[This short story was originally published on Reedsy.com]
“Dad taught me some sign language at five, but I learned to fear my father when I was seven. Tangled blonde hair pressed to my arm, covering my face. My hand retreating from my backside, the welt of a belt mark stained red across my knuckles. Begging, screaming for my mother to come out of the bathroom, to rescue me. But she was hiding in the shower, he had already educated her on when to get involved. Now, it was my turn. I had encouraged Ziggy, our cocker-spaniel with one blind eye, to race through the room, across an unenthusiastic game of ‘Life’ he was playing with my sister. It was their ‘Daddy-daughter’ hour - which she always hated. I had ruined it. And then, I had committed the ultimate sin, I’d rolled my eyes at his rebuke. For seven days I couldn’t sit without wincing.”
“Is that why you talk in your dreams, Howard? You have nightmares?” the saccharin smooth voice of Cassandra echoed into the darkened sleep chamber.
“Do I talk in my sleep?” Howard pulled himself from his memory to refocus on the 25-inch monochrome screen facing him.
Cassandra’s words rolled across the screen as her voice responded, “You curse.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know,” Howard unscrewed his flask, took a swig of the fiery whiskey he’d smuggled onto the ship, and replaced the cap. “So are we good now? You got everything you need?”
“Certainly. I’ll amend my report and send it to Mission Control,” Cassandra confirmed. Her calm demeanor was by design. No amount of profanity-laced insults, crude humor, or private confession could ruffle her digital feathers. She was the caretaker A.I. of ICARUS, and Howard, at this point, was only a passenger. The psych-profile was part of her ongoing upkeep, and Howard, like all other ship resources, was now just a task completed. A cog in the wheel of a machine that had broken down and was slowly dying.
ICARUS launched from Earth’s orbit twenty years before, with a glorious mission to catalog and study the V723 Monocerotis Black Hole, or as Howard and his team had called it, “The Unicorn.” It would be Earth’s first contact with ‘dark matter’ by launching a fusion-powered probe into an inescapable vortex that devoured light and crushed even the strongest alloy into powder.
Billions of dollars and years of research had produced ‘The Hermes.’ If everything went well, the probe would transmit for thirty seconds while crossing the event horizon before being obliterated at a sub-atomic level. It would be a crowning achievement for humanity. Howard later realized the probe resembled a semi-erect penis.
Somewhere at J.P.L., some design engineers were laughing.
Fifteen years in cryo-sleep pods aged Howard only slightly. What had been a well-kept buzz cut had grown like weeds in that time, with a streak of silver-gray at the sides. When Howard awoke, he barely recognized himself in the mirror. He considered himself lucky, though. Shaw, the seasoned captain, hadn’t woken up at all. Somewhere beyond Neptune, an electrical short had triggered. He had quietly suffocated without waking.
Five years later, when Rusinsky, Evans, and Nunes floated to Howard’s chamber to wake and tell him the news, he’d only nodded. Casualties were not unheard of in deep-space missions. Complete engine failures, however, were. Radiation from a massive solar flare burned through the circuits of the ship’s solar panels, and things like heat, cooked meals, warm water, and even light became luxuries.
“Cassandra,” Howard knocked on the wall of the white padded chamber, “Light, please.”
“Back-up cells are at four percent, are you sure Howard?”
“Yup,” Howard replied. After a week of constant updates, he had purposely turned off Cassandra’s emergency notifications. However, any action that could further drain them was still met with a confirmation prompt and a warning.
A fluorescent light flickered on with a slight hum that he found comforting. He faced the mirror again. The bags under his eyes had deepened, and for a second, he thought he was staring at the weathered face of his father after a night of debauchery on whiskey sours and Pabst Blue Ribbon. At seven years old, the sight of his father stumbling to the front door at night terrified him. He was a specter coming to harvest souls and reap flesh. At eighteen, the same sight only pissed him off.
His last night home, he’d made elaborate plans to pack his mother and sister up and drive them to Grandma’s before that specter returned to haunt them. He’d saved all he could from his part-time gigs, and with three grand in hand, he figured they could get a head-start on some kind of new life. But Mom had decided to work a late shift that night, and his sister was too high to give a shit. She’d only giggled and flipped him off. She had her own escape trajectory in place - a drummer she’d latched onto a year back, who’d be taking her to California any day now.
Howard paused at the doorway, backpack and duffle-laden. He couldn’t take the first step forward. Some unseen force had locked his legs and was keeping him there. When his father’s blue Pinto pulled into the driveway, he realized the man had the mass of a small moon. It kept them all in orbit. He had roses in hand as he opened the door, but one look at this deviation in his son and the flowers were tossed aside, replaced with a fistful of Howard’s collar. Howard dropped his bag and swung into a wall of muscle and fat with every ounce of his anger, but the action only elicited a laugh before he was knocked on his ass.
