A fully-recovered attorney, John MacIlroy lives along the coast of South Carolina with his wife, a ceramic painted dodo bird, and a lingering mortgage. He has co-authored a collection of short stories about the magic of youth and the miracle of friendship, Not Exactly Rocket Scientists and Other Stories, which will be published this spring.
The sky went black, as black as the stealthy double hull of her ship, Tango-19, on this, her last mission.
Commander Meredith Conrad eased her ship over the lip of the small planet, one of a cluster now called The Outer Rim. She had seen much in her sixteen years in space, but had never gotten over the sheer terror of Deep Space darkness. The human spirit, she now knew for certain, needs to see something in the night sky.
She was, at least technically, still mostly human, so she let the thought linger. It may have been no more than the ghost of some ancient memory of the brilliant night sky her ancestors had once known—a wondrous display that held for them nothing but promise, until the day the skies forever turned angry, and the rains began.
Of the ships launched before contact with Earth was lost, only three made it to the cluster planets. No one knows why things went so horribly wrong on One, the inner planet, or why three months ago, those Refugees who had not “augmented” had gone into open and bloody revolt on Two.
“Maybe it’s the darkness,” she remembered the Command Admiral saying just hours ago. “Nothing really like it. Does something to the soul. Crushes it, really, particularly in the old. The trace of some primal fear—the monster under the bed, something in the dark woods. It’s in us all, somewhere.”
He had, she also remembered, seemed to pause just then, an uncharacteristic pause in his normally command-crisp style.
“But maybe you’re lucky, Commander. You volunteered to be one of the first Augments. That seems to be the ticket, something in the procedure that hardens your soul. Probably a tender mercy, out here. You never talk about it, and this is your—what—ninth mission?”
“Yes, sir. Number nine.” But, she thought, you are so terribly wrong about my hardened soul.
“Easy mission profile tonight, Commander. A class alpha re-supply. Actually called them a milk run, back when we had real milk, you know. Max load. Mostly habitat modules, hydroponic stations, water pods, tons of freeze-dried stuff. You’ll be dropping enough to keep our people down there on Outer Two for the next ten years. Maybe give them all a chance to get things settled down.”
The Command Admiral had been stationed on Outer Two in the early years. He still had many friends there, and, like all Outer Two missions, had taken a special interest in this one.
“I’m authorizing a full crew, with sub-orbital drop. You’ll be driving one of the new ships, Tango-19, with the advanced hyper-drive. But you won’t come close to breaking her in on this trip, although she’s programmed for a full worm-hole punch next month. Even Consortium doesn’t know how far she can go. Just keep the tiger in the cage, Commander. No stupid stuff.”
“Aye, Admiral. No stupid stuff.”
A little loose, she knew, but something Command Admiral Marcus Conrad would let slide from his only daughter, along with the mere hint of the hug which followed. Marcus always made sure no one was around to see this shared breach of regulations, a surprisingly tender lapse by the crusty, no-nonsense Admiral and the daughter he loved. But he had been too old for augmentation, and his soul ran deep indeed.
As she left to begin her pre-flight, Commander Meredith Conrad prayed he would, someday, understand.
* * *
Her crew, she knew, had talked about it for months, ever since the new ships arrived. Not another Augment among them, they were a young group, eighteen men and seventeen women, and ship’s company was the only family they knew. At first she dismissed it all as the stuff of dreams, idle talk of the young in the endless blackness of space: talk of another universe, bathed in the glow of a New Beginning of Time, out there somewhere, anywhere, away from The Darkness, a rip in space-time.
Even if beyond their imaginations, it was not, she could see, beyond their hopes.
She came to marvel at their full humanity and their yearning, and she soon understood what she had to do.
It was, in the end, an act not only of faith, but of love.
“No, father,” she whispered in the soft green glow of the flight deck, her fingers dancing across the flight controls as she sequenced the fusion hyper-drive, the ship quick to respond with an awakening shudder, as if it, too, understood its destiny. “How very wrong you are, as I now know only too well the full-throated cry of the human soul, the irresistible pull of hope and things unseen beyond the dark horizon….”
* * *
Under the soft pink of a late afternoon sky, with the gentle sounds of New Eden a living testament to her depth of her soul, Meredith Conrad was lowered into the ground. She would now rest under the monument that had been built in tribute to the crew of “the 19,” as people now called them, the pioneers who seeded this new world, a planet remarkably like the Earth—but unspoiled, and perpetually bathed in a gentle glow from the two suns around which it orbited. Although she had borne no children—quiet talk of problems in the augmentation process, a point now moot—her crew had been prolific, giving them all a future, and hope.
The monument was built from a section of the Tango-19 navigation grid, its glass polished and embedded in a black, marble-like base. And as her casket fell below the rim of the site, the glass caught the light of the two suns, just right.
It was a startling burst of prismatic color, darkness, if not death, overcome.