“Long-Distance Call” by Benjamin Sherlock

Alina staggered up the corridor, trying to ignore the way it lurched from side to side in front of her. A silent red alarm flashed in the upper right quadrant of her eyescreen. She blinked hard to clear the alert, then again to steady her vision. The arterial corridor of the Orbital Control station settled into a mostly horizontal holding pattern, rocking gently. The ghosts of last night’s celebrations twisted wickedly in her gut.

Alina Holt, as of yesterday the youngest communications manager in the Centauri Foundation’s fifty-three-year history, reached the control room door with less than two minutes to spare.

“Late night, Alina?” asked one of the techs, with a grotesque wink, as Alina belched her way unmanagerially to her desk.

She rolled her eyes and glanced across to Kara McMath, who was already sitting, unruffled, at the trajectory display. Kara returned her gaze, smiled, and shrugged her broad shoulders in an I-didn’t-tell-them kind of way.

“I’ll leave it to your imagination,” Alina sighed.

The tech grinned and swivelled back to his display. “Seventy-five seconds to go,” he said.

They’d been waiting for almost two and a half years since the last transmission from the February Delta mission, and she’d nearly missed it for a hangover. She sat down. Smiled, as hazy flashes of the previous night permeated the morning fog.

“Thirty seconds.”

She shook her head to clear her thoughts.

Twenty. Ten. Five. One. Then Delta’s voice crackled through the speakers.

He rattled through the usual updates: payload health, navigation data, Martin’s latest calculations. She remembered noticing an odd, almost wavering lilt to his tone last time round, and today it seemed even more pronounced. That made sense, though: Martin had been his only real conversation partner for almost twelve years now. The AI could manage something approaching a conversational tone, but something always rang slightly false. It was a shame, she thought, that February’s confident, booming voice was gradually taking on the same singsong inflection that set her nerves so sharply on edge whenever the computer spoke.

“Velocity steady at point-one C,” February was saying. “Martin says the trajectory’s about a tenth of an arcsecond out. Thrusters should kick in to fix it, soon as we launch this message. You’ll have to check the report for the exact figure.”

Kara scanned the navigation data scrolling down her terminal screen. “Got it,” she called out. “Adjusting.”

“Martin says the overall mission time won’t change,” Delta continued. There, thought Alina, as she received Kara’s updated figures. There it was again. Not just an acquired accent. A slight hesitation; a stutter in his speech. She frowned as she recalibrated the comms bearing with the ship’s new trajectory.

A second voice, synthesised and soft, began to speak, its chiming consonants burrowing like shards of glass into her ears. “Good-afternoon-Orbital-Control. Estimated-mission-time-remains-within-parameters. We-will-continue-on-current-bearing-and-await-instructions.”

“Classic Martin,” February deadpanned. “Won’t let me do anything on my own.”

A pause.

“No, I don’t mean that. I’m sorry. He’s just—so damn helpful all the time. Sometimes I just wish—I don’t know, you couldn’t have programmed a few more personalities into him? Something with a bit of attitude? Huh?” He paused again. “Ah, forget it. He’s okay. Marty, you want to play Words after this?”

Alina risked a quick glance around the room. No one else seemed particularly concerned. The rampant bushes of the AI team’s combined hair bobbed frenetically as they typed up Delta’s feedback. Nakamoto was fiddling with his holocontrols, adjusting the audio quality on the fly. Kara was bent over her desk, her incremental nods of satisfaction confirming that Delta was still on course. Medical and Exploration were going through their respective updates, pulling through the data that would underpin their next three years of work on the Delta mission.

Delta was still speaking: “—suit gets tighter by the day. I know, I know. It’s important. But I’m still not convinced healthy bones are worth forty years in a spandex vice.”

Alina gestured Köhlbrandt over to her desk while the pilot chattered away. The AI coordinator sauntered over, his face already arranging itself into a disdainful sneer. She knew he’d wanted the Communications position, despite his glaring lack of ability in every regard of the term. “Köhlbrandt,” she addressed him, as professionally as she could manage. “You notice anything odd about Delta today?”

