I hate running to make a connection while traveling. It’s only fitting that my son loves to run, and for a four year old he’s fast enough that I was glad to catch my breath on the elevator. There were only a few people on the car, so I turned loose of his hand. Timmy walked to the window and pressed his nose to the curving glass looking up toward the Lunar Docking Ring. I listened carefully and heard a quiet gasp of admiration.
“It’s something, isn’t it?”
Timmy nodded without taking his face from the window. “And it goes all the way ‘round the Moon?”
“That’s right,” I smiled and tousled his brown hair. Clavius Base fell below us as the lunar space elevator lifted us to the stationary ring. More starships than I could ever remember seeing docked along the ring’s outer ports with a flurry of ships and transport shuttles dancing a carefully choreographed dance. Hard to believe we didn’t even have a lunar base sixty years ago.
“Do you think I’ll get some chocolate ice cream on Grandpa’s ship?”
“I bet we’ll find some,” I promised and looked back up to the ring. Among the many ships ahead was my father’s. It’s been two years since the last time we spoke. Three years since he left on his ‘grand adventure.’ He’d suggested it for a long time and when Mom died the day before her seventieth birthday I knew he’d do this, with or without our approval. Just because he could.
We’d buried Mom in the town cemetery right where she wanted to be buried. Not too far from the one-lane road and under the shade of a stout pine tree. She wanted to make sure we’d not have to walk far in the snow and that in the summertime we’d have some shade to stand in. Living in Flagstaff gives you perspective on the weather, she’d say. My parents loved it there, Dad spending his retirement volunteering as a docent at Lowell Observatory and Mom never really retiring from accountancy. She’d died at her desk, one hand in the tax code and another hand on her computer.
After Mom’s interment, we went back to the rustic little house on the mountainside and sat in the kitchen at the big round table. Up here, we couldn’t see the suborbitals coming in and out of Flagstaff. My sister’s kids played outside as my new bride watched from the patio. She could’ve been inside with us if she’d wanted, but she knew we had things to discuss. My father poured two fingers of scotch in a glass of ice and handed it to me, then poured one for himself and a third glass.
“Sherry will drink wine, Dad.”
“It’s not for Sherry.”
“David doesn’t drink,” I chided him. My brother-in-law put the tee in teetotaler.
“Will you just trust me?” He sighed and picked up two glasses and sat them on the table and sat down. “It’s for Phil.”
“Phil?” My sister sneered from the corner of the table.
“The undertaker,” I replied.
Dad snorted, “And one of the best friends I have in this town. He’ll be by in a bit; it’ll keep. Sit down, Lee. We should probably talk about a few things.”
I knew that tone. The tired determined delivery meant business. He wasn’t in the mood to discuss anything. I sat and watched him sip the scotch. His eyes red and swollen from fresh tears nobody witnessed. He reached for his handkerchief and blew his nose with a honk before opening the cloth so he could inspect what came out and then fold the cloth away again.
“Before you kids leave, figure out what you want to keep. The rest of it all is going to charity and I’m selling the house. You kids get to split the profits.”
Sherry brightened, “How soon?”
I glared at her, but she didn’t notice. Dad saw my face and cleared his throat. “I’m going to live in an assisted living facility in Wichita. Definitely by the end of the year.”
I looked down at my drink. Eight weeks from the end of the year, enough time to sell the house certainly, but why? He’s in perfect health, isn’t he? “Dad, is something wrong? Medically?”
He looked at me, then Sherry. “I have Alzheimer's.”
I sucked in a breath. Dad’s mind was going. And he was going to be one of the downy-headed scrawny creatures withering away in a hospice to die.
I wanted to cry, but I’d known this was possible. The indicators had been there. I saw every time he’d repeated himself or he’d forgotten where he’d put something flashed in my eyes like a slideshow. Alzheimer’s ran in the family, too. Dad’s father, Grandpa Hugh, was a muttering shadow of a man who’d sit in the darkened family room muttering about whiskey peanut butter for hours on end and forgot even how to walk and go to the bathroom at the end. I didn’t want that for Dad. Not after all that he’d been through.
Sherry tried to lighten the mood. “We still have months before your memory really begins to fade, Dad. That’s a lot of time!”
Dad smiled wanly. “Sherry, that’s very true. But when my memory begins to fade, I am donating my body to science. While I’m still alive.”
Sherry gasped. “You’re not a lab rat, Daddy.”
