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“Chasing Comets” by Brian Trent

“That looks nothing like you, Dad!”

I squint at my side of the TV’s split-screen, where my video game avatar waits cheerfully for his finishing touches. Sammy’s got the one on the left, mine’s on the right, the Xbox controllers snaking up from the console and into our creative, armchair deity hands.

“I don’t know,” I tease. “He’s got my hair, my face…”

“Your hair looks more like this.” Sammy presses a button, his lips compressed into a devious smirk, and suddenly my onscreen doppelganger’s slick jet-black ’50s greaser ‘do has become a receding tide of salt-and-pepper. My son bursts into a fit of giggles.

“Oh yeah?” I challenge. “Well, this is you.” A few button presses and my son’s onscreen representation transforms into a freakishly deformed toad-thing.

For several minutes, our avatars expand, retract, shrink, and mutate, enough to make Ovid spin over in his ancient grave.

“We look like a couple of aliens,” I announce at last, settling back into the couch and viewing the latest metamorphoses.

My son quickly returns his onscreen persona to a near-perfect mirror of himself: a mop of hazel-brown hair atop a round face, bright eyes, small nose and wide mouth whose default position is a smile.

“You think there are aliens, Dad?”

“Somewhere, sure. Maybe some alien plankton, or fish-like analogues, swimming on a Jovian moon.”

“Or a Saturn moon,” he reminds me, and quickly spouts the latest probe fly-by discoveries about Titan, mystery moon wreathed in a dense fog atmosphere and with liquid oceans sloshing over its surface. Sammy sits lotus-style on the floor, resembling a tiny, scientifically-minded seven-year-old Buddha. “You think we’ll ever find out for sure?”

“Perhaps many years from now.”

He nods thoughtfully. For a moment he’s somewhere else, his eyes focusing on a distant point of tomorrow’s calendars. “I want to be an astronaut,” he says suddenly.

It’s the first conversation we’ve ever had about what he might want to be. Sammy is seven years old. As far as I know, he still thinks summer vacations last an entire year.

I raise an eyebrow. “An astronaut, huh?”

A smile splits his face. “Before my hair turns gray!” And then he vaults off the rug as if launched by a spring, dropping the controller, and rushes to the window. “It’s snowing, Dad! You promised!”

“Okay,” I say, rising from the couch and going to get my keys. “Let’s go.”

***

He likes to be my copilot. This began when he was five, and first saw R2-D2 sitting helpfully behind Luke Skywalker in their battered X-Wing during the final run towards the Death Star’s strangely combustible exhaust ports.

“Power up the star-drive,” Sammy says beside me, speaking in his pipsqueak voice that, frankly, isn’t so different from R2’s beeps and chirps. I start the engine, activate the windshield wipers and clear a powdery layer of snow as if it were confectionary sugar. Sodium streetlamps electrify the winter road like the launch-lanes of a space station.

“When will I have gray hair?” Sammy asks.

“Probably when you’re my age. And my hair isn’t completely gray yet, wise guy.”

“What year will it be, when I’m your age?”

“When you’re forty-one, it’ll be 2065. All right, copilot; destination coordinates?”

“Trumbull Galaxy.”

“System?”

He bites his lip. “Mall.”

I look at him. “The Mall System?” I ask dubiously.

Sam turns to the window and waves wildly. “Hi Mommy!”

My wife Gina looks like a chestnut-haired snow angel come to life, lifting itself out of its famous shadow, to sit on the porch. “Where are you two off to?” she asks.

“The Mall System!” Sam shouts.

“He’s been begging me to go for a drive in the snow,” I explain.

She nods. “Well, can you stop by Planet Godiva when you arrive? Mommy could use a raspberry crème chocolate truffle.”

***

In 2065 I’ll be eighty-two, a white-haired man who has shrunk down as if left in the dryer too long; the same thing happened to my grandfather and father, and I’ve long since accepted my eventual miniaturization. Sammy will be a strapping astronaut by then, and he might not have gray hair. In forty-one years, “graying gracefully” is an option for traditionalists and Luddites.

