“Spindle, this is Sky Castle; come in, Spindle.”
Aurora grabbed a handhold and pulled herself to the front of the command module as the voice came through her headset—the first signal from home the ship had received since travelling back through the wormhole. The first word from Earth in over a year.
Her pulse quickened as she pressed the button on her mic. “This is Spindle,” she breathed. “Aurora King speaking; how soon until you can bring us home? Over.”
She heard the cold slap of palms against rungs in the ladder shaft that led down to the spinning gravity wheel. It was Fairburn, come to relieve her at the end of her seven-hour shift. He thrust himself up the tunnel and grabbed a headset hanging near the entrance. He was a few minutes early, and she thought about clocking out, but Commander Grimm could be pretty rigid about time stamps. She pulled up the map on the monitor in front of her, trying not to look at him. Her muscles tightened.
Fairburn nodded. “Talking to someone?”
“Sky Castle,” she nodded. “We’re in home space. Just short of Neptune’s orbit.” The Spindle’s blue dot blipped toward a green light on the far end of the screen. Blip. Blip.
“Almost home,” he breathed.
Home. It seemed strange to Aurora, after all she’d been through, to describe Earth that way. Especially since the one thing she had missed—the one thing she really wished she could come back to, the one person that really felt like home—wouldn’t be there.
The engagement ring he had given her still hung around her neck, and she’d clipped a photo of him to the glass on her ship’s berth. They were good reminders—but just reminders. Shadows. Cheap copies of the real Phil. They weren’t enough.
Especially because he was supposed to be here. On the ship. With her.
“Where’s Grimm?” Fairburn asked.
“Dinner break,” she answered flatly, careful not to turn her head. “He’ll be back soon, I’m sure.” She reached down to the communicator clipped to her belt and clicked the pager button. The commander would want to be here when the next word from Sky Castle came in.
Fairburn glided through the module’s null gravity, then coasted to a stop beside her at the control interface. She fixed her attention forward, away from him.
“Spindle, we have a lock on your coordinates and we’re sending you our information,” came the voice in their headsets. “Can you confirm your trajectory?”
Fairburn scanned the information. “Confirm, Sky Castle.” He took his hand off the button, then paused before speaking again.
“Will you tell?” he asked.
Tell what you did to him, Fairburn? she thought. Tell how you took him from me?
“No,” she said at last. Even if she did, it wouldn’t change anything. Phil would still be gone.
“He’s long dead now, you know,” Fairburn said.
Aurora glared at him. Her fingers clenched into a fist. “Do you have to?” she rasped.
He turned back to study the interface.
“Look at me,” she said, louder.
His finger traced the ship’s trajectory across the monitor. He drummed against the edge of the control panel in time with the blue dot flashing on the screen. Her shift ended.
“Look at me.”
Aurora wrenched his shoulder back so that he faced her, away from the starboard wall. He stared and let the uncomfortable silence hang in the air. She studied him closely, searching for a hint of remorse. Nothing.
Somewhere in the back of her mind it registered that Commander Grimm could come back at any moment, but she didn’t care. She had had enough. She kicked off from the edge of the control panel and pushed him hard against the far wall, teeth clenched. Fairburn collided with the metal, his face still hard as her blow sent her back toward the module’s other side.
“You got what you wanted. I’m here. You’re here. And he’s not. Isn’t that enough?” There was a crack in her voice. Damn it.
“Spindle?” asked the headset. “Looks like you’ll be crossing into our orbit in another twelve hours. We’re adjusting course to meet with you then. You’ll be home soon.”
Fairburn kicked toward the interface. “Confirm, Sky Castle,” he said. “See you then.”
He looked out into the void. The sound of hands on rungs came up again through the tunnel. Grimm was back from dinner.
“I didn’t get everything I wanted, Aurora,” he told her at last, levelly. “You know that.”
Didn’t get everything I wanted. She thought back to the offer he’d made her, back on the planet. It still made her stomach turn.
You didn’t get me.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, well, neither did the rest of us.”
The commander emerged into the module. Aurora ignored him and made for the exit. She pushed past Fairburn, past Grimm, swung her body toward the tunnel, then dropped feet-first toward the floor below.
“Not even close.”
Aurora had been eleven when she’d first studied NASA’s launch of the Dove and Olive probes through the wormhole nearly a century before. She’d been working on a school project with her dad; he was an amateur astronomer himself, and he knew how to talk about science so that everyone in earshot would love it like he did. Especially Aurora.
She listened in rapt attention as he explained the physics behind the wormhole using one of her mother’s crochet needles and a Post-It note. “A wormhole,” he said, poking the needle through one side of the paper, “bends space and time so we can travel vast distances and back again quicker than we would ever be able to do without it. Like this.” He bent the note around the needle and poked it through the other side. “So fast,” he added, “that time actually passes slower on the way through the wormhole than it does on Earth.” She’d used the same illustration with her class the following day.
She was thirteen when the probes’ data came in to the research base stationed on Triton. Dove and Olive had sent back a host of new discoveries—chief amongst them a new exoplanet, the fifth in orbit around the star NASA had dubbed Perrault. By the end of five years, the astronomers had reached a consensus: Perrault V could support human life. Nearly every condition necessary for human colonization was in place, from temperature to gravity to distance from its star. The planet boasted an ample water supply and thriving plant ecosystem. While oxygen levels in its atmosphere were minimal, preliminary simulations had predicted successful terraforming over the course of only a few generations using comparatively simple breeding techniques. Discussions were already under way to send a crew to the planet that could bring back its native plant life, to splice the DNA the probes had found with that of native Terran vegetation. Aurora swore she would be a part of it.
For the next four years, she learned everything she could about space travel. At age fourteen she did a science fair report on the launch of the first moon colonies. At fifteen, she aced 12th-grade physics. At graduation she walked across the stage to shake hands with her beaming science teacher amid the applause of proud parents. Next stop: MIT.
Two months later came the car crash. Dad had been crushed under an overturned roof. Mom died in the ER eight hours later. She grieved them, then pushed her grief to the side and kept studying. She convinced herself it was what they would’ve wanted.
