FICTION

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2021

2021-10_COVER

Journey to Anasta

by Karl El-Koura

Aboard the space station Invictus, Maria Petrova stood at the back of the main control room, surrounded by some of the highest officials of the Solarian Fleet. She felt desperately out of place among these gray-haired men and women in their space-black uniforms, the coats weighed down by shining arrays of medals. But she'd fought for a command-side view of the mission, and whether because she was the wife of one of the co-pilots about to make history, or because she was one of the fleet's top pilots herself, she'd been granted membership to this exclusive group.

 

The large viewscreen at the front of the room, looming above the orchestra pit of analysts and engineers, showed Mercury on the right and the Talarian, the experimental wormdrive ship carrying her husband and his co-pilot Rasha Pion, approaching from the left. As she watched, the flared solar sails folded back around the ship, like a Siamese fighting fish relaxing its fins.

 

The view switched to the feed from the cockpit as Sander activated his microphone and said, "All systems normal. Dropping into orbit around Mercury."

 

At the sound of his voice, their baby fluttered in Maria's belly. She resisted the urge to place her hand there.

 

Then, of course, Sander had to add a joke: "Anyone write us something clever to say before we become the first people to travel faster than light?"

 

A wave of laughter went through the control room.

 

The mucky-muck standing next to her chuckled, then turned and said, "World's about to change, isn't it?"

 

She nodded but didn't say anything. Nearly instantaneous travel between the colonies, spread from Mars to the stations orbiting Neptune—would that change things? Yes, she thought, just like the invention of the wheel had changed a few things.

 

Because of what Sander and Rasha were about to do, the universe would become a lot smaller. One day soon the strawberries that grew on Neptune's stations could be shipped to Luna City in a few minutes, without having to flash-freeze them. One day humanity might even leave the solar system without also having to be flash-frozen in giant freezer ships and thawed thousands of years later.

 

"Those brave captains will be time travelers, won't they?" the admiral asked with another little chuckle. "We'll be growing older and they'll skip right ahead into the future. Isn't that a thing?"

 

Maria wanted to focus on the screen, to remember every moment leading up to her husband's historic spaceflight. She didn't owe this curious person, unconnected to the wormdrive project and granted this access due to his status, but she still couldn't bring herself to leave him with his misconceptions. "In a way, yes," she said, "but time dilation isn't really a factor with this trip. It's just a few jumps from Mercury to Pluto. The differential depends on the number of jumps, rather than the distance traveled. Two days will pass for us, but not quite a minute for them."

 

 The admiral whistled. "Mercury to Pluto in not quite a minute!"

 

On the screen, the Talarian had almost completed charging its wormdrive, leveraging the tiny planet's gravitational field. In a few moments it would break orbit and enter a hole in the folded-up fabric of spacetime, and Sander and Rasha would be the first human beings ever to travel—

 

Maria stepped forward, a vague feeling of unease erupting into heart-pounding urgency. Something was wrong. The ship was shaking.

 

A buzz of activity was sweeping through the pit. Commodore Damac leapt to his feet, demanding updates from each station in quick succession.

 

"What's happening?" the admiral asked, but she ignored him, her eyes darting from the commodore to the capcom to the screen.

 

"Call it," she whispered. What were they waiting for? Unable to restrain herself, she flew down the stairs, aimed at the commodore like a torpedo. But before she could reach him, he turned to the capcom and nodded.

 

"Abort mission," the capcom said calmly. "I repeat, abort mission."

 

But on the screen the Talarian disappeared.

 

 #

  

A few moments before the wormdrive propelled them ninety-eight light years away and then exploded, Sander and Rasha's ears were assaulted by a loud, sharp screech, like a battle cry from some prehistoric creature. For a single moment Sander winced with pain and squirmed against his harness straps. Then he pushed out of his mind all sensation and fear as distractions to be dealt with later; his glance met Rasha's briefly and he knew she'd done the same. Immediately, he and his copilot's fingers danced across the virtual board floating in front of them, pulling in and shoving away controls as they needed them, master pianists performing a virtuoso duet.

