Brian is an electronics engineer who lives near Oklahoma City. His stories have appeared in Aboriginal SF, Dragon Magazine, Adventures of Sword and Sorcery, and many small-press publications. This story originally appeared in Midnight Zoo.
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All materials copyright 1996-1997 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
Calls that come through without video always aggravate the hell out of me. I almost punched the disconnect; then it hit me. I hadn't heard her voice in 20 years, but I was positive it was Katherine. At the sound of her voice, memories flooded forth -- painful memories of the bitter court battle and far too many untruths hurled like medieval weapons.
Of course I knew what day tomorrow would be. Like her, I'd been waiting a long time for this particular Fourth of July. The United States had seen 258 Independence Days. I've been around for 54 of them myself. The last 20 have been spent in anticipation of this one. Hell, the whole world's been waiting for this day.
"Where are you, Katie?" I asked, assuming her own question to be rhetorical.
"I'm here in Orlando. Flew in last night."
"Nothing's wrong? Bill's okay?"
"Dave, you know why I'm here. Could you meet me for dinner tonight?"
I nodded; then realized since her call was audio only, my own system was not transmitting video. "Where?" I asked.
"Our old place. I checked; it's still there. Eight o'clock okay?"
"I'll be there."
There was silence then, neither of us knowing what to say. I hadn't spoken directly with her since the divorce. Over the years, our lawyers had managed to handle the few issues that had come up. Through mutual friends, I'd followed the important events in her new life -- such as her second marriage.
Nearly five years after our divorce, she married a guy named William Abernathy Maxwell, the Third. I'd laughed pretty hard over the name the first time I'd heard it -- the Third what?
Two years later, I heard about the birth of their son. The following year they added a little girl to their family. Her life, it seems, had moved on. She'd been able to put me, and all that we had shared, behind her. My own life had gone nowhere. Alone, still living in Orlando, stagnated at the same dead-end job, nothing changes.
"I --" A pause, hesitation that meant she'd thought better of what she had been about to say. "Never mind. I'll see you tonight." She recovered as gracefully as always.
The line went dead, leaving me staring at the disconnect indicator on the comm panel. After a couple seconds, it went out -- mirror image to the blank video screen.
My attention drifted from the screen (how bad I'd wanted to see her face!) to the torn envelope and folded letter on the desk before me. I reached out a hand, brushed aside the envelope with its gold embossed seal, and took the letter by one upper corner.
Paper correspondence is rare these days. The US Postal Service closed down shortly after the turn of the century. There are still companies shipping packages, Fed Ex, UPS, and the like, but these days most everything is sent by computer. It had come as some surprise when the delivery man had shown up at my door and asked me to sign for a letter. I'd damn near forgotten what one was.
As I lifted the letter, it unfolded, revealing the short paragraphs I'd already memorized. Katie had probably gotten the same letter. In fact, all the parents had probably been sent one. I think they were once called form letters. Computers were doing form letters 60 or more years ago.
My eyes focused on the neatly-spaced letters on the crisp white paper:
Mr. Killough,The letter slipped through my fingers and dropped face-up on the desk. I had a hard time pulling my gaze from it. Thirteen hundred hours. One o'clock to us civilians. Less than 24 hours away.
I looked at my watch. Only three hours before I would meet with Katie at Alfred's. I hoped I could remember how to get there.
The restaurant was crowded with holiday tourists. I was worried that we might be waiting all night for a table, but Katie had been smart enough to make reservations. After informing me that Mrs. Maxwell hadn't arrived yet, the maitre d' showed me to a table in the nonsmoking section. Katie had no way of knowing I'd picked up the habit after she had left me. Hard as it was, I refrained from lighting up the entire evening while I was with Katie. If she noticed that I never could decide what to do with my hands, she probably attributed it to nerves.
Waiting, I ordered a gin and tonic, hoping it would calm me down. My hands were shaking when I took the drink from the waitress. In all honesty, I have to admit that I was terrified of facing Katie.