Aurora was just finishing the first year of her undergraduate degree when NASA announced plans to construct the first manned interstellar spacecraft. The project would be helmed by the esteemed astrophysicist Dr. Pyotr Chekovsky, who had named the ship the Spindle. It was shaped like a gigantic wheel, rotating on an axis to simulate gravity in its rim, and driven by a long propulsion shaft that stretched behind the central hub, like a Spindle without thread. The vessel would bring seven astronauts and a handful of robot aides through the wormhole to land and survey the exoplanet beyond. Once there, they would spend a full Earth year collecting plant samples and conducting a series of experiments on Perrault V’s surface before returning home. If all went well, the Spindle would emerge from the wormhole to a fleet of cryoships, ready to carry whole colonies of frozen humans (and the first crop of plant hybrids) to the virgin world.
Soon after finishing her degree, Aurora came onto the project as an astroengineer. As a graduate student, she’d been commissioned to design an elbow mechanism for a robot intended for use in the ship’s construction. Several months later, an email confirmed her place at NASA, engineering landing gear for the Spindle’s suborbital craft, Odyssey. The job was a dream come true—the moment she saw the subject header, she grabbed her roommate from in front of the TV and danced her around their apartment for joy. It wasn’t just a job with NASA; it was an opportunity to help contribute to the most ambitious step in space exploration to date. One that would soon be looking for a field engineer.
From the beginning, she gave the project everything she had. Every second in the laboratory was well-spent, as she pored over readouts and tinkered with blueprints to optimize the lander’s design. She spent hours of overtime testing new ideas and running the simulation programs like an addict with a drug.
Sometimes the lab would receive a visit from a group of clean-shaven men with gray suits and lapel badges, scribbling down notes about her team’s progress. Sometimes those clean-shaven men would interview team members about their performance. The rumour spread that they were looking for candidates for the ship’s maiden crew. Aurora’s heart skipped every time she saw one of them gesture in her direction. For anyone else, the pressure would have been crippling. Not for her. She wouldn’t let it be.
She was getting on that ship.
It was two weeks into her work on the Odyssey that Aurora first met Phil. It was late, and she was hard at work on one of the lander’s main gear actuators. Something was wrong with the computer simulation, and she wasn’t willing to let the glitch sit untouched for an entire weekend. After a quick caffeine boost, she figured she’d be able to get the program working by midnight.
She ducked out of her office, keys in hand. Her footsteps echoed through long, empty hallways, clicking a steady beat across the linoleum. Presently, though, she heard another sound between her steps: a loud, deep, expressive voice singing at the far end of the hall. She recognized it: he (yes, definitely a he) was singing Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”. Aurora followed the sound through the maze of corridors to another office door, cracked ajar. The name plate read: “Chekovsky: Astrophysicist”.
She was curious. She’d heard Pyotr Chekovsky speak in briefings and lectures before, and knew the voice serenading the empty halls couldn’t be his. The graying physicist’s voice, though strong, was that of an old man—far from the young, vibrant voice that echoed Steve Tyler across the abandoned building.
Aurora pushed the door open on the sight of a young man about her age spinning in his office chair, his fingers picking across an air guitar. He swivelled to face her and broke off from the music, a startled look frozen on his face.
Their eyes locked. Brown eyes, she noticed. Handsome features. A shock of auburn hair.
He flashed her a grin; embarrassed, playful. “Hi,” he said perkily.
Aurora smiled back and tucked her hair behind her ear. Her stomach fluttered. Without breaking eye contact, his hand slipped over to his computer keyboard to the volume button. The 1990s-era crooning grew quieter.
“Most people use headphones,” she said.
“Sorry. I’ll keep it down.”
“No, it’s… it’s fine. You sound good.” She pointed to his name plate. “Chekovsky?”
“Phil Chekovsky, yeah.”
“Related to Pyotr?”
“His son. And you are?”
“Aurora King. I’m in the astroengineering department.”
“King?” he asked. “I’ve read some of your work. Your preliminary designs for the Odyssey landing gear are really impressive.”
“Thanks,” she said. She felt a swell of pride, and at the same time, wished her hair looked a bit neater. “Working late tonight?” she asked.
“Yeah. You headed home?”
“Actually, I was gonna go for a coffee run before settling in for another couple of hours.” She hesitated. “You wanna come?”
“Sure,” he said, grabbing his jacket. They made for the exit.
“So Aerosmith, huh?” Aurora remarked. “Old song.”
“I like old songs,” Phil shrugged. “I’m impressed you recognize it.” He held the door as they left the building, then led her across the parking lot to his silver Toyota.
“My dad read me a lot of old sci-fi when I was a kid,” she told him. “With all the wormholes and exoplanets showing up in the news, he wanted me to understand what it meant that the mythology of the past was becoming real in our lifetime. Read to me every night before bed—Herbert, Clarke, Heinlein. We watched a lot of old movies too. I saw the one the song was written for.”
“That why you joined NASA?” he asked. “Science fiction with dad?”
“Something like that,” she answered. Phil opened his passenger door, and she thanked him and ducked inside. He gunned the car’s engine.
“I get it. When I was a teenager, I saw my dad looking over some of the data the probes sent back. He was bent over the table, pages open, morning sun streaming through the windows with Mom’s pot roast still on the table. Cold from the night before. It was a big deal to him—how close we’d just gotten to actual interstellar expansion. It became a big deal to me too, I guess. All the more so now that we’re about to launch the Spindle.”
Aurora bit her lip. “I’m—I’m going to be on it.”
“Really?” Phil pulled out of the parking lot. “Like, you’ve already been accepted for the crew? I thought that wasn’t going to be finalized for another few years.”
“No,” Aurora corrected herself. “Not yet. But I’m determined. It’s what I’ve been working toward ever since they announced the project.”
“Isn’t your dad gonna miss you?”
She hesitated. It wasn’t something she liked talking about, especially with new people. She traced mental fingers over the throb of old grief.
“He died,” she said at last. “Both my parents did. Car crash, years ago.”
Phil braked to a halt at an oncoming stop sign. He looked across at her. “I’m sorry,” he said. He was, too; she heard it in his voice, that sense of loss that so many people tried to fake when they heard her mention the crash. Not Phil. She could tell almost immediately—Phil wasn’t fake.
“I know they’re proud of me,” she said. “My dad gave me this dream. My mom taught me I could reach it. I’m going to be on that ship.”
“They sound like pretty great people,” he said. “And honestly, you might make it. Like I said, I’ve read some of your work. Your parents have good reason to be proud.” He checked the traffic and turned onto the street-lit road.
“Thanks,” she said. “How about you? Would you join, if you had the chance?”
“Hey, if I apply, I won’t need anyone else,” Phil joked.