My wife and I go to the shuttleport to wait for his arrival, and we press against the fencing as the craft appears like a distant speck against the pale blue sky. A bird? A plane? It’s Sammy-man! Returning from space aboard the reusable rockets that are standard in 2065. The ship touches down on the runway, is met by a mobile ladder, and the hatch opens with a pressurized gasp. Here comes the crew, disembarking in a stately row of form-fitting biosuits, scarlet banding running like veins across their extremities. Long ago, Sammy told me this would happen. The bulky balloon-suits of my day are long-gone, replaced by these aerogel-insulated, self-repairing uniforms that keep our brave explorers safe.

I try to pick my son out of the descending line-up, but he isn’t there. What’s going on? My stomach twists anxiously, and I fumble with the scrap of paper, checking to make sure I wrote the flight number down correctly. So many shuttles come and go, and my eyes aren’t what they used to be…

Gina touches my trembling hand and points.

“Relax,” she says soothingly. “There he is.”

And there he is, indeed, at the head of the disembarking passengers, but he isn’t little Sammy anymore; he’s Command Officer Sam Jacobson, and he carries his helmet tucked in one arm like a victorious fencer after a tournament. In that moment, he glances our way and sees us there, pressed to the fence like parents at a Little League game.

He smiles.

It’s the same smile! He waves to us, and it’s that same energetic wave.

In the shuttleport lobby, we’re reunited.

“How was the moon?” I ask.

“We call it the Republic of Luna now, Dad.” He laughs. “And it was great.”

I pretend that I’m laughing too, shaking in quiet earthquakes of amusement like Santa Claus building to a hearty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” And it’s true that I feel happiness, yet the emotion has strange little teeth, and the shuttleport swims behind my warm tears.

When did he get so big?

***

“It doesn’t look big enough,” I mutter.

The bald man with the glasses bows his head. He says nothing. A clock ticks somewhere, like a talon on cobblestone.

“I said it doesn’t look big enough,” I repeat. “He’ll need a bigger one, won’t he? I mean…” I swallow, suddenly wondering where my wife is. She’ll be able to explain it better than I can. Then I remember: She’s at her mother’s house. It was decided that I should do this. This is a father’s job, I suppose. But for a moment I wonder who decided that. How could any father be expected to do this?

I clear my throat. The clock ticks, ticks, ticks, like something stuck and making a languid attempt to break free.

“I understand,” the man says, and for a moment I feel something. It’s been days since I’ve felt anything at all. I feel anger, because he doesn’t understand, he can’t understand. “The size is correct,” he adds. “There are several colors and styles. Did you have a preference?”

“A preference?”

“Was there a favorite color?”

***

Sammy points to the cars on the glistening highway ahead of us. They zip east through a snowstorm that blows sideways, the flakes impacting my windshield like fuzzy cat’s feet, pitter-patter on the glass.

“That’s how comets look in space, don’t you think?” he asks.

“You mean the way the snow is streaming off of them?”

“Comets are mostly ice. So when they get close to the sun, they cook, and the ice pours off into a tail.” He sweeps his hand, indicating the herd of “comets” ahead of us in the evening darkness, their misty tails curling around the lengthy bend between highway off-ramp destinations. The city is a dim galaxy to the southeast.

“We’re comet chasers,” he announces.

I used to pretend the exact same thing, I think. When I was his age, winter cars transformed into a racing comet cluster, bleeding ice into the void as I sat beside my Dad in the car.

Sammy presses imaginary buttons on the dashboard. “Analyzing comet surface. Searching for signs of life.” He glances sidelong to me. “You think there might be life on comets?”

“Some scientists think comets may have brought life to Earth.”

“Really?”

“Striking the planet when it was still molten.”

“Where do they come from, Dad?”

“Look it up on your phone,” I tell him.

***

“It’s called the Oort Cloud, Dad,” explains Command Officer Sam Jacobson.

“I know what it’s called,” I snap. We’re in the car now, and it’s on autodrive, taking us to our favorite restaurant for lunch; our habitual destination whenever Sam is planetside. In 2065 all cars have an autodrive mode. If you utilize autodrive at least fifty-percent of the time, you get a reduction in your insurance premiums. Besides, autodrive is safer than letting a human take the wheel. People have known this for decades.

“I also know,” I add, “that it’s a light-year away. It’s practically not in the solar system!”

“Dad, that’s exactly why this is such a big–”

“A light year! Meaning it’ll take you four years traveling top-speed to even get there!”

We sit, our chairs swiveled to face each other. The road is a daylight blur outside the car windows, and I wave my hand to opaque the glass. Blurring roads make me motion-sick.

