She lay there in the dark chill of her bunk and tried to ignore the grating beep of her alarm. It had pulled her out of the deep dark hole of sleep a few minutes before but she always hated that damned sound. It might have had something to do with the fact that she slept so much better out here. No traffic noise, no birds to wake her, no sun coming up and invading her room through her windows. The sun was always up out here, but it only came in when she wanted it too.
She popped open one eye, focusing on the small blinking numbers as they ticked from Six o’ Five to Six o’ Six, and blew her breath through her teeth. She waited for one more minute to pass, glaring at the clock as though that would somehow buy her more time in the rack, but more time in the rack meant a smaller check at the end of all this. When the Six blinked to Seven, she reached her hand out from beneath the warm blanket and flicked a small white switch on the shelf next to her bunk. The beeping ceased and the light of her quarters lit up dimly. It slowly got brighter and brighter, creating the illusion of a curtain being drawn back to let in the sun, except the light was the pale blue white of a fluorescent bulb, and made everything look like shit.
She blinked a few times, trying to get the tiny floating clouds out of her vision as she yawned and arched the muscles of her back. The motion made her think of her fat white cat Jonsie back home. It usually did. She scratched her head and looked hazily at the cheerily white ceiling before swinging her heavy legs over the edge of her bunk. Her feet hit the cold metal of the floor with a hollow thud. The cool steel felt good on the soles of her feet and she drummed her tiny toes, each digit making a small thud as they impacted. She reached for her glasses on the rack next to her bunk and slid them onto her face.
With her glasses on everything became much clearer and she smiled as she picked up a small metal picture frame and kissed it quickly. Two smiling faces beamed out from behind the now fogged glass. Two beautiful blonde haired boys who looked just like their shithead father. She hated that they looked like him, but she loved him for giving them to her. That barely balanced her desire to drop him out of a cargo hold.
“Morning boys! What’s for breakfast?” She asked the picture with a wistful smile before placing it back on the shelf. They told her in training that routine was the best way to keep her mind straight out here. Every morning she thought of her boys, and every morning she could not wait to get home to them. Only another couple of weeks.
Her eyes widened as she smelled the coffee that was automatically being brewed in the lab just outside of her sleeping chamber. It wasn’t real coffee, just that synthetic crap that would keep her awake and taste like warmed up death, but for some reason it smelled exactly like real coffee.
“I swear they focused more on the smell of the shit than the taste.”
That’s what the last tech had said when she had shown up to replace him. Griggs she thought his name was. Barry Griggs.
She poured a cup of the pitch black reek and took a sip. It was strong enough to kill an elephant, she was sure of that much, but it did the trick at waking her up. She walked over to the long row of machines that lined the lab wall. Most of this place was some sort of machine running some sort of diagnostic. She was a solar scientist, and this was Helios 12, a solar orbiter outfitted with any number of gadgets used to study solar activity. It was one of three craft orbiting the sun, the others were the Pan-Asiatic United Front’s (PAUF) and the European Union’s ships. Her ship was the newest and the most advanced, the North American Union had sent it up in 2062 just after the ice caps had finished melting and the sun had shown no signs of slowing down its activity. That was ten years now and the radiation hadn’t gotten any worse. It hadn’t gotten any better, but it seemed to have stabilized.
“View Screen On.” She spoke the words clearly for the computer and a series of holographic screens blinked into view showing her various readouts from the six hours she had slept. She would come around the sun and come into contact with Earth in a few hours, she would have to be sure that the info packets were ready to be transmitted as soon as she did. She had been on the far side of the sun, in a slow orbit, for almost 4 months, and had been out of contact with Earth for most of that. Occasionally she would be in contact range with one of the other solar stations, and she would have talked to them, but it was prohibited. Tensions were high, and the last thing anyone wanted was an international incident on the far side of the sun.
She finished going through each set of readings, compressing them and readying them for transmission when a familiar beep began to sound from one of the control panels. Any moment Earth would be visible through her view wall. She walked over to the wall and quickly punched in a few buttons that would open the view wall filter just enough to allow some light in. She wasn’t sure about her orientation but she found herself staring directly at the corona and punched in a command on the control surface to bring her to an angle that would show her the Earth as it came into view. A bright white sheen still obscured her vision slightly but she squinted against it.