“Yeah?” Aurora raised a playful eyebrow. “You’re going to pilot the ship through a wormhole, leave her in orbit, camp out alone on an alien planet for a year, run a series of complex atmospheric, botanical, and microbiological tests, adapting to any and all problems you find along the way, and then come back with the appropriate plant samples—by yourself?”
“Totally,” he said.
“Honestly, I dunno yet if I want to ride the Spindle,” he said, more serious now. “I probably could. I’d miss everyone back home, but my parents would be proud.”
Phil held his breath, deciding whether or not he should say any more. “I feel like a lot of people think I’m only here because my dad’s in charge. I don’t want to give them another reason to think that. Like I’m inheriting a kingdom or something.”
“But you’re not.”
“I hope not. I wanna work for it. Just like anybody else.”
“Okay,” Aurora said. “So, you’re not at NASA just because your dad got you a job. The project is clearly something you care about. If you were in my situation, you’d apply, right?”
He glanced across at her. “Definitely,” he said. He checked his mirrors.
“Because it’s the next big quest,” he said. “The next leap forward in the human journey. Like we’re looking for something, on orders from deep down in our collective gut. It’s something… almost primal, I think. Like the first time somebody rubbed two stones together to make fire. Or the day you moved out of the house because it was time to grow up.”
“And this isn’t just your leap, or mine, but everyone’s. Once a few of us do it, all of us can do it. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” Aurora whispered. “Yeah I do.” She nudged his elbow with hers. “I think you should go.”
“Yeah. I’d fly a starship with you. Who cares what anyone else thinks?”
“Sounds like you want me to care what you think.”
She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t hide her smile.
He nudged her back. “Hey. Maybe I will,” he said.
Questions and answers bounced back and forth between them (“What’s the first thing you would do once you touch down on the planet’s surface?” “What do you think will change the most on Earth during the voyage?” “If you could take one famous dead scientist to Perrault V, who would it be?”). Phil was smart, she found. Smarter than most of the guys she’d met in college. Funny. Confident. Inventive and curious. Any silence between them during that evening didn’t last long. Aurora was almost disappointed when they reached the drive-thru and put their conversation on hold while the speaker box took their order—and sighed, only half in frustration, when Phil insisted on paying for her coffee.
They returned to the research building, and a small, responsible part of Aurora thought that would be the end of it. She’d go back to her lab, he to his office, and both would have a productive evening. They reached her door, still talking, neither quite willing to part ways, until one or the other realized they’d been standing there for almost three hours. It was two-fourteen in the morning when Aurora drove home, her glitch still unsolved, remembering what Einstein had said to explain time dilation. “An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute. That’s relativity.”
Phil asked her to dinner the following week.
By the end of that year, Phil had gotten his PhD, and both of them were candidates for the Spindle’s maiden crew. Aurora was ecstatic. The following September, the project coordinators shipped Phil, Aurora, and the rest of the relevant personnel up to the Sky Castle space station for further trials and training. The selection process would conclude in orbit.
Aurora could still remember the day she’d first seen Spindle in her Sky Castle dock—almost-built, glimmering white in the sunlight, drifting out from Earth’s shadow in the launch station’s slow, graceful ballet-orbit around the planet. Technicians and construction droids hovered in and out of her shadowy edges like dragonflies over a pond, edging the proud vessel nearer and nearer completion. She hung on Phil’s shoulder as he pointed down the Spindle’s propulsion shaft, where her lander blueprints had begun to take form. He wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close.
“See that?” he whispered to her. “That’s yours.”
Aurora and Phil met Malcolm Fairburn the day after their arrival. He was one of thirteen other candidates for the mission—an astrophysicist, like Phil, who’d served as a critical consultant for military spacecraft. He had angled features, a patch of beard over his chin, and focused, iron-gray eyes that never missed an atom.
“Chekovsky?” he asked, on hearing Phil’s name. “Like Pyotr?”
“He’s my father.”
Fairburn was smart. Solitary. He’d been working in space a few months longer than Aurora and Phil had, and his experience made him a prime candidate for the crew. But something about him irked her. His curt manner with the other contenders, maybe, or the way he studied her in the mess hall without a word.
Training on the Sky Castle was intensive. Space exploration had come a long way since the early years, but the candidates still needed to learn how to manoeuvre the craft. They logged hours together piloting space suits and operating maintenance equipment, running and repeating drills and tests for every situation they might encounter. The purpose was to give each of them a well-rounded practical fluency with all the ship’s operations. Should anything happen to one of them, the others could still make it home.
Aurora noticed Fairburn’s approach to the program early. He was competitive. Incisive. Any perceived mistake on the part of his fellow candidates, no matter how invisible to anyone else, and he’d slice into them like a scalpel—without anaesthetic. Actual kindness seemed out of his reach, like a skill he had never learned before.
Maybe no one’s ever been around to teach him, Aurora thought.
Only she seemed exempt from Fairburn’s snide remarks. Phil thought he knew why. “He’s in love with you,” he said, one night over dinner.
The words made Aurora cringe. While Fairburn’s rage never settled on her as a target, there was something else in him that did; a silent, hungry attention that made her edge to Phil’s other side every time she caught Fairburn staring at her in the dining hall.
Even Fairburn’s attempts at friendliness, especially to Phil, were seasoned with a tone of subtle but unmistakable condescension. It was especially potent in the nickname he chose for him: “Prince.” So much for not inheriting a kingdom, Aurora thought.
“He’s projecting,” another candidate, Dr. Basile, told Phil after a particularly tricky exercise.
“What do you mean?”
“He was working on a project for the military before this,” Basile said. “Project Diablo. I heard his dad was the project director. I doubt he really worked his way up here.”
Aurora wasn’t sure. Fairburn might be an asshole, but he was also smart. And he wasn’t the only other qualified candidate under consideration, either. Dr. Basile had applied as the crew’s geologist. Dr. Kavita Tennyson was a veteran biologist who had been researching Perrault V fauna from the beginning. Dr. Percy Forrest had been a child prodigy, designing parts for the Spindle when he was seventeen years old. Aurora wasn’t sure how she and Phil could compete. And if only one of them was destined to reach the new world, she knew that they couldn’t remain a couple forever.
That was the problem with time dilation. Relativity. Time on the voyage would pass slower than time on Earth. The seven explorers who set out on the Spindle would have to leave everything behind—their homes, their families, their whole lives—with little remaining on their return. Aurora’s only living family was an estranged aunt living in Alaska—but her attachment to Phil wouldn’t so easily dissolve. If she boarded the Spindle without him, or vice versa, their relationship couldn’t last.
