Twelve Bullets

 

CO_Adams_2012.0236-1

 

12 Bullets

 

That night he drew up near a large pine tree and sat with his back against it. He was too tired to start a fire, but knew he must. As he gathered dead leaves and straw in the area around him, he noticed a piece of broken glass. He held it up to the setting sun and saw it sparkle, a blue hue in the sunset. He thought about the time he’d loaded small rocks and glass into his musket, because he had no more balls to load but still had powder and wadding. The glass killed a boy up close. And he once again saw the face of the boy as he took the shot. His stomach turned over thinking about it. He put the glass in the small cartridge box on his belt, just in case he ran out of lead. The nine cartridges he carried were still intact and he was glad of it. The three load in his revolver made twelve. A dozen rounds to defend his life. He didn’t want to fully load his pistol for fear he’d waste one or two shots. Better to wait and load them if he had to.

The fire was small and smoky. He had nothing to eat but venison jerky, and he drank an extra swallow of water to stave off hunger pangs.

He thought about burying coals and sleeping on them, but the ground had too many pine needles and he worried it would burn him in the night. The wind had picked up at sunset, then died down just as the chill air began to descend from the hills. It was a wet air and soon he was sitting in fog. The yellow glow of the fire surrounded by fog.

A feeling on loneliness ran through him as he stared at the flames. The face of the boy he’d shot came to him, blood spattered, half torn by glass. Then, the many battles he’d been a part of raged in his head. Each memory, a small snippet of moving images, like galloping on the back of a spooked horse, speeding through his mind’s eye: Running through the lines at the battle at The Wilderness. Trees exploding with shot. Dead men lining the trail as he ran over them. Blood and gut-spattered trees.

He stood up and paced, wishing the images away. He held his hand on the sap covered bark of the pine and smelled the pitch on his hands. His fingers stuck together with the pine pitch, but the smell made it better, brought him out of his memories.

He stoked the fire, laid out his bedroll, then rested his head on a small sack stuffed with his extra clothes. He fell asleep seeing the boy’s face as he’d died, cold and lifeless. Then he dreamed of his yellow haired girl, Jilly. She was soft and gentle and had a straight smile. She stood in a brown grass field, in the summer sun. Her whispers caressed his parched lips.

Jilly wanted what he thought all pretty girls want. A good husband, a home and children. A man to come home and take care of the family after a hard day’s work. And he had a mind to give her just that. The thing he remembered most was her soft smell and the touch of smooth skin. Soft as butter, and smelled of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It calmed him, that smell. Her lips were the color of wine when you mixed it with water and held it up to drink. He’d lost her exactly three weeks and two days ago. His Jilly. She’d left town suddenly, and under mysterious circumstances. As far as he was concerned, she was kidnaped. Witnesses saw it. Bad men took her by force and rode west. He’d been on her trail ever since.

Holding his bedroll in his arms, her in his arms, he was finally able to doze off.

*** ***

That night, the Wolves came into camp. He couldn’t figure why they didn’t shoot him dead, but instead, they accepted his nervous invitation to chew some jerky. There was six of them. Bad men. He knew they were bad the minute they approached. Good men don’t come at you in waves, sending the kindest looking one first. Good men don’t scare you by the look in their eyes. Dead men reflected in those eyes.

It was the Tall Man who walked into camp first.

A shadow slowly came out of the foggy wood. A black mass. Then he stepped into the light, and Brett thought he was staring at Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. He wore the same long coat, top hat and beard, and had the same wrinkled, worn-out face.

The Tall Man removed his stove-top hat and held it in his hands, a dull twinkle in his eye. “Can you spare any food, mister? Been on the trail for a while.”

Brett held a hand on his revolver, but the Tall Man had a slow, kindly look about him, so he left it by the tree.

The Tall Man continued. “Yes sir, I seem to recall a time on the trail I helped a man and his son. They were half-near starved and cold as a block of ice in sawdust. I saw that in San Francisco. Big city. Ice in sawdust. Have you seen that type of ice, sir? They say it’s the coldest.”

There was a rustling in the bushes and a horse whinnied.

“Who’s that?” Brett asked.

Slowly the men appeared in the camp, legs spread apart, hands on their weapons.

“Just a few compadres. Drawn to the warmth of your fire. No anointing need be.”

A small man in buckskins stepped closer. “Shut your bone-box.”

The Tall Man bowed slightly and placed the hat upon his head. Brett wanted to reach for the revolver, but it was too late.

“That one there cuts the long bow. Pay no mind, neither.” The small man looked around the camp, like he was checking to see if anything was out of sorts. He nodded and said, “We got rum. What you got for trade?”

Brett said, “Not much.”

“What food you got?”

I got jerky. I’m just out of mystery bags. Ate the last for supper.”

“Month of Sundays since I ate a good jerky. What ‘er they?”

“Venison.”

“That’s a good taste. Mind if we join yah?”

The men walked into the light of the fire and Brett saw there was too many for it to end well for him. He held out the pouch of jerky. The Small Man took it and smiled, a nearly toothless grin. He chewed on a piece, grabbed two more and passed the bag to the Tall Man, who grabbed a fist full and passed it on. By the time they were done, there was nothing left and the bag was ripped out. Small Man handed the bag back and smiled. Brett noticed him staring at his cavalry hat by the tree.

“That’s tasty, right there. Got coffee?”

“Nope.”

“Beans?”

“Nope.”

“Well, then what else you got in that bread bag? Don’t want no hard-bread. Had enough of that to last.”

Brett frowned. “I’d be happy with some hard-bread. I was expecting that jerky to last me a while.”

“You got any shot?”

“Just for my own use.”

“Share some.”

“I need my shot.”

“I don’t give a fart what you need.” They stared at each other. Brett felt the blood rise in his face. “You need yer bag of bones healthy, yah?” A few of the men took a step forward. Brett slowly nodded. “Then we do this my way, the friendly way, or we break yer bones. Now, give me yer shot.”

Brett handed over his cartridge box. The Small Man counted the contents.

“Two, four, six, seven…nine. That’s it?”

Brett nodded. Small Man took Brett’s Spencer repeating rifle and slung it over his shoulder. “You got any coin?”

“No. And please don’t take my rifle.”

“Please? Search him, if you please!” Small Man laughed.

Tall Man grabbed Brett. Two others went through his clothes. They found the five silver dollars he’d saved and had stashed inside his breast pocket. Another two men searched the rest of his belongings. When they were done and had everything they wanted, they mounted their horses and rode away, not saying a word.

Brett stood by the fire and collected himself. They’d taken his Colt Bowie knife, his coin and his Spencer Repeating Rifle. He could kill them, one by one, and vowed to get his things back. He wondered why they hadn’t just slit his throat, then he remembered Small Man looking at his cavalry hat. A veteran maybe?

After a while, Brett sat back by the tree and brooded. He felt hollow. Violated. Like he’d been punched sideways when not looking. The thieves were long gone, having been on horseback. Brett had a feeling he knew where they’d go, though. The only town within a few miles was Collins. Best to get in a few hours rest. They’d left his bedroll and his clothes in a heap. He gathered them up into a bed and after a while nodded off.

Daybreak came quickly and Brett awoke with a start. A tree branch snapped nearby. He sat up and listened. An animal walked in the leaves. Could have been a squirrel or something larger. Brett pulled out the Colt Revolver he’d kept hidden by the tree and cocked the hammer. He was glad they didn’t find his Colt. It had been with him since his darkest days in the war. Rode into battle with it in his left hand, the right being the horse’s reins. He’d shot men dead with that pistol. And as sick as he was of killing, now he would do it again, so help him almighty.

Brett stood by the tree and stared out at the trail. The Tall Man stood not ten-feet away, clutching his side. Blood covered the back of his hand, and he appeared near falling.

*** ***

Small Man’s name was Roscoe Hunter, and he didn’t like weak men. He’d seen his share of cowards in the war. Turn tail runners, he called ‘em. But that man giving up his Spencer last night, he could tell, was no coward. He’d stood his ground and was polite about it. He respected that.

As they turned up the hill away from the game trail and headed ‘round the slope toward the town, Roscoe Hunter turned his horse and watched for Jeb Castor. He was a lying, fool talk’n, no good, sod busting coward if he’d ever seen one, and he’d grown tired of having to tell that fool what to do. Jeb approached slowly from the rear, riding that tall mare, came up lame every other day. When Jed stopped a few yards back, that stupid look on his face, Roscoe had had enough.

Jeb stood his ground, and Roscoe almost respected that, but he knew it was only out of confusion, not bravery.

Roscoe pointed at the mare and said, “That horse slowing us down a’gin. I ain’t have’n none of it. You get off that hoss and let’s see that rear hoof she bin favor’n.”

“It’s a loose shoe is all, Roscoe. I was gonna mend it first thing.”

“Git.”

Jeb dismounted and walked back his hand to the right rear hoof and lifted. Roscoe was close enough so he could see a nail had come loose and had torn out part of the hoof. “Let me see that.” Roscoe slid off his mount and took hold of the hoof. “You no account Jonah. How you let this animal be like that?”

Roscoe grabbed the nail, twist it out and in one swift motion, ran it into Jeb’s gut. When Jeb bent over, Roscoe slapped him on the face and kneed his forehead. Jeb fell back, the nail still stuck in his side.

“I can’t abide sloppy. I can’t abide cruelty to animals. Now get your ass out of here.”

Jeb sat up dazed, holding his side, a dumbfounded look on his face. “But Roscoe.” His upper lip quivered. “I ain’t done nothing to deserve that.” Tears filled Jeb’s eyes.

Roscoe turned away in disgust. “You ain’t done nothing….”

The other men gathered their mounts around in a circle. They’d seen this show before. Just last week Roscoe kicked a boy out of the group for being stupid with the gun powder, and now he was even angrier at Jeb.

“How long you been riding with us?” asked Roscoe.

“You know how long. I joined you all…”

“I joined you all…” Roscoe mocked.

Jeb turned to the other men for sympathy, but met stone faces. “You all know me.”