It got worse when she walked into Alfred's.
I've never been able to teach the mirrors in my apartment to lie. Over the years, they've honestly reflected time's work back at me. At least three additional inches around the waist, the shoulders and back drooping as if an immense load were being carried there, the hair receding and gray (actually bald in one spot on the very back of my head), dark circles under my eyes (the result of too many solitary and sleepless nights), the extra flesh accumulating under my chin, and other signs of time's handiwork that she would notice immediately.
In comparison, she was stunning. As the old saying goes, time had been good to her. Like many women, she had acquired a sophisticated beauty in her middle age. For just a moment, I thought of running out through the kitchen. Even had I seriously considered it though, I'm not sure my suddenly weak legs would have carried me.
Ever cruel, my mind conjured up an image of Bill Maxwell. College football star, corporate executive handling billion dollar accounts, memberships at several health spas, my mind made him out to be the all American stud. This fictional Maxwell laughed at me as he stood there, shirtless, in coaching shorts, golden biceps and pectorals lightly sheened with sweat. Katherine (he probably didn't call her Katie) was once married to you?
The maitre d' moved to intercept and guide her to our table, but Katie spotted me and waved him back to his station. Alone, she worked her way through the smokeless room, weaving in and out among the holiday diners. I noticed how white my knuckles were on the empty liquor glass and willed my hand to release it. As she approached, I rose uncertainly to my feet.
"Dave," she said, her eyes appraising what time had changed. I dived into those blue depths and tried to see what she saw. She successfully hid whatever emotions the reunion conjured up. I saw no disdain, no contempt, no hatred or anger left over from the battle 20 years ago.
She reached out and held me at arm's length, perhaps afraid I was going to hug her, perhaps just wanting to get a good look at what I'd become. She smiled and then poked my gut where it was engaged in mortal combat with a thin brown belt. "Too many beers, Dave."
I cursed myself for not buttoning my jacket. At least then my waistline would not have been quite as noticeable. Fighting embarrassment, I put on the best smile I could (probably failing miserably). "You look wonderful, Katie."
"Let's sit down," she said, not even bothering to return the compliment. She never did like to lie, even those times when it was called for.
I pulled out her chair (something I'd never done when we were married) and she sat. I pushed her under the table; then returned to my seat. The waitress came by and I ordered another gin and tonic. Katie ordered a soft drink. The waitress left us to ponder the menu while she fetched the drinks.
I ignored the menu, my eyes locked on the beautiful woman I'd once called wife. Her hair was still a copper-tinted gold -- strawberry blonde was the term used many years ago. Her figure was slim and firm. The legs revealed through her slit skirt were shapely and tanned. She looked like a woman who exercised and ate just right, but I knew she had never had to exercise to maintain that figure. Nor did she have to watch what she ate. Katie's figure came naturally.
Not knowing what else to say, and terrified to broach the real reason she had wanted to meet with me, I asked her to tell me about her new family.
"Bill's wonderful," she started, then realized what that implied and tried a different tack. "The kid's are really something. I wish you could meet them."
"If I'm ever in Portland, I'll drop by," I promised, knowing that I'd never get out to Oregon.
"Johnny's the oldest. He'll be 12 in September. Sarah's ten now. Her birthday was just last week."
Both just the right age, I thought. I wondered if she knew about Orion 2. With the apparent success of the first mission, they're sure to launch the second one within the next year or so. Even as we spoke, the great vessel was in orbit going through operational tests.
"What about you?" she asked. "There must be someone special in your life."
I cleared my throat nervously. "No one special."
She looked as uncomfortable as I felt. "The house --"
"I sold the house years ago, Katie." I had a sudden desire to dump the nickname I had always used and call her Katherine. The way he probably did. This was, yet wasn't, the Katie I knew. "I've lived in an apartment for the last 14 years. I still work at the ad agency." Shrug of shoulders. "Not much has changed for me."
"I'd have thought they'd have made you a full partner by now, Dave."