“Nothing,” he replied.

She tried to clarify. “You haven’t noticed anything strange in his voice?”

Köhlbrandt sighed. “Look, Holt. You haven’t been here as long as me, so maybe you wouldn’t understand.” She fought hard to keep the scowl from her face; her fingernails were digging into her palms. “But if you’d heard the messages we used to get from the two-man missions, you’d understand that this is nothing. So he’s getting a little stir-crazy. So what? It’s natural. Martin’s been monitoring him for more than a decade. It knows exactly what he needs to hear. If Martin’s not worried, I’m not worried.”

“Hmm,” she replied.

“Trust me. Delta’s saner than half the people on this station.”

One of the other AI techs, a stooped twentysomething with the improbable name of Guiderius DeRogatis, chipped in, having skulked his way behind them to eavesdrop: “Seriously, Holt. Martin’s protocols are years ahead of anything you’ve ever seen. LAYG speech patterning, Nightingale diagnosis routines, Turing networks within Turing networks. It’s a thing,” he proclaimed, his eyelids shuttering maddeningly, “of beauty.”

Alina rolled her eyes and turned to look at the trajectory estimate. One-point-three light-years away, and counting. Thirteen years into the Delta mission and barely a quarter of the way there. But she was in for the long haul. When he finally reached Centauri, Delta was going to pave the way for the next stage of human colonisation. And besides, she’d promised him, hadn’t she—blushingly, drunkenly—way back at his prelaunch party, when he’d singled her out and asked her with a grin to do him the honour of staying on the team right up until he arrived.

Oh, but so maybe she was imagining it. Maybe what it was was that he sounded older. Maybe she was just projecting the neuroses that had been creeping steadily up on her these last few years. Even last night’s fling with Kara had been a—pleasant, admittedly—result of those same fears: Kara was young, new to the team. Impulsive. A thrill. A fleeting retrospective dip into waters she’d thought she’d left behind.

She instructed her implant to record the transmission anyway. She could review it later. After today, they’d be waiting almost three more years for Delta’s next message. She’d have all the time she needed.

He was signing off. “So, well, speak to you all soon, I hope. Delta out.”

The message closed. Lacerda cleared his throat and opened up the reply channel. “This is Mission Controller Lacerda,” he said.

As Lacerda started to record his reply, Alina’s gaze drifted over to a publicity shot of Delta that she’d smarttaped to the edge of her terminal more than a decade earlier, back when she’d still had that grad student crush on him. She’d never quite had the heart to take it down. February beamed winningly at her from its age-smoothed paper, eternally twenty. But he would be thirty-three now, all those trillions of klicks away. Even the voice they had just heard was over a year out of date. She wondered what he would look like now, what new lines and wrinkles might have etched themselves into his face.

She shook herself into focus. She was barely thirty-five. She wasn’t old, and neither was Delta.

He sounded fine.

* * *

The next communication came, as scheduled, just under three years later. The one after that took another three and a half. But neither reply had quite managed to set her mind to rest. Each time he’d sounded just a little too stilted, a fraction too hyperactive in his speech. And now, almost eleven years after that first, half-hungover intuition, Delta’s latest message would be arriving. Alina was determined to be alert for it.

She forced her eyes open: she’d been listening to the previous messages on repeat all night, and hadn’t managed to piece together more than half an hour of sleep. Her skin felt brittle and cold. She murmured a greeting to her team and sat down.

“You look like shit, Holt,” called Kara, cheerily, from across the room.

Alina waved an obscenity at her wife.

“Enough,” Lacerda reprimanded them. “Delta’ll be coming through any minute.”

She nodded at him and ordered Nakamoto to open the audio channel. He dutifully began to prep the speakers.

She was sipping from a beaker of coffee when a burst of earsplitting static erupted from the speakers. “Turn that off!” she yelled.