“How long, you tall-tale jawing, bone box yapper?” Roscoe said, waving the air the way Jeb did when unfurling a long winded story.

Jeb rubbed dirt into his palms, as if to sooth him somehow. “Since Charlottesville,” he said, almost like it was question.

“My horse’s teat! All the way since then. That’s been half a year or more, and I swear to God you been slowing us down ever since. You lazy! Let your mount rot under foot.” Jeb started to answer, but Roscoe continued. “I’ll tell you what fer. You a lazy, malingering, son-of-a-bitch, and I’ve had done with you. We called The Wolves. Not the Lazy Malingering Jaw-box’s! Now, go on. Git.”

Jeb started to get up, and Roscoe kicked him in the ass. Jeb fell back and the men laughed. When Jeb limped toward his mount, Jeb stepped in front of him.

“Oh, no. You done with this hoss. Now go!”

*** ***

Now, Jeb stood at the dude’s camp, hoping to get some food or water or more. Maybe it was because the dude had seemed a proper gentleman. Even in the midst of robbing him, he was polite and calm. Or maybe it was because he’d seen the pistol hidden by the tree and hadn’t said anything about it to the others. The dude saw he’d noticed the sidearm and hadn’t raised the alarm. He could have snatched that pistol for himself, but he hadn’t. He’d left the dude a fighting chance. Maybe that would make the dude trust him. Now, he needed that gun. He could talk to the dude, bide his time, gain his trust. Talking is something he could do.

Jeb moved in the shadows of the trees and spoke in a soft voice. “I came to this country as a lad of eight. Travelling with my uncle and cousins. There were five of us in that rickety wagon. We made our way by chopping wood, selling it for fire. Sometimes, we’d get in a bad scrape for chopping the wrong wood.”

The dude held the gun on Jeb. “That’s close enough.”

“We also skinned. Sold the pelts. Since I know how to read, sometimes I taught lessons for coin.”

“You took everything I had.”

“Not I, good sir. As you can see, I am no longer a member in good standing in the Wolves. I can no longer abide their ways. Your robbery was the last straw and I told them as much. Unfortunately, they didn’t see it that way and here I am. At your mercy.”

“What you want?”

“Nothing much, Sir. A crumb of bread. Perhaps a drink. I’ve been traveling through the night.”

“You’re a thief. Been kicked away by worse people that yourself.”

“That’ Sir, is indubitable. However, I’d like a chance to explain myself.”

“I’m leaving now. Go your way, I’ll go mine.”

“But Sir-“

The man with the gun took a step toward him. “Empty your pockets.”

“I came here in good faith, sir.”

The dude cocked the pistol. Jeb placed the contents of his pockets on the ground. The dude snatched-up his pocket knife.

“That’s my best blade, sir.”

“Y’all stole mine. I’m taking your piddling little sticker. Now, git.”

Jeb smiled, but stood his ground. “Perhaps I can interest you in a partnership? You’ll want your Spencer repeating rife returned, no doubt. I know where the Wolves are heading. You can get all your things back. My name is Jeb, by the way.”

*** ***

They walked from the scrub and the frozen mud-trails up the rocky hills and into the higher elevations, then down into the cold and windless canyon. A deep hollow between the shimmering ridges of tall pines.

They sat, breathless and wind-burnt, in the snow under an immense pine tree, and struck cold flint to steel. They grappled with the twine and twigs, until sparks flamed into a smoky fire. He packed snow into the rusted can he’d slung along for drinking and it melted over the hot coals. After the can was empty, he packed it again and when it melted, offered it to Jeb, who was sitting, his back against a tall pine.

Jeb rubbed the spot where the nail entered his side. Blood still seeped onto his fingers, sticky and warm. He took the can and drank the warm water.

“Why haven’t we caught up to them, yet?” asked Brett.

Jeb stayed quiet, his hand clutching the wound.

Brett shook his head. “You’ve been playing me for a fool. Been three days. They ain’t up ahead. You’re bringing us up into the colder places.”

“The camp is just a few miles away. I know it well.”

“I don’t believe you. And I don’t have enough to take you any further.”

Jeb’s eyes fell to his worn shoes, his half-frozen toes peeking out the wear-holes. “So, my dear friend; I’m soon gone, anyway. The puss has got me.” He smelled his fingers and shook his head. “I ask you one last favor. Will you bury me when I go? I don’t want to be food for the animals.”

Brett looked away, then half-nodded.

“And take this letter to my girls?”

The tired man unfolded a wrinkled paper and held it out. Brett reluctantly reached for it. As he extended his arm, Jeb lunged forward, exposing a knife in his left hand. He fell on Brett and jabbed him with the blade. Twisting out from under his weight, Brett got to his feet and kicked the Jeb’s hand. The knife flew away, lost under loose snow. Then he kicked Jeb squarely in the head. The tall let out a yelp, staggered in a circle, then fell back, blood seeping from behind his ear.

Brett staggered back and touched his side, his fingers came back warm with blood. He leaned against the tree and carefully felt the wound. It was not deep enough to kill him, at least not right away.

The paper Jeb held out was lying in the snow. A drop of red blood highlighted the fold. He snatched it up and saw it was a receipt for grain, purchased at a store in a town many miles away. He looked at the tall man, his head haloed in red snow, and knew he wouldn’t wake up again.

A search of Jeb’s pockets revealed fifty-cents, a corn-cob pipe filled with half smoked tobacco and a metal button. The eagle on the button was used by the Southern Army in the war. Perhaps he’d been a soldier. Brett didn’t much care. He’d had his fill of the army and killing. He took the man’s meager belongings and started out of the basin.

His legs grew tired and cold in his ragged pants, but he was glad his boots were strong and felt good on his feet. Perhaps the cool weather would help him not need so much water? He walked until his legs ached and his feet began to freeze. When he felt too tired to go on, he walked another half-hour or so before collapsing on the hillside. The snow was melted, but his toes throbbed from the cold and he was sorry he’d waited so long to stop. He built a good fire and sat with his feet near the flames. All night his feet ached, and he had little sleep. Finally, around sun-up, he was warm enough that the pain stopped and he put his shoes on.

To be cont’d….

 

 

Ghost in a Box

ghost

Ghost in a Box

It must be the medication. The dreams have been vivid these past few days. Spiders, strange obstacles to overcome, and now…ghosts. This isn’t the first time I’ve dreamed of the dead coming back to haunt me. There have been several that I can remember. The most vivid ghost dreams involved an old buddy of mine. I was good friends with him many years ago. We were young and a bit on the wild side, I must confess. After moving away and many life changes, I hadn’t talked to him for almost 20 years. He kept coming into my dreams and taking them over. He was a rowdy guy, always drinking, carousing, having fun, so the dreams always involved him in car chases, or getting into a fight and beating up somebody. He even threatened to kill me in one dream. Held a knife toward me. Very menacing. After each dream visit, I’d awaken and wonder why the hell I was thinking of him. I began to ask him, in my dream, to leave me alone. I’d be having a very normal dream and suddenly, there he was, riding up on a motorcycle or convertible muscle car. He take me away and we’d find our selves in some drug filled party or elaborate scheme too convoluted to be remembered upon waking. Upon waking, I’d wonder out loud, why? And ask him to please go away. Finally, I did an internet search for the guy and found he’d died the same month I started dreaming about him. That was a little freaky. And sad. It was chilling seeing his obituary photo and realizing he was no more. He died young, but I wasn’t surprised. He’d lived hard and died young, just the way he said he would.

I’d had another series of dreams where my old roommate of four years kept showing up, only each time the dream was about him renting out my room. I’d come home to find a strangers cluttering up my room, my bed gone, a series of cots installed and me, in a state of shock and despair, climbing over people to get to my bed. Variations of this dream repeated for several months, always involving strangers taking over my room, often they were drug addicts and derelicts. I’d moved on and lost touch with my former roommate several years ago. Out of frustration and curiosity, I performed an internet search. I couldn’t find him anywhere. I searched his name and home town, his alma mater, Facebook and found nothing. Finally, I asked him to please leave me alone and I haven’t had more than a few dreams of him in the last few years. I am assuming he has passed. Probably a long time ago, of complications from drug and alcohol addiction. He, too, was a hard-party guy, and loved that life a little too much. (Don’t ask how I found these guys, because I am a wimp. I don’t even drink anymore)

Ghosts have been a theme in my dreams since I was a kid. My first ghost nightmare came in the form of a leathery, gray haired old hag, rocking in her chair and staring at me, a knowing squint in her eye, and somehow forcing me to giver her a kiss. I remember screaming, “It’s the old hag!” and I became hysterical, bit her, then ran off.

But last night. That was a good one. It involved a ghost on a television. I and my family, who were a mixture of my current family and the family I grew up with, rented a haunted house by the sea. It was an old, white Victorian home, with many large rooms, all trimmed in wood, with great windows and high ceilings. We were unaware of the ghostly residents, until in the middle of the night, the lights came on, a cold wind ripped through the house blowing everyone’s hair around like flopping wigs, and the TV came to life, depicting a wailing ghost, screaming for us to get out of her house. The feeling of fear, panic and anxiety was palpable. As we scurried to leave just as a fire broke out and dashed past wind whipped flames and laughing specters.

Later in the dream, I was talking to another friend about the experience and he suddenly become very serious and wanted to know all he could about the screaming, fire-starting spooks. I remember telling him about the ghost on the TV, who was young, maybe about twelve, a girl, with wild hair and crazy eyes. I also mentioned that the fire department had come, and that we’d gone back to the house only to wander through the partially singed, smoke scented rooms. The Victorian stood on a cliff,  near the ocean, next door to a boyhood summer home we’d had. (This configuration was impossible, but so was the dream) I suggested we rent the other house, but no-one seemed to know or care about that, because, as usual the dream began to decay into a unfocused jumble. And then I woke up.

I immediately went on Facebook to look-up the friend who had shown an interest in the ghosts, but he hadn’t posted since November. I’m sure he’s fine, alive and well. It’s not knowing for sure that stays with me, in the back of my mind. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s the sleeping meds I took last night. I don’t know. Seems I always tend to dream of dead people, whether medicated or not. And spooky kids in a box.

