Gerrold Mason turned over, and for a moment he thought he had seen red hair. Red hair with subtle threads of black and brown running through it, like a dark rainbow that portended not the sun breaking through the clouds, but the clouds’ triumph over all that was bright.
It was an omen. He should have recognized it for what it was.
Then the red hair disappeared. Just like it always did. Though now he saw a flash of lighter red, this shade stitched through with bright threads of blonde, as if a confused painter had seen father and mother and remained unsure which parent’s hair color should rule.
Then he was alone. Alone in the dark, in the deep black inkwell of a wormhole and hearing a single voice, over and over: “Do you love me?”
The voice changed, becoming deeper, smoother. The voice of Gerrold’s lone shipmate.
“How are you feeling today?”
Trixie. Her voice had exactly the qualities determined to be most soothing to those who needed assistance of a—what was it the Company basketmen called it?—“mental and spiritual nature.”
Gerrold hated it. Hated the voice, hated her. But it wasn’t like he had a choice. Trixie had come with the trip. At first he had been thrilled with the upgrade, until he realized she wasn’t just there to help him, but to keep an eye on him. To make sure he didn’t implode.
He was lucky he still had a job, he supposed. The Company didn’t like publicity.
“How are you feeling today?”
He looked over at her. She had light hair—probably because of some long-running research study that showed headcases were less likely to snap in the presence of a blonde—and was fairly attractive without being sexual. The perfect companion on a long trip: calming, helpful.
“Are we there?” said Gerrold, though he knew they had to be, or at least that they had to be close. Trixie wouldn’t have started yammering if they weren’t.
“We’re on approach.”
“Three hours, give or take.” She smiled in exactly the right way to show she was just an aw shucks kinda gal, and not the typical stick-up-my-butt shrink he could have been saddled with. Like Gerrold should note she gave an approximate time value rather than exact information and appreciate that fact.
Trixie blinked, and her image flickered for the barest fraction of a second. Even with long periods in hypersleep, the trip had been long enough that Gerrold had grown to recognize the flicker as a signal that she was changing tacks with him. Evidently she had realized he was not interested in talking about his feelings—
(shades of red and brown shades of red and blond and Do you love me?)—and had shifted protocols: trying to get him to open up another way.
“Would you like me to open up a com-link to Shane?” she asked.
That took Gerrold aback. She’d never offered that. For a second he almost smiled, almost looked at the floating holo by his bed as a person rather than a collection of photons. Then he realized she must have just downloaded new protocols while he slept.
Humans dream—computers uplink and run systems checks, he thought. She’s not a friend, just Trixie 2.1. Just some Company software keeping watch over Company hardware.
“What time is it? Where Shane is?”
“It’s…” (again that minute flash as her image responded to the query) “…5:40 a.m. in Middleton.”
Gerrold shook his head. “Let him sleep.”
He ached to put the call through. He wanted to see Shane. He hadn’t seen the boy for months, not in the flesh, and the last com-link had gone… badly. But he didn’t want to wake the kid up. He was still dealing with things. Still processing the loss.
“When are they coming back?” That was Shane’s favorite question. “When are Mommy and Dalia coming back?” And no matter how many times, no matter how many different ways Gerrold tried to explain it—ways that all boiled down to never—Shane never seemed to understand.
“What about God?” he would ask. And Gerrold had no answer. Because while it was easy to talk about God when you were in church and surrounded by happy people and nothing bad was happening, it was a lot harder to believe when you had just been told why there would be no possibility of an open-casket funeral for your wife or daughter.
(“Do you love me?”)
Even worse was the fact that Shane didn’t understand why Gerrold hadn’t come home. Even though that reason was even simpler: poverty. Iago once said, “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.” Which to Gerrold was proof either that Shakespeare was an ass, or that Iago had no children. Because while poverty could be bearable, poverty with children could not.
So when the Company called not ten minutes after the news, Gerrold said yes. Even though it meant he wouldn’t be coming Earthside. Even though he knew it was just a way of keeping him—and, by extension, the Company—out of the public eye.
Even though it meant not seeing Shane. Not holding, not touching him.
Because they were paying him double wages, and hazard pay. And if he didn’t come back at all, they’d triple those rates, and all of it would go into a trust for Shane.
When Gerrold was young and single, just a blaster doing micro-jumps to Sol-based shops that needed some kind of attention, he wouldn’t have worried about poverty. He could sleep in his spacer, or just on the couch of a friend. Even when he was a bit older, money didn’t matter so much to him.
But when Dalia came… it all changed. He held her in his arms, and felt the most intense love blossoming within him. Even what he felt for his wife wasn’t the same, because what he held in his arms depended on him, truly and utterly. And with that understanding came the realization that below the love that now throbbed like bright life-blood through his mind and heart, there was something else. Something darker.
[“A Darklight Call’d on the Long Last Night of the Soul” by Michaelbrent Collings is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, coming soon!]