“Nor do I intend to be one.” Dad looked at me. “I’ve talked with Lee about this before, Sherry.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Sherry snapped.
“Because you’d have reacted exactly like this,” I replied. “Dad was asked to consider this a long time ago. There was the possibility that he could re-enlist.”
“How could he re-enlist? And you gave thirty years of your life to the military, Daddy! What did it ever do for you?”
Dad sighed. “It gave you a decent childhood, money enough to take care of your mother and I for the rest of our lives, and it kept you both from being drafted in 2021. My status as a Honored Veteran saved your lives and kept you out of armed service.” His voice rose and shook a little. Emotion bubbling to the surface brought a vulnerability to him, though he wore it like an albatross. “I fought enough for all of this family, Sherry.”
I cleared my throat. “If Dad re-enlists and donates his body to science, there are many possibilities for him. None of which would allow him to ‘be’ him, but in ways that he could give back and prolong his life.”
Dad reached out for Sherry’s hand and grasped it. “If I must live without my memories of us, then I can do so in a way that allows me to enjoy what I do until I die. You won’t have to worry about me, Sherry. And you can look up into the sky at night and know I’m out there somewhere helping keep the War as far away from Earth as I can.
“Why Wichita?” Sherry asked. She didn’t really care. She was looking up the mountains toward Snow Bowl.
“The North American spaceport,” Dad smiled.
I rode the bullet train with Dad to Wichita. Pretty much ended up being the longest time we’d sat and talked since I’d nearly been arrested for public intoxication after high school graduation. Dad remembered that with a laugh. Some days were better than others. The synapse modification therapy allowed for more good days than bad, but they wouldn’t last. We nursed our beers at three hundred kilometers per hour while I worked up the courage to ask him things I’d always wanted to. Then he started to laugh.
He pointed outside at the blurry landscape flashing by. “Reminds me of my last tour on Nova Scientia. Funny name for a planet that didn’t give us much ‘new science.’ Could have been Earth’s clone. Took a land train there, a big steam-powered locomotive like the one the tourists still catch at Williams and ride over to the Grand Canyon. That trip was fourteen days. We’re covering half that distance in a few hours. So much for new science, huh?”
You couldn’t say that it was First Contact when the Vemeh returned in 2014. When they did, they opened up the keys to the universe. What did we do? Send out military forces to “secure exosolar worlds for human development.” I knew Dad had been part of it, but he’d never spoken about it. I slowly drew a breath, “What were you doing there?”
“Special operations,” he shook his head. “Nothing special about it. We spent more time watching our asses than actually fighting any enemy worth fighting.”
“Really?” I felt like I was ten years old, but I wanted to hear him tell it all.
“You always know the enemy’s intents and motivations. You seldom know what your allies want. That makes them more dangerous in almost every situation.”
“You didn’t trust anyone?”
He shot me a glance over his beer mug. “Your mother always said that.”
I nodded but didn’t speak. Sometimes you’re just supposed to wait.
“It’s all about trust, Lee. In my career the only people I really trusted were the people down there with me. Everyone else, from the brass on down, I never believed a thing they said. I only believed what I saw them do. And most of the time, they let me down. Let us all down.”
“You never let on any negativity about what you did, Dad.” I said after he’d met my eyes.
He laughed. “How is it negative to always look out for those closest to you? That’s why soldiers fight, son. The brass always forgets that. That’s why generals retire and become advisors. Christ, they realized they could make money without any blood on their hands. They’d just be ‘advising.’ That’s why trust is an issue. Why I always tried to put my team first and never, for one second, stopped trying to protect them.”
“Is that why you got out, Dad? Trust in your senior leadership?”
He chuckled. “There were a lot of reasons, Lee. Mainly I just got tired of it all. The decisions, the trainings, the deployments, all of began to strain our family. Your mother and I used to argue about simple things, like ‘where should we eat tonight?’ That’s no way to live, son.”
“You always seemed to have it all thought out, Dad.” I laughed. “And you never seem to let anything get in your way.”
He smiled, but there was tightness in his eyes. I saw them begin to well before he turned to the window. We were quiet a few minutes. The slopes of the Rocky Mountains gave way to the gentle flat pastures of western Kansas. Buffalo roamed by the thousands again in clouds of black specks screaming past our window. I saw him then as something more than my Dad. More than the decorated military hero and more than the loving husband he’d warmed into. Worn down by life and stooped but not broken. Not giving up despite every obstacle in front of him. He would be okay in his new life.