She’d tried to talk to him about it already, on Earth. Four times she’d screwed up her courage to do it. Twice she’d let the opportunity slip. The third time she’d gotten distracted; he’d cooked them dinner, stubbed his toe on a corner at his house, and spilled spaghetti sauce all over the floor. She’d laughed. He’d started a meatball fight. By the end of it all, they’d given up and ordered Chinese.
And the fourth time—well, the fourth time she’d asked him. Out loud. He’d changed the subject.
But Aurora was resolved to talk about it before the final roster was revealed.
Phil took her to the observatory tower the night before Director Walter was scheduled to make the final announcement. He’d brought two ration packets for dinner, and together they hovered in front of the bright-strewn glass dome, gazing out at the glittering promise of faraway starlight. Deep purple gas threaded its way across the porthole. Phil reached for her hand and wove his fingers into hers.
Please God, let them send us both.
“Hey, Phil?” she said.
“What happens,”—he cocked his head, waiting for her to continue— “tomorrow, I mean,”—her pulse quickened, screaming at her not to ask the question— “what happens if they only take one of us?”
The words hung heavy in the weightlessness.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said at last, with a theatrical nod. “I figured they’d just—give us the mission and tell everyone else to stay home.”
“I’m being serious, Phil.”
“So am I,” he said. “I don’t need six crewmates to make it through a wormhole and back.” His fingers stretched, then tapped against her knuckles. “Just you.”
“What if I can’t go? What if they send you and not me?”
Phil let go of her hand and rotated himself around her, his back to the glass. She stared up at him, meeting his dark eyes against the backdrop of the stars. He took her hands in his, and she felt him pull her up towards her, like gravity, like the beginning of a dance. His hands were warm.
“You’re the youngest person in the running,” he whispered, “and the smartest person on this station. You’ll be the first one on the roster. Trust me.”
“But what if—”
He shook his head. “No. No what ifs. No backups. Whether we’re on one side of the wormhole or the other, you’re the only crewmate I really need.”
She nodded and smiled. Man. Those brown eyes.
He rotated again to look up through the inky veil of gaseous whorls to the stars on the other side. “One more night,” he said. “And then we leap.”
Aurora woke the next morning to find Phil already out of bed, clicking through his messages.
She unclipped from her berth, slid open the glass partition, and scrambled forward, desperate with anticipation. She touched her hand against his back and ran it up under his arm, wrapping him in a close hug. She inhaled deeply, stretched herself upward and glanced toward the screen from over his shoulder.
He spun around to face her, blocking her view of the monitor. He rolled his bottom lip back against the edge of his top teeth—Phil’s telltale sign of disappointment.
“Did we make it?” she whispered.
When he didn’t respond, she raised her eyebrows. “Come on. Don’t joke about this.”
His eyes darted around the compartment. Other candidates, bleary-eyed and slow, began to unclip from their berths. Fairburn glared at him as he emerged from behind his glass. Phil said nothing. His eyes began to water.
“Phil!” Aurora said, as she tried to push him away from the monitor. “Did we make it!” He reached behind himself and grabbed the underside of the keyboard in an effort to steady against her push. She pushed harder.
“Answer me or get out of the way, Philip Chekovsky. Are we on the Spindle?”
He shook his head and bowed low. “I’m sorry, Aurora,” he whispered. He pushed up toward her, his arms outstretched in a comforting hug. She heard a catch in his throat. She shoved him away from the keyboard to look at the screen.
She scanned the opening paragraph and down to the list of names. Her mind barely registered most of them. But there, in professional black font, in a column with five others, were the names “Chekovsky” and “King.”
Phil sputtered a mischievous giggle and floated to his berth. Aurora checked the list again, praying she wasn’t dreaming. Andersen. Basile. Chekovsky. Grimm. Forrest. Tennyson. King.
They were going. Together.
Aurora turned to Phil and grinned, then shot toward him and pressed him against the bunks. They locked eyes, and she grabbed his arms to pull herself close.
“Hey,” he said, grinning. She felt him poke at her stomach and looked down.
There was a small felt box in his hand, open.
“Will you marry me?”
A white diamond sparkling against the black. Like starlight.
“I kinda want to say no now,” she said, smirking through the tears.
“Would you say yes if I got down on one knee?” He grabbed a handhold and tried to edge himself lower, fumbling an attempt to remain kneeling. He stared up at her, weightless.
She savoured the tension as long as she could, but in the end, couldn’t stop the laughter. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
He pulled his fist back in triumph, then pushed upward.
Aurora shot a playful blow to his abdomen. His torso crunched forward, and he gave an exaggerated oof.
“Don’t do that again,” she lilted. Whatever shock Phil had felt from the hit had vanished, replaced with a wide smile. She grinned as he pushed himself forward, and pulled her close, his hand on her back.
Then she kissed him.
The clock read 4:23 am. Three hours before wake-up call. Four before departure. Aurora unlocked the glass partition and pushed out from the berth. She hadn’t slept.
She slipped on her jumpsuit and floated to the observation deck. The Earth spun beneath her, cities radiant in the shadowy blue.
Another planet. She was going. The most important journey in human history, and she would be a part of it.
And the Spindle was only the beginning. Once they made it back through the wormhole, the colony arks would be close to finished. Research into cryonics technology had already begun; the hope was that this would make it easier for the colonists to board their ships en masse, as well as conserve supply storage space on board. On reaching orbit, the colonists would remain frozen, then be thawed in waves as the settlements grew in population capacity. With any luck, in only a few decades after their arrival, Perrault V would have a thriving human colony on a breathable new world. For Aurora, the morning’s launch would mark a new beginning for the human species—the dawn of the interstellar age.
And she and Phil were going to be a part of it. Together.
She admired the ring against the starlight.
A few hours and a wash later, she made her way to the dining hall for breakfast. Basile and Forrest greeted her as she gulped down her rations. Phil wasn’t up yet. By 7:42 she still hadn’t seen him—under half an hour before launch.
She drifted into their quarters and found him lying still in his berth. She tapped her fist against the glass.
No response. He looked sick.
His eyes, half-opened, were rimmed with fatigue, and the rest of his skin was an inflamed red. At first Aurora thought it was the light in the berth—but no, after a closer look she could see something was wrong. She pushed toward the exit and saw someone blur past.
“Dr. Tennyson?” she called into the corridor. “I think something’s wrong with Phil!”