 

The ship screamed and jerked them in their chairs as they worked to eject the shaking wormdrive, until, at last, it was drifting away from them, their hands flying, diverting every drop of energy they could spare aft to protect from the blast of the exploding engine.

 

It wasn't enough: the wave struck like a punch from some furious cosmic giant, rupturing the back of their ship. Now nothing stood between them and cold, airless space but a shimmering sheath of energy-hungry shielding.

 

"Are you all right?" Rasha managed to say, coughing as she pried the safety strap away from her chest.

 

"Alive," Sander answered as that morning's breakfast fought to come up. He forced it back down. "They better figure out what—" he started, but the rest of the phrase died on his lips.

 

His gaze had caught the image on the main screen.

 

That's not Pluto, he thought but couldn't bring himself to say. Instead, a moonless but Earth-like planet spun in dark space ahead of them.

 

"That's impossible," Rasha whispered. "Isn't it?"

 

Sander opened his mouth, then closed it again. Their mission had gone terribly wrong; instead of traveling six billion kilometers to Pluto, they'd traveled more than a hundred and fifty thousand times that distance . . . to the only known habitable planet outside their solar system.

 

"I guess you and I weren't meant to die today," he said finally, mustering up his most reassuring smile.

 

Rasha saw through the façade that tried to mask the pain of the chest-crushing they'd both just received from their restraints, not to mention the heart-rending dread of how they'd gotten this far off-course, but she returned his smile anyway. "Of all the gin joints in all the galaxy, huh? Now we just have to make it there. Otherwise we'll still asphyxiate to death on this tin can."

 

"Ever the optimist." Sander pulled up the systems view. "Our sails are still intact," he said, spinning the rendered model of the ship around. "It'll take three hours to travel the nine hundred thousand kilometers."

 

Rasha studied the screen to confirm his calculations. "And then hopefully a soft landing before the containment shield gives out."

 

She punched in the coordinates on the navigation screen as Sander unfurled their sails. But when he saw her bring up the number of jumps, he yelled at her to stop. He wasn't ready for that information, not until they were safe with air in their lungs and ground under their feet. His mind flooded with hopeful thoughts to distract him in the moment it took his glance to divert itself from the screen: if they'd crossed the distance in a few jumps, as few as they were supposed to take from Mercury to Pluto, then only days would've gone by on Earth. But if whatever fluke had brought them here instead of Pluto had taken a more circuitous route . . .

 

It was too late, though; he'd seen the number and so had Rasha.

 

"My God," she said, doing the calculation in her head. "A thousand years has gone by on Earth."

 

Of all the things he could've said in response, Sander heard himself tell Rasha that his wife was pregnant.

 

Her wide eyes went wider. "I—" she began, then repeated that single syllable.

 

Sander took a deep breath to steady himself. To save her from having to think of something to say, he forced up another smile, grimmer and less convincing than the first one.

 

"I know," he said. "For now let's just focus on not dying gruesomely."

  

#

  

     Two days after it disappeared, the Talarian defied their desperate hopes and failed to materialize near Pluto.

 

     Commodore Damac had spent those two days locked in the main control room with a small group of people searching for the ship. Maria had been denied her request to join that team and had instead been assigned some make-work project to keep her out of the commodore's hair, but she spent her free hours camped outside the double wooden doors, trying to sneak a glimpse in whenever they opened, pumping for information anyone who came out to use the bathroom or fetch some food.

 

     On the third morning an ensign came out, jostled her shoulders to wake her up and said that the commodore could spare a few minutes to talk to her.

 

She scrambled inside.

 

Damac sat by himself at the far end of a row of consoles, the chair turned toward the door. He was leaning back, one hand holding a mug of coffee resting on the table to his side. He lifted his free hand to motion her over.