"Well they haven't," I replied, somewhat hotter than I had intended. You left me, bitch! After that, everything went downhill. Unlike you, I didn't find someone else with whom to build a new life. I haven't become rich and successful. I wanted to say those things, but she would tell me I was wallowing in self-pity.
The painful part was that it was true.
The waitress arrived with our drinks. I tossed off mine and told her to bring me another.
"Are you ready to order?" the girl asked. From the look on her face it was obvious she could tell things were not going well at this table.
I shrugged my shoulders and Katie ordered for us both. Just like she used to do.
When the waitress was gone, Katie pointed to the two tumblers, empty save for the fast melting ice. "You shouldn't be drinking so much, Dave."
She obviously knew nothing of the bout I'd had with alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous had pulled me out of that one. Unlike a lot of rehabilitated alcoholics, I could both enjoy and handle an occasional binge. This was one of those times when I felt I needed the liquor. I wanted to ask her why she was lecturing me now. Where was she when I was drying out in detox? Probably at the health spa with William Abernathy Maxwell, the Third.
I controlled my temper, ignored her comment on my drinking, and decided it was time we talked about why she was here in Florida. "Are you anxious about tomorrow?"
She took a deep breath, looked about the restaurant as if there might be someone or something there to help her escape the question, then began to cry.
Not knowing what to do, I sat there and said nothing. I suppose a true gentleman would have had a handkerchief to offer. I've never carried one. So I sat there, saying nothing, wishing my drink would arrive. Two more, I told myself, and the situation will be bearable.
She dug in her purse, a lovely gold-sequined thing that matched her dress, and got out a handful of tissues. After a moment, she was able to talk. "You know, without a photo, it's hard to remember his face, Dave. I try, but all I see are the faces of my children now. It's like he never existed."
That hit me like a slap in the face. "Never existed? Katie, you're talking about our son! He's as real today as he was 20 years ago!"
"I didn't mean it that way. I --"
The waitress arrived with my third drink. "Keep 'em coming," I told her as she laid it down and collected the two empties.
As the waitress departed, Katie decided to try again. "I've got a life now, Dave."
"You're saying you've forgotten our son? God Katie, after the court battle? After you tried to murder me? You fought with everything you had to keep Danny. Now you're trying to tell me you've forgotten him?"
In her delicately manicured hands, she massacred the tissues she had pulled from her purse. "What I'm trying to say is, I've moved on. Life continued, Dave. Maybe you're still living in 2015, but I'm not. I've got Bill and the kids."
She had me there; I had nothing. Once I had a son, but I willingly gave him up when the Agency said his aptitude scores were high enough for Orion. Unbidden, the memory of trying to explain it to her rose in mind: "Katie, he'll have the chance to forge a new world. He'll see and experience things that we can only dream of!"
"Maybe you dream of them," she had protested.
"Come on, Katie! Wake up and take a look around you. Man has used this world up. Another 25 years and the air won't even be breathable. Our oceans are polluted beyond help. Orion is a step forward for all mankind. Danny has the chance to be one of 300 children on that spaceship. Together, they'll make a new home for themselves. Just think of it!"
"All I see, is that you're taking away my baby!"
"He's not a baby. The boy is 12 years old! He's made his decision; he wants to go! All he needs is our consent."
"A 12 year old is not capable of making a decision like that!" she had screamed.
"You're being selfish, Katie. You're thinking of yourself, not him."
"And you're not? It's you that wants to be out there, but the Agency, in all it's wisdom, decided to send children instead of adults. You can handle their advertising for them, brainwash everyone's children into going on this great noble adventure, but you'll never go yourself. And that's really what's bothering you. So you've filled his head full of your dreams. You've made him think he wants to go."
"That's not fair, Katie!"
"Sir. Your dinner." The waitress laid the plate in front of me, also replacing my empty drink. I stared at the food and the fresh drink, having lost my appetite for either, and remembered the bitter battle for Danny's custody. It was not something either of us could be proud of.