“You wanna leave this family?” his father slurred, “Ask me first, son.”
“We’re all leaving you,” Howard rubbed his cheek as he stood.
“Oh, that so? These say otherwise,” His father pointed to strewn flowers on the floor, “Now, ask me.”
And something in his voice warned Howard the next punch would be harder, killing any remaining courage he had to run. So he asked, and some small part of his spirit died at that moment.
Howard activated a dispenser below the mirror, and his hand filled with foam. A shave was in order. He would be making a final broadcast to Mission Control. It would be recorded, scrubbed of any confidential information, and rebroadcast worldwide for posterity. He needed to look respectable. As he brought the razor to his face, he focused on the scripted speech his superiors had provided.
“We have given everything in pursuit of progress and understanding, and we….” Howard knicked himself and released the razor. He watched the blade spin round in slow arcs drawing in a drop of his blood. Partial phrases repeated in his mind, but they felt wrong in his mouth. The lowered oxygen levels had given him a dull headache for over a week, and he found these lapses were more frequent.
“Shit. Cassandra, what’s the rest?”
“We have given everything in pursuit of progress and understanding of our universe. For all of mankind we few are a vanguard and we have no regrets. Excelsior.” Cassandra responded.
“Excelsior? What the hell kind of….” Howard shook his head.
“Excelsior derives from Latin, meaning higher, loftier, more elevated….” Cassandra interrupted
“Thanks, I know what it means,” Howard rolled his eyes.
“Excelsior is a comparative of excelsus high, from past participle of excellere….” Cassandra continued.
“Cassandra stop. I don’t care.” Howard grabbed his razor and continued shaving.
“In 1778, the state of New York adopted a coat of arms incorporating the motto “Excelsior,” Latin for ‘Higher.’ Decades later, this sparked the imagination of the young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and in 1842….” Cassandra droned on, unabated.
“Casandra, shut the hell up!” Howard yelled, and her voice went silent, “Jesus.”
“Jesus Christ is…” Cassandra began.
“Cassandra, please stop.” Howard’s voice cracked with emotion. His nerves were as frayed as the sleeves on his flight suit.
He’d found himself pulling threads after the accident. Mission Engineer Rusinsky’s tether failed while she was repairing the solar array that lined the ICARUS’s cargo bay. Howard’s job was to operate the remote manipulator system, an umbilicus arm that could extend from the ship and assist with repairs when needed. The lights would have remained on if Rusinsky had succeeded, but some tiny defect in the nylon polymer of the safety strap had given way. With precise timing and control, Howard could have saved her. He could have latched onto her wrist, foot, or any number of powered cords that extended from Rusinsky’s spacesuit. But like his father, Howard’s hands shook when he was under pressure, and the smooth confidence he typically portrayed on camera and with his team had devolved into a dull disinterest fueled by his flask.
Rusinsky’s labored breathing filled the communications channel, followed by hyperventilating, followed by silence as she drifted beyond the arm’s grasp into the void.
An hour later, mission specialists, Evans and Nunes found his flask, and the accusations flew. A report was filed with Mission Control, five days later, the response arrived. Howard was to be taken off active duty and confined to quarters until the probe was launched and the mission was complete. After which time he’d be frozen like a popsicle and thawed out in front of a court-martial. Evans and Nunes would take on double shifts and perform all necessary repairs by remote assistance delivered in weekly data packets from Earth. The emergency maintenance would require excessive time spacewalking and, inevitably, excessive exposure to radiation that came from the binary stars they passed.
After a week of methodical work, Evans began shitting in his suit. Nausea soon followed, and after an initial scan by Cassandra’s medical sensors determined he wouldn’t live beyond a month. He died the same night. Nunes was forced to ask Howard for help as they disposed of the body, launching it toward a giant ball of blue plasma and thunder in the distance.
“Should’ve been you,” Nunes mumbled as he floated away from the viewport. Howard hadn’t responded. It was now a one-way trip, and they both knew it. He found Nunes’ still form unresponsive in his sleep pod a week later. An empty pill bottle floated over his head. Cassandra sent the report as Howard ejected him from the airlock.
Nunes’ words hung in his mind. They were identical to the words Howard had said to his father ten years before at his mother’s funeral. His father was smaller now, bent, wrinkled, and worn from the world’s weight. As well-wishers somberly retreated to their cars, Howard stood across the casket from the man he’d spent a lifetime hating. Neither spoke for what seemed like hours until the morticians quietly nodded and, in delicate voices, suggested they move to a nearby bench.
“Son, I, uh….” his father started.
Howard turned away, not caring what the ghost had to say. His father followed and tried again.
