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Into The Night

Chapter Text

Then...

They hover like human planets about him as he jots down the names of each world envisioned and studied beyond the sphere.

For fifteen years Thomas Hamilton, Miranda Barlow, and Peter Ashe had studied the wormhole and searched for clues as to what it held beyond without fully understanding the purpose behind its relatively sudden existence. Fifteen years looking for answers to questions they had yet to fully formulate.

And within the span of two short years, a new element named James Flint had peered into his own spyglass pointed toward the wormhole by Saturn, deciphered its coded imagery, and captured the very real planetary possibilities, the promising environment they existed within that lay just beyond its horizon.

“There’s just the issue of actually seeing their terra,” he murmurs.

Miranda goes to the computer adjacent and waits for the ping of data from their satellite, Horus, just as they had been for the past three years. Her lips purse behind a small grimace, one that had become familiar in the past few years, not welcome… yet… but, present nonetheless.

“Nothing from Horus,” she clicks the black screen wider for the consort to see.

“Nothing yet, ” Peter reiterates with a pat to her shoulder. “We saw it go through the wormhole intact, did we not?”

Thomas and James glance up from James’ notepad.

Miranda looks into all their faces, then across the room to Professor Gates as he writes out the formula across his whiteboard. She lowers her eyes and holds onto a small grin across her mouth.

“She did go intact, from what we can see, yes,” she says, eyes alight. “Theoretically, Horus is still taking images for us… it’s just a matter of looking beyond what we can see within the wormhole’s eye.”

Thomas looks at the blank screen, to the spherical image of twelve distant planets by a sun and a black hole within the wormhole, and then to the ground station's bustling floor full of builders hard at work in creating their future vessel. A magnanimous clock blinks above them, ticking down the days, the hours, the minutes and seconds until the journey to a new life begins beyond the edge of this galaxy and into the one of hope they offered.

“Soon enough,” Thomas speaks around a small swallow. He looks down at James’ freckled palm across the page of scribbled names for what they hope to be one of their new homes. “Soon enough we won’t only see what is beyond it, we will live beyond it. We will thrive beyond it. All of us. Us and them.”

He chances a glance across the room and sees their upturned faces— Miranda with her soft smile holding the secret of unknowns waiting to be tasted; Peter with his hand running through greying temples, his speckled wedding band dulled against the white lights of their lab; and James… James, with his green eyes full of hopeful determination, brimming with unquantifiable belief beyond the unseen.   

Chapter Text

They float in darkness within their vessel, drifting in thinning air, upturned, nearly breaching the beyond.

A flash of white sparks beyond the blackness. There are silent screams about him, unseen and unheard.

But, he feels them .

He feels their shrieks of fear, of surrender, of loss so sharp that they cling to his skin, into the bones of his survival instinct. His mind shouts at him to move into action, to free them, but his hands are bolted to the yoke by a jolt of sudden G-force that strangles the breath out of him until it is nearly impossible to expand his lungs. He fears their rib cages will crush like bleached coral if he can’t move them back to the blanket of stars that keep growing ever more distant.  

The light grows brighter until it is splashed with waves of deep blue and seafoam. He turns to his right and that is when he finally sees their eyes beyond their helmet shields; Joji’s lay in restful peace, Max’s slit as water fills to the brim of her helmet where fog from her nostrils turns to her final air bubbles. And Muldoon… Muldoon is wide awake, aware, and pulling John’s leg out from under the cockpit’s crashed board.

He sees his face contort as he shouts out to him, “John!”

But he cannot hear his voice.

There are only Muldoon’s desperations through their suit layers permeating beyond their shrinking window of time.

He hears the deafness of his own screams for Muldoon, feels the numbness of his limb as it tears apart and away just before their ship cracks in two with the surge of a sudden onslaught of water.

“John!”

And then they are gone.

And he is alone.

Kicking with diluting blood instead of strong muscle to chase after their ship, swallowed in the stomach of an earthly sea… Muldoon’s silent call comes to him out of the horizon… “John…”

He breaks the surface of the water despite his push against the ocean’s pressure. “John.”

His lungs crack wide as he gulps icy air. He feels trapped in his suit, bound tight and encasing him while he thrashes to go back down, deeper, back to them, he can’t leave them behind he can’t—

“John!”

She welcomes him with deep cinnamon brown irises, crinkled with stern and agitated concern. Her pupils are pinpoints of focus on him, he can feel them zoom around his face, wet with his unconscious tears and perspiration.

“S’just a nightmare,” he croaks out in a slur. It is more for her than himself that he says it aloud.

He doesn’t know how many times he’s had this dream now. It’s been nearly a decade since the crash.

“You were calling for him again,” she whispers and offers a cloth-covered cup of water to him.

He sees Madi’s eyes shade over into an ocherous state of stoicism as they cast down to her hand. He watches her absentmindedly wipe away at a light sheen of dust from her side of the bed.

His leg still hurts, despite it being made of metal and circuitry. But he feels the loss of a part of himself where nerve endings meet bionic nodes just below his knee. He dryly swallows and looks down to the cloth over his cup, and pulls it away with his thumb to leave just enough of an opening where he can press his mouth to the rim and sip without the ever-present dust invading within. He doesn’t want to think about them, how he had failed them, how he had failed his Muldoon.

“I wish there was a way I could tell you it was not your fault,” she starts while patting her hand onto the mattress, “And that I could get you to believe it to be true.”

A springing of particles flies into the air between them when he looks up to meet her gaze. Her eyes look like over-tilled ground, crumbling apart for emotional rivers to flood.

“I know it was a malfunction,” he says.

“Yes,” she cuts in quick with a tired glare. “But just because you know it, does not mean you believe it. Your inner eye will not rest, and its unrest is keeping us all in this nightmare with you.”

They turn in tandem at the creak of their bedroom door and the shuffle of small footsteps toward them.

John sighs and carefully places his water on the bedside table and scoots away from his wife to make way for their nightly visitor to slip between them.

“Grace," he says. "it’s the middle of the night."

He watches their 10-year-old daughter rub her ankle with the top of her foot and shrug her shoulders in response. In her hands, she holds a small model moon lander from the Apollo missions of the mid-20th century. Its legs are broken off, held in the spaces between her fingers.

“I know,” she says in response. John watches her tinker with the lander in an attempt to replace its legs. “But the ghost woke me up again— I know what you’re going to say, but I swear it’s real! Look what it did to the lander, dad.”

They’ve been hearing of Grace’s “ghost” for weeks now. How it leaves her messages in the form of spilled water on her homework or a fallen book from her bookshelves. How she keeps herself awake way past her bedtime because of some sense of being watched by invisible eyes.

He hears Madi’s gentle cough and sees her resigned look regarding Grace’s new encounter. But John must wonder…

“Why on earth would a ghost have anything against your moon lander? It’s one of your favorite models,” he opens his arms for Grace to lean into as she shuffles herself between them on the bed and Madi sets to stroking her head of curly auburn locks.

“Because,” Grace hands him the lander and he toys with it himself while she continues. “It’s trying to tell me something.”

John fiddles with the legs and the slots they should fit into on the bottom of the lander but won’t. He looks up when Grace speaks with a small raise of his eyebrows and says nothing. Madi purses her lips at him— he can feel it through the dust curtain over all three of them.

“And what, dear, might that be?” Madi busies herself with braiding her daughter’s hair in an act of soothing.

“I think it’s mad at me,” Grace says while she burrows under the covers, and away from her mother's fretting touch. She pulls the sheet over her head to muffle her words. “Why else would it break it? It must know it’s my favorite.”

John and Madi exchange looks in a silent debate over what to do with Grace's escalating stories. He sets the broken lander on his nightstand, takes another careful sip of water then clears his throat.

“Prove it.”

Madi pauses and Grace pulls the sheet off from herself. Their look of incredulity is identical.

He heaves himself off the bed, throwing both limbs over the side, the phantom ache in his leg revving up to a throbbing pain as soon as metal toes touch wood. Cool pre-dawn air blows through his sweat-soaked shirt and makes him fidget with goosebumps. He makes his way to the window by the door and peers beyond its gossamer curtains.

The stars, those stars he never reached, they blink at him like old friends he's yet to meet... 

“You heard me,” he is practiced at hiding the pain from his expression, instead he places a playful challenging grin across his face for Grace. “Prove it. Prove that there is, in fact, a ghost."

He hears more than sees Grace scrunch her brows together in the exact same fashion her mother is, except Madi's is more murderous for reasons John knows to be reasonable, but he can't help himself. John picks up the lander and points one of its broken legs toward them.

“You are being raised by two engineers, Grace." He cuts Madi off before she can argue her point about them being farmers now, how they left that life behind as soon as he was rescued from that shipwreck in the middle of the black sea. "Use the scientific method; gather evidence, test your hypothesis, present a conclusion based on your findings.”

He hurries to the door with the mildest of limps, and just as he is about to turn the handle, Madi pointedly coughs. He winces, bracing for impact. 

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Her expression is blank and grows more unreadable with every day of their decade-long marriage. He chances a few steps forward and leans down for a kiss, but meets air when she reaches over Grace and grabs his water instead.

His heart drops in his stomach when he clutches the dust-enshrouded glass but does his best to smile for their daughter and plants a kiss atop Grace's head of curls instead. 

"Best get some sleep," he gently whispers to her. "You have some important work ahead of you when you wake again." 

And with that, he slides out of the room far quicker than Madi's protests can reach him. He has important work in front of him now, he tells himself as he glues together a broken antique, the stars above his only allies as he mends. 

Chapter Text

Then...

 

Flint pushes forward in long strides across the catwalk toward the loading bay. He ignores Miranda as she calls out to him from behind the safety of the control room.

The five-minute countdown begins, and time is running out for him to change the course of this mission.

His calves burn as he breaks into a sprint nearing the gargantuan doorway to the Exodus. He closes the distance between the line of astronauts heading into the ship and himself. 12 of the bravest men and women on Earth are setting out for a mission to save all of humanity, to find a new home away from the dying dust here. But Flint did not expect him to be among them. 

“Thomas!” He shouts as the sweat stings his verdant eyes.

He grunts when a tall figure in a space suit shifts from its place in line and reorients itself to his heaving form at the edge of the portal. He swears the giant looming clock speeds up its count down as the figure stands still for a moment at the precipice. Flint takes his final steps and watches his reflection warp in the round glass of the astronaut’s helmet. 

He already feels lightyears away despite being in his arms on the landing. The distant echo of an electronic female voice gently counting down into the final four minutes claws at the forefront of his skull.

“You cannot go,” he demands. "It's supposed to be me!"

The astronaut clicks open his helmet’s visor. Thomas’s kind eyes flicker with pain to which Flint grasps onto like a tether he refuses to believe will snap with the gravity of this mission.

“Send DeGroot instead,” he swallows around his desperation to come up with a better man than Thomas for the mission. He hates how weak he feels in his arms right now. “Goddamnit, Thomas send anyone else, fucking Billy Manderly would do, just not-”

He yearns to feel anything but futility between them as he brings a trembling hand to touch the side of Thomas’s face within the confines of his helmet.

“Just not you!” He shakes his head as he cries out against Thomas’s lips. Silence shoves itself between them in aching breaths as the clock continues to count down its final ninety seconds before the portal closes and lift-off commences.

A spacesuit emerges from the Exodus and looms behind them like Death in waiting.

“Thomas,” the astronaut opens his visor. Peter Ashe pats Thomas’s shoulder and gives a sympathetic yet impatient nod to Flint. “It’s time.”

Flint senses their time stealing away with each breath they share. He wonders if this will be their last kiss, their last conversation. Their last moment.

“30 seconds to lift-off sequence commencement,” the electronic voice mocks him.

“James,” Thomas breathes out and kisses his forehead. “Take care of each other.”

“Stay,” he pleads.

But Thomas’s arms already start to slip away. Flint shakes his head when one of his outstretched hands wipes away his tears and presses them to his lips. “Until we meet again, my love.”

