty murmur.

          “Henry?”

          A loud pop sounded and then something sloshing in water.

          Oh hell. Here we go.

          “Henry, did you just throw up? I’ll get you some water. I’ll be right there.”

          With effort, Teagan rose, grabbed what was left of her water glass and made her way down the hall to the bathroom. She tapped back to Erika briefly.

          “Hey, Erika. I’ll have to call you back. Henry’s pretty bad off.”

          “Join the club.”

          “You good?”

          “Yeah, yeah. Call me back.”

          Teagan pocketed her phone once more, and approached the shut door.

          “Love, are you okay?”

          She toed it open, again, then everything stopped. Time. Her heart. Her breathing. She died. Everything died, and her hands loosed, the glass falling to the tile. Then everything snapped back into focus. Her breath came out in a huff, and her heart pounded and skipped like a broken record.

          Henry was dead. He lay, his head hanging into the toilet, only you couldn’t rightly call it a head anymore. The skull, his skull had cracked right open, his scalp and face scattered, and hanging, and torn, and floating like chunks of viscera in the bloody water, now not so clear. And there were things floating there, things, bits of brain, and bone, and ….

          “FUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” She screamed, dragging the word out, and living it, and feeling it in a way she never had before, but completely lost in it – in the hurt of it, the pain and the frustration, and every emotion roiling together and bubbling like the grease in the pan.

          “What the holy hell!”

          And the tears flowed now, they streamed an epic river, dripped and splattered mixing with the snot now oozing from her nose, and all mingling in a slime-salt cocktail that she sucked down as every emotion tore for attention.

          She couldn’t believe he was dead, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see what had happened. As if…

          Elder hissed and yowled from the bedroom, giving her something, anything other than this sick shitshow on which to focus. Teagan fumbled back and peered into the room, holding onto the doorframe lest her legs give out. There stood Elder puffed up as before, hissing and panicked on the top of the headboard.

          “Hey, buddy…” She attempted a calming voice, but she lost it mid-way through. Her body spasmed with a wracking sob.

          Henry’s dead. He’s so fucking dead.

          They had been together for four years. They were supposed to be together. Always together. Henry and Teagan, just like Milly and Aaron. The names were one, they didn’t exist without the other. She was strong, and she had never needed him – it wasn’t that urgent I can’t breathe without you love – but the concept, the idea… they belonged together. Like milk and cereal. Rock and roll. Fucking chutes and ladders. None of it made sense.

          Try as she did, Teagan couldn’t hold her thoughts together. They sped off in every direction, bounced out and snapped back. And then Elder yowled again, and she zeroed back in on the cat.

          His ears were pressed back and his head pointed down, following something on the floor – something between the bed and the nightstand. As Teagan tried to catch a glimpse of what had cornered Elder, she noticed a wet trail on the bedroom carpet. Blood, and water, and muck, tracked in, leading all the way back — Teagan turned — to the bathroom.

          “Oh no. No, no, no.”

          Teagan backed out of the room, as Elder hissed and yowled some more, angry and desperate for help.

          I can’t.

          She continued to back up, bracing against the wall as her head began to throb. Oh, it hurt so bad. Her hand slipped into open air as she reached the hallway, and she fell with a resounding thwack against the wood floor, but she didn’t notice the pain of it. No all of the pain surged from her head, from her sinuses and her stupid, drumming, wailing brainpan.

          She slid back then, spider-walking down the hall, unable to turn her gaze from the direction of that room and moreover from that thing, whatever it was, that had dragged itself across the floor and currently had Elder in a panic. Focused back as she was, she didn’t notice how far down the hall she had fled until her right hand brushed against the broken plastic of the smoke detector.

          Oh, hadn’t that been a better time, smacking her silence piñata? Those were the days, right? She and Henry had been happy then. Him ignoring her and running off to vomit, and her reveling in her victory over the evil beeping detector of doom. She missed those days.

          Elder yowled once more and Teagan stopped. Elder belonged to Henry. Henry’s cat. Teagan and Henry’s cat. He was a part of them, and whatever that thing was, it had killed Henry. It had splattered his head open and it had gone after Elder, and she’d be damned if she was going to lose that bastard of a cat, too.

          Her hand gripped on the broken plastic and one of those light bulb moments went off like a bomb. Oh it was no grand plan, not even a fraction of one, but she knew what she had to do. Teagan reached out and found the broom still leaning against the wall. She gripped it and she stood, and she headed right back to that bedroom.

          As she passed the bathroom she averted her eyes. She couldn’t stand to see Henry that way again. Her migraine pounded, but she plowed on, wielding that broomstick in front of her like a knight’s sword. Her Excaliber. Hell, her Gibson Les Paul and nothing would stop her from crashing it down on that obscenity.

          She turned the corner into the bedroom. Elder had backed to the far edge of the headboard, but on the other end, it waited. IT. That thing.

          Teagan vomited, blood and pad thai, and way too much liquor finally flooding out of her. She wiped her mouth, vomited again, then forced herself upright. She would see IT, look at IT and know IT – that thing that had killed her Henry.

          IT slithered up the bedpost, a wet mass of tumorous lopsided nightmares, with protuberances jutting from every which spot wriggling and gripping, as if a knot of a thousand tiny legs tied and glued together and bound by some viscous muck. Jaws snapped out at random, from that mass, between legs and on legs and as legs, teeth clacking together, in some macabre unfathomable design that had no right to exist.

          Yet IT did, and IT hauled itself up that bedpost, an eyeless, shapeless, abomination trying to kill their cat. She tottered forward, weakly. Her foot pressed down onto the muck IT had dragged into their room. Her bare foot. On that trail. That IT trail. That Henry trail. That mix of blood and gore and whatever IT was.

          That’s when Teagan snapped. She could feel Henry’s blood on her skin, soaking into her foot, and that burning ooze that IT had left behind, mixed with the toilet water, and something spongy and organic, something she could not stop to think about. She snapped and she charged. The broomstick smashed down repeatedly, hitting into that soft tissue and IT fell to the floor between the bed and the nightstand.

          Still Teagan hammered home whacking at that thing. ITs teeth clattered and those mouths let forth a screeching, vile, hurt yowl, and IT dragged itself under the bed.

          “No.”

          Teagan dropped down and reached under and yanked IT out. Those teeth, those many-mouthed teeth – or many-teethed mouths, or was it both – bit down, as ITs stubby legs-things wriggled against her and she flung IT across the room, as her skin bubbled and blistered around each bite. IT screeched again as IT hit the wall with a wet smack.

          Then, sensing some innate fight or flight necessity, IT hurled itself at Teagan. She barely had time to think. She just reacted. She pulled back and cleaved that thing in two, the broom handle meeting with IT and pinning the monstrosity to the wall as her momentum continued to carry through and that tumor burst and split.

          The cleaved halves fell to the floor, and even inside IT existed a further tangle of teeth and mouths and wriggling, now dying protuberances. No logic could explain IT, as if IT was inside and out, wholly this mass looping in on itself in some Escher-like insanity.

          Teagan vomited again, then forced herself to look one last time upon the dead thing. One last protuberance danced then went still.

          Teagan shut her eyes, and a final vision of the previous night burst into being like pyrotechnics bursting above a stage.

          The stranger held out the tray of tequila shots.

          “Go on,” he said in that lilting, melodic oddly reverbing voice, and they all did. All except for him. Five shot glasses and they each grabbed one: Aaron and Milly, Erika, and Henry and Teagan. Two each to the pairs. Erika eyed it oddly. They all did. Something wriggled in the bottom of the shot, something pale, and knotted. A tiny fleck twisting in the alcohol. Whatever it was, it was abhorrent, and Teagan had gagged, reaching to set the glass back.

          “It’s only a tequila worm,” the stranger said.

          You don’t drink the worm, Teagan thought. And isn’t that for mezcal, not tequila? That’s not something one actually does, right? Yet even as she questioned him, she found herself irresistibly raising the glass to her lips. They all did. She couldn’t understand how or why this man was making them do this, but she knew that he was.