 

"Have a seat." His voice, normally commanding and powerful, sounded thinned out—by tiredness, worry, despair? "Captain, our conversation will be a . . . difficult one. We believe we know where the Talarian is."

 

"But that's great—"

 

He held up his hand to stem her excitement. "Before we lost track of the ship, it had completed dozens of jumps."

 

Dozens of jumps? That would put them years in her future. Maria bit her bottom lip until it hurt. "To where, sir?"

 

"Anasta's system. Which is the only good news because it means they have a fighting chance to survive."

 

Maria's heart dropped. Anasta seemed too good to be real: a planet that appeared so much like Earth reborn that they'd named it resurrection in an old Earth language. Anasta, where a few months earlier the fleet had sent a probe by wormdrive to confirm if all the promises made by long-range telescopes were true. A probe that wasn't expected to return for two thousand years—because Anasta was almost a hundred light years away.

 

Damac took a sip from his mug, set it back on the table with a soft clink, then added in the lengthening silence, "If our extrapolation of the path of their jumps is accurate."

 

     Anasta . . . of all the places in the universe, the Talarian had jumped to the only potentially habitable planet outside Sol. She tried telling herself that it was good news. If Damac had said they'd found the Talarian's wreckage, there'd be nothing to do but grieve.

 

Her mind whirred with explanations for why Anasta—because if she could figure that out, maybe she could figure out how to rescue them.

 

     "In fact," Damac went on, "we have reason to suspect foul play."

 

Maria focused her eyes on him again; the words were so odd that they distracted from her rising enthusiasm. "You mean sabotage? But who?"

 

"Someone with an interest in discrediting wormdrive technology." The commodore took a deep breath, let his hand drop away from the mug. He leaned forward. "Losing the Talarian . . . we're in danger of the fleet shutting us down, captain. Diverting even more money into those ridiculous freezer ships."

 

Damac spat out the words. Wormdrive technology had had spectacular failures, but that was all supposed to be in the past. The fatal error was the attempt to traverse immense distances at one leap—trying to pinch too much of the fabric of spacetime in one go. The breakthrough had come with the idea of completing a series of microjumps, stabilizing a wormhole to jump through, and then another, each time traveling a few hundred thousand kilometers further along the trajectory. They'd used that type of engine to send automated ships and the good chimp Goliath all over the solar system. Those missions had completed flawlessly; this technology, implemented in this way, was supposed to be stable.

 

But sabotage? No one could get to the drive or ship who didn't have clearance to be within fifty kilometers of it.

 

Damac had people looking into all of that, of course. Her priority was rescuing the pilots, and an idea had started to take form in her mind. She caught herself chewing her bottom lip and forced herself to stop. It was a good idea.

 

"There may be a way to retrieve the ship," she said, pitching it in a way that would most appeal to Damac. "I think you know that the Artut Corporation has been—"

 

The commodore held up his hand again. "You want me to partner with a company building a freezer ship? You know what kind of signal that sends about my faith in wormdrive technology?"

 

"We can retrieve the Talarian," she said, unable to keep the desperation out of her voice now. "Discover who sabotaged it."

 

The commodore shook his head, then scrutinized her silently for a moment. "You refused to pilot the Talarian."

 

Maria leaned back. There was no point in being coy now.  "I'm pregnant, sir. We don't know yet the effect the jumps have on fetal development. So I declined, honored as I was to be chosen."

 

"Honor nothing. We chose you because you're our best pilot."

 

"When you offered the jump to him next," Maria said, "Sander insisted on declining as well. Just on the chance that something went wrong. He wants to meet this baby more than anything.

 

"I convinced him to accept, sir. I said at least our family name would go in the record books."

 

"We can't allow ourselves to become unfocused," he said. "A new wormdrive ship is our best chance of retrieving the Talarian and its pilots. And I promise you, captain, that you're at the top of my list to pilot that ship—just as soon as it's built."