He watches stuck to the catwalk while Thomas and Dr. Ashe click shut their visors and transform into anonymous, indistinguishable crusaders traversing into the unknown. Too much unknown.

“Ten. Nine. Eight.”

The portal closes in finality.

“Seven. Six.”

He runs as fast as he can to the metal doors and digs his fingers into the nonexistent space between them in a desperate attempt to pry them open.

“Five. Four.”

He pounds on the doors and prays his shouts for him to stay can be heard beyond the soundproof barrier.

“Three.”

“Stay!” he cries out. “Stay!”

Two strong arms encircle him from behind and pull him away despite his thrashing against them with all his might.

“I’m sorry Dr. Flint,” the man says as he drags him away from the landing.

“Two.”

A crushing weight first expands then crumples in his chest, creating a black hole in the pit of him.

“One.”

Tears fall into his beard, he goes limp and allows himself to be placed in a chair inside the control room.

“Lift-off sequence commencing.”

Flint’s eyes close and his throat clicks on a dry swallow. He must acknowledge this as the defeat it is, the betrayal it is. The loss…

He feels so small, so helpless to the odds against them— against Thomas and the eleven others embarking on this mission to prevent imminent extinction. He hates how the Lazarus mission banks on the possibilities and hopes that Thomas’s enigmatic “ Them” planted in his head. Its success is not only improbable; it is nearly impossible.

A gentle hand presses his head to a familiar chest.

“James,” Miranda speaks evenly, but he feels her ribcage shudder. “He had me promise— ”

“It’s done.”

Flint effectively terminates the conversation and opens his eyes. He refuses to speak of it. There’s nothing he can do now, nothing he can do but wait...

“We have three years before stage two begins,” he pulls away and watches the Exodus unlock from its dock behind the glass of the control room.

There is nothing he can do but plan...

“We still need to find a pilot for the Endeavor,” he dares to stare on as the engines rev and the thrusters ignite.

Flint never believed in Lazarus; no man wakes from the dead. But he does believe in Thomas, he must believe in him, for there is nothing he can do now but hope.

“There’s no time to waste.”

Chapter Text

She digs under her fingernails, collecting dirt then flicking it out the truck’s open window.

Her father’s been in the principal’s office for what feels like eons, and she can’t help but feel impending doom the longer she waits for him in the parking lot. Will he be disappointed in her, she wonders? All she did was show her classmates the model moon lander her dad fixed, then told them about the Apollo missions. She still doesn’t understand why her teacher had to call home about it.

Grace sighs and fidgets with the radio until one of the state-own stations comes on and plays a mildly uplifting tune. She hums along for a while then pulls out a notebook and pencil from her backpack. She clicks her fingernails together in thought, then begins drawing her room, starting with the bookcase. She doesn’t let up when her father finally returns and climbs into the driver’s seat.

“Propaganda my ass,” he mutters under his breath and places the model moon lander on the dashboard. He busies himself with a text to whom Grace can assume is her mother.

“Mom doesn’t like it when you use bad words,” Grace says and continues to sketch.

“‘Ass’ is not a bad word, Grace.” She looks up and raises her eyebrows in question. Her father’s blue eyes brighten up with mischief when he smiles toothily and adds, “It’s another word for ‘donkey.’”

She furrows her brows and twirls her pencil between her fingers. “What’s a donkey?”

But as soon as she speaks, she sees it was the wrong question to ask, although she doesn’t understand why.

Her father’s face falls and he swallows before answering with a shrug. “It was an animal that went extinct not too long ago.”

“What’s ‘extinct’?” And despite his downed expression, she can’t help but push further. “Is it a place we can visit? Can we visit the asses and donkeys there?”

He doesn’t answer, just looks on beyond the windshield for a few long moments then down to her notebook.

“What’s that? ” He points to a shadowy figure standing behind the bookshelf.

“It’s the ghost,” Grace adds a few more shades of graphite to him until she determines his form is solid enough. “I think he lives behind the bookshelf. That’s where I feel him watching me.”

She puts away her notebook and pencil, then zips up her backpack.

“Is that so? Don’t worry about going back to class,” her father says as he turns the ignition and puts the truck in drive.

Grace looks at him confused but puts her backpack down between her feet. “Why?”

“I got you suspended,” he looks both ways before getting on the country road and drives them alongside the miles and miles of cornfields. “What do you say about you and me going to a baseball game?”

 

±±±±±±

 

The dust storm sirens still blare in the distance from the stadium as they run to the truck. John’s jacket shields Grace as the winds pick up about them.

As soon as they’re both inside the truck, John throws open the glove compartment and grabs a pair of dust masks. He quickly puts one on over his nose and mouth then checks on Grace’s.

The sky transforms from a calm and mildly polluted sepia to a torrential onslaught of earthy reds and browns right before his eyes. John takes a big breath in through the mask, counts to five, and releases before starting the truck up and heading for the road as best he can with the limited visibility the winds create.

“Dad?” Grace’s voice is muffled through the cloth, but he senses her fear in her quivering voice. His protective instincts override his own apprehension of the storm when he ruffles her head of auburn curls and gives her a wink.

“Tell me more about your ghost,” he asks in a raised voice to override the roaring winds outside the car. While Grace may crawl into their bed after each supposed encounter with this thing, John conjects that she never seems to be afraid of it. He drives at a cautious crawl, pushing against a sidelong gust of strong wind but never releases his control of the wheel. “You said you think…uh... he … lives behind the bookcase?”

He squints and searches for the taillights of any cars that may be ahead of him, then presses harder on the gas to get them home to their corn farm before Madi’s nearly definite worries take a turn for the worse.

When Grace doesn’t respond readily, he pats her shoulder to grab her attention away from the wave of black looming in the distance and devouring headlights not far behind them. “What are you going to do to prove he does live behind there? Look up here, Grace, there you go. Tell me about it!”

He revs his engine harder to get ahead of the storm’s rage all the while patting Grace’s hair in a move to calm her.  

“Well, uh,” she starts.

“Uhuh,” John nods and keeps a lookout for their corn farm’s signpost that reads Cornfield No. 206 .

“The moon lander was on the bookshelf when he pushed it off, and so was the cup of water that fell on my homework.”

“Is that so,” he says then sighs in relief behind the mask when he sees their signpost, flapping wildly in the wind, and lets another strong gust of wind help him turn the wheel right onto their country road toward their simple off-white two-story house.

“I’m going to put something on the bookshelf tonight and ask the ghost to move it, to prove that he exists,” Grace speaks with more excitement now that they’re almost home, safe and sound.

But John doesn’t feel nearly as safe in this house as he did when he and Madi were assigned it ten years ago. The various crops that used to grow in these midwestern farmlands drank the soil dry and made it turn on them with dust storms that have only gotten mightier and more determined each year.

He buries the seed of helplessness he feels under a smile that barely reaches his eyes, and raises his brows to Grace with a nod.

“That sounds like a solid plan!” he shouts over the wind when he steps out of the truck and runs to open the passenger door. “Quick, let’s get to your mother.”

They race to the front porch and John reaches for the front door handle just as it cracks open enough for Grace and himself to squeeze through.

“Madi I’m sorry—”

Madi sweeps Grace into her arms and rushes her further into the house without a single glance in his direction, not even a glare. John is left by himself in the kitchen, eyes stinging from the dust that breached his long lashes, his heart sinking.

His shoulders slump as he walks over to the sink and shakes his head to rid his short curls of the dust they hold. He grabs a glass and a cloth from the cabinet overhead then pours himself some water from the faucet.

He takes off his mask in resignation and grunts when he sits down at the kitchen table. The water tastes stale, dry if that were even possible for water, and it does little to soothe his irritated throat. The dust always finds a way to creep through anything, no matter how hard he tries to keep it out.

The dust is inescapable.

Madi comes back around and through the kitchen, making no effort to stop as she heads upstairs.

He sets down his glass and shoots up from the rickety wooden chair to chase her. “Agh,” his leg throbs with phantom pains, but that doesn’t slow him down. “Madi, wait.”

She doesn’t slow when he calls out to her, she just heads for the shower room instead as if he never spoke a word. He reaches the door before she has the chance to shut it on him.

“I can explain,” he starts.

Madi turns on the faucet then sits on the edge of the bathtub. “First you get her suspended from school.”

“She wanted to share your grandfather’s wor—”

Then, you ignore my calls about the tractors and combines malfunctioning,” she tests the water and sets the plug at the bottom of the tub.

“I was with her at a baseball game, I left my phone in the car,” John rolls his shoulders against the restroom door.

“Ah, yes,” Madi finally glances at him, then raises her eyebrows and resets her attention on the filling tub.  He watches the steam rise from the water. “A baseball game. Taking her outside in the middle of storm season.”

John stands straighter, his face pinched in agitation. “I would never intentionally put her in harm’s way. I checked the weather this morning, Madi—”

“But you did , John,” her words strike him into silence. They stare at each other in contentious quiet for a few moments. “You push her to question things, to question everything. This ridiculous business with a ‘ghost.’—”

“I was advising her to use the scientific method, she learned that in school already!—”

“And who gave her the idea to bring a model moon lander to show and tell? You know the government labeled those missions a propaganda ploy against the Russians—”

“Your grandfather helped build the real moon landers, Madi!” John pushes off the door and waves his arms out in front of himself in frustration. “Are you going to tell me that was a lie? Just because the government turned its back on NASA? On us ? She has a right to know the truth!”

“The truth!” Madi gives a small huff and turns off the water. “The truth is NASA no longer exists. The truth is we are no longer engineers,” John tries to protest her but goes quiet when she raises a palm. “The truth is, we are farmers now, John. We are parents. And we must think of her safety above all else. Clutching onto the past like this and having Grace inherit it solves nothing.

John swallows and sits on the toilet cover in defeat. “I’ll look at the farm equipment in the morning.” He despises the idea of using his engineering expertise on tractors and combines , but that’s all his expertise is apparently good for anymore. “But I won’t apologize for supporting her natural talents, Madi. Someone has to see she is meant for something greater than this dirt— Don’t.” He stands up and interrupts her before she can counter him. “I’ll get her for her bath. And don’t worry, you can have the bed tonight, too. Don’t want my past waking you up.”

He walks out of the restroom with frustration creeping up his neck in hot blotches, the dirt sticks to his skin making him itch. He’s tired of this fighting, tired of feeling trapped to a place he never felt he belonged, tired of loving people who push him to walk instead of fly.

 

±±±±±±

 

As soon as she opens her bedroom door, a downpour of dust surges against her skin. She uses her elbow to cover her nose and mouth then makes her way over to the window to shut it. She coughs as the wind riles against her hands pushing the clouded glass. She closes her hazel eyes in relief when the howling wind is hushed to a mere murmur outside her closed window, then coughs into her sleeve. She shuffles over to her bedside table and switches on the lamp there to better assess the damage left by the storm’s flood into her room.

But what she sees is not the chaos she expected to find.

Grace glances at her bookshelf then down to her wooden floor covered in lines of dust. Patterned lines of dust. Without taking her eyes off it, she grabs her notebook and a pencil from her backpack.  

Her heart flutters when she garners the strong yet familiar sense of being watched. But instead of going to her parents as she usually would, she sits down on the floor and looks up to the bookcase with curiosity.

“Hello, Mr. Ghost,” she whispers, then begins sketching out the hidden message between the lines of dust.

Chapter Text

John’s mind reels from the argument he had with Madi upstairs, but he does his best to keep his emotions in check once he reaches Grace’s bedroom door at the end of the hall.

“Grace,” he knocks on the door once. “Your mother got a bath star—…”

His eyes widen in a mix of confusion and awe when he pokes his head into her room and witnesses the streams of light permeating a formulation of dust on her wooden floorboards.

“Hey dad,” she turns around and grins up at him from her cross-legged position in front of the long lines of dust that start at the bookcase.

“What’s this? Did you do this?”

“The ghost left me a message,” she twirls her pencil in her hand before committing it to her notebook as if nothing is out of place. As if she isn’t standing in front of glowing lines of air filtering between piles of dust.