Nakamoto thrust his hands into the holocontrols and brought the noise under control. “I don’t know what happened,” he protested. “Everything was set up perfect.”

Alina scanned her screen. Everything seemed normal. Message showed some slight scatter-decay, but nothing that should have—ah. “It’s encrypted,” she said, pointing. “Doesn’t say why. Hold on.”

She ran the feed through her terminal and tapped in her password. This time Delta’s voice came through, brisk and clear.

“Orbital Control, this is February Delta. If you get this, you’ll know I had to encrypt the message. If I didn’t, Martin wouldn’t have sent it. I need you to listen carefully.”

This time even the crackle of the audio feed couldn’t hide his distress. Lacerda’s voice could be heard throughout the control room, tight and calm, directing teams here and there.

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Delta was whispering. “At first he was fine. But then he started to cheat. At Words, chess, all of our games. Cheating! I couldn’t say anything before—I didn’t want him to suspect I knew.”

Lacerda was down among the AI team in their corner, gesticulating furiously. DeRogatis had risen to his feet. His bald pate was glinting cobalt-blue in the room’s fluorescent light. Snatches of conversation and argument drifted over. “Not possible.” “Can’t lie.” The coordinator sounded both indignant and self-assured as he defended his team.

Delta kept speaking, barely pausing for breath. “I tried to catch him at it. But he was too sly. I couldn’t prove it—so I stopped playing. He was just trying to make me doubt myself.”

Alina wiped sweat and grease from her forehead. They had trained for all manner of possible emergencies: she should have been able to do this blindfolded. But Delta’s furtive, fanatical voice was gnawing at her concentration, distracting and disorienting her.

“I confronted him, but he just denied it. I tried to hide. But he’s everywhere! Started trying to get me to eat more food. Said it would help me start sleeping again. But it tasted wrong—I know he was trying to poison me.”

“Poison?” bellowed Lacerda, prompting another frenzy of denials from the AI team.

“It’s been tough,” February continued, “but I’ve managed to—” He broke off. Then: “I have to go. I think he heard me.”

The audio clicked off. A few moments of silence passed as Medical checked the suit’s latest report, trying to verify Delta’s claim.

“It’s not showing anything toxic,” said one of the doctors, at last. “Looks like he stopped eating the fabricator food a while ago, though. I’d guess he’s been eating the nutrient paste straight from storage.”

DeRogatis called out across the room, “Martin’s sent us something. Coded into the status report.”

Alina toggled the comms channel. The AI’s voice buzzed out of the speakers. “Concerns-about-Delta. Paranoid-tendencies. Refuses-neuroleptic-medication. I-have-assumed-passive-conversation-routines. Awaiting-further-instructions.”

Lacerda chewed his lip thoughtfully. “All right, everyone: Condition Six. Delta’s had some kind of a breakdown. Medical, call in Psychiatrics. We need to know exactly what we’re dealing with. Our reply has to be pitch-perfect. There’s no knowing how bad he’ll be by the time he gets it.”

Alina raced through the timescales in her head. This message had left the ship twenty-six months ago. Whatever they sent in reply wouldn’t reach Delta for almost thirty-two more. Anything could have happened by then.

“Holt!” snapped Lacerda, jolting her back to reality. “I don’t have time for half-arsery. Either get to work, or go home.”

Alina blinked, pulled up the comms display. She tapped the ship’s bearing into her terminal, readying the station’s communications dishes to transmit. She didn’t have time to wait. None of them did. Psych might spend hours devising a treatment plan, and it was anyone’s guess as to how long AI would take to design new firmware for Martin. And every minute they spent prevaricating was another 1.8 terametres that their reply had to travel; another 66.66 seconds that Delta would be waiting, out there and alone, to hear back from them.

“Lacerda,” she said, her own words sounding distant through her vertigo. “He needs to hear from us as soon as possible. I can start speaking to him now, while we wait for the others.”

The mission controller looked at her and nodded. “Okay. Just keep him calm. Nothing dramatic. Stick to the facts.”