Dr. Tennyson grabbed a handhold, turned, and floated into the sleeping quarters. She peered at the body beneath the glass.
“How long has he been like this?” she asked.
“He was fine last night.”
“Anything he could’ve eaten? Any change in his schedule that might have let an infection into his system?”
Aurora shook her head. Her stomach turned with every question. The station’s crew had been under rigorous hygiene standards since their arrival—Earth’s germs were a far more serious threat in orbit, to say nothing of whatever microbes they might find in the alien star system—but there was no mistaking it. Phil was sick.
“You need to get to the medical bay,” Dr. Tennyson said, pushing Aurora into the corridor.
“We’ll take a look at him once we’ve got everyone under quarantine. We’re going to have to push the launch back a few days at least, no stopping that now—but Director Walter will still want to limit the delays as much as possible. If we can figure out how the disease got into his system, we can still salvage the mission.”
Aurora knew she was right. A deep space voyage would weaken the immune system and strengthen diseases in ways that could prove fatal if the dangers weren’t addressed as quickly as possible. They couldn’t afford unnecessary risks. They notified Director Walter, and after a brief consultation with the medical crew, Aurora and the rest went into quarantine. Until they could be sure that no one else was contaminated, the Spindle project was on hold.
Aurora lay strapped against the infirmary bed, cringing under the medprobes and trying not to ask for news of the others. She knew the doctors were doing the best they could, but the suspense was growing unbearable. They’d come so close to beginning the journey, and now they faced a danger that could halt the whole project.
Phil. Where was Phil?
She tried to sleep, with little success. Another doctor came in to run more tests—blood scans, micro-x-rays, psych evals. She pressed him for updates, but got nothing. Finally he sent her to wait with the others. Silent stares haunted the room as they waited for the ordeal to end.
By morning they were free to move about the station. Phil’s berth had been decontaminated, and he’d been transferred to a medical station for further diagnosis. The rest were given a clean bill of health. Director Walter met with them that evening to brief the remaining crew.
“Research into what happened is ongoing,” the director told them grimly, “but we’re confident the disease is contained.” His attention bounced from one crew member to another. “What that means is that we’re going ahead with the Spindle mission—but we’re going to do it without Dr. Chekovsky.”
Aurora’s stomach knotted.
“We need an astrophysicist,” Dr. Andersen pointed out. “We can’t complete the mission without one.”
“Dr. Malcolm Fairburn will serve as Dr. Chekovsky’s replacement.”
“There’s no chance waiting for Phil to recover?” Aurora asked.
Walter shook his head. “It’s still too early to know how long that would take,” he said. “That’s why we’re sending Dr. Chekovsky Earthside to recover. But we can’t afford to wait. If we do, the Earth’s orbit will carry us away from the wormhole. It’ll cost us precious time and resources.”
Aurora wanted to hit something.
“I know you two were close,” the director told her. “I’ll give you until tomorrow.”
“Hey,” he breathed. Even in her headset, he sounded different from the man who had proposed to her less than 48 hours ago. Weaker. Aurora’s stomach turned.
From the communication tower, she could see the bright white of the medical station hovering over the tinted horizon, falling forward into the Earth’s grim shadow. How had things gone from so right to so wrong in only two days?
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Pretty tired,” he replied. “Doctor says my fever’s at 103. Last few trips to the restroom have been kinda brutal. They’re sending me home in a few hours.”
Aurora nodded. “We’re going ahead with the mission,” she whispered.
The medical station began to fall past the sunset.
“We didn’t decide what would happen. If one of us couldn’t go.”
“Didn’t we?” Phil’s voice cracked.
“You said you wanted me to be your crewmate,” she whispered. “That whether we were on one side of a wormhole or the other, I was the only one you’d really need.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I did.” His voice gave way to silence—a burning, heavy silence, buffering the next painful word like the wall behind her buffered the fury of solar radiation.
“So now what?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “I think you get on that ship, and you bring us back some plants.”
Aurora shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Can’t leave a day after you asked me to marry you. I mean—I love you, Phil. I can’t abandon you after that.”
“You also can’t pass up this opportunity.”
The silence was uncomfortable.
“You need to get on board that ship, Aurora,” he said. “I’ll be here when you get back.”
If only that were true, she thought. “I can’t.”
“Alright,” Phil said. He took a deep breath. “Then, Dr. Aurora King,”—God, she loved how her name sounded on his tongue—”I’m breaking up with you.”
She gave a bittersweet laugh.
“You’re just no good for me,” he continued. “You’re smart, and beautiful, and awesome, and bound on a journey through a wormhole to an alien star system. And that’s just not the kind of woman I can, in good conscience, tie down. So I’m leaving you.”
“I’m leaving you,” she said, wiping a tear from her smile.
“Hey, promise me this,” Phil added. “Make sure you’re the first to touch your foot to the new planet. And say something good.”
“I love you, you know,” she whispered. “I’ll always love you. Make a girl really happy for me someday, okay?”
“I will,” he said. “I love you too.” The words sounded casual, like he was just leaving for a night and would see her again in the morning.
Aurora saw almost no one else until the pre-launch briefing nine hours later. She felt their eyes on her, heard the whispers when her back turned, and endured the silences that told her how little they felt they could say. She sat through the briefing, hardly listening to any of it, praying, instead, for one last chance that Phil might be well enough to go with them after all.
But the crew boarded the Spindle, and Aurora and the others watched from the observation deck as Commander Grimm unlocked the ship from her docking bay. The launch sequence blurred past in what seemed like minutes. She didn’t try to savour it. All of the excitement she’d expected to feel as the Spindle broke away from Sky Castle seemed forced and insincere the moment they actually detached. How could any of it matter, without Phil on board beside her?
The crew slept in shifts. With no sun to distinguish between days, a preset twenty-four hour schedule served as its replacement. Aurora woke every cycle feeling sick, loss churning through her insides like machinery. Sometimes she wished it would end. Other times she dared not let it. It would feel like betrayal, letting her memory of Phil float out into the void. Like he hadn’t really mattered to her. And no matter how much the loss of him hurt right now, she refused to admit that he had not mattered.
For most of the voyage, she cut herself off from the rest of the crew. Dr. Basile tried to keep them occupied as best he could—the man had an endless supply of games and anecdotes—but Aurora found it difficult to stay interested. She secluded herself for days in her quarters, combing through the selection of books and movies on the Spindle’s mainframe. Sometimes recorded a few video greetings to send home. No one ever replied. And in the silence between the stars, her grief howled.