John’s primal protective instinct antes up when he notes how close his daughter is to the anomaly. “Grace, get up,” he starts toward her and taps her shoulder. “Go to your mother.”

“Just one second I’m almost done getting the lines down—”

Now , Grace,” he tries not to sound panicked, but whatever this is in her room, a ghost, or otherwise, she is not going to stay in it tonight, not if he can’t prove what it is first.

She rolls her eyes at him and gets up from her spot on the ground shooting a muttered “fine” under her breath with a sigh, then grabs her towel from behind the door and leaves with her feet shuffling down the hall.

His eyes dart incredulously between the bands of light in an attempt to understand how they came to be. The sound of something moving across wood catches his attention. He looks down to where Grace’s pencil first rolls towards the lines then quickly turns to file itself in alignment atop a thick strip of dust. He squats down to better investigate this strange act, eyes squinting and head tilting inquisitively.

Against his better judgment, John tentatively puts out a hand, his fingertips hover right at the edge of the rows of dust not yet crossing their threshold. He feels a thrumming of energy he can’t explain; something about it is familiar as if he should reach out and take its hand— whatever it is. He holds his breath and pushes his hand out further over the anomaly, fingers splayed in waiting for something to grasp on.

Nothing. No invisible hands touch his. Just the stronger pulse of energy across the lines, as if a shift in pressure occurs between them.

His leg starts aching again, and he stands to stretch his limbs out. He puffs out a breath of tepid air and taps his fingers against his sides. The leftover change in his pocket from buying concessions at the baseball game jingles in tune to his pensive tapping while he stares at the pencil. An idea, or rather, a question tugs at his mind and has him pulling out a few coins from his pocket.

He rubs a quarter between his forefinger and thumb then bites his lip, tosses the coin in the air toward a strip of light, and watches it flip a few times before it glides out of the light and firmly lands atop another pile of dust. He shortly hums then pulls out another coin, sending it flying into the air and watching it once again fall into the dust. He looks down at his palm full of change, eyes twinkling with curiosity.

A hypothesis quickly formulates itself into a theory as he throws the coins out in front of him. He watches with fascination as they systematically move out of the light beams the closer they get to the ground and fall atop the nearest dust rows.

John doesn’t yet know what the lines mean, but he does know one thing for now.

Grace’s ghost isn’t a ghost at all.

He chuckles to himself and rubs the stubble across his chin. “It’s gravity.”

 

±±±±±±

 

Grace wakes the next morning and finds her mother’s side of the bed absent, the smell of corn cakes wafts up the stairs from the kitchen and into her nostrils. But breakfast can wait, she tells herself as she wipes the sleep from her eyes then jumps out of her parents’ bed to make way toward her room. Her father said he would sleep in there last night, to keep watch of the lines. She wonders what he’s found in the dust there if he felt the ghost gazing, too.

She opens the door and finds him sitting on the ground holding her notebook and pencil.

“I see you tried morse code.”

John doesn’t look up when he speaks. She can tell he’s got a wild furrow to his brow, one that he only gets when he’s fixing the farm equipment or helping Grace with her homework.

She nods and sits next to him cross-legged on the ground.

“I figured the ghost was trying to use dots and dashes, in morse,” she observes small circular indents in the dirt and lingers on them for a moment.

“It’s not a ghost, love,” he pulls a quarter out of his pocket and hands it to her. “Go ahead, toss it!”

Grace’s curiosity overrides her confusion, so she flips it out in front of them and sees it land sharply into a line of dust. She gasps quietly, eyes wide and a question on the tip of her tongue.

He smiles mischievously at her, eyes twinkling and answers before she ever has to ask. “It’s gravity.”

She looks down to the string of zeroes and ones her father’s written beneath the thin and thick lines she made on the paper.

“What’s all this?” She points her index at the notebook in waiting.

Her father wraps an arm around her shoulders and gives her a squeeze. “This is binary,” he points to the numbers with the tip of her pencil. “The zeroes and ones form sequences, and the sequences can leave messages. And this particular message…” he taps a set of numbers at the bottom of the page, “Is a set of coordinates.”

A quick rapping at the door has them looking over their shoulders in unison. Madi peeks her head in and quietly appraises the two of them on the floor.

Grace sees her father stealthily slide the notebook beneath his crossed legs from the corner of her eye before he naturally puts an arm around her. She feels the tension rising in the room like the spring’s growing heat. She doesn’t yet understand what causes her stomach to turn into knots whenever her mother and father are in the vicinity of one another these days. All she knows is she’d rather stay silent and calm than be a contributor to the seeping discomfort.

She chances a smile up at her mother. Her shoulders relax when she smiles back, breaking her focus on John and the lines on the floor.

“I’m going to pick up Julius from the train station,” her mother glances between the two of them with mild suspicion but seems to drop it when she goes to kiss the top of her head. “There’s breakfast on the table.”

“Thank you, Madi,” John smiles up at her then. Grace can’t help but notice how her mother stiffens, even if it’s for just a moment before her mother responds to him by patting his metal shin.  

Madi gets up then speaks over her shoulder to John, gently coughing into her elbow. “Clean this up, please… after you’ve finished praying to it.”

 

±±±±±±

 

As soon as Madi is out of the house, John grabs some maps from Grace’s bookshelves and rushes down the stairs.

“Where are you going?” Grace trails behind him while he fills a canteen with coffee then grabs a corn cake from a sheet covered plate on the kitchen table.

“I’m going… here,” he pulls out a map and lays it in front of her at the table. He follows the longitude and the latitude he wrote down in her notebook and points to their crossing on the map.

Grace looks down and quietly reads aloud, " Chihuahuan Desert . Why would the ghost send you to the middle of nowhere?”

His mind whirs with the possibilities of where these coordinates will lead to, where they came from, who or what sent them in the first place.

“I don’t know...” he muses with mounting excitement.

Despite all these unknowns, John can’t help but feel something he hasn’t allowed himself to feel in so long… adventurous… free.

He looks to Grace and her big hazel eyes with a ping of guilt that hits the roof of his mouth. Madi’s words from the night before still dig deep into him like shrapnel that he can’t pull out in one piece— there are always some bits left behind to remind you of their presence.

“Your mother will be back with cousin Julius in a few hours,” he cups her face in his palms and kisses the top of her head.

“Wait!” Grace calls as he walks out the front door.

He wipes off the remnants of the dust storm from his truck’s windshield with a dirty rag, and does his best to feel like leaving Grace behind is more responsible than taking her with him on a journey into the unknown.

“You don’t know what’ll be out there!” she speaks in echoed excitement.

“Which is precisely why you aren’t going with me,” he grunts as he steps into the driver’s seat. “It’s too dangerous, Grace.”

He ignores her pout as best he can while he looks over the belongings he’s brought with him. “Forgot my coffee,” he mutters under his breath, then climbs out of the truck and gallops back into the house. He runs into the kitchen and scans it for his canteen.

He tucks it into his dust jacket and calls over his shoulder, “Grace! Tell your mother she can call me if she needs anything, okay? Stay out of trouble while I’m gone,” he stands at the front door’s threshold and listens for any sound that Grace will respond instead of giving him the silent treatment. “Just like her mother,” he mutters under his breath then shouts once more up toward the stairs. “I’ll be back before you know it!”

His leg doesn’t even hurt today, a good sign, he tells himself as he starts the car and heads out onto the road. An up kicking of dust is the only trail he leaves behind.

 

Chapter Text

It’s hot and stuffy and dark, but that doesn’t stop Grace from smiling from ear to ear. She flips through her notebook, using the limited amount of sunlight she has to look over the coordinates her father wrote down. Her fingers run over the zeroes and ones while she tries to decode them herself into the numbers he put at the bottom.

Suddenly it’s much too bright and she can’t hide beneath the covers in the front passenger seat any longer.

“Jesus!”  

She sees his surprise clearly on his face, but she simply couldn’t leave this adventure just to him.

“Grace! What are you doing here? I told you to stay home.”

“You wouldn’t be here without me,” she cheekily retorts.

John gives her a sidelong glance, shakes his head then chuckles. “Well alright then, make yourself useful and hand me that canteen by your feet.”

She clambers into the seat eagerly doing what is asked of her then looks out the window. The corn fields are fading and giving way to white sandy earth that stretches on for what seems to be an eternity.

“When will we get there?”

John picks up the map and quickly glances to it on the steering wheel. “Hopefully before your mother has a meltdown,” he pulls out his phone and hands it to her. “Give her a ring, will you? I don’t want her thinking it was my idea for you to come along.”

 

±±±±±±

 

The night sky hangs above with a watchful gaze as John continues his drive through the desert, Grace asleep with the blanket over her. They’ve long since left any semblance of a road and the dirt kicks up enough that he bends over the steering wheel and squints to see ahead of him.

There, about a hundred yards ahead, he sees a straight outcrop sticking up from the rocks and sand. He stops the car a cautious few feet away from the metal fence, looks down to the map’s coordinates, then uses the windshield wipers and washer fluid to clean the glass. He has to make sure his mind isn’t playing tricks on him.

There’s no sign on the fence, just barbed wire atop its two doors. He purses his lips in thought, then exhales through gently splayed nostrils. He brushes Grace’s hair from her forehead and waits for her to stir awake.

“Your ghost led us to a locked gate in the middle of nowhere,” he huffs out a humorless chuckle. “I don’t know if this is supposed to be some cosmic joke or an extraordinary coincidence.”

She blinks up at him quietly then rubs the sleep from her eyes. “Didn’t you bring bolt cutters?”

John grins his teeth white in the darkness around them and pats his daughter’s shoulder— “I knew I raised you right”— then grabs the bolt cutters from the truck bed.

His eyes shift in either direction to detect anything other than the crawling desert heat around him. He notes that there aren’t any crickets chirping tonight and something about their absence sends him off-kilter, as though those insects he used to find so pesky as a child on camping trips are lost friends he never got to say farewell to; he can only assume they have gone the way of the donkeys, to the land of extinction.

He sighs and approaches the fence with a creeping gait, the crunching of his boots on the soil below is the only sound that reaches his ears. He throws an open palm behind him in Grace’s direction in a silent signal for her to wait in the safety of the truck. He tosses a coin at the metal fence to test it for an electric current, and when nothing occurs he smirks and begins his work with the bolt cutters.

“Alright, ghost,” he quietly grunts while he presses down on the handles, “Let’s see what you’re trying to show me, eh?”

But his work is cut short.

Abrupt flashes of lights boom on and stupefy him into covering his eyes.

Step away from the fence!”

John gasps and turns in the direction of a hulking metal mass marching toward him from around the corner.

“Dad?!”

Grace’s scream sends him racing toward the car to stand between her and what he now sees is “A droid Marine? Get away from her! Grace!

How it still exists despite the military being dismantled ten years ago whisks in his mind before he chases the droid holding his daughter in its blocky metal arms. But when he tries to grab her from its grasp, all he feels is a sharp pulse of electricity against his neck, then the desert dust pressed to his cheek before darkness encloses on him.

 

±±±±±±

 

He sits sweating in a beaten brown leather chair, eyes wild with furious anxiety at not finding his daughter anywhere.  Was she too in a small room with an identical metal Marine hovering over her in the same manner that this one is pressing over him?  

“Tell me ‘ow you found this place.”

“Where’s my daughter?” he questions instead.

John notes its black rectangular screen has a small crack in the upper right-hand corner that flickers with green each time it barks demands at him. “H.A.N.D.S.” is written vertically down its smooth gunmetal grey front in chipped brown paint. Its voice is gruff and clipped, a minor glitch in its ability to pronounce any “h”-es is obvious enough to show how old and beaten up this machine truly is. It looks more like four glued together rectangles than anything else. He marvels at how it can be so menacing, so frustrating.

His knuckles turn white as he grips the chair’s arms and Hands presses ever closer.

“You ‘ad the coordinates for this place marked on your map. Where did you get those coordinates?”

His pulse jolts in anger against the taser burn on his neck and he pushes out of the chair, leaning on his good leg while he gets in Hands' screen face.

