First appeared in ASM 93

You were pronounced dead on September 15th.

You passed away, taking your crew—and humanity’s feeble hope for interstellar travel—with you into the deep void.
I saw you vanish on the holo-telly, felt my mother’s body tense before I could even comprehend what had happened. The red, blaring «SIGNAL LOST» icon hung menacingly in the middle of the screen. Mother hugged me and rocked gently, her soft fingers touching my arms.

“He’ll be back, honey,” she said, kissing my head. “Don’t worry. Just a transmission defect. Nothing to worry about, okay? He will appear again soon and show you that wonderful dwarf star he promised.” She hummed the melody of the song you always sung when you put me to bed.

Promises are broken all the time. I began to believe that three years later, when I was old enough to face the fact—one Mother refused to believe—that you were gone. She died thirty-three years later, still smiling when she told me you would return one day. I didn’t rebut her; I held her hand for a long time, until the sky was pinpricked with stars, until the doctor helped me up from the chair and led me out, away from the deathbed.

I lay down on a bench in the corridor, coiled about my invisible wound, fingers digging into my shins. First came the wobbling lips, then came the tears.

If she had lived for another seventeen years, she would have rejoiced, would have wailed; would have hugged me and squeezed until I could not breathe.

On October 24th, fifty years after the spaceship Neo-Icarus disappeared, it returned.

I was analysing the atmosphere of an exoplanet fifteen light-years away when my assistant rushed into my office. Her face was white, her mouth agape.

On October 24th, fifty years after the Hyper-Gate Project was shelved, you returned.

I took the first spacecraft available and travelled to one of Jupiter’s space stations orbiting around Ganymede, where Neo-Icarus was bound to dock. We tried to establish communication to no avail. I waited for your face to pop up on the screen. Nothing.

Sensory data showed the ship was occupied, though, with heat signals and movements. Moderated vitals indicated you were all healthy.

At first, we thought the transmission system was damaged, since it was the first thing that went wrong fifty years ago. So, we resorted to simple Morse code. Still, there was no answer.

Neo-Icarus slowly advanced towards Ganymede, accompanied by dead silence.

I barely left the control room. Working, researching, sleeping, waiting, I did it all from the circular room facing the endless darkness. I was six when you died. At that age, considering your line of work, to say I knew you was an overstatement. My ties to you were through Mother, through her stories and her fragmented memories during her last months.

“What is out there?” I once asked Mother when I was eight. We were in the kitchen, making pierogi. I stood atop a crate, my eyes darting back and forth between my dumpling and hers, wondering why mine looked like a sad bear while hers was a happy puppy.

“Out where, honey?”

“Outer space.”

She stopped folding her pierogi, her face hard. Then she looked at me and smiled softly. “A lot of things, honey. There are stars, and planets, and… well.” Her smile faded; her eyes became distant. “Dad knows about this far more than I do. Once he comes back, you can ask him in more detail.”

I nodded and finished folding one more pierogi before asking, “Can we watch a space documentary after dinner?”

“No,” she said quickly. Her voice was harsh. Mother gripped the table, her knuckles turning white. “Not today, honey. We can watch something else. But no space.” Two seconds later, she added please.

I never asked her to view those documentaries with me again. Often, after watching, I would go to bed with my headphones on and listen to a recording of you humming your lullaby, the one you recorded before you boarded the Neo- Icarus, and fall asleep to your gentle cadence.

When I was fifteen, I told her I wanted to study astrophysics. I remembered how her face contorted. Back then, I didn’t know the full context of why that was my calling. The true reason eluded me until much later.

“Don’t bother with such irrelevant fields,” she said harshly. “Study something that will earn you money.”

I didn’t argue. I simply studied and applied for university. I lied to her, saying I would study biology, maybe to become a doctor. (Years later, I got my PhD in xenobiology and astrophysics; it wasn’t a complete lie.) She was happy. It was only when I got the acceptance letter that all hell broke loose.