If you want, you can read more about ghosts and dreams in my psychic detective series, Dream State, on Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Dream-State-Sleeping-Detective-Book-ebook/dp/B01M5CO8UC/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=

 

 

The Lucid Spider

spider

The Lucid Spider

This is the spider I saw on the ceiling this morning. I drew him in ink and took  this photo to show you what he looked like. I’m calling him Gray Ghost. He appeared above my head and walked toward the bedpost before fading away. I closed my eyes and quickly reopened them, to see the spider back in original spot. It walked toward the wall, again, as if on repeat. My first thought; It’s not real. Probably a lucid dream.

Lucid dreaming is when you become aware you are dreaming and sometimes even begin to actively control your dream. (Comes in handy with certain types of dreams, but I won’t elaborate) Although, each time I become aware I am dreaming and try to control my lucid dream, it quickly evaporates into the ether and I awaken. Apparently, lucid dreamers have a more highly developed area of the brain that allows for self-reflection. If what I’ve been thinking lately can be called self-reflection (rather that self-deprecation), then yes, I would lean toward this notion. I tend to self-reflect quite a bit. Not because I’m self-absorbed, as much as the fact that I am a writer, a thinker and an artist. You must think to write and paint.

However, upon some research, I realized this was probably a Hypnagogic Hallucination. I’ve been having that type of hallucination for years. Several times I have awakened to find a dark figure standing at the edge of my bed, and although I can’t see a face, the figure is apparently staring at me, as if this ungodly creature was wanting something unfathomable.

Another particularly vivid hallucination came after playing a video game entitled, Red Barron, a WWI bi-plane aerial combat game. I awoke to observe a small red bi-plane fly into my bedroom and come straight at me. It was so tangibly real, I sat up in bed, threw a pillow at it, and yelled, “Get out!” My wife did not understand, nor appreciate my reaction.

The thing that’s strange about the spider hallucination though, was after closing and re-opening my eyes, Gray ghost reappeared, in the exact same spot on the ceiling as before and began its short, spidery journey toward the wall. I know it wasn’t real, because of the way it looked. It was a ghost. A large, Gray Ghost of a spider, crawling slowly across the ceiling. And yes, it was as creepy as it sounds.

Why a spider, I ask myself? Why not something else, like a flower or a beetle? I have no hatred or fear of spiders, beyond that of any normal person. I haven’t been bitten by a black widow or nuclear infused spider. I haven’t been seeing them in the yard or the house, lately. And yet, I saw the damn thing in my strange half-sleep state. So next time, if there is a next time, when it comes, I’ll be ready. I’ve been training myself to lucid dream. Part of which is to remind yourself (if you can, it’s quite difficult) that you are dreaming. If Gray Ghost spider comes back, I’ll be ready. I’ll remember to remind myself to fall back into a lucid dream and then I’ll kill the little bastard! I wonder if Gray Ghost spiders leave any splatter?

 

All That Smells!

nose

“What seems to be the trouble?” The man leaned in, pointing a light at my eyes. I could smell coconut butter and vanilla pudding on his breath.

“I can smell everything.”

He opened my lids with his fingers and shone the light at my eyes. “Mmmm. That’s perfectly normal.”

A nurse walked down the hall and I could smell hamburgers and ketchup and pickles wafting into the room.

“No, you don’t understand. I smell everything, as in all things.”

“All things, all at once? That would be kind of confusing. That’d smell like mud, wouldn’t it? How can you tell them apart?”

“They come to me one at a time.”

“What do you mean, like in a queue?”

“I’m not sure. I guess I just recognize them quickly, so they don’t blend.”

‘I see,” he said and wrote more notes.

“You have no idea, Doc, how many foul things I smell every day. It’s a rotten world.”

“So, this smelling thing, it’s going on right now?”

I looked at the trash can. He followed my eyes, then walked over and popped open the lid. The strong smell of antiseptic and bandages hit my nose.

“What does that smell like, then?” He asked.

“Like a hospital.”

“Hmmm.” He wrote something in his chart, then hit my knee with a rubber mallet.

“That thing, there…” I said, pointing to the instrument.

“The mallet? What about it?”

“You should replace it. It smells like old rubber.”

He looked at the instrument, then smiled. “Remarkable. Very astute of you. You know, this is the old one. I have a new one right here.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a  mallet still wrapped in plastic. “You see?” he said, pointing it at me.

There was a knock on the slightly opened door. An attractive blonde woman stood partly obscured in the hallway. “Excuse me a moment,” he said and walked over to greet her. He closed the door, and that fanned a smell into the room. I knew immediately what it was. I cringed at the thought, but I knew right away what she had done.

When he came back into the room, he smiled and apologized and continued writing in his notes. “So…,” he said, not looking up. “This thing you have, is it bothering you? I mean, it’s not disrupting your sleep, or your work? You’re not distracted by it all the time, are you?”

I rubbed my sweating hands on my knees and didn’t say anything. He looked up, obviously reading my concern. “So, it’s causing you some worry?”

I couldn’t help myself. I had to say it. I held my breath for a second, as if inhaling courage from the air. When I felt lightheaded, and began to get dizzy, let it out. “She’s cheating,” I blurted.

He looked confused. “I’m sorry, what?”

“That woman. She’s your wife, I could smell you on her.”

“That’s not your concern.”

“Yes but, that’s not all…” I rubbed my hands harder on my lap, then jumped up from the table. “I should just go.”

The doctor blocked my exit. “Hold on a second. We’re not finished your examination. You have borderline high blood pressure. I want to run labs, maybe get you a referral for this obvious anxiety.”

“It wasn’t you. Okay? It was somebody else, and not that long ago.”

He stared at me a second, then put his iPad down on the table. “I mean…we could have you see somebody…”

“She was with someone this morning. I’m sorry. It was fresh and plain as day. I could smell the man…” He put his hands in his white coat pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He looked at me again, as if to confirm his thoughts, and I shrugged. “Sorry,” I mumbled.

As he registered what I was saying, his face turned dark red and his eyes glowed black. I started to say something, but he bolted from the room.

I stood alone for a minute, considering what to do, when another nurse came in. “I guess he had an emergency,” I said, smiling.

She looked at the exit door, as if she’d find some sort of answer there. “Is that what’s going on? He ran past me and didn’t say a word. Did he get a phone call or something?”

I shrugged. “More like a wake-up call, I guess.”

She smiled and the sweet smell of cherry candy wafted over me.

I started for the door. “I’ll make another appointment.”

“You do that. See the girl at the front desk. I’m so sorry.” She turned and walked to her station to get the ringing phone.

I waved as I walked past the nurse’s desk. A basket of assorted lollipops sat near the phone. “Can I?” I said, indicating the sweets. She nodded yes. I grabbed a lemon pop, then handed her my business card. She turned the card over and read aloud, “Smiley Detective Agency. If it smells we’re on it.”

I tossed the candy wrapper into the trash and waved goodbye as I walked out into the smelly world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Powerful and compelling, “Infinity 7” by Charles R. Hinckley is a riveting psychological sci-fi adventure

Reviewed by Reader Views

Powerful and compelling, “Infinity 7” by Charles R. Hinckley is a riveting psychological sci-fi adventure that readers won’t soon forget!  When suspicious communication comes from the Metis 3 Space Station requesting a team to investigate malfunctions and the possibility of alien life forms, astronaut and astrophysicist John Collins knows he is headed back to space.  Developer of the Metis Space Program, Collins has dedicated his professional career to this project, at great personal cost, and will do whatever it takes to keep the funding flowing for this research. Discovery of alien spores found in soil samples have been mishandled by Forrest, one of the techs, putting the entire station in danger of contamination.  Strange behavior from the crew and the mainframe computer system suggest alien forces have taken over as an entranced crew member is determined to destroy the space station.  Fighting hallucinations and madness caused by exposure to the spore toxins, John Collins is in for the fight of his life and the future of the earth.  This story is a fantastic read!  I really enjoyed the writing – Hinckley has a talent for creating vivid, colorful, life-like descriptions in every paragraph, and not a word is wasted. The plotline is complex without being overwhelming; the various layers of the story are sophisticated and round out the entire story as a whole.    The author’s imagination seems limitless as the creativity displayed in the scenes and the settings compel the reader to plow through the pages.  The hallucination scenes are frightening, the nightmarish-like sequences had me questioning reality right alongside the characters. Somehow, even though Hinckley paints clear visuals, he also leaves enough room for the reader to incorporate their own visions as well, and that is one of the things I love so much about a well-told story.  And the characters – wow!  From the creepy camera that follows the crew around (yes, the camera is life-like and so deemed a character), to the sexy holographic woman that was “enhanced” by one of the techs, to the crew members and a mysterious old man – all the characters have dimension and personality – even the alien spores! The protagonist is realistic and likable – he’s a single dad trying to raise a teenage daughter while grieving a monumental loss.  He’s also flawed and has questionable motives throughout but is definitely someone readers will want to succeed. Overall, I found this to be an incredible read and I think the story sets itself up nicely to be on the big screen one day.  Readers of sci-fi and psychological thrillers will enjoy “Infinity 7” by Charles R. Hinckley.

Infinity 7 (Part 5)

space suit

5

 

He isn’t sure where the sound is coming from. A strange gurgling rising above the hum of Infinity 7’s vibrant cabin. His eyes pop open and he realizes he’s been dreaming. Something about getting water from the O2 dispenser on board Infinity 7, but it wouldn’t give up a drop of liquid, only a thick, dark sludge oozing out like river mud. John unbuckles his chest and shoulders and sits up, turning around in his chair. There is that sound again. Perhaps it’s coming from inside Infinity 7 and he’d incorporated it into his dream.

Weightless and still strapped at the waist to his chair, he manages to turn and unbuckle completely. To his right, Dr. Lee is floating freely, his arms flailing back and forth as if trying to maneuver underwater. Hovering in front of him, as if inspecting a curiosity, is Lee’s new camera. The gurgling sound again, only louder this time. John pushes himself toward Lee, who is floating face down, toward the deck of the cabin. An alarm buzzer fills the cabin. Ground Control is trying to communicate.