Alina swallowed and steeled herself. She opened up a live comms channel, sending its signal speeding off into the cosmos, chasing after Delta. DeRogatis and Psych could piggyback onto it whenever they were ready: February needed her to act now.

“Delta?” she ventured into her headset. “Mike? This is Alina Holt. We met before you left. The launch party. Do you remember? Well, I’m still here. Like I promised. I know you’re scared out there. But it’s okay. We’ve looked at the data, and it’s going to be okay.

“I hope that when you get this message, things are looking better. I hope you won’t even need to hear this. But if you’re still in trouble, I want you to remember—you’ve got a whole team of us down here, doing our best to keep you going. We just need you to hang in there a little longer, Mike. And when you get to Centauri, safe and sound, you’ll know it was worth it.”

She finished up. She looked around. Lacerda was nodding approvingly. Kara was watching her too, from her desk, smiling encouragement. Alina returned the smile, and Kara turned back to study the data arriving at her terminal. Psych had arrived too, now, and were talking animatedly with AI. DeRogatis’s wheedling voice was rising in pitch.

Alina let out a sigh and sank, exhausted, back into her seat.

* * *

For the next five years and three months, Alina played her message back almost every day. Each time she tried to imagine how he’d feel when he received it. She would picture the ship’s cockpit as her voice came through, grounding him back in reality. His face breaking into a smile of happy recognition, fear-filled eyes unclouding.

Kara had indulged Alina’s obsession at first. But her support soon turned to concern, then frustration, and finally a bitter kind of resignation. She moved to start a new job, coordinating a belt-mine cargo route out of Phobos. Alina stayed where she was. Accepted the promotion to mission controller, when it came. They still saw each other, from time to time, but it wasn’t the same.

And today they’d hear back from him. Today she’d find out if it had all been worth it. In the corridor outside the control room, Alina took a deep breath before walking inside.

Nakamoto waved a good morning and yawned. “Today’s the day, huh, boss?”

She gave him what she hoped was a gracious smile and stepped up onto the MC’s dais. Delta’s picture sat newly affixed to her terminal, pale with age.

“Okay, all of you,” she started. She hated giving speeches. “I don’t need to tell you what the situation is, what’s at risk. You all know already.”

The control team had fallen silent. She glanced across the room. Kara’s replacement was absently chewing his thumbnails as he waited for the ship’s information dump to arrive. AI had brought in several of their peers to observe: Martin’s capacity to adapt to his revised instructions, apparently, had the potential to be a turning point in the field.

Alina cleared her throat. “But whatever we hear today, remember, he’s counting on us. I know you’re all up to it. Prove me right.”

She sat down. Her hands were shaking. She waited.

The moment arrived. Breaths were drawn, then released. Fingers tapped and knees jiggled under desks. Minutes passed. That was okay. He’d been late before. There could be any number of good reasons. Alina tried to keep herself busy but found herself freezing up, obsessively checking the sensor readouts. After an hour she tried another pep talk, but faltered after the first couple of sentences. The control team waited in near silence as the day dragged on.

After twelve hours she called the wait off, sent the team home for the night. She stayed at her terminal until her eyes felt like mercury, and slept in her chair.

The next day, the station’s comms buoys remained resolutely quiet. Mutterings began to circle around the room: hypotheses about Delta’s mental state, rumours about the outcomes of previous Foundation missions. By the end of the day, Alina had stopped trying to shut them up. She tried to contact Kara, but she was either busy or ignoring the call.

On the third day, a full seventy-four hours after the appointed time, Nakamoto called out. “We’ve got something. Audio!”

Alina swiped the channel open, eyes wide, breath shallow. She recoiled in horror at the voice coming through the speakers. It was undoubtedly Delta speaking. But this—it wasn’t his voice. This was a reedy, mocking reflection of the cocky baritone she remembered.

“I’ve been waiting nearly three days,” he wheezed. “And you still haven’t got back to me. I don’t know why. I wish you’d tell me why.”