It was a Thursday night, I think. I came home from a part-time job and found her in the kitchen, stirring vegetables in a pan so aggressively I thought she was having a seizure. My acceptance letter lay open on the dining table.

I confronted her. She shouted. I shouted. We hurled words at each other—my hand gripping my backpack’s strap, hers around the spatula.

“You,” her lips quivered, “you ungrateful daughter!” she spat, pointing the fat-dripping spatula at me. “You never listen. I tell you one thing and you do the other. Is this how you repay me for raising you?”

Throughout my whole life I had swallowed my arguments as best as I could, though I failed more than I succeeded; whenever I looked at her and saw the brutal lines of grief etched on her face, I couldn’t bring myself to fight with her. To live each day with the lies she told herself, so often that they had become a wall of truth, turned her inner peace into claustrophobic burdens.

I, too, constructed a wall for myself. That day it broke, and all the repressed emotions exploded, like the death of a star.

“You don’t want me to go out there because you fear you will lose me too! Because you can’t bear to think about your husband and daughter both falling victim to the empty space.”

I regretted saying that as soon as the words left my mouth. Her shivering stopped at once. She stared at me; her face softened. A deep breath, and she put the spatula down soundlessly on the table. She walked away, heading to her room. I wanted to run after her, to say I was sorry, but my tongue was frozen, my legs numb.

The vegetables burned in the sizzling pan. Smoke billowing. The smoke detector blared, breaking my trance. I turned the stove off, shut down the detector, and trudged towards her room. I raised my hand to knock but her loud sobbing prevented me. The same kind of sob I often heard when she thought I wasn’t around.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I left the house.

We met and talked perhaps once a year, and even then, our conversations were shallow, lacking emotion. I could see in her cold, wounded gaze she wanted me to apologise. I never did, never saw the reason why I should abandon the path I had chosen for the one she wished for me. For almost two decades, we were strangers to each other. At first, I thought of her often, especially when I was lost and abandoned. Slowly, though, her image faded to the back of my mind. Life carried on. I finished school, found a job, got married. Hundreds of things kept me occupied, hundreds of things kept me from reaching out to her.

And then, a small life bloomed inside of me.

I’m going to be a mother, I remember thinking to myself as I stared at the pregnancy test, hands trembling. Then I thought about Mother. And, for the first time in years, I called her first. An embryo wasn’t the only thing that was growing in me that day. Hope, too. Hope for a new beginning for all of us.

But hope is feeble.

Six months into the pregnancy, I had a miscarriage in a traffic accident. I lost my unborn child, and I lost my husband; I understood then what Mother had felt all those years before. Stuck. Helpless.

Loss and grief helped us find our bond again; I hated that fact, but I was glad I could hug her.

But, once more, life is unfair. Absurd. Cancer spares no one.
I failed Mother, but I promised I’d be there for you once you were back. Lying on the couch in the control room, tired and anxious, I watched the holo-monitor, eyes fixed on the distance-countdown, and fell asleep to your song. That night I dreamt of the distant galaxies, heard the lullaby streaming through the empty space, attuned to all living beings. It was beautiful, every second of it. Bright. Radiant. Humanly incomprehensible. A thousand vibrations woven into a cosmic web: songs of planets and celestial bodies, a waltz of birth and death, of beginning and ending.

Three weeks later you arrived. It was the longest three weeks I had experienced in a long time. I breathed easier when the ship docked into the station.

Decompression. Decontamination. Dozens of other protocols followed. I waited, holding my assistant’s hand for comfort. The screen on my exosuit showed my ever-increasing heartbeat.

Each second stretched on and on, prolonging my anxiety. Come on, come on, come on, I kept repeating in my head. My mind raced between Mother, my late husband, and my miscarried child.

With a final hiss, the hatch opened. I let go of my assistant’s hand and took a few steps forward, stopping only when the first pair of boots appeared through the fog.

When I was six, you left my world; when I was fifty-six, you returned. I had grown old and battered, but you… You remained the same. Still the same haircut, the same wrinkles, the same brick-like nose. However, there was a small change: not in appearance, but in the way you looked at me, at everything around you. Something vacant nestled within your eyes. Something empty was tucked underneath your gaze.