“Where’s my daughter?!” He roars back, tears pile behind his eyes desperate to fall, but he holds them back for fear of breaking his hostility toward it.

“Sit. Down. Before I ‘ave to tase you again.”

He doesn’t sit down. Instead, he stands straighter and level on both his legs, no matter how shaky they feel at the moment. He takes a deep breath and makes a show of sizing up Hands with a jibing smirk. If the machine wants to play Marine, let it play Marine, he thinks.

“You really must be enjoying this,” John says with a tilt of his head. “Feeling powerful again, throwing your weight around with a bloody amputee,” he taps his metal leg for emphasis. He sees Hands' body move over as if to look then pull up again. He laughs mirthlessly and adds, “Despite your kind being made obsolete —”

“I beg to differ.”

John’s brows crease together in confusion as a slight figure approaches from the doorway.

A middle-aged woman with dark brown hair in a low-hanging bun stands calmly and confidently by Hands then takes a slender palm and pats the droid’s side.  

“Mr. Hands here is our most effective protector from… outsiders… such as yourself,” she gives John a fond smile then folds her hands in front of her. He notes the white lab coat she wears over a black sweater and pants.

“You really shouldn’t put so much faith in mechanical ex-military, Miss uh…” he reads her nametag and leans back on his good leg, “Barlow. They’re old, their control units are… unpredictable at best— hey !”

He stumbles back a step and warily eyes how with just a gesture from her, Hands stops from tasing him again.

“It’s Doctor Barlow, actually,” her tone is level and firm albeit considerate. She begins to turn on her heel, and John can see how this conversation is about to end, with no certainty that Grace is safe on the horizon.

“Wait! Wait, Dr. Barlow,” he scrambles toward her with outstretched palms in a show that he means no harm. She stops and sighs as if expecting him to finally crack. “You want to know how I found this place, yes? Now I’m concerned for my daughter, and I’d be more than willing to speak with you regarding my knowledge of the coordinates to… whatever this place is… so long as she is by my side.”

Dr. Barlow appraises him silently, her head then bows in thought for a few moments. She turns to Hands and murmurs under her breath, just loud enough for John to hear. “Get the principals and the girl in the conference room, if you please, Mr. Hands.”

Hands scuttles out of the room without a word. It even manages to turn the door handle with one of its metal limbs.

Dr. Barlow nods her head in John’s direction.

“Your daughter is safe.”

He shoots out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding hostage in his lungs then runs a clammy hand through his short mop of dark curls.

She peeks out the doorway then beckons for him to follow, “And incredibly bright. She must get it from her mother.”

John thinks of Madi and immediately searches his pockets for his cellphone, but comes up empty. He looks about the long hallway they traverse, its walls hold no images, just numbered plaques naming doors adjacent one after the other.

“You obviously aren’t open to visitors here, whatever here is,” he mutters the last part under his breath while he looks up at the halogen lights that line the ceiling. “Why don’t you let us go back over that metal barricade of yours and we’ll be on our way?”

“If only it were so simple,” Dr. Barlow muses as she stops in front of a pair of large metal doors.

“Well of course it is!” he tries to sound like a genial gentleman instead of the anxious mess he is while hoping that Grace is on the other side of those doors. “I don’t know a single thing about you or this place.”

She smiles and tilts her head toward him, “Oh, but you do.”



±±±±±±



Grace runs into his arms as soon as he crosses the threshold. “I’m so glad you’re safe!” She muffles into his jacket and John can’t help but internally wince at the irony that his daughter was more worried about a grown man’s safety than her own in a strange high-security building in the middle of nowhere.

“We’re alright,” he whispers into her hair.

He looks across the room at a long paneled wall with images of men and women across the top of it. There is a consistent ticking coming from somewhere, but as there is no clock adorning the walls, he can’t exactly assume it’s that. At last, he scans the long oval table seated by a half dozen suited men and women with staunch expressions on their faces— all except one familiar faint smirk.

“Dr. Scott?”

Madi’s father, the former head of NASA, smiles fondly at them from his seat at the head of the table. “Hello John, it’s been a long time.”

His equilibrium feels thrown off, and he clutches to Grace ever stronger, protecting her from whatever this place is that they’ve found themselves in. He hasn’t seen his father-in-law in more than a decade, not since the crash, not since his supposed disappearance.

“Please, Mr. Silver, have a seat,” Dr. Barlow gently coaxes him and Grace toward two chairs ahead of them.

John clears his throat after he gingerly sits down between Grace and Dr. Barlow, “Well this is an unusual day, isn’t it—”

“Mr. Silver, tell us how you were able to discover this location.” A well-built man with broad shoulders and sandy blonde hair clips in. 

“Well, my daughter and I were out stargazing—”

“I find it hard to believe you just happened across this place during an evening drive.”

John flicks his eyes to a man resignedly leaning back in his chair, one hand inquisitively twisting the side of an amber mustache while he stares back at him with verdant eyes. John wonders how he hadn’t noticed this figure during his first look about the room.

“John, please,” Dr. Scott speaks calmly and with open palms. “Cooperate with them. No harm will come to either of you. You have my word.”

He finds it hard to peel his eyes away from the gentleman in the corner, especially when he looks up with raised brows and a small smirk, expectant of the truth. John sighs and rubs Grace’s shoulders then speaks.

“Well, it’s a bit difficult to explain, you see it wasn't exactly a scientific discovery that gave us these coordinates—”

“Then explain as best you can, Mr. Silver,” The broad-shouldered gentleman leans on his elbows against the table in waiting, John eyes his name tag... W. Manderly... where had he heard that name before?

“It was an anomaly, we found it in my daughter's bedroom—”

“What kind of anomaly?” John observes the red-headed man’s eyes spark with interest. For some reason, he’s not too bothered that he cut him off.

“It was gravity!”

Everyone turns their attention from John to his young enthusiastic and smiling daughter. She grins up at her father then nods her head, “Well, go on dad. Tell them! That’s what it was, right?”

John pats her shoulder then turns back to the man with green eyes who stands up and takes a seat right in front of him. He reads his name tag and furrows his brows with the dark familiarity of the name.

“You’re Dr. Flint,” he says cautiously taken aback. “The man behind NASA’s closing—”

“Really, Mr. Silver,” Dr. Barlow grabs his attention with a playfully incredulous tone. “You still don’t know who we are? What this place is?”

John takes another look at the room full of faces, at the images above their heads of astronauts holding their helmets, nameplates below them. He refocuses his hearing to the ticking beyond the paneled wall and listens more intently.

The whirring of machines, the ticking is more closely aligned with a hammer repetitiously hitting a mark, and as he closes his eyes and holds Grace close, John discovers the hum of footsteps and murmurs that he can picture if only he could look through walls...

He stares with wide eyes as Dr. Scott stands from his seat and the paneled wall slides open.

He finds himself and Grace standing, too, drawn to the magnanimous space filled with hundreds of people and machines steaming around a white and aluminum tower.

“NASA…” he whispers with confounded awe.

“Welcome back, John,” Dr. Scott pats his shoulder. “Your return couldn’t be more timely.”

Chapter Text

Grace gives him a hug then walks away with Dr. Barlow to take a nap in her office, leaving John to look on at the hundreds of workers moving about the cylindrical enclosing with cautious amusement.

“Are you going to tell me how this happened, Elijah?” he asks his father-in-law with a side-eyed glance. “Or do I need to continue to assume you really are missing and this is all just a figment of my imagination?”

Dr. Scott looks up with him to the opening where the stars twinkle overhead.

“Madi doesn’t know, does she?” John can’t help but wonder if he’s been kept in the dark about this whole operation for more than the few hours he’s been here. He waits with bated breath and a shallow mask hiding his fears of betrayal.

Dr. Scott smiles down at his shoes and folds his hands behind his back then nods at the construction. “About this? No.”

“And about you?”

They stare at each other silently for a few moments, Dr. Scott’s smile grows warmer despite his eyes dulling.

“We stopped speaking when she knew of my intentions to keep NASA alive,” Dr. Scott tilts his head to the side and beckons John to follow. “She insisted it was better if we didn’t keep contact, for her safety, for yours… for Grace’s.”

They walk away from the sounds of heavy machinery leaving John perplexed despite this new understanding.

“I thought Dr. Flint got NASA shut down when he dropped that bomb on the starving people in Moscow.”

He follows Dr. Scott down a long stairwell into a dusky basement, except for the strip of light hitting Dr. Scott’s eyes while he looks over his shoulder at him then beyond with a small hum and a nod. John follows his line of sight and sees Dr. Flint with his green eyes staring right at him from the foot of the stairs.

They lock eyes for what feels like an eternity, although relatively speaking it must only be a few moments. Dr. Scott clears his throat and grabs John’s attention once more.

“There was no bomb.”



±±±±±±

 

“Dr. Barlow?” Grace stretches her socked feet down as far as they can reach until her toes touch the end of the dark green couch in the good doctor’s office. Sleep hasn’t reached her yet, but she can feel the event of it on the horizon. She does her best to stave it off while she looks around Dr. Barlow’s office with casual curiosity.

“You can call me Miranda, there’s no need for titles in here,” she responds kindly while she closes the curtains to the window that overlooks the main work zone outside.

Grace watches Miranda take a seat in a lounge chair beside her on the couch. She plays with the fringe of the fleece blanket around her shoulders then turns on her side with her hand propping her head up. “How did you become a scientist?”

Miranda smiles and nods her head while dimming the lights overhead. “With an awful lot of studying.”

“Well, I already do well in school without studying an awful lot,” she rolls her eyes and smiles when Miranda chuckles. “My teachers don’t like it when I correct them in class, either. My science teacher told me that the Apollo Missions never happened, can you believe that?!”

“Is that so?”

Grace nods and flops her hands down on the blanket. “I can’t just sit there and believe whatever my teachers tell me. I have to think critically. My dad taught me that.”

“Well, your father is right, to think critically is to think for yourself.”

Grace shrugs and takes note of the silver band on Miranda’s finger then looks at a collection of picture frames on her desk. The red-haired man from the conference room is in on of them, standing beside a sitting Miranda with a model rocket in her hands, and next to that one is a photo of a number of men and women in lab coats standing in front of a solar system on a gargantuan screen… but the planets don’t look familiar…

“That doesn’t look like our solar system. And what’s the big fuzzy circle thing with the light around it?” Grace points to the center of the image in question.

That , is a black hole,” Miranda crosses her legs and scissors her fingers closed on her knee.

Grace is too preoccupied with the news of a black hole to be bothered with the remote solar system. Her eyes go wide with excitement and she bounces in her seat on the couch.

“A black hole? I didn’t know you could look at one! My dad says there’s one in each galaxy but they’re so hard to see because they suck everything up like a vacuum if you get too close.”

“Like a vacuum?” Miranda raises her eyebrows and looks up at the ceiling as if conjecture of the pull of a black hole is anywhere similar to that of a vacuum. “Well, I suppose that is a good way to put it. It sucks in everything around it if it is… well… hungry enough. But this one isn’t as hungry as other black holes,” she traces her finger around the rim of the black hole in question. “So we were able to photograph it with a satellite telescope safely for a while.”

Grace mouths out a “wow” that transforms into a yawn. She sees through slitted eyes the final picture on Dr. Barlow’s desk. It’s of a younger version of Miranda hugging a tall, grinning blonde man in front of a sign that reads Lazarus.  

She has enough energy to ask a few more questions while Miranda turns off a green lamp on her desk.

“Does your husband work with you here? Do you like that you get to go to work with him every day? My parents were both engineers. They’re farmers now, but they still work together, too, on the— ahhhh — the farm.”

Sleep catches her off guard with another yawn, but she notices that Miranda still hasn’t responded to her questions. Instead, Miranda sits with her palms in her lap. Grace watches her fiddle with the silver band on her finger with a creased brow and pursed lips.

“Miranda?”

She looks up and brushes her hands on her pants while she stands with a curt smile. “You seem awfully tired, young lady,” Grace feels that she sounds tired, but not the same kind of tired that she feels herself, more of the tired she sees on her mother after her dad wakes up from a nightmare. “It’s best you get some rest. I’ll have your father wake you when he’s done.”