A set of dots on the screen in a triangular pattern started to swing out from the edge of the sun’s disk. The Earth would be a brilliant blue twinkle in the center of the dots. As all three came into view she squinted harder. She put her glasses back on, and rubbed her eyes, thinking there may be more of the clouds swimming through her vision causing her to be unable to see the bright blue twinkle.
“View Screen – Coronal Disk to one hundred percent opacity.”
The screen darkened in the place that the sun had been blindingly white just a moment before. Still no blue twinkle. She jogged over to the navigation screen, her heart knocking against her ribcage like a mallet against a drum, and punched a few buttons bringing up another holo-screen. It showed her Venus, which was behind her, and Mercury which was on the opposite side of the Sun, and it showed the blue dot where Earth should have been. Her computer was fine but the damned dot was nowhere to be seen.
She opened up her receiver and listened to the low undulating tones of the Sun’s radioactivity. This close it was impossible to filter out all of the noise the Sun threw off. As soon as she was clear of the coronal disk she should begin receiving messages from the command ship which should be coming to replace her with another technician. She had another two weeks, but it should have been well underway and transmitting a steady stream of communications to her to insure that their rendezvous would go as scheduled.
The only sound she heard was the undulating hum. It was a sound that was as regular to her as her own breathing since she got to this floating cell, but not one that she was happy to hear now.
She started to turn her scanners to the place where the Earth was supposed to be, one by one each of them registered the same thing.
Hours passed and her panic was in full force now. She had a small emergency ship attached to the hull of the station that would launch and guide her, by auto-pilot, back to Earth, but if she couldn’t find Earth, where would it send her?
Just as the tears had begun to roll over her freckled cheeks she heard a hiss and a pop of the radio springing to life.
“Helios 12 this is Cosmos, do you read?” The voice coming through her speakers had a slight accent. It sounded like Mandarin.
“Helios 12, this is Cosmos, do you read? Over.” It repeated two more times.
“Cosmos, this is Helios 12, I read you. What is your status over?” She did her best to hold her fear in check as she spoke, but her voice broke on the last over, and the tears were flowing down her cheeks again.
“Thank God, Helios 12! I’ve been trying to contact you for hours now. Please tell me that you have Earth in your scopes. I was supposed to transmit a week ago, but I don’t seem to be getting any response. Over.” The voice was male, and it sounded just as harried as she felt. At least she wasn’t alone.
“Cosmos, I have nothing on my scopes either. I came around the disk three hours and 46 minutes ago, and I have received nothing. What the hell is going on out there?”
The radio was silent aside from the low hum from the sun. A few minutes passed with no response.
“Cosmos are you there?” Her voice sang with panic again.
“I copy Helios. My name is Ming-húa. Over.”
“My name is Anne.”
The low hum rang through her ship. She sat in silence as tears ran over her cheeks and landed heavily on her uniform. She looked again at the place where the bright twinkling planet she called home should be, and saw only empty space.
“All the way into space?” The small face looked up at her with wide clear blue eyes.
“Yeah, buddy. Mama’s gotta go and see why it’s been so hot lately. Gotta tell the sun to chill out so we can stop running the Air Conditioner all the time.” She wiped her wet hands with the towel next to the sink and smoothed his soft blonde hair and smiled at him.
“But why does it have to be you Mama? Can’t someone else go?”
Trying to get him to understand how serious the situation was would be impossible. He was only four and for him the only thing he could think about was losing his mom for five months.
“I don’t want to go any more than you want me too kiddo. Don’t worry though, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Chuck will take good care of you guys.” She pulled another plate from the soapy water and scrubbed it with the rag before handing it over to him to dry.
“I know how much you like the mountains, last time we left you cried.”
“I did not!” he shouted at her as he grabbed the plate and swiped at it with his own towel.
“You sure you didn’t? “ She looked down teasing him with a skeptically furrowed brow.
He set the plate down and turned toward her, shoving his hand into his cocked hip. “Course I’m sure! I’m not a baby! Only babies cry about stupid stuff like that.”
