Ephemeral - Chapter 1
Clara's tired hands clutched the space helmet to her chest like a child warding off the dark with a cherished toy. She squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the onslaught of protests.
She did not have to wait long.
The Vitae Flight Center boarding agent sputtered and stared. Nothing in his training had prepared him for the shock of seeing this returning passenger from shuttle 42 remove her head gear. He shrieked in an octave he’d not reached since puberty and punched the enormous red button affixed to the nearby wall. A warning siren tore through the cavernous flight center as he dashed across the gray-tiled floor into the gathered crowd, still shrieking.
The lone passenger stood silent at the receiving bay entrance amid the cacophony of gasps, curses, and the alarm's incessant pulse. Blood drained from her already-pale face as the crowd verbally processed the sight of her colorless hair.
They hissed the color in incredulity, in mortification, in accusation. Some covered their mouths, turned on their heels, and ran for the nearest exit to avoid catching whatever disease had stricken the woman standing before them. Others whipped out their hand-held screens to record this novelty for virtual viewers.
Finally, one of the onlookers bravely vocalized what everyone else wondered. “Hey, you there!” he demanded. “What are you? And where's the rest of the research team?!”
The passenger winced. Her emerald eyes stung. She could not think of her fellow researchers without regret. And as to what she was now … she sighed. They don't even realize I'm human.
A draft of warm air wafted against her neck from the tunnel behind her. Through the three-story glass window, she eyed the whale-like shuttle she’d disembarked only minutes earlier; it rested on the tarmac after its swim through Earth’s fiery atmosphere. Could she rouse it and sail back to safety among the stars?
Too late for that, she mused grimly.
The siren ceased, having accomplished its purpose. Heavy booted footsteps thundered through the corridor – no doubt belonging to the Vitae Conglomerate Security Force.
The passenger swallowed hard and gripped her helmet even tighter.
In five seconds, a dozen black-clad guards nearly identical in their crew cuts and dark glasses arrived at the scene wielding large guns. The stockiest of these — presumably the chief of security — held a metal amplifier to his lips. “Drop the helmet!” he barked. “Then get your hands up where I can see them! No sudden moves!”
The passenger slowly bent down to place her helmet on the floor. Then she straightened with a slight groan and raised her trembling hands toward heaven. No turning back now.
While seven guards aimed their guns at her gullet, the other five herded the public from the scene and set up a perimeter of yellow caution tape. She heard one guard radio for backup.
“Identify yourself!” the guard ordered.
Did she detect a slight quaver of fear in his voice? Or was she merely projecting her own apprehension into it?
“I said identify yourself!” Louder, this time.
The passenger cleared her throat and recited the standard nomenclature as she’d done since grade school. “I am number 8,456,324,158, Vitae Conglomerate University grad student, Clara Leigh Milton, age … age …” she stammered; her gnarled hands felt heavy in the air. If she dropped them now, would they shoot her?
“What is your age?” demanded the man in black.
Clara licked her dry lips. Her left thumb pressed against the smooth silver band encircling her ring finger. Its reassuring coolness and sparkling – almost living – green gem evoked a river of memories which flowed gently over her weary soul, calming her. My age? They wouldn't believe me if I told them. Her mouth flickered into a sad smile. “What is my age? That’s a very interesting question …”
40 Days Earlier …
“You promise you’ll come back, right?” Sydney Milton asked her older sister for the seventh time that morning as they sat together in Gate 42 waiting for Clara's interstellar flight.
Clara smiled tolerantly, reached over the gray plastic arm rest between their gray plastic seats, and squeezed Sydney's hand; these days her sister's alabaster skin seemed nearly transparent. “Of course I’m coming back,” she said with an attempt at nonchalance. She plastered on a smile but fought to speak past the rising lump in her throat. Partings of any sort had grown difficult since their mother’s accident. “Vitae Transports has been serving Earth’s interstellar colonies for nearly fifty years. They’ve even got a perfect five out of five star safety rating.” At least that’s what the screens posted throughout the building said.
“Nothing stays perfect forever,” Sydney countered with the defiant frown so characteristic of seventeen year-olds. “And I hope you’re not on board if they happen to lose a star.”
“I hope so, too.” Clara fidgeted with the white helmet on her lap and turned toward the wall of windows. Through the white drizzle outside, she could make out various aircraft parked on the tarmac – some to cruise through clouds, others to cruise through galaxies. She had never traveled outside Earth’s atmosphere before, and the black and white shuttles reminded her vaguely of large killer whales – probably not the most comforting image.
Sydney sighed. “I guess there’s no point in asking you to change your mind?”
Clara shook her head and scratched her thigh through the clingy navy blue bodysuit that made her look like a scuba diver. “It was an honor to get selected for this research internship. I’ll be able to knock out my master's thesis in one season instead of three. Besides, the internship's less than two months. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
That last part was a lie, and they both knew it. Clara’s empty chair at the dinner table, her quiet spot on the couch in the evenings, and her absence on the other side of Sydney's bedroom wall would leave a gaping hole in the Milton household – a hole accentuated by the one already left by their mother. A hole which Sydney would now have to vault over unaided for the next forty days.