          She looked at him, and his face did its usual lurch, a flash of pale skin, a gleam of an eye, his smooth features. Never all at once. Just a face. Faces? Mouths? An idea? An abstraction… His face solidified – like a Picasso, or some GWAR nightmare, everything at impossible angles, duplicates where they shouldn’t be and absences where something should be. Then he blurred once more and his face was once again that of the beautiful, mysterious stranger.

          “Down the hatch,” he said, and they all downed their shots.

          Teagan opened her eyes. She wanted to scream again. To yell more obscenities, but it didn’t matter now. She sniffed, and winced, and reached out to pet Elder. He shrank back from her. She would not be allowed that kindness.

          She thought about who she should call or what she should say, but she couldn’t imagine the words. Nothing she might say would explain it, nor would it provide her or anyone else any closure. It would just be torture.

          She tiptoed to the bathroom, stepping over Henry’s body, and looked in the mirror. Her face had reddened. She could see trace amounts of swelling around her eyes and her nose. Her cheek had puffed up around the claw marks from Elder. The cuts jiggled a little and another stabbing pain bore through her skull.

          Teagan didn’t have long now. She could feel her throat constricting as another mass grew inside her sinuses, some strange protuberance beginning to encroach on her airway. Milly and Aaron were already gone. That was clear now. Only she and Erika remained. She wanted to call and warn her, but in the end it was better if Erika didn’t know. Maybe she’d lie down and take a nap. Maybe she wouldn’t feel it happening.

          IT slithered now, those protuberances encompassing her throat. She couldn’t breathe, and she couldn’t speak even if she had anything to say. This must have been what it felt like for Henry, when he made that last call. He had tried to tell her, but IT didn’t let him.

          Teagan closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see anymore. She felt the pressure building in her head as that mass expanded and knew she had only seconds. She pictured Henry, smiling and headbanging, hanging off that cartoon statue. She pictured him lying on the couch, listening to his tablet, the cacophony of so many screens blaring around him. She pictured Elder meowing at her feet. She wanted all of them, so she focused further back. The three of them lying in bed, smiling and watching cartoons. Elder had curled up between them. Henry was scritching his head, and Elder purred. A small sliver of sunshine warmed the blanket and Teagan nuzzled up to her family, happy and safe in their embrace. Henry and Teagan. And even that ass, Elder.

          She smiled and the pressure burst.

Hunger – Part 2

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          ‘…always hungry.’ John could still hear his son’s words and he could see that look, those hopeful eyes, like Nicholas thought his father could do something, anything, to make him better. That he thought that somehow, his dad could take the pain and the hunger away.

          He pitied his son that blind faith in one’s father. There was a time that he had mourned for the loss of faith in his own father, but after Nicholas was born, he understood that no man could live up to the adoration placed upon them by their children. Now, when his own son needed him most, John knew that there was little he could do to help. Discipline wouldn’t cut it.

          He swept into the kitchen, popped open a beer, and chugged it back. John didn’t cope well with failure. When you had a job to complete, success was the only option. Yet no matter how he looked at the problem, he couldn’t see a way to help his son – not any method that he would have previously considered. The boy was scared. He was eating non-stop, talking to imaginary friends, and at the same time, Nicholas was just as mortified by his own decline as his parents were worried about it.

          John cast himself back into his armchair, and took another swallow of beer. A commercial for a local car dealership interrupted the preseason match as it went into the second quarter. John shut his eyes and tried to escape from the stress that tore at him. He might have to listen to Emily; he might have to let her take the boy to Brynn Marr. He hated to admit that – he’d have to think of some excuse, some way of making sure it came across as his idea, not an acquiescence to her. Giving ground would be a mistake. He wouldn’t let her have that.

          “John?”

          He sighed. “Yes, Em?”

          “How’d it go?”

          Like shit, he thought. The boy’s screwed. Something’s loose upstairs and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Of course the truth hurt. Emily didn’t need that.

          “It went great, hon,” he said. “We’ll get this worked out. I promise.” No need for any more detail until he could figure out how to get his son seen without Emily gloating. Plus he’d have to find some way to do it quietly. If Nicholas saw a shrink, no one needed to know. It needed to stay a private concern – family only.

          “So he’s going to what, diet? Do extra chores? Exercise?”

          “I told you he’s going to be fine. I’ve got it covered.”

          John swigged from his beer again. Em needed to leave him alone already.

          “Yeah, but how?”

          “Christ, Em! Just let me be.”

          “Don’t raise your voice. He’ll hear.”

          “Em, enough. Can you stop pestering for five seconds? I just want to watch the game.”

          “Okay.” Emily raised her hands in surrender, then turned and fled. John could hear her footfalls, slow and heavy as she retreated down the hall. Finally their bedroom door slammed behind her and the house returned to silence – all save for the gentle buzz of the TV.

          John smirked. I’m going to pay for that tonight. He glanced about spotting an afghan flung over the back of the couch. He leaned over, grabbed it and a small pillow and yanked them both back into his chair. He and the armchair had a long night ahead of themselves. Mentally exhausted, he closed his eyes and drifted off.


***


          He woke to the national anthem winding down as the American flag waved in a gentle breeze on the television screen. John blinked trying to gather his bearings. The song ended and the screen cut to static, the crinkle of the white noise echoing in the silence of the night. John winced at the sound and flicked off the set.

          Hell, he thought. I missed the entire game. He grabbed the warm beer from the end table beside him and swigged down the dregs of the bottle. That done, he reclined the chair and rolled back onto his pillow, squirming as he fought to get comfortable.

          As he settled in, ready to return to sleep, he marveled at the silence that ruled the house. A quiet coupled with the dark, blanketing every room. Outside he could hear crickets, and the mating call of a lone frog. The refrigerator hummed in the kitchen, and a grandfather clock counted off the seconds with a slow, rhythmic ticking.

          John smiled, taking comfort in the quiet. The soft night sounds of a slumbering house had always put John at ease. He had spent many similar nights in his youth slumbering on the couch at his grandparents, that same grandfather clock ticking from their foyer. The familiarity soothed him.

          Then came the noise that he couldn’t place. It bubbled up, barely audible, a mix of hard and soft, fast and slow. It held an asymmetric quality, lacking any discernible rhythm – something organic and chaotic.

          John cast all thought of sleep aside and popped his ears trying to hone in on the sound. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not place it.

          “Em, is that you?” he asked. No answer came.

          Slowly he rose, noticing a faint light emanating from the kitchen. “Em?” he repeated. His question met with only more silence – more silence and that sickening, unplaceable sound scraping in the undercurrent.

          John peered around the doorway to the kitchen. The open refrigerator door hung ajar, its light cast out across the kitchen, shining on empty tupperware containers and discarded wrappers.

          John swore under his breath, then bent and collected the containers, depositing them in the sink. He glanced back at the wrappers, but decided that they could wait. Kicking the refrigerator door shut, he turned to leave, only before he could he noticed the open pantry. One glance inside revealed empty boxes and emptier shelves, along with a trash can overflowing with other cast aside food containers.

          That boy is going to eat our bank account down to zero, he thought. He needed to have a word with Emily. He’d be taking Nicholas to Brynn Marr in the morning. She could gloat all she wanted, they couldn’t take much more of this.

          John crept down the hall to the master bedroom, and gently eased open the door. Emily would still be mad about earlier, and he braced for that, knowing an argument was coming. Now, however, it was time to face that storm.

          “Hey, Em?”

          Again, nothing. The room was empty, the bedspread crumpled and tossed at an angle away from Emily’s side of bed. She was up and about after all.

          The master bathroom door hung half open, the room dark as the rest of the house. She wasn’t in the bathroom and she wasn’t in bed.

          “Emily, where are you?” This time he asked louder. If he woke Nicholas, so be it. He needed to talk to the boy again, anyway. Nick had gone too far with his midnight snack, and on top of that, John needed to have a talk with him about what the morning would bring – about Brynn Marr.

          “Emily, can you answer me?”

          John jumped as a loud ring pierced the silence, the grandfather clock chiming the hour. It stopped at three chimes. No answer followed; yet something else sounded in the wake of the clock. That same unplaceable sound: wet and yet almost a crunch. It sounded fast, then slowed, then sped up again, no rhythm to its tempo, no symmetry to form a pattern. Straining, John listened closer, then caught it: the unmistakeable rending of meat.