I wanted to speak, to say your name, to call you ‘Dad’. No words came, though. In silence we stood, frozen.

The rest of the Neo-Icarus members stepped out of the ship. They shared the same emptiness in their eyes.

“Father?” I finally managed to utter.

You stared at me, seemingly confused, and asked, “Who are you?”

You refused to believe fifty years had passed.

“The Hyper-Gate didn’t fail!” you protested, sitting in the control room with your crew, a hot mug of coffee in your shaking hands. “It never started. We couldn’t access it and you people told us to return. I have had enough of this bullshit.” You stood abruptly. “Where is my family? I demand to see them.” Your index finger pointing directly at my face, you spat out the words that should have affected me. “You’re not my daughter. I don’t know what game you are playing. I want none of it.”

I wished I had felt hurt.

The rest of the astronauts finally joined their captain. They had kept their composure ever since they had rejoined humanity, but underneath the stoic faces and nervous laughter, I could see the fear radiating from the corners of their eyes, a fear akin to that of a small child: lost, surrounded by sensations too much for its brain to handle. These people sought refuge in meekness, hoping it would all pass.

Though they raised their voices, their tones were empty. Again, their reactions were autonomous, void of the desperation shown much clearer in you. I saw them as your shadows. Not as individuals with hopes and dreams and flaws. They existed like dying stars, visible yet not truly there. An echo of a life, a past cherished by the future, but never fully in the present.

We had to apprehend you in the end. As expected, the others didn’t make a fuss when we called in the security. You thrashed around, threatening to sue us, telling us the connections you had, names long carved onto tombstones.

The whole time with you in the room I didn’t feel sad when you didn’t recognise me. After all, to me, you were a stranger. But when you were at the door, being manhandled by two androids, you said my name. I had been waiting for that moment ever since I learnt you were back; it hurt like hell. A knife straight in the gut.

“Please,” you pleaded, “let me see her. Please, let me see my daughter. I want to know if she is well. That’s all I ask of you.”

Why can’t you recognise me? I wanted to ask. The words never formed; they never left. My throat clogged. How could you not recognise your own daughter sitting in front of you? I wondered that but knew life wasn’t a movie. You kept calling my name as they hauled you away. Hearing it shattered me.

They put you in a room and left you with no key. Once seen as humanity’s greatest explorer, they treated you like you were a criminal.

You refused to talk to me, or to anyone, even when I showed you what little evidence I had of my life and Mum’s. You seemed to be swayed at first, but when I told you I had nothing after I turned eighteen, the scepticism returned. You couldn’t accept Mother and I would have a falling out. No matter how hard I tried to explain, how many wounds I had to rip open to let you see the truth, your determination in believing this was all a conspiracy was set in stone.

You’d been through a traumatic event. I concluded your reactions were to be expected, though they did drive me crazy many days, causing me sleepless nights. Until two months later, when I visited you after a week of absence, I noticed you looked younger—much, much younger than you should have.

At the same time, the other crew members began showing odd signs and symptoms.

Two of the most extreme cases were the ship engineer and the xenobiologist. Parts of the engineer’s skin began to harden, shifting colour from tanned brown to a grey-ish sheen, before the soft texture of her skin transmogrified into rough, sharp metal. Her muscles were replaced by tangled wires, her joints oozed oil, her voice turned monotonous, robot-like, and her eyes stopped blinking. Slowly and steadily, every human aspect disappeared.

The biologist went the opposite direction, though by no means better. One day, she went into a coma, and once awake, she was in a constant state of hallucination. When the doctors scanned her brain, they saw it was under the influence of something like psychedelic drugs. Her body turned grey, covered in extremely radioactive and unidentifiable mould. Roots sprouted from her follicles, replacing her golden blonde hair. Fungi erupted from the base of her skull, and spores made nests inside her mouth.

