by Alex Shvartsman
Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. He's had over 60 short stories published in places like Nature, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy's Edge, Buzzy Magazine, and others. This is his tenth appearance at Daily Science Fiction, so he probably owes the editors a free sub. Alex is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology series of humorous SF/F. His fiction is linked at alexshvartsman.com.
My world is a pair of photographs. They stand atop a nightstand at my bedside, encased in acrylic frames.
A young woman in an orange jumpsuit smiles from one of the photos. She wears a nametag, but I can't make out what it says, not even when I squint. I am pretty sure that she's me.
The rest of the room is bland and nondescript, like hospital food. I try to shake off the fog inside my head, but it hangs there, thick and heavy as a murky autumn morning at the Boston harbor. I examine the cheap floral prints on the walls and the sparse, utilitarian furniture around my bed. I desperately scan the room for clues, anything to help me remember, but there isn't much to go on.
The other photo is of a middle-aged woman with braided hair and kind eyes. I concentrate on her face and will the fog in my mind to dissipate, but it doesn't obey. Relentlessly, irrevocably, I am losing my memories, but I cling to the one that is most important. This is my daughter, Kate.
"Kate. Kate," I keep whispering until I drift off and lose myself in the fog.
I hear Kate talking to the nurse in the corridor. "Damn reporters are still camped out in front of the building," she says. "I wish they'd leave us alone."
I know what a nurse is, and what reporters are. General concepts are easy. I can recite the periodic table of elements and list each year the Red Sox won the World Series in the twentieth century. Some of the time useless trivia is easy, too. But I have no idea why the reporters are out there. I do not remember my life.
Kate walks into the room and smiles at me. "Is today a good day?" she asks.
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The fog lifts a little bit, enough for me to remember that this is our ritual. The doctor said there would be a lot of bad days, but occasionally there would be good days, too. I remember this, but not much else. I shake my head.
Kate frowns and sits down by the bed. She takes my hand into hers. I ask her about the nametag in the photograph.
"That's you, mom, in front of the Icarus, on the day you left for your mission. It says 'Anne Freeman, Captain.'"
Kate reaches into the drawer and takes out a small attaché case, its brown leather stiffened with age and cracking in several spots. She rummages through it and takes out a round plastic disc the size of a coaster. She places it atop the nightstand and presses a small button on its side. A hologram of a ship moving through space springs to life. The ship looks like a drop of quicksilver.
"This is the Icarus," Kate says. "You were part of the team that designed it, and then you piloted it to the stars."
The fog in my mind is thick as ever. I don't recall any of this, but I know the Icarus of Greek myth. "Why would anyone name their ship after a man who crashed?"
"It's because he flew near the sun. Watch."
In the hologram, the quicksilver ship is flying directly into the sun. When it gets close enough for the giant fiery orb to blot out the sky, it releases red shimmering wings. They blossom outward, growing many times larger than the ship itself.
"Nano filaments," Kate says. "They capture the heat; enough energy to power an interstellar jump. Your team at MIT designed this, right around the time I was born."
We watch in silence as the ethereal wings turn from red to bright orange and begin to disintegrate while the drop of quicksilver is being pulled toward the sun. Then a perfect circle of pitch black opens directly in the path of the drop. It blocks off a small part of the fiery inferno below, like a miniature eclipse. The ship falls through and disappears, the circle collapsing in on itself behind it.
"This is the recording of the Icarus's maiden voyage. There isn't a man, woman, or child on Earth who doesn't know what you have accomplished."
There is at least one woman who doesn't. But the pride in Kate's voice makes me keep the observation to myself.
Today is one of the good days. The fog isn't quite so dense. As I wait for Kate, I reach for the drawer and take out the attaché case.
This is my Keepsake Box. It is full of memories. Mementos accumulated throughout the course of my life. Kate says it's important that I go over the objects in the Keepsake Box daily. This is supposed to keep me anchored a little longer.
I touch the surface of a pink-and-pearl stone, its edges smoothed out by the millennia of currents. It's from the beach on Arcturus VI. My hand shakes as it caresses a handful of exotic-looking pebbles scattered throughout the attaché case. One for every planet I visited.
There are other treasures inside as well. An impression of a tiny foot taken on the day Kate was born. My Valedictorian medal from college. A yellowed flyer from my high school play. A Mickey Mouse watch my parents gave me when I turned eight.
The fog obscures the original memories of these objects from my mind. All I remember is Kate telling me about each of them, in turn, every day.
There are other things in the case, trinkets and souvenirs I don't recognize at all. The memories of them are so close, like tops of skyscrapers, disappearing into the fog.
I wonder if there should be a wedding ring, or some other memento of Kate's father, but I can't find one. Instead I pick up a small round mirror, a gift from my best friend in first grade. A gaunt, wrinkled face stares back at me from the mirror, unbrushed wisps of thin white hair curling above the shoulders. It is not the face of the young adventurer from the photo, not the face I care to remember.
I put away the mirror and wait for Kate to arrive. I must tell her that this is a good day.
I wake up with a jolt, my head filled with memories. It is an overwhelming sensation, like the desert which was once an ocean suddenly being refilled with water. It takes me time to adjust. My mind is sharp and clear, and there is no fog. I feel almost happy, until I let myself sort through the memories.