          After everything that they had discussed and the boy was eating in bed. John could feel his anger rising. He steeled himself. He had caved earlier, and now Nicholas was worse than ever. This time he had to be firm. He had to lay down the law.

          He opened the door and stepped into Nicholas’s room, then stopped, gagging as his breath caught in his throat.

          At the far end of the room, amid a nest of wrappers and half-devoured plates, lay Emily. She stared back at John, her neck twisted at impossible angle, her head hanging limp upside down, her jaw broken, and rivulets of blood leaking from her mouth and down into her hair. The rest of her body had contorted into a ball, bent and broken.

          There could be no doubt she was dead, and yet her corpse shifted in a small jerking pattern as that sound continued beneath. John could place it now, the sound of something eating, its teeth clacking against bone and tearing at meat, pausing as it consumed its kill, then resuming with another bite – a fresh rending.

          “Nick?” He didn’t want to even think it, but he couldn’t help himself. He pictured his son beneath that mass, eating and eating, sating the insatiable hunger that had plagued for months now. “Nicholas!”

          “Dad.”

          The door shut behind John revealing his son, clutching his knees and rocking, his back to the wall. John felt a moment of relief, then flinched as the low to which he had let himself fall sunk in. How could he even have thought for a second that his son was capable of an act so grotesque. That thought would plague John for the rest of his life, and yet, no time remained for such indulgences now.

          He grabbed a baseball bat from the floor and approached the broken remains of his wife. “You’re dead, mother fucker!”

          John heard himself scream those first words as he approached his wife’s body, then the pulsing anger drowned out all sound and all rational thought. He could feel the string of obscenities unleash, the spit and rage exploding forth, but time and space, sight and sound, all became meaningless, nothing more than background to the main event.

          He leapt behind Emily, ready for a man or even some wild animal, his bat swinging. It struck, the metal reverberating as it hit across something hard with a crack that John more sensed than heard, and simultaneously a soft give. That’s when the world exploded in a shrill creak-scream, an otherworldly mix of raspy violin chords tinged with a guttural bubble.

          John fell to his knees, his hands covering his ears, and his bat rolling away into the blood nest of discarded wrapper and meat scraps. Emily scraps?

          A pale form, almost translucent, jerked back, seizing as puss erupted from a crack along what John could only conceive of as a shell. It writhed, large, lobster-like claws clacking as they ripped away from Emily, and mandibles snapping, yet all too quick for John to catch a concrete glimpse before it burrowed beneath its macabre nest.

          “What the hell?” John skittered backwards across the floor, in an unsettlingly appropriate crab-walk.

          “Ade, dad,” Nicholas said from behind him. “Dad, Ade.”

          John glanced back. His son still set back to the wall by the door, but he had let go of his knees, his body slumping, legs now splayed out and his arms slack at his sides, as if a balloon deflating. And there was something more to that thought… John could still see the baby-like fat in his face, and multiple chins still consumed Nicholas’s neck, and yet, he seemed smaller somehow.

          “I don’t understand.”

          “She gave him to me.”

          “She who?” John rose, his gaze returning to the remains of his wife, even as he spoke to his son behind him. That thing was still in there somewhere.

          “I don’t know.” Nicholas said. “She was there when I found Matt, hiding in the mirrors. I only saw her for a moment.”

          “Nick, you’re not making sense.”

          Emily’s body shifted, her head tilting and the bulk of her mass shifting to one side. Somewhere below her that thing was moving. More, John had the distinct impression that it was burrowing.

          “She gave him to me. She reached through the window and she touched me and told me that everything would be okay.”

          His son wasn’t making any sense, but that was fine. He was alive. Right now life had just gone FUBAR. Sense could come later.

          “Nick,” John said, breaking through the crazy talk, “get the door. We have to go.”

          John kept his eyes on Emily’s body as it shifted, nothing left but a heap of pulverized bone and meat. As long as he kept his eyes on it, as long as he could see that thing coming, he and his son had a chance. Behind him, he heard Nicholas lift himself to his feet.

          “Good, son. Good. Now get the door.”

          “She gave him to me. ‘A friend for a friend,’ she said.”

          “Just get the door.” Emily’s body collapsed inward, then lay still. The wrappers and plates at the edge of the nest began to stir. “Now, Nicholas!”

          “I still don’t know if she meant a friend to replace Matt, or if she meant I was her friend and she was gifting me with a new friend. She didn’t stick around to explain, you know?”

          “Nicholas, get the damn door!”

          John turned, that pulsing anger resuming, not at his son, but at the whole situation. They had to leave immediately. As he shifted his gaze, his kneecap shattered and his world burst into a red flare of pain.

          John fell landing on the shattered knee and his world ruptured once more. He screamed and toppled to the floor, clutching at the broken mess of bone and flesh. As the red subsided, he caught sight of his son lifting a heavy meat tenderizer, then bringing it down with all his weight.

          John shifted, trying to roll away from blow. With the sudden movement Nicholas missed his other knee but the tenderizer still hammered home into John’s upper tibia. He screamed again as the bone fractured, then bit down on his lip. He could taste the blood trickling into his mouth and down his throat, yet he was thankful for it, as that new pain provided a momentary distraction from the absolute agony of his shattered legs.

          “What are you doing?” he said, struggling to get the words out.

          Nicholas stood above him, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, and dropped the tenderizer to the floor.

          “I guess it doesn’t matter what she meant by it, really. She reached out from that glass, from within that window, and she touched me here, and Ade was born.” Nicholas patted at his stomach as he spoke, and with a growing sense of horror John realized what was so different about his son. His shirt hung loose, as if he had lost nearly twenty pounds in the span of a few hours.

          “Right here,” Nicholas repeated, lifting up his shirt to reveal folds of loose skin. In the center of those folds, John could just make out a large open wound. No blood poured from it, but a sticky mass coated its edges, like a glue sealing it shut.

          John scrambled back towards the door, dragging his legs behind him. He reached up to the handle, his fingers glancing against the knob, then slipping.

          “Don’t leave dad. It’s just me and you, now. Just me, you, and Ade.” Nicholas bent over, grabbing the tenderizer off the floor.

          “Why?” John asked, one hand reaching once more for the door, while the other grasped for anything that he could use to defend himself.

          “I don’t have a choice, dad.” Nicholas stopped, glancing back to his mother’s corpse, as if searching for his “friend” amidst its nest. “He depends on me.”

          “Then let him die.” John’s fingers caught on the handle once more. He twisted it and yanked the door open, falling back into the hallway.

          “You think it’s that easy? You think I haven’t thought of that?” Nicholas paused, cocking his head as if listening. As he did his brows furrowed, and he glanced back, his own rage bubbling to the surface.

          “Shut up,” he yelled. “I already let you have her.” He turned back to his father. “You hear this shit, dad? You hear what I have to put up with? It’s just never enough.”

          “It’s well beyond enough, son,” John dragged himself into the hall, his legs dangling behind him.

          “No, no, no, no!” Nicholas gripped at his head, ripping at his hair. “Fine!”

          He reached the door and slammed it as hard as he could, catching his dad’s mangled legs.

          John banged his fists against the floor, his eyes winced shut, and gritted his teeth against the wave of pain. How is this happening, he thought. This wasn’t reality; this wasn’t the world as he understood it. More, this wasn’t his son, not his sweet Nicholas, the soft momma’s boy.

          The door eased open and Nicholas, winded, slid down the door jamb, sitting himself upon his dad’s legs. “Don’t you get it, dad? I need him, too.”

          Nicholas struggled for his breath. As at last he eased back to a normal rhythm, he pulled at the fold of skin under his night shirt. “See this,” he said, waving the glued over wound at his father. At this distance John could see it more clearly – almost a surgical incision.

          “It doesn’t hold. If he doesn’t return, it will open, and I’ll bleed out.” He stopped, listening once again.

          “Nicholas,” John started.

          “Shhh!” Nicholas held one finger before his lips, then cocked his head back towards his room. Finally, he sighed.

          “Yes, I’m telling him. What the hell do you think I’m doing?

          “Well, hell with you. You know how long I’ve wanted to tell someone?” Nicholas turned back to his dad, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in a ‘can you believe this guy’ gesture.