 

Before she could say anything else, someone approached from behind and handed a tablet to the commodore. Damac glanced at it, nodded, and stood. He looked at her as if surprised she was still there. "Until our investigation is finalized–it goes without saying—I'm counting on your discretion."

 

Maria let out the breath she'd been holding. "Yes, sir," she said, and left.

#

The sun of Anasta, larger and hotter than Sol, beat down on Sander as he crouched by the cliff's edge, peering at the remains of his ship four hundred feet below. The Talarian had crashed into the side of a canyon, then tumbled until it came to rest, broken and twisted at the dusty bottom. From this vantage, it looked like a toy spaceship smashed by an angry toddler. A toy spaceship worth more than seven billion credits.

 

He studied the cliff face, looking for a path down. On this side it was relatively smooth, with no obvious gaps or juts for footholds and handholds.

 

Rasha called his name again in the distance, but he ignored it because Rasha was dead. This ghost, stirred up by his own sense of despair a hundred light years from the nearest living human being, threatened to snap his tenuous hold on reality if he gave it any more of his attention.

 

He wiped the sweat forming on his forehead. It was suicide without equipment, he decided. He pushed himself away reluctantly and scurried back to the shade of a large boulder nearby. He leaned against the rock and closed his eyes, then began methodically banging his head against it, trying to shake a good idea loose. A rope and pulley system? A parachute? Hang gliders? But how to get back up? Did he care about getting back up?

 

"There you are," Rasha said, appearing in front of him in silhouette. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

 

"You're not really here," he said.

 

She sighed. "Sander, you need to stop."

 

He couldn't waste any more time arguing with a ghost about whether she existed or not, so he gave her the good news: "I found our ship."

 

She sat in the shade beside him, her tank top soaked through and sticking to her skin.

 

"Okay," she said. "So?"

 

"It's at the bottom of the canyon. I'm going to find a way down there."

 

The ship's shield began failing as soon as they hit Anasta's atmosphere. They'd waited as long as they could to eject so they wouldn't be cooked alive inside the hull, but he and Rasha had become separated in their chaotic parachute descent. After he'd found Rasha's body and buried her, he'd focused his mind on finding the Talarian. He'd spent three days searching, every day venturing out farther and farther from the makeshift shelter he'd built for himself.

 

"Why?" she said, making an obvious effort to keep exasperation out of her voice.

 

"I already told you." Had he, though? He couldn't remember.

 

"You'll die. And even if you make it down, you said it yourself—it's wreckage. What are the chances that you can get the computer up and running?"

 

She spoke to him calmly, obviously controlling her frustration, like a doctor working with a beloved but irrational patient. She went on speaking, but Sander wasn't listening: he'd turned his mind into a tornado, throwing up options for a way to the bottom of that canyon.

 

#

Maria surveyed their empty apartment, plastic boxes piled against the bare walls, stripped of the photos and Kayla's drawings that had adorned them. So many memories, first of her and Sander—rollerskating through the decorated tunnels of Luna Station on their first date, getting married on Mars Colony (her homeworld), honeymooning on the space station Eleanor—then of Kayla, crawling on the kitchen floor, walking with the help of the coffee table in the living room, running around and filling the small space with booming footsteps, so heavy for such a little person.

 

It had been five years since the Talarian had disappeared.

 

"Mama?"

 

"In here, darling."

 

Kayla came out of her room, in one hand holding over-sized luggage she never would've been able to carry without the hover assist provided by their batteries, and in the other hand her plush lion. The small toy turned its head to face Kayla and gave a muted roar until she relaxed her grip.

 

"Did you say goodbye to your room, Kayla?" Maria kept her voice light. She took a deep breath, though, and couldn't help but look around their apartment again. Was she making the right decision?

 

She pushed the thought away. She'd gone through the pros and cons enough times to drive herself mad.