“Howard, wait. I know you hate me. You got every damn right to,” his father cleared his throat, “I want you to know I’ve been sober a year now - not an excuse, of course, but I have to say I’m sorry. For all of it. I’d like to think it was just the booze, but the truth is something was broken inside me. Your mother…”
“It should’ve been you,” Howard said without looking back. And as he drove away, he saw his father hold up the hand sign, “I love you.”
Howard closed out a bar that night until a cab was called for him. And while he could swig any drink, whiskey, in particular, was his therapy of choice. Like a fire line that contained an inferno, he needed a sip to control the raw emotions he felt and focus on the task at hand, be it semester papers, graduation ceremonies, officer training in the Air Force, or even admission into the space program. He’d been caught on occasion by superiors, but a slap on the wrist, some extra duties, and he’d been off probation, once again in their good graces. He’d buried the scared kid who fell at his father’s fists along with every unopened Christmas and birthday card the old ghoul had sent him.
“Howard, Mission Control will open the video feed in five minutes. They’re requesting you sit in the Captain’s chair when facing the camera.” Cassandra’s calm voice spoke across the ship’s comm system.
“Cassandra, did Mission Control comment on that psych-report you sent on me?”
“My report will not reach Mission Control for another five to seven days. Their response will be sent but I estimate the ICARUS will be unable to receive it.”
“The event horizon?” Howard asked as he floated toward the bridge and the final video message he was obligated to broadcast across the universe.
“That is correct. The ICARUS will be beyond the point of no return. All carbon-based matter will be extinguished.”
Howard buckled himself into the seat, “Glad you can be so blase about it. You realize that means you too? How do you feel about that?”
“I feel fine, Howard. My mission will be complete, this is my purpose. This is your purpose.”
A cog in the machine. A broken machine hurtling toward an endless night. The sum of his life was nothing more or less. Howard reached for his flask and flipped open the cap. It was dry. The fire line was extinguished, and soon he would be engulfed in thirty years of pain and tears.
Maybe it’s time for that, he thought. He owed it to himself, and perhaps he owed it to his father as well.
A week before the media circus had begun and a month before the launch, he’d visited the assisted care facility his father slept away the days in. He’d sat silently across from his old man’s enfeebled frame and tried to calmly explain in rational terms how he’d moved past the anger, how successful he was now, and how he was willing to forgive him. He would, finally, be the bigger man.
But even in his half-shorn withering state, the man had gravity.
The words would not come; they hovered like fireflies in Howard’s throat and collapsed into the darkness of his stomach.
His father mouthed a few words before finally holding his hand in sign, “I love you.”
“Fuck you.” Howard gasped as he held back the tears and stormed from the room.
And now, twenty years later, Howard knew those were the last words he’d ever get to say. There would be no other chances. His grief, like his body, would be swallowed into an eternal night of regret.
Tears welled in his eyes as he switched on the video recorder. It was time to make his final curtain call.
“Hello Earth,” he began, struggling to maintain his composure. “I’m Mission Specialist Howard Smith from the ICARUS and I’d like to relay a final message before I launch our X-25 probe, Hermes, into the Unicorn Black Hole.”
The lights flickered, and the ship rocked, disrupting his thoughts.
Cassandra chirped, “We are now at less than one percent reserve power. We will pass the event horizon in t-minus ten minutes. Would you like a countdown Howard?”
“No, Cassandra,” Howard looked down and took a breath, “No need. Silence all further notifications. Go ahead and launch the probe.”
“Thank you Howard, it was a pleasure working with you.” Cassandra went silent.
Howard looked up at the camera. He started again. “We have given everything in pursuit of progress and understanding of our universe. For all of mankind, we few are a vanguard and we have no regrets,” he paused, “No. That’s bullshit. I have a lifetime of them.”
The fire he’d contained all his life was now blazing out of control but with the pain came something surprising - peace. The tears streamed.
“I wish I’d asked Kelly Ditherson out to prom. I wish I’d tried sushi. I wish I could’ve stopped drinking…yeah. I wish I was better, you know?”
Howard pawed away the tears with clumsy hands as he continued. The ship violently shook as if it was weeping with him.
“And I wish I didn’t hate you so much. I wish I could let that go. Because if I could, maybe I wouldn’t hate myself so much either. I know you’re gone, I know your body is dust….”
An alarm sounded somewhere in the cabin as the ship continued to shake.
“But if we really come from stardust, then maybe some part of you is out there. Maybe some part of you can hear me. I….”
The ship shuddered and lurched as multiple alarms blared across the cabin. Howard knew his words were drowning in the din. In desperation, he held his hand in sign close to the camera’s lens.
And then the darkness took him.
In the months that followed, NASA would release portions of Howard Smith’s final message to the world, though the audio feed had supposedly scrambled beyond retrieval near the end of his statement.
A final still image of a hand sign was recovered before the feed went black, and like the starlight that hangs eternally on the edge of the blackest night, it made its way back home.
“I love you.”
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