          “I’ve so wanted to tell you, you know that right.”

          John looked at his son, a mix of pity and horror in his eyes. “You killed Matt. You and this thing, you killed the Hoffmans.”

          “Damn, dad. Have you even been listening? The girl did that. I just walked in at the wrong time and she gave me a friend. I had to feed him. He needed me to grow, but now he’s here.”

          From beyond Nicholas John heard a rustle, then that raspy, violin clicking as something large skittered over the wood, a squelching gurgle dragging behind it.

          “Huh.” Nicholas shrugged. “Ade wants to meet you. What do you say, dad?”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “What?”

          John lunged forward, grabbed his son, and slammed him back into the doorjamb! He screamed as his head cracked into the wood, and behind him that shrill, crackly gurgle split the night once more.

          John fell to his elbows and army-crawled down the hall, his son moaning behind him. Behind that, the skittering resumed.

          John had made it as far as the living room entryway when he felt a sudden yank on his leg, and yet another burst of fireworks blocked out his vision.

          “Dad,” Nicholas more breathed than said as he hunched over him. “Dad, I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone with him.” Nicholas motioned beside him, and John shifted his gaze.

          A mass of shell and flesh coiled around Nicholas’s foot, like a cat rubbing against its owner’s leg. The thing had to be two feet long, its front resembling a cross between a tick and a lobster, all mandibles, antennae, and claws. Two lidless black eyes stared out,and behind its head, a small thorax with six segmented legs, quivered as it caressed against his son. Finally, the thing ended in a long multi-segmented abdomen, thin and translucent and riddled with veins dragging out in an amorphous mass that bloated at its end to the size of a basketball. The whole thing rippled and gurgled as it moved, then its eyes shifted to John, it’s mandibles opening and a mouth more mammal-like than insect, yawned open revealing rows upon circular rows of needle-like teeth and pulsing gums.

          John recoiled, then reached up and grabbed for his son. Whatever happened, he would not be a part of this abomination. Nor would his son, not even if meant killing him. Only Nicholas pulled back too quickly, dodging from his father’s grasp.

          That parasitic thing tensed around his leg. “But I don’t want to,” Nicholas said. John knew he wasn’t talking to him. “Fine.” He looked to his father. “Now, I’m sorry.”

          Nicholas brought the tenderizer down on John’s head and the world went black.


***


          As he came to, his head thumping to an excruciating internal drum solo, the first thing John noticed was the dust catching in the sunlight from the living room window. He found himself lying in his arm chair, his entire body aching. His son sat on the couch, showered and in a fresh set of clothes, his legs kicked up on the coffee table as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.

          “Nick?”

          “Morning, dad,” he said, stretching back into the couch, his shirt pulled taut over his massive belly, the fat once again bubbling out from a shirt now at least two sizes too small.

          “You think I could pick up some new clothes, today? These don’t fit anymore.”

          “Sure,” John said, shaking his head, trying to clear it. The drum solo intensified. Everything seemed so normal, the previous night nothing more than a vivid nightmare now vanished in a bad hangover. “Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” he continued, still staring at his son’s exposed belly.

          Suddenly it quivered, and shifted, something big pressing out against the skin. Nicholas leaned forward, grabbing a handful of shredded meat and bone from a plate sitting on the couch beside him. He shoveled the bloody concoction into his mouth.

          “Thanks, dad.” He offered the plate to his father. “Hungry?”

          John recoiled, trying not to think about what his son was eating. More he recoiled from his own reaction. His stomach rumbled and he realized that he was hungry; hungrier than he had ever been in his life.

          He tried to fight the urge, but instead found himself accepting the offered plate. He began to eat and something inside him twisted and turned and for a moment he thought he heard a quiet voice speaking in his head, urging him to eat even more. Again, John tried to resist, but he couldn’t. He ate another bite, and another, the drumming of his head softening as his own tears began to fall.




Back to Part 1

Hunger – Part 1

© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half

By Christopher Opyr


          “John.”

          “Not now.”

          John cracked a beer and settled back into his well worn armchair. Time for kickoff. Denver Broncos vs the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. He didn’t have any skin in the game, but he needed to unwind and it was on.

          “John! He needs help.”

          “Chrissake, Em. I just sat down.”

          Emily rounded the corner into the living room and, gripping the entryway, straightened herself into her most imposing stance. At barely five foot two and ninety-five pounds, the pose failed to impress.

          “Then get up,” she said. “This is our son.” She paused for emphasis then shifted gears. “And don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”

          “Jesus, Em,” he said. Sometimes you had to goad back, even if you were poking the proverbial bear.

          John sat down his beer, careful to use a coaster (Emily insisted on it), and stood. He towered over his wife by nearly a foot, his figure lean and intimidating without any effort. Years in the Marines and a strict exercise regimen had kept the traditional middle-aged gut at bay.

          “What is it now?”

          “He won’t come out of his room. He’s been in there all day, just sitting and eating junk.”

          “Well don’t give him junk food and half the problem is solved.”

          “He says he’s hungry, but it’s more than that.”

          “Yeah. He’s fat and he’s lazy. If you’d let me work it out of him I could have him straightened out in no time.”

          John loved his son deeply, but the boy had no understanding of discipline. His mother had coddled him from the start and the horrors of this past summer had done nothing but make Emily softer on the boy. John had long felt the need to break Emily of the habit, but he had indulged her instead. Soon he would have to consider that his son’s needs outweighed Emily’s happiness. Nicholas needed to be taught a lesson.

          “John, keep your voice down.”

          “Truth hurts. The boy needs to hear it.”

          “You know it’s more than that. The boy needs a doctor.”

          “You mean a shrink.”

          “I mean a professional that can help him cope with what he saw.”

          John let out an exasperated grunt. This again. He and Em had danced this dance many times over the past two months – ever since Nicholas discovered the Hoffmans dead in an apparent murder suicide.

          As on most Saturdays, Nicholas had headed over to the Hoffman residence shortly after breakfast to visit his best friend, Matt. He hadn’t had any formal plan, but John suspected his son had intended to spend the day playing jungle adventurer with Matt and thrashing their way through the woods surrounding New River.

          Instead Nicholas had arrived to find the Hoffman residence locked tight and no one answering the door. Their cars had been in the drive, so, certain that they were home, Nicholas had wandered around back to rap on Matt’s window. That’s when he found the bodies mutilated and splayed out on the floor of his best friend’s room.

          He had not been the same since. John had provided his son space to grieve, but when a month passed with no sign of a return to normalcy he had begun to worry. He didn’t want to be harsh and he understood Emily’s concerns, but he didn’t believe the answer lay in the finely crafted web of lies concocted by some quack head shrink. Not only would Nicholas likely come back with his head stuffed with some mother-hating, daddy-did-me-wrong nonsense, but moreover if word got out that he was seeing a psychiatrist the boy would be a laughing stock. There would likely be more damage done from bullying than healing by his doctor.

          “John?” Emily crossed her arms and demanded an answer.

          “No. The boy needs discipline, not some fraud enabling him. I won’t hear it.”

          “You won’t hear it –“

          “– No, so don’t start. I’ll talk to him, but I draw the line at head doctors.”

          Emily withdrew into herself. “Okay.”

          That settled, John took a swig of his beer then wiped his lips dry with his arm.

          “Good,” he said, and started down the hall. As he strode by, Emily reached out and gently brushed his arm.

          “Be easy on him, okay?”

          He could see the pleading in her eyes and softened.

          “Of course,” he said. “I’m not a monster.” And with that, he turned parting from his wife and strode down the hall.


***


          As he neared Nicholas’s door an unease settled into his gut. Nick was talking to someone, but the conversation was one-sided, as if the boy were on the phone, but that couldn’t be right either. The cordless phone was charging on its stand in the kitchen. John could see it as he glanced back over his shoulder. Looking at it as he listened in on Nicholas he found himself more and more puzzled by the fragmented conversation.

          “…says I should slow down.” Nicholas paused as if waiting on an inaudible reply, then continued.

          “It was implied.” Silence again. Then:

          “Well, no… but she may have a point. Look at me.

          “You’re right. Odd phrasing, but still.