"Dave," she started, again under control. One thing I've always admired in Katie was her resiliency, her ability to quickly bounce back from anything, even the loss of a child. "Let's not fight. Let's talk about tomorrow."
"To Danny, it was like yesterday when he left. We were fighting, divorced --"
"Let's not forget you tried to kill me," I added, remembering our small kitchen, the last argument, and the butcher knife sinking between my ribs. If she hadn't freaked, if she'd held together just a bit longer, the court might have granted her custody and everything might have ended differently.
She sighed. "I was hysterical. You pushed me too hard."
"I know." It was the first time I admitted fault in any of it. The scar I bore was as much, or more my fault, as it was hers. The confession begun, it was hard to hold back. I found myself wanting to open up, to reveal the misgivings I'd acquired since those younger days when everything had seemed so black and white. "Katie, I don't know if sending him was right or not. I've had 20 years and --"
"It's done," she said, interrupting my self-pity. "I want to talk about tomorrow."
"What's to talk about? We catch a commuter shuttle to the Space Center about eight and we'll be at the ceremonies by nine. I've got the agenda --"
"They sent me one too. I want us to go together. I want Danny to see us together."
"It won't be a real-time message, Katie. The message we'll see is five years old. After we watch it, we'll get to record one to send back. It'll be five more years before Danny sees it."
"I know; you've explained it to me before. Five light years out. A 15 year voyage. Five years to receive the first message from them at light speed. But I still want us to go together. No matter what has gone before, we'll always be Danny's parents."
There were still tears in her eyes. Looking at her, I knew I still loved her. One day I might be able to put it aside. One day the pain will be memory. But that day, as we sat in Alfred's over untouched dinners, the pain was like an open wound.
I had nothing.
My wandering, intoxicated thoughts caught the image of a certain young man who had believed so strongly in the Orion project. He'd taken on their advertising with a passion unrivaled by anything he'd ever felt in his life.
Had that pied piper really been me?
The loud speakers carried his words throughout the large dining hall. On stage waited a huge screen. It was that screen we had all come to see. No one cared about Chandler or his elegant speech designed to draw support for Orion 2. No one cared about the expensive dinner we had just been served (many plates, like my own, had barely been touched). No one cared about the scheduled tours and demonstrations. We'd had enough of that whenever they'd convinced us it was safe to send our children into space. Everyone was here for that giant screen on which, in just moments, the first message would be received.
"This is an Independence Day, not for the United States, but for all of mankind. Sure those are Americans out there, but it is mankind that has reached beyond the realm of Earth. It is mankind that has truly earned its freedom this day."
No one bothered to point out that Orion had actually succeeded five years ago. At the speed of light, the news had just taken that long to reach us.
"We had our doubters," Chandler continued. "There were those who argued that the Orion technology wasn't sound. Nearly every integral part of the mission was black-balled at one time or another: the AI units designed to run the mission and train the children, the terraforming procedures, the deep-sleep technique, the idea of sending children in the first place -- the list goes on and on. There were parents that were appalled at the very idea of sending their children off into space, never to see them again."
I looked to Katie, but her attention was on Chandler. I wondered how many other marriages Orion had destroyed. Were there other couples that had gone to court over the decision? Were there other wives that had attempted to kill their husbands?
"Out of the thousand children we qualified for a position on Orion, only 300 would go. Personally, I thought the project would come down to a bitter weeding process which I wasn't looking forward to. As it turned out, we had to turn down only 27 children. That's right; out of the thousand, only 327 were interested in making the trip. A very narrow margin indeed. And so, with a sad kind of joy, we sent our children, half of them boys and half girls, all under the age of 13, into the heavens, targeted for a world we knew very little about."
Chandler looked at the large digital clock to the right of the waiting screen. My own eyes had been drifting to it at least once every five or ten minutes. "Five minutes, Ladies and Gentlemen. Just five minutes and then we hear from mankind's future. Our children have a difficult task ahead of them. Theirs is the job of building a world. They have everything they need. They have more than we had. On the Orion is the accumulated knowledge of our planet's history. With that in hand, they can do no worse than we have."
