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art by Melissa Mead

Silver Sixpence

Craig Pay is a speculative and non-genre author. He runs the Manchester Speculative Fiction writers' group and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bolton University. He is a member of the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association), NAWG (National Association of Writers' Groups) and the BFS (British Fantasy Society). He has short stories published at Write In For Writing's Sake and 330 Words. He will be published in Basement Stories and Murky Depths magazines later this year.
Something blue.
Celeste: 25, Joseph: 26, Susie: 5
"The stars in front of us will turn blue."
A strand of hair dropped down in front of Susie's little face. "Blue?"
"It's called Doppler shift, honey." Celeste reached out and brushed the hair away, tucking it behind her daughter's ear.
Susie scrunched up her face. "What's a Dopple?"
"Doppler. We're going so fast, the light gets squashed up. The stars behind us will turn pink."
Susie's eyes widened. "Pink stars!"
Celeste smiled, feeling a painful knot at the back of her throat. Then she squeezed her little girl until she squirmed from her grip and asked to go play.
He leaned in and kissed her, and when he moved away she felt a cool dampness left behind on her cheek. A pre-flight technician reached inside her helmet, swabbed her lips and shot him a warning look. She tasted the sharp tang of antiseptic.
"You look ridiculous," Celeste said.
Joseph was wearing baggy white overalls complete with a facemask he was now pulling back up into place. Celeste sat in her suit with technicians fussing all around her: checking seals, running calibration checks. The partners were allowed this last visit to the ready room--those that had completed their six-week course of inoculations and then submitted to an uncomfortably thorough medical examination.
"We'll miss you," Joseph said.
She tried to nod but knocked her forehead against the inside of her helmet. They both laughed.
She wriggled her toes, trying to ease the pins and needles in her white-socked feet. Her boots were still on the floor, last to go on because of a last-minute glitch with the telemetry. Joseph knelt down and began to rub her feet. A pre-flight tech stepped forward to intervene but Celeste shot him a warning look.
Joseph seemed to be waiting for something.
"What is it?" she asked.
He looked around at the technicians, and then held up a hand. In his white-gloved palm he held a large, silver coin. It looked old.
"A old sixpence," he said. "For luck."
"Where am I supposed to put that?"
For a moment he looked a little crestfallen, and then they both started giggling. From the far end of the room a technician glanced at them momentarily before going back to his work.
"One of my socks," she said.
"What?"
She wiggled her toes. "Quickly!"
She could feel the warmth of his hands pull down the sock on her right foot, and then a cool tickle as the coin slipped down inside. Joseph pulled her sock back up and then she shook her foot until the coin worked its way down.
Silence. Joseph continued to rub her feet.
"It's only five years," she said.
"Nine, for us." He frowned.
Dilation.
"T-minus one minute thirty seconds. ET bipod heaters off."
"Harnesses all locked?" The pilot's voice from the upper deck.
"Never lock mine." The commander's voice. "Might need to reach something."
"Yeah, okay."
"We got airbags, right?"
The sound of laughter.
"T-minus one minute. Perform SRB forward MDM lockout."
"One minute downstairs," the commander called down.
The crew launch vehicle was arranged in two decks, with the command, pilot, and engineers on the upper deck and the mission specialists on the lower.
"Celeste, got an alarm on your suit." One of the other mission specialists, their doctor. "Right foot."
"Shit."
She heard more laughter.
Then the commander's voice: "What you got stuffed in there, Celeste?"
"Sorry, command, it's a coin--a sixpence."
"Well maybe try a less conductive good luck charm next time around." He paused, then: "Ground, alarm looks good."
Celeste reached up and toggled a switch on her overhead panel. She could feel the adrenalin and she desperately needed to pee.
"GLS go for auto sequence."
"Thirty seconds people," the commander said.
"Start SRB APUs. Start SRB gimbal test."
A subsonic rumble began to growl its way up through her spine.
"Main engines six through four start command. Main engines three through one start."
Mixed feelings, sadness at leaving behind her husband and daughter--
"T-zero, SRB ignition. SRB hold-down release command."
--the thrill of the launch.
"Lift-off, we have a lift-off! Thirty-two minutes past the hour. Lift-off on the Aether One crew launch vehicle on the joint international mission to Proxima Centauri. Tower clear."
Celeste: 30, Joseph: 35, Susie: 14
She couldn't let him go; her face was buried in his neck. All she could do was inhale and let his smell fill her lungs. Reluctantly she pulled away. All around them the chaos of the press-pack, the staccato flash of cameras, shouts to turn this way or that.
Joseph looked at her, tears running down his face. "You're back!" He sounded incredulous, as if he couldn't believe it was actually happening.
She couldn't speak, just nodded.
Then she was aware of another person standing nearby, the slim figure of a young teenage girl. Dark hair. The girl smiled and a strand of hair fell down across her brow.
Celeste gasped. "Susie!"
She grabbed her little girl and squeezed. Now the tears came freely and she felt Joseph's hands guiding her through into another room.
Something borrowed.
Celeste: 32, Joseph: 37, Susie: 16
"I still need to ask you," she said.