          “Well, yes, I am. Always. Nonstop. But that doesn’t mean I’m not huge. There is no way I’ll make soccer in the fall.

          “It is too important. It’s important to me. I matter here.

          “Well, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be this way anymore. I don’t. Does it have to be so much?”

          Nicholas’s voice trailed off, softer, slipping into a gentle whisper. John leaned closer pressing his ear against the door.

          From the other side he heard a faint scratching, mixed with a barely audible gurgling. As it stopped, Nicholas spoke once more, still in that muted whisper.

          “Are you sure? I didn’t hear nothing.”

          He paused and the gurgling bubbled up through the quiet, along with that soft scratching. As it subsided, John could make out the faint sounds of a bag of chips crinkling, followed by footsteps approaching.

          “Hello?”

          John pressed back from the door just in time as it eased open a crack. His son stared out, one paranoid eye framed in the gap between the door and the doorway.

          “Yes, dad.”

          “Open the door.”

          “What?”

          John sighed then butted his shoulder into the door. Nicholas stumbled back, pinwheeling his arms, then fell flat onto his ass.

          “You heard me. I said open the door.”

          John entered, stepping over his son, and shut the door behind him.

          “Who were you talking to?” he asked as he took in the entirety of the room. It was a mess of junk food wrappers, empty plates, trash fantasy books, and coverless comics – the last just one more habit of which John intended to break Nicholas.

          “No one, dad.”

          “Uh-huh.” John marched to the closet and flung the door open: nothing but shirts, both hanging and wadded in a ball on the floor. “You need to clean that up.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          John turned 180 degrees and hauled to the bed, lifting the frame up as he peered under. More comics and wrappers. A cockroach skittered back from the light.

          “Shit, son. You need to clean this whole room before our house becomes infested.”

          “Yes, sir.”

          “This place is a shitheap, you know that?”

          “Yes. Yes, sir.”

          “Well then why didn’t you do something about it?”

          John locked eyes with Nicholas. The boy stood at a rapt attention in the center of the room, fifty pounds overweight, his chins jiggling as he stuttered his responses. Sweat stains leaked from his pits, and his shirt stretched taut over his expanding belly.

          “Hell, boy. What are we going to do with you?”

          John didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped to the room’s sole window, yanked it open, and leaned his head out, searching the yard. “Who’s out there?”

          “No one’s there, dad. Really.”

          “I’m not stupid, son. You were talking to someone.”

          “Just myself. Really.” His chins wobbled again, and sweat beaded down his brow.

          John pulled in from the window and focused all his ire on his son. “You’re hiding something. Out with it.”

          John sat on Nicholas’s bed and patted the mattress beside him.

          “Come on, Nick. Fess up.”

          Nicholas plopped into the empty space beside his dad, the frame groaning under the sudden pressure.

          “Jesus, son. Sit yourself down, don’t throw yourself down. Have some damn sense.”

          “Sorry, sir.”

          “Now, who was it?”

          “Ade.”

          “A-who?”

          “Ah-deh.”

          “What the hello type of name is that.”

          “I don’t know.”

          “Well, they’ll just let anyone in now days, won’t they. Fuck. What the hell were you doing sneaking company? You’re allowed friends over. It ain’t late. No need to sneak them in and out.”

          “I didn’t sneak anyone in or out.”

          “Come again?”

          Nicholas bit at his lip, turning his eyes down. More, this bite wasn’t a simple nervous tick clamping down on his lower lip. No, Nicholas seemed to be nibbling at the lip. Almost tasting it. Finally he spoke.

          “Ade’s imaginary.”

          John let his chin drop to his chest as he flung his head down and shook it. “Oh hell, boy.” John shook his head some more and pressed at his temples. “I don’t know what to do with you.”

          “I’ll be better. I promise.” The boys eyes pleaded with him, and at last John caved.

          “I know. I know you will, but I’ve had hard enough time keeping you away from the head shrinks with you just overeating. Now you’re talking to people that aren’t there. Shit, once your mother finds that out, she’s liable to sneak you off to Brynn Marr whether I consent or not.”

          “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea, dad. I’ve gained what, seventy-five pounds in two months?”

          “No. Fuck Brynn Marr. No son of mine.”

          “That’s thirty-seven pounds a month. What if it doesn’t slow down?” The desperation dripped from Nicholas as he spoke. John couldn’t miss it. His son genuinely feared that the weight would just keep coming – that he’d what, eat himself to death?

          John wanted to lay down the law. That’s how his dad had raised him and how his dad’s dad had before him. You didn’t play warm fuzzies and go for long walks and talk it out. You told your child how it was going to be and you expected they followed through with the order. Yet, looking at the fear in his son’s eyes, he knew Nicholas was no soldier. He was a child seeking help.

          “Why are you doing it? It’s Matt, right?”

          “I thought so, but I don’t know.”

          “You can do better than that.”

          “I miss him, I do, and I still have nightmares–”

          “Nothing in that room room can hurt you,” John said interrupting. Nicholas needed to know that he was safe. “Not now and not ever. You understand that, right?”

          “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

          Nicholas tugged at his tight clothes trying to pull up his pants, and when that failed, trying to tuck down his shirt. They’d just bought him new clothes two weeks ago. John would have to hit the PX with his next paycheck. Even if he could get Nicholas to drop some of the weight, it wouldn’t be enough anytime soon. His boy deserved the dignity of proper clothes. He deserved more than that. John could see the fear in his son’s eyes, and at last he understood that it wasn’t fear of rapprochement. Something had terrified his son, not with the fear of God but with the fear of something much worse. Something darker. That just could not stand.

          “Look, if you saw someone, if you think you’re in danger, you need to tell me. We’ll tell the police. They can lock him up, and I’ll guarantee you no one will touch you. I’d snap their neck they so much as looked at you wrong. You’re safe here, you know that?

          “Yes, dad. It’s not like that. I didn’t see it happen, but I think they were right. I think it was a… a murder-suicide. I’ve accepted that and I’ve mourned, dad, and I’ll always miss Matt, but I’m not sad anymore.”

          “So what is it?”

          “I’m just… hungry…”


On to Part Two

Ablation: Part 7

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

By Chris Hutton

          Talia spent the day pondering the message she had sent. She knew that it had been necessary, but the pain of letting go still left her unsettled. She skipped lunch. The “mid-day” meal took place in the common hall of Zhōngxīn, a decision made by the colonists in order to to encourage a unity among the group – to build that all too critical sense of community. Yet it was that very sense of community that compelled Talia to remain behind. After her goodbyes, she had no energy left to deal with people.

          She stretched out on her bed, now littered with pillows pilfered from the empty quarters, and stared once more at the ceiling. As a child she had bedecked her bedroom with glow-in-the-dark stars, spending numerous evenings contemplating the great mysteries of space as she stared at them. Now she let herself drift back to those simpler times, when the expanse of the universe held such wonder and amazement, and she had not yet fathomed the sorrow of its conquering.

          She had stared at those stars and dreamt of soaring among them. Interstellar travel still seemed fanciful then, but Mars had been colonized and the asteroids and the outer planets seemed within humanity’s grasp. She had contemplated then what it would be to see the sun from the edge of the solar system, as another distant star. There had even been public debate about pushing into the Oort cloud; she had witnessed some of the exploratory panels in the VR newsfeeds. Soon the Oort cloud had taken on a Holy Grail-like intensity in her passions, and she had set her sights on its exploration. That mission had propelled her into the top universities, where her focus had shifted with the evolution of the public debates, resettling on the closest stars now nearing civilization’s extended reach. Still the stars guided her, their siren call unabated until she met Milton. With a family, everything changed.

          When she left for Anima twenty-four years prior, Talia thought that she could somehow cling to both the loves of her life, Milton & Bernard, and the stars. Only now had she accepted that such a thing might not be possible, and that realization soured her to the mission ahead, and to her own self worth. Still, Talia knew that she had not gone far enough. She had bid her family farewell, but she still clung to one remaining message, and as long as it went unseen, she would never truly say goodbye.

          She knew what must be done. Talia rose, steeled herself, and pressed play on her terminal.