Grace looks up and smiles when Miranda brushes her curls behind her ears then snuggles under the blanket. She already feels at home in this strange place. This NASA she’s only heard about from her father while her mother stood by silently grimacing at the sound of the place.

“I’m so glad this place is real,” she closes her eyes and falls past the horizon into sleep.



±±±±±±



“What do you mean there was no bomb?” John stands precariously between the two men, one illuminated in light while the other hides in the shadows. He starts to sweat with the turning of his head. “We saw the bomb drop on television. It was all over the news.”

“Yes, the government-owned news,” Dr. Flint puts his hands behind his back while he saunters down the stairwell. “The world needed a monster in order for its people to unite, so I became the face of it.”

“It let us stay in the shadows while we did our work,” Dr. Scott looks above to the construction then pointedly back at John.

“What are you working on that it is so important you had to keep the whole world in the dark?”  

Lights begin to illuminate the dark, and Professor Flint walks ever closer to them. John sees how very tired Flint’s eyes are up close. They are tired, but with a small glint in them with the shine of the fluorescents overhead. He wonders what gave Flint that glint in his sunken eyes.

“The gravitational anomaly in your daughter’s bedroom, Mr. Silver,” Flint cuts in. “It’s not the first time you’ve experienced something like it, is it?”

John studies his expression for any sign of malice or insinuation but finds none. He studies the shape of metal above the stairwell until recognition strikes the backs of his eyes. A ranger ship , he thinks before he speaks.

“The ranger ship I piloted struck an anomaly near the edge of the stratosphere,” he swallows and aims to stay nonchalant while giving Dr. Scott a sideglance. “What are you trying to say? That it isn’t a coincidence?” His heart drums in his chest with a growing staccato. “That losing my leg and my crew, Muldoon, isn’t a coincidence? Elijah, what is he trying to say to me?”

“We’re trying to save humanity, John,” Dr. Scott clasps his shoulder. “And it seems they want you to help us.”

John’s brows furrow at Dr. Scott. “Who’s they ?”

Chapter Text

The basement lights travel years to an unseen end. It is filled with scientists collecting samples of corn husk to scrutinize for viability under a microscope within the clear plastic greenhouses that line the corridors. John’s never seen anything like it— corn underground treated like test subjects instead of as the lifeline they are to the people in the open air above.

“We have plenty of corn left, Elijah, more than enough to survive,” he swallows down the doubt Dr. Scott planted in his chest. How can it be? Not enough food left on Earth?

“Blight,” Dr. Flint answers instead while Dr. Scott moves away from the front of a greenhouse and heads down the corridors of the one generation of corn below. “It took out okra this year, Mr. Silver. And wheat the year before, squash before that. It’s only a matter of time before the corn is its next target.”

Silver gives Dr. Flint a sidelong glance and shakes his head. “Well, your people down here seem to be working on a way to keep things going, don’t they?” He surmises as he follows a stoic Dr. Scott down another corridor. “We’ll find a way, Dr. Scott, we always have.”

They follow the professor to a heavy metal door akin to the front of a vault. He turns and glances at Dr. Flint then smirks at John.

“You always seemed to believe, John, that the Earth is ours.”

“Well, not just ours, no,” he thinks on the crickets and donkeys that used to inhabit the world before biodiversity and global warming encroached on their lack of viability. “But it is our home.”

He rolls his shoulders back and waits for them, either one of them, any of them, to say something .

Not even a cricket’s chirp could alleviate the silence that pounds down on him.

He notes a wordless conversation between Flint and Scott, the raising of brows, the nodding of consent, and the turning of the doors large wheeled lock by freckled palms.

“Earth’s atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen, Mr. Silver,” Flint grunts and raises his brows at him. “We don’t even breathe nitrogen.”

Silver’s mind whirs with the door’s wheel, unlocking Flint’s apocalyptic insinuation. “Blight does— breathe nitrogen I mean…” He knew blight was getting more aggressive— of course, he did, he and Madi. But he never thought it would get so bad as to starve out the remaining oxygen in the atmosphere. “So, what do we do? How do we stop it? ”  

“We can’t stop it.” Flint grunts while pushing open the door. “Your daughter’s generation will be the last to survive and the first to suffocate.”

He didn’t want to believe what he already began forming in his mind. “Why am I here?”

“John,” Dr. Scott begins. “We’re not meant to save the Earth. We’re meant to leave it.”

They walk through the threshold and into a narrow cylindrical room with a thin ladder that John’s eyes follow so far up his neck cranes. He’s seen this ladder before. He’s climbed it before. And he knows where it leads.

“Tell me what the fuck I have to do with saving the Earth, Elijah.”

John swings his head around the room and throws his arms up at Dr. Flint as he walks past the ladder and pulls out a key card and swipes it against a portion of the white walls. The wall slides open again revealing an elevator.  

Drs. Scott and Flint file into it with ease.

“Well,” Dr. Scott supplies to John, effectively knocking him out of his flustered stupor. “Do you want to know or not?”


±±±±±±


Flint observes how Silver moves about the top landing of the Ranger with only the slightest of limps. It wouldn’t bother him so deeply if it weren’t for what they so obviously keep offering to this mission— a pilot with a bionic leg, an ex-pilot with a bionic leg. Someone with ties to Earth. Someone with family. James knows only too well that for this mission to go smoothly, it is best to do it without any human ties to a nearly futile cause.

He half listens to Professor Scott and Silver speak about their final mission, the versatile ship the Endeavor. He grimaces at John’s plain awe when Dr. Scott affirms that yes, people have been sent out there looking for a new home. People from the Lazarus Missions.

“That doesn’t sound very cheerful,” Silver huffs.

Something about his voice, his matter-of-fact handling of the knowledge forces Flint’s lip to twitch against his will.

“Lazarus came back from the dead.”

His blue eyes mark him and James can’t help but catch a glimpse of someone familiar in their hue. He notes the dark curly mop of hair on top of this man’s head and collects himself back into a pose of neutrality. He won’t let this man get under his skin.

Silver’s eyes crease into slits and with a tight smile he replies with a, “Yes, but Lazarus had to actually  die first.”

Flint’s face falls and he turns around to focus his gaze on the conference room ahead of him instead, effectively ignoring him.

“The closest inhabitable planet from here is thousands of lightyears away, that doesn’t even qualify as futile ,” Silver continues and Flint grinds his jaw. “Where did you send them?”

The question catches him off guard despite him knowing of its approach. He wonders if those pings from the 12 beacons beyond the wormhole aren’t just broken records being warped by space-time and that the universe is just playing a sick joke on him, supplying him false hope that Thomas might still be alive on a foreign home, instead of withering away by his beacon.  

“Enough.” He turns his head in profile just enough to glance over his shoulder at Silver and Dr. Scott. “We need a pilot, and seeing as you’re the only one on this planet that has any proper experience flying, it seems They want you to do the job.”

“There it is with ‘ They’ again,” Silver flares his nostrils and crosses his arms. “How can we be so sure that ‘ They’ weren’t trying to kill me the first time and this is just Their way of finishing the job? Sending me coordinates to my grave here at NASA?”

Flint’s face turns red with rage, his veins pulsing hard against his temples while he slowly turns to face him. “Why you—”

“John,” Dr. Scott stands between him and Silver, effectively blocking any further insult. Flint heaves a deep breath and flicks a glance at Scott before looking down. “Before we can share any more details, I need to know your decision.”

Despite his casted doubts of John Silver’s demeanor, his emotional capability for this mission, Flint can’t help but look up albeit through slitted eyes to catch his response.

Silver presses his lips together and uncrosses his arms with a sigh and glances over Dr. Scott’s shoulder to him. He observes his throat bob while looking up at the Ranger, and raises a brow at the small shadow of a smile that hides in the corner of his mouth.

“How long will I be gone for?”

A small gust of wind followed by auburn curls rushes past him. “Dad!”

Flint watches how Silver picks up his daughter and holds her against his hip with a warm smile that reaches not just his eyes, but his toes. “How was your nap?” He asks fondly.

Miranda strolls up and stands beside Flint, he feels her hand press gently to the small of his back, effectively relieving him of the pent up anger he holds in his shoulders. He nods to her and continues to watch how Grace plays with her father’s hair and wrap her arms around his neck.

But the tension holds James and the rest of the room captive in its wake when Grace asks the simplest of questions, all of them knowing the answer won’t be so kind in return.

“When are we going home?”

Chapter Text

“This world was never enough for you, was it?”

Guilt wraps around his heart while his vessels dilate with what’s in store for him. “Why? Because piloting this mission feels like what I was born to do? And it happens to excite me? To finally be out there? Up in the stars…”

He pulls his canteen out of his packed bag and takes a swig from it before he offers it to Madi. He stares up at the night sky from his place on their front porch and ponders how much time he has left before the corn dies out. When she doesn’t take a drink he finally looks to Madi and notices the hollowed expression written in her pinched brows.

“I’m going to find a new home for us,” he swallows his unease regarding his eagerness to leave and cups her face in his palm. “For you, for Grace.”

“John,” she speaks his name firmly despite her trembling lower lip. “You don’t understand how this mission ends. You don’t know where it leads.”

She pulls away and he watches her eyes well up with tears of frustration that turn them into black pools which shimmer with their porchlight’s amber glow. Her pain will find a purpose in understanding, he tells himself while he gazes up at the stars, calculating the exact location of the wormhole from the positioning of the constellations.

John takes one of her folded hands from her lap, tangling their fingers together when she seeks to pull away again.

“Look up with me,” he takes their joined hands and uses their index fingers, guiding them to the tip of the Big Dipper. “There,” he whispers gently in her ear. “I’ll be right there in three years’ time, at the edge of Saturn, flying to a wormhole They placed there for us so we could reach a galaxy with viable planets.”

Madi shakes her head and slips her hand away.

“They chose me , Madi. Me . I have to find a new home for us. This one’s been telling us to leave for quite some time now. Don’t you see that?”

She turns from him to look out at their acres of corn and wipes the corner of her eyes. John feels the fabric of their relationship tearing with each passing moment in silence.

“I didn’t ask for this. It was bloody predetermined. There’s something bigger at play here. Bigger than you and me—”

“Bigger than Grace?”

His jaw clicks shut and he grits his teeth while he hunches over in his seat. “I’m doing this for Grace.”

“Leaving her fatherless, becoming a ghost to her future with so few memories for her to remember you by—”

“I’m coming back, Madi—”

“—That’s in her best interest?”

“Yes.”

His nostrils flare and his eyes turn to darts pinning Madi to her seat. He takes a deep breath and sharply exhales while brushing the dust off his jeans, “It’s better than the alternative. I’d rather there be at least the chance of an opportunity for her to live a long life in a place where she can actually breathe .”

“And if you come back—”

When I come back.”

He observes Madi purse her lips together as if holding back her doubt of his return will keep him on the course of doing so.

“There is the question of the formula.”

John looks out over the farm with Madi, looks further beyond the horizon to something nobody’s yet observed but he must believe will exist. He swallows around the weight of the “what ifs” that hang in the balance for humanity’s survival, then puts on a brave smile.

“He says he’s close to calculating the final parts of the equation to harness gravity. They already built the centrifuge and the space station for it,” John nods and rubs his knee where metal meets bone. “Your father will have it solved by the time we return. He gave me his word.”

Madi suddenly bursts into sobs tainted with bitter laughter, tears filling her eyes while she gasps shakily for air. Her reaction to his reassurances sends him off-kilter and out of orbit, and he wonders how to best pilot the situation to reorient them both to solid ground.

“I am well aware there are too many hypotheticals hanging in the balance,” he cautiously places his palm on the center of her back. When she doesn’t pull away he begins rubbing circles into her skin, warming the space between her shoulder blades and his hand. “We just need to have faith, Madi. We’ll do what’s necessary. You and Grace are far too important for this mission to fail. I won’t let that happen. For me, there’s only Plan A.”

