PAN AD ASTER
Start with a girl. A child really, no
more than seven, running through a field of bright green flowers under a lemon yellow sky. She chases a pair of older boys,
following the trail of trampled plants left in their wake.
Gabe, wait up,” she calls as her short legs pump up and down carrying her through the fragrant field.
The younger of the two boys stops and looks back. “Aw, Wendy,
go on home,” he says.
“No!” She stamps
a small foot, filled with outrage and determination. “Mom told you to watch me, not leave me at home with the dog and
the Nannybot. Now wait up.”
ask you to follow us,” her brother retorts. “If you can’t keep up, you’ll just have to stay home.”
The older boy stops as well and walks over to her. He bends down to
look her in the eye and flashes a brilliant smile. He’s nearly sixteen and large for his age, well-muscled, almost a
man. She thinks he’s the most beautiful person she’s ever seen.
“Here, Wendy,” he says. “Climb on up. I’ll give you a piggy-back ride.”
She sticks her tongue out at her older brother as she climbs onto Gabe’s
broad back. She wraps her arms around his neck, snuggling into his broad shoulder. He sets out at a run. The wind whistles
in her ears, her blond pigtails flap up and down with the rhythm of his strides.
My Gabe, she
thinks. He’s mine.
See next the
crowded terminal of a regional airport. He stands in the circle of friends and family, saying his goodbyes. She gazes up at
him, taking in every detail of his new blue Cadet’s uniform, all sharp creases and gold buttons. She’s two years
older and several centimeters taller, her body even now hinting at the woman she will become. With a self-control beyond her
years, she hold back tears as he rumples her hair and flashes that brilliant smile, saying goodbye to his best friend’s
little sister in an offhand way. Then he turns and walks away, down the ramp to the waiting shuttle.
will come back to me, she tells herself. He will.
The young couple lies in each other’s arms as early morning sunlight streams through the window of a hotel
room near that same airport twelve years later. He sleeps on but she is awake, holding him with a fierce possessive embrace,
as if he might float away. She traces the curve of his ear with her fingertip.
He came back to me, she thinks with a mixture of satisfaction and wonder.
He opens his eyes and sees that she is awake and watching him. That same brilliant smile
lights up his face and it nearly takes her breath away, just like it always has.
“Hey, Wendy,” he says, shifting his arm beneath her head. “Didn’t your Mama ever tell you
not to sleep with Spacers?”
She laughs. “My
Mama tells me lots of things. I don’t listen very well. She thinks I’ve been chasing you shamelessly ever since
you came home.”
“Well, you have.”
He dodges her hand as she reaches to tickle his ribs. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you, but once in a while
the guy likes to feel like he’s the hunter and not the prey. I never expected anything like this.”
“I’m just a girl who knows what she wants.” She turns
his face to hers, kissing his lips and drawing his hips toward hers.
He returns her kiss, feeling her passion and its promise. He pauses; still amazed at the change in her. He smiles
“I never would have recognized you if you
hadn’t been standing with your mother and Jon when they came to pick me up at the shuttle port,” he says. “Look
at you. I go away for a couple of years and you grow up on me.”
“It may have been only a couple of years for you but it’s been twelve for me. I’m older that you
are now, Gabe. Do you miss the little girl in pigtails?”
“Time dilation does that. It’s why Spacers are so clannish. The people we leave behind age and change
while we stay the same.” He kisses her again. “In this case, the change has been nothing but good.”
She hugs him to her neck. “I’ve waited my whole life for
you, Gabe. I’ve loved you since I could walk. Didn’t you know that?”
“Not until now,” he sighs. He kisses the curve of her neck, now subdued and serious.
She senses the change in his mood. “What is it?” she asks.
“I’m shipping out tomorrow. We’re transporting a new
colony stake to Tau Ceti, twenty-four light years away.”
She holds her breath, waiting for the words she both longs for and dreads.
“Come with me, Wendy. I have enough back pay saved to pay for your passage. The Captain can marry us as soon
as we break orbit. Then you’ll be Ship’s Company, just like me, part of the Ship’s family. The quarters
are a bit cramped, but the Ship is designed for crew to bring their families along. Otherwise, our wives and husbands would
be old and our children grown before we completed even an average mission. Marry me, Wendy.”
The seven-year-old girl inside of her wants to scream, “Yes! Yes!”
but the adult she has become hesitates. Since her Father’s death, her mother has become even more dependent on her,
clinging childishly to her only daughter. Jon has long since left home. He has his career, flying transports for a local airline.
He leaves the care of their mother to Wendy.
out the window, struggling with guilt at her desire to abandon them, essentially forever. The silver outline of a waiting
orbital shuttle far out on the tarmac gleams in the morning light. It beckons to her, promising freedom, promising love.
