art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Sara Thustra
"Now you stop it," snapped the sister. "You sit there and you smile and you tell him you miss him, damn you. Space exploration is a hard job, and one we should be proud of. It's not his fault this seems so often to us."
The camera came on. The warble of great distance and stranger forces, too, played with the image. The man it showed was quite old, and dressed in a uniform from decades ago. "...Sally?" he said hesitantly.
"We're here, papa!" she chirped. "Happy Birthday!"
His children all erupted in a cheerful babble of birthday wishes, very adult in its forcedness. They took out a little cake from the fridge, and tried not to look at it, since he couldn't eat it and none of them would either. Sally passed out hats, which they all put on mechanically. He told them how much he loved them and missed them, his simple geriatric honesty contrasting their labored responses. Someone asked how life was orbiting the antimatter cloud; he said fine, fine. Someone else bravely asked about any interesting samples this year, but he didn't seem to feel like talking about it, and everyone looked grateful. He asked them for news; they had none. After a few minutes more, they severed the connection.
Sally kept her cheerfulness on at first: "Well, he looks good!"
One of the brothers sighed heavily. "Yeah. Well, um... I gotta go. See you guys?"
"Tomorrow," agreed another brother wearily. "When he'll be a year older... again."
Sally's eyes flashed. "And you ungrateful sots had better be here!"
This story was first published on Monday, January 2nd, 2012