She brushes stray braids away from her wet face. “Only one plan…” she whispers and shakes her head. “If you’re going to…”

John watches her swallow around the words. He wipes a stray tear from her chin and reassures her with everything he has. “I’m coming back.”

“You need to see it through to its end.”

“I will.”

“Promise me you will do what’s necessary... For Grace.”

They lock eyes into a place where devotion and love for their daughter reach beyond time and space. It is their unbreakable parental bond, Madi and John’s.

John nods and bows his forehead to meet hers. “For Grace.”

 

±±±±±±


He follows Dr. Barlow down a sterile-white hallway and through two sheet metal doors. The room’s walls are lined with large glass chambers, half-cylindrical and upright. In the center is a wide column filled with circular metal sheets the size of dinner plates with handles on them.

“So you’ve been updated on Plan A,” Dr. Barlow speaks over her shoulder while she pulls on a pair of thick elbow-length gloves.

“I have,” he muses while taking in his surroundings. “What’s all this?” He twirls his finger around the air in references to the room and raises an eyebrow when Dr. Barlow pulls one of the handles from the column and lifts out a white cylinder that he now sees houses rows of test tubes.

“This is Fertilization Command,” she speaks with confidence, her chin up and the whisper of a smile of accomplishment on her lips. She gently places the cylinder on a nearby table and nods to it. “Also known as Plan B.”

John keeps his expression blank yet genial, as though the information of an alternative plan, any alternative plan that doesn’t involve returning to Earth, to his family, is completely alright by him in front of Dr. Barlow. His silence in response, however, gives Dr. Barlow enough pause to furrow her brows and gently replace the cylinder in its cradle.

“You do understand why we need a Plan B, yes?”

He continues to stare blankly. But his genial smile fades and the blood drains from his face when Dr. Barlow supplies him with an answer.

“Gargantua.”

 

±±±±±±


Hot tears roll down her cheeks in anger and distress while she shoves her desk across her room over the dust lines and up against her bedroom door. She cries and painfully replays her father’s attempt to explain that he was traversing out to space and that no, she had to stay here. “Who would keep your mother company?” he told her on the way home.

With a racking breath, Grace wipes her eyes and nose into the crook of her elbow and crawls into her bed, her face hidden in her bent knees. She eyes her notebook lying innocently on her nightstand and picks it up with a sniffle.

She flips to the page with her depiction of the ghost behind the bookshelf. She traces its shadow with her fingertip then flips to the next page with her and her father’s work on the binary code from the dust. She grunts in frustration and throws the book shut on her lap.

“I wish you never told us about NASA,” she cries to the wall in hopes that the ghost will hear her and apologize. She startles and quiets when she hears a soft rustle from the bookshelf.

She silently observes for a few moments how a few thin books on the top shelf gently shuffle forward of their own accord.

Grace quickly reaches for a pencil and picks up the notebook to record the ghost’s next message as more books move from the shelf below and the one below that.

“S.T.A.Y.” She whispers the letters aloud and stares at the bookshelf to double check her understanding of the thick and thin books shuffled forward by invisible hands.

The ghost’s presence doesn’t shift away as it oftentimes does once he leaves a message, and Grace wonders if there is more left to be decoded.

She hears a knock on her door followed by her father’s gentle calling of her name. She immediately disappears under the blankets and looks to the bookshelf instead of facing her betrayer.

He pushes past her barricade and climbs over her desk into her room with a soft grunt. Grace hunches her shoulders up to her ears when he goes to touch her head.

“Grace, this isn’t how I want to say goodbye to you, please. I have to fix this.”

Her eyes begin to brim with tears again and she pulls off the blankets with a sorrowful expression.

“Then I’ll keep it broken so you have to stay.”

“Your mother…” he begins and Grace looks up through watery eyes at him. “Told me something the day you were born.”

Grace sees him fondly reminisce with a smile wavering in sadness before he eyes her and grins more firmly. “She said that ‘now, we only exist to be memories for our daughter,’” his voice is paper thin and it cracks when he continues. “I think I finally understand what she meant. That once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.”

She turns away and holds her notebook close to her chest. “You said ghosts didn’t exist,” she closes her eyes and lets the hot tears trickle down her cheeks.

“Yes, I did say that,” he clears his throat and touches her chin. “Grace, look at me.”

Her father’s eyes swim in tears of his own and he looks as if he is bracing for the impact of his own words when he tells her, “I can’t be your ghost right now. I need to exist.” She breathes sharply and keeps up a strong front while she faces his honesty. “Grace, They chose me. They chose me, and you’re the one who led me to them.” He taps on her notebook as if to emphasize his point and that is when understanding dawns on her.

“That’s exactly why you can’t leave.” She quickly ruffles through the pages in her notebook until she finds the one with the most recent message. “Look at the bookshelf, Dad,” she points to the books sticking out like outliers and he follows her guidance with a sad look. Grace points back to the page in her notebook. “There’s another message—”

“Grace,” he whispers and kisses the top of her head.

“—It says ‘STAY—’”

“Grace,” he holds her in his arms and she struggles to get his attention, to take this matter as seriously as she needs him to.

“You’re not listening to me! It says ‘STAY’!”

“I’m coming back.”

She grips his forearm with both hands and cries into it, “When?”

He doesn’t answer right away, and she waits with harsh gulps of air until he brings his palm out in front of her and opens it to reveal two identical wristwatches.

“Here,” he offers her one and she takes it with a quizzical sniffle. “One’s for you, and one’s for me.” She takes the watch and softens her scowl with gently raised brows. “When I get back,” he crinkles his eyes as if to take out the sharp edge of pain in them. “We’ll compare.”

She realizes then that her father is holding back his own quiet tears in his throat when he speaks.

“When I’m up there in hypersleep or traveling near the speed of light, or... around a black hole…” His voice falters on the last word and she looks up. He has a distant expression on his face, as though he is looking into the future and praying for it to come sooner rather than later. John snaps out of his trance and looks back to her. He holds her closer when he says, “Time is going to move slower for me.”

Grace holds her watch and looks to his, observing how the ticking hands move in unison. She wonders aloud, “Time is going to move differently for us?”

He nods his assent and grins with difficulty. “Who knows,” he attempts a shrug, but she feels him shaking beneath the veneer of casualty, “We might even be the same age when I get back.”

She looks at him incredulously while she pulls away, piecing the information he’s laid before her with a dreadful conclusion.

“You… you have no idea when you’re coming back.”

Her father, the silver tongue and soothsayer whenever she’s faced with fears or troubles, is silent when she needs his assurance the most.

Anger boils to the surface overpowering her helplessness and she takes the watch in her hand and throws it across the room. “You have no idea at all!”

“Grace, don’t make me leave like this. Grace!”

She brashly pulls away from his arms and cries to the wall instead. He cups her shoulder and she does her best to ignore his presence, something, she tells herself, she won’t have to do for much longer.

“Grace, I love you. Always. Do you hear me?”  She covers her ears with the sheets and cries beneath them in response. “I love you always, and I’m coming back.”

She holds back a sob when she feels the bedsprings bounce back up when her father leaves her side.

“I’m coming back,” he speaks firmly from across the room, and she hears him hit her desk as he nears the door.

A loud pounding originating from the bookshelf shudders through the room and the books shuffled forward all topple to the ground with a thud.

Grace peers through her sheets at the black spaces left on her bookshelf that silently scream their message to her. She stares at them and whispers it to herself like a mantra— “S.T.A.Y., S.T.A.Y.—” stuck in place until she hears the distant turning of her father’s truck engine.

She rips the bedsheets off herself and runs down the stairs as fast as her legs can carry her to the front driveway.

“Stay!” she shouts as soon as she’s outside. But there’s no father to beg to stay to any longer, just the kicking up of dust as the echo of his presence.

“Grace! Where are you going?” her mother runs up behind her and holds her in her arms while she tries to chase after him.

“Stay! Stay!” she cries over and over to the road as if she can scream loud enough for him to hear her, turn back around and come back to her. Her mother holds her back until she relents, arms loosely at her sides in surrender.

She barely registers her mother’s pestering presence beside her, checking her over and finally hugging her while Grace swallows back her disbelief when her mother sighs and offers false comfort in false hopes…

“Your father will return.”

 

±±±±±±


“Final Countdown commencing… Ten…”

John looks up to the switchboard overhead and checks his helmet one final time.

“You ready for this, Long John Silver?” Hands asks from beside him at the front of the Ranger.

He gives him a raised brow in response and breathes out his nerves, hands on the yoke and the crew behind him. “Everyone strapped in?” He asks through his speaker set in his spacesuit. “Dr. Barlow?”

“Check,” Miranda affirms and John nods while listening to the countdown with brightening eyes.

“7…”

“Manderly?” He shouts over his shoulder.

“Check,” Billy Bones Manderly replies gruffly.

“6…”

John swallows and throws out the final crewmember’s name with as much confidence as he can muster. “Dr. Flint?”

“5…”

He turns in his chair and looks at James Flint’s grim expression until he gets a curt nod. He swallows and stares down at his wristwatch, placed carefully in a clear box beside the yoke, ticking down the final seconds.

“Lift-off engaged.”

“I’m coming back,” he whispers, the distant shouts from Grace to stay tethering him back to them as the ship’s thrusters kick off and the force of it pushes him deep into his seat. “I’m coming back to you. I promise.”

Chapter Text

There are shreds of himself left in his dreams. He has to pick it out of the skin of his nightmares in order to piece himself back together. 

He looks at the clouds forming overhead, a red sun beating down in the edges around them. It’s been so long since he allowed himself to envisage home. No matter how much he tried to block out those thoughts, they seeped in of their own accord. 

It was home, no matter how much dust collected in the air, or how much sustenance was devoured in blight. Home was where those he loved resided. He wonders if it still exists, or if he is all that is left of humanity… one final mind left to breathe in solitude. 

The darkness encases him as he calmly enters his casket of water and plastic and steel. He twists his wedding band one final time before everything goes black. This is what it means to choose an end, to hope for an imminent reanimation of oneself on another realm of existence. He is no longer the man of the present, but the ghost of their future… humanity’s future. 



++++++



Beads of sweat press into his skin as the Ranger near’s the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. John takes level breaths, eyes alert while he tenses as if bracing for an impact on the breadth of open space. 

“Mach 1.” Hands announces as they breach the atmosphere, leaving behind the sky’s familiar blue hue and in its stead a bright, expansive blackness to be explored. 

John releases his hold on the yoke and marvels how his hands float instead of being weighed down by his sides. It’s one thing to dream of being in space, another to exist in its reality. 

“Not bad for a pilot who’s never broken through the atmosphere.” 

John’s torn from his thoughts by Billy “Bones” Manderly. He can hear the smirk in his voice without turning around to see it. 

“Considering you’ve never even left a simulator,” he replies with a raised brow. His voice fades while he eyes a large orbicular object growing closer from the distance. “Your skepticism doesn’t weigh much on me...”

“Approaching Th’ Endeavor.” 

“Alright, Manderly? You ready for docking?” 

Seatbelts unbuckle behind him and he watches Bones swim through the air to a joystick and screen with a target on it beside him. It reminds Silver of a video game console, except the stakes are much higher-- one improperly docked hatch plus an attempted opening of the doors equals a silent explosion that confirms the remnants of humanity. 

“Ready.”  

Silver takes a deep breath and calls Hands to slow the thrusters on the Ranger as they approach the circular space station before them. He guides them into its inner ring then releases the yoke as they near the docking port.

“Alright, let’s do this slowly and carefully,” Flint commands. 

Silver side-eyes him through his helmet, wary of the control Flint demands despite this being a communal mission. The three of them take pause and silently watch as Bones gently maneuvers their ship. He toggles left and the target on the screen flares orange. 

“Careful, Billy,” Flint warns. 

Bones dryly swallows and breathes through his nostrils in response. 

Silver pays closer mind to the target on the screen as it fades from orange to yellow and finally to green with the maneuvering of the joystick. 

“Got it,” Bones remarks with eyes still glued to the target, then presses a green button beside him. 