Alina leaned forward, pulse quickening, breathing hard. Why hadn’t he received their message? The whole room was looking at her, dismay screaming from their faces. She grimaced, hauling her panicking mind under control, and ordered them all to get back to work.

She called up the records of five years ago. Could the transmission have been delayed before they’d sent it out? What other explanation was there? Why hadn’t he received it? She ordered a play-by-play rerun of that day’s events. February’s voice was still babbling out of the speakers, darting from sentence to sentence. She stared at her display, half listening.

There: that first panicked message from Delta, the accusations of cheating, of poisoning.

“—thirsty. Forgot to collect any water today. Idiot. Have to wait until tomorrow. Better safe than sorry.”

There, she’d opened up a channel and begun to talk to him, soothing him.

“—hasn’t seen me yet. Haven’t heard from—”

And, there: Kara had updated his trajectory estimate with the ship’s course-corrected data.

“—either. Should have known there’d—”


“—to be trusted. Could have seen it from the start if I’d been looking—”

Kara had updated his trajectory. After Alina had set up the original comms bearing. After she’d begun transmitting. After the tightbeam uplink had been sent barrelling off into space, a full 0.3528 arcseconds off target.

Ninety-eight millionths of a degree out. Which meant—she made a small, involuntary sound with her throat—which meant that by the time it was due to arrive, the signal had been hurtling into deep space fifty million kilometres away from Delta’s ship. It had never reached him.

The room seemed to spiral away from her. She clutched the edge of her desk with both hands. Someone was talking to her, she thought. But she was underwater, and they were up above, on the surface. Shouting at her. She was drowning.

“Holt!” Nakamoto was saying. “Controller Holt!”

Reality rushed back, cascading deafeningly around her. She couldn’t seem to find the words to explain to the team. “I’m sorry,” she said, kept saying. “I’m sorry.”

DeRogatis marched over to her. “Sorry?” he screeched. “You’re sorry? Five years we’ve been waiting! Five years!”

She looked at him blankly.

“Do you know how much work we put into Martin’s crisis management protocols? How much we had riding on today?”

Her mouth opened and shut. Right now, February Delta—scared, paranoid, and twenty-seven trillion kilometres away—believed he was on his own. Even if they sent another reply today, it would take another three years to reach him. By the time he heard it, he would have been out there, alone, for nearly eleven years.

“This was everything!” DeRogatis was yelling. “There was nowhere else to test those routines! Now we have to sit on our thumbs for another six fucking years!”

Delta was still talking. He wouldn’t stop talking. “—risk it anymore. Following me everywhere. Got to find a way. Sure he’s tracking me through the suit.”

There was a pause, then rustling, punctuated by grunts.

“He’s taken the suit off!” one of the doctors called out, then repeated himself, somewhat uselessly. “He took it off.”

Without the zero-g suit, Delta would die before he reached Centauri. It was that simple. A vision of Delta floating through space, body and mind both atrophying beyond repair, drew over Alina like a veil.

A loud gasp from the speakers. “I saw something,” Delta was whispering. “One of his cameras, I think.”

Alina listened, biting her lip. Delta fell silent briefly, and then there was a distant kind of crunching sound, as if from a faraway construction field or a belt-mine.

“There,” he said, when his voice returned. “Thought I got the last one weeks ago. Sneaky bastard. Have to relocate now. Knows where I am. Still, I’m doing better than him. Couldn’t even keep me out of the food stores. Outsmarted him, oh yes. Smashed him up good.”

Alina called for a service report on Martin’s systems.

“Can’t have more than a handful of his functions left these days, not after the number I did on him,” Delta gloated.

The tech responded. Martin’s systems: 98.6 percent operational. Superficial damage to visual monitors.

Delta trailed off. For a while the only sound they could hear was a faint scrabbling. Then he spoke again. “Should be safe here, for now. Need to rest. Delta out.”