"In moments, we'll be receiving the transmission. Remember that first will be a message from the Orion commander. That will be followed by individual messages from all the children. Obviously, it'd take days if we were all to sit here and see the messages on this screen; so as each message is decoded, it'll be displayed on the individual monitors at each family's table. After the personal messages will be a steady stream of scientific data which the Agency will be studying for years." He looked back at the clock. "Two minutes," he said, somewhat out of breath.
Chandler returned to his seat. The assembled audience of scientists, reporters, and parents waited, every eye on the clock on stage. Time, as they say, is relative. It can fly by or creep along like some diseased insect. I know the longest two minutes I have ever endured were those spent waiting for that screen to come to life.
When the screen finally lit up, sputtering for a moment and glaring white with static and interference, the entire assemblage gasped as one. Then the screen took on shape and form, and a boy's face emerged from the static. Five seconds later, the sound came through and we were looking on a picture as real as life. I found it hard to believe the incomprehensible distance the transmission had covered to reach us here on Earth.
As the boy opened his mouth to speak, Katie burst into tears.
"I am Daniel Killough, Commander of the Orion mission. I'm speaking to you from the control center of the Orion spaceship, in geosynchronous orbit above our new home."
Behind him, caught on a viewscreen, a blue-green marble spun amidst a star-studded sea of black. I could almost mistake it for Earth.
"Below, the terraforming probes are getting everything ready for our arrival. The task of making the surface habitable won't take nearly as long as we had thought. We've been given more to start with than we could have hoped for. The planet -- we're still debating on her name -- is young and green. The seas are teaming with algae and other basic life. The AIs tell us that if left alone, it would have eventually developed unique lifeforms of its own, perhaps even intelligent life. But we're here now. And it is ours."
"All the scientific data we've accumulated on space, the flight, the planet, etcetera, is encoded at the end of this transmission. That information is of interest to the Agency and the scientific community of Earth. But this message was intended to serve a different purpose, one that the parents and we agreed on 15 years ago." Danny shook his head somewhat sadly. "Strange, it's like yesterday to us. Hard to think that 15 years have passed -- 20 by the time this transmission reaches Earth."
To me he looked no different, no older, no more mature than the boy we had sent into space, a boy who was now a space vessel commander, responsible for the lives of 299 others. At least I thought that at first, then I looked closer.
There was a certain set to his face that hadn't been there before. Something in his stance, his carriage, the way that he spoke and moved, said that he was a boy no longer. We'd shot our child towards the heavens and he had arrived, the other side of midnight, a man. He had taken command -- a born leader was what all the tests had indicated -- and there were lines of responsibility engraved on his young face. I looked at Katie and I could see in her eyes that she had noticed it too.
"Not a single crewmember was lost to deep-sleep. All 300 of us are healthy and strong." Danny smiled. "Success is ours. Freedom, independence, ungoverned liberty are ours." He pointed directly out at the assemblage. "We can, and will do better than you."
There was a low rumble of talk in the room, as my Danny grew quiet, staring out at them rather haughtily as that sank in. I nearly laughed. Had they expected crying, homesick children? These are the new pioneers, colonists of space. Like Columbus of legend, they'd gone out and claimed their new lands. An entire world is theirs.
"And now, 300 private messages will follow from each of Orion's crewmembers." The fact that he had not once said children did not escape a single parent in the room. "I've seen these messages and I can tell you that you'll find the same overall sentiments in each of them. We're asking our parents not to grieve, not to be sad, or dwell on their loss. Each Orion crewmember speaks of our bright shining future, of the world we will shape."
The big screen faded then. Danny's face was replaced by a terse message saying Encoded Data Transmission while the messages from another 299 children -- correction: Orion crewpersons (for such their commander had called them) -- were received.