There is the sound of Champagne being popped at the MIT theoretical physics department on the day we make the breakthrough that would lead to interstellar flight. We run out of bubbly and move the celebration to a nearby bar. Too many tequila shots later, I leave with Bruce, a construction worker.
The silence on the other end of the line lasts for too long. "You should get an abortion," Bruce finally says. "I'll pay for half."
When Kate is born I expect Bruce to show up, or at least to call. He never does.
A year later, I learn that Bruce died in a car accident. I don't go to the funeral.
Kate is getting older and she is asking about her father. I tell her that Bruce was a marine biologist who drowned while saving the life of a colleague. On her fifth birthday I give her a vintage attaché case I bought at a garage sale. I tell her it was her father's Keepsake Box. "What's a keepsake box?" asks Kate. "It's a place for you to store the things that are really special, memories that you want to cherish forever." I open the case. Inside there are a handful of colorful pebbles collected during a college vacation. "These are your dad's memories," I tell her. I invent a story to go with each pebble, tales of her father's exciting adventures from around the world.
The overwhelming joy of learning that I've been selected to pilot the Icarus and the subsequent realization that this is only the second happiest day of my life. I worry about leaving Kate behind, but it's only for a few months. How can I resist the opportunity to visit the stars? Who could say no to sharing immortality with Gagarin and Armstrong?
The feeling of frustration when I first learn they intend to use cryogenics. "How can you expect me to sleep through this moment?" They lecture me about the challenges of engineering a ship small and light enough to make the jump. "It's only a few weeks. People spend months, years at the International Space Station." They tell me I'll wake up briefly on the other side, only to make the necessary adjustments for the return jump. At least I will get to see Arcturus.
Photo-ops in front of the Icarus. A whirlwind of interviews and events. Fame is… hectic.
The night before liftoff, saying goodbye to Kate, hugging and holding her tight. She wants me to bring her a pebble from Arcturus, like the ones she thinks she has from her dad. I explain that I won't be landing on a planet this time around; maybe on the next trip. She shrugs and places one of my publicity photos into the Keepsake Box instead.
Aboard the Icarus, I climb into the cryogenic chamber. The lid closes, and I feel the prick of a needle.
When I wake up, everything feels wrong. My body, the room I'm in, the concerned looks on the faces of doctors I don't recognize. "You've been asleep for forty years," one of them tells me. I don't believe him. For me, it's only been moments. "Something has gone awry. The Icarus made a successful jump, but the cryopod failed to wake you up. I'm so sorry." I look at my hands. They're small and wrinkled.
I catch up on forty years worth of history from my hospital bed. Someone else was the first to set foot on an alien planet. Somebody else brought back mementos of another world to share proudly with their daughter or son. I slept and I aged, until they had bothered to find and retrieve the Icarus at the request of the Smithsonian. They were stunned to discover that I was still alive.
I hug the stranger that is my daughter. She grew up an orphan, sustained only by the memories of a father she soon learned to be fake, and real memories of a mother foolish enough to leave her behind. Somehow, she still manages to love me.
I feel my mind crumbling piece by piece, like a sandcastle at high tide. The doctors said that the prolonged stay in the cryogenic pod had damaged my brain. My memories would disappear in a matter of weeks. The universe, which tried so hard and failed to kill my body, would have its revenge by erasing my consciousness instead.
Soon, too soon, it gets really bad and I forget more things than I remember. That's when Kate starts lying to me. She describes the planets I never got to explore, weaves details of a lifetime of joy and wonder, a lifetime I never lived. She makes up a new planet, new story for every pebble in the attaché case.
I sit in the armchair by the bed, the attaché case open in my lap, when Kate walks in.
"Today is a very good day," I tell her by way of hello.
She steals a nervous glance at the pebbles, but my expression betrays nothing.
Everyone remembers that Icarus crashed, but they neglect the fact that he first flew, that he reached greater heights than any man had before him. They forget that Daedalus also flew, and his wings worked, and he landed safely. I may not have set foot on another world, may not have lived the wonderful life my daughter had invented for me, but I was still the first person to reach the stars, and that has to be enough.
"Sit next to me. I remember some things about your father."
My baby Kate, who is now Kate Terbanov, with a husband and children of her own, pulls up a chair, and I present her with the only gift I have to offer – a memory of her father. Who gives a damn whether this memory is real or fabricated? I spin pleasant fictions about Bruce, things she can't check or verify, lies about his character and personality, and our romance, that are as appealing to the adult Kate as the adventures of an imaginary super-dad were to a child.
I can already feel the fog creeping back in, slowly reclaiming my mind. For all I know, this may be the last good day I have left. Kate and I make the best of it, building memories out of pebbles and attaché cases and hope.
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014
This story came together from several different elements/concepts that fascinated me. First, I wanted to write from the perspective of a character who is losing his or her memory. It was, in part, inspired by a brilliant flash piece "Don't Look Down" by Anatoly Belilovsky, which you can read in the Daily Science Fiction archives. Second, I wanted to tell a story where two characters are lying to each other, but doing so for altruistic reasons. And finally, I liked the idea of a keepsake box--so much so that I also wrote a fantasy story titled "The Keepsake Box," which you can also find and read in the DSF archives.
- Alex Shvartsman
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