A little later, his heavy breathing turned to a whimpering snore. The transmission continued broadcasting.

Alina got unsteadily to her feet. She pushed her way past Nakamoto, past Husby, past everyone clamouring for her attention. She made it halfway to the restrooms before throwing up.

* * *

Delta’s paranoid, rambling rant had lasted for a full week before it switched off. Then, silence.

In its wake, AI, Medical, and Psych had worked together to improvise another set of instructions for Martin. New, more empathetic conversation routines for the AI; an intensive diet-and-exercise plan to help repair February’s inevitable muscular degradation; the latest antipsychotic drug compounds for the ship’s fabricator to manufacture.

They’d called in February’s younger brother, Ved Dexter, to send out a personal plea. That had been Alina’s idea. She had watched him lean in close to the microphone and speak out into the void about shared memories, family stories long past. About how proud he’d felt, almost thirty years earlier, watching Delta take off. She had watched his voice crack and his eyes water, and felt her heart break. She’d temporarily stepped down as mission controller after that; stayed home for a month. She didn’t send Delta anything.

Now, six and a half years after the worst day of Alina Holt’s life, it was time to see if any of it had made a difference. She didn’t know what to expect. They’d been working blind since his last message. There’d been no further communication from either Martin or February. After this long, even the brightest wells of optimism had all but dried up. The only reason she’d kept her job was because no one else wanted the position.

But today they would hear back from him. Assuming he was in any fit state to reply. Assuming he was even alive. Alina sat at her desk, waiting, unsure how to act. She ran her thumbs absently up and down the thin, ridged scars on her wrists.

First the Medical report pinged up. The suit was transmitting data again. Alina pulled up the display with a quick, conservative flick of her hand. The first six years since the previous transmission were a useless flat line, a blank absence of recorded data. But then, three months or so before this message had left the ship, Delta’s vital signs had returned: he had put the suit back on. Columns of data that meant almost nothing to Alina, but whose red-lit exclamation marks and single-digit percentage figures told her unequivocally that the good news was, at best, relative.

A loud whoop from the AI team told her that Martin was active, too. Next, Husby spoke up. “Payload’s intact.”

Alina swallowed. “Audio?” she asked.

A pause. “Uh-huh.”

One of Husby’s underlings called out: “Chief—there’s a video signal, too!”

At this distance? Alina’s heart began to pound. “Play it.”

A sea of heads swivelled to watch the room’s central holodisplay bring up Delta’s transmission.

The signal degradation was visible: blocky pixels of static flared up across the image where the station’s computers were unable to piece together the chunks of data lost to dispersion. But it was Delta all right. Fifty-two, now, but he looked decades older: wrinkles and saggy folds of skin covered his face as he looked half-vacantly into the recorder.

“Hello, Orbital Control,” he said. “It was good to hear from you.”

His voice had a kind of distant quality to it, as if he was reading off a script. He sounded hollow, gutted out. Alina held her expression fast as he spoke.

“I’m doing better than when you last heard from me. My legs and arms don’t work too well, though. All that time without the suit wasn’t good for them. It was hard to eat for a while, too.” February paused, breathing heavily. Alina watched his image as it flickered and popped in the centre of the room. He glanced off to the side, as if searching for his next phrase. “Martin found me down in the nutrient module, eventually. He managed to keep me awake long enough to put the suit back on. And reach the medical bay.”

A couple of the AI techs started to whisper amongst themselves. Alina glared at them. They ignored her, clustering like bees around one of their colleagues’ terminals.

“Hello-Orbital-Control,” chimed Martin, from somewhere out of view. “I-took-Delta’s-survival-to-be-my-primary-objective. I-am-helping-his-body-repair-the-damage-from-prolonged-sub-terrestrial-gravity.”

“Yes,” said Delta. “Martin’s fixing me up.”