The others experienced changes, too, but none were lethal. Not at first.
Not knowing what else might happen, we put the engineer and biologist to sleep. I feared something similar would happen to you. But you only got younger.

In a span of four months, you de-aged by twenty years—the rate increased exponentially—looking exactly like the man in the picture standing at the beach with Mother, your arm around her shoulder, a bright smile on your face. I thought perhaps you slowly going back in time wasn’t too catastrophic, until you showed no sign of stopping, and were diagnosed with dementia.

It was uncanny enough to see you five years younger than me when you stepped out of the spaceship, but to see you slowly dying of ‘young age’ and a neurological disease was one thing I could never prepare myself for. Looking after you didn’t feel like it did with Mother. It felt as though I were watching my kid die, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

Slowly, you stopped pointing fingers at me; I never thought I would miss that. Your face turned pinker by the day, your skin tauter, your eyes carried that spark of innocence that exists only in children.

We had scientists from all over the globe and interstellar stations gathered to figure out what had happened to everyone from Neo-Icarus. They carried out a lot of research, gathered a ton of data. Sadly, no one could interpret it, for we had never encountered anything like this.

Despite the whole thing being shrouded in mystery, one thing was clear to us: whichever force was pulling the strings, it came from the expedition. Everyone was infected with something we did not have a single clue about, but it seemed that the hosts’ physicalities were changed according to their field of work. No one could explain why the mechanic became an android, or why the micro/ xeno-organism biologist was a colony of fungi, or why your cells were in reverse.

Some people raised a question as to why you experienced a unique transformation. I pondered this, too, until I remembered what Mother used to talk about when you were the subject of our conversation. You were obsessed with space and time. Mother told me you used to write a lot of science fiction, all of it dealing with time or interstellar travel. It was this crucial information that allowed me to derive a conclusion: the cosmic ‘disease’—for the lack of a better term—you encountered must affect you at a subconscious level.

You had it lucky in comparison to the rest. Hurt me the same, though, regardless of which path you took. Still, it was a relief not having to see you in pain.

You didn’t believe me when I told you about your condition. You refused to accept it until realisation slowly dawned on you as you watched yourself change in the mirror. The time between forty and thirty, which lasted for two months, was the hardest for both of us. Your mind was trying to hold on to your sense of identity, clinging to the deteriorating shell that was you.

Most days you would hug me and cry, telling me how much you could feel your memories slipping through your fingers, falling from your hands like sand. Every time I promised you would be alright. And every time I knew nothing could be done. I watched you slowly wither away.

Other days, when you were hopeful, I taught you astrophysics in hopes the act of learning would somehow, miraculously, prevent the imminent doom. Once you turned twenty-eight, you came to embrace the truth, and you said to me one afternoon, “I wish to live.”

I thought you meant you didn’t want to die.

“I wish so, too,” I replied.

You looked at me with a sad smile, your gentle eyes drooping. “I know I will die. I wish to live.
I understood then. “Where do you wish to go?”

After much debating with the higher-ups, you were set free, and we travelled back to Earth. I brought you back to your hometown. We visited your parents’ graves. Wept together. We flew over an active volcano, dived into the Mariana Trench, attempted to hike Mont Blanc, enjoyed seafood by the beach. You looked alive. I remember the gleam in your eyes, the slightest tuck at the corner of your lips, as we sat on the shore and watched the sun set.

“Mother and I used to travel to the beach every chance we got,” you said.

“She told me,” I said, remembering her raspy voice, her sunken eyes, her tiny frame amidst the hospital bed.

A long pause before you continued. “I promised to take her to Hawaii. Never got a chance to do it.”

The water lapped the shore, a mole crab crawled its way out of the sand, its carapace shone golden. We sat a long while in silence. The next day we flew to Hawaii, bringing Mother with us in our memories.

We travelled until your health didn’t allow you anymore. Our last visit was Cairo, and then we both moved back to my house in Switzerland. Every day you would wake up disoriented, panicking as you shouted for help. I slept in the same bed with you to keep you calm. I sang to you the song you had sung to me.