***


          The screen sizzled to life popping with a frenetic energy unlike any message that Talia had previously viewed. Milton, older than before, but by at most a year, pressed at his eyes. His recent crow’s feet had grown deeper and his face had a foreign layer of stubble, but the most disconcerting change was his continued lack of glasses. As his eyes flickered about, his expression was devoid of the characteristic confusion that typically held sway when he didn’t wear his corrective lenses. He could see.

          He straightened up, pressing down on the collar of a light gray, seeming seamless uniform. This too sparked Talia’s curiosity, being far from his typical tweed professor garb.

          “I’m sorry, Talia. I’m sorry about my last message. We had to say goodbye. There was no way that I could know for certain that I would succeed, and the pain was becoming too much for Bernard. I didn’t want to continue to hurt him, no matter what hope I held.

          “Some time back I realized that I had to shift focus. I started, oh, eight years ago. I knew after the first year that this wasn’t tenable. It’s strange spending the first half of your life dedicated to one century only to rededicate yourself to another, to multiple, as your middle years approach.

          “Again, sorry, if I’m not making sense. We’re in a hurry here.”

          In the background numerous men and women, all in the same smooth gray uniform, milled about each seemingly marching with purpose, though to what purpose Talia could not say. The throng of humanity crowded out any visual cues as to where Milton had recorded the message. One of those passersby bumped into Milton, shouting a rushed apology as he scurried away and accentuating Milton’s point. Everyone was in a hurry.

          “I’m not sure we have the planning down as well on this one, but it was a narrow window and we had to move quickly. As I was saying, I shifted focus. I now have doctorates in British colonial history, ancient history, and in twenty-first century Martian colonial history. I figured that I would cover my bases, you understand.

          “Of course you don’t. Maybe I should just show you.”

          Milton reached forward and tilted the camera up. Soon a massive colony ship dominated the screen, hovering behind the milling masses of people seen through the viewing window of large space station.

          “We couldn’t be sure to be accepted, but humanity couldn’t wait for Anima’s first settlers to arrive. I hedged my bets diversifying my studies and turns out with my expertise in the historical complications of ancient societies and colonization both terrestrial and otherwise, I actually have something to offer a mission like this. And since they sent over enough specialists on the first wave, they are actually allowing more slots for families this time around.

          The camera tilted down revealing a young boy of no more than ten, with curly brown locks and an ear-to-ear grin. “Hi mom! Dad says we’ll be there soon. Just a dreamless sleep away and we’ll finally get to meet!”

          “I wanted to tell you before,” Milton said, jumping back in. “But I didn’t want to get your hopes up. Or mine really. Any number of complications could have canceled this flight. I might not have been accepted, we might have failed training, administrative changes could have wiped it from the budget, delayed launch, or altered colonist requirements. You know how this goes. But now, now we are on the eve of departure, and our call to board is underway. We’re coming, honey. We are going to be a family again.

          “Come here, Bernie.” Bernard squeezed in by his father.

          “We love you,” they said together. “See you soon!”

          The recording stopped.


***


          0 Messages

          Talia let out her breath in a deep gust. She hadn’t even realized that she was holding her breath until that moment. Her family was en route to Anima. At least they had launched for Anima. That message had come almost nine years after she had left, so they were, what, fifteen years into their voyage by now? It would be a quiet eight years, but then they would be reunited. Talia could feel the elation welling up inside of her, but she also felt something else – a deep sense of dread.

          If they were on their way, if another colony ship was en route, why hadn’t she been told when she landed on Anima. The wake shift should have known. Gustavo should have known.


***


          Talia tried for five hours before she finally tracked down Gustavo. After searching Tir Corridor, she made her way to Nabu’s homebase where she cornered Alexei Mikhailov, the resident geologist, and one of three remaining chemists. Alexei was the eldest colonist outside of the wake shift and had struck up a well-known friendship with Gustavo since the evacuation. Outside of that friendship, however, he tended to the reclusive side. When Talia found him he was all too eager to point her in Gustavo’s direction and to return to the solitude of his research. He hadn’t even noticed the tension in Talia’s shoulders and the anger knitted in her brow – or if he did, he valued his solitude more than his friendship.

          Armed with directions from Alexei, Talia made her way through Ekata Hol and into Athena Corridor. The quarters were pressed against an outer hull, and though Talia knew the walls were too thick for sound to pierce, she swore she could hear the fiery winds raging outside reflecting the anger boiling within her with an odd synchronicity. The rage beating in her temples, she turned one final corner into the westernmost room in Enhet Basen. It jutted out from the rest of the base like a peninsula, windows opening on three-sides to the night of Anima. Gustavo stared out through the center window.

          As she entered, he spoke.

          “Sometimes I think that if I stare hard enough, I can see the faintest glimmer of the twilight. It’s never really there though – always just out of reach. Still, if I’m lucky I can make out a falling star or two.” He turned. “Care to join me,” he started, then cut off. One look at Talia and he surmised the truth of the situation.

          “I guess you know. You’re one of the only remaining colonists with actual family in flight. Figures you’d be the first to find out.”

          Talia stopped cold. She hadn’t expected Gustavo to just blurt it out. She’d expected a fight.

          “There’s no use hiding it,” he said, as if reading her mind. “I knew that it would come out eventually.”

          “Then why not tell us? We had a right to know. Hell, what about all of the colonists that left? Did they have family coming?”

          “Some.” Gustavo sat, showing the first signs of weariness that Talia had ever seen in him. He motioned for her to join him.

          “No thanks.”

          “I understand.”

          “Well, I don’t. Everyone that left. How many would have stayed if they knew their families were coming?”

          “There’s no way I can –”

          “– No, don’t. Don’t answer that. Just tell me why? Why wouldn’t you tell us?”

          “We decided it was for the best not to.”

          “We? The wake shift? The whole wake shift knew didn’t it?”

          “Yes.”

          “And you all unanimously gave a giant fuck you to everyone in cryo and agreed to keep your little secret – that there was a second colony ship en route?”

          “There was some disagreement, but not enough.”

          “You mind telling me who disagreed.”

          “I can’t. The decision was made. Unanimous or not, we all agreed to abide by it.”

          “And how many of you that stayed have family coming. Do you?”

          “No, but some of us do.”

          “And how many of you that left had family coming?”

          “None.”

          “Hell, Gustavo. That’s exactly my point. No one with family coming would have left. You owed it to them to tell them.”

          “Did we? What if I told you that the second vessel received orders to turn back two years ago?”

          Talia eyed Gustavo, weighing whether to trust him.

          “We received the message about a month before we landed. Six months after our sensors indicated Anima was tidally locked we received the first concrete data on the atmosphere. We had to report back to the Coalition that Anima was not the Earth-analog that we had hoped. Once they received that data, the Coalition sent out the order for Ravanna, the second ship, to return. They received that message almost two years ago. As of yet we have not received word as to whether the order was obeyed. No one knows what the crew decided.”

          Talia knew immediately the crux of concern. If anyone had stayed waiting for family they might have stayed in vain. There was no way to know for certain if anyone was coming. Not yet.

          “So?” Gustavo prompted.

          “So I don’t know.” She began to break, her anger receding with her understanding. “I still feel you should have told us.”

          “And if that vessel returned home? How many colonists would have stayed due to false hope?”

          “I understand that. I’m not thick. But if it didn’t? If Ravanna arrives at Anima, what then for those that left hoping to see a family that won’t be waiting for them?”

          “Those who chose to return had already committed to losing their families. Everyone they had ever known will be fifty years older than when they last saw them by the time Unity returns to Earth. For them, Earth’s call outweighed family bonds. If they had stayed and no one ever came, then they would not only have lost their family, but also their only chance of seeing Earth again.”

          “That’s how you justified it?”

          “I didn’t say it was my call, but that was the consensus.

          Talia noticed how Gustavo glanced back to the door, as if looking for the other wake shifters. He had been the voice of dissent. He agreed with her, and yet still he championed the decision he had fought. Even now, a quarter of a century lost to mission, and he was a man of orders.

          Dr. Ernst relaxed her arms onto the window ledge, easing the tension in her shoulders and looked out into the dark. Gustavo settled back in beside her.

          “How many more have family?” she asked.