The video image blinked and fizzed briefly. When it returned, his expression had changed. He was leaning in close to the camera. Tears were dribbling down his wrinkled face. He gasped, through quivering lips, “Please. He’s got me trapped here. I can’t leave the medical bay. He says he’s bringing me back to health, but I don’t know why. You can’t trust him. He lies. Please.”

Martin’s smooth tones finished up the transmission. “Still-exhibiting-paranoid-tendencies. Further-antipsychotic-medication-may-impair-cognition. Please-advise.”

The message ended and the picture faded, until only the faint shimmer of the holoprojector’s standby signal was visible.

Nobody spoke, at first. Those teams who had received the standard data dumps from the ship’s computers—AI, Medical, Exploration—began quietly sifting through their updates. Alina rose to her feet, for no other reason than that she felt she ought to.

“Delta’s in a bad way,” she began, hoarsely. “But if Martin can keep him alive for long enough, we might get him through it. I want Psychiatrics in here within the hour. AI, get working on Martin’s routines.”

One of the AI techs shouted out, “Shit, Holt, we don’t need to. Don’t you get it? Martin was treating Delta before it got our instructions. It figured it out without our help! I’m calling it now: we just programmed ourselves obsolete.” He nudged some of his companions, grinning triumphantly.

Alina shut her eyes for a few seconds, then continued. “I want all of you working through the night. Delta needs us. This will be our last message to him in-flight. By the time we get his reply, he’ll be coming into orbit around Alpha Centauri.”

They set to work.

* * *

Her implant received the call at 05:03, gently stirring her hypothalamus with a thrumming, steady buzz until she awoke.

Presence required in control room, it said. Unscheduled transmission from February Delta.

Alina jerked upright, yanking a week-old trapped nerve in her lower back, and winced. Groggily, she grasped the impact of the message. Delta was four years earlier than scheduled. She pulled herself out of bed and made her way over to the closet. She pulled on an old sheepswool sweater. Slid her knotted feet into the first pair of shoes she saw.

One last chance to hear from Delta before he arrived. She fed some numbers into her implant. This new message must have been recorded close to three and a half years ago, just after they’d received his pained, frightened video. He would have only just now got their reply. But maybe—maybe, in the meantime, Martin had found a way to soothe his distress. Maybe Delta was doing better. Alina bit back the hopeful smile that threatened to spread across her face.

At 05:26 she burst through the doors to face a half-full room of silent workers, all of whom seemed intently fixed on their own displays. No one spoke. No sound came from the speakers hovering near the centre of the ceiling.

She looked around, questioning. Husby was on shift; she got up from her station and came to Alina’s side.

Alina spoke first: “Spit it out, Husby.”

The communications manager fidgeted awkwardly. “Better you hear it yourself, chief.”

Alina blinked the audio on and started to listen. Delta’s voice came through clearly.

“Orbital Control, this is February Delta. I thought I’d let you know I’m feeling better now. Arms and legs are almost back to normal, and I’m eating fabricator food again. Figured if Martin really wanted me dead, he’d have left me to it years ago. I’ve been out of the medical bay a few months now, too.”

Alina wore an expression of deep concentration. He sounded much better than he had in his previous message. But all she could think of was the video’s final frame: that plaintive, tear-streaked mask of despair.

She looked down at the side of her desk, where Delta’s old prelaunch publicity shot still sat. But either time or her long-sightedness, or both, had rendered his face impossible to distinguish from the faded paper it was printed on.

“I play your messages a lot, now,” said Delta. “It helps to hear your voices. It helps remind me why I’m here, what I’m doing this for. For humanity, right?”

Alina nudged up the volume.

“That’s why I know what I’m doing is the right thing. I can’t say why Martin brought me back to health. I haven’t asked him—there’d be no point. I’m sure you’ve got some instructions for him already on their way. I suppose I don’t blame you: I can’t have looked very”—he paused, searching—“in control, last time.

“But whatever he’s planning, I don’t trust him. And whatever you’ve got on its way here—well, there’s always a risk it might not be enough. If Centauri really is the best hope for our future, I’d be doing pretty badly if I let him ruin it, eh?”