On the day you turned fifteen, you asked me who I was when you came downstairs for breakfast. I stood still, my limbs frozen. The egg sizzled in the pan, burning.

“You don’t kn— remember me?” I asked.

You said no and asked for your mother. I couldn’t bear to tell you the truth; I couldn’t bear to face it either.

“Your mother is out on a business trip. I’m her friend, here to look after you.”

You looked at me sceptically, confusion etched on your face. I could tell your brain was trying to piece together a picture that didn’t exist, grabbing for information that was never there to begin with. But given the fact you were a teenager you were prone to stubbornness.

“I’m old enough to look after myself,” you said.

“Of course.” I exhaled, trying to hold my emotions in check. “Breakfast?”

In retrospect, I think that was when the last flicker of hope inside me died. At thirteen you asked me to teach you chess. You were good at it, beat me more times than I could remember. At ten you showed me the big Lego castle you built, so enthusiastic the way you explained the architecture. I was so proud of you.

I taught you how to ride a bicycle when you were six. You tripped and cut your knee, asked for ice cream because it hurt—so we had ice cream by the lake and watched the ducks mind their business. A stray cat came to visit us and snuggled on your lap. Your small hand petting the cat, your giggle filling my ears.

You loved me reading books to you while you sat in my lap, always asking, always wanting to know more. You loved running around in our garden, observing Jupiter and the distant planets through the telescope placed on the balcony overlooking the verdant field.

You loved falling asleep to my lullaby, to your lullaby.

Watching you, I wished time would stop. I wished I could capture a moment and live in it with you forever. I wished to pick you up every morning, hold you close to my chest and sing with you. I wished we could spend an eternity together. But day by day, time eroded you from existence.

By then I had stopped seeing you as my father and, rather, as my son, a boy blooming with curiosity, one I never got a chance to see and to raise. I’m sorry I saw you that way.

When you turned three, you called me mum. I corrected you the first time, but not the second, or any other time afterward. By the time you were two, I introduced myself to you as your mother.

I will never forget your smile. I will never forget the way you called for me. The way you rested soundly in my embrace.

When you were four months old, you wrapped your tiny fingers around mine. It was only then did I finally realise what I was experiencing these past few weeks was motherhood. An experience unique to myself, painful yet hauntingly beautiful.

I kissed your forehead and called you the name I was supposed to give to my child. Thank you. Thank you for letting me have these moments.

You died a week later, reducing to nothing but an undeveloped embryo before you finally stopped your de-aging process. Once more, I watched you die, as a daughter and as a mother. I spent the whole day in your room, the one we had decorated together, and wept.

A week later I decided to move out. I couldn’t stay in that house anymore. As I was cleaning out your room, I found a letter you’d left in the drawer, written when you were twenty. I read it thrice, cried, read it again. I lay on your bed, holding the letter close to my heart. I fell asleep and woke up to the sound of rain. When I looked to the side, I imagined you as a baby, your thumb in your mouth, sleeping innocently.

I said my last goodbye, kissed your cheek, and left the room.

I asked for an assembly and proposed reinstating the Hyper-Gate Project. They denied me, saying they needed more time, saying the risk was too high. I fought, despite knowing they were right. Selfish, I know. But could anyone deny a mother their wish to see their child one last time?

Maybe one day I will board a spaceship and travel to the edge of Andromeda and uncover the truth. Maybe I won’t and the answer to your mystery will forever elude me. Either way, I don’t think it matters. You came back and gave me something magical; you opened my eyes and helped me see life through a different lens. And most importantly, you granted me a second chance to experience what I had denied myself of. These are the things that matter, and for that I am forever grateful.

Time is limited and life is ever-fleeting. Our days together were short and painful, but they were also filled with joy and love.

And I wouldn’t change it for anything.

I commissioned an old friend of mine, a musician, to turn your lullaby into a song. Your voice recording was placed at the end. I named the song after your last line: sweet dreams my little one.

While I can no longer hold you, you’re never truly gone. I will sing until we meet again.

Our song in retrograde.