The others worried. All of them had had some idea of what Phil had meant to her, and most had been there for the proposal. Dr. Tennyson noticed the ring around her neck, and tried talking to her about it once or twice. Aurora brushed it aside. As kind as the thought might be, Aurora was perfectly capable of doing her job without a breakup counselor. She could deal with loss, she insisted. She’d done it before.
Soon everyone’s concerned looks gave way to indifference. She’d join them when she wanted to, they reasoned, but until then, pressing her was futile. Eventually most of them got used to her absence.
She wondered if Phil had gotten used to her absence.
It wasn’t just grief that drove her further from contact with the others. It was Fairburn. The distance from Earth had increased his irritability. Whereas Aurora kept to herself as often as possible, Fairburn hovered right on the edge of nearly every activity, silent—until he saw the opportunity to mock someone. His insults grew sharper, crueller, followed by deafening silences as everyone realized that shooting back would waste oxygen.
Once, at dinner, she heard him mutter something about moving on. “It’s not like they were evenly matched, after all,” he said. “She made the roster on merit.”
Aurora couldn’t take it any longer.
“You talk as if Phil were some third-rate hack who just lucked his way into his candidacy,” she rejoined. “Like you think mocking him will make us forget the truth. But it won’t. We all know you were second choice.”
Fairburn glowered, and she knew she had struck a nerve. Good, she thought. She kept on. “And if you really have a problem with nepotism, I think it’s time you looked in the mirror. Everybody knows how you got to be on the Spindle.”
“And how was that?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Wasn’t your dad the director of some military project?” she asked. “Project Diablo? Pretty easy to get a position like this when your father’s willing to pull strings for you, I bet.”
He paused. It was the first time she’d ever seen him hesitate in responding to someone. Then he smiled, a harsh, self-satisfied smile.
“Project Diablo was a disaster,” he said. “It was a waste of precious time and manpower, and the military cut the funding for it early, on my advice. Since the director of the project resigned in disgrace, I don’t see much point in asking favours from him.” Not my dad. The director.
His glare, unbroken, forced her to retreat back to her dinner. But she went to bed that night thinking on it, and realized that at last she had found a chink in his armour. A weakness—one she wouldn’t soon forget.
It wasn’t until the Spindle reached the entry to the wormhole that Aurora began to take a real interest in the mission again. The call went out across the ship; Commander Grimm’s firm German voice woke the few sleepers, and everyone filed into the command module. Aurora crowded in with the others, strapping in and grabbing a handhold on the far wall.
The wormhole gaped before them on the other side of the glass. Distant stars and gases warped along its rim like shadows on the ripples in a pond. Aurora felt a lump in her throat as she thought about what they were seeing. They were already farther away from Earth than any human being had ever been. And now, there it was: that sphere-shaped gravitational anomaly tunnelling through spacetime and across the observable universe. The one she had been chasing since grade school, the one she’d left behind everyone and everything to find. The crew tethered themselves into place as the ship arced around the tunnel, orbiting toward it in a long, silent fall.
“Hold on, everyone,” Grimm said. “Here comes the drop.”
The spatial shimmer began to twist and elongate like a rubber band. Aurora felt her stomach turn inside her. Her teeth clenched. She heard something rattle at the back of the module, something that she hoped was tied down. Another rattle. She felt vomit burn the back of her throat and prayed the ship would hold together.
She looked back to her fellow crew members. Fairburn’s head was tipped upward, wide-eyed in a silent expression of terror. Basile held his head in his hands. Tennyson had gone unconscious. She wasn’t sure how long this went on, but then, everything went still.
Aurora relaxed. Her stomach heaved, her head ached, but it was over.
“We made it,” Grimm said.
Aurora breathed a sigh of relief as others whooped around her. She unstrapped herself and floated forward, hardly daring to believe it. They were through.
The Spindle entered orbit around Perrault V about two months later. The clouded white atmosphere veiled a world of virginal ocean blue, patched with continents of dark red deserts, snow-capped mountains, and blue-green forests stretching low and deep through waiting ravines.
Aurora made Grimm promise to put her on the first landing mission. If something went wrong with Odyssey, she argued, it would be good to have an expert aboard. Tennyson and Andersen went with her, while the other four remained in orbit.
Dr. Andersen winged the Odyssey lander toward a grassy clearing at the mouth of a river, near where the long-dead Olive probe had landed to conduct its atmospheric tests centuries before. The three women felt the landing gear unlock, then touch down gently on the alien turf. Aurora felt Tennyson’s hand on her shoulder, and the biologist mouthed “Well done” under her helmet glass. The astroengineer smiled back. Then the boarding hatch opened with a slow vvvvt, and at last Aurora saw the alien world.
“This is for you, Phil,” she whispered into her oxygen mask, though no one heard it on the official recording. It wasn’t ‘One small step for man,’ of course, but she didn’t care. There was a victory in that step, even if it felt bittersweet. A step violated for being taken in Phil’s absence.
The ground was damp after heavy rain a few hours before, and glistening water droplets clung to the edges of tall blue-green grass. Her suit’s readout confirmed the old probe’s findings: the sliver of oxygen in the air was too sparse to breathe, but still detectable. We’ll change that, Aurora thought. She inhaled deeply, and thought of what it would feel like to set foot outside on this planet without an oxygen tank on her back. One day.
The rest of the crew arrived several days later to set up camp. The planet was astonishingly well-suited to human life; its days were about eighteen hours long, its gravitational pull was comfortable, and there was a vast landscape to explore. Aurora and Basile spent the following weeks mapping the surrounding area, cataloguing plants and animals, taking soil samples, and testing the water supply. After a month, they traded the ship’s rations for food native to the planet: large, egg-shaped fruits that tasted halfway between an apple and a peach. Dr. Tennyson took DNA samples from Perrault’s vegetation, and spent days poring over the data in the lab. Fairburn spent the evenings in isolation.
Aurora was reading in her room one night, though, when his silhouette appeared in the doorway. She looked up from her book and swallowed.
“What do you need, Dr. Fairburn?”
He stepped inside. “Call me Malcolm.”
“We don’t have to go back with the plant samples,” he said. His voice was hard. “The air filtration system in the habitat would provide enough oxygen for the two of us for a long time. After the others leave, we could wait here for the first cryoship.” He walked further into the room and stood at the foot of the bed. “We—you and I, I mean—could give them something to find when they arrive.”
A sense of unease crept into her at his words. “Something like what?”