He looked at me with a familiar grin. “Did I ever tell you about my last tour on Nova Scientia?”
The elevator passed the halfway lounge and paused for a moment to recalibrate to one-tenth gravity. Timmy looked up at me, “Can I jump, Daddy?”
“Not yet. If you jump, you’ll hit your head on the ceiling.”
“No way!” He smiled at the possibility.
I put my hands on his shoulders and turned him back to the window gently. “I’ll tell you when you can jump, Timmy.”
I felt his bony shoulders shrug a little but could see his still smiling face reflected in the window. I kept my hands on his shoulders for good measure.
He looked up at me, “Dad, how come we don’t go to space like Grandpa?”
I met his bright green eyes. “Will Grandpa remember me?”
Two years passed when Dad went into the Wichita hospice care center. His donation to the military put on indefinite hold because of the war effort, Dad withered away to a mere shell that vaguely looked like my father. He had no memory of anything regarding his family, very little of his military service and only two things really brought any life to his eyes: chocolate ice cream and Dave Brubeck. He couldn’t survive on ice cream, but he played Brubeck’s jazz albums constantly and would tap his feet or clap his hands in perfect time. I walked into his room with his doctor and his lawyer and none of us wanted to be there.
The doctor looked at me. “Lee, you understand Lucidex is an experimental military drug. There is no telling what the application of this drug could do to your father. It’s still very likely that he will return to this state and not remember anything when the drug wears off, but given the nature of the military’s request they have decided that we must ask his continued participation. Therefore, they’ve directed the Lucidex. A dose like they’ve provided is most likely to give us two to three minutes of lucidity.”
I nodded and looked at Dad’s lawyer. “And you’re here because?”
“Your father’s wishes are of my concern. Should anything change, say he gives up on his previous decision, I provide the legal clearance and record that will allow that change.”
I looked back to the doctor, then to the gaunt man in the chair, tapping his foot along to ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’ I met the doctor’s eyes and nodded. Let’s get this over with.
Less than thirty seconds after the drug hit his brain, Dad’s eyes hardened and snapped to me. “What are you doing here, Lee?”
“Dad, I know what you wished, but the military…”
“Dammit, Lee. I want my body donated to the military. However, whenever they’ll take the damned thing. How did you do this? How did you bring me back? How long have I been gone?”
“Two years, Dad. They ordered you given an experimental drug so we could ask you again. The military put your donation on hold because many of the ways that they wanted to use you were no longer needed. They’d made a change in their program and—”
“Donate me.” He looked at up the lawyer. “Carl, you heard me. Make my wishes known.” That was it. There was no point in going any further. He wanted to go to the stars, and that was it. “How is this even possible, Lee?”
I looked at the two men and shrugged. “Now that our business is done, may I have a few moments alone with my Dad?”
As they walked out, I knelt in front of him. The tears came. “Dad, I didn’t want them to wake you. But I’m glad they did. I didn’t really say goodbye. I love you, Dad.”
“I know, son.” He touched my shoulder. “How is Tracy?”
My tears fell across my cheeks. I missed my love. “She died in a car accident last year, Dad.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, son.” His eyes began to tear and I looked away.
I rummaged in my pocket. “There’s not much time, Dad. But I wanted to show you this. I couldn’t bring him because of the rules, but I have a son. Timothy. Named after you.”
I watched his eyes, moist and alive flit across the picture. “He’s beautiful, Lee. May I keep this?”
“Yes, Dad. That’s why I brought it.” I half-stood and hugged him, feeling him pull at me with more strength than I would have imagined. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, son. And tell my grandson I love him too.” He whispered.
I held him for another moment, then felt his arms slacken and felt his toes beginning to tap along to the beginning bars of “Take Five” from his entertainment set. I pulled away gently and looked again into those zombie eyes, though wet with fresh tears and kissed his cheek. “You were the best father I could have ever wanted. Goodbye, Dad. I love you.”
I sat Timmy’s picture on the nightstand by his bed. Maybe he’d look at it and wonder who it was. I could only hope he would.
We walked down the concourse of the Lunar Docking Ring past shops and restaurants through a throng of people and the occasional alien. Timmy clutched my hand at the sight of a Vemeh dignitary and pressed his face into my leg when the alien waved a clawed hand and clicked his mandibles in greeting. I smiled at the Vemeh and shrugged, and it moved down the course gracefully with its mantis legs. Timmy watched it go and I squatted down next to him. “You scared, slugger?”