          “Four of the primary crew, two of the wake shift.

          “Hmm,” Talia grunted. There was no more to say. A decision had been made, and though she could be angry with Gustavo for accepting that decision in the end (and she longed for that anger), she also knew that there had been no good choice to be made. She had accepted her fate when she thought that she had lost her family, and now that this was uncertainty, she could do no more than the same: accept.

          “There,” she said, pointing out a shooting star.

          The meteorite streaked across the firmament, its debris melting and evaporating in its wake as it broke apart in Anima’s atmosphere – another victim to the inhospitable planet, breaking apart and crashing, until it too settled onto the surface, now a part of this world no matter from where it once originated.

          “It’s beautiful,” Gustavo said.

          “Yes, it is.”

          Talia nodded, settling in as a small meteor shower began. Man had spread to the stars, and she had a role to play. More, she had hope once more, and whether Ravanna would one day hail them from orbit, or would return back to Earth, she knew that she had a family out there somewhere, fighting the friction and trying to remain whole. She would await word from them, a message that might never come, but also a message that might; and that was enough.




Back to Part 1

Ablation: Part 5

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

By Chris Hutton

          Talia sat before the terminal, her fingers hovering before the ‘enter’ key. One click and twenty-four years of messages would begin to unspool. She glanced at the black & white photo of her family before Launch Pad 73C, their fake smiles beaming out in false reassurances. Though she looked barely a day older than when that photo had been snapped, her husband and son would now bare little resemblance to their images, the smiling faces of the photo no more than ghosts of their past.

          She stopped and waved her hand before the screen. The play window slid away and Talia tapped open another app. Her image popped up, consuming the full screen, and a record button blinked transparent in the middle of the monitor. She air-tapped the button and a red light lit up the corner as she began her message.

          “Well, we’re here boys. We’ve landed and… it’s… let’s say Anima is not everything that we expected. I assume newscasts went out years ago, but we landed in the dark maybe ten kilometers from the twilight zone. Who knew Anima was tidally-locked, right? Our projections predict another six years of dark before Alpha Centauri B casts its light on our side of Anima, and that the light of a dim evening at best.”

          Talia froze up.

          “Recording stop.” The red light blinked out of existence. She gestured with her hand and a delete window popped up. Yes or No? She tapped yes.

          Her family deserved better than a rote ‘we landed and ‘they’ fucked up message.’ She had so much more to say than the flight went smooth, but the accommodations are subpar. She needed to tell them something of significance – something that mattered – anything that would make the lost years tolerable. Nothing came to mind.

          Instead she swiped over to the backlog of messages, and tapped the first one.

***


          “Hi, Talia.” Milton smiled into camera, the green of a park stretching out behind him and trees swaying in the distance. Milton reached off camera then hoisted Bernard into view. He beamed at her, no older than the day Talia had left, and dripping wet.

          “Say hi to mommy, buddy.”

          “Hi” he squeaked, then began to squirm until at last he pulled free from his dad’s grasp and ran offscreen.

          “As you can tell, he’s enjoying the fountain. We went to Riverside, after all. The weather’s good and he’s having fun. We miss you already.” Milton cast his eyes away in his usual I’m not saying everything diversion, then looked back to camera. “Thanks for the message this morning. It was a… lovely way to start the day.”

          His eyes began to water. “We love you, Talia. And we’re so proud of you. I just can’t tell you how much –”

          “– Daddy!” Bernard shouted from off camera.

          Milton rubbed at his eyes. “What buddy?” he screamed back.

          “Water! Water!”

          “Sorry, honey. Gotta go. We’ll talk soon!”

***


          The verdant greens cut to black, with bold white text at the center of the screen declaring: ‘237 Messages Remaining.’

          Why so few, Talia thought. Even at an even distribution that would be no more than ten messages a year. Of course, why should she have expected more? She left them behind to carry on without her. How painful were those messages to record? Were they all as hard for Milton as the first? What would it be for Bernard sending messages to a mother he couldn’t remember? In the end, Talia decided she had been lucky to receive as many messages as she had.

          Thinking to the years ahead, she knew any message that she sent now wouldn’t be returned for at least eight years. Logically she might as well pace out the messages from her family, giving something to which to look forward in the slow but brutal days ahead. Even so, she knew that wouldn’t happen. She’d binge the 237 remaining messages in two Earth days or less.

          The colonists had been using Earth as a metric as best as they could. With Anima tidally-locked days did not really exist. One planetary rotation took nearly one and a half Earth years, the same as one revolution around Alpha Centauri A, or one Anima year. And in that entire time, no true day would come to Enhet Basen. Alpha Centauri B would eventually create a twilight period, but for now that star’s orbit placed it in conjunction with Anima’s main star, leaving night impenetrable. The colonists would have to last six more years for a chance at twilight.

          Talia could not yet bring herself to tackle the problems that this existence created, so instead she plunged further into her messages. Locking her quarters she settled in, shutting out her fellow colonists until she had done what needed doing.


***


          By lunchtime the following “day,” Talia had noticed a disturbing trend. The messages began abundantly, with nearly fifty in the first year. They ranged from short clips like the first, to long monologues from Milton expounding on the minutiae of everyday life, to desperate rages as anger at their abandonment boiled over. Those last messages were usually followed by softer, somber apologies muddied by grief. The emotional turbulence tearing her family apart wracked Talia in guilt, but it was a different trend that threatened to snap Talia’s last, delicate sliver of hope. The messages were dwindling year over year. By two years in ninety-two of the two hundred and thirty-eight messages were done. After two more years worth of mail, only eighty-two messages remained. Her family sent fewer and fewer messages with each passing year.

          Talia forced herself to watch straight through, her anxiety mounting as each message finished, signaling one less contact with Milton and Bernard. With each communication she watched her son age, from the toddler that she remembered to a young child at his first day of school, to a boy of nearly nine. At that point, only eighteen messages remained; eighteen messages for over seventeen years of travel.

          Talia had stayed behind when the other colonists had left for one reason: a chance to still have a family, and yet, as best she could tell that family had given up on her long before she reached Anima.

          At the end of the second day of her binge, Talia had two messages remaining. With a sense of dread, she opened the penultimate recording from home. It had been sent not quite eight years after she left.


***


          Milton’s haggard eyes darted back and forth, unwilling to settle on any one point, set deep in sockets more hollow than Talia remembered. Those were accompanied by a new pair of crow’s feet clawing at their corners, but more disturbingly, Milton’s eyes lacked the typical shield of his glasses. As he glanced about, Talia could imagine his confusion, unable to rely on the crutch of cleaning those lenses in order to avoid direct confrontation.

          “Um…I don’t know,” he started, then stopped. He swallowed, and rubbed at the bags of his eyes. “Where do I start?”

          As he asked this last part, he glanced offscreen and paused. Talia could read his hesitance, but even more his deliberation. Talia had seen that look many times as Milton mulled over his words.

          Finally, he turned and looked directly into the camera. “I can’t do this anymore. We can’t do this, Talia.”

          His eyes shifted downward, and he bit at his lip. Almost instantly he shut his eyes, ashamed at his lapse. Talia understood. Milton didn’t want to face this truth any more than Talia did.

          His eyes back to camera, Milton plowed on.

          “We receive your messages almost twice a month – your ageless messages. Do you know how weird it is to hear from you over and over again in endless variations of the same theme, and you never aging, and always in that same uniform? Message to message only minutes have lapsed for you, while weeks and months leave us in the dust. For Bernard, he might as well be sending fan mail to a favorite television show, only it’s less than that. Your messages are like a familiar commercial, you the recurring spokesman. What connection…. No, still more… how do you think he can hold a connection with a mother that he knows so little?”

          Talia winced. She had seen this coming as the messages dwindled. The dread had been building over the past day, but she had hoped it would prove unfounded, no matter how little she had believed in that hope.

          “I understand this will be… beyond hard on you, but you can at least,” he said, then hesitated once more. “You can at least hear it all at once, rip it off like the proverbial bandage. For us, this dissolution has been dragged through years – years of carrying on the pretense that a relationship could survive this distance. I love you. Don’t get me wrong, but I can’t do this to our son.”