Aurora was incredulous. “You’re asking me to have your children?”
“With Chekovsky gone—”
“You took his place on the ship. That doesn’t mean you have a right to take anything else.”
“It wouldn’t have worked out, you know. You and Phil. It never does.”
“Get out, Fairburn.”
Fairburn was silent, but didn’t leave. Fine, then. If he wouldn’t leave, she would make him. She knew by now what would make him uncomfortable.
“Is that why you boarded the Spindle?” she asked. “Something didn’t work out? A breakup, maybe? Or a divorce. Or maybe you just realized that no one on Earth would miss you. And you don’t know how to change that—so you tell other people that no one really cares about them either. For you, that’s all there is left.”
He bristled, but said nothing.
“Is that what your dad did to you?” she continued.
“My dad didn’t do anything to me.”
“Did he do anything for you?”
“So he left,” she guessed. “And you found him again. Or someone did, anyway. In charge of a flashy new experiment for the US military.”
His silence told her it was true. For all his talk, Fairburn never denied the truth when someone else spoke it. Especially now. He couldn’t.
“Beloved father and husband to a great big happy family,” he finished.
“But not yours,” she realized. There it was. Fairburn’s wound. She eased up. “I’m sorry, Fairburn.”
Fairburn didn’t seem to notice her apology. “He was a decorated soldier who failed the only thing he was ever good at,” he said. “Dismissed from his new post in weapons development because his own son tanked his idea. Because he was too proud to admit who I was. Even to his other family.” There was contempt in those last two words.
“And now his own son’s made history,” Aurora finished. “In a way he never could. He can’t claim credit for that without acknowledging who you are.”
“I’m sorry he hurt you, Fairburn,” she said at last. “But that doesn’t change how I feel about Phil.”
“Still?” Here, too, there was contempt. Bitterness.
“Decades have passed on Earth. Even if he survived the typhoid, by now there’s nothing left.”
It was her turn, now, to feel the wound throb. Damn you, Fairburn. Just when I start to feel sorry for you, you show me why I shouldn’t. “I thought I told you to get out,” she said.
And then she realized.
“Who said it was typhoid?”
Fairburn looked like a deer in headlights. “The doctors—the medical personnel said—”
“No one said it was typhoid.” Her feet slid off the bed and she stood, glaring. “We left before the final diagnosis.”
Fairburn said nothing. She felt the old scar of Phil’s absence bleeding anew, and the blood turned to venom in the silence. She stepped closer. “You bastard.”
“We cured typhoid long ago, Aurora.”
She cut him off with a cold slap.
Fairburn let out a trembling breath. “I didn’t kill him.”
“‘Decades have passed’,” Aurora spat. “‘By now there’s nothing left.’ God, how did you even get the virus onto the station? You must’ve been planning it for ages, just in case you didn’t get in.”
“You won’t tell,” Fairburn said. “You can’t prove anything—and our mission can’t afford to lose a man if something goes wrong. You need me. They all do.”
“Get out,” she ordered, “and I won’t tell anyone.”
He glowered and obeyed.
Fairburn kept his distance in the weeks after she rejected his proposal. He had to. He knew, by now, how much she hated him; how nothing in the world would ever reverse what he had done. Fine, Aurora thought. If that’s what it takes. Hatred was the language Fairburn understood best.
He tried to pretend it never happened. Avoid unnecessary contact. He knew she knew the truth, and that she would always know the truth. It was true that telling anyone right now would cause further division in the crew, and they might still need each other to return home safely, but once they did, she wouldn’t need him anymore. If he wanted her to keep his secret once they arrived home, it was in his best interests to behave himself. Yes. That, at least, was a barrier Fairburn would respect.
But there was no healing in this. Knowing the truth, warding him off, didn’t bring Phil back. She felt it all the more now, in fact. Phil was dead by now, probably; and if he wasn’t, he would be before she got home. She thought of her parents all over again, the way she had wept at their funeral as they lowered the coffins into the ground. They’d been killed by a drunk driver. She’d seen a photo of him once online, and had felt sorrow for him, more than anger. He’d done a bad thing, but he probably hadn’t woken up that morning with murder in his heart. But Fairburn had planned this. He’d wanted to take Phil from her.
She felt empty. Like the wormhole. After Phil’s death at Fairburn’s hand, that emptiness was the only thing left.
Little changed for Aurora in the final months on Perrault V. Dr. Basile kept taking soil samples. Dr. Tennyson continued her survey of the planet’s greenery. By the end of their stay, they were confident the biology teams on Earth would be able to engineer a strain of Perraultian flora to terraform the planet’s atmosphere. Their tenure on the planet ended, and at last, the seven explorers returned to the Odyssey lander, docked with the Spindle, and began the long trek home.
Aurora woke to a knock on the door of her quarters. It was Dr. Tennyson. Several hours had passed since contact with the Sky Castle, and she was here to announce their docking with the station. The ship had stopped spinning, and dozens of astronauts, scientists, and executives were waiting on the other side of the airlock, eager to hear the details of the voyage. Aurora dressed and followed her colleagues through the airlock, dizzied with new faces beaming smiles.
She was shipped to Earth with the rest of the crew and met with a triumphant welcome at NASA headquarters. The new director called a press conference, and ushered them down a hallway lined with photographs of directors past (Walter’s and Pyotr Chekovsky’s among them—Aurora noted the dates printed beneath each one with a twinge of grief) and into a room filled with shouting reporters, cameramen, and public sponsors, eager to learn all they could about Perrault V.
After the commotion had died away, one of Aurora’s attendants tried to explain what had changed in her decades of absence. Private corporations had begun to expand their reach beyond the moon’s orbit, and asteroid mining had made great strides in the construction of a colony fleet. The first ten colony arks were nearly ready, and they could expect to begin human migration in less than two years. Cryostasis had been successfully tested soon after her departure, and with the data the Spindle crew had gathered, everyone was enthusiastic that plant breeding could begin in the labs of the colony ships.
The Spindle’s crew spent weeks in a cycle of briefings, board meetings, and talk show appearances as people clamoured for insight on what was next. Aurora found it difficult to keep up. She found it difficult to even want to. Eventually she requested a year-long sabbatical. She needed distance from the busyness of the world. She would use her time off for research; to catch up on the various advances in astroengineering that had occurred since her departure. When the year was over, she could then resume her work preparing for mankind’s next great leap.