She pulls him to her and holds him with renewed passion. “Yes,
He leaps out of bed with a joyful
whoop, startling her. He pulls sweeps her up in his arms, murmuring promises in her ear. She clings to him, still frightened
at the idea of leaving home forever.
After a long minute
he pulls away, saying, “I have to go to the Ship.” He pulls a flat data card from his flight bag and hands it
to her. “Your ticket and immigration documents are on here.” He shrugs in answer to her puzzled look. “I
didn’t know for sure you’d say yes, but didn’t want to take a chance on some last minute bureaucratic snafu.
I’ll have to be on the bridge during departure. I’ll meet you in your cabin as soon as we break orbit and we’ll
go to the Captain. She’ll absolutely flip! I can’t wait to see her face. You’ll love her.” He goes
on, telling her how to get to the shuttle and where her cabin will be on the starship. She only half hears him, wondering
how she will find the words to tell her mother.
rushes home, excitement overwhelming her fears. She will simply announce her plans to her family, leaving no room for discussion.
Jon has had it too easy for too long, she thinks. He’ll just have to step up and deal with Mother without
As soon as she walks in the door, she knows
something is terribly wrong. Her mother sits in a chair; her hands limp in her lap. She doesn’t stir as Wendy crosses
“Mother? Mother what is it? What’s
Her mother finally looks at her, her face
a mask of despair, her voice full of accusation. “Where have you been, Wendy? Why didn’t you come home? It’s
Jon Some kind of crash, they said. They want us down at the hospital right away, but I couldn’t find you. Where have
you been?” she dissolves into tears, asking the question over and over. Wendy holds her close, fighting down the cold
nausea and fear in the pit of her own stomach.
The rest of the day fragments
into a blur of doctors and nurses and glimpses of her brother through the milky fluid of a biotank. His skin is nearly black
with burns and there is a large hole in his scalp. The doctors tell her that his burns and wounds will but his brain may be
permanently damaged. He will need care, they say, for a long time. She makes her decision then, although she doesn’t
admit it, even to herself, until much later.
see the crowded terminal of a starport. A young couple stands in the circle of family and friends, saying their goodbyes.
He is still tall and strong, his new Captain’s bars gleaming on the worn collar of his trim uniform. She stands next
to him, flush with excitement. Her blond hair is pulled back, her face the image of her Grandmother’s in younger times.
An old woman stands near the newlyweds, waiting until the crowd of well-wishers
thins out, their farewells spoken and hugs exchanged. Only then does she step forward and embrace her granddaughter.
“Good bye, Moira,” she whispers in the young woman’s
ear. “Remember us. Remember your family.”
will, Grandma. I love you.”
“I know dear.
We’ll miss you both. Now, if your new husband will indulge an old woman, I’d like a word with him alone. Oh, don’t
worry, dear. I won’t reveal any of your embarrassing secrets. He’ll have to find those out for himself.”
She laughs and relinquishes his arm. “Watch yourself, Gabe,”
she says. “Grandma is famous for her ‘good advice’, and woe to those who don’t follow it.”
They walk away from the crowd, the young Captain and the old woman.
They seem strangely linked, their strides matching exactly as they walk slowly down the promenade of shops that line the terminal
“It’s good to see you again,
Wendy. You look wonderful,” he says, not sure of what she wants from him.
“You don’t lie very well, Gabe,” she says lightly. “But thank you for the effort.”
She sighs before continuing. “Take care of Moira. She’s my only granddaughter. I see in her face that she loves
you. I need to know that you’ll return her love. That this is the real thing.”
“I will, Wendy. She’s all that I’ve ever wanted. After you missed the Ship,
I was devastated. I thought I’d never find anyone else. Meeting Moira was like getting a second chance.” He pauses.
“Does she know about us?”
far as she’s concerned, you’re just an old family friend.” She stops and turns to face him. She looks up
at him and strokes his cheek with the back of her hand. “Dear, sweet Gabe. Do you know that in sixty years, not a day
has gone by that I haven’t thought of you; haven’t wondered where you were and wished you well?”
He looks away, uncomfortable, unsure how to answer her.
She laughs. “Oh, no, dearest. I don’t want you to be unhappy.
I tell you this only so that you’ll know that you are loved and have been loved for all of my life. I don’t regret
my decision, my marriage to Andrew, my children and grandchildren. They were the blessings of a long life. You were the dream
of my youth, but now I’m ever so much more than twenty. You are Moira’s dream now. She is the hope of my old age.
She loves you as I did. Love her in return, honor her.”
She reaches up to touch his cheek again. He takes her hand and kisses her palm. The old thrill of his touch courses
through her. She turns and walks away, her steps light, filled with the joy of a young girl in a field of green flowers.