 

"Roary says he doesn't want to go," Kayla said, cradling her toy lion in one arm and petting him with the other. He purred softly.

 

Maria knelt in front of her daughter. "Can you do me a favor? Can you tell Roary that I'm scared too? It's really hard to leave your home. But will you tell him it's important that we go?"

 

Kayla paused for a moment, then nodded and held up her lion to her face. "It's okay, Roary," she said, giving him a little squeeze.

 

Maria stood. "Okay, guys." One last deep breath, one last look around. "Let's go."

 

#

Sander had almost drifted off to sleep when he heard the rustling of leaves outside his tree house. He'd built his shelter eight feet off the ground out of branches strung together with the strong reed-like plant that was plentiful in this part of the forest. In the same way he'd tied together something that worked like a ladder, which allowed him in and out of the door he'd placed in the middle of the floor. He'd rolled up the ladder when he'd settled in for the night, tucking it in place under the trapdoor, but now he heard it release and tumble down to the ground.

 

He was out of bed in an instant. The forest teemed with birds and small furry animals, but nothing tall enough—or smart enough—to undo his knot.

 

He opened the door and peered down in the twilight. Nothing. Could the knot have come undone by itself?

 

Then he saw her, emerging from the dimness. He began to close the door again.

 

"Wait," Rasha said. "Please."

 

"You're not real," he said. "I can't talk to you. I'm not crazy."

 

"Sander, stop. I'm here. I'm real. Okay?"

 

He stared at her for a long time. "You know anything about rappelling?"

 

"What?"

 

With a glance he indicated the worktable he'd built at the back of the clearing underneath his tree house. Coiled on top was the serpentine reed rope he'd been weaving. She walked to the table as he climbed down the ladder.

 

As he approached, she spun around to face him. "Why are you doing this? Don't you get it? Maria's been buried for a thousand years. Your child lived their life—grew old, had children and grandchildren, maybe saw their great-grandchildren. But they died a long time ago."

 

He ignored the anger in her voice and moved past her. "I've tried doubling it up," he said, picking up the rope on the table to show her. "Even weaving three strands together. But it still breaks when I put my weight on it for more than thirty minutes."

 

"This isn't healthy," Rasha said, her tone soft and placating again. She grabbed him by the shoulders. "Sander, we live a hundred light years from any other human being. We're the only two people on this entire world. We can make a new life together."

 

He shook his head, took a step away from her. "Maria may have sent a message. Maybe the receiver on the ship still works." Had he already said that to Rasha? Except this wasn't Rasha; this was a hallucination, the product of an overwrought, grief-stricken, exhausted, lonely, sleep-deprived, malnourished mind.

 

Rasha had let go of him. She leaned against the table. "Sander—" she began.

 

"She'd have had the rest of her life to figure out a way to get something to me," he said. "A picture of our child. Maybe even a video." For that moment he'd come alive, and he felt almost embarrassed by how animated he'd been, how excited, how happy. "Will you help me?" he asked, deflating.

 

"Enough of this," Rasha said. He recognized the tone, the stiffening of her body, the way her eyes went dead and cold when she had reached her limit. "Commit suicide on your own."

 

He watched her leave, blinking furiously until she disappeared from sight. He shook his head to focus his jumbled mind. She was a hallucination, wasn't she? Hadn't he buried her? He had clear memories of doing so—right?

 

They'd had to escape the ship—yes. They'd lost track of each other. He'd begun searching for her as soon as he'd landed, walking through the forest, calling out her name until his throat was hoarse. Then he'd seen her, tangled up in her parachute near the top of an impossibly tall tree. He'd climbed that tree—hadn't he? Desperately hoping that she was still alive. Then he'd carried her body down, sat against the tree and wept. Then he'd forced himself to get up and start digging a grave for her.

 

That had all happened, hadn't it?