Once the new director granted her request, Aurora bought a small home in Orlando and began her research. It was a welcome escape from all the media attention—and gave her something to do aside from thinking about Phil. After all, for all his cruelty, Fairburn had been right. Phil was long gone now.
One morning, though, Aurora heard a knock at her door.
The woman was tall, with curly raven hair and mocha skin, dressed in a gray pantsuit and carrying a briefcase. There was something about her eyes that looked familiar—something Aurora at first couldn’t quite identify.
The woman offered her hand. “I’m Dr. Penelope Chekovsky,” she said. “I’m a medical researcher at the University of Miami. It’s an honour to meet you.”
Aurora furrowed her brows. By now Phil, if he had still been alive, would be 108 years old. The middle-aged Penelope was too young to be a wife. “Like Philip Chek—”
“His niece,” the researcher corrected her. “His younger brother Troy was my father.”
“Oh,” Aurora nodded. They shook hands. “Dr. Chekovsky, I don’t know what they told you about me and Phil, but—”
“Everything,” Penelope interrupted. “They told me everything. Your first date. Your work on board Sky Castle. The proposal. And the day after, when he got sick and you had to leave him behind.” Her mouth curved upward in a kind smile. “You told him to make a girl really happy someday.”
The memory of her own words stabbed.
“What I can do for you, Doctor?” Aurora said. Whatever else happened, she wasn’t going to break down in front of a stranger at the front door.
“I’d actually like to do something for you, Dr. King,” Penelope said. “There’s something of Phil’s that I’d like to show you.” She nodded toward the ring, still hanging around her neck. “Is that the one he gave you?”
“With all due respect, ma’am, that was a long—”
“Please,” Penelope insisted. “Do you still love him?”
Aurora didn’t know what to say. It all flashed through her mind again: boarding the ship, crossing the wormhole, her first step onto the planet. The bitter night with Fairburn, and all the anger and confusion that had come after it. And then the return to dock with Sky Castle. It all felt so hollow. Marred by his absence. A full year of her life—the one she’d spent her life working for—and he hadn’t been in it.
Did she still love him?
“Then come with me.”
It was sunset when Penelope’s SUV pulled in front of their destination a few miles out from Orlando: a wide gate in a high chain-linked fence with thorns of razor wire lining the top. The guard at the toll booth waved them through, and Penelope led Aurora into a lifeless gray building, with tinted windows and a handful of cars in the parking lot. Aurora followed, trying to understand what all of this had to do with Phil.
Penelope had refused to address her questions during the drive. “I’d rather show you than tell you, Dr. King,” she’d answered.
They walked past the secretary and down a few labyrinthine hallways to an elevator waiting for their arrival. A black scanner stared from the wall, and Penelope pressed a key card to it.
The elevator began its descent. Penelope hummed a familiar tune under her breath, and Aurora strained to hear it. Gradually she recognized the melody. In a hundred years, she could never forget that song.
“I heard that was how you met.”
“You haven’t asked about him,” Penelope remarked. “Philip, I mean.”
“Is that a question?”
“I meant what I said. I really did want him to move on. Continue his work. Fall in love.” She paused. “I just didn’t want to have to think about the man I loved—the man I love—wasting away over long years with someone else. I didn’t want to think about him dying.” She stared at her blurred reflection in the elevator door.
“We’ve cured typhoid, Dr. King.”
“Can you cure time?”
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open to a well-lit medical examination room. The place was set up with a heart rate monitor, defibrillator, hospital bed, refrigerator, and various other medical instruments. On the far side of the room lay a long box of padded gray, waist-height, topped with a long near-opaque white glass cover the length of a full-grown man. A circular light along the side glowed white, and along the floor a series of cables fed into the box’s underside.
Aurora approached the box like a pilgrim approaching a shrine. The blurred outline of a face stared out at her from behind the glass. She drew her fingers over the surface. It was cold.
“Philip Chekovsky wasn’t just an astrophysicist,” Penelope said. “After his rejection from the Spindle mission, he went back to school. His work in cryonics is a big part of the reason the Perrault colonies are now possible.”
Aurora looked to Penelope in awed disbelief. “You mean he’s—”
Penelope nodded. “A little cold, maybe, but he’s in there. He’s been waiting for a long time.” She pointed to a fingerprint scan beside the white light on the side of the cocoon. “It’s coded to you. You want to wake him up?”
Aurora’s heart quickened.
Phil was alive. Dreaming. Right in front of her. A fingerprint scan away from waking up.
She pressed the scanner.
The bar of light rolled up and down the screen. There was a beep and then a click, and then the glass cover slid off the sarcophagus with a steamy hiss. She heard short gasps of breath spurting out from an ancient respiratory system.
Aurora peered inside.
Dark brown eyes looked up at her and blinked. Squint. Blink.
She touched her palm to his frozen cheek. Breath steamed from his mouth, warm to her touch compared to the cold of his skin. A hand reached up and grabbed the edge of the coffin. Phil pulled himself upward, shivering, his face still caked with ice. He wiped his hand across his eyes and stared at her. Another blink.
The voice. His voice. The one she’d heard echoing Aerosmith lyrics through the halls of the research building so many years ago. God, she’d missed that voice, the one that should have filled all the silences she’d travelled since their call before the launch. Aurora grinned and wrapped his frigid hand in hers. For all the weakness his body had endured during cryosleep, she felt the strength in those fingers as they closed between her own.
“You’re alive,” she breathed.
The icy Phil nodded. “I promised you I’d make a girl really happy someday.”
She kissed him, and it was as if all the years that had stood between them melted away in that kiss. He was here. Here, and alive, and young, and hers. Her lips remembered the taste of his, eager and lively even under the cracks that had formed in frozen years. She smiled between each caress of his mouth with a delight far greater than she had ever expected to feel again. His kiss woke something in her, and promised it would never again have to sleep.
“I love you,” she gasped between kisses. “I’ll always love you.”
“Always,” he replied.
Finally they pulled away. Phil staggered to his feet. Penelope found him a blanket, and together they checked his vitals. Fifteen minutes later he sat on the hospital bed, eating a ration packet.
“What was it like?” he said. “Perrault V, I mean.”
“Do you want to see it?”
“Go there?” Phil asked. “With you?” He reached behind her hair to unclasp the ring from around her neck.
She nodded, moving her hair out of the way. “They’re projecting only five years before the first colony ships launch,” she told him. “You ready to make the leap with the rest of the human race?”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. He took her hand and slipped the ring back onto her finger. “I mean… I’ve got the only crewmate I’ll ever need.”