She laughed at his serious pose and drained the water from the sink. “Alright whatever you say. Go wash up and brush your teeth. It’s almost bed time and I don’t want to hear any fuss.” Just as he was starting to protest her phone rang. A glance at her screen let her know it was her sister Rachel.
“Go now, I need to take this.” She could see him start to resist again. “No arguments!”
She pressed the accept button on her phone. “Hey, Rach. Can you hold on a sec?”
“Yeah, sis. Go ahead.”
She looked into the living room at her oldest sitting in front of the television with a book open, but not reading any of it.
“Declan, get your brother washed up for bed. I’ve got to take a phone call.” She shouted into the living room. She heard him close the book and stand up without saying anything. “And don’t think you’re not going to come back and finish that chapter tonight, son. I saw you sitting there for the last thirty minutes watching television.
“I will, ma.” He muttered as he put his hands on his little brother’s shoulders and guided him down the hall.
“I will, ma.” She imitated him in a high-pitched shrill voice. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled at her. She hated that smile as much as she loved it. Same as his father’s.
She put the phone back to her ear.
“Hey, Rach. I’m here. What’s up?”
“Hey, Annie. Not much. Just got off work. Just wanted to tell you that I talked to Chuck and he said he’d love to have the boys over. They always make the chores around the house easier.”
Anne smiled, she knew that her sister and brother-in-law would say yes, they loved the boys, but it was one less thing to think about now.
“That’s great news, sis. The boys can’t wait to see you guys again. They always love visiting.” She walked over to her small desk in the corner of the dining room. It was covered in neatly organized piles of papers. She stared at them as she talked.
“They are good kids. Besides it gives Chuck his kid fix. He just started hinting again that he wants to apply for a license.”
“You know it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for you. You’d be a shoe in to get one. Academics are almost always fast tracked, and what with you having a super-genius-world-saving sister, they couldn’t say no.”
“You know how I feel about it. Your kids are good enough for me to fulfill any shred of maternal instinct I might harbor deep in the rotted parts of my brain.”
Anne laughed. Rachel was always melodramatic about children. Since they were kids, Rachel swore she would never get married or have children, but Anne hoped that if Chuck could convince her to break one of those promises, he could get her to break the other. She wouldn’t mind having a nephew or niece running around.
“You know you’re crazy right? The boys are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Yeah and that’s why you’re going millions of miles into cold black space by yourself right?” She heard her sister laugh, but she could also hear the tone of her voice.
“I wish I didn’t have to go, but you know the hole I’m in. The university is just not enough to cover David’s medical bills anymore. I’ve got to do something and we both know his father isn’t going to be pitching in any time soon.” She picked up one of the piles in front of her. The latest set of bills from the Barnard Medical Group. She rubbed her eyes as the numbers jumped off the page at her.
“I know, sis. I know. I just wish you would let us help you. We don’t have any children of our own and a lot of our income is expendable.”
“We’ve talked about that more than we’ve talked about you getting a license, and you know how I feel about that. I love you for offering, but I have to do this my way. Besides the help you’re giving me here more than covers anything else you could do.”
There was a long pause on both ends of the call. She could hear her sister moving around and breathing but neither of they said anything for almost a whole minute. Rachel was the first to speak up.
“You know mom asked about you the other d-“
Anne cut in abruptly. “Don’t even try it, Rach. You know I don’t want to talk about her.”
She heard her Rachel sigh. “I know.”
There was another long pause.
“Well I hope you know what you’re doing, sis. We’ve all heard the stories of some of the people that come back from these rotations. The ones that do come back.”
Anne set the thick stack of papers back down on her desk and swallowed hard. There had been stories all over the news the last few days that the last Tech who went up to the station found the prior Tech dead. Apparently he had starved to death with a cargo bay full of food. No one knew why. Ferrara was his name. Louis Ferrara.
“They already figured that out, sis. They just aren’t telling the public about it yet.” She hated lying to her sister but she felt like she had to say something.
“They worked out the bugs and have put it into our training so we can avoid the same thing happening to us.”