 

He paced between his tree house and the table, carving a path into the ground. Should he return to her grave and confirm it was there? That would settle things. Except—he'd already done that, hadn't he? Yes, and it hadn't been enough to see the rock he'd used to mark the place, or even the freshly turned ground. He'd needed to know for certain, so he'd begun digging until he'd reached her head, until he'd wiped the dirt away from her lifeless face.

 

But maybe that was only a nightmare? Maybe he should go back, verify one more time?

 

With a violent shake of his head, he pushed the thought away. How many times would it take before he was satisfied?

 

Go back to sleep, he told himself. But he knew he'd only toss and turn.

 

Only in the mission he'd set for himself, of finding a way down the canyon, was he able to maintain his sanity, to experience a sense of focus and calm.

 

He returned to the table and picked up the rope, began turning and twisting and testing it again.

 

#

 

Sitting on the edge of the cliff, Sander leaned forward and once more fixed his eyes on the toy-sized Talarian far below.

 

The night before he'd feasted on his entire store of food and slept uninterrupted for the first time since arriving on Anasta. With a definitive plan ahead of him and the possibility of seeing his wife and—if his deepest wish could be granted—the child he'd never known, he'd felt his mind come back to life. Even his emaciated body felt strong and reinvigorated.

 

He'd anchored the quintuple-woven rope to a nearby boulder, creating two strands. He wrapped these around himself in the Dülfersitz method, then tossed them down the cliff, watched them unfurl and lick the ground. It had taken weeks to weave the rope, and now he was going to trust his life to it.

 

It wasn't too late to turn back, though. He'd be committed, once he twisted his body off the edge and let his weight fall into the uncomfortable reed-seat he'd spun for himself.

 

What else could he do? Go back, go home (if the tree house could be called that), live out the rest of his sad, lonely life? And wonder forever if Maria had sent him a message—a photo—a video?

 

No, he'd made up his mind.

 

The sun beamed down on him as he descended the cliff face, taking short drops of a few feet at first and then longer leaps of six and even eight feet once he gained confidence. But his muscles were already burning hotter and hotter, his heart beating not only with the exertion, but with a new panicked thought: his arms might seize up at any time.

 

He swallowed back the fear, took deep and forceful breaths. Before too long, though—sweating, sore, his neck and shoulders bleeding, and the woven reed having stripped layers of skin from his burning hands—he found he'd stopped moving, as if his body had made the decision without going through his brain. He looked up at the distance he'd covered. About halfway. Was that good? Only halfway down, but only halfway more to go. The second half would be easier, he told himself, then pushed himself to keep going.

 

Later, unable to resist any longer, he broke his own rule and looked down. He was almost there—maybe a hundred feet, maybe less. Almost there!

 

Then, all of a sudden, the rope he'd so carefully woven and tested, that carefully and tirelessly quintuple-corded rope, snapped without warning and he found himself free falling.

 

#

Sander lay at the bottom of the canyon for a long time, staring at the broken pieces of the smashed ship. Its solar sails had been stripped away, and now its spiraled metal and burned plastic littered the ground between him and the gap in the hull, as if marking out a path for him, one he could never walk. Almost immediately after regaining consciousness, he'd sensed that something was wrong, that his body wasn't reacting normally. It felt like everything below his neck was buried under concrete. For a while he'd refused to test his body. Then, tentatively, he'd tried moving his fingers, drumming them on the sand where they lay. His right arm, hand, and fingers had refused to respond. Then his left too. He'd tried his legs, his toes—then he'd tried turning over, and only managed to move his head.

 

He blinked away the tears forming in his eyes.

 

He'd almost made it. To Maria, to his unknown child.

 

"I told you this was a mistake," Rasha said, leaning beside him. "You rushed things."

 

Sander tried to shrug. He'd been so desperate to get into that ship at the bottom of this dusty canyon. He'd felt sure that he'd get to see his wife one more time—maybe his child too. He'd hung onto the thought as his single obsession, the only thing that kept him alive and sane.