“Don't worry, Sydney.” Clara said. “I’ve arranged everything. There are several meals in the freezer and fresh groceries due to arrive every Monday morning. I’ve listed Dad's onscreen appointments with the palliative care specialists and psychologists on the fridge. And Raven’s mom promised she’d look in on you two while I’m gone.”
“But you are coming back,” Sydney repeated, her large blue eyes threatening to storm.
“Yes, Sydney. I’m coming back. Why do you keep asking me that?”
“Because Mom didn’t.” Sydney curled a short lock of black-dyed hair behind her ear and looked away.
It was true. Two years earlier, their parents' car had suffered a navigational glitch. Their father lost not only his wife that night, but also the use of his legs – a hard blow for an athlete who valued health and independence. Although a motorized wheelchair had restored much of his mobility, the accident continued to plague his mind like a cancer. Lately, he seemed less and less tethered to reality as he downed pain killers to escape his troubles. Clara sometimes caught him in a semi-conscious state wheeling himself from room to room looking for her mother. He'd barely smiled when Clara shared her internship acceptance letter and hadn't surfaced from his room to see her off this morning. She doubted he understood she was leaving for the summer.
I wish Mom were here … Clara thought for the fourth time that morning. Ever since the Vitae Revolution, people expected to live healthy lives leading up to the celebrated Rite of Passing. Perhaps that’s why their mother’s death felt so wrong; she’d passed years before her time.
Enough! Clara gritted her teeth. This isn't helping Sydney. She never allowed herself to brood for long. Yearning for the Passed only led to useless tears, sleepless nights, and reduced productivity. It was better not to dwell on events she could not change. So she cleared her throat and changed the subject. “At least one of us will be on vacation this summer. You’ll be soaking up sun while I interview colonists and type up social observations.”
Sydney brushed her pink nose on her black shirtsleeve. “Is it summertime on Elpis 7?”
“According to my research, the planet doesn’t have a tilted axis, so it should be pleasant year-round. That’s one reason the Vitae Conglomerate wanted to start a settlement there – to take advantage of its never-ending growing season. They’ve even discovered new elements we don't have here. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“To a nerd, maybe.” Sydney smirked; it was the largest smile she’d worn all week.
To Clara, that slight grin seemed like a shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom; for the moment Sydney sounded like her old, snarky self. “Hey, I resemble that comment! And anyway, that’s why they developed the interstellar internship program – to provide research opportunities and promote scientific discovery.”
“But you’re not a scientist, Clara. You barely passed astronomy!” Sydney crossed her arms and frowned again. “I still don’t see why they accepted your application.”
Clara took a deep breath. “Technically, I'm a social scientist. That still counts.”
“No, it doesn't.” Sydney shook her head. “A scientist would have packed beakers and test tubes. You packed what – a notebook? A pencil?”
“AND a computer, a temporary shelter, and food and supplies for two months – which is more than adequate,” Clara said. “Plus, I’m not the only social scientist on this trip; Raven’s studying the development of government hierarchies.”
“Gag me.” Sydney rolled her eyes. “Political science doesn’t count, either. Unless you’re cutting something open, digging something up, or working in a lab, you ain’t a scientist.”
“And you ain’t no English major, Syd.” Clara smiled.
“Thank goodness,” Sydney said. “Then I’d be a nerd like you.”
“Final call for all patrons of Interstellar Flight traveling to Elpis 7,” announced an overhead speaker. “Passengers, please make your way to the boarding station.”
Sydney’s smile vanished from her face, taking all the sunshine with it. This was the moment the sisters had been dreading.
Sydney's eyes clouded as Clara rose slowly to her feet. “Have they already done all the safety checks and everything?” she asked.
Clara nodded. She felt slow and cumbersome in her body-hugging space suit and heavy white boots.
“And you’re absolutely sure there’s no way to telecommunicate while you’re gone?”
Clara shook her head. “The wormhole’s only open for a few hours and isn’t due to reappear for another forty days. Without a wormhole, any message I’d send from Elpis 7 would take a million light years to reach Earth, and by that time I would have returned and been dead for millennia.”
Sydney looked up from her seat, startled.
Clara regretted her joke and put her hand on Sydney’s shoulder. “Don't worry, Sydney. When the wormhole reappears, I’ll be on the first ship home.”
Sydney stood to her own feet. “You promise?”
Clara wrapped her arms around her sister and hugged her close. “Yes, Sydney. I promise.”
“Last call for interstellar flight to Elpis 7!” the speaker blared.
Clara released her sister. “I’ve got to go. Take care of Dad, and try to keep your chin up. I'll see you at the end of July – and I expect you to have a tan by then.”
“Fat chance,” Sydney said with a sniff. “I tan like a lobster.”
Clara smiled. “At least dip your toes in the pool while I'm gone, okay?”
“I'll try … for your sake.”
“Good.” Clara grabbed her helmet and clumped toward the tunnel leading to the loading dock. With a final wave to her sister at the entrance, she turned her back on everything familiar and headed down the inclined ramp toward the shuttle, wiping her eyes with the back of her free hand.