          Milton’s voice shook now, overcome. His eyes watered, but he would not let the tears flow. Not this time.

          “It’s not fair for either of us, for any of us, to live like this – to carry on increasingly separated through time. This isn’t an attack on you or me railing against your decision to leave once more. We’ve had those discussions, if you can call these messages that. My piece has been said time and again when it comes to that decision and there is no need to rehash that here. At this point, I’ve accepted that you had to leave. I’ve even managed to accept your departure for what it was for you, not as an abandonment of us.

          “But that being said, even acceptance does little to mend the rift created by your travel to your new home. Over sixteen years to go before you even hear from us, and in that time, we’ll receive some pleasantries, but not one shred of real conversation. Nothing shared. Hell, it will be twenty years before I can even hear from you in response to this so-called conversation. No, It’s just not tenable. That’s all there is to it. We have to stop pretending. We have to say goodbye.

          “There. I’ve done it. I’ve said my piece.”

          Milton paused one last time, again biting at his lip. Talia guessed that lacking lenses he had resorted to a new diversion. Still, where were his glasses?

          “Anyway,” he said, “that’s it. There’s only one thing left to say. We love you, Talia. Both of us in our own ways. Bernard didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to force it. So this it. Goodbye.”


***


          The screen cut to black, white text dominating the center of the screen.

          1 Message Remaining.

          Talia couldn’t do it. She pushed back from the monitor, unwilling to open the final message.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 6

Ablation: Part 4

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

By Chris Hutton

          “It’s more than disconcertment, Talia.” Milton’s bespectacled image froze in momentary lag, pixelating, buffering, then jumping into motion again. “Can you hear me?”

          “Yes. It’s a little better.”

          “How many economies did we pour into this ship, and it has crappier reception than our cabin?”

          “Well, it wasn’t really built for video conferencing, dear, as I’ve already said.”

          Milton nodded, and looked away, returning to his usual distraction – cleaning his glasses. “I know. Not much use for that feature after today.”

          “No, not much,” Talia nodded. She paused watching her husband clean his glasses for the last time. There was something familiar and comforting in it, yet deeply disheartening. Soon they would lose each other to time, and yet he couldn’t even look at her. “Keep that up and you’re going to scratch your lenses, Milton.”

          Milton stopped and turned a hesitant gaze to the camera. He bit at his lip, then cast his eyes about distractedly. They had talked nearly every day that Talia had been on Unity, and he knew every detail of the voyage ahead already. The final crew had boarded a week prior, necessary introductions had been made between the heads of each colonist group, and all systems had been prepped, checked, and rechecked. The final return capsules had departed and the ship’s engines had started, a slow, steady acceleration building that would one day carry his wife to a distant star: her new home.

          Talia drummed her fingers against the console, at the same loss as her husband. Everything to be said had been said; the same sentiments shared on a daily basis and even even recorded nearly 450 times in a litany of pre-recorded messages. There reached a point when all the tears had already flowed and all that remained was to move forward, no matter the pain that waited on that path.

          “All our years and it comes to this,” Talia started, breaking from her thoughts and vanquishing the silence. “This loss of words,” she continued. “I don’t even know what to say.”

          “I know.” Milton leaned back letting out a deep sigh. “I don’t think I can take another goodbye right now.” He signaled air quotes as he said goodbye. “Not one more of those conversations.”

          “Then let’s not. It’s just another day. Okay?”

          “Okay.”

          “So Bernard’s doing well?”

          “So, so. He misses you of course.” They both paused, hitting a road bump before the illusion even had a chance to take hold.

          “Yeah. I miss him, too.” Talia swallowed back the lump in her throat. The last capsule had returned she reminded herself. There could be no turning back. “Otherwise?”

          “We played hide-and-seek this morning. He keeps hiding behind the coat rack. Every time.”

          “As always.”

          “Yeah. I don’t think he quite grasps the finer points of the game, yet.”

          “Of course he does. You just don’t understand his rules.”

          “Well, there is that.” Milton plowed forward, picking up steam. “Then we read some books. I started him on Where the Sidewalk Ends. I think he likes the rhythm of it, but he’s –”

          “–Don’t say missing the finer points,” Talia interrupted.

          Milton stopped, breaking stride, then pulled off a weak recovery.

          “… not fully into that humor yet?”

          “Good enough.”

          “So I finished off with Where the Wild Things Are. He seemed content with that. Then some chase, some lunch, and bubbles in the yard. Now he’s napping.”

          “Oh.” Talia couldn’t hide her disappointment.

          “I tried to keep him up, I did, but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. Do you want me to wake him?”

          “No. Yes, of course, but no. It feels like it would be too hurtful. We’ve had a pleasant goodbye. I’d rather remember our last call than wake him for a cranky and groggy farewell. What about tomorrow?”

          “I think I’ll take him to the park.”

          “Oh. Which one?”

          “I’m not sure,” Milton started, then stopped.

          A black-haired young man, no older than his mid thirties, intruded on the video conference nodding to Talia. He wore a finely pressed uniform, and everything about him, down to his short-cropped hair, was in its place. This was a man of order and orders.

          “Ma’am.”

          Talia nodded back, then returned to the screen. “I’m sorry, Milton. You remember Gustavo from the Brazilian delegation? Our cryo-engineer?”

          “Yes.” Milton raised an awkward wave in acknowledgement.

          “It appears all the preparations are set and I’m up. I have to go.” Talia hesitated, looking for the right words.

          “No more goodbyes, sweetheart.” Milton cast his eyes anywhere but at the camera.

          “Of course.” Talia swallowed and wet her lips. They cracked, and as she wiped at them her hand came back with a small streak of blood. She had nothing left in her, yet how did you end your final goodbye with the love of your life?

          “Try Riverside, tomorrow. They have a fountain for the kids if the weather’s nice. Bernard loves it.”

          “That’s good. I will.”

          “Have fun.”

          “Okay. Fly safe.” Milton’s voice wavered and Talia could see the tears forming. Yet before the flood began the screen went black.

          Communication Ended.

          Talia froze staring at those words, consumed by their finality. She had spoken directly with her husband for the last time, and yet the end came with such banal chatter, everything of consequence unuttered.

          “Dr. Ernst?”

          “Yes, Gustavo, I’m coming.”

          She flicked a switch, shutting down power to the terminal, and rose for her final voyage.


***


          “Dr. Ernst?”

          Talia stopped mid-stride, half in and half out of her quarters, and glanced at the owner of the gravel-laden voice. Small wrinkles webbed out from his eyes, and others creased from his nostrils to his lips. HIs jowls hung lower than before, and the jet black of his hair had turned a salt and pepper mix of gray and white, yet it remained short as ever, with everything in its place. At first she seemed to be staring at a stranger, then burned a flicker of recognition.

          “Gustavo? You stayed?”

          “Appears so. A quarter of a century manning the ship while you slept, ensuring you all woke, I just couldn’t accept it being for nothing – turning tail and running home. No, when I chose Amina I committed to it.”

          “And the rest of the wake shift?”

          “A mix. Many felt cheated and are looking to retire without struggle, but what is life but struggle? Personally I want to see the world my years bought.”

          “You’re one-of-kind.”

          “It’s a kind sentiment, if a little unearned. You stayed as well, and plenty others. A good three dozen or more from what I hear.”

          “Well, three dozen of a thousand. What’s that?”

          Gustavo glanced up to one corner, biting at his lip, then answered. “One of twenty-eight. Roughly.”

          “Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?”

          “No, ma’am. Not quite.”

          “Well, I’m glad to have you, nonetheless. And, there’s no need for ma’am anymore. You’re my senior now.”

          “Yes, ma’am.” Gustavo smiled. “It’s good to see you as well.” With that he nodded and began once more down the corridor. His leisurely pace and the fondness of his gaze spoke to a volume of experience so far beyond the young man Talia had known only a relative week prior. She barely recognized him. To what degree would that same passage of time have changed her own family? Would they be as equally unrecognizable?

          Talia had only one way to find out. When the morning had begun twenty-four years of messages had been downloading to her terminal. They had been downloading from the main drives since the moment she’d been assigned a station on Anima Day One. As she entered her quarters she could see the green light flashing. The download had completed.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 5

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

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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