My son drums his fingers on the armrest. “Dad, this is a huge promotion for me. No one’s ever been out there! I’ll be commanding the entire scientific expedition. There’s ice there that formed back when the solar system cooled. There could be comets that have strayed in from other systems. It’s a treasure-trove of possibility.”

“Four years out,” I repeat, glowering at him. “How long is the mission supposed to take?”

“A year.”

“Four years out, a year there, and four years back. Your Mom and I will likely be dead by the time you see fit to return home!”

Gina touches my hand. “Honey, don’t say that. You should be proud of him!”

I’m the one who encouraged him to begin with!” I shout. Our reflections on the shaded windows give the impression we’re in a crowded subway car, other strangers half-glimpsed and trying not to look at the angry old man yelling at his son. “Remember that, Sam? The night we went to the mall? The night you insisted we go to the mall!” I shake a finger at him. “That was your idea! You wanted to drive in the goddam snow!”

Gina frowns. “Sweetie, can we keep the conversation level and relevant…”

“You told me you wanted to be an astronaut, Sam, and what did I do? I encouraged you! I paid for your school! You thanked me during your graduation speech! And now, I guess I served my purpose… so your mother and I are tossed away, discarded like… like…” My stomach knots, and to the car, I ask, “Query! What is the name of the part of old shuttles that are discarded in the atmosphere?”

The car’s smooth and friendly voice responds: “The separation events of multi-stage rockets, common since the earliest days of spaceflight.”

“Yeah, separation events!”

My son, all grown-up, sighs. “Shuttles don’t do that anymore, Dad. It’s the year 2065 now.”

***

“Blue,” I tell the bald man with glasses.

“Very well, Mr. Jacobson.” He checks off little boxes on a sheet of paper. “If you’ll just come this way.”

***

The windshield wipers are on their fastest speed, and the mall lights wait ahead, like an orbital docking station glimpsed through the misty shroud of atmosphere.

Sammy tucks away his phone. “Preparing for docking procedures,” he says, hitting more imaginary buttons.

A comet blurs past us on the right as we’re taking the off-ramp.

“Whoa!” I shout, jerking the wheel to avoid collision.

The comet’s tail strikes us directly in the windshield. It sprays over the glass, no longer little cat paws but an explosive vomit of snow and ice.

Blind. We’re driving blind.

“We’re in the comet’s tail!” Sammy shrieks in joy.

Shut up Sam!” I shout, my heart pounding in terror. I tap the brakes and try pulling over. The car swings wildly, wheels like soap on Teflon.

“Dad!” my son screams.

And then the sound.

The crash.

It’s the loudest thing in the world.

***

In the year 2065 we would finish our argument in the autodrive car, and go for lunch at the burger joint which we used to go when Command Officer Sam Jacobson was just Sammy, the little boy who wanted to be an astronaut. My wife would interject smoothly into the awkward silence, asking him about Luna City and the Rings of Saturn and the comets.

I want to be an astronaut.

Someone touches my old, liverspotted hand.

I look up into Sam’s face.

He isn’t breathing!

It’s important that you don’t move him, Mr. Jacobson. Help is on the way.

“Dad,” Command Officer Sam Jacobson says gently. “Please be proud of me. This is what I’ve always wanted.”

“I am proud of you, dammit!”

That’s what I would say. I’m sure of it.

I wouldn’t tell him to shut up.

Wouldn’t have those be the last words I ever said to my son.

***

Back home in a place that will never be home again, six months later during a summer that feels as chill and drab and colorless as the surface of a comet must, I sink into the couch. I power up the video game console. It has slept, gathering dust, since the night of snow and sound and hospitals.

My avatar appears on screen, exactly the way I saw it last: a mutant alien made in hasty, playful creation six months earlier. On the left side of the screen, another avatar stands expectantly, and this one looks human, looks perfect, looks…

“Hi Sammy,” I whisper.

His avatar waits, eyeing me for the promise of adventures and tomorrows.

His smile looks so real.

His smile looks so real.

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About the Author

Brian Trent’s science fiction and dark fantasy has appeared in numerous publications. Recent work has been published in ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature, COSMOS, Escape Pod, Galaxy’s Edge, and more. His story “Distant Gates of Eden Gleam” appeared in Crossed Genres #25. Brian lives in New England, where he hikes, travels, researches, and writes.

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