Sputum and foamy vomit float in front of Lee’s face. His eyes are rolled back in his head, as he gasps for breath. John manages to get a hold on Lee’s arm and directs him to a chair. For an instant, Lee looks at John through watery red eyes, like he’d been choking or crying.

“Dr. Lee, can you breathe?”

Lee tries to speak but only gurgles.

“Are you choking? Can you breathe?”

Lee manages to move his head back and forth. No, he’s not choking.

“Heart attack?”

Lee nods slightly and clasps his hand to his chest.

Ignoring the surge of adrenaline exploding in his own chest, John takes hold of Lee’s head and looks him in the eye. “Okay, Michael, I’m going to get you strapped in. What should I do?”

Lee grunts in pain and slowly raises an arm toward the med kit. Through clenched teeth he manages one word, “Nitroglycerine.”

John pushes Lee into his chair and secures the harnesses, then pulls himself across the cabin to the med kit. A barely perceptible, high-pitched buzzing distracts him and he turns to see the camera hovering near his face. “Get away!” He swings his arm toward the camera and it zooms across the cabin. He unlatches the med box and the kit tilts open, revealing white pouches of varying sizes, all wrapped in plastic and labeled with generic blue markings. John grabs pouches marked Aspirin and Nitroglycerine, along with a water packet. Struggling to open the plastic seal on the nitroglycerine, he finally rips it with his teeth and grabs a capsule. Positioning himself next to Lee, he takes a hold under his chin and lifts his head up. “Open your mouth, Michael.”

Lee’s jaw is rigid, almost fixed, and he can barely open his mouth more than a couple of centimeters. John shoves the pill in, then plunges a straw into a water packet and holds it out for Lee to drink.

Lee takes a few sips. “Aspirin,” he says, faintly.

John rips open an aspirin packet and Lee manages to get one down. John grabs an oxygen line and places the mask over Michael’s nose and mouth. “Slow and deep. Slow and deep.” Lee takes a deep breath, then another.

Suddenly aware of a flashing emergency alert, John turns toward the navigation console. “Code 7,” he reads aloud. The bottom falls out of his stomach. Loss of cabin pressure. “Computer, check cabin pressure.”

“Cabin pressure is within normal parameters.”

“Why are we experiencing a Code 7 alert?”

The computer doesn’t respond. John looks at Lee, who seems more comfortable now.

“Computer, where is the Code 7?”

“Code 7 indicates a breach of cabin pressure. Cabin pressure is normal.”

Ground Control continues to buzz in. John ignores them for another moment.

“Then why is the damn alarm going off?”

“I did it,” Dr. Lee whispers. “Wake you up.”

John feels foolish. Had he slept that soundly?

As if reading John’s expression, Lee continues, “Couldn’t move. Pain.”

“What else can I do for you?”

“Nothing to do. Keep calm. Better tell Control about my situation.”

With those words, John becomes aware of the comm buzzer, his own heart raging in his chest. Lee’s apparent calmness helps him, and he mimics his steady breathing, in and out, slow and easy.

He presses a button on the control panel. “Standby Control.”

Vomitus floats perilously close to John’s face. The smell overwhelms him and he nearly gags. He grabs a plastic utility bag and manages to trap most of the masticated sputum inside. As he captures larger chunks of partially digested food and seals it in the bag, the smell begins to dissipate.

“Man, what the hell did you eat?” John smiles and looks at Lee, who’s unnaturally still. John maneuvers over to him and realizes his eyes are wide, and he’s struggling to breathe. “What should I do, Doctor? Tell me!”

John propels himself over to the medical kit and finds a package labeled Thrombolytic. He remembers reading something about this medicine in an emergency medical course. He holds the package up for Lee to see.

“This? Should I use this?”

Lee is dazed but manages a nod. John holds out Lee’s arm and unzips the flight suit emergency access port. Lee’s arm falls free and John sets up an intravenous drip of thrombolytic. Lee’s skin is pale.

“Dr. Lee! Can you hear me?”

Lee’s eyes are glazing over.

“No, no, don’t! You can’t! Should I use the defibrillator?”

John pushes off the chair and glides across the cabin. Near the container of meds, in bold letters he sees what he is looking for: DEFIBRILLATOR is printed across a red canvas bag. After unraveling the cord and juicing-up the machine, he secures the portable defibrillator and pulls the electrode wires from the box. John moves back to Lee, who is motionless, staring, his pupils dilated and fixed, a puzzled look on his face, as if facing an enigmatic circumstance. John pounds Lee’s chest, then puts his ear to listen for a heartbeat, but does not find one. Lee stiffens and gulps air.

“Come on, Lee. Come back.”

John continues to pump Lee’s chest for several minutes. Lee’s body is still now, no more thrashing or gulping. John rips open Lee’s flight suit and attaches the defibrillator pads to his chest. Lee’s body convulses and flies back into his chair with each shock. After a few minutes, John realizes it’s hopeless. Lee’s lips are blue, his eyes empty.

Panic rips through him. How could this happen? Lee was in good shape, wasn’t he? John stares at Lee’s lifeless body, arms floating loosely in the near zero gravity.

John’s attention switches to the navigation/telemetry hologram in the center of the crew compartment and realizes that, travelling at such high speed, maneuvering to turn the ship would be too intricate. They’d already reached the halfway point fifty-seven minutes earlier, probably when John had dreamed of the bad water dispenser. He finds it odd that he would dream of a water dispenser, since they didn’t even have one on board. The dispenser he’d dreamed of was similar to the one on Metis 3. Infinity 7 has no such device. The memory of that oozing sludge and the blank, pale-faced stare of Lee combine into a nightmarish reality.

Sweat pours down his face and he wipes it away with the back of his hand. Water droplets float free and he chases them with a tissue. Had the cabin temperature changed? He pushes away from Lee, and floats to the navigation console. “Computer, cabin temperature.”

“The cabin temperature is currently sixty-nine degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Lower temperature one degree.”

“Acknowledged. Be aware: a decrease in temperature will result in two percent less energy consumption.”

“How about if a crew member dies? What energy savings then?”

“A saving of approximately—”

“Stop.”

John realizes he has to tell Control something. He can’t put it off any longer. “Hold on Ground Control. Having a bit of a suit problem up here.”

Lee’s camera buzzes in front of John, then darts across the cabin. John stares at Lee’s lifeless body, his flight suit ripped open, electrodes attached to pale wires, like strange microtubules emanating from the spindle poles of some parasitic creature. Pale blue tinges the side of Lee’s face and lips, and exhibits pallor mortis: the drained, white look of the dead. Had he had a secret health problem? John hovers over Lee for a few seconds, trying to process what has transpired, then reaches into a cabinet marked Containers. He retrieves a thermal Mylar body bag, stored on board for such contingencies.

Despite his feelings of horror and dissociation, John can’t help but think of the negative impact this may have on whole Metis program. If Lee’s death, while on a mission, were to leak to the press, it would finish his quest for government funding. The anti-science factions would have a field day. The last time a crewperson died while on a mission, the accident with the moon rover, he hadn’t realized the potential repercussions. The story falling into the hands of the anti-science dark news media outlets ripped apart the Metis Program, and its pitiful mission of exploration and search for extraterrestrial life became fodder for blasphemy. It cost him dearly in funding and prestige.

In comparison, Karen’s fatal mission had been early on, and no one specifically blamed the Metis Program. Since the founder’s wife had been on board, they had taken mercy on him and the program. However, an esteemed scientist dying on this mission, albeit of natural causes, would be catastrophic. It would be spun endlessly in the dark media and used to illustrate the folly of space exploration. His life’s work would be in mortal jeopardy. Either he’d maintain control of Metis and all that he had achieved—the first manned mission to Mars, exploring the moon, and potentially finding alien life—or it would be diminished to one more untimely death, and destroy the whole program. The rover accident had fueled the wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment among the politicians, and had forced him, after major cuts from federal programs, into finding private funding. Even now, the mining companies were hedging their bets, starting to develop their own outer terrestrial mining interests based purely on off-world mineral speculation. It was only a matter of time until space exploration—true scientific exploration for its own sake—would be diminished drastically, leaving only commercial mining enterprises.

Metis is the last scientific program dedicated purely to scientific discovery. A handful of other programs exist—the Chinese, the Russians, and the Japanese—but John’s is the only program not entirely dedicated to the raping of off-world mineral wealth. No, there will be no deaths on board any of his missions. Not if he can help it.

John releases Dr. Lee from his restraints and lifts his body into the Mylar bag. He pulls the zipper closed, carefully pushing Lee’s head forward, smoothing his thick, gray hair clear of the zipper elements. Once the bag is secured, he presses the Evacuate button and a whooshing sound indicates the air is being sucked from the bag, leaving a distinctly eerie outline of the corpse. Dr. Lee will be preserved, frozen if need be, and brought back to Earth for his untimely death. There will be no evidence of it ever occurring on board Infinity 7.

“Ground Control, this is Collins. So sorry. We’ve had a malfunction with Dr. Lee’s suit. He’s had a bit of a mishap, stomach issues. We’ve taken it offline. Will update as soon as practicable.” John doesn’t wait for a response. He disconnects the comm, silencing his connection to Earth, and turns toward Lee.

Golden light reflects from crags and peaks of the death wrapping, as John hoists the ghostly bundle through the cabin. He unlocks cold-storage locker B and slides Dr. Lee’s corpse inside. Bowing his head in reverence of his friend, he turns the lock and seals the door. John turns away, not wanting to focus on the sadness of the situation. Lee’s pipe floats freely nearby. John drifts over to it. Teeth marks dot the mouthpiece. Lee’s habit had been a benign one: John had never seen him actually load the pipe with tobacco or smoke it. John reopens the locker and places the pipe inside before turning the key once more

“Rest easy, Michael. I’m so sorry…” John bows his head and tears fill his eyes.