Alina looked around the room. The night crew were busying themselves with routine work. They’d already heard all of this.

“So I jettisoned the braking fuel,” said Delta. “Ten minutes before I started recording.”

Alina glanced at Husby; she was already nodding to confirm his claim.

“The way I see it, if there’s no way to slow down before we arrive, Martin can’t do any damage. He made a fuss, of course. Didn’t want his grand plan ruined, I suppose. I expect he’s sent a distress call with this transmission. But you mustn’t believe him.

“Anyway, if I got it right, when we arrive we’ll overshoot the planet and hit Alpha Centauri A dead-on. Ramming into the star at point-one-C ought to finish him off.”

He chuckled, which turned into a sigh; a deep, shuddering breath that Alina could feel resonating across the four-year time difference and through her whole body.

“So, I’m sorry. Sorry I failed the mission. I hope someone else can do better than I did.

“Delta out.”

The feed went dead.

Alina set her jaw. There was no time to lose. She steadied herself against her desk and began to bark out orders.

“Husby, call in AI and Navigation, right now. The fuel tank won’t be going much slower than the ship. If we do this right, we can get Martin to recouple and brake them both into orbit around Centauri.” She breathed in. “This is it, everyone. We’ll land him safely in that system if it’s the last thing we do.”

The control team remained motionless.

“Well? You’ve got your orders. Get moving!”

“Chief,” said Husby, “there’s no point.”

Alina whirled towards her, her face twisted with fury. Then she understood what Husby meant. Delta was almost four light-years away. Anything they sent at this point—instructions, advice, even a good-bye—would get there almost a month after Delta had barrelled into the distant sun.

She stared, for a while, at the projection and the neon-blue trail that marked Delta’s progress. Then she turned it off.

* * *

Section Director Alina Holt was sitting up in bed, teasing straight the sleep-tousled kinks and curls of her bone-white hair. When she was finished, she slid her legs over the edge of the mattress and got slowly to her feet. She’d selected the outfit last night. A neutral navy suit. Black had seemed too macabre.

Husby got up to greet her as she entered the control room. “Pleasure to see you, Alina,” she said.

Alina raised a sarcastic eyebrow and walked over to the main projector. She settled herself into a seat and let the sounds of the control room wash over her. From time to time her implant blinked messages and reminders to her. She waved them away. They could wait.

Eventually Husby signalled Alina. “It’s time, boss.”

Alina thanked her and called up the display.

Luminosity, she told it.

Alpha Centauri A, it said. 584.207 yottawatts.

She watched and waited.

“Now,” said Husby, after a few moments, and the display blurred a little in front of her.


Alina turned to Husby and smiled. “I thought it might—” she began, then looked away. “Thanks, anyway.”

Husby helped her to her feet and touched her on the shoulder. “We’ll do better next time,” she said.

When Alina reached her office, she slumped into her chair. She pulled out a small, white rectangle of paper from her desk, turned it over in her hands a couple of times, and then replaced it in its drawer. It was over.

But it had been over for more than four years now. The information reaching the sensors was history. Or so maybe it had been longer than that: Delta’s good-bye, almost nine years ago, had signified the end, the failure, of the mission. But even then—although she hadn’t known it at the time—that good-bye had been almost four years old itself. Twelve and a half years ago he’d jettisoned the fuel. And only now could she see, could she really know, that it was over.

Or, she thought—maybe it wasn’t. Delta was gone, there was no question about that. But the Foundation remained. The threat remained. Centauri was still there, a distant beacon of hope. Alina opened up her holodisplay and pulled through the morning’s messages. “August Lambda,” she said into the mouthpiece, and the alerts reshuffled themselves in response. She began to read.

There was work to do.

Benjamin Sherlock is from Brighton (England) and currently lives in London (the same). He writes vaguely speculative/imaginative fiction whenever the exigencies of life aren’t getting in the way. Prior to this he has had work published by The Tomorrow Project UK.

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