He shook his head, but a tear draped over his eyelashes. I rubbed it away with my thumb. “Come on. Let’s go find Grandpa’s ship.”
“And chocolate ice cream?”
I laughed. “Yes, chocolate ice cream. Your Grandpa’s favorite, too.”
He took my hand and we walked to the nearest arrival board. I scanned the list and saw it. “There it is. The Samuel P. Carter docked at Bay twenty three zulu.”
Timmy looked up at me. “Who was Samuel P. Carter, Dad?”
I smiled. “He was the first person in the old United States to ever be both a General in the Army and an Admiral in the Navy in his lifetime.”
“How could he do that?” Timmy crinkled up his nose. Just like his mother used to do. “That’s impossible. Right, Daddy?”
I shrugged my shoulders wishing my heart not to break. “We’ll look him up sometime soon and you can decide for yourself.”
“Where was he from?”
“Tennessee,” I grinned.
“Just like me,” Timmy smiled. “That’s cool, Daddy.”
The Samuel P. Carter was a bluff frigate with twin-set ion cannons fore and aft. Almost fifty meters wide and thirty tall, she held a combat crew of four hundred fifty. We met the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Defevre on the quarterdeck and started our tour through the combat information center, the forward guns, the crew quarters and finally the wardroom, where the crew ate their meals. Timmy ran to the ice cream machine and I got to ask my questions.
“This is where the Navy says my father was ‘stationed.’ Can you tell me what capacity he’s in, or if there’s much of him here?”
Defevre nodded. “What I am allowed to tell you is simple, Mr. Eaton. You are well traveled enough to know that all ships and starcraft these days carry an onboard ‘shipmind’ that controls their critical systems, right?”
I nodded. “My father is a shipmind?”
“Yes and no. There are obviously some military uses and systems I cannot tell you about, but your father’s mind plays an invaluable role for us. While he lost his short-term memory and most of his long-term memory, his cognitive analysis and logic skillsets were remarkably undamaged. Most of his in-grained military experiences were retained as well. His singular experiences in special operations are a huge benefit. He allows the crew to function faster and with more preparation than many comparable shipminds. We’re very lucky to utilize his mind for what we do every day.”
I smiled. “Dad was always thinking around corners.”
Timmy ran back and tugged on my arm. “The machine’s broken! It only serves chocolate!”
I grinned at Timmy and tousled his hair again. I looked at Defevre, “Is there any type of audio or visual interface with him?”
“No,” Defevre shook his head. “In your father’s case his brain is much like a central processing unit that integrates and works the systems. We interface with the shipmind through other programs routed through software. The shipmind monitors the audio and visual channels, but does not interface directly with the crew at all.”
I shrugged and changed the subject. Asking had been worth it even though I knew what the answer was going to be. I’d had a chance to say goodbye.
We chatted another few minutes while Timmy ate a second bowl of chocolate ice cream and then made our way off the frigate, stopping at the gangplank. Timmy walked over to the observation port, “We didn’t see Grandpa, Daddy.”
“He was there, Timmy. We just couldn’t see him.”
“He’s not with Grandma under the big tree?”
I squatted down next to him. “He’s there with Grandma, buddy. But a part of him is in that ship. He’s helping them, too.”
Timmy sniffled a little, but didn’t cry. He hugged me with a sudden ferocity that nearly bowled me over. “I wish Grandpa remembered me, Daddy.”
I felt my eyes well up, and I held my son tight to my chest. The ceiling speakers clicked to life above us, breaking the toneless music that had been playing. As the volume came up I heard a tinkling high hat, a thumping bass, and a da-da-dum da-da-dum of fingers on a piano. I looked up at the speaker and let my tears fall. Broken ice cream machine? And ‘Take Five’ on the speakers? I smiled into my son’s neck.
Dad always found a way.
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Copyright 2011, Kevin Ikenberry. All rights reserved.
Kevin's adult life revolves around space science education. A former manager of the world-renowned U.S. Space Camp program in Huntsville, Alabama, Kevin also worked with the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Kevin creates vibrant, realistic worlds and memorable stories of ordinary human beings living in extraordinary circumstances. His short fiction has appeared in Mindflights, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and will appear in Twisted Dreams magazine in 2013. He can be found online at www.kevinikenberry.com.