Next of Kin
Standing on her doormat were Col. Makepeace and a chaplain she didn’t recognize. Diana knew what it meant: her husband was dead, and she'd have to do something about the body.
Art by Vinnie Neuberg.
Space exploration is noble and all, but it sucks for the people astronauts leave behind. Is there anything nearly as intolerable as the idea that someone you love is in space? With that in mind, today's story examines one possible future of "unmanned" space travel—and its complications. -the Eds
Diana Saunders wasn't expecting a knock at the door, so she didn't think twice about opening it barely dressed. Miami mornings were warm, and a short robe loosely tied over her new two-piece seemed appropriate for the apartment and the little shared piazza out back. She had meant to spend the day sunning herself with Edna, maybe sharing a little pitcher of greyhounds.
She didn't even consider who might be at the door—some pimple-faced delivery boy, the mailman coming early. She just opened and smiled in her beach best, looking more like a girl without a care in the world than a married 28-year-old woman.
Her smile slid off her face, listing from right to left. Standing on her flamingo doormat were Col. Makepeace and a chaplain she didn't recognize. Her heart dropped into her belly and her knees went weak. They had to help her to her own rattan couch.
"Mrs. Saunders." Col. Makepeace looked her up and down, uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and tried to focus on her wedding ring. He clasped a letter from the Air Force in his hairy fist.
While he struggled, the chaplain broke in. "Mrs. Saunders, we haven't met but I knew James. I knew your husband at the base. I'm Chaplain Major Charles Cassidy. You can call me Father Charles. I think you know why we're here."
Diana nodded dully. Edna, unseen and unheard in the kitchen, appeared with a coffee tray set for three. She had pulled on her housedress and turban quickly. She laid a hand on Diana's broad shoulder.
"Sweetie, you should try to drink some coffee." Edna's kind eyes met the colonel's. "I think she's just shocked."
He nodded curtly, grimacing at her doe-eyed simplicity, wordlessly dismissing her. Edna could read signals, so she slipped back into their small kitchen and poured herself a greyhound from the sweating carafe. She pinched the cord out of the back of the telephone and lay the dead wire on the flecked Formica table. She listened.
Diana struggled to raise her head. "Gentlemen, please help yourselves to some coffee." The duties of a hostess came to her mechanically, but the words helped to crank start the seized engine of her brain. Slowly, she drew her robe closed and tried to straighten up. "Tell me…tell me what you came to tell me."
Father Charles reached forward as if to take her hand in his, but stalled. He looked from the pink ribbon in her hair to her freshly painted pink toes but could not bring himself to touch her.
"James…Captain Saunders is missing and presumed dead. All three of them have been out of contact for two days now."
Diana nodded without knowing where the impulse came from.
Col. Makepeace took up the story as Father Charles poured himself a coffee and spooned sugar into it.
"Major Dobay transmitted a message at 1400 hours on Saturday that they had encountered some kind of interference as they approached the Kuiper Belt. Nothing showed up on scans, so we advised them to proceed. They reported systems normal for the next several hours, but around 1900, we began to receive communications that were…erratic."
Father Charles' mustache dripped sticky sweet coffee into his mug. Diana made herself look at the colonel. "What do you mean, erratic?"
He kept himself from grimacing, but barely. "We began to receive voice transmissions. First from Major Dobay, then from Captain Saunders. Captain Polk was silent until the very en— through most of the message."
Diana's eyebrow shot up as she heard the slip. She leaned forward a little, unconscious of the way her bikini top gapped away from her chest as she did. Col. Makepeace looked resolutely at her square jaw. The chaplain did not.
"That's not possible."
Makepeace was nodding, stalling with a little black coffee of his own. "I want you to understand, we're not telling this to the press. There's no way to explain it. I heard Captain Saunders' voice just as clearly as I'm…hearing you now." He finished lamely, taking another sip.
"What did he say?"
The Chaplain was shaking his head. "Crazy, nonsense things. We think they were being deprived of oxygen. Something about a ship, and a penalty, and that they were being given hosts— was it host bodies? I didn't understand the incoming message about 'energetic surrogacy,' but Dobay kept repeating that they were not humans in their natural state. The transmissions are still being translated, it sounded like a whistling percolator coming over the comm. But I know it was Saunders screaming, it had to be—"
"Major." The colonel's voice was like a knife. "Ma'am, we're not authorized to disclose that information. Not all of it. This entire mission will likely end up classified and you'll be debriefed as to the story for publication when you receive your benefits."