A small chunk of masticated and partially digested pork floats in front of him. John captures it in a plastic bag, seals it, and places it into a recycle container for later redistribution. Realizing his mistake, he tries to retrieve the bag, but it is locked in place in the recycle chamber. “I’ll have to remember to retrieve that bag,” he says aloud. They’ll pull it from recycle and wonder what it is. Ask questions.

Shit.

Everything is being recorded.

A wave of anxiety sweeps over John and he begins to hyperventilate, then realizing his breathing is off, he consciously takes slow deep breaths. In for five seconds, out for four, in for five…After a few minutes, his head begins to clear.

“Computer, hold all visual transmissions.”

“All visual transmissions on hold.”

He knows the recordings will not be seen right away as they get further from Earth, due to the transmission lag.

“Computer, halt all personnel vital signs transmissions and scramble all future health transmissions, authorization Level 3.”

“Transmissions halted. All health data transmissions have been scrambled.”

“Show me the last transmitted visual image from Infinity 7 to Command.”

A holographic visual pops up in the center of the cabin. In the projection, Dr. Lee is busy working on the navigation console. The lights are low. John is asleep in his chair. Dr. Lee turns and bends over. He clutches his chest and appears to convulse, then vomits spews across the cabin. It snakes around into the air in front of Lee, then holds in place. The visual stops. Lee is freeze-framed, bending over the console. A time stamp runs across the bottom of the visual: less than an hour ago.

John’s heart pounds as he sits in his chair. “Computer, send the following message, unscrambled, to headquarters: ‘Dr. Lee’s motion sickness is under control. Having problems with suit health monitoring capability. That function has been disabled. Standby for updates.’”

“Message sent.”

John wipes moisture from his eyes. A tear floats up in front of his face and lingers in front of his nose. “How long until rendezvous with Metis 3?”

“Six hours and fifty-three minutes until scheduled docking.”

He snatches up the tear and places it onto his suit.

A blur in the corner of his vision, above and to the left, is Lee’s camera, hovering a few feet above the console, coding a 3D holographic record of the whole mess. John pushes off his seat and reaches for the hovering object, but it moves to the left, then buzzes to the opposite side of the cabin. The camera repositions itself, the lens now focused squarely on John.

“Camera, pause.”

The camera emits a gentle hum.

“Camera, stop.”

Again, the teardrop synthetic polymer-encased robotic camera doesn’t respond.

John moves toward the camera. The object simply moves away in equal measure. It’s as though the thing is alive, instinctively aware of some unknown peril. What did Lee call it?

“Uh, camera…uh, Smarteye, move three meters to the left.”

The camera darts right, across the cabin and turns to face him.

“Smarteye, pause recording.”

The red light on the front of the camera continues blinking.

“Smarteye, shut down.”

The camera does not respond.

Perhaps the batteries will die soon, John thinks. Although he’s doubtful. Crystal batteries last months. “Smarteye, stop recording.”

The camera emits a faint hum. John pushes forward and tries to swat it from the air, but it darts away. On the side of the camera, he sees the recharging port. Devices like these are made to recharge by capturing energy up to one foot away from any charging outlet. John pushes off the chair, floating over to the med kit. Among the white packages, he spots one labeled Scalpel. He opens the package and pulls out the sharp bladed knife. If he can only jam that recharging port. As he pushes off toward the camera, the little beast races to the top of the cabin, continuing to record.

That’s enough. He’ll catch the camera later. He replaces the scalpel in the med kit and pushes himself back into his chair. Resting his head on the support, and taking a deep breath, he begins to relax a bit, then buckles himself in. From his zippered sleeve pocket, he retrieves two Lorazepam. They dissolve quickly in his mouth. The camera hovers near the top of the module, darting left, then right, all the while emitting the little buzz that says it’s still working. He’ll deal with that little beast once docked at Metis.

A tear trickles from the corner of his eye and he dabs it with an absorbent tissue before it floats away. His eyes sting. Perhaps the air is too dry. Or is it that his trusted friend is dead, stuffed into a body bag and placed in a storage locker? The thought that the brilliant Michael Lee is stuffed into a golden Mylar bag makes him feel unimaginably sad. The stark realization of being alone, absolutely alone, in space, in life, in the universe, washes over him. He unbuckles and pushes off from the chair. He floats freely in the cabin, away from the instruments and the chairs, away from the shame and the guilt and the adrenaline coursing through him.

The feeling of weightless compounds his isolophobia, overpowers his thoughts, and he imagines himself outside Infinity 7, soaring untethered, thousands of miles above Earth. The bright blue ball below reflecting blinding light as the sun bursts around the earth’s crust, illuminating the hydrosphere in blinding rays. Brilliant silver sunbeams reflect off the Pacific Ocean, and a startling array of multi-colored lights dance around the planet. These remarkable electromagnetic interactions rise up, beckoning him to join in the fluid dance. Alone in lifeless space, he imagines inhaling these cosmic beams, taking the electrical charges into his body. The warm currents dance through him, bounce off the walls of his throat and stomach, and course through his chest. They snake around his beating heart and massage his ventricles, arteries, and veins, gradually returning his heart muscles to a slow, steady beat. Ultimately, the cosmic rays diminish, washing away like oil in a stream, dissipating in colorful hues, gently fading away until they are gone. He is alone, floating peacefully in a silent, colorless void.

A droning echo awakens him. Red lights flash on the communications panel. He wipes his eyes and stares at two lights flashing in unison below him. One indicates Ground Control is calling. Still floating near the ceiling, he pushes off the wall and glides over to the panel, taking hold of a handgrip to steady himself. The other flashing light, he realizes, is a navigation warning signal. He’s approaching Metis 3. “Computer, cancel alerts.”

“Alerts cancelled.”

“Show Infinity 7’s position relative to Metis 3.” The holographic navigation screen appears in the center of the cabin, depicting a three-dimensional representation of the station as it orbits the moon. A small dot indicates Infinity 7 as it approaches. A digital readout indicates the ship is two hundred kilometers away from the space station.

“Comm, open a channel to Metis 3.”

The computer replies, “Comm open.”

“Metis 3 Space Station, this is Dr. John Collins aboard Infinity 7. Initiate your computer Link-up Control for docking.” John waits a few seconds, but hears only the electronic hum of the ship. “Computer, link to Metis mainframe and prepare for assisted docking.”

The Infinity 7 computer’s voice breaks in. “I cannot find the Metis 3 station mainframe.”

“Link to spider-comm. Any other channels active out there?”

“Negative. All navigation link-up channels to Metis 3 Space Station are blocked.”

“Blocked? What do you mean?”

“All Metis 3 channels are firewalled at this time.”

“Metis 3, this is Dr. John Collins of Metis Command. I am approaching in Infinity 7, as scheduled. Please initiate LUC for docking.” A few seconds of silence. “Computer, are they getting my signal?”

“Output signals are at full strength.”

“Why aren’t they answering me?”

“Response variables depend on—”

“Never mind.”

John stares at the communications panel. Small white lights pulse in unison. “Is this firewall one that we programmed at Command?”

“I do not have any information pertaining to the firewall.”

The hum of the ship seems louder now, almost invasive. He hadn’t prepared for a manual docking. Variables such as velocity and sheer could make a manual docking next to impossible, even for the most seasoned pilot. “Computer, navigate as closely and safely to Metis 3 as possible, nearest to Docking Station 1. Keep sending comm alerts. If they answer, put them through immediately, acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged.”

John glides to the navigation station console and straps himself into the chair. He flips up the NAV GRIP switch and two black handles pop up from the panel. He places his hands on the handles and squeezes the soft, rubbery grips. They quickly mold around his fingers. Safety straps automatically secure around his chest and waist, as a 3D map lights up in front of his face. Smarteye hovers just out of reach, its red light flashing.

“Go away, you little bastard.”

As if on cue, the camera moves aside to reveal the 3D map image of Metis 3, and Infinity 7 on approach. A blinking speck, thousands of meters away from the station.

“Zoom in on the map 400 percent.” In the enhanced image, Metis 3 appears pitched at an odd angle. “That doesn’t look like standard attitude. Computer, is Metis 3 listing?”

“Metis 3 Space Station is listing approximately 2.5 degrees starboard.”

“Has the station deviated from standard orbit?”

“Negative.”

“Has orbit eroded since last transmission to command?”

“Orbit appears degraded by fifty kilometers since last transmission.”

“How much has orbit degraded since…uh, let’s say last August?”

“Computing…”

“While you’re computing, tell me what would cause the station to list like that?”

“A navigational malfunction on port side thruster foils could cause listing, if thrusters on starboard side were engaged without reciprocal bursts.”

“That’s my first instinct as well. Would a malfunction of port thrusters explain the degrading of orbit?”

“Orbital integrity could be compromised.”

“So, why haven’t they reported this?”

“I do not know the answer to—”

“I want you to launch a Starlus surface probe to Metis 3. I want a complete analysis of the outer shell. Specifically, any defects in structure, electromagnetic or carbon emissions build-up at the thruster ports.”

“Probe is prepped and ready for launch.”

“Launch Starlus probe.”

“Probe successfully launched. Calculation complete: Metis orbit has degraded, adjusted, and degraded again a total of approximately five times, adjusting ninety-five cumulative kilometers since transmission August 15th of this year.”

“Considering how unstable she is without full thrusters, I would have expected at least that.”

A low hum emanates from the comm panel, followed by a cracking whip sound. A soothing female voice, with a standard American accent, fills the cabin. “Hello Infinity 7. This is Metis 3 Docking Capture Program 7.5–327. We are tracking you. Please maintain present speed and course. Metis Link-Up will take navigation control in three minutes.”

“Hello Metis 3. Maintaining speed and course,” says John. Relieved to finally have a response from the station, he loosens his tight grip on the NAV Controls. The pliable, slightly sticky surface of the grips reluctantly release his hands. “Metis Computer, I was worried. You should have been in contact twenty minutes earlier. How are things on the station?”

“All systems are running at peak efficiency.”

“Really?”

“Infinity 7 trajectory is on target for docking in approximately forty minutes. Relax and enjoy the docking, John Collins.”