It took only a minute before the small screen on our dining table sparked to life. Danny's face, still backgrounded by the Orion's bridge, appeared as clear as before. His previously stern face broke into a sad, and I think somewhat tired, smile at the camera.
"Mom, Dad, when I left, you were at each other's throats. A lot of things were said; a lot of things were done. I hope that in 20 years, you've managed to bury all of that and continue with your lives. By the time I receive a reply to this, I'll be 23 years old. And I'll be walking on a world I helped to create. You'll never know that feeling. You'll never know how I feel now. I have only one regret in leaving and that is that you two were torn apart by it."
He looked down at his feet, a trait of that younger Danny, the boy we had sent off. "They said we wouldn't dream while in deep-sleep, but they were wrong. Sure, the AIs tell me the only dreams are those we have as we're coming out of it, but I disagree. I think I dreamed the whole 15 years. I dreamed of you two together. I dreamed of the brothers and sisters that had been born in my absence. Brothers and sisters now the same age as me. I dreamed of your happiness."
He looked up and the tears in his eyes matched those pouring down his mother's face. Surprised, I found that my own face was quite wet.
"Please be happy together and don't grieve for me. I have my own life here. You have yours. Never forget me, but never, ever be sad for me. What I have experienced already, and what is still to come, is far greater than anything left behind on Earth. I love you both and I can't wait for your reply."
The screen faded to black. A second later, a blinking message in the lower right hand corner instructed us to press a particular button for replay. I lost count of how many times we watched that short message.
Barely an hour later, when it was all over, there were two things in that room unequaled anywhere on the rest of the globe. The first was tears. The second was pride. Pride in what our children had done. Pride in what they would do yet.
Herb Chandler again took the stage. Though he had no child of his own on the Orion, it was obvious that he was as moved as the rest of us. I'd seen him at several tables with families, absorbing what their children had sent. He held up his hands for silence, waiting patiently till he got it before putting them down. "Today, I know for the first time that Orion was the right thing to do. We've sent our freshest minds, the cream of mankind, out to begin again."
Chandler seemed at a loss for words and finally seemed to shrug and give up. "In the next room, there are 50 recording setups. Technicians are waiting at each to help you. Each family has up to 30 minutes as originally agreed. Thank you. Thank all of you for making this work." He walked out then, a man somewhat inebriated by what he had brought about.
I turned to Katie. "Shall we?" I asked, motioning towards the doors leading to the recording rooms. Very few people were heading that way yet.
She surprised me by taking my hand and smiling. "He must never know, Dave."
"That what he dreamed of and longed for never came true."
From her purse she took out pictures of her two children, Johnny and Sarah, and laid them on the table between us. "The brother and sister he wanted."
"Half brother and sister anyway."
"No. We remarried, Dave. These are our children, his brother and sister. That's all he need ever know."
And that's what we told him. We sat before the camera, holding hands and smiling at one another as if everything had worked out for us. We showed him pictures of two children I had never even met. We told him they wished they could have known him.
Most of all, we told him how proud we were of him. We told him we loved him and envied him his trip to the stars. Katie even seemed sincere about the latter.
Afterwards, I put her on a commuter for Atlanta where she'd change over to a direct run to Portland. I held her before she left and we both cried. "Come see us," she said. I said I would, and I almost meant it. Not that I still felt unable to face her or her family. I just think she has her own life to live.
I watched as the commuter picked up speed and accelerated down its black tunnel. It hit the long graceful curve and I lost sight of it for a second until it launched from the end of the accelerator and disappeared into the sky with a thunderclap that shook the ground.
Farewell, Katie. All my love.
I still love her. Hell, I always will. I don't think there'll ever be a woman I'll love as much, but at least now there might actually be another woman in my life. I'm finally ready to let Katie go.
Independence Day. I think I've found my independence as well. Gone is the guilt I'd hidden even from myself. I sent Danny away in my place. I know that now. But Danny went willingly and he holds no regrets.
And so, there is a new beginning for mankind.
And for me.