“Well what happened? Did he go nuts or something? World’s worst case of cabin fever?”
“I’m not allowed to say, part of my contract. Suffice it to say it’s all worked out, and I’m going to be fine okay?” She didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It already kept her up most nights.
Rachel didn’t say anything for a few seconds but then all of her words rushed out at once. “Well if it’s good enough for you, I guess it will have to be good enough for all of us.”
Anne heard some commotion on the other end of the call, and heard her sister call out with the phone pulled away from her ear.
“Yeah, babe. I’ll be right there! Sorry Annie I’ve gotta go. Chuck needs me to help him with the Hydro Garden. Wait till you see the size of the tomatoes I’m getting from this extra UV activity. It’s mind blowing.”
Anne laughed at her sister, always with her hands dirty to the elbows playing with some plant or another. “Alright, sis. Tell Chuck I said thanks. You have no idea how happy I am that you guys could cover for me like this.”
“Don’t even mention it. Just let me know when you find out your time table so we can get the spare room ready for them.”
“Will do, sis. Love you.”
“Love you too, Annie-bo-Bannie. Bye.”
She smiled at her phone as she ended the call. Rachel had called her that as long as she could remember. Rachel was eight years older than her, but she always felt more mature than her sister. She always loved to play in the dirt and pull the stupidest pranks on her growing up.
“All done, mama.” She heard David’s voice from the hall.
“Did you take your meds?”
“All of them?”
“Declan? Did he?”
“Yeah, ma. I made sure.” He had that tone grated at her. Like she was asking the world of him and the answer should be obvious.
“Ok well go get into bed and I’ll be there in a minute to kiss you goodnight.” She looked down at the desktop full of small bundles and wiped her hand across her face wearily. It would be better when she got back.
It had been a day since she had lost the Earth. Lost her home. Her boys.
She had not slept.
She sat clutching the picture frame of her boys. Cheeks ruddy and sore. Eyes dry and raw. She stopped crying a few hours ago. The ache was still there, but there were no more tears.
The radio crackled, but nothing came through. It had been hours since she and Ming-húa had spoken. He had asked her to call him Ming.
The radio crackled again. It sounded like a campfire crackling over the ever present undulation of solar activity. The hum seemed to spasm around her, palpating her ear drums uncomfortably.
“Anne. Are you there?” It was Ming’s voice. He sounded defeated. She understood.
It took her a few seconds but she reached for the button that would open her channel to him.
“Hey, Ming. I’m here. What’s up?” Her throat was tight and tired from sobbing. It cracked painfully with each word.
“Nothing. I just could not sit here in the dark anymore.”
“I get it.”
Several minutes went by. She just stared at her picture frame. At the smiling faces. Of her boys. The radio crackled.
“I think I have another month’s worth of food left. Not sure what to do with it though.”
Again she understood. She had two or three months’ worth of rations in the hold, but what good would it do to eat them. It would all end up the same in the end.
“You still there Anne?”
It felt like it took all of her strength to push the button down again. “Yeah. I guess I don’t know what to say.”
“I mean what’s the point of going through it right? Why wait another month?”
She didn’t say anything, just stared.
“Look Ming. If you’re looking for me to try and talk you out of it, you’re talking to the wrong lady. I barely know you.”
All she heard was the slow boiling hum of the sun.
Anne paced across the wide white hall, chewing her fingernails until the corners of her fingers bled. Her husband sat on the bench in front of her watching her pace and said nothing. There was nothing to say. There was only waiting.
“Maybe I should go ask a nurse if there’s anything she can tell me?” Anne’s voice was hoarse from crying. She had a wildly frantic look in her eyes as she looked at her husband. He said nothing.
“What do you think? You think I should?” She stopped pacing and stood in front of him. He still said nothing.
“Paul! Say something!” She hated yelling. Especially in public. But right now she could care less.
“What do you want me to say, Annie? They will tell us what’s going on when they know. I don’t think they want us to sit out here and worry any more than we have to.”
He sat looking at her.
Looking at her like she was stupid.
She wanted to slap him.
She wanted him to hold her and tell her everything was going to be fine. That their son was going to be fine.