 

But that feeling of certainty had been as illusory as the woman who knelt by him now, regarding him with a sad and pitying expression.

 

#

 

Even in the shade, the heat was oppressive. He allowed the tears to fall freely now. He felt no rumbling in his stomach, but his throat was parched and his lips dry.

 

#

 

At first his eyelids wouldn't respond; they were sealed shut. Finally he was able to force them open. The remaining double strand of rope attached to the boulder waved in the wind, as if each piece was trying to catch the other.

 

How long had he been out? He tried to look up at the sun, but it was too bright. He refused to look at the ship anymore. He'd spent hours staring at it, tortured by the promise it held.

 

He still didn't feel hungry. That was odd, wasn't it? He was very tired though.

 

Rasha had left. He wished she'd come back. It was terrible to die alone.

 

Later he begged his mind to imagine Maria for him, to conjure up her ghost for a little while. Let him see her one more time, imagine her holding his hand.

 

But no matter how hard he tried, she refused to appear.

 

#

 

It won't be much longer now, he thought. It can't be.

 

#

 

He forced his eyes open against the dry film that caked them, his vision clouded with dust, but in the distance, he saw something new. Shining figures. Angels come to collect his soul? Or, more likely, his dying mind finally granting him his dying wish?

 

He tracked the floating platform crowded with glowing people. He watched as it touched down and—

 

It was Maria. She glided to him on invisible wings, fell down beside him, spoke urgently, insistently, but he couldn't hear her.

 

"It's okay," he tried to say. His voice didn't sound right, as if he were trying to speak underwater. "Thank you."

 

He smiled, looking up into the face of the woman he loved, the woman he'd come to the bottom of this canyon to find one last time. And here she was. He didn't care that she wasn't real because she was here and he could feel the touch of her hand on his forehead, sweeping back his sweat-soaked hair, and, having held on for this moment, he closed his heavy eyes and allowed himself to die.

 

#

 

"Oh no, you don't," Maria said and plunged the syringe she'd brought for just this purpose into the side of Sander's neck. She waited for all of the fluid-surfing nanobots to flow into him and spread through his body, plunging him into a coma until she could get him to the Longbow.

 

#

 

Sander opened his eyes and filled his lungs with air. Where—

 

His last memories came rushing back and he shivered, felt it down his back and legs and into his toes. It had been a while since he'd received a response from any part of his body beneath his neck. A face—familiar and wonderful—appeared in his field of vision.

 

"Am I dead?" he said. "Is this heaven?"

 

Maria raised an eyebrow. "Do I look like an angel to you, mister?"

 

"Yes," he said.

 

She leaned over him and kissed his forehead. "You're not dead," she said. "You're alive because your loving wife traveled a thousand years—from Earth's perspective—to get to you."

 

He gave himself a moment to process what she'd said. When he had, he wasn't sure how to respond. "A thousand years?" he settled on.

 

She explained about joining the Artut Company, who were happy to have a decorated fleet captain piloting their cryo-ship within solar systems. She was one of the last to go to sleep once the Longbow was safely out of Sol and the autopilot could take over in the relative emptiness of space, and the first to wake up once the ship was approaching Anasta's system. The Longbow could travel at up to ten percent the speed of light, so she'd been able to time their arrival with that of the Talarian.

 

"You missed by several months," Sander said, with his teasing lift of an eyebrow she'd found so charming when they were first dating. Then, after a pause, he said, "Did you . . . find Rasha?"

 

The delighted smile that had been lighting up Maria's face dropped away. "We found her grave."

 

Sander tried to sit up, as if with sudden urgency. "I didn't do a very good job—I was digging with my hands. We need to—"

 

"Don't worry about that for now," Maria said, placing her hand on his chest to settle him back down. "We'll give her a proper burial as soon as you're well enough."

 

Sander took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "We bury her here, or . . . do we have a way back home?"