The ship gently rattles when the Endeavor clasps onto it, and Silver sighs out in tandem with the rest of the crew. 

He unbuckles and skims past Flint while he floats over to Bones to give him a pat on his shoulder. “Not bad for someone who’s never left the simulator.” 

Bones quickly smiles through his nerves and meets his gaze for a fraction of a second then turns around in the air in time to see Flint and Barlow unbuckle from their seats and float toward the back of the Ranger.

“Good work to both of you,” Barlow supplies through the comms in her helmet. She reaches the back door and pushes open the latch with a small grunt. “I’m going to check on the fertilization chamber!” 

Silver watches her swim through a dark passageway that sparks to life with light the further down she traverses it. 

“Billy,” Flint calls as he, too, enters the hallway. “Let’s get her up and running.” 

Bones follows behind then pauses before crossing the threshold, holding onto the doorway as he floats in place with a pointed gaze at Silver. “You’re quite brave, you know.” 

John stares back, caught off guard by his comment. “Well, aren’t we all?” 

“Yes, but… Leaving your family behind... to save humanity? It’s brave. I’m lucky, I guess in that regard, not having anyone to worry about, except well, everyone.” 

Silver stiffens internally. He doesn’t feel brave. Selfish? Yes. For leaving his family behind while he explores the great beyond. 

Bones turns his head back toward Flint, then furrows his brows when Silver doesn’t respond. “You… do know how this is going to go, right?” 

Silver breaks out of his paralyzed state and offers a crackling smile that he hopes Bones can’t see waver from the reflections of light on their helmets. “I’m worried about time. And seeing as we don’t have much of it, we should get moving.” 

Bones gives a pursed excited grin wrapped in anxiety then nods while he closes the passageway with the hard push of a button on his side of the threshold. 

Silver looks about the cockpit then out to the great bright darkness that encapsulates the Ranger’s windshield. His eyes catch a small blue dot in the lower-left corner of the galaxy and he presses his hands to the glass as if to touch it. “Hello, Grace,” he whispers to Earth with a swallow to drown out his fears of letting her down.  He floats over to his seat and senses his limbs shake with nerves of the reality of his position in the universe. 

“Right,” he exhales and buckles himself into a hyper-stimulated sense of stability-- as if sitting down on a solid chair in a floating hunk of aluminum in the middle of a place so expansive it doesn’t actually have a quantifiable middle can be stable. But somehow John feels at home out here in the middle of space. He belongs.  “Let’s get to it, then.” 

 

++++++

 

He swims through the narrow curved hallway behind Flint, hands touching the walls and head bowed to avoid butting the ceiling. 

Flint doesn’t turn around until he reaches a pair of plain white sliding doors. He gives Billy a small fleeting look with narrowed eyes then reaches out to press the side of his helmet, effectively turning off his communications before doing the same to his own. 

“Well, he seems awfully optimistic for his -- Hey!” Bones attempts to reprimand him, but instead, Flint drags him into a dim space within the ship an effectively shuts the door behind them. 

“What is it you think you’re doing? Telling him he’s brave? For leaving his family behind?” Flint hisses as their helmets collide. Bones can see the heat in his glare despite the separation from their helmets. But he catches a glimpse of something else beneath the surface… a fear, a determination that was pressed. But by what? By whom? 

“...Does he not understand the chance of them getting off the ground is virtually nonexistent?” 

Flint swallows hard, his cheek twitches, but his stern gaze never leaves Billy’s. 

“You didn’t tell him, did you? About gravity? The formula? Does Miranda know about this?--”

Flint shoves him hard against the shut door and hauls his shoulders down until he was on his knees before him. 

“Now you listen to me, Billy and you listen well.” 

He furrows his brow while Flint keeps him in place with his glare. He’d wipe the sweat from his brow if only he could open his helmet and breathe away some of the tension. He swallows thickly and silently glares back. 

“This mission is not about us. And it is not about them .” Billy follows Flint’s downward pointed hand directed at their old home. “It is about the future. It’s about doing the hard thing. What must be done.” Flint takes a pause and softens his grip on his shoulders. “If our pilot knows the real measure of doubt we have in returning to Earth, this mission will not go the way it must. So your job, our job, is to keep this endeavor afloat, no matter what it takes. And at this moment, what it takes is leaving some people in the dark so they can better do their part.” Flint raises an eyebrow after assessing him from his imposing stance. “Do I make myself clear?” 

He thinks of what he’d left behind on Earth-- his car, his colleagues, a beta fish in the care of NASA. Objects of his affection, yes, but not people he loved. Those people were long gone. It was partly why he was chosen for this mission-- what did he truly have to lose? Silver wasn’t offered the same guiltless separation, but making it seem nearly guiltless… Flint’s words irk him in a manner akin to peeling off the colorful veneer of a candy wrapper from the thin crackling aluminum it’s molded to. He feels acutely aware of how easily he could ruin a man’s life-- and their chances of finding another home for the future of humanity-- simply by providing the truth that he will never return to his family on Earth. 

He takes a deep sigh, shoulders sagging while he drops further onto his knees. At last, he breaks away his gaze from Flint and nods his assent. 

“Good,” Flint exhales and offers him his gloved hand. 

After a moment’s hesitation, Billy takes to lift himself off the ground unaided, avoiding Flint with his silent, defiant compliance. 

“Let’s get the oxygen flowing,” Flint turns on his communications and heads for the main switchboard, flipping switches that have the Endeavor whirring to life about them. “Time to get this ship in sailing shape.” 

Chapter Text

There are a few unobstructed moments when she wakes in the familiar comfort of her bedroom that she forgets about everything wrong in her life-- the dust dances above her sheets as she pulls them off and presses her toes to the warm wood floor beneath. But then, she breathes in, she considers the sun’s heat in her lungs, and the rawness in her throat is all that is left of her desperate shouts to keep her father with her in this dust bowl.

Grace closes her eyes again and counts down from ten... “nine, eight,” she whispers. When she reaches one, she blinks harder, wishing with all her might to wake up from some terrible dream and instead find her father next to her. Her eyes creak open to hollowed disappointment in an empty room, save for the watch she threw on the floor the night before. 

She eyes it with welling tears while she shuffles toward the silver wristwatch. Its face is splintered and the hands are halted in place, forever reminding her of their last encounter. When she brings it to her ear, she sniffles with regret at its silence.

A faint wind picks up near the window, a book falls from the bookcase behind her and the growing sense of her ghost’s presence fills the room. Grace swallows and carries the watch in her hands like an offering to the empty place left on her shelf from the casted books of last night. Her voice wavers while she spreads out the watch’s leather wristband.

“Will you help me?” she stares back at her ghost’s watchful, invisible eyes from behind the bookshelf with a frayed focus. “Will you keep my dad safe out there? So he can come back to me?” 

The familiar sound of a revving truck travels up to her bedroom from out below. Grace turns and gasps when she sees her father’s car stop in front of their home. Her prayer had been answered, she thought! When she turns back to her bookshelf with a hopeful smile on her face, the weight of those invisible eyes is gone. She speaks to the hollow space anyway, whispering a genuine “thank you,” before racing down the stairs. 

 

++++++

 

The Endeavor spins to life around them. Creating one’s own center of gravity in endless space gave John a sense of ownership over this spacecraft. A speck-sized, man-made planet, disc-shaped and pushing against the vastness with their own gravitational rudder dipped into space’s starry vacuum. 

Miranda enters the hull and lifts off her helmet with a content sigh. 

“Ahh, feet on the ground and head out of a glass bubble,” she smiles. 

“Almost feels like home in here now, doesn’t it?” Silver quips as soon as his helmet’s off.

Bones and Flint walk back into the main hull out of their suits and in more comfortable, yet plain attire, blank expressions to match their blank shirts. 

Silver checks their trajectory for Saturn then places the Endeavor on auto-pilot. He assesses the crew as they walk toward the main living quarters; Bones and Flint’s tense shoulders, Barlow’s graceful gait... The crew seems altogether, except for one arrogant piece of metallic A.I. “Where’s Hands?”

“‘Ere. Brought company,” Hands strolls into their central hub, followed by a nearly identical robot, except this one has an uncracked screen, and on its side, painted in green is J.O.J.I. 

“Ain’t much of a talker. Vocal system needs some patchwork.” 

Silver watches as Miranda approaches Joji with a small nod and a curious glint in her eyes. “Hello again, Joji,” She touches the back of its main pillar as it nods back in response. 

Joji stands tall and his monitor begins emitting green words. Hello, Dr. Barlow. 

“I can fix it up for you if you’d like,” Silver steps in, hands eager to fiddle with something familiar in the midst of his new surroundings. 

Miranda glances up and smiles with a nod.  “I best run check on the ration stores, see how we’re doing for cryo.”

“Ahh, yes, preparation for our big nap,” Silver muses as he looks at Joji’s back panel. “Hands, get me a toolkit.” 

“Yes, master.” 

Silver rolls his eyes and pulls up a rolling chair to sit on while he begins his electronic surgery. 

“I’ll get the NASA comms up and running,” Bones calls out while he heads down a short hallway where he bends down to enter its metal door at the end. 

“Thank you,” Silver mutters in Hands’ direction when a small tool bag is placed on his lap. 

“Dr. Barlow is requesting my assistance. You two will be alright and play nice if I go?” 

Hands’ remark makes Silver halt focus on his work and check his surroundings. 

“Oh.” 

Across from him at a table nearby sits Flint, eyebrows quickly raise then fall back into a stern expression as he stares adamantly at a small tablet in his palms, avoiding eye contact. 

“Go on, Hands, we’ll be alright,” Flint grunts while he swipes his finger on top of the tablet. Silver studies his quick-changing eye movements across whatever it is Flint’s staring at with intense focus. 

Hands turns and continues to walk out of the central hub, “If you say so, Cap’n.” 

His small electronic chuckle floats in the air behind him, between Silver and Flint. 

They sit together in silence, each working on their own respective projects. Silver opens up Joji’s back panel and sees a tangle he can easily undo with a set of pliers. He eyes a frayed white wire and sets to snipping it clean, then retapes it back into place. 

“There you go, Joji. How’s that voice doing now?” he taps on the robot’s head and waits expectantly. More silence fills the air, save for the quiet faint tapping of Flint’s fingers on his tablet. Silver furrows his brow and goes back to checking his wiring job. “I must’ve missed something with the speaker board--”

“He’s fine.” 

Silver jerks up from the back of Joji’s head in a mild startle. Flint is still in his hunched-over pose in front of his tablet, swiping and tapping away. 

Silver looks down at his bionic leg, twisting his ankle this way and that with a grimace on his face. He clears his throat and looks up at Joji’s black screen. “Alright then, Joji, speaker analytics, please.” 

Green letters scroll on Joji’s screen; Unauthorized access . Silver throws his hands in the air and huffs. “Bloody bureaucratic red tape,” he mutters under his breath. “Barlow has the authorization, I’ll go grab her-”  

“Joji,” Flint's voice immediately commands the robot’s attention. It stands tall as Flint approaches them both, hands behind his back and chin high. “Speaker analytics, if you please.” 

Silver sits back dumbfounded as Joji’s deep baritone voice responds respectively. 

“Front speakers, in order. Back speakers, in order. Left speaker, in order. Right speaker, in order, Captain.” 

“What were you the captain of, exactly?” Silver eyes Joji then peers over to Flint while he slumps back to the table with his tablet. 

“This ship.” 

He moves back in his chair as if dodging a punch then grips the bottom of the seat for balance. “Is that so? I didn’t think this was a battleship. I thought this was a research vessel...” 

“It wasn’t a battleship,” Flint scoffs halfheartedly and glances up at him with a twitch of his mouth. Silver stares back quizzically and waits for him to fill in the blanks. “It was a spy vessel used to gather intelligence during the Third World War.” 

“And you were the captain?” He sees him nod while his lips transform into a thin line barricaded by his red goatee. Silver touches his chin in thought. “No offense, but what was a scientist doing captaining a spy vessel?” 

Flint’s cheek twitches while his hands tap away at a quicker pace, but astutely ignores his questions with hardened downturned eyes. 