“Thanks for the help, Paul.”
He sighed heavily and crossed his arms. “This is not my fault, Anne. He just collapsed. We were walking in the park and he just fell over and started shaking. It wasn’t anything I did.” She heard his voice crack and she knew he was right. But it happened on his watch, when he was there. If it had been her she could have done more. She could have gotten him here faster. Gotten him help faster. She started pacing again.
Minutes passed. She heard each tick of the white faced clock like a hammer on an anvil. Finally a doctor in green scrubs came out of the operating room and approached the nurses’ station. He was short, with dark hair. The nurse pointed to Anne and her husband and the doctor started walking toward them. Anne met him halfway, Paul just behind her.
“Is he ok, doctor? Please tell me he’s ok.” Her voice cracked again and she felt Paul’s arm squeeze her shoulder. She wished he wouldn’t touch her.
“I’m Dr. Ming-húa. He’s out of surgery and he’s stable, Mrs. Hartseer. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but he’s stable.”
“Caillte.” She said the word absently, as though remembering it for the first time.
“I’m sorry?” the doctor looked confused and she felt Paul’s hand go from her shoulder.
“Caillte. Ms. Caillte. My name isn’t Hartseer.”
She lay in her bunk. Split fingers clutching the cold metal picture frame, staring at nothing. Her breath creaked in and out of her almost painfully. She had been lying here for almost a week. The smell was awful but she didn’t think she had the energy to do anything about it anymore. She barely had the strength to lift the picture so she could see her boys.
Her beautiful boys.
“Helios 12 this is Transport Shuttle Vesania on approach for crew transfer. Over.”
“Helios 12 this is Transport Shuttle Vesania on approach. Do you read? Over.”
“Still no response, sir.” The radio engineer looked back over his shoulder at his commanding officer, a tall lean man in his mid-forties.
“Keep at it, Hernandez. Her equipment may be damaged.” He looked up and out of the viewport at the station they were approaching.
“Ready for unassisted capture Commander.” The pilot was maneuvering the shuttle to match up their docking sleeves.
“Proceed, captain.” He watched the view screen as the two nodes came closer and closer until they finally captured with a soft pop and then a loud hiss of air filling the void. He walked to the back of the shuttle where the new tech was still buckled into his flight seat.
“Stay put. We aren’t reading anything from Helios 12 and I’m going to go over and have a look.” The tech’s face turned pale as he spoke. He had been sweating since two days before their launch and lost his stomach twice in the countdown. The man was not meant for space. As he walked toward the air lock he thought he heard the man speak.
“What’s that, Technician?”
The tech looked back at him nervously. “Nothing, sir. Just talking to myself.”
Sounded like he had said Not again, but the commander couldn’t be sure.
He popped the hatch between the two doors and a blast of cold, foul air hit him in the face. His stomach turned as it dropped. He did not want to think it, but he knew what he was going to find in here. He had found Ferrara a few years back and the same smell had come through the doors then as well. All that time had passed and he couldn’t forget that smell.
He walked slowly through the small station, making his way slowly back toward the sleeping quarters. He passed the kitchen and noticed that the storage cabinets were still displaying as full, just like with Ferrara.
Something else struck him as familiar as well. The radio was open, just like with Ferrara. That same slow rolling sound was coming out of the speakers. He knew it was just solar noise, but the sound always made him slightly edgy. Like he was grinding his teeth when he wasn’t. The sound made the air feel thick around him.
Maybe the radio made sense. Chang Li, over in the PAU lab radioed them a couple of weeks ago. He said something about a woman talking on coms. He said she wasn’t making any sense. It didn’t matter much at this point.
As he got closer, the smell continued to grow worse. He paused outside of the door. He did not have to go in to know what was there.
He took a step in and had to cover his mouth and nose. She was mostly covered with a thick, dark blanket. Only her head and hands were visible. She had something in her hands. It flashed when the light from his suit hit it. He reached over and grabbed it. Her fingers were tightly tucked around it, but he was able to work it free after a few moments.
Two blonde-haired, blue-eyes faces stared up at him from the picture frame. Two beautiful boys.