"I don't understand. NASA has never lost a mission like this. The Eos has a homing program; you can just bring them back. Did you try the capture protocol? They can be suspended if they're…hurt. If they've been through something terrible. That was supposed to be what the neural net is for, isn't it?"
The men exchanged a glance and Diana felt her spine stiffen.
"What? If it isn't classified yet, then tell me now while I still have a chance to find out."
Makepeace set his cup down. He stared at Diana's knees below the cheap sateen robe. "The Eos is gone. The neural net is gone. After their last transmission, the whole thing just…winked out. We don't know…we don't know what happened to the ship, or if the crew consciousness was preserved in any fashion at all. It's as if they were never there."
"Was there another ship? Did something…?" She couldn't picture what they were talking about. No mission, no matter the range, had encountered any other form of life in the solar system. No neural net astronaut had been lost since Aldrin in 1969, when his download protocol had failed. That was six years ago, and every single man or woman sent to space since then had returned and successfully reunited with their body. Even that Russian, Tereshkova, who had been emergency downloaded at Cape Canaveral and shipped home in the net on a Soviet submarine. She had her baby right after she got back. Everything had turned out fine.
"It doesn't matter," Makepeace said tonelessly. "I don't think we're ever going to find out. And either way, they're gone. They'll be buried as heroes, and the next Eos will be better prepared for neural lock, just in case."
At the mention of the burial, they both found themselves staring at Diana. She sat with her knees primly pressed together, still in shock.
In the kitchen, Edna chewed savagely at her nails.
"Mrs. Saunders. You're going to have to release the body."
She laid her square hands down, just above her brown, muscular knees. She felt the coarse hair there, remembering how it had rubbed her own smooth thighs raw on their wedding night.
She closed her robe around her chest, covering the yellow bikini top firmly, as if she could protect it from them.
"I don't see why that's the case."
The chaplain and the colonel exchanged a look again, silently fighting out whose problem this was.
Father Charles sighed and set down his coffee cup. "Mrs. Saunders, you have to understand. James was a pilot and a soldier. He deserves to put to rest now that he's… he's gone. You're not the first military wife to do this, you know. It's…mostly we look the other way. We understand. It's hard to miss someone so much when their flesh is in a biocabinet in your spare room. People like to integrate with their spouse. It makes them feel connected."
Makepeace could barely conceal his distaste at this discussion. "Listen, Mrs. Saunders. If you're using your husband's body to…to get yourself in the family way, that's your business, I suppose. But you could at least dress appropriately while you're doing…while you're going about your business. Let the man be a man, at least. An officer." He stared at her hairy toes.
Diana thought about all that she had done in James's body. All the trips to the store and the mechanic and the bank, the way they had treated her like an adult instead of a little girl playing dress-up. She thought of her runs on the beach using James' long legs, exercising and shaving him carefully so he'd come home to a neat face and no muscle loss. She had only meant to keep it for him, the way she started his car every day.
But the view from up there had been too much. And when she realized that she and Edna could be much better friends this way, well…she hadn't been back in her own leggy blonde frame for at least two weeks now.
She cleared her throat and her voice was smooth and sure. Another benefit. "Gentlemen, this body was signed into my custody for its safekeeping and health. The paperwork says it's mine until my husband returns. If you're telling me that isn't going to happen, then I don't care what you bury, but it won't be me."
"In the event of your husband's death—" the chaplain began, but Diana cut him off.
"Is he dead? Can you prove that? Is Aldrin dead? She's still getting his salary, not his pension."
Father Charles stared at the floor, his voice low. "For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither anything hid, that shall not be known and come abroad."
Makepeace stood, calm but with his fists clenched. "This is disgusting."
Diana shrugged. Father Charles watched in fascination the girlishness of the gesture, the way she tilted her head to one side and pursed her lips.
"We'll be back, Mrs. Saunders. We'll give you some time to grieve. You aren't making sense right now. Please accept our deepest condolences and the gratitude of NASA and the US Air Force for your sacrifice."
Neither of them could shake her hand. She stood and they turned to show themselves out before she could get to the door.
Back in the guest bedroom, Diana looked in on her own naked body, suspended in the biocabinet under glass, vitals looking good.
Edna crept up behind her, kissing the carefully clipped hair at the back of her Marine-cut head. "You need to take yourself out for a walk. It's been a while."
The sun was setting over Miami. In the deep orange light, two shadows waded into the waves, looking out toward Key Biscayne. They floated wordlessly in the warm water, speaking only to the stars.
This is Terraform, our home for future fiction. Art by Vinnie Neuberg.