“I’ll grab some popcorn.”

The Infinity 7 computer chimes in, “Popcorn is maintained in Freezer Bin 19. Shall I pop some for you?”

“No, thank you.”

“Very well.”

John rolls his eyes and almost chuckles at the obsequious program. The Southern accent takes a bit of getting used to. Most computers speak in a brisk standard American accent. The Dixie twang is unusual. His smile instantly melts when he glances toward Dr. Lee’s temporary resting place, the cold-storage locker B.

Twenty years of dedicated work, first as an undergrad, then as a starving graduate student, then the fellowships, and his entrepreneurial exploits, fighting for funding and patrons, arguing for the active search for extraterrestrial life, fighting the big money men, the mining companies, the autocracy of government regulations and funding, has led to this moment. The moment it may all end. If funding is cut off now, it will be a disaster. There are plenty of mining ventures, but only Metis is fully vested in the search for extraterrestrial life. The mining exploits are only meant to pay the bills. He is not going to let an unforeseen mission mishap, or even the death of a friend and colleague, collude to end his dream. Dr. Lee’s demise will come at a place and time of little consequence. On Earth. He will see to that.

“Metis 3, I want to run a diagnostic of your mainframe. Link-up, please.”

The Metis computer breaks in, “Request compliance uninitiated at this time. Prepare for docking.”

“Uninitiated? On whose authority?” No response. After a few seconds, he says, “Metis 3, engage mainframe link-up protocol.”

“Mainframe link-up is currently unavailable, John Collins.”

A slight vibration runs through the ship as a super-laser tractor beam envelops Infinity 7. The Metis 3 Navigation System begins to guide the ship toward the docking station. As John sits back and waits for the operation to be completed, Smarteye hovers just a few feet away, a blinking nuisance.

 

 

Infinity 7 (Part 4) Heading into space…

rocket

 

 F O U R

 

Infinity 7’s main rockets rumble on Platform A. Hydrogen steam spews out onto the launch pad. John stands on the gangplank leading to the capsule. Decked out in flight gear, and with the help of a technician, he’s about to secure his helmet.

Dr. Lee stands nearer the capsule and is already helmeted. He gives John the thumbs-up as he is escorted toward the ship. John smiles and reciprocates, then turns to the technician. Raising his voice above the rumble, he says, “Give me a second will you, Arty?”

“We have five minutes’ leeway, sir. I can safely give you three.”

“Good.” John heads to a small utility box on the walkway scaffolding, leans against the pole and unzips an arm pocket to produce a small communication pad. He places the comm pad on the box and presses the Home button. Sarah appears in a twelve-inch rectangular hologram projected in front of him.

“Hello?”

“Hey, have you seen my daughter? She’s about so big…” John holds a hand waist high.

“Dad, I’m taller than that.” Sarah looks off to her right. “Grandma, it’s Dad!” She looks back at John. “She’s teaching me how to cook with the oven. We’re all set to watch the lift off. What are you doing, are you ready to go?”

“I’m about to get strapped in. I just…” He breaks off, wanting to tell her again how much he loves her, that everything is going to be okay, but suddenly feels needy and it quiets him. “Just…take care of your grandmother. Okay?”

“Okay. Remember, Dad: back in three weeks, right?”

“You bet.”

Tears well in her eyes. John takes a step back so she can see his full suit. “Hey, look at me.” He smiles, has a ta-dah moment. She wipes her eyes. “See you in December, Sarah.”

“See you then,” she says. Her image freezes, then fades. He stares ahead, feeling more alone than before. The excitement of the mission, the noise, and the rumbling thrusters recapture his attention. The technician walks over and holds out his helmet.

“Are you ready, Doctor?”

“Let’s go.”

*** ***

The main rockets shake every ounce of blood in the astronauts’ cores as they are propelled at twenty-seven thousand miles per hour, pulling 3 gs through the earth’s atmosphere. John’s body compresses. The G-force, the importance of the mission, his life’s work, and the memory of Karen conspire to crush him as he struggles for breath. After a few torturous seconds, the force dwindles sharply and he breathes deeply. The booster rocket fires and he is slapped back into his chair. He feels like a grape squeezed between the fingers of a giant. The thrusters are jettisoned. The noise decreases sharply and he is released from gravity, weightless. Karen didn’t make it this far, he thinks.

Strangely detached from his immediate post-liftoff checklist, he forces himself to stare at the indicators in front of him, back to the tasks at hand. A trajectory chart illuminates and comes into focus. Dr. Lee’s voice startles him, as it breaks through on his headset.

“Ripping atmosphere, eh John? Like tearing a new arsehole.”

“You got that right, Michael.” John turns to see Lee smiling, as he presses buttons and flips switches, thoroughly composed and studious.

“Computers locked in, navigation checks. We’re on target.”

“Excellent.”

“Ground Control confirms trajectory looks good.”

John checks navigation off his list, and examines the console above his head. A green line displays their path. Ground trajectory maintains the tight parameters set for the mission. This is only John’s third journey into space in ten years, and he’s beginning to remember how his body reacts to such violence.

Lee nods to John. “Take a deep breath. The long ride is about to begin.” He moves to the navigation console.

Even though John is still nauseous, he gives him the thumbs-up. “Copy that, Dr. Lee. The long ride. Only, not so long now is it?” Lee smiles and touches a button, which throws the navigation hologram up into the center of the capsule.

The capsule had been originally designed to house up to six crew members, each sitting inverted and opposite one another in a circle, but the craft could easily be maneuvered by a single person. The tops of the two men’s helmets face each other on opposite sides of the command capsule at takeoff, then the seats automatically shift to an upright position upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere.

The intelligent design of Infinity 7 utilizes and enables vocal commands if the need arises. Having plotted the course at Command prior to departure; all that is left to do now is initiate the Navigation Drive.

Ground Control chatter breaks into the cabin. “We’re all good here, Infinity 7. Trajectory is on target. Control is yours, in three, two, one—”

“Confirm, we have control,” says Lee. “Roger that, Ground.”

“Have a safe journey, Infinity 7. Here’s a little something we found in the archives.” “Space Oddity” by David Bowie is piped into the comm feed.

John groans. “This one again? Put that puppy to bed, Command.” The song stops.

Dr. Lee presses a manual switch on his console. “Initiating Navigation Drive.”

“Roger that, Infinity 7. You have navigation. Ground Control out.”

A distinctive, provocative female voice responds, “Initiation of navigation is engaged.”

After a few seconds of silence, Lee says, “How do you like that?”

“What’s that?”

“The voice.”

“Not very official.”

“You want me to change it?”

“No, that’s okay. I enjoy the twang.”

“What twang?”

“That bit of Southern twang she has.”

“I hadn’t noticed any regionalism.”

“Oh yeah, there’s a twang. Upper crust Southern. North Carolina, maybe? Mild, but noticeable. Voice of a…let’s say, middle-aged female.”

“You’re quite the regional expert, Dr. Collins. I’m impressed.”

“Nah. I used to live in North Carolina, then went to school at Texas Tech. Finished up at M.I.T.”

“That part I knew.”

Although they are traveling at nearly eighty thousand kilometers per hour, the ride is smooth, and once they acclimate to the weightlessness, somewhat uneventful. Although they still use the conventional hydrogen booster thrusters to leave Earth’s atmosphere, the speed in which they travel is much faster than the older missions. The first orbiter to reach the moon took three days to reach lunar orbit. Now, thanks to the new MEPS propulsion system, which allows for constant acceleration, they can make the trip in seven hours. Approximately ninety minutes to reach the halfway point and another four hours of deceleration. The remaining time will be spent normalizing trajectory, velocity, and prepping for a safe docking.

The Super Microwave Electronic Propulsion System, or MEPS, had been developed by Galileo Labs in La Jolla, California and first used during the Metis 1 missions, some ten years earlier. The faster trip was possible since MEPS allowed for a continuous propulsion through space, rather than using an occasional thruster burst. The first mission to Saturn, scheduled for early next year, should take only ten days.

John’s thoughts turn to a newer system currently in development and enabling time/warp propulsion. This new unit, expected to be rigorously tested starting early next year, should be capable of initiating time/space to warp in front of the vehicle, allowing much faster travel than conventional propulsion, theoretically reaching speeds beyond that of light. For now, though, MEPS is the best system available, and Metis 3 still uses conventional thrusters to maintain a safe lunar orbit.

John looks up from the navigation data, curious about the computer vocalization program. “Computer, what’s the origin of your vocal accent?”

“My voice pattern and regionalism is a reconstruction of actress Sarah Crenshaw’s vocal idiosyncrasies. She was a popular multimedia actress born December 30, 2025, and died January 19, 2075 from cerebral—”

“That’s enough.” He turns to Dr. Lee. “See, Michael, I told you.”

“Good catch. I don’t remember Sarah Crenshaw.”

“She was good. I saw something she’d done at a retro media theatre a few years ago. Don’t remember the name of it. Some interstellar war flick. It adds spice to the voice though, don’t you think?”

Lee is setting up his new camera. Similar to an Ultra Drone, it is compact, fast, and silent, and capable of responding to voice commands.

“Is that the Smarteye?”

“Check this, John.” Lee holds a small, sleek teardrop-shaped object in the palm of his hand. “It can reach speeds up to fifty miles per hour and altitudes of up to twenty thousand feet, for up to two hours. It has multi-lens capabilities including close up and panoramic, makes instant three-dimensional holograms, and works in low light situations. Any light at all. Even in the dark.”

“Impressive, but does it do portraits?”

Lee doesn’t stop to acknowledge the joke. “This camera can recognize and analyze most anything—chemically, tactically and digitally. I’m linking it to our mainframe right now. It makes instant visual data streams and analyzes everything it sees. It also scans faces and does an instant media and background check of all known databases on Earth.”

“Chem-tactile sensing. I’ve heard of it. Gases too, I think. Yes?”

“Absolutely.” Dr. Lee releases the camera, and it flies freely around the command capsule, recording and analyzing everything in its path. “Right now it’s recording the mission, using my preprogrammed parameters.”