 

His wife brushed the back of her fingers against his cheek. "The Longbow is designed to travel back. It couldn't be a one-way ticket in case Anasta turned out to be a bust. But also, if Anasta was as good as our telescopes promised, to go back and bring more people, like a ferry. But that isn't going to happen."

 

"Oh?"

 

"More settlers are arriving at Anasta—by wormdrive. It took the fleet hundreds of years, but they finally figured out what was causing those ships and probes to sometimes end up in the wrong place. Turns out folded spacetime has memory. That's why you and Rasha showed up near Anasta. You were following the folds of the probe that went before you. But those folds are less stable than fresh ones—which is why sometimes the wormdrive can't adjust and explodes. They figured out how to compensate for the instabilities, smoothing out each area of spacetime before attempting to fold it again. So people can visit Anasta—or anywhere else in the universe, if they can gather the required energy—a lot more quickly than the Longbow would take. A thousand years has gone by in our solar system, but we can go back if you like and make a new life there . . . or we can stay here. What do you say, husband? Feel like trying your hand at pioneer life for a while?"

 

It didn't seem so pioneer. After months of sleeping on the makeshift reed-lined mattress, lying on this bed and these soft sheets was like swimming in warm water.

 

"I don't mind either way," he said. "Life here or life back on Sol—it'll be home as long as I'm with you." He paused for a moment, then forced himself to go on: "There is something I've been—something I'd like to . . . did you—?"

 

"Have our baby?" She nodded again slowly, savoring the look on his face. "Are you ready to meet Kayla?"

 

He opened his mouth but couldn't think of the words to say.

 

Maria laughed and walked to the door, speaking to someone outside. Then she took a little creature by the hand and brought her into the room. Kayla had his brown eyes, but everything else was her mother's: the small round nose and thin eyebrows and triangular chin. She held a stuffed toy lion tightly against her chest.

 

"Hello," he said tentatively.

 

"Hi, daddy," she said.

 

His heart exploded with love and joy, and with gratitude toward the woman who stood to the side, watching.

 

He sat up with difficulty and held out his arms to them. He hugged his daughter and his wife tightly for as long as he could. Then, exhausted, he had to let them go.

 

Maria wiped away the tears that were running down his cheeks. "Daddy needs to rest now," she said, taking their daughter's tiny hand. "We'll come back and give him lots more hugs soon."

 

As they began to leave the room, though, Rasha whispered sadly in his ear, "Sander, you need to stop this and face reality. You're imagining them."

 

"Maria, wait!"

 

His wife stopped and turned, concern lining her face.

 

"Is anyone else in this room with us?" he said.

 

The lines of concern deepened. Maria shook her head gently.

 

"I'm seeing things—hearing things," he whispered. "I thought I heard Rasha just now." Then he blurted out: "Are you real?"

 

Maria's lips twitched, as if caught between a frown and a forced, reassuring smile. "We're going to give Rasha a proper burial," she answered. "And we're going to get you the help you need, all right?" Then she turned to Kayla and asked her to come closer. "But for now, I want you to hear something. Kayla, your daddy has never met Roary. Can you introduce them?"

 

Sander listened intently as his daughter began to recount the lion's life and many adventures, quietly at first, but then with wonderful expressiveness as she warmed up, waving her hands in the air, lifting Roary for his speaking parts and talking in a deeper voice.

 

Sander's gaze caught his wife's. Was this her way of distracting him from his worries? Or her way to prove to him that no hallucination of his mind could have sprung forth with this kind of wild creativity?

 

For the moment he didn't care.

 

Roary had just boarded a big spaceship, about to travel to a faraway planet where he would start a new life, and Sander couldn't wait to find out what happened next.

 

  

THE END

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Karl El-Koura lives with his family in Canada’s capital city, holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu karate, and works a regular job in daylight while writing fiction at night. Visit www.ootersplace.com to learn more about his work.

Fiction by Karl El-Koura:

"Journey to Anasta" October 2021