His face was set, tendons taught in his throat, muscles working along his jaw. She could see he knew what was coming. But then it was all over the media, two years since the success of the Centauri mission. As their mission commander had put it: "Well, no one died."
This time it would be Barnard's Star.
"How long?" he said.
"Just under six light years each way, Centauri was four--"
"I don't care how far away it is, I need to know how long you're going to be missing from our lives!"
"Faster engines, so four years my time. Twelve yours--"
"You said, last time you said it was once in a lifetime! Radiation or something."
"They have better drugs now, better shielding."
"I don't--we don't care!"
Silence.
"Don't go," he said.
"Joseph..."
He folded his arms.
Susie held out the silver sixpence. "You gave me this when you came back from Centauri."
"Yes, I remember," Celeste said.
"I want you to take it."
Celeste shook her head. "No--"
Susie took her mother's hand and pressed the coin into her palm, folding her mother's fingers around it. "It's on loan. Bring it back, yeah?"
They hugged, cried on each other.
Only now did Celeste realize that her little daughter was the same height as she was.
Something old.
Celeste: 36, Joseph: 49, Susie: 28
This time she could see the difference in their years. He was nearly fifty now.
Only a small huddle of media this time, the fallout from the Barnard mission deaths had been chewed over on Earth years ago and it was all getting a bit stale for them now: seventeen people out, fourteen back. A hull breach killed their commander and pilot just half a light year outside the solar system. They nearly abandoned the mission there and then, but they voted to carry on and Celeste found herself promoted to mission commander.
On the return leg they lost a mission specialist to cancer. That was terrible, drawn out; the moans of the dying woman echoing along the corridor from the infirmary. In the end she ordered the emergency bulkhead doors kept shut, but the guilty silence that followed was somehow worse.
"Where's Susie?"
Joseph looked down at his feet. "With her husband."
They walked in silence to the conference room.
Celeste: 37, Joseph: 50, Susie: 29
"It's a K-class main-sequence with planets," Celeste said. "Closest Earth-like system in our stellar backyard."
Epsilon Eridani.
Joseph shrugged. "How long?"
"Dilated time, three years. Ten-and-a-half light years each way--"
"Twenty-one years!"
She nodded.
He buried his face in his hands. Finally, he looked up again. When he began to speak his voice was thin and distant. "You know, you used to say 'Your time' and now it's 'Earth time' like you don't live here anymore."
"We'll have recorded comms out past the Oort--"
"No!" He stood. "This is--it's just too much." He turned for the door then paused. "Talk to Susie, before you go. I'll have my lawyer make the arrangements."
And he was gone.
Celeste: 40, Joseph: 71, Susie: 50
Eridani had been a barren hellhole: a violent young yellow star swarmed by a busy accretion disk. The system was seeded with a handful of dead, rocky planetoids, their atmospheres ripped away by the permanently vicious solar storm. Their shielding wouldn't let them get any closer than half a light year. After three months in a wide elliptical orbit, they had headed home.
The woman who stood waiting for Celeste looked old, dark hair greying at the sides. She held out her arms and said, 'Hi Mom.'
Something new.
Celeste felt empty. This was a madness she supposedly knew and understood, her own daughter now ten years older than she was.
"Mom, I'd like you to meet someone."
Standing next to the woman was a young girl. The girl looked just like her little Susie.
"My daughter," the woman said. "Freya."
Celeste walked over to them. "Hello Freya, how... old are you?"
The girl smiled. "I'm sixteen, thank you Grandma."
The same age Susie had been when she left--no, that was the time before, when she'd gone to Barnard's star, not Eridani. Her knees felt weak and her vision began to tunnel--
Then she was sitting and the woman, Susie, was helping her sip water from a plastic tumbler. Two technicians stood next to her clipping sensors to her ears and drawing in the air with their fingers. The little girl was gone.
The woman, Susie, smiled a sad smile. "They say everything will be fine."
Joseph had remarried, then divorced; remarried again and divorced. That was ten years ago and he was living somewhere in Europe now, the Netherlands or Belgium.
Celeste fumbled in her pockets. "I have something for you." She held out the sixpence to the woman--her daughter. "I forgot to give you this when I got back from Barnard's."
Susie started to reach out, and then she hesitated. "Maybe you should keep it. I-I've heard about the Grand Tour."
Three different star systems. Over a hundred light years.
"How long will you be gone?" Susie asked.
"Dilated time five years, Earth time... well it's over a hundred light years."
"I see." Susie smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes.
"No." Celeste reached out and took Susie's hand again. She gently unfolded the clenched fingers and placed the sixpence into her daughter's palm. "Give this to Freya. Tell her-- tell her not to travel too far."
Celeste: 43
Celeste strolled along the dimly-lit corridor, listening to the gentle hum of the ship's systems.
A young mission specialist walked past. "Commander."
She nodded back.
They were half a light year out of Tau Ceti, twelve light years as the crow flies from Earth. Sixty light years and as many Earth years into the Tour, three years dilated time.
Her foot kicked something on the floor, small and silver, circular like a coin. She bent down and picked it up. A mimetic wafer, probably dropped by the passing specialist. She clenched the wafer tight in her fist, feeling the edge dig into the palm of her hand.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

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