“That’s fine. But remember, I get to see results first, before any public release.”

“Of course. Hey, as good as the auto editor function is in this thing, I much prefer to do all the editing myself. You’ll be the first to see it.”

John nods and smiles at Lee. “Okay. Let her rip.”

Lee points to the camera already in motion above them, then gives the thumbs-up.

“Michael, I want you to take a look at Infinity 7’s propulsion system data stream as it comes off the station.”

“Sure.” Dr. Lee begins pushing buttons and downloading the reports.

John gives him a passing glance. He can tell Lee doesn’t care about the computer voice. He doesn’t have much of a personality, but is great with analytics. It’s part of the reason he wanted him on this trip. And he’s a fine physician, as well.

Residual queasiness from the liftoff has left John unsettled. “I’m feeling a bit nauseous. I’m going to catch a few winks. See you in about an hour.”

“Okay.”

John looks again at his crewmate, who doesn’t look up from his calculations. This invokes a feeling of security as he sits back in his chair. The camera buzzes overhead, and he smiles. Lee is having fun, and that’s fine with him.

To be continued…

 

 

Infinity 7 (Part 3)

Space stattion

Infinity 7 Copyright CR Hinckley 2017 All rights Reserved

 

3

 

John stares sullenly at the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. He’s hardly touched his vegetables since the conversation started. His daughter, Sarah, doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other, about anything he says. Not about the mission to Metis 3, the possibility of alien life, none of it. Now, a three-inch yellow ball fluoresces above the table. Shimmering beams of light pulsate as it slowly expands, then shrinks back down. Brilliant rainbow colors dance off the ball and illuminate his daughter’s face, accenting her delicate, preteen features in a multicolored glow.

He glares at her. “You know how I feel about that game at the table. It’s distracting.”

She gazes into the orb’s core. Spiraling rays spread out, long spindly tentacles from its circumference, then begin a rapid-fire reproduction of themselves. Beams of red, yellow, and orange spring from the sphere in long sparkling arches then fall back onto themselves, creating tiny rippling explosions when they impact the orb. Tracers of missiles in an atomic annihilation. The war, in miniature, has begun. The streams fade to white, and intensify as more rays fall back onto the planet, exploding reds and blues and pink conflagrations.

“Sarah, can you please answer me?”

She glances up at him, her eyes glassy, unfocused as she searches the dark area at the end of the table where his voice emanated from.

“Sarah, for cripes’ sake, put that thing down!”

“Just a sec,” she yells, and reaches up and spreads the ball out even wider. The sparkling fireworks and spraying lines of color grow in intensity. The orb begins to pulsate, vibrate, emitting a low rumble born of destruction.

John takes a mouthful of mashed potato and waits for it to dissolve on his tongue. The lumps don’t melt and he swallows hard, feeling them slide down his throat. Has she always been this way? No, he doesn’t think so. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She has worked hard in school, done well on tests, works well with others. Her mother’s death has changed her. She’s more distant now. Almost resigned…but, to what? Life sucking? He remembers her saying her life sucked, offhandedly, the way kids do. Things have changed dramatically in the last eighteen months. He’s well acquainted with being resigned to the darkness. Being totally resigned. Not to life sucking, but to the fragility of it. Life is but “a dream, within a dream…”

He has goals. Had personal goals. The old ones are gone now, either by meeting them or disillusionment. Death does that. Priorities change…

“Sarah!” he yells, trying to shake her from her trance. She scowls at him, her eyes dark, but alive with fear. Or is that contempt? “Put that thing away!”

“But Dad, the battle just started!”

“I don’t care. Save it for later.”

She grabs the sizzling orb and compresses it to the size of a pea, then slips it into a small blue pouch dangling from her chair. Immediately, her hands prop up her head, as if she’s been in hyper-sleep for six months, the weight of her skull too much to bear.

He takes a sip of wine and carefully places the glass next to his plate. “So, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“Haven’t you been listening?”

“If that’s what you want…” She listlessly pokes at her food. The peas roll into the potatoes. She quickly herds them away. Each vegetable must maintain separation. Contamination is not acceptable.

“I don’t have much choice, Sarah. The funding just isn’t there for a full team.”

He tries to lock eyes with her, but she avoids his stare, holds her head with her right hand and pushes her food with her left. A blank stare of resignation contrives her face.

“It’s a family decision. I want to discuss it.” They both know the decision has already been made, but he persists with the charade. “I’m the only one qualified in engineering and crew psychology. It’s only a short month. Grandma—”

“Great,” she interrupts.

“It’s a family decision—”

“Sure, a family decision. Chance to go to the moon. Why not?”

“Metis 3 Space Station is orbiting the moon. I won’t be setting foot on the surface. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“I know, Dad. I’m just being incorrigible. Oh my God, how can you stand it? Enjoy your research. Can I go now?” Sarcasm drips from her as she stands, and snatches the still glowing orb from the bag. A few seconds of silence pass as he tries to think of what to say to soothe the situation, but nothing comes. The explosion of Karen’s booster rocket flashes into his mind, and for an eternity he feels the sharp pain of losing her all over again. Guilt from that event hangs over him like a shroud. Sadness takes hold and he sinks into his chair, unintentionally mimicking Sarah’s usual posture.

He tries to read his daughter’s expression. Could she be thinking the same thoughts right now? The interminable sadness of losing someone you love. The pain rises from deep within. “Go,” he says, resigned to his melancholy. Sarah throws the tiny ball up into the air. It expands and radiates brilliant yellow as the planetary battle continues, illuminating the way to her bedroom.

He sits alone in front of a cold dinner. Another sip of wine offers no resolution.

“Cleans-All, clear the plates.”

The portable Cleans-All rolls in from the kitchen and stops next to John. The waste port opens. John gazes at the contraption, thinking how much better constructed it could have been. Its appearance is that of a great green toad with amber eyes lit up like Christmas in July. The only thing missing is a vocal sac for croaking. John dumps the recyclable plates into the smiling, open-mouthed bin and presses the consume button. The machine masticates the meal and turns toward Sarah’s plate. John stares at the flashing amber light, pulsing almost in rhythm to his heartbeat.

The machine emits a low hum as it waits for him to load the plates, but he doesn’t want to move. Rather, he lets melancholy spread up from some unimaginable depth and slither through him, the emptiness momentarily blanketing out all thought. He’s naked and alone. Then Karen comes to him. She smiles, her eyes alive with empathy. He can smell her perfumed skin and soft breath. He reaches to touch her face. The Cleans-All beeps, and the past is interrupted by blinking lights. He gets up and, one by one, hurls plates into the open bin. The machine receives the ferocity with grace, rocking as each discard hits, its smile unwavering, as if understanding this as an isolated event. John launches a bowl, then a cup, a saucer, the knives. The table is cleared, and the machine stands, quietly consuming. The playful frog eyes continue to flash.

“Finished,” he whispers. The open mouth closes, and it turns and removes itself to the kitchen.

John walks into the living room and sits in his favorite levitating chair. It cradles his body like a warm glove, then ascends a few feet off the floor. Calculated to imitate the rocking motion of a calm sea, designed to lull the occupant, the chair sways in mild oceanic rhythm.

“Scotch on the rocks.”

Another machine, similar to the Cleans-All, aptly named Serves-All, springs to life from across the room. A bright yellowish light leads the way as it rolls forward. A tray pops open in front of the assembly, and a glass of single-malt Scotch slides towards John. He removes the glass from the tray and the Serves-All waits.

“Go away.”

The machine lets out a short electronic beep, then rolls back into the corner.

“Memories, Karen.”

A three-dimensional holographic image of Karen illuminates the center of the room. She wears a flight suit. The hologram expands to reveal she is about to board a Metis mission spacecraft. John takes a sip of Scotch. Karen, a pretty, athletic woman in her late thirties, smiles for the camera, then moves toward the rocket. A new shot of her standing on a rocket platform. She’s decked out in a full flight suit. She stops and turns, waving unabashedly. A new series of moving images appear, spliced together in similar fashion to an old-time newsreel. The rocket lifts off, surrounded by gaseous smoke, ice, and debris as it climbs into the stratosphere. A tiny nugget in the sky now. John watches through watery eyes. He knows what’s coming. He takes another sip of Scotch, longer this time. A horrendous explosion rocks the image. The rocket has scattered into bundles of fiery debris. Part of the booster spirals off out of frame, trailing a cloud of billowing smoke. John chews on a piece of ice, mashing chunks into cold slush, until his teeth ache. He tells himself it wasn’t his fault, but ultimately, that doesn’t help. Ultimately, it was his decisions that caused the accident. He was the one who worked the numbers with the manufacturer. He was the one who, against advice, approved the cheaper, inferior paneling for the boosters. He was the one who bet the life of his wife and crew for the savings of $350,000. Guilt runs through him like dirty water. Some days it’s a river, other days a stream, but the cesspool of guilt never dries up.

The image changes. Still photos of the mission crew, his wife’s picture among the line of five lost souls.

“Freeze frame.”

The life-sized ultra-high resolution, 3D photo of his proud astronaut wife is frozen above his chair. Her pride, hard work, sacrifice, success, and heartbreak all etched on his heart, in sentences only he can read.

“Hello, Babe…” He reaches out, his hand slipping through the image. “I think of you every hour of every day.” Her eyes sparkle. How can you ever live down betrayal? “Remember Coronado…” Her left eye winks, and his heart skips a beat. But he knows it’s not real. His mind is playing tricks again.

Every heartbeat of her life has synthesized into one blistering, visual memory. The crack that led to the leak. The communion of flame and fuel. The explosion. The searing inferno. Karen’s agonized face as she is consumed in super-heated molten metal and flame. Her eyes are pools of watery viscera as they beg for his help.