Silver sees red begin to creep up his neck, and he can’t help the smile that flits across his face when he asks, “Isn’t that a bit out of your purview-- as a scientist, I mean?”

Flint abruptly throws down his tablet and glares at him head-on with ferocious green eyes that melt Silver’s grin off his face and have him wishing he could be as silent as Joji in the face of such a show of… it was made to look like a standoff, but Silver stares deeper beyond the hard lines on Flint’s forehead, to the quivering corners of his eyes, to the hint of wetness pooling on his eye lines and infers it has more to do with a form of shame than intimidation. 

His smile grows back fond and a little homesick, and he watches Flint’s expression shift from anger to irritated confusion. 

“What the fuck are you looking at me like that for?” 

Silver sighs away his smile and begins putting tools away into their box. “You remind me of my wife.” 

Tension eases out of the creases on Flint’s face while he slides his palm over it. Silver peels away from his internal comparison of Flint’s micro-expressions to those of Madi’s and taps Joji’s backplate instead. 

Flint folds away his tablet and steps into Silver’s space, his shadow touching his knees. “Joji, give us the room, if you please.” 

Silver looks up and sees his calculating gaze scan over him from head to toe. He catches his verdant eyes and tosses a questioning stare in return as the robot silently exits with a gentle slide of the door behind it. 

“Your eyes have a very effective way of making one feel naked under their scrutiny,” Silver swallows, unsure of what Flint’s next move will be as he takes note of the invisible waves of pulsing electricity buzzing in his ears and crescendos to his chest when Flint swoops down until the heat from his forehead burns Silver’s own. 

“Listen carefully, Mr. Silver,” he whispers deadly calm. “I’m not here to comfort you from homesickness, I’m not here to speak with you about my past .” Silver grits his teeth when Flint spits out that last word as if it were a bitter taste in his mouth and stands tall again with a domineering stance. “I am here because this mission requires me to be, same as you. If we are to succeed, as the world requires from us-- success-- then we need to be focused, and clear-headed.” 

Ice picks channel down his spine as Flint turns around and walks toward the exit. “I suggest you get yourself in order. We go down for cryo at the top of the hour. Don’t want you waking up in three years wallowing by Saturn.” 

He waits for stretched seconds that span miles. When there doesn’t seem to be any sign of Flint’s return, he jumps from his stool and collects the tablet from the table with newfound interest. 

“Now what do we have here?” he murmurs with sparking curiosity. Silver hacks into the tablet as easily as breathing, then looms over the history of images focused on blurry round objects with various labels on them: 

Aquarius, reads beneath a dark blue smudge of a planet. He presses down on the image and a further description appears, the type of possible atomic build, how close it is to the nearest sun, and the name of a Lazarus mission astronaut-- “Guthrie, Eleanor,” Silver whispers aloud. 

Eurus, for a grey and white planet speckled with brown made up of nitrogen and hydrogen, occupied by “Ashe, Peter. Poor man’s stuck on an ice cube.” 

Silver speeds through more images through the tablet’s history until he finds one that continues to be named in the log, more than the rest, significantly more. Silver presses down and reads the description. 

Feronia. Farthest planet in Gargantua solar system. Description of terra unavailable.

 “Who the hell would look at this planet more than a thousand times? It’s on the edge of darkness,” he chuckles, baffled. But then he sees the name of the sorry sod who travelled deep into that darkness and has to wonder. 

“Who are you, Thomas Hamilton?” 

 

++++++

 

She runs past her fretting mother and out to the opening car door. Without a second glance, she hugs him as he steps out into the dry dusty walkway in front of their home. 

“I knew you’d come back to me,” Grace beams as she hugs him close to her. 

But the hand that rubs her shoulder isn’t her father’s-- it’s larger and smoother, familiar in only an acquainted way. She pulls out of Dr. Scott’s grasp and shields herself with her arms tucked tight under her pits. 

“Hello, Grace,” he coughs and smiles while patting the dust off his corduroy pants. She gives him a blank stare and turns around when her mother closes the front door behind her and makes way towards them. “Madi,” Dr. Scott nods and stands up straighter as if being approached by a begrudging school principal instead of his own daughter. 

Grace huffs when her mother pulls her in close to her side and grips tight as if this old man could whisk her away. She watches them hold a silent conversation with their eyes, matching in color and shine, although her mother’s hold a staunch coldness while his are gently pleading, but for what, Grace does not know. 

“I brought back his truck, as he asked me to,” Dr. Scott breaks the silence with a smile that breaks in like old cracked leather. He rummages through his pants pocket and pulls out a small black block and holds it out in front of Madi. When she doesn’t move, Grace sees the block move towards her instead as Dr. Scott bends down to meet her eyes. “This is a tape.” 

Grace eyes the two holes in it then reaches out to take hold. Her mother tightens her grip on her shoulders but loosens when Grace gives her a small impatient glare. It’s smooth to the touch, and lighter than she expects it to be in the palm of her hand. 

“You can record a message for your father on it, and I can send it to him.” 

Her heart constricts in her chest at the mention of him, but she swallows and breathes away the ache and nods. “Where is he now?” She braves a glance up at Dr. Scott while she bites the inside of her cheeks. 

“Right now?” Dr. Scott playfully looks up at the sky and muses over the clouds and the faint shape of the moon in the blue above, then finally points. “There, by the moon, waiting to speak to you!” 

“He is?” Her eyes brighten in awe as another tape is given to her. On the cover written in blue sharpie is First Transmission: Silver, John. 

“Thank you for bringing his truck back.” Madi cuts in with a sharp edge to her shaking voice. Grace holds onto the tape while her mother steps between her and Dr. Scott. “We have a lot of work to do today, I’m sure you understand, with one less farmer on the premises.” 

Dr. Scott stands up and nods with a somber expression. “Of course.” 

Grace stares up at him, her stomach tightening to knots at every turn of their exchange. She doesn’t understand why her mother has to be so hostile toward this man, he’s just a scientist. He didn’t make her father go anywhere, at least that is what she tells herself. 

He pulls a card out of his shirt pocket and hands it to Grace, eyes flitting to Madi’s before he pulls back with a small smile. “You can send your tapes to this address, alright?” 

Grace nods and holds onto her father’s tape to her chest, the blank one she pockets into her pajama pants with a gentle pat. 

“Grace, go into the house and eat your breakfast,” Madi speaks with a cutting tone and releases her. She looks back once when Grace only stares back in confusion until she sighs and runs back in. She won’t be eating breakfast just yet, she tells herself, as there are more important matters to attend to with her father by the moon. 

 

++++++

 

“Your daughter is very bright, much like her mother.” 

Madi doesn’t return her father’s smile, instead opting to stay still as stone in the face of a false prophet. 

“She’s skipped two grades, so far,” she sniffs out and crosses her arms. “And with her father gone, maybe she won’t keep asking such inflammatory questions in class.” 

Dr. Scott nods and hums in return, arms behind his back and head slightly bowed in thought. 

“Questioning our world is what keeps us awake ,” his eyes widen while he enunciates the final word, body moving forward with the force of it. “Instead of asleep in ignorance of what is to come.” 

Made smiles bitterly through pursed lips and puts out her hand in waiting. 

He stares at her upturned palm, hardened and cracked by working the crops around her house. A flimsy moat to intruders bearing gifts. He sighs and drops the truck’s keys into her hand. 

“Thank you for bringing the truck back.” Madi forces kindness and turns around to escape into the safe familiarity of her small abode. 

“He’ll make it, I have hope in him.” 

She stops in her tracks right before her hand touches the weathered front door handle. Tears well up in her eyes. False prophecies, she tells herself and walks in without another glance back. 

 

++++++

 

“We’ve got about 20 more minutes before we should head into cryosleep, so if you want to send a message, make it quick, Silver.” 

Bones raises his brows as John sits in a chair right in front of a large black screen. When he doesn’t move, Silver stares up and toothily grins. “I know how to record a video, thanks. See you in three years’ time.” 

Bones gives him a false grin and waves him down. “Don’t make Hands and Joji wait for you too long.” 

He ignores his warnings and looks down at the controls before him. Record. Release. Redeem. If only there were a way to redeem himself with Madi and Grace, he thinks. A video message might not be enough, but it’s all he has. 

“Right then,” he breathes out and stares at the screen, button pressed and lit up. “Hello, my loves!” 

 

++++++

 

“I hope all is well down on our lovely Farm No. 206. I can almost see it from waaay up here.” 

Grace holds back on smiling too wide while she watches her father peer deep into the camera and smile with a wave. She waves back, forgetting herself and sits on her hands instead. 

“Here being about 239,000 miles above the Earth, by our lovely moon. And my goodness, how home is so beautiful from up here.” 

Grace imagines herself beside him on a space ship looking down from above, observing the earth like a giant blueberry covered in cool whip. The thought lightens her heart for a second, but it wavers when she realizes that even such a beautiful view doesn’t keep him next to her. 

“But I bet you our new home will be even more beautiful. I can’t wait to come back and tell you all about it.” 

His eyes are shining bright blue, and Grace can see the start of tears in them, threatening to spill over. She touches her computer screen as if to wipe them, her own fall on the keyboard instead. Her father swallows and throws on another smile then continues, 

“We’re about to go down for the big nap. It’ll take us about three years to get to our next stop, Saturn.”

Three years. Three entire years without a hug from him, or a science lesson, a truck ride, a baseball game, a kiss on the head. Three years… 

“I’ll tell you all about how the rings look up close when I wake up, I promise.”

Another promise, this one she could try to see if he could keep.

“Grace, be good to your mother. She needs you.”

“I will be,” she whispers back through her tears. 

“Don’t forget I love you. Madi, I love you, darling. I love you, forever.” 

 

++++++

 

He wipes back his tears and presses Release with a heavy sigh. The room is silent, void of any signs of life aside from his own. 

This mission and his confronting of it in the message room; it felt more like a confessional for all the wrongdoings he’s done and is about to do towards his family. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but survival is not just an intention, he tells himself, it is a necessity. 

John walks toward the cryo room with stiff limbs. Its walls are sterile white, its floors hold large metal boxes that look too similar to caskets for his taste. “I’ve never liked small spaces,” he mutters to himself. 

“You won’t be awake to notice the small space.” 

He jerks out of his own claustrophobic stupor at Hands’ sudden approach from behind. “Jesus, don’t you have a bell or something to warn me?” 

Hands turns and stands straight in front of him, pausing as if in thought, then leans forward. “No.” 

John breathes through flared nostrils until his heart stops racing then shakes off his nerves. “Alright then,” he takes off his suit and hands it to the robot. “I need to inquire about a certain situation.” 

“What ‘certain situation’?” he flatly asks while putting Silver’s suit on a nearby rack. 

John wipes his sweating palms on the soft material of his pants then stalks over to Hands with a careful look at the other three cryo chambers nestled and filled in the floor of the room. 

“It’s about Thomas Hamilton--” 

“Why on Earth are you whispering? They can’t ‘ear you.” 

Silver rolls his eyes and asks again, impatient and louder. “What do you know about any relations he may have had with our James Flint?” 

Hands stays still and silent as Silver waits expectantly, eyes wide and hands in the air. “Well?” 

“I’m not telling you anything.”

Silver scoffs and runs a hand through his hair. “Why the fuck not?” 

“Unauthorized access,” Joji comes in and stands beside Hands, forming a wall in front of Silver. 

He hums and snorts with a puzzled look in his eyes. “If it’s that important, it must be something scandalous .” 

“Who the ‘ell said anything about scandalous?” 

Silver opens the door to his cryo-chamber and climbs in with fluttering lids of anxiety, his mind whirring with questions that won’t be answered for another three years. 

John simply smiles and waves. “Don’t worry, I won’t say a thing… for the next three years,” he chuckles and presses the initiation button inside his chamber. “Take care with piloting, Hands, Joji. Our human lives are in your robotic hands.” 

“‘Ey, I’m talking to you!” Hands looms over him as he lays down to rest, his dreams alight with the dark expanse of the universe encased in his mind.