It’s as if he is there, watching from a safe distance, held back by time itself, and sees the whole thing from the start. There is nothing he can do but watch. A small fragment of superheated metal has lodged in the fuselage, burning through the exposed polymers and melting into the aluminum alloys and steel beneath. The flames snake into the inner skin of the vehicle, fueled by the oxygen-enriched atmosphere of the command capsule, and race throughout the ventilation systems. The inferno, led by thick smoke, snakes its way through the cockpit and ignites the instrument panels. Karen is strapped in her chair. She cannot move. The catastrophic assent is punishing, shaking her as she absorbs 3 g. At the same time, flames race through the command module, igniting the console and electrical systems. Jolted by the explosive energy beneath her, she screams as the flames lick at her flight suit. Her face is wet with sweat. Then somehow, her helmet is off, her sweat-drenched hair whips around, flying free, like in one of those shampoo ads, only it’s flames, not water, flying free from her locks, tiny orange flames consuming her hair, like a fuses leading to her brain. The flames reach her face. Pink skin bubbles up, consumed utterly, transforming into black, crusty carbon. The outline of her delicate features is traced in flakes of ash. The most dreadful horror of all—her final expression—quizzical shock and wonder as her ashes crumble into her fire-retardant suit.

She is so much dust.

John blinks this image away, but he cannot fully un-see what his mind has to offer. And the guilt slowly simmers down, back into its bottomless pit.

He strides to Sarah’s bedroom and knocks on the door. After a few seconds, he enters and stands in the doorway. She is lying on the bed, watching a bright hologram above her head, her ears covered in sound patches.

“What is it, Dad?” she asks, her voice loud, agitated.

“Done your homework?”

“Yes.”

“That was quick.”

“I’m kind of a genius.”

He smiles, pleased by her familiar sense of humor. A feeling of warmth wraps around him and he wants to hug her, but he stops himself. She wouldn’t like it. Not anymore. Not today.

“Sarah, I…” he starts, but there’s nothing behind his words. The explosion still occupies his thoughts, and for a split second Karen’s tortured face blinds him. He pushes the memory aside. “As much as I loved your mother, and she loved us—”

“Did she?” Sarah snaps, still staring at the music video above her head.

“What makes you say that?”

“Forget it.” Her face is lit in unsaturated hues. A band, live on stage in front of thousands of fans, hovers in a hologram above her head. The singer screams into the mic but John hears only the cold hum of the house. He takes a few steps into the room.

Sarah glances up, then turns back to the video. “I’m trying to watch this, do you mind?”

“I miss her like crazy, Sarah. You know that. I know you do too.” She tries not to look at him, but he can tell he’s getting through. He sits on her bed. “Turn that off a second, will you?”

She rolls her eyes, but silently complies. She takes a deep breath, as if to steel herself for what’s coming, and removes the small mesh patches from her tragus.

“You know I would never do anything to hurt you or us as a family. But the funding isn’t there for a full team to go on a mission right now. We’re on the verge of losing everything I’ve worked for, Sarah.”

“So don’t go.”

“You don’t understand, there’s something…” He almost says wrong, there’s something wrong on board Metis 3, but that would only worry her. It wasn’t her problem. He doesn’t want to drag her into it. Wanting to minimize her fears, he says, “Besides, how often do I have the opportunity to go into space?”

“You mean like Mom’s great opportunity to be killed? Yeah, hope it works out for you.”

Her sharp words cut into him, but only he is allowed to turn that dagger. “Hey, what is this? Explain yourself.”

She stares straight ahead as she speaks, as if the air will understand. “Her future was so important. Look what it got her. Where is she? We don’t even know, do we? Where is she?”

“You know where she is.”

He thinks of the small urn he keeps next to her holographic image, but he knows what she’s saying. Cinders from the crash make for a lousy memorial. “I know it’s hard to understand now, but if we don’t do what we have to in life, if we don’t challenge ourselves and try to achieve all that we can, then what’s the point? You want to just sit around all day until you’re too old to get up anymore? What would be the point of getting out of bed in the morning?”

She continues to stare straight ahead. “There isn’t any.”

“Look, I need to get this resolved between us—”

“You’ll go no matter what I say.”

“That’s not true.”

She stares up at the ceiling, then at her blue painted fingernails. “Fine,” she says.

“No, no. I don’t accept fine. Fine is not an answer. You’re either okay with this or you’re not.”

“She loved us, all right? So much, she was willing to go into space and get killed.”

He practically shudders at the comment. If she only knew how he blamed himself. “Sarah. It was the accident, not the mission that killed your mother.” He reaches out and strokes her hair, expecting her to pull back, but she doesn’t. “It can’t be undone. God knows I’ve gone over every bit of footage from that day. There was nothing to warn us. We just didn’t see it. A defect in the shielding. It sucks, Sarah. I miss her…every day, every minute.”

Huge tears roll down Sarah’s cheeks. He touches his forehead to hers, then collects himself.

A small 3D photo of Karen floats above the bedside table. John reaches for it, then stops himself. He’s had enough wallowing for one night. He can’t afford to be dragged down into total depression. Next to the photo of Karen sits a static 2D photo of a smiling middle-aged man, his arm slung around a young boy. They stand on a grassy lawn.

“I was your age here, I think.” He picks up the framed photo. “You know, when this picture was taken, I didn’t even know my father. Not really. Oh, he came home at night, usually sober and would eat dinner with us and then…I don’t know what he did. It was like he disappeared. He used to yell quite a bit, I remember that.”

“I know, and he was mean and never gave you anything.”

“Hey, I’m telling the story.”

A twinkle lights her eye.

“Right?”

“Again and again. Yes, I think I’ve heard this one before.”

A practiced tone of capitulation. A routine they had settled into during his many teaching talks. He fixes a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. “Part of the reason we have what we have is because he never gave me anything. Not a smile, not a nod, not a whisper. I was made to feel I was a burden. I vowed to never, ever be like him.”

The anger rises, like it always does, from wounds deep and long scabbed over, but never fully healed. After workday’s end, with the setting sun, this vague pain rises from his gut, and he touches it, just as a reminder. Even though he assumed the old man had died years earlier (he hadn’t seen him for twenty-seven years), the father he could never please was always there, lurking behind every decision, every failure, every triumph, standing in the shadows of his mind, waiting to pounce, deny, ignore, deflect, and neglect by omission, his only son. Why was he never good enough? Had he genuinely disliked his own child? Sometimes John wondered what he looked like in his old age, the silent, brooding man at the end of the dinner table. A man whose eyes came to you only in rebuke. He wondered if he was going to look like him and it plagued him to see glimpses of his father reflected in himself. Mostly because he feared the physical similarities would carry with them his father’s lack of compassion. His fingers, at certain angles, reminded him of his father’s. And sometimes, when he was feeling low, he’d avoid looking at them all together, placing them in the nearest pocket, or if he was wearing a jersey, rolling them up in the bottom of his shirt as he sat.

John looks at his girl, the smart young woman she is becoming, and smiles. “If I thought anything bad was going to happen, I wouldn’t go. You know that.” He stares at the photo of himself, his father’s arm draped over his own small shoulders, the lost look in his dark, young eyes, the emptiness behind that smile. He could never initiate that photo into 3D. He feels sorry for the boy standing next to that stranger. Examining the lines of his father’s face, the square smile, the deep laugh lines in the corners of his eyes, he wonders, as he often does when contemplating this photo, what his father was looking at to make him smile with such warmth. That elusive, unseen element of the photo, hidden just out of view, is as real to him as the teeth in his father’s mouth.

He turns to his daughter. “I love you, Sarah. I will say it until I die. You are special to me, and if you don’t want me to go on this mission, by God, I will not go.”

A smile eases her tight lips, followed by a heavy sigh, the way she always sighs when he pays special attention to her, like when he used to tuck her into bed, or read to her. Just being close, in a quiet moment such as this, fans that faint flame of joy.

“I want you to go on the mission, Dad.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I guess, because you want it. That makes me think it’s okay.”

He replaces the photo back on the night table. “The day this photo was taken I said to myself, Who is this man with his arm around me? I couldn’t understand all the attention. Then later, I swore I wouldn’t be like him, the type of father he was.”

“And you’re not, Dad, okay? Can we drop it now?”

After getting to his feet, he stops at the doorway and turns back. “Hey, remember that time on Coronado? The cottage on the beach?”

She looks up. “Yeah?”

“I never saw you or your mother so happy. Remember? The white sands. Feet in the water.”

She shrugs. “Sure.”

“One day you’ll look back and realize how special that was.”

Her eyes have glazed over. She’s not listening anymore. John realizes he’s reached his parenting limit for the day.

She replaces the sound patches and throws the sphere into the air. It spreads out into a panoramic vision of a planet in turmoil. Nukes spiral out from every side of the globe and hit with devastating force, creating luminous mushroom clouds. The room brightens with the intensity of the explosions.

“What happened to the concert?” he asks.

She looks up at him again. “What?”

John gives her a last, barely acknowledged nod, and quietly shuts the door.

In the living room, holding the same glass of single malt Scotch, he stares out the window at the darkening sky. Billowing clouds reflect the last pink and yellow rays of the sun. He closes his eyes. A face appears in front of him, but he cannot tell whose it might be, until it resolves into his father. The forty-something man stands in a doorway, his arm up against the frame for support, as he sips from a highball glass. Two teenage boys stare at the man.

“Walk for me, will yah?” his father says. “Go ahead, take a few steps, let me see those bow legs of yours.” Laughter cuts through John’s head like a knife and his eyes blink open. How much damage could one man do? He closes his eyes again and his father emerges from the shadows, smiling at a boy walking up and down the hallway. He sips a glass of scotch-on-the rocks, and titters while sucking an ice cube. “Look at those bow legs!”

“Leave Andy alone, Dad!”

His father stands upright and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “What? I just want to see him walk.”

The two boys leave the room. Young John turns in time to see his father flick ashes into his empty glass and smirk. “They’re not so bad, kid. I’ve seen worse legs…”

John opens his eyes and takes another sip of his drink. The physical memory of his father usually doesn’t enter his mind unless his stress level gets burdensome, as it is now. He has vague apprehension about his trip to Metis 3. Outside the window, the wind pushes tree limbs, cloud formations darken, fading into the blue-black twilight, and he